Ahead of the release of ‘Regards sur l’Infini’, with pianist Sam Armstrong, soprano Katharine Dain shares her influences and inspirations, and the experience of creating this album while in quarantine


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My decision to try singing professionally came relatively late – at the end of my university studies. But certain encounters before then were crucial, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I had a passionate and encouraging high school choir director and an unusually gifted first voice teacher. I was borderline obsessed with Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell, and a scratched LP of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. As a teenager, I heard, incredibly, one of Leontyne Price’s last recitals in my North Carolina hometown. In college, performances of the St Matthew Passion and Così fan tutte were utterly formative. (Fiordiligi was my first opera role—good thing I had no idea how tough it was when that plan was hatched in a practice room with the friend who conducted the shows!)

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

My instrument is my body, so it is always in flux, and my identity as a singer has gone through many transformations as a result. Think of the hugely different expectations (and stereotypes) of people who sing early consort music, or virtuosic operatic roles in staged productions, or avant-garde repertoire full of extended techniques, or intimate songs with piano. I’ve done all of these professionally. Each comes with its own physicality, jargon, social codes, areas of assumed knowledge, and musical and performative habits; shifts in my repertoire always seem to trigger a corresponding identity crisis. Also, singing is affected hugely by illness, grief, stress, travel. It’s tough not to equate your whole sense of self-worth and value with what your body is producing at any given moment. Repertoire, health, physicality – it all feels terribly personal, and I’ve had some difficult years when nothing seemed to be working and I didn’t know whether I would ever sort it out.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m exceptionally proud of the CD I am releasing this month, Regards sur l’Infini, a collection of French songs by Messiaen, Delbos, Dutilleux, Saariaho, and Debussy recorded with pianist and long-time friend Sam Armstrong. I’ve had the programme in mind for a long time, but our decision to quarantine together at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown gave us an unprecedented opportunity to rehearse and assimilate the music together over a long period.

One of my favourite live projects last year was singing Donna Anna with the Orchestra of the 18th Century in the Netherlands and Belgium. I’ve known and loved the music for so long, but with a period orchestra and a deeply sympathetic conductor in Kenneth Montgomery, the shapes and shifts in that extraordinary score were as transparent and arresting as I’ve ever managed.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I am endlessly fascinated by the explosion of idiosyncratic expression in vocal music from the first half of the 20th century – Schoenberg, Strauss, Messiaen, Britten, Barber, Stravinsky, Poulenc – and in more contemporary scores. But I also find that Handel and (especially) Mozart feel utterly like home to me, and more so with every passing year.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I write, I read, I cook, I knit, I walk, I make friends with strangers, and I ask too many questions!

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I get strongly possessed by certain composers and styles. When that happens, I’ll expend a huge amount of energy (for years at a time, if I have to) seeking out ways of singing the music. Sometimes the game has to be very long indeed – I knew that there were certain roles that I would be perfectly suited to eventually (Konstanze, Donna Anna), but it took a decade to sing them how I wanted and to find the right opportunities. In the meantime, repertoire also finds me. I learn quickly, so I’m often called for jump-ins on scores I’ve never learned. I’ve discovered some incredible pieces this way: jewel-like Lieder of Marx and Korngold; an oratorio by Luigi Nono that is devastatingly powerful; perfectly balanced songs with chamber ensemble of Ravel and Zemlinsky and John Tavener. Other times, trusted colleagues recommend me for repertoire I wouldn’t necessarily choose, but their confidence makes me braver and the resulting work makes me stronger. This has happened in recent seasons with Berlioz, Strauss, and Wagner.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

One of my favourites is the Concertgebouw in Nijmegen, a glorious hall with a stunningly warm acoustic in the east of the Netherlands. I performed there as soloist with orchestra twice in the 2019-20 season before the pandemic shut everything down. This summer, while the hall stood empty, Sam and I recorded our album there over three days. After months of practicing in the boxy acoustic of my living room, it was a pleasure to lean into the generosity of the space. I was reminded just how much the venue contributes to the artistic and musical result; our CD feels like an equal collaboration between singer, pianist, producer, and the atmosphere of the hall.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

I’ve performed a lot of concerts throughout the United States for an outreach organization called the Piatigorsky Foundation, including many concerts for school-age kids. That work has convinced me that any conversation about increasing classical music’s visibility must start with prioritizing education. Kids are the most open-minded audiences of all, if the music is presented in a thoughtful and charismatic way. The slashing of school culture budgets has done more harm to this art form than anything else, and I think any effort to improve the situation has to be focused there first.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There was that time I performed in a bar in Wyoming, and we were literally taping the upright piano back together until minutes before the performance began. I think a pencil and some rubber bands were involved.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Many years ago, an unusually wise teacher pitched this question out to an opera scenes class. Every student had to answer individually; most said they wanted to be working in top-level opera houses or represented by a prestigious management agency. When my turn came, I said, a bit hesitantly, that I wanted to be making great music with good and smart people. The teacher gave me a shrewd look and said: that’s achievable; you’ll do it. He was right. My understanding of that goal – making music at a high level, with people I like and respect – has become more nuanced over the years, but it’s still the guiding principle in how I make decisions about what work to accept or pursue, and it’s still how I know if I’m satisfied with the job I’m doing or not. It can be achieved in many situations and at many levels of development, so there have been moments all along when I’ve known I was getting what I wanted, whether the external markers of success (fancy contracts and management) were happening for me or not.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Patience; curiosity. The process of becoming a professional musician (whatever that means to you) will likely be long, vulnerable, and full of rejection. Your curiosity and love for the music is sometimes the only thing keeping you moving forward. If you lose that, you’ve lost the most precious thing you have, so keep that flame alive. Keep listening. Keep exploring. Keep your heart and mind open and vulnerable. Keep caring for yourself.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown in mid-March 2020, Katharine Dain and Sam Armstrong, long-time friends and collaborators, decided to quarantine together. The period of lockdown lasted much longer than anyone anticipated, and the enforced months of isolation at home allowed for unusually deep and slow exploration of repertoire for voice and piano.

‘Regards sur l’Infini’ is released on 27 November 2020 on the 7 Mountain Records label. With this album of French songs centred around Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, American-Dutch soprano Katharine Dain and British pianist Sam Armstrong have constructed a meditative programme that also includes Claude Debussy’s complete Proses lyriques as well as individual songs by Henri Dutilleux, Kaija Saariaho, and the little-known Claire Delbos, a violinist and composer and the first wife of Messiaen. More information here


American-Dutch soprano Katharine Dain is a musician of insatiable curiosity, active in opera, orchestral repertoire, oratorio, and chamber music in Europe and North America. After taking the top prize in the Clermont-Ferrand Competition (in which Diapason called her a “revelation”), Dain debuted as Konstanze in a production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the opera houses of Clermont-Ferrand, Avignon, Rouen, Massy, and Reims. Other recent highlights include Mozart’s Donna Anna with the Orchestra of the 18th Century under Kenneth Montgomery, orchestral song cycles of Dutilleux and Berlioz with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ryan Bancroft, Brahms Requiem with Cappella Amsterdam under Daniel Reuss, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with LUDWIG, and songs of Berg and Zemlinsky with Het Collectief under Reinbert de Leeuw at Austria’s Osterfestival. A passionate promoter of chamber music and song, she is a co-founder of Damask Vocal Quartet, whose 2018 debut album “O schöne Nacht” won France’s Choc de Classica award and universal acclaim in the press. Dain holds degrees from Harvard University (Boston), Guildhall (London), and Mannes (New York), and she currently lives in the Netherlands.

katharinedain.com

Guest post by Walter Witt

We live in a crazy world.  Some would say a world out of control. Fake news from politicians themselves instead of fake news about them. Conspiracy theories pushed by populist (read authoritarian) leaders  – or as the case may be, soon to be ex-leaders.  “End of timers.” “Anti-vaxxers.” “Science deniers.” Unchecked corruption, without the slightest regard for what was once called the rule of law. And, as if that weren’t enough, the world faces the prospect of a never-ending pandemic, a virus simmering among us, killing the elderly and young alike, while people refuse to wear masks just to make a “political statement.” How then, amidst all of this, and more, can music, the simple act of studying the piano, help us resist this real world onslaught? How does studying piano help us improve the quality of our everyday lives?

I suspect there are some of you who are musicians and are simply curious about what I am going to say. Others who are professionals with non-professional artistic interests, interests which you work hard to pursue. Others among you who are parents and wondering how in the dickens you are going to convince your kids to stop surfing Instagram or Snapchat and instead practice the piano for at least 15 consecutive minutes..

Around 10 years ago, my daughter, who was 9 at the time, had taken the delightful habit of dancing while listening to me play a Chopin Etude or a Brahms Intermezzo. One day, while I was practicing, she turned to me and asked: “Papa, who taught you to play like that?” Her question got me thinking. Who was it in fact who taught me to play? And what did I really learn from them, not only about the piano, but about the important lessons of life? Or about myself? And why am I even doing this ‘piano thing’ anyway, sitting at a keyboard while my back gets stiff – what’s the point?

Unbeknownst to my daughter – and, thankfully I did not drop these weighty questions on her then as she would have no doubt run from the room, hands in the air, screaming – I started to put pen to paper and write down my thoughts.

Learn what it means to accept challenges

I realize now what my father, a surgeon but also a pianist and organist equally talented in both instruments, meant when he said: “sitting down at the piano can be the hardest part of playing the piano.” There is a moment when you decide to learn a piece. Something tells you there is no alternative. No more playing around with a melody here or a passage there. It is like thinking of that client or project, mulling it over, but never actually signing the contract.

So you accept the challenge before you. You realize it is time. Sometimes it can take years – like finally saying hello to a neighbour. You meant to do it earlier, thought about what to say, but you never started the conversation. It was too much effort at the time or something else came up. There was always an excuse. But now you are going to learn this piece because you want to yourself, not because someone else wants you to. So you start that long difficult job or project. You say hello to that neighbour. You finally greet the music before you.

When I start a new piece, I invariably think of my beloved childhood piano professor, Mae Gilbert Reese, a student of Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory near Paris. I see her standing next to me. She is saying: “this is the beginning of a journey. I helped get you to this point but you brought yourself here alone. The journey will be difficult. You will stop at points as you travel, stumble over notes, get stuck in a phrase and think you cannot move forward, that there are too many obstacles. Your back will ache. Your fingers will ache. But you know what the piece must sound like. You can hear it. You can see where your destination is, so you go on. You return to the piano and get on with it.”

Then when I start the piece, my reflexes turn on. I am an athlete again. A pianist approaches the entire act just as an athlete does, investing oneself fully in the moment, through a process of constant self-preparation.

Respect your body

There are exercises Mrs. Reese taught me – how to relax your arms, your hands, your wrist, your fingers. Lean over and let your lower back muscles stretch out naturally. Your upper body slowly drops the ground as gravity takes over. Let your hands drop flat on the ground, watch them drop. Soak your hands in hot water for a minute. Do this first. Then sit down at the piano.

Prepare yourself physically first for what is ahead. Always do this, no matter what you do.

Take your time.

When you start a piece, you sight read. It’s the same as looking over a job and preparing an action plan for the project first. Your reflex is to go fast. Resist this reflex. Start at quarter tempo, no more. Simply listen more closely to the harmonies and the structure of the piece as you play it slowly for the first time. You are outlining the job ahead. Think of the composer writing the piece out with his pen, the time he or she took to write each note. So slow down, watch your hands and examine each note. The notes enter your fingers correctly from the start this way. You are starting what could be a difficult task, trying to solve a problem. It is like a relationship which can be difficult. There are emotions to sort out. You have to decide what to do.

Start slowly and later, you can speed up. When you learn to drive you don’t drive on the highway first, especially with a brand new license. You start on the surface streets. There will be time for the highway later.

Think of what are looking at while you are looking at it

When I was a kid, I needed to remind myself this early on. The reason was I did not see well sometimes, even with my glasses, perhaps why I am not as a good a sight reader as I would like to be. It really is a question of eyesight. You need to see what is in front of you on the page. It’s like seeing what’s in front of you in life and focusing on it. If you do this, you are fortunate – seeing something for precisely what it is, and not thinking you see something when in fact you don’t.

Sometimes it is easier to see what you want, in certain instances. All of us do this. It is a human frailty, perhaps linked to our capacity to dream, a gift which distinguishes us from animals, as far as we know. One’s dreams do not have to be an entirely new world or creation either. They can be the slightest of differences from reality.

I can remember taking off my glasses just to see how long I could get around my day without them. So what if things are a little blurry, right? I would leave them off. Unfortunately, my glasses had an annoying way of disappearing that way! So I kept my glasses on. To see things as they are in life – the sharp details of responsibilities. Don’t worry about taking the time it takes to see something and to understand it. Resist the temptation not to look at the hard edges. It may be perfectly human to do so, but you can’t afford to do it, especially in today’s world.

Learn how to listen – really listen!

Most people have no idea what listening means.

My sister and I used to play a game, before I started the piano. My sister would sing a note. I would go to the piano, look at the keyboard, and play the note. Then she would sing a melody. I would listen and sing it back. Then I would play it on the piano. My sister would then turn me around and tap a chord on the piano while I faced the wall and ask me what chord it was. I would go back to the keyboard and play the chord. To end the game, she would finally lift both hands and – in a surprisingly energetic gesture – bring both hands down, randomly, on the keyboard! I would return to the piano, find the notes and play them. I had perfect pitch but more importantly, I learned early on to listen.

Sometimes when I practice a piece, I play the right hand quietly or not at all, moving my fingers like phantoms floating lightly over the keys. Then, as the fingers of my right hand move silently, I play the left hand full voice. I listen closely to what the left hand is saying. I hear new voices that were previously neglected.

Walk in the streets, close your eyes and listen to what you hear. Listen to bits and pieces of conversations as people pass by. A couple are talking about each other’s workday — “this girl in my class is very shy” a woman, a schoolteacher, says to her husband. “I can’t stand my job anymore,” the husband says to his wife. You hear a mother encouraging a child riding her bicycle for the first time. “Very good – keep going,” she says. “Very good.” Then other people approach. You can hear them greeting each other. You listen to their steps as they pass. You listen to the wind moving through the trees. Concentrate on listening to the moment itself. You will be surprised how much better you listen afterwards.

Beware of the pedal

No pedal at first. The pedal has a way of making you think you play better than you do. The pedal is like a hoax that you perpetrate on yourself. It is similar to a good bottle of wine: you wake up at some point, probably with a hangover, and realize that without that pedal, without that bottle of wine, you are not quite as beautiful as you thought you were! Be honest with yourself – no pedal to start.

Look ahead

Always. When you work through a piece, remember that you are going somewhere – that the music has to go somewhere. Think of the notes you are playing but also the next note, the next phrase. Prepare yourself. Position your hand. Construct your fingering for where you are going next.

Get yourself into position first, no matter what you do in life. Otherwise you may have to improvise a passage to survive (this happens to everyone these days!). Think where you are going first, anticipate. Plan on how you are getting there, then act accordingly. Think of where you are going as you go.

Remember to rest

Close your eyes for 5 minutes. Drop your arms by your side — no movement, just like that stretching exercise. I remember how Mrs. Reese would stop me abruptly after a long session on a piece: “I think we’ll stop for a while here, go on to another piece. We will come back later,’’ she would say. She knew that the intensity of music fills you completely. You become saturated. Music, particularly great music, is that way, particularly when you perform it. Stop to rest no matter how large the problem may appear to be. Then start again.

Be conscious of your environment

Always remember the key you are in as you play. You are A minor, or F minor, or E-flat major. Think of the flats or the sharps. It is like your surroundings on a journey. Are you in the city? In the country? Are you surrounded by people? Are you alone? Think for a moment and then play the scale on the piano, just to clear your mind. Stop and think of the place you are in and then return to the problem. You will have a better idea where you are going if you do.

Watch your time

Watch your time when you practice. Keep moving through the piece, otherwise you will become tired. Or hungry. You will call it quits! Your body simply becomes weak. Later on in life, you become conscious of the limited time you have left. It will weigh on you and can even become your greatest suffering. We all must guard against wasting time in life on things we can’t control, no matter how crazy they may seem. Keep track of your time on this earth.

Don’t fool yourself with the easy parts

Whatever you do, don’t play the easy parts first! They are like the downhill slopes on a cross country race. Instead, go straight to the difficult passages. My teacher, Mrs. Reese, would call these the “technical” passages, sections of a piece that seem impossible to start. The ones that scare you and are terrifying to look at, even on the page. The technical passages are the challenges which you will face in life. Go straight at them. Do not flinch or look for the easy way out. You will delude yourself and end up going nowhere.

Take notes

Keep a pencil ready with you to mark your thoughts as you go. Mark comments on your performance but above on the performances of others. As you are play the passages, mark the score and write down your thoughts. Note the dynamics, the crescendos and diminuendos in your life as you live it.

My father was a champion note taker – he had to be, writing histories and physicals on his patients or surgical reports. My father wrote me letters over the years, no matter what continent I happened to be on at the time. They were just short notes, to say he was thinking of me or to let me know how things are. The letters were never long. Nor were they ever in the least way self-aggrandizing. In fact, I never recall a single time in his letters when he mentioned an honour conferred on him in the course of his work, although there were many. I read these letters again sometimes as they have given me comfort through the years. It wasn’t until later however that I realized I had been reading his notes to me, in my piano, every day. “Don’t hurry,” he tells me in the margins of my Cortot edition of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, marked in pencil at the recapitulation. “Steady,” he says, at the beginning of the coda at the end of the piece. I see my father’s handwriting next to Mrs. Reese’s in the margins of the same score. They are invariably clear, concise written words – “hold,” “softly,” “slow down.” Clear and concise. Sometimes they are simple translations from Italian or French for example —‘Spianato’ –Italian ‘spanare,’ to smooth over, simple, plain” …. ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ : The maid with the flaxen hair. My father never spoke French, or Italian for that matter. He understood however the importance of language, of precise meaning, and certainly for the purposes of his piano.

Classical music is a precise business, and a precise business merits note taking. Every note and phrase, the sense of a phrase and what each phrase means, counts. The composer intended each phrase to mean something. So take the time mark even as you are playing. Sometimes I will lift my left hand and mark as I play while my right hand continues playing, circling a note to accent, marking “piano” here, “pianissimo” or “forte ” there. It is like writing a journal. You jot down the relationships which count for you, whether you made the right decision to go somewhere or meet someone. Perhaps you see something beautiful which delights you. Or something else which repels you. Write down your thoughts as you go through life wherever you are. You will come to think differently of the journey.

These “lessons from the piano” will resonate more with some perhaps, and less with others. On the whole however, they are lessons that have served me well, keeping me strong, particularly in difficult times such as those we are living through today. I hope they will do the same for you.

home-page-2Walter Witt is a classical pianist, composer and educator based in Paris.  A lifelong student of the works of Chopin, Walter captivates audiences with his innate musicianship and dynamic presence  at the piano. Together with his advocacy for classical music and its educational importance, these talents make him one of the most  compelling figure in classical music today.

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An interview with composer Augusta Read Thomas, whose new disc “The Auditions” is out now on Nimbus Records


Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

Composing and spending my life working in and with music is a natural extension of who I am at the core. As such, I never explicitly decided to “pursue a career.” Rather, my “life” is the same as my “career.” I love music, am passionate about and devoted to sculpting sound. I composer music to express gratitude.

What were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Music, nature, and poetry leap to mind. Music of all kinds inspires me every hour of the day. Nature is a spectacular composition teacher. About poetry: in a poem, a dash, colon, comma, line break or a stanza break can totally shape or, when changed, reshape the meaning of the poem. If you change the order of two words, purposely interrupt a rhyme-scheme, create or remove a pause, or change the voice of the speaker, the meaning can be transformed. A micro move in a poem can have macro consequences. the same can be true in music and nature.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I wish there were more than 24 hours in a day! So much work to do composing, teaching, supporting the work of others, making recordings, traveling, attending concerts and residencies, organizing and running festivals, directing The Center for Contemporary Composition at the University of Chicago, volunteering on many Boards of Trustees…and, alas, so little time!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

For every artist, in whatever area of creative endeavour, the receipt of a commission stirs the life force. Commissioning new art is a leap-of-faith! The commissioner does not know what they will receive. I feel profoundly fortunate for each commissioner’s investments in my life’s-work. I cherish the collaboration with each and every musician and always look forward to devoting my strongest, focused efforts to sculpting a new composition.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I believe music feeds our souls. Unbreakable is the power of art to build community. Humanity has and will always work together to further music’s flexible, diverse capacity and innate power. The magnificence and energy of musical resources: soloists, chamber ensembles, choir, orchestra…is humbling and inspiring. I cherish working with solidarity and teamwork with all musicians. Musicians have given me much happiness and taught me a great deal about music and life.

Of which works are you most proud?

At age four, I started playing piano and composing tiny little, trivial fragments of music. In third grade, I took up the trumpet and played for 14 years, attending Northwestern University as a trumpet performance major, playing in brass quintet, chamber orchestra, orchestra, band, Jazz band, and I sang in choirs for many years. Throughout all of my childhood and young adulthood, in addition to playing music, I was also composing music. Since the age of about 15, I have been heavily focused on composing music, which means that I have been composing with passion for 40 years! For this reason, it is impossible for me to pick out a few works of which I am most proud.

Rather, I think of my life’s work as an integrated body of compositions which have a “voice” and yet are varied in terms of genre, duration, instrumentation, and so forth. My catalogue is comprised of works that, to me, feel chain-linked together and which offer a gestalt, labyrinth or web of sonic creativity. I have many works for orchestra, chorus, chamber ensembles of varied instrumentations, as well as works for band and wind ensemble, solos, opera, works for dance…It is literally impossible for me to compare works across categories, genres, decades or to pick one over the other.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Although highly notated, precise, carefully structured, soundly proportioned, and while musicians are elegantly working from a nuanced, specific text, I like my music to have the feeling that it is organically being self-propelled – on the spot. As if we listeners are overhearing a captured improvisation. My music, which is organic and, at every level, concerned with transformations and connections, should be played so that the inner life of the different rhythmic, timbral and pitch syntaxes are made explicit and are then organically allied to one another with characterized phrasing of rhythm, colour, harmony, counterpoint, tempo, keeping it alive — continuously sounding spontaneous. All of this, hopefully, working toward the fundamental goal: to compose a work in which every musical parameter is allied in one holistic gestalt.

If you had to make one programme note for your whole life’s work, what would it be?

Words that leap to mind for such a program note include polished, nuanced, intricately notated, captured sound sculptures that always spark and catch fire as spontaneous and capricious improvisations…natural impulse, mobile, flexible, sonorous, resonant, intentional, interlaced, braided, woven, circuit, networks…

How do you work?

I’d like to reply with a graphic and a description:

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Gestalt Web is one of a series of composition lesson illustrations graphically depicting a creative process in composing music with implications for other areas of imaginative thinking.

The illustration is playful, accessible, unique, sincere, and optimistic. To follow the purple line, starting from the bottom left, moving upward and then swirling through the image is to follow Augusta’s thinking about an integrated creative process. Staring with sound and ending with yellow dots of sound that climb right off the top of the page, it is as if this process creates sounds (or other things) that are able to go on forever. The yellow dots also lead to – or perhaps start from a place of silence – as seen toward the bottom of the page. The portrayal, at once whimsical and insightful, signposts that an imaginative creator passes through progressive stages: DREAM, EXPERIMENT, BUILDING MATERIALS, CREATING INTENTIONAL ORGANIC CRAFT, which lead to a GESTALT WEB where myriad parameters of music are holistically interdependent. This artwork suggests that, through such a journey, one has an opportunity to create works of NUANCE, DETAIL, PERSONALITY, CHARACTER, SOUL, and INTEGRITY.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

The list is vast so for the purposes of this answer, I will focus in on two examples. I consider JS Bach to be my most important teacher. His music underpins every day of my life. I love his music for far too many reasons to list, but for starters… its magic, sublime beauty, invention, craft, clarity, intensity, elegance, concision, perfection, technical mastery, form, flow, integration, magnetism, humanity, spirituality, empathy, power, civility and grace. Every day, when listening to Bach, I sing along whether listening to The Well-Tempered Clavier , a Brandenburg Concerto, Sonatas and partitas for solo violin, a cantata, or the Goldberg Variations.

For me, Bach’s music will always be contemporary because it is timeless – it sounds ‘fresh’ and vivid in any context or epoch.

In addition, it is clear, in all my compositions, that I have been listening to jazz for 45 years. I am not a composer of ‘crossover’ jazz pieces; rather, there is a deeply integrated and digested sense related to jazz harmonies, flexibility, spontaneity and flow.

The collaborations between Miles Davis and John Coltrane are chamber music of the highest order. They were able to link into the same sonic and spiritual wavelength as if they could hear and think, in advance, about what the other player was about to do. As well as being superb duo partners, they created iconic solos.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is integrity, honesty, individual voice, character, soul, generosity, passion, enthusiasm, love, and grace.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Concepts that leap to mind include:

Be true to yourself and your art; honesty, integrity, work hard, support others, listen to a vast amount of diverse music; be self-critical and always aiming to improve; allow your imagination to flourish; hone your technical craft; approach life with an open heart.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Alive and composing.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Humanity at peace with one another: all humans supporting one another in a globally interdependent, positive, communicative gestalt.

What is your most treasured possession?

My integrity and generosity toward others.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Composing music and supporting musicians and composers.

What is your present state of mind?

Optimistic

Augusta Read Thomas’ new disc “The Auditions” is out now on Nimbus Records


The music of Augusta Read Thomas (b. 1964 in New York) is nuanced, majestic, elegant, capricious, lyrical, and colorful — “it is boldly considered music that celebrates the sound of the instruments and reaffirms the vitality of orchestral music” (Philadelphia Inquirer).

A composer featured on a Grammy winning CD by Chanticleer and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Thomas’ impressive body of works “embodies unbridled passion and fierce poetry” (American Academy of Arts and Letters). The New Yorker magazine called her “a true virtuoso composer.” Championed by such luminaries as Barenboim, Rostropovich, Boulez, Eschenbach, Salonen, Maazel, Ozawa, and Knussen, she rose early to the top of her profession. The American Academy of Arts and Letters described Thomas as “one of the most recognizable and widely loved figures in American Music.”

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As some of my friends, readers and followers know, my son is a professional chef who has been working in fine dining in London for 6 years. He’s been living with us during the UK lockdowns and in addition to enjoying his beautiful, inventive and delicious cooking, I have learnt some useful ‘kitchen tricks’ and shortcuts from him.

Homemade pasta was something that had eluded me for years. It’s not that I couldn’t make it, it’s that I could never make it ‘right’. But with my son’s guidance, I have now learnt to make my own egg pasta – and I don’t even use a machine to roll it, just a long rolling pin and a dash of elbow grease. The other day, inspired by one of the ‘skills tests’ on Masterchef The Professionals, a TV series to which we as a family are all glued at this time of the year, I made tortellini (filled pasta) using my own pasta dough. As I was cutting out the discs of dough to be filled with a mushroom stuffing, it occurred to me that if I can make pasta dough and filled pasta, I can also make Japanese gyoza, Chinese wontons and dim sum, Indian samosas, Polish pierogi, and any number of other small stuffed dumpling.

Musical skills, just like culinary skills, once learnt and practiced, can and should be applied to different situations. No learning should ever be done in a vacuum: a single piece of music is not just that one piece, it is a path to other pieces via accrued technical proficiency and artistry. Early students and less advanced pianists often see the pieces they are learning in terms of stand alone works which have no relevance to other music they are working on, or are going to learn. This is also particularly true of scales, arpeggios and other technical exercises which may be studied in isolation instead of appreciating their relevance not just in understanding keys and key relationships, but also in actual pieces of music. This was something I was not taught when having piano lessons as a child, and it’s the fault of the teacher, not the student, if the usefulness and relevance of technical work is not highlighted.

Everything is connected. Chopin knew this: it is said that he studied Bach’s WTC every day, appreciating this music’s relevance to his own musical development, his composing and his teaching. If you can successfully manage Bach’s ornamentation, for example, you should have little difficulty with Chopin’s trills and fioriture.

If we understand how to adapt specific skills, to make them relevant to the repertoire we are currently working on, we can make the learning process less arduous and more rewarding, while also continuing to build on existing skills and develop new ones.

Composer Sally Beamish has received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours, for services to music. Here she shares some insights into her influences and inspirations, the pleasure of working on commissioned pieces, and how talking to audiences can help explain the creative processes involved in making music.


Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

My mother, a professional violinist, taught me to read and write notes when I was four – before learning to read and write letters. As soon as I grasped the relationship between the dots on the staves and the sound from her violin, I began to create my own music. It is something I still recognise in myself – the compulsion to ‘do it myself’ – to make, to draw, to write stories.

I don’t think I ever doubted that I would be a musician, and I was lucky that the professional musicians in my family were all female, so there didn’t seem to be any problem with that. My father’s sisters were both musicians, as was my paternal grandmother – though she had been discouraged from a professional career.

However, none of them composed, and I was not aware of any woman who did, apart from Clara Schumann, whom I adopted as my role model from an early age – even though I didn’t have the opportunity to hear much of her music. It was enough for me that she existed.

But, like her, I didn’t consider composition as a possible career, and decided to study viola to achieve a level whereby I could support myself, in order to be able to compose.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

My mother and paternal grandmother were hugely important. Granny would play piano duets with me, teaching me to sight-read by refusing to wait for me, or slow down, when we played piano duets together. I had to keep going, even if it meant playing one of two notes per bar.

We gave many family concerts – my brother is an excellent trumpeter, and my father was a good amateur flautist and singer. Only my mother and I were shy about singing. Everyone else was happy to perform lieder, show songs and parlour duets, and I was the house accompanist.

Later, as a violin/viola student at the RNCM, I found myself in demand as accompanist and chamber pianist in lessons and master classes, and was able to learn first hand about the instruments I didn’t play myself.

But maybe the biggest influence was my father’s record collection. He worked for Phillips, and was often responsible for taking first-edit records home to check for faults. They were in brown paper sleeves: Ravel’s La Valse, Prokoviev’s Classical Symphony, Schubert’s piano trios. Through his collection I discovered Malcolm Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter, Walton’s viola concerto, and the classics – such as Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Arnold and Walton, in particular, had a profound affect on my orchestration and musical language.

When I was 15, a friend introduced me to Lennox Berkeley, and he became a mentor – encouraging me by telling me that I was ‘a composer, and must not forget it’.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

During my time studying viola at the RNCM I was quite often asked to write for friends, and also for my teachers – writing a violin sonata for Bronislaw Gimpel and a viola piece for Atar Arad. Several pieces were performed by students who went on to have solo careers. I gained confidence through these opportunities, and applied to study composition as a post-graduate at several institutions. I was turned down for all of them, one of them citing my tonal language as a barrier. This was a blow, and it was hard to keep my confidence. In those days, it simply wasn’t acceptable to write tonally, but I was baffled by the sounds I was hearing from the well respected composers of the time. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t have to try and fit in with something that was alien to me, when I was still developing my own voice.

Later, as a viola player in London, I played a great deal of contemporary music, often with the composers conducting, and I became more comfortable with different languages to my own.

Many of these composers were extremely generous with their time and advice, and this was my period of study – with Oliver Knussen, Nigel Osborne, John Woolrich, Luciano Berio, Peter Mawell Davies and others, who kindly agreed to look at my scores.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

I love the boundaries that come with a commission. I love having the scoring, length, and sometimes an extra-musical theme set out, so that I have parameters to work within. And it is always inspiring to listen to the players I’m writing for – to imagine the occasion of the premiere, and what I would like to hear them playing. I even, in a way, love the deadline – because it takes away a lot of the agonising. Like playing Sheep May Safely Graze with my granny, I just have to keep going. As the deadline approaches, there’s no time to look over my shoulder and wonder if it’s ‘any good’, or what people will say/think.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Each musician brings something individual, and the alchemy between composer and performer is very important to me. Often a performer has their own idea of what the piece might be about, or of filling a particular gap in the repertoire – for instance Håkan Hardenberger, who wanted a lyrical trumpet concerto, and Evelyn Glennie, who asked for marimba plus ‘handbag-sized’ percussion; and Robert Cohen, who wanted a cello concerto to draw on his family roots in Poland and South Africa. These are the things that immediately start making sounds in my mind. My three piano concertos were all written within a year, and the inspirational starting points suggested by the three soloists (Ronald Brautigam, Martin Roscoe and Jonathan Biss) made it possible to find a fresh world for each work. The Cairngorm Mountains. The whirlpool at Corrievreckan. Beethoven’s first concerto/the 2016 US election…

Of which works are you most proud?

In 1993, violinist Anthony Marwood asked me to write him a concerto. I knew his playing well – having played for several years with him in the Raphael Ensemble. He sent me Remarque’s book ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. I had never read it, but as soon as I did, I knew what he meant about it being a fantastic starting point for a concerto. The violinist as the protagonist – the lone soldier, pitted against the horrors and futility of war. It chimed in with my own pacifist convictions, and I think produced one of my strongest works. I was still very inexperienced at writing for orchestra, but almost for that reason, was bold and sometimes rash in my instrumental choices, which makes the work one of my most daring for orchestra.

The concerto Seavaigers is one of the few pieces I decided to write and then looked for performance opportunities. I knew I wanted to write for Scottish harpist Catriona McKay and Shetland fiddler Chris Stout, and to put them together with the Scottish Ensemble. The solo parts are mostly notated, but the idea was that Catriona and Chris took them off the page in their own direction, so their recorded version is in places quite different from what I originally wrote. The piece can be performed by non-improvising soloists, and even by soloists on different instruments – which have included nyckelharpa, accordion and recorder – but I loved that original conception of the piece, with the soloists responding freely and spontaneously to my music by extending, ornamenting and expanding.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I find myself speaking different languages, and sometimes become quite a different composer for different projects. My music is very often informed by other genres – for instance jazz, and folk music. Increasingly, I let go of any anxiety about being ‘original’, and try to think of how I can use musical language and idiom to express the broadest range of emotion and ideas.

How do you work?

When I first started composing full-time, I was limited by the 4 hours a day that I had child care, and this worked extremely well. Once I no longer had this limitation, I struggled for years to regain that self-discipline. In 2013, a friend recommended the Pomodoro Technique. I have used it ever since – planning eight 25-minute composing sessions per day. One advantage is that I know when I have finished for the day! Another is that I never have the excuse of it not being worth starting, thinking I have too little time. One pomodoro can be crossed off the list in a spare half hour.

I work straight into Sibelius software, having made notes and planned a structure. Sometimes I start drafting the programme note before writing any notes at all. Now that I’m playing the viola again I do occasionally try out ideas, and I have a keyboard next to me which is useful.

But I tend to start by listening in silence, and waiting. Sometimes 25 minutes is simply a silent preparation. Showing up at my desk is vitally important.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

The folk musicians who’ve inspired me, such as Chris Stout, Catriona Mckay, and Donald Grant (member of the Elias Quartet, for whom I wrote a folk inspired fiddle part in Reed Stanzas). The American saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who I met in 2016, has become very important to my work and inspiration, and I’ve written several classical pieces for him, while planning a jazz collaboration which we hope will come to fruition in the next 10 years or so..! Composers I return to again and again are Knussen, Turnage, Bartok and Gubaidulina.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Communication. If I can express something through a score, via performers, to an audience. If someone in that audience is changed, moved or affirmed in some way by hearing the music.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I think it’s important for composers to be in touch with performing. Whether they sing, conduct, or play an instrument, they should be aware of how it feels to be onstage, and to be the direct transmitter of sound and emotion.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow and maintain classical music’s audiences?

It’s important to share the creative process – to talk to audiences. The pre-concert talk is good up to a point, but it tends to be talking to the converted. Much better for the composer to come onstage just before the new work, and talk about their process, their inspirations – preferably with examples. It is very difficult for a listener to assimilate a work on one hearing, and therefore to get something from it beyond a vague impression. This applies to the historical repertoire too, and in fact I think the language of the classical canon is very hard to identify with, if it is outside your experience. All the more reason to break down the 4th wall and chat to the audience, being careful not to use exclusive language (such as pizzicato, fugue, sonata form etc etc).

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Collaborating on joint projects. My work with choreographers David Bintley and David Nixon on full-length ballets was transformative, and when I met my husband, a playwright, in 2016, I realised this was the way I wanted to continue to work. He is very often a ‘dramaturg’ in my work, suggesting stories, structures and dramatic trajectory. Our discussions are my idea of perfect happiness.

And being with my family!

What is your most treasured possession?

The viola made for me by my daughter in 2014. Having had a beloved instrument stolen in 1989, and then to have sold all my instruments in 1995 because I decided I simply didn’t have time to play any more, this viola has brought me back to a communion with performers, and reminded me what an important part of my life it is to perform.


Sally Beamish was born in London. She studied viola at the RNCM with Patrick Ireland, and in Detmold with Bruno Giuranna, and was a founder member of the Raphael Ensemble. She also performed regularly with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields and the London Sinfonietta, and was principal viola in the London Mozart Players and Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

She moved from London to Scotland in 1990 to develop her career as a composer. Her music embraces many influences: particularly jazz and Scottish traditional music.

She has recently moved to Brighton, and is married to writer Peter Thomson. She still performs regularly as violist, pianist and narrator.

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Sally Beamish to receive OBE – article in The Strad magazine

Photo credit: Ashley Coombes

This quote by English conductor Mark Wigglesworth, from a recent British newspaper article, has resonances with the philosophical statement “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Of course what Wigglesworth is referring to specifically is the lack of audiences for music this year, due to concert halls being closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In his article, he accepts that there has been plenty of excellent online music-making and performances, not to mention broadcasts of archive performances (for example, from the BBC Proms archive), but he makes the very important point that audiences contribute to the special atmosphere of concerts (something I have covered in a previous article), and provide “an intensity of concentration for both performer and listener”.

But does music really not “exist” if no one is listening to it being played? Of course not – and in fact, musicians are very used to playing without an audience: most of the time this is what they do when they are practicing.

Music is an act of communication whether playing to a live audience, recording equipment in the studio, or to oneself in the practice room or the comfort of one’s home. Wherever we play music –  to a full house at Carnegie Hall or at home alone – we bring to life the dots and squiggles on the page, communicating the composer’s ideas.

Never underestimate the power of just playing music alone, of being able to explore a score by oneself. For virtually every musician, professional or amateur, this kind of playing is how we get to know the music intimately and through which we make the most interesting and intriguing musical discoveries. When we play alone, we play for and to ourselves, but this is still an act of communication. The player is also a listener – and if one is undertaking serious work on a piece of music, the act of communicating to oneself and feeding back on what one has heard is a crucial part of the process of practicing and refining.

There is, of course, another important aspect to playing alone and that is the enjoyment and satisfaction that comes from playing without practicing – playing for the sheer pleasure of it, nothing more. At times like this, we revel in the sounds, the feel of the notes under the fingers, the physical and emotional responses the music provokes. Many of us have favourite pieces which we turn to for this kind of playing. This kind of playing is relaxing and therapeutic – a way to unwind after a busy day, or to de-stress; it is also precious, deeply intimate and personal. And for professional musicians, whose diaries are, sadly, still mostly empty, a curious benefit of the coronavirus lockdown is that many are rediscovering the joy of this kind of music-making, free from the pressures of the profession.

There is nothing more wonderful than hunkering down with a piano in splendid isolation, especially at night! – Howard, amateur pianist

Music exists the moment it emerges from the instrument, and never ceases to exist thereafter –  and someone is always communicating and listening, even if it is just the person who is playing…..


Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash