_MG_8764Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

I don’t recall the initial trigger(s) to take up composing but there was always a strong desire from about the age of seven to put dots onto the page.  Similarly, the decision to make a career appears to have been there from an early age in some form – it just always seemed to be the path I was destined to follow.

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

There are key figures and key works that have become significant in my musical life – those being Bach, Stravinsky, Debussy, Messiaen and more recently, Jonathan Harvey, George Crumb, Anton Webern and Matthias Pintscher.

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

The process of composing itself is by far the greatest challenge of my career to date.  Self-doubt and anxiety has often crippled my creative output for months on end.  I’ve also never been a composer to repeat the same technical trick over and over in my writing.  Every new piece presents a new problem to solve and each time the solution requires a different approach.  Perhaps this explains why I write so slowly.

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

I rarely write without a specific request for a work (with or without payment) and that brings with it certain pleasures such as working closely in collaboration with a musician or ensemble to develop a specific idea or sound.  The biggest challenges are always the deadlines and time-frames that often appear to get in the way of the creative flow.  It seems to be a common issue amongst artists, yet I am finding more and more that these goal posts can serve as great motivational forces when hitting a creative dead end.

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

I’m always interested in exploring new sounds often through the combination of electronics and acoustic forces.  Working with particular performers, especially those who have developed new performance techniques or use extended instruments, is really exciting because as a composer I get to try out sounds that perhaps nobody has written and heard before.

Which works are you most proud of?  

There are a few recent works that have been significant for me because they represent either a change in style or in the way I approach writing. Music of the Spheres (2006) for piano and planets  was a real labour of love due to hundreds of hours spent trawling through data files from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft in order to find a few gold nuggets that could be turned into something of musical interest.  Despite all the effort, I am very happy that performing piano alongside a sonic representation of our solar system is accessible to anyone from about Grade 2 piano upwards.  Escape Velocity (2006) for accordion and string quartet is also an important work because it represents both a change in style that felt very comfortable for me but also because it demonstrates an attempt to explore and ultimately integrate two different instrumental forces into a single sound world. Fata Morgana (2007) for cello with Hyperbow, ensemble and live electronics is another key work as it represents the culmination of several years of research exploring the application of sensors and performance data in shaping and controlling the evolution of accompanying live electronics. It was also the first time I began to feel confident with my expanding musical language and with writing expressively at the extreme ends of the cello’s range. In this work, I felt that I had finally begun creating a more unified and meaningful connection between the expressiveness of the performer and the resulting reflections from the electronics through the aid of the sensors – something that has been a developing working method for me ever since.

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

Not at all – I’m always grateful for a performance, wherever that might be!

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

In addition to those composers I mentioned earlier who were of most influence in shaping who I am as a composer, I would include Ockeghem, Pergolesi, Prokofiev and some contemporary heavyweights such as Schoenberg, Ligeti, Boulez, Crumb, Magnus Lindberg, Helmut Lachenmann, Unsuk Chin, Harrison Birtwistle and GérardGrisey.

As for performers, I wouldn’t say I have any favourites as such.  Moreover, I just really appreciate and admire performers generally as I gave up myself after completing my undergraduate studies due to stage nerves.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

There are three that are particularly memorable for me – the London Sinfonietta’s 2008 QEH performance of Grisey’s complete Les espaces acoustiques; the Sinfonietta/Royal Academy 2013 RFH performance of Stockhausen’s Gruppen; and the Britten Sinfonia’s astonishing performance of Birtwistle’s Yan Tan Thethera at the Barbican this May.

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

In the words of Joseph Campbell, “follow your bliss”.  If you don’t feel utter joy and a sense of deep passion for something, change direction and try something else.  Life’s too short!

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Tell us a little more about your new work ‘Morphosis’, recently premiered by Zubin Kanga. What was the inspiration/creative impulse for this work? What were the particular challenges of creating and performing this work? 

I’ve wanted to work with the wonderful Zubin for many years.  He’s a real collaborator and that excites me because it affords me space to try new things and to make mistakes – essentials in the quest for new methods of creating and working.  Zubin knew of my work with sensors and electronics so it seemed a perfect collaborative partnership.

Much of my recent work is fundamentally concerned with this notion of meeting points – of fusing apparently opposing sound worlds; moulding, mixing and states of flux. I see my work as becoming more sculptural of late – where musical ideas grow outside of their original form, then take an unexpected turn and morph into something else, perhaps falling back temporarily to allow the electronic reflections to come to the fore only to suddenly re-emerge with a fresh direction that overwhelms all proceeding shapes.  This concept of flow, of coursing and of flux is also at the base of Morphosis. Musical objects begin as simple chords surrounded only by their electronic reflections that are subtly influenced by the movement of the performers hands (the sensors being attached to the back of the hands and transmit three-dimensional movement data to the live electronics).  These musical objects are presented several times as if one is looking at a single object from different angles. They are joined together by the morphing states of the electronics into what I hope is a flowing musical argument that is both visually and aurally engaging.

Working with live electronics is always a challenge but is particularly so with the addition of sensors.  Speed is critical!  Six channels of data from the performers hands must stream into the laptop once every 20ms.  This data must be refined for musical processes.  Each movement must be carefully calibrated and assigned to a particular parameter of a digital sound process.  Vast amounts of number crunching are performed in tiny segments of time and any blip in the system results in either a click in sound or a fatal system crash.  All this must be performed from just a single laptop that gets slower the more processing is added.  As a composer, the months of computer programming can become unbearable.  Many challenges emerge: Which should I write first – the music or the electronic effects?  How will the sounds change if I do not fully know how the performer will try to control the sound through the sensors?  How can I impose limits on what the performer will do with their hands to shape the sounds?  All these questions push my creative process to the edge – something I fear yet something I crave too…. living on the precipice…. creating something new, something never before uttered…. it’s the ultimate drive….

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

Southern Italy full time – writing more than I teach

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Acceptance of myself and everything external

What is your most treasured possession?

My mind – all else is temporary

What do you enjoy doing most?

Dancing 4am, hot sand between the toes, cool breeze on the skin – Italian beach

What is your present state of mind?

Buzzy and tired – it’s 4.30am!

Patrick Nunn (b.1969, Kent, UK) studied composition with Frank Denyer at Dartington College of Arts, Gary Carpenter at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, and Simon Bainbridge and Jonathan Harvey whilst completing his PhD in Composition at the Royal Academy of Music (funded by a PRS Scholarship).

He has been the recipient of many awards including the Birmingham New Millennium prize for Sentiment of an Invisible Omniscience (2010), the Alan Bush prize for Transilient Fragments (2008), a British Composers Award (solo/duet category) for Mercurial Sparks, Volatile Shadows (2006), and the BBC Radio 3 Composing for Children prize for Songs of Our Generation (1995).

Patrick’s music has been performed widely in the UK and on the continent and has featured at more than fifty festivals worldwide. He has worked with a diverse range of collaborators, including the BBC Concert Orchestra, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Kreutzer Quartet, Thalia Myers, Piano Circus, Icebreaker, Ballet Rambert, Gogmagogs, Composers Ensemble and New London Children’s Choir.

Under the auspices of Tod Machover (MIT), Nunn, in his role as Hyperbow Researcher at the Royal Academy of Music, wrote two new works incorporating Diana Young’s (MIT) Hyperbow design: Gaia Sketches for solo cello and live electronics (finalist in the New Media category, British Composers Awards 2006); and Fata Morgana for cello, ensemble and live electronics. Nunn presented the collaborative process between composer and engineer in a research paper alongside Young at the 2006 NIME conference at IRCAM.

In addition to his extensive work as an educator, Nunn has recently completed two ABRSM commissions for their Spectrum series, as well as a new work for the Tempest Flute Trio. His work Prism was nominated for the solo/duo category for the 2009 British Composers Awards and Pareidolia I for bass clarinet, electronics and sensors has been shortlisted in the Sonic Arts category for the 2012 Awards. He currently holds the position of Lecturer in Composition at the Royal Academy of Music. His music is published by Cadenza Music and the ABRSM, and also features on Red Sock Records (Music of the Spheres), NMC (Prism) and the Sfz label (Gonk).

© Patrick Nunn (Nov 2012)

www.patricknunn.com

Photo credit: Nick Fallon

 

On a fine mid-September afternoon a group of adult pianists, piano fans and music lovers gathered at Craxton Studios for a recital and talk by acclaimed pianist, teacher and writer Graham Fitch.

Craxton Studios, a beautiful Arts & Crafts house in Hampstead, north London, has an important musical heritage and is therefore the perfect place for concerts and gatherings of musicians. Originally built by the artist George Hillyard Swinstead for his family and as his art studio, the house was bought by Harold Craxton and his wife Essie in 1945 after they and their family were bombed out of their home in St. John’s Wood during the Blitz. Professor Harold Craxton OBE was an eminent and much-loved pianist and teacher (he was a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music), and those of us of a certain age will know his name from ABRSM editions of Beethoven and Co, edited by him and Donald Francis Tovey. The house on Kidderpore Avenue became a meeting place for musicians to come together and the house became a focal point for the artistic and musical milieu of London. This tradition continues today, as the house is used not only for concerts but also rehearsals, auditions and as a film location.

When Harold Craxton died in 1971, a trust was established in his name to support young, extremely talented musicians embarking on a professional career.

I first visited Craxton Studios in December 2013 for a concert by pianist Sarah Beth Briggs. I was impressed by the warm atmosphere and particularly the special ambiance and decor of the venue. Concerts are held in the artist’s studio, a large airy room at the back of the house, adorned with paintings, which looks out over the garden. The piano, which was Harold Craxton’s own instrument, is an early 20th-century Blüthner. (There is another grand piano in the small rehearsal studio on the top floor of the house.) The Craxton family still manage the property and it continues as a lively hub for musical activities in London.

‘Notes&Notes’ with Graham Fitch was a new concert concept for the South London Concert Series. I have always found concerts in which the performer introduces the music most interesting, and I find audience members enjoy hearing anecdotes about the music or why particular pieces are important, and as such offer something more personal and interesting than a standard written programme.

Graham Fitch introducing his programme
Graham Fitch introducing his programme

Graham’s programme consisted of Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat and the French Suite, No. 5 in G, both popular and accessible works, and Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 50 in C, Hob. XVI/50, written while the composer was living in London. Graham introduced the music, explaining that Bach was drawing on a tradition of presenting a suite of stylised dances popular at the time (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue etc). He also described his first encounters with this music and his studies with Andras Schiff, who has received high praise for his own intepretations of Bach, and who “gave” Graham the ornaments in the French Suite. Graham also explained that there is no “right way” to play Bach and that a romantic interpretation is as valid any other.

Graham combines a vibrant, colourful sound with an ability to highlight all the different strands of melody, voices and interior architecture in the music, together with subtle use of pedal, sensitive phrasing and restrained rubato. As his introduction to the Haydn Sonata, he explained that Haydn was working with John Broadwood, the London piano maker, and the Sonata shows the composer experimenting with the range of possibilities afforded by an English piano (as opposed to the Viennese instruments which Haydn had previously been used to). Graham’s performance sparkled with wit and humour, while the middle movement had a lovely arching melody, warm and supple.

Afternoon tea & scones
Afternoon tea & scones

After the music came the tea party and guests gathered in the dining room to enjoy tea and scones (with clotted cream, of course) and the chance to meet Graham and talk to other pianists and piano fans. There were many friends amongst the audience and the house was full of conversation. Some people even went to try the piano, before the studio was cleared ready for an audition the following day. The general consensus was that this was a really lovely event, combining music, words and conviviality, and we hope to host a similar concert at Craxton Studios next year.

 

 

 

Craxton Studios website

Meet the Artist……Graham Fitch

 

Xerxes (Alice Coote) sings to his beloved plane tree

In the opening scene of Handel’s Xerxes (or Serses) we witness the King of Persia (Xerxes) singing a love song to a plane tree (“Ombra Mai Fu”). As the narrative of this opera unfolds – a tale of love triangles, frustrated desire, disguise and general chicanery – we begin to wonder whether Xerxes should have stuck with loving the tree, rather than anyone else, for trees tend to be rather simpler to deal with.

In fact, the plot of Xerxes is fairly straightforward, and in Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed production, first seen in 1985 and now in its sixth revival, it becomes incidental to the charming setting, and witty and delightful progression of the narrative. An entertaining cast of characters inhabit a setting which recalls Vauxhall Pleasure Garden and Versailles (complete with modern-day red cordons), with a nod to Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode in the costumes of the servants/chorus and a glimpse of ancient Persia in the form of a giant statue of a winged lion (which one might view in the British Museum) and the tiny ancient city at the rear of the set.

Xerxes (Alice Coote), Romilda (Sarah Tynan) and Arsamenes (Andrew Watts). Picture credit Mike Hoban

The all-British cast gel brilliantly, all winks and nods and cheeky asides, and Xerxes, sung by Alice Coote (making her role debut) is thigh-slappingly wonderful, at once swaggering principal boy and deluded, love-lorn King, the full weight of emotion given rein in her rich enunciation of words like “Desire”. Romilda, beautifully sung by Sarah Tynan, is coquettish and proud, while Atalanta (Rhian Lois) is downright louche, particularly in Act 1. There are also some delightful comic cameos from Arsamenes (sung by counter-tenor Andrew Watts) and his servant Elivro, whose disguise as a “mockney” flower seller (complete with floral frock) gets all the laughs in Act 2.

The production combines a cool rococo elegance with wit and genuine humour (the welcoming home of the old soldiers from battle, taking tea en plein air, and the hedge-trimming), while the music is energetically directed by Michael Hofstetter and crisply articulated by the orchestra. All in all, this was a rollicking evening, delightfully piquant, charming and above all entertaining. It’s a long night (three acts in three-and-a-half hours) but with the quality and pleasure of this production and the commitment and obvious enjoyment of the cast the narrative moves on apace. Highly recommended.

Xerxes continues at ENO, London Coliseum until 3 October

(photo Marco Borggreve)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?

I don’t remember not playing the piano. As my parents were also musicians, it was probably a rather obvious thing to do. I never thought of music as a career per se, but it was clear to me rather early (certainly before my teens) that music would consume my life.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

So many people! Obviously my teachers, Sulamita Aronovsky and the late Susan Bradshaw, have both been crucial. I learnt very different things from each of them. In a way they were very contradictory, but I have never felt confused, rather enriched by having multiple views on so many issues. I am hugely grateful to them both. Beyond that, clearly the influences on a musician who is even slightly inquisitive will be very wide-ranging.

Several pianists have been personally very important to me, most obviously perhaps David Tudor – who helped me most generously in my early 20s, as I was preparing a major Cage project – and Maurizio Pollini, whose work was influential on me in many ways from an early age, and who in recent years I’ve come to know personally. He invited me to share a concert with him at Suntory Hall last season, which was a huge pleasure – I played a work of Manzoni in the first half, and he played Beethoven Sonatas in the second.

I have had the honour of working with many living composers over the years and have learnt many things from them. When that honour has been dubious, I have learnt what to avoid rather than what to embrace. But in the case of a composer like Birtwistle, whose “Variations from the Golden Mountain” I am premiering at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday 14th September, the relationship has been only fruitful and enjoyable (for me at least).

Conductors, studying works in other genres (string quartets, orchestral works), visual arts – everything goes into the artistic pot and influences the flavour like herbs in a stew.

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

Challenge in what sense? Every concert, every confrontation with a work of music, is a challenge. And practical life is a challenge. And bad conductors are a challenge.

Yes, that’s it: bad conductors are definitely the greatest challenge.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

A composer was once asked which piece he was most proud of, and said it’s always his most recent. I guess the same is true for me. I’m just seeing a disc of the concertos of Birtwistle through the press, and have also just finished a disc of the complete piano music of Brian Ferneyhough. So I guess they’re the ones I’m most proud of.

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

There are many things I think about for ages but don’t programme for many years, and on the other hand sometimes I decide quite quickly that I want to do a particular work. One of the joys of my situation is collaborating, and bouncing ideas off a trusted promoter can be extremely stimulating.

You are performing a new commission by Sir Harrison Birtwistle at your Wigmore Hall concert on 14th September. What is especially exciting about working on new music such as this?

Working with great composers personally is something that can only happen with contemporary music. All the others are dead. I can’t work with Beethoven or Debussy, but I’m overjoyed to have the opportunity to work with Birtwistle, for example. So much is made clear in our personal meetings and discussions; at the same time one understands the freedom available with more precision.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? What is your most memorable concert experience?

Well there are many remarkable acoustics around the world, and many halls with intelligent and searching programming. But what makes a concert really memorable is the situation – the programme, the audience, my mood, my collaborators (dead or alive). When everything aligns the experience is unforgettable.

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

The most important starting point for young musicians is the score. Students sometimes seem to view it more as a hint, rather than as the least indirect link to the composers intentions, which is what it is. Understanding notation in the deepest manner is one of the most important things which can be taught.

What are you working on at the moment?

After the Wigmore, I have to prepare a new piano concerto by Simon Steen-Andersen, and will also be working on Brahms 2nd Concerto for a concert in Finland in November. And many other smaller things in between!

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

No idea. I am sure though that I won’t be anywhere I could now guess.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I am still trying to work that out.

What is your most treasured possession?

My Steinway (which is beyond obvious).

What do you enjoy doing most?

Watching my children develop.

What is your present state of mind?

Expectant before the birth of a new work at the Wigmore tomorrow!

 

Nicolas Hodges performs music by Mozart/Busoni, Debussy and Sir Harrison Birtwistle in an 80th birthday tribute concert at London’s Wigmore Hall, Sunday 14th September. Further information here

 

Born and trained in London, and now based in Germany, where he is a professor at the Stuttgart Conservatory, Hodges approaches the works of Classical, Romantic, 20th century and contemporary composers with the same questing spirit, leading The Guardian to comment that: “Hodges’ recitals always boldly go where few other pianists dare … with an energy that sometimes defies belief.”

Full biography

 

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career? 

My mother was a piano teacher; my father a musicologist and piano tuner. I was far from imagining that I wanted to be a professional pianist, though. When during the one hour of career counseling I received in college it was suggested that I learn to type, I thought that I can already play the piano, and the two skills are somewhat similar.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing? 

Of course, my parents. As a child I spent every summer at the Aspen Music Festival, and heard many concerts. I was especially moved by the Juilliard String Quartet, whom I heard play the complete Beethoven Quartets, the complete Bartok, and the Carter Quartets as they were being written.

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

The daily challenge is to remain positive and with focus.

Which repertoire/composers do you think you play best? 

I find it personally necessary to practice a variety of music each day. I have had wonderful experiences with composers whom I know and have had significant works written for me. I have also performed all the Beethoven piano sonatas. At the moment, some highlights of my daily practice are the very different, but both very romantic Franck Piano Quintet and Carter Night Fantasies.

How do you make repertoire choices from season to season? 

They are a combination of my own thoughts and the wishes of presenters.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

In recent years, I have been asked to perform Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated to commemorate various historical anniversaries: The 40th anniversary of the Portugese “Carnation” revolution, and the 50th anniversary of the coup that resulted in the Brazilian dictatorship on the 60’s.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

In New York City these range from Carnegie Hall to the Barge on the East River

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I am always excited by whatever I perform. I love to go to operas, both those written by my friends and the greatest of all the classics, Wagner, Mozart, Verdi, etc.

Who are your favourite musicians?  

It is impossible to name all the truly exciting musicians – there are so many. Right now, I am listening to pianists from Claudio Arrau to Yuja Wang.

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

Always remember that performance is communication with another person. What you will say will change all the time, and that is good.

 

Ursula Oppens makes a rare UK appearance in Brighton on Friday 19th September, performing music by Carter, Ravel, Rzewski, Bolcom and Wuorinen. Further details and tickets 

Pianist Ursula Oppens, one of the very first artists to grasp the importance of programming traditional and contemporary works in equal measure, has won a singular place in the hearts of her public, critics, and colleagues alike. Her sterling musicianship, uncanny understanding of the composer’s artistic argument, and lifelong study of the keyboard’s resources, have placed her among the elect of performing musicians.

Ursula Oppens studied piano with her mother, the late Edith Oppens, as well as with Leonard Shure and Guido Agosti. She received her master’s degree at The Juilliard School, where she studied with Felix Galimir and Rosina Lhévinne. After 14 years as the John Evans Distinguished Professor of Music at Northwestern University, Ms. Oppens is now a Distinguished Professor on the faculty of the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. (source: Colbert Artists)

Full biography