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

It wasn’t an instantaneous decision. More like a big hole that I fell into – ha ha! In studying an Arts degree with a music component, I became more interested in composing, having heard some student concerts. I though “I could do that”. In fact I had been composing throughout my teen years, but never thought it to be a ‘proper’ activity. Playing Beethoven was the serious thing to do. I won a couple of composition competitions in my early 20s and decided to ‘give it a shot’ after that. Having said that, it has been a long pursuit full of considerable heartache at times. There have been some points of wanting to ‘throw in the towel’ but I have persisted and I’m glad I’ve done so.

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

A few personalities here. Firstly, Peter Sculthorpe heard some of my music at a very fledgling stage and said “keep going”. Those two words from someone as influential as Peter meant an awful lot. Later I studied with him and it was as fascinating process. I’ve also had tremendous support from Ross Edwards – never strictly a teacher but more a friend and mentor and someone I’ve looked up to over the years. My good friends and fellow composers, Matthew Hindson and Stuart Greenbaum, have helped me a lot too. We give each other feedback about new works and develop a sense of trust and mutual support.

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

There was a point in my early 30s, when I had finished a period of scholarship study in London and returned to Australia when opportunities dried up. This was a moment of crisis, wondering if I would have to re-evaluate things. Things changed again when I won a major international composition award. I guess you can never know what is around the corner and that is a big challenge!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras.

The knowledge of the opportunity at the other end, especially when working with a major symphony orchestra or the level of musicians that I have been able to work with of late. That provides both challenges and pleasures – you want to do your absolute best for them and for yourself. There is a lot of pressure to deliver your best piece every time. The technicalities of writing for large forces alone are huge. Commissions help, of course, in giving you enough of a fee and an impetus to get a new work up and running. I have only probably written one or two non-commissioned works in the last decade.

Which works are you most proud of?  

Ha ha – they are all my little children in a way! But over time you realise that some pieces stand out. I think my Second String Quartet stands up pretty well. Two orchestral works – my Fantasia on a Theme of Vaughan Williams and Machinations are, having heard them a few times now, strong essays in music for large forces. Some of my choral works get performed quite a bit, and it may be those pieces that last the distance.

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

Not the Sydney Opera House, I’m afraid. Beautiful piece of sculpture – problematic inside space! I really like the Adelaide Town Hall for its balance of clarity and warmth, and in Sydney the City Recital Hall is terrific for its clarity. Melbourne Recital Centre is also outstanding in music for small forces. I’ve conducted a concert in the Taiwan National Concert Hall, and that is probably the best concert space I have been in so far!

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

I’m a big fan of early music and tend to listen a lot to the likes of Palestrina, Victoria and Monteverdi. Stravinsky is a real hero of mine, and of late I have been impressed by the modern Brits from Birtwistle through to Adés.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably two of these which both happened at the National Music Camp, hosted by the Australian Youth Orchestra – the first was a performance of an early String Quartet when I was in my 20s. The response from the audience and the really terrific performance was a huge shot in the arm. And another was a performance of a chamber orchestra piece while I was on the staff at the same camp some 18 years later, when the yelling and screaming from the audience brought on an encore performance. Not sure that will ever happen again!

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

Patience, inner resolve. Obsession with music as a living entity and a tradition – realising that you are a part of something bigger and that it is a tremendous privilege to be involved in making music.

What are you working on at the moment? 

A new dramatic cantata called “Jandamarra: Sing for the Country”. It’s a choral/dramatic work for the SSO in collaboration with Gondwana Choirs and members of an indigenous community from the Kimberley in Western Australia.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Having a proper break, not having to worry about deadlines, and enjoying the company of friends and family.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Swimming in the surf. Enjoying a really good glass of red. Probably not simultaneously…

Paul Stanhope (b. 1969) is recognised as a leading composer of his generation not only in Australia but internationally with prominent performances of his works in the UK, Europe, Japan, and both North and South America. After studies with Andrew Ford, Andrew Schultz and Peter Sculthorpe, Paul was awarded the Charles Mackerras Scholarship which enabled him to study for a time at the Guildhall School of Music in London.

He writes: “My music presents the listener with an optimistic, personal geography . . . whether this is a reaction to the elemental aspects of the universe or the throbbing energy of the inner-city”.

In May 2004 Paul’s international standing was confirmed when he was awarded first place in the prestigious Toru Takemitsu Composition Prize. In 2011 he was awarded two APRA/Australian Music Centre Awards for Instrumental Work of the Year and Vocal/Choral Piece of the Year and in 2012 was again a finalist for the Instrumental Work of the Year. Paul is also the recipient of a Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship for 2013-2014 – the first Australian composer to be granted this honour. In 2010 Paul was Musica Viva’s featured composer: his String Quartet No. 2 received nation-wide performances by the Pavel Haas Quartet as part of this season as did his Agnus Dei – After the Fire for violin and piano, performed by the stellar duo Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien. Other choral and chamber works received national tours by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge and the Atos Piano Trio from Berlin. Paul’s music has also been featured at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in 2009 and also at the City of London Festival in 2011.

Recent works include his Piccolo Concerto (2013), premiered by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and subsequently performed by the Adelaide and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras, The Magic Island (2012) commissioned by the Hush Music Foundation which was recorded and premiered by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Qinoth (2011) written for the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Exile Lamentations (2007-2011) a cantata written for soloists, choir and the virtuosic talents of oud master Joseph Tawadros.

Forthcoming works include a large choral-orchestral cantata about the life and deeds of Western Australian indigenous hero Jandamarra written together with librettist Steve Hawke as well as a new piece for string quartet.

Paul Stanhope teaches composition part-time at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Somewhere Boy

My weekend has been piano recital-heavy, not that I would have wanted it any other way. On Saturday I saw Piotr Anderszewski at Peterhouse in Cambridge, and last night I saw Yuja Wang at the Barbican. You can currently listen to the latter recital here. Two very different recitals, but I came away from each one thinking about the same thing: the encores.

Anderszewski gave two, both by Schumann — ‘Einsame Blumen’ from Waldszenen and the Novelette, op. 21 no. 8. Wang gave five (five!) — a transcription of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, elephantine and spangly by turns, Prokofiev’s op. 11 Toccata, Chopin’s Waltz in C-sharp minor, op. 64 no. 2, the Bizet-Horowitz Carmen Variations, and finally ‘Tea for Two’, after Art Tatum. Tatum is one of those pianists it is foolhardy to try and imitate, but it was a performance of winning insouciance.

What is an encore? It’s…

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This post is inspired by an article on the Terribleminds blog of Chuck Wendig, a novelist, screen writer and games designer, which I found on Twitter. Although the original article is about the habit and practice of writing, I found much of what Chuck says chimes with the musician’s routines and practice of practising.

Practising is a habit. If we are serious about our music, our progress with our repertoire and our technical and artistic development, we need to establish good and regular practising habits, as regular as cleaning one’s teeth. No one, not even professional musicians at the top of the game, is born with an innate talent which negates the need to practice and to hone one’s skills. Regular practice equals noticeable progress.

The days when you don’t feel like practising are the days on which you should be practising. Even it it’s nothing, or it’s awful, or you feel you achieve little, it’s important to do it, to prove you can still do it, and that you are constantly feeding the artistic temperament, whetting the gears, keeping the grass growing.

The activity of playing and practising creates momentum. There is negative momentum in not practising. Miss a day, or two days, or three, and you might start to wonder why you bothered in the first place, whether this activity really for you? You stop being a pianist and turn into Not A Pianist. The more you don’t do it, the harder it becomes to convince yourself that you should be doing it, and the more likely you are to procrastinate.

Fight inertia with activity. Go and practise! Practising is energising. The physical activity of playing the piano releases endorphins, the same ‘happy hormones’ which produce that feel-good glow that comes from a good training session, or a race well run.

You could argue that forcing yourself to practise will be counter-productive. Believe me, it’s not. Even if you’re just doodling, improvising, playing chords, scales, cadences, it’s the act of doing that is important. When I was learning to drive, as an adult in my early 30s, my instructor told me to get as much time at the wheel as possible, whether I was practising three-point turns or simply experiencing the activity of driving. Piano practise is the same – and you don’t have to be working on set repertoire to be doing useful practising.

Practising is an act of doing, creating, living with the music. It defines who we are as musicians and gives us a reason for being. Live and breathe your work, begin every practise session with the question “What can I do that’s different today?”. Feel excited and stimulated by your music. Fall in love with it.

Remind yourself that it is a huge privilege to be allowed to play these great works, works that rank alongside Aristotle and Shakespeare in their magnitude and importance. One can feel like a conservator, or a gardener, taking responsibility for them, sharing them with others. It is a cultural gift, a gift to oneself, and a gift to those who love to listen to the piano.

On the days when it’s hard to practise, that’s when it’s most important to practise.

The days when you don’t feel like writing

Mick Jagger by David Bailey, 1964 © David Bailey
Mick Jagger by David Bailey, 1964 © David Bailey

A giant blow-up of a young Michael Caine, with his trademark black-rimmed glasses perched on his head, greets the visitor on arrival at the gallery, and sets the theme for the greater part of the exhibition, for David Bailey is most famous for his pictures of the glamorous and famous. In our celebrity-obsessed age, do we really need a large-scale exhibition of portraits of – well – celebrities? Clearly, Bailey and the National Portrait Gallery think so, and, judging by the crowds seething enthusiastically through the rooms, this is set to be London’s most popular museum show of 2014.

Read my full review here

On Saturday afternoon members of the London Piano Meetup Group met at Peregrine’s Pianos for a masterclass on improvisation with Dr Mark Polishook.

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Generally considered nowadays to the the preserve of jazz musicians, classical improvisation has become something of a lost art, but prior to the 20th century, pianists routinely improvised and there are accounts of Liszt and his contemporaries offering improvisations on suggestions from the audience at the end of concerts. Mark presented the activity of improvising not as something new or novel, or to be confined to the world of jazz, but as the reclaiming of a lost art and a necessary skill for pianists of all levels.

Four members performed works by Bach, Debussy, Menotti and an own-composition, and Mark worked with each person to guide them into improvising from a fairly basic starting point. For example, José, who played the Prelude in C Major from Bach’s WTC, used a basic C major arpeggio for the starting point for a simple, yet rather arresting, improvisation which encouraged us all to think about the sound, and the silences in between, as well as the harmonics the piano can create, which can be used as inspiration for further improvisation.

After David had played Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie (from ‘Estampes’), he began his explorations into improvisation with a straightforward diminished 7th arpeggio. Mark demonstrated that by placing one arpeggio on top of another, or using scale patterns, some interesting and unusual harmonies and colours could be produced quite simply, creating an improvisation that suggested both Debussy and looked forward to Messiaen and beyond.

Petra then gave us a lively and assured account of Menotti’s Toccata. Mark encouraged her to think about an improvisation based first upon a repeated rhythm deep in the lowest register of the piano, thus demonstrating that rhythmic impulses can be the source of improvisation, as well as melodic or harmonic ideas. At this point, we also had a discussion about the ‘mystique’ of the performer and the idea of creating a ‘performance’ before one has even sat at the piano, playing on the audience’s expectations and “creating magic” within a performance.

Jennie was the last person to play, one of her own compositions. Mark introduced us to an iPhone app called Drum Genius, which allows you to play any number of drum beats, and showed once again that rhythm can be the starting point for improvisation.

This was a fascinating class which left everyone feeling very inspired and energised. It was as if we had all been given permission to go back to our pianos and free ourselves from our rigid classical training and simply enjoy the sounds and colours available from the instrument. Mark’s teaching style was engaging and friendly, endlessly positive and enthusiastic, and his tuition was peppered with interesting anecdotes about jazz musicians which more than added to the overall enjoyment of the event.

Details of other London Piano Meetup Group events can be found here

Dr. Polishook, who is from the United States, has had a varied career as a university professor (composition theory, music technology, and piano), a jazz pianist, and a multimedia and sound artist. He currently teaches through Mark Polishook Studio (http://www.polishookstudio.com) in Leicester and world-wide through Skype . Dr. Polishook writes about pianos, pianism, jazz, and improvisation on his Blog of the Improvised Line, also at http://www.polishookstudio.com.

Roderick Chadwick

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

To take it up: I did so twice, aged 5 and 7 with a short break in between. Second time around I was intrigued by a harpsichord at my eventual teacher Heather Slade-Lipkin’s house (her son was a school friend). She suggested a lesson, and carried on teaching me brilliantly for ten years.

To make it a career: Chetham’s School – the people there, and the place.

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

Early ones – my mother, who sent me to Chetham’s when she was receiving a lot of advice not to. Plus Olivier Messiaen, whom I was lucky enough to see just once in Huddersfield in 1989. Tim Horton played Messiaen’s Ile de Feu 1 to me when we were 10(!), and I immediately thought “This is what a piano is made to do”. Thanks Tim. Daniel Harding woke me up to the fact that other music was also good.

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

Playing Beethoven in Tokyo. Starting out.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Performances: Stockhausen Mantra and Laurence Crane Ethiopian Distance Runners, both in the last few years at King’s Place 2.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Messiaen ‘Le Traquet Stapazin’. Tippett’s song ‘Compassion’. You said “think”.

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

New things appear all the time, not really on a seasonal basis

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

At the moment, Kettle’s Yard Cambridge. The audience.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

To perform: the music that, while you’re performing it, makes the rest of life seem like gaps in between performances: Violin Sonatas by Ravel, Walton, Prokofiev 1st, Messiaen Quatour. To listen: many! First movement of Mahler 7 (for the long melody in the middle) is a major indulgence. Britten Hymn to St Cecilia.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The first that spring to mind: hearing Michael Finnissy play English Country Tunes in 2006. A very fine performance of Messiaen La Transfiguration (2008) where I sat behind George Benjamin and saw how moved he seemed by his teacher’s music.

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

Accentuate the positives. Smell the roses. Artistry is not necessarily individuality. Perform as much as you can.

You will be performing Jim Aitchison’s new work ‘Portraits for a Study’. Tell us a little more about the particular challenges and excitements of this collaboration and the unusual circumstances of its performance using Yamaha’s Disklavier piano?

It’s often beautiful and sometimes quite awesome music, and I’m thrilled to be giving the first performance. Jim, I think, spent a long time considering how to respond to Richter before starting to write, and it’s proof that some profound links can be found between music and the visual arts if you do that.

I’ll play a Disklavier in Falmouth, which will be transmitted by internet to various venues in London (Goldsmith’s, Chappell’s, RAM) and the audiences there will be treated to an apparently playerless piano. The challenge is having the confidence that more subtle aspects of playing are going to be reproduced hundreds of miles away – though it seems to have worked in test runs.

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

Somewhere green in Britain or France

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I just got married to Jane, which was pretty happy

What is your present state of mind?

Hurried/content

Roderick Chadwick will premiere Jim Aitchison’s Portraits for a Study at the University of Falmouth on Saturday 22nd February, with a simultaneous performance via Yamaha Disklavier technology at the Royal Academy of Music, Yamaha London and Goldsmith’s College.

Jim Aitchison: Inspired by Richter

Roderick Chadwick was born in Manchester and educated at Chetham’s School of Music, St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied with Hamish Milne. He was awarded the Mosco Carner Fellowship in 1997-8 and joined the academic staff of the Academy in 1999. Since then he has combined his teaching and research interests with an active career as a soloist and chamber musician, particularly in the field of contemporary music. He has performed at many of Britain’s most prominent venues including the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, the Wigmore Hall, St John’s Smith Square, and the Queen Elizabeth Hall, where he made his Southbank debut in 1996 playing the Tippett Piano Concerto. As an undergraduate in Cambridge he performed the complete piano works of Olivier Messiaen, an experience which sparked his continuing research interest in Messiaen’s music and that of his students.

Roderick’s long-standing duo partnerships with violinists Chloë Hanslip and Narimichi Kawabata have seen him perform widely in Europe, the United States and Asia, including recitals at Seoul Arts Centre, Auditorium du Louvre, Schloss Elmau and Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall. He is a founder-member of the avant-garde Ensemble Plus-Minus, with whom he has appeared at the Huddersfield, Ultima (Oslo) and TRANSIT (Leuven) festivals, and is also a regular guest pianist with the chamber ensemble CHROMA. Many of his performances have been broadcast on BBC Radio 3, as well as on national radio in France, Japan and South Korea, and he has recently featured on CD recordings on the Innova, Guild, and Victor (Japan) labels.

Chroma Ensemble