_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!

_MG_8646_cropped

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

 

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

Like a great many other composers, the initial impetus or inspiration to write came from a deep-seated desire to emulate (and often imitate!) the music I had encountered in childhood and adolescence, through performing and learning music – in my case, through brass bands, orchestras and youth opera (I was blessed by the fact that Leeds County Council has an amazing music service with many inspirational teachers). Over time, I discovered the great power of music to express ideas about the world and about oneself, and this awoke in me the desire to make composition my vocation.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your composing and your musical career to date? 

My initial passions were fired by the English pastoral school, perhaps best represented by Vaughan-Williams and Holst. After this, I went through a Steve Reich phase (pun intended!), which had a very substantial impact upon my development, since it led me to realise that tonality could still be used in original and meaningful ways. Subsequently, I underwent a somewhat obsessive infatuation with Wagner, whose protean use of a wide variety of musical influences to create dramatic works of enormous philosophical depth planted in me the ambition to write opera. At this point, I re-discovered Benjamin Britten, who I came to see as a composer who had achieved equal dramatic mastery and psychological understanding, but in a more English and down-to-earth manner.

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

Undoubtedly my first two operas. Through these, I have learnt how to synthesise all my musical influences and gradually, from naïve beginnings, to write music and libretti which not only work poetically and musically but which also function well dramatically on the stage. Organising the performances and staging productions was just as much a challenge as the actual composition. For my first opera, The Nightingale and the Rose (after Oscar Wilde), written while I was still an undergraduate, I combined an orchestra of RCM students with the hundred-strong Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir and professional opera singers. My children’s opera, The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark (after Jill Tomlinson), then involved co-ordinating sixty primary-school children from around Cambridgeshire with professional musicians, as well as singers from Cambridge University, which was an even more formidable logistical challenge, since it meant one had to deal not only with some fairly mischievous young spirits, but also with their anxious parents!

What are the particular pleasures/challenges of working with individual artists, ensembles or orchestras? 

I always enjoy working with musicians and artists to bring a project into being. I would consider myself the entrepreneurial type, and tend to gather together a team of creative people to build a project around a dramatic conception. Collaboration involves a balance between allowing plenty of creative freedom to the individuals that you are working with, whilst striving to direct everybody’s energies towards a mutual goal. Maintaining this balance without creating too many frictions and tensions is always a challenge; the trick is to find people who share your ideals.

Please tell us more about your  opera Pincher Martin

Pincher Martin is an operatic adaptation of William Golding’s novel and poetic masterpiece. Recreating on the stage the existential plight of a marooned naval officer who struggles to survive first in the ocean, then on a lonely rocky islet in the middle of the Atlantic, has stretched my imagination to the limit, and has required the use of devices and technology which were previously unfamiliar to me. Throughout the course of the drama, we will be using a silver-screen movie-style cinematic backdrop, both to aid us in realising difficult scenarios such as a man drowning in the Atlantic, and to evoke the drama’s World War II setting.

Just one example of how this will work in practice is a scene in a moving motorcar, where the protagonist terrifies a woman with his dangerous and aggressive driving in a terrible attempt to make her acquiesce to his desires (yes, this is in the book…!). Musically, I have accompanied this scene with continuous unpitched and then pitched fluttertongues in four solo brass instruments, to evoke the sound of a car engine, first stationary and then in faster and faster motion. In terms of staging, this coordinates with the film, in that what is displayed on the screen is the view seen from the back seat of a car, first shaking very slightly as the car is parked in a layby with its engine idling, and then changing as the car moves off down the road. This is combined on-stage with the set, which in this case consists of a car bonnet behind which the protagonists will sit, with the backseat view behind them on the film. The bonnet itself is half-car, half-rock-like in substance, so that we can move expeditiously from a scene taking place on the rocky islet to this memory scene in the car, whilst also suggesting to the audience that the rock is actually an imaginary environment created by Pincher’s subconscious, and that we are dealing with scenes from his past life, which he is recalling during his purgatorial existence on the island.

Using this synthesis of music, film and staging to bring William Golding’s story to life has been an incredibly difficult challenge, but one which I am very glad to be undertaking, as it has expanded my creative world substantially.

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

To be yourself whilst learning from others.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

To build a life where I can continue to realise my musical and dramatic ideas, whilst also starting a family with my wonderful and brilliant wife Helen (whose ambitions equal mine in her own field of scholarship), balancing both of these enormous challenges in harmony.

Oliver Rudland is an English composer based in Cambridge, UK, known for his accessible style of modern composition. His operas have received particular attention and critical acclaim.

His latest opera, ‘Pincher Martin’, based on the novel by William Golding, was staged at the RCM Britten Theatre in July 2014: ‘This is an eloquent, succinct opera… In music and design…, Pincher Martin pinched and gripped. This opera deserves to live.’ (The Times: ★★★★)

‘Rudland appears to have achieved that rare and valuable object: a contemporary work that is both challenging yet accessible. Despite its disturbing subject matter, Pincher Martin is lyrical, inventive, and above all a thoroughly engaging work.’ (Bachtrack: ★★★★)

His first opera, ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, after the story by Oscar Wilde, was staged at the Carriageworks Theatre for four nights in 2008 by Leeds Youth Opera. ‘Exceptional talent…Oliver is going to be a big name in the future.’ (Yorkshire Evening Post)

In 2011, his children’s opera, ‘The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark’, based on the classic story by Jill Tomlinson, was staged at the Cambridge University Church, and received very positive reviews from critics and the local community alike: ‘This was children’s opera at its best; it was fun and accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds.’ (GSM News)

‘Benjamin Britten, his Noah, and bad-tempered God must almost regret that a couple of owls made their way into the ark to reproduce themselves towards so effective a rival opera.’ (Music and Vision)

His chamber works have been performed at the Cheltenham International Music Festival, the Southbank Centre, and the DiMenna Center (NYC), as well as at other venues worldwide. His trombone sonata, ‘The Conquests of Zeus’, commissioned by Matthew Gee, principal trombonist of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, has been performed widely across Europe.

Oliver is currently Composer-in-Residence with the London Choral Sinfonia. He is also working towards a new large-scale, two-act opera due for completion in 2020.

Further information: www.oliverrudland.com

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

I hadn’t considered composing as a career until relatively late in life: at university. When I was younger I was very inspired by the first organ teacher that I had, and I wanted to be like her and teach music to young people. By the time I arrived at university I was both interested in contemporary music and aware that, as an organist, I wasn’t involved in a lot of the activities that most music students are—orchestras and the like—so was looking for something that reflected my interests. I’d had a traumatic time doing my performance diploma and was convinced that performing would never be for me, but I also believed that composition was a matter of innate ability and not hard work (as many students do at 18). It was only when, encouraged by my lecturer, I entered—and won!—the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival Young Composers’ Competition that I began to imagine that there might be some sort of future in it for me.

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

The lecturer who invited me to enter the competition that I have mentioned, Dr Mic Spencer at the University of Leeds, was a significant influence on my musical development, in particular because he was willing to lend me so many CDs, books and scores when I expressed an interest in New Music. By doing so he allowed me to listen to and learn about music which would have otherwise been completely inaccessible including most of the (at the time) more recent developments in Europe which are so rarely, if ever, performed or even mentioned in the UK. This music in itself was a huge influence on me and opened my ears to so many more possibilities than I had previously considered.

The composer Chris Newman was also a big influence on my work; I greatly admire the music and the art that he makes, and in discussing both my work and his ideas with me he encouraged me to be uncompromising in my work and ideas.

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

The most challenging time for me was a couple of years ago when I was travelling all the time, teaching in a lot of different places, and struggling to find time to work on pieces. However, this also taught me a lot of skills which help me to work under pressure now. The image of the composer toiling away in a darkened room is very much not the reality! The most challenging project I worked on was probably the opera, green angel, that I wrote from 2010-2011 with librettist and theatre director Adam Strickson. The challenges here were working collaboratively, working in the theatre which was also new to me then, and producing such a long work (75 minutes in total). The opera also went through a very intensive rehearsal process: 6 days from the first rehearsal until the opening performance and this was a completely unfamiliar way of working for me as well. However, the musicians that we worked with were all excellent and extremely dedicated which made all the difference.

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

The most recent commission that I have worked on was from the Clothworkers Consort of Leeds. The commission was for a new choral piece that also celebrated the centenary of the discovery of crystallography by William Lawrence and William Henry Bragg. The challenge with such a commission is not just to respond to the brief which involves learning a whole lot of new things about something that you haven’t previously thought about—in this case, about Chemistry—but also to respond in such a way that there is a meaningful relationship between the impetus for the commission and the resultant music. This means that each time it is necessary to re-think one’s approach to composition as a discipline; it’s not sufficient just to draw upon techniques and ideas from the past. This is both difficult, sometimes incredibly so, but also extremely satisfying and rewarding.

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

There are different challenges when working with all sorts of musicians, and I’m really lucky because most of the time I’m now working with musicians who are either contemporary music specialists or people who are extremely enthusiastic about and dedicated to the pieces that they perform. I really enjoy working with pianist Ian Pace, who has performed two of my works, not least because as well as being an excellent pianist he is also extremely insightful about the music that he performs. A lot of my work involved open or graphic approaches to notation, and I’ve also really enjoyed working with specialist performers on this type of piece. It can be a challenge to present this type of notation to unfamiliar performers. Recently I’ve worked with the group Vocal Constructivists on the piece concerto and with trombonist Gail Brand on the piece ‘entoptic landscape’. When musicians like these are so skilled at working with the type of notational challenges I present to them there’s the opportunity for dialogue and rewarding exchange which also helps me to go further as a composer.

Which works are you most proud of?  

This is a difficult question to answer! Usually, the most recent music I’ve written represents best my current thinking about music and composition, so in this case it would be the piece a common method, written for the Clothworkers Consort of Leeds, which I’ve most recently finished. I’m also extremely proud of the piece ‘/’(h)weTH’ which is a collaborate and multi-media piece that I wrote in 2012 with US visual artist R. Armstrong. This collaboration really challenged me to extend and develop my ideas and this was perhaps a turning point for me in the way that I approach many aspects of my work.

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

I really enjoy when music is performed in unfamiliar places. I like the idea than any spaces can be re-purposed to become musical, and that the concert hall can become part of the staging of a work itself. In September 2013 Ian Pace performed my piano piece, i am but one small instrument, at the festival Firenze Suona Contemporanea (http://www.flamensemble.com/en/) which takes place in the Bargello Museum which is actually a mediaeval prison that has become an art museum. The concerts take place in the open-air atrium at the centre of the building. This is perhaps one of my favourite ever concert venues.

As an organist my favourite place to perform at the moment is St Laurence Church in Catford. This church was built in 1968 and has beautiful modern architecture and stained glass. It doesn’t house a very big organ but the instrument is quite powerful for its size and makes a great sound. This is the venue for the ‘Automatronic’ (http://automatronic.co.uk) concert series for organ and electronics that I organise with Huw Morgan and Michael Bonaventure .

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

This is another difficult question. All of the composers that I work with as an organist are important to me; some of the best experiences I have relating to music are when others share their ideas with me, and the kind of collaborations I have had with some of the composers whose music I perform are very important.

For many years as a student the music of Mathias Spahlinger was usually very close to the top of my CD pile. I also love to listen to the music of Sainkho Namtchylak, particularly the way her compositions and performances include so many influences and that she is so  confident in presenting her ideas.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Perhaps some of the most memorable experiences that I have had were of hearing live performances for the first time of large works by composers I had only heard on CD at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. A particular example that stands out is the world premiere of Concertini by Helmut Lachenmann. But I can think of many examples of fantastic live music experiences, perhaps most recently at the ‘free range’ experimental music series in Canterbury (http://free-range.co) last week. This weekly concert series is memorable every time I go to it, and although so much of contemporary music culture seems based around recordings these days I think that live music is still most important.

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

The most important thing for any musicians to do, students or otherwise, is to listen to—and try to come to understand—as much music as possible, and particularly unfamiliar music. This is an idea that I come back to in my own life very often: it’s not possible to spend too much time discovering new music. In addition, I always try to impress on the student composers that I work with the importance of learning technique. Techniques can always be re-worked and re-purposed and, no matter what type of music you want to compose, being able to manipulate sounds and ideas—and to take these from one setting and use them in another—will always help to realise your ideas. Finally, I try to encourage all students to consider compositional practice in a similar way to instrumental practice: do some every day, do warm-up exercises, do a lot that no-one will ever get to hear. Often we think that instrumental performance takes a lot of hard work but expect composers to be brilliant as a result of inspiration and nothing more. Nothing will take you further as a composer as much as hard work!

What are you working on at the moment? 

At the moment I’m preparing to take the programme of organ and electronics pieces on tour. The tour is co-produced by Sound and Music and is a great opportunity to perform the music that I’ve been learning as a performer. The next compositional project is more collaborative work with Adam Strickson (who I worked on the opera with). The piece is still very much in the developmental and ideas stage, but should be finished by the summer.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Most of my time is spent composing, performing, or teaching music, so I’m glad that I enjoy this. Outside of music-related work I love cooking, particularly for other people. I think that good food is an important part of having a fulfilling life as a musician.

Lauren Redhead is a composer, performer, and musicologist from the North of England. Her music has been performed by international artists such as Ian Pace, the Nieuw Ensemble, Trio Atem, Philip Thomas, BL!NDMAN ensemble and rarescale, and she has received commissions from Yorkshire Forward, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Making Music and the PRSF for Music, and Octopus Collective with the Arts Council of England. Her opera, green angel, was premiered in January 2011 with the support of the Arts Council of England. Her music has been performed at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Gaudeamus Muziekweek, the London Ear Festival, and many locations throughout the UK and Europe. In 2013, her work was be performed in the, Belgium, Italy, Austria, the London Ear Festival, the London Contemporary Music Festival and the Full of Noises Festival in Barrow. In 2014 she will be involved in the Sounds New Festival as a composer and performer. A CD of her chamber works entitled tactile figures was released on the engraved glass label in 2012, and further works will be released on CD in 2014.

As an organ performer she has premiered notable works of experimental music by Chris Newman, Nick Williams, John Lely, and Scott McLaughlin, amongst others. Lauren is actively involved in promoting and commissioning new works for organ and electronics and graphic and open notation works for the organ. In 2013 she made her debut organ performance in North America at Wesleyan University and appeared at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. She co-curates the ‘Automatronic’ concert series for organ and electronics with Huw Morgan and Michael Bonaventure. In 2014 she will tour her organ and electronics programme throughout the UK with the support of Sound and Music.

 

Pianist Ian Pace performs Lauren Redhead’s i am but one small instrument on 16th June at Deptford Town Hall, London SE14. Full details here

weblog.laurenredhead.eu

‘Thebans’ by Julian Anderson. World Premiere, 3rd May 2014, English National Opera at the Coliseum

Disputed parentage, familial in-fighting, incest, the wisdom of elders ignored, political machinations, and a crowd baying for action..….. Not an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, but Ancient Greece: Sophocles’ three Theban plays translated into opera by British composer Julian Anderson and Irish playwright Frank McGuinness. Those familiar with the story of Oedipus Rex know that it can only end badly for ill deeds must be atoned and the gods will have their retribution.

Three full-length plays by Sophocles are telescoped into three acts to create an opera lasting around 100 minutes. The narrative is not chronological, with the middle act moving us forward to ‘Future’ and the death of Antigone. The final act, set in a shattered landscape of bare, blasted trees, pierced by thunder and lightning, plays out the Death of Oedipus, who, blind and frail,  finds peace in death. This last play, ‘Colonus’, was written shortly before Sophocles’ death in 406 BC.

A chronological telling of the story may have made the action more comprehensible, but composer and librettist wanted to create a drama which comments on the main themes of the narrative – human frailty and desperate acts – rather than simply “telling it as it is”. Thus the final act, in which Oedipus appeals to the good nature of the curiously homo-erotic Theseus, a bare-chested golden young King, beautifully, eerily portrayed by counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie, has an air of meditation, resignation and completion. It is Oedipus’ daughter, Antigone, who has the final word. Heart-wrenchingly sung by Julia Sporsen, the action closes on her crying out in the wilderness, with no hope of consolation. It is a bleak end to a savage tale.

All is not well in Thebes as the curtain rises on a brutalist scene of Act 1, created by towers of gabions (wire crates filled with rocks) and shadowy lighting. The crowd lie around the stage, cowed by the terrible plague that has infected the city, imploring Oedipus to save Thebes. An air of foreboding pervades the whole scene, enhanced by the chorus’s hissing sibilants and low murmurations. Indeed, throughout the opera, Julian Anderson’s chorus writing is excellent: menacing and accusatory in Act 1, bossy and fascist in Act II, and haunting and disembodied (sung offstage) in the final act.

Susan Bickley as Jocasta, Roland Wood as Oedipus (Photo: Alastair Muir)

The sparse, largely monochrome setting suits Anderson’s music. Sparely scored, it is the haunting, airy winds and crackling percussion which offer most musical impact, together with Frank McGuinness’ earthily poetic libretto. Oedipus, sung with warmth by Roland Wood (apparently suffering from a throat infection, but with no discernible difficulty in his delivery), is flawed and doubting, beset by anger. Creon (Peter Hoare) is mercurial, self-serving, always the politician, his smooth tenor voice perfectly matching his protean personality. Susan Bickley, the one element of colour as Jocasta in turquoise draperies, is at first hectoring, refuting the claims of the strangely androgynous Tiresias, and later panic-stricken and despairing. Much of the solo writing seems closer to recitative rather than aria, and this lends a greater sense of the key players commenting on their, and others’, actions, motives and emotions. Overall, the opera has an air of meditation, encouraging the observer to cogitate on the themes and symbols presented within the drama, rather than actively embrace them. The quality of singing, production, lighting and direction combine to create an opera which is engaging and convincing, yet strangely distant. Worthy, and worth seeing.

 

“I like to compare my process of making art to the composing of music.”

Gerhard Richter

Composer Jim Aitchison draws inspiration from his personal interactions and relationships with some of the leading twentieth-century and contemporary artists in the UK and beyond, including John Hoyland, Richard Long, Antony Gormley, and Sir Terry Frost. In 2008/9 he was commissioned by Tate Modern, Henry Tillman and Jill Bradford and the PRSF Foundation for New Music to respond in music to the gallery’s Mark Rothko exhibition, the largest Rothko show for 30 years. His response was performed in the gallery amongst the paintings with horn player Michael Thompson, counter-tenor Nicholas Clapton and the Kreutzer Quartet.

Jim Aitchison’s latest project is his personal musical response to the paintings of German artist Gerhard Richter and traverses aspects of Richter’s work such as chance, sequence , distance and memory to create a unique concert experience. Aitchison’s Portraits for a Study explores real geographical distance, for the work will be performed on four pianos simultaneously at four different venues, using Yamaha’s Disklavier technology. The “live” performance, and the trigger for the other simultaneous performances, will take place at the University of Falmouth, where pianist Roderick Chadwick will play the “parent” instrument. The other three pianos – at the Royal Academy of Music, Goldsmiths College and Yamaha Music, London – will be played remotely via broadband data transfer, and the exact nuances of Chadwick’s performance will be created in real time. Pictures from the Tate’s 2012 Gerhard Richter show will be projected during the performance.

Richter’s practice of passing the same images through a variety of processes or filters is also explored in Aitchison’s work: he has recomposed the same music for string quartet. It will be performed by the Kreutzer Quartet at the RAM and transmitted to all the other venues by audio link.

This fascinating blending of music, art and technology takes place on 22nd February 2014. I asked Jim about his influences and inspirations, his particular compositional methods, and how he translates his responses to a particular art work or works into music.

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

From being relatively unaware as a child, the world of music crashed into my dim 11-year-old awareness in the form of Arthur Rubinstein’s coruscating RCA Appassionata recording, followed a little later by the televising of Vladimir Horowitz’s final London concert in 1982. I had never encountered eloquent intensity of this magnitude. In hindsight one might question aspects of the magnificent fading drama of Horowitz at this stage of his career, but the experience was electrifying and ushered in many years of preoccupation with 19th and early 20th-century pianism. I began composing at around this time with various futile attempts to emulate the major exponents of this, and it took a long time and significant effort to escape from thinking solely in terms of piano sonority, texture and timbre. In terms of becoming a ‘real’ composer (if I ever have done so) this emerged extremely slowly, and I consider myself very much as a late developer.

Who or what have been the most important influences (including non-musical influences) on your composing? 

Regarding sources of musical influence, these might appear conventional: largely Euro-centric art music, with a particular interest in the aura of the 19th century, but very much thinking of this in terms of how to engage with it now, and what such music might mean as experienced in the present with all of the complexities, problems and paradoxes therein, neither trying to create some kind of illusory, sanitised re-formulation of the past for the purposes of hiding from the present, or an amnesia-based rejection in order to repel the influence of the past.

This sense of ‘present’ in terms of a place to think about the past, and the here and now, manifested itself in around 2001, when I discovered a hitherto unrealised link in myself between the visual and the sounded, embodied specifically in using aspects of visual artworks to create music. Bringing my musical material into engagement with the gallery space and with some of the procedures and approaches used by contemporary artists has been a transformative experience for me as a composer.

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

To date, I think encountering the work of Gerhard Richter and attempting to respond to it in music has perhaps been the most challenging and rewarding for me.

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

It is almost impossible to answer this complex question, without the danger of propagating potentially meaningless and deceptive platitudes, as there are so many variables within any one person’s path and what is around them. I can only offer the rather lame suggestion that one should try to be as true as possible to one’s self, but perhaps make sure to ask, continuously throughout life, what those notions of ‘true’ and ‘self’ mean.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? You will have to wait and see!

What is your idea of perfect happiness? An ‘idea’ of happiness is something I try to be very wary of.

What do you enjoy doing most? (when not working) Walking in solitude, followed by good coffee.

What is your present state of mind? Restless

You say that your work is inspired by or in response to particular artwork/s and/or artists. Does a particular artwork/s prompt an immediate musical response in you, or is the process longer, more of a case of “living with” the art?  

Occasionally the response can be quite swift in onset (particularly the case here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vH8zK5W-l7A), but usually it is a long and painful process of building a kind of scaffolding from the visual to the sounded. I particularly value the process of attempting to apply procedures in music that an artist has used in their visual construction, and this can become very involved, almost like learning aspects of a language before being able to say anything useful in it.

What are your intentions when composing with a painting as the subject?  

  • to “explain” musically the painting?  
  • to “extend” the painting? 
  • to make your own personal interpretation, musically? 

I think I would be absolutely horrified if anyone thought that I was attempting either to ‘explain’ or illustrate or even worse, ‘extend’ an artwork. I don’t even like to think of it as a ‘personal interpretation,’ rather, I prefer the idea of a conversation between different art objects, where the original art work might give me a set of starting points from which to create my own piece of music that may take off in its own directions. If there are illuminating links between the art and the music, then so much the better, but I do not see the artwork as a ‘life-support’ machine for my music and I don’t see either as necessary to ‘explain’ the other.

The interpretation of colour introduced into a musical composition – is that present at all?  

I am not synaesthetic, so there is no direct physiological correlation within me that I can draw upon to link colour with some kind of sounding outcome. However, the expressive and structural effects of colour that I encounter do inevitably find their way into the mix somehow. Previously, I have contrived intuitively simple correlative schemes between colours and different harmonies, which I have found very useful.

Portraits for a Study is inspired by the work of Gerhard Richter whose work contains distinct working methods/elements. How have you referenced these aspects in the music, in both the composition and the ways in which the piece will be performed? 

  • CHANCE  
  • UNCERTAINTY  
  • BLURRING  
  • COLOUR CHARTS 
  • SCRAPING OFF 
  • ABSTRACTION 

Are there any particular musical techniques you have employed to achieve these aspects? 

Yes, all of those elements you mention I have used to greater or lesser degrees within the pieces. Of all of them, abstraction in the sense that Richter uses it is rather hard to define here: as I understand it, in many other artists’ approaches to abstraction, what may be considered as a drive to transcend reality coupled with a kind of essentialising process, is in Richter’s hands, more a process founded upon establishing its own reality through the accumulation and erosion of visual material: a surface, not a doorway. In the case of my responses in Portraits for a Study, I decided to largely steer clear of direct engagement with this huge part of his output, though I hope to concentrate on this in a future project.

Chance and uncertainty, limited and mediated through formal procedures, have played an enormous role throughout Portraits for a Study, in a variety of ways. From harvesting and re-assembling tiny fragments of music by Bach and Beethoven according to simple pre-established rules, to creating transcriptions of photo-improvisations, to applying rigid filters to large spans of material, to using strict methods of cutting and re-ordering material, where the outcome of this is uncertain. Uncertainty is also built into the performance configuration itself: there is no way of knowing exactly how much of the data transferred between the remote Disklaviers over the Internet will come through and how this will affect the sounding result, as this is significantly dependant upon many variables.

Blurring, scraping off or erasure, palimpsest, the blow up, mechanical reproduction and copying, multiples and sequences (such as seen in the colour charts), are all filtering strategies that I see as establishing distance, levelling out, relative anonymity, and an aspiration towards the non-subjective intervention of the artist (a goal that I think is perhaps debateable in terms of whether it is always entirely fulfilled). I have sought compositional applications of all of these things: mechanically copying a whole Rondo by Dussek and then in one case blurring it almost beyond recognition through simple musical means, and in another, taking a fragment from the same piece, blowing it up six-fold and then completely erasing it and filling its duration with something else. In another instance, solo string pieces by Bach are buried under layers of musical ‘over-painting,’ some carefully contrived, others more coarsely applied. Multiples and sequences are used throughout the pieces, in the re-patterning of assembled fragments or in more intricately ordered cutting and re-positioning of segments of improvisations. Once again, the performance configuration is intimately invested in this: multiples, sequences and distance are created quite literally with 4 linked Disklavier pianos spread over 300 miles, and then the same material performed and transmitted again, re-composed for string quartet.

Has your investigation of the work of Gerhard Richter, which has significantly demonstrated the value of painting in the 21st century, assisted you in your question “what is the ‘correct ‘ kind of music to write in the early 2lst century”? 

I would say that Richter’s art has enabled me to find some kind of permission to remain entirely uncertain about this, and reassurance that this is OK, even if it still feels uncomfortable, confusing and worrying.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, for example the Kreutzer Quartet and pianist Roderick Chadwick?  

I have been collaborating with the Kreutzer Quartet for nearly 10 years, and it has been an immense privilege to work with colleagues and friends who are true artists. The only real challenges are found in the great distance I live away from them, and to produce work worthy of their skills: I am indebted to their patience in dealing with my inadequacies. This is the first time that I have worked with Roderick and, once again, I am utterly spoiled by being able to collaborate with such an extraordinary musician.

Has working with other musicians’ influenced/changed/stimulated your creative processes?   

Absolutely, not only do I get almost instant feedback and data on critical aspects of the pieces written for them, but also wholly new insights on the music in rehearsal and performance that I hadn’t considered, and I also find early involvement with them often gives me indispensible approaches that I would not have thought of otherwise. This is what happens when you are able to work with musicians who have such breadth and depth in their wider artistic interests.

What are the particular challenges of working in a multimedia format, for example, with the Yamaha Disklavier?  

Firstly, I feel I ought to emphasize that the new music is actually written for solo piano (as well as in a different version for string quartet), not Disklavier, and as such, I hope that pianists may be interested in it in future. But yes, the idea is that the music will be performed on the Disklavier piano in this case, making use of the Disklavier’s ability to be connected to many other Disklaviers across a network. Thus, the sense of distance and automation apparently present in aspects of Richter’s art will be referred to via the configuration of one live pianist at Falmouth University triggering 3 remote Disklaviers 300 miles distant, to play exactly what he plays, and exactly how he performs (the potential for chance data aberrations in transfer notwithstanding), at the Royal Academy of Music, Goldsmiths and Yamaha Music London.

composer Jim Aitchison (photo: Richard Bram)

There are immense technical challenges in doing this and in reversing the polarity, when we will transmit the Kreutzer Quartet performing the re-composed version of the same music back from the Royal Academy of Music to all the other venues via audio-visual link. We have run a whole series of tests between the various institutions and will continue to do so up until the performance on 22nd of February 2014. The main challenges are logistic (co-ordinating a large group of people comprised of several different teams across 4 remote venues and from several other participating organisations, accessing and organising spaces and getting equipment transported and set up over a wide geographical area), and technical (dealing with the idiosyncrasies of a large communication system with many components devised and set up especially for this project).

One of the joys of working like this however is that of building fruitful collaborations, both existing and new. In addition to the wonderful musicians, Arts Council England, The PRS for Music Foundation, Yamaha, Falmouth University, the Royal Academy of Music and Goldsmiths, and with wonderful support from Tate, we have also been incredibly fortunate to find a new collaborator in the Europe-wide Vconect video conferencing research project that includes major partners such as EURESCOM – European Institute for Research and Strategic Studies in Telecommunications, British Telecommunications plc, Portugal Telecom, Alcatel-Lucent Bell, Goldsmiths University, University of London, Stichting Centrum voor Wiskunde en Informatica, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der angewandten Forschung, JOANNEUM RESEARCH Forschungsgesellschaft and Falmouth University (http://www.vconect-project.eu/h)

Attend one of the performances:

University of Falmouth

Royal Academy of Music, London

Goldsmith’s College, University of London

Jim Aitchison’s biography

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

It was the organ at Romsey Abbey. I was in the choir from the ages of about 8-10 and just had to get my hands on it! I could read music well and used to page turn for the organist. I begged him to let me play it, but he refused to let me until I’d got Grade 5 piano. By the time I did, I’d entirely lost interest in the organ and was already starting to get really interested in composing. But I bet there aren’t too many other 10-year-olds who know Bach’s complete organ works (from recordings)!

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

Composers: Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Stravinsky, Berio. Teachers: my main one (at the RNCM) Anthony Gilbert – I owe him so much in ways he never understands, however hard I try to explain to him; also Berio; and Paul Lansky and J. K. Randall at Princeton University. And then there are individual musicians I’ve admired and learned from at different times in my life and in different ways – Barenboim, Ashkenazy, Bernstein, Richard Barrett, Pat Metheney, Miles Davis… Right now I’m working with the folk singer Chris Wood, and finding him very inspirational. And playing in and writing for my band, notes inegales, and launching our Club recently with Peter Wiegold has been terrifically important to me. I’ve also found the landscapes, folk music and history of the United States musically stimulating ever since my teens.

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

I think ‘career’ is a daft concept, especially for a composer! I feel I’ve been lucky that people have wanted to play and listen to what I write (and sometimes pay for it too), and thankfully continue to do so. I suppose the greatest challenge is to keep what you do fresh and honest; and accepting that if you’re in it for the long haul, this means getting up every day and ploughing on, even when you don’t feel like it.

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

Quite often a commissioned piece will be for a combination, or in a genre, or for an occasion for which you have little or no enthusiasm and it can be a challenge to drum some up! But that’s a good challenge. A composer should be flexible that way and it’s part of the job to adapt and tailor ideas to the task before you. If you can’t, don’t accept the commission. On the other hand, a commission can sometimes be collaborative and involve working with others to develop ideas and new ways of creating. When that works successfully it’s a deeply pleasurable experience, not least because it means you’ll have learned something new.

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

It’s always a pleasure to write for or play with long-standing musical friends, simply because you know them well, can play to their strengths and can make music borne of a deep knowledge and understanding of their musicianship. I’ve been fortunate enough to have several such relationships, but I’d single out the Schubert Ensemble: I’ve written 4 or 5 pieces for them over the last 15 years and they’ve played a couple of these in excess of a hundred times! Each time I hear them play my music, it’s more ingrained and natural but also always fresh and illuminating. Playing with notes inegales on a regular basis is the same. We do a lot of free improvising, and it’s got to a stage now where we can predict what each other is going to do, individually and collectively – but not exactly: there’s always an unpredictable dimension, an element of risk that keeps our relationship exciting and fulfilling.

Which works are you most proud of?  

My two operas – Craig’s Progress and A Better Place because they involved the most, and the most varied kinds of work, including some wonderful collaborations! Also my orchestral piece, O Rio, and a handful of others that still ‘work’ for me after many years (in some cases). But, as always, everything is far from perfect and I own up to being yet another artist who’s never satisfied…

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

Not really. Our lovely basement bar at Club Inegales is a fine place to be for me right now!

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Lots, of course. But I’ll always remember sitting in on rehearsals, then a performance of The Rite of Spring by my old college symphony orchestra (RNCM) when I was a student there. It was totally galvanising and revelatory – I learnt more then about how an orchestra works than at any time since. Also, my first ‘Ring’ cycle. There are no words.

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

Diligence; preparation for boredom, frustration and being misunderstood; faith; generosity of spirit; healthy mistrust in authority; no cutting corners; and above all artistic honesty.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’m working with Chris Wood on a big piece that we’ll be performing at Club Inegales with the band. There’s also an oboe concerto waiting in the wings, plus a handful of smaller things. I’m one of those composers who can only work on one thing at a time, though…

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

More or less where I am now, doing the same stuff, only better. And with an even better understanding of cooking.


Martin Butler was born in 1960 and studied at the University of Manchester, the Royal Northern College of Music, and Princeton University, USA. From September 1998 to July 1999 Butler was Composer-in-Residence at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in the United States.  He is currently Professor of Music at the University of Sussex. 

Butler’s works are widely performed and broadcast both in the UK and abroad.  He has received commissions from, amongst others, the BBC (O Rio was first performed at the 1991 Proms), the London Sinfonietta (Concertino and Jazz Machines, of which the latter was played at the 1995 Venice Biennale), the Schubert Ensemble (American Rounds and Sequena Notturna) and the Brighton, Cheltenham, Canterbury, Norfolk & Norwich, and Presteigne festivals.  

 

In June 1994 Mecklenburgh Opera premiered the operatic adventure story Craig’s Progress, which was adapted for radio broadcast by BBC Radio 3.  His chamber opera A Better Place was premiered by ENO at the Coliseum in London in July 2001, and Two Rivers for choir and orchestra was premiered by the Oxford Bach Choir and The Britten Sinfonia in December 2001. Sentinels for string quartet and viola was premiered by the Brodsky Quartet and John Metcalfe at the 2006 Brighton Festival, and William Howard gave the premiere of Funérailles, a substantial work for piano, at the 2006 Norfolk and Norwich Festival. 

 

From 2006-8 Butler was the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra’s first ever ‘Composer in Focus’. The orchestra performed several large scale works during this period and his tenure culminated in two major performances of a new commission for the orchestra, From the Fairground of Dreams in January and March 2008 at Brighton Dome Concert Hall, conducted by Barry Wordsworth. Recent works have included a Saxophone Concerto, commissioned by the Presteigne Festival, and Rondes d’Automne, a nonet premiered at the 2011 Cheltenham Festival and shortlisted for a Royal Philharmonic Society award in 2012. 

 As a pianist, Martin has been active as soloist and with a number of ensembles, and is a founder member of the improvising new music collective, notes inegales. He is Associate Director of Club Inegales.