Guest article by William Howard

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Howard Skempton

Howard Skempton is one of the UK’s most engaging and distinctive composers. Now in his seventies, he has produced a large and varied body of more than 300 works. Amongst these are over 100 pieces for solo piano, which he describes as the ‘central nervous system’ of his work. It is a treasure trove for both amateur and professional pianists, in which most of the pieces are very approachable from a technical point of view (in contrast to a great deal of contemporary piano music) whilst being at the same time hugely rewarding to explore and perform.

Almost all of Skempton’s piano pieces have been written for friends and colleagues or for special occasions. They are predominantly short, tonal and sparingly composed, with very few notes to the page. Many of them look very simple and are, in fact, quite easy to sight read, but, in my experience the only time these pieces are ever easy is when you are sight-reading them. As soon as you start practising them the challenge begins. Their apparent simplicity is deceptive, a conclusion reached in an excellent programme on BBC radio 3 recently called The Simple Truth, in which Tom Service explored the subject of ‘Simplicity in Music’. Commenting on one of Howard Skempton’s short piano pieces, he said “Simple, isn’t it…well, you try composing it!”. I would add “try playing it!”.

One of my favourites is Solitary Highland Song, which he wrote in 2017 for a collection of love songs for solo piano that I commissioned. When the piece first arrived, I immediately read it through and found it deeply moving. In fact, I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. It consists of a simple and haunting eight bar tune, repeated six times, each time slightly differently. The dynamics start at pp, progress to mp and return to pp. Nothing complicated here. And yet I remember practising the piece for hours and hours before I gave its first performance, and I still practise it a lot before a performance. Why? The simplest answer that I can give is that it takes time to really hear the music. Skempton’s musical language is so distilled and pared down that every note, chord and musical gesture must be perfectly calibrated. Quite apart from the question of mastering total control of touch and voicing, the performer must seek out the essential character of each piece by learning to be open to what is interesting within the music, rather than trying to make the music sound interesting. There are no short cuts in this process. Skempton deliberately gives only minimal performance instructions, so that performers are invited to participate in the music and develop their own awareness of subtle changes and shifting patterns. The more I play Solitary Highland Song, the more I become aware of the genius behind every choice the composer has made: the subtle changes of register, for example, or the distribution of notes in chords and unexpected changes of harmony and rhythm. For me the piece is an enduring delight, and, I think for others too, since it has recently achieved the wonderful landmark of being heard over a million times on streaming platforms.

An example of an even sparser piece would be the third of the Reflections, a collection of eleven pieces that Skempton wrote for me between 1999 and 2002. It consists of four two note chords, a ninth or tenth apart, which are repeated in a different order eight times. The only performance instructions given by the composer are that the chords should all be played approximately two seconds apart, ppp and pedalled throughout. Where is the challenge here? Well, for a start, it is not easy to sustain molto pianissimo playing with a consistent sound, even for just over a minute. The more you play the piece, the more your listening becomes tuned in to the slightest blemish, or bumped note. And the more you listen, the more you start to become aware of the harmonic resonance shifts in different ways as the order of the chords change. By the time I came to record this piece, my ears were highly sensitised to the point where the tiniest imbalance in a chord would sound like a catastrophe. But it became very clear in the recording sessions that what brings a performance to life for the composer are the tiny unexpected or unplanned things that happen and the way a performer responds to them. In his characteristically gentle and encouraging manner, Howard Skempton decided that what we might have called ‘blemishes’ should be referred to as ‘involuntary refinements’! For him, the most important thing is to keep the music alive at every moment rather than aim for clinical perfection.

I recommend this repertoire strongly to fellow pianists at every level of ability. You will find pieces that are hauntingly beautiful, others that are quirky and playful; they are always imaginative, beautifully crafted and unpredictable. As well as giving a huge amount of pleasure they can teach us a great deal about our relationship to the keyboard and about how we listen to ourselves. Having totally immersed myself in Skempton’s music recently, I find that all the other repertoire I am coming back to sounds new and refreshed to my ears.

Scores are easy to obtain. Oxford University Press have published three volumes of Skempton’s piano pieces, which are reasonably priced. Most recently Howard Skempton has taken on the challenge of writing 24 Preludes and Fugues, an intriguing cycle of miniatures covering all 24 major and minor keys, written last year and lasting barely 23 minutes. These will be published by OUP in the coming months.


William Howard’s recording of Howard Skempton’s 24 Preludes and Fugues (2019), Nocturnes (1995), Reflections (1999-2002) and Images (1989) will be released on Orchid Classics (ORC100116) on 14th February. Pre-order here.:

Anyone who pre-orders the album can enter a prize draw to win one of five copies of Solitary Highland Song, signed by the composer. Please forward your order confirmation email to mail@williamhoward.co.uk before 14th February.

The album will be launched with a recital by William Howard at Kings Place on Wednesday 12th February at 7.30pm in which he will play works by Bach, Schubert and Howard Skempton. Tickets and further details here

Meet the Artist interview with William Howard

williamhoward.co.uk

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

I began singing in school and church choirs – while I’m not particularly religious, my first church choir director encouraged me to take private lessons in musicianship and voice from her (an organist) and her husband (a baritone). I was inspired by my sister (a cellist) to go to conservatory for my music degree and pursue the career, and parents were (and still are) 100% supportive of my artistic goals.

I was inspired to specialize in contemporary vocal music by two groups of people – (1) my college classmates in the composition department, who exposed me to new music and encouraged me to use my creativity in creating unique sounds, and (2) a whole lot of singers who are true entrepreneurs; something that blew things wide open for me was seeing singers use their voices in their own artistic ways and creating opportunities for themselves, as opposed to conforming to the traditional operatic career. My voice has never been traditional, so seeing artists who think creatively like I do was a game changer.

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

Again, composers are my greatest influence. Composers remind me to remain curious and to create sounds that are fresh and genuinely inspired. Collaborating with composers is one of the most fun things about my job, and performing/listening to new works has brought me nothing but exhilaration and rejuvenation.

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

One of my greatest challenges was regaining my confidence. I lost my confidence, and almost lost my voice, in college, and after college I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with my singing, let alone how to obtain joy from singing. I knew I loved contemporary music, but taking the step to curating my first show was hard. I had to create the smallest bud of confidence for myself, and I think I did that my just focusing on my love for the music I wanted to sing, and I had to abandon the need for validation from others. I achieved this, but it took a lot of self-reflection, some therapy, and a huge leap of faith.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Several, but one that comes to mind is a collaboration that was in the jazz / avant-garde scene. La Operación, a work for solo soprano, two saxophones, two double basses and two drumsets, was written this year by bassist Nick Dunston, and the work is an abstract interpretation of a historical phenomenon involving colorism in Puerto Rico, eugenics, medical malpractice, second-wave feminism, and American colonialism. The piece is a structured improvisation consisting of tone rows, construction sounds, and a massive pile of extended techniques. I loved singing and improvising in this work, and it opened up a new vault of sounds which I now use in my repertoire.

Within the “new classical scene”, a couple of performances that come to mind are the chamber music experiences I’ve been a part of, particularly with Wavefield Ensemble and Ekmeles Ensemble. The repertoire from each of these collaborations (including works by Kaija Saariaho, Bernhard Lang, Lewis Nielson, Victoria Cheah and Nathan Davis) was very challenging, but both groups were incredible to work with and we made some pretty incredible music. I grew immensely as an artist working with each group.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

One of my staple works is Georges Aperghis’ 14 Recitations for solo voice. I learned this work a couple of years ago, and the work is rarely performed in its entirety. I’ve performed the full work several times already, and each time I feel that I get better and better. The work fits me like a glove, and I just love singing it.

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

I have a bucket list of works that I want to learn and perform. But when I go through my season, I try to strike a balance between learning new works and rehashing old ones so that I don’t over extend myself.

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

Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn, NY. The music that comes out of this place is stellar. From the Resonant Bodies festival, to avant-garde improvisers, to interdisciplinary artists… This place is just filled with crazy amazing music-making.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Like, everyone. But here are a few: Claire Chase, Sarah Maria Sun, Barbara Hannigan, St. Vincent, and Janelle Monet.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I recently gave a TEDx Talk and Performance (called “Your Voice Is A Fingerprint”) about contemporary vocal music in Waltham, MA. That was pretty amazing.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Honestly, being happy with how music balances your life. It’s different for everyone, which is super important to be aware of, and finding that balance can lift a huge weight of your shoulders. Plus, it makes for better music-making because you’re making music for yourself above others.

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

See above. I’m a huge proponent of music being a personal journey and a self-chosen journey. Whether that choice is traditional, entrepreneurial, or even a hobby, choosing how music is a part of your life (and not dictated by society or mentors or whoever) is an important part of being an honest, creative and liberated artist.

What is your most treasured possession?

I have a keepsake box in which I collect notes and such from performances. I also keep negative notes that people have sent to me or taped on my apartment door when I practice. Everything, good and bad, intelligent and ridiculous, reminds me to lock into my confidence, remain curious, and to keep going.


Colombian-American soprano Stephanie Lamprea is an architect of new sounds and expressions as a performer, recitalist, curator and improviser, specializing in contemporary classical repertoire. Trained as an operatic coloratura, Stephanie uses her voice as a mechanism of avant-garde performance art, creating “maniacal shifts of vocal production and character… like an icepick through the skull” (composer Jason Eckardt). Her work has been described as “mercurial” by I Care If You Listen, and she “sings so expressively and slowly with ever louder and higher-pitched voice, that the inclined listener [has] shivers down their back and tension flows into the last row.” (Halberstadt.de) She received a 2019 Emerging Artist Award from the St. Botolph Club Foundation, and she was awarded 2nd prize in the international John Cage Awards, sponsored by the John Cage Orgel Stiftung in Halberstadt, Germany. Her curatorial work received a 2018 grant from the Puffin Foundation. Stephanie was a featured TEDx Speaker in TEDxWaltham: Going Places.

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Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I started my musical life as a chorister at Ripon Cathedral in Yorkshire. Exposure to the greats of choral music was the basis for becoming a composer and conductor, and was a great introduction to the technical as well as the aesthetic aspects of music.

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

In my teens I corresponded quite a bit with Benjamin Britten in the later years of his life, and he gave me a lot of ideas and encouragement to become a composer. Studying music at Christ Church, Oxford as an undergraduate was also an important step on the road.

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

The greatest challenges revolve around presenting pieces to audiences which require active listening on their part. People are everywhere bombarded with noise, and commercial music of all kinds, which requires no active participation from the listener. This puts them off the idea of listening to something and being challenged to think about what the music is trying to say to them.

Of which works are you most proud?

The Sonata for Organ, which was premiered and recorded by Clive Driskill-Smith; Suite – King Richard III for Solo Violin, premiered and recorded by Rupert Marshall-Luck; the works I have written for Christ Church, Oxford (especially King Henry VIII’s Apologia); the setting of the Jubilate Deo (in Zulu) which I wrote for the 750th Anniversary of the foundation of Merton College, Oxford; and a number of choral pieces for choirs in Germany, especially the Frankfurt Canticles and Responses, and the Berlin Canticles and Responses. I have also had a number of commissions from the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music. My Sonata for Piano is just about to be premiered in London, and this is a major piece.

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

Making sure that we are all agreed at the outset as to what exactly is being requested, and the reason why the person is commissioning the piece. However, it is a very rewarding experience to deliver a new work to someone who has commissioned it. People are very generous in their appreciation of new works like that. It is very exciting to be writing for a distinguished performer or ensemble, in particular to write a work which fits their style of performance, their character, and their ethos. The challenge is to write something which is appropriate to the performer, and is a work that they will want to play frequently and be identified with. Of course, they can be very demanding (!), but that is also good, because it means they have thought a lot about what they are looking for and why.

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

Mainly this is a great pleasure, because the reason they will want to play your music is because they choose to. This enables one to develop a longer-term relationship with performers who are looking to include this type of music in their repertoire. Then a very fruitful discussion about new pieces can ensue, and trying new things which enhance the appeal of the performer to the audience.

How would you characterise your compositional/musical language?

It varies from very simple tonal pieces (especially some of the pieces for church choirs), through to more complex works, like the larger Sonatas. Maybe it could be see as being a continuation of the English musical tradition, from VW, Howells, Finzi, Britten, Tippett, Leighton, Lutyens.

How do you work?

I do like things to be organised, because I really do not like missing deadlines! A lot of planning goes into each piece. They will have been forming in my mind for many months (sometimes even years) before the pencil even hits the paper. I tend to write things out long-hand, and then put them onto Sibelius. Then it’s off to the publishers.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

That people are interested enough to listen to the music, and that if they studied it in detail, they would appreciate the logic, structure, and meaning of the pieces I have written. Where listeners have done this, they tell me the music appeals to the ear, the heart, and the brain. It’s lovely when you get feedback like that.

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

To work hard, listen to the great music, and enjoy what you are doing. You have an individual voice as a composer or performer, and you need to find ways to express yourself. Others will guide you, but your voice is your own.

Richard Pantcheff’s Piano Sonata is premiered by Duncan Honeybourne on 6 November 2019 at the 1901 Arts Club, London. Introduction by Richard Pantcheff. More information


Richard Pantcheff is internationally renowned as a composer in many genres, and has established a prominent reputation as a composer of Choral, Organ, Chamber and instrumental music of the highest quality. His musical career commenced as Head Chorister at Ripon Cathedral, in England. During his five years as a Music Scholar at senior school, he corresponded regularly with Benjamin Britten, who acted as occasional mentor to him in composition. Thereafter, he graduated with Honours in Music at Christ Church, Oxford University, under Simon Preston and Francis Grier.

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You can see most of Richard’s music on his publisher’s website : www.musicaneo.com

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

As a child, I wanted to play the piano, but when my best friend started to play the recorder, I decided to join her. Best decision ever!

When I had to start playing the piano later in preparation for musical studies (in Germany, playing the piano is mandatory if you want to study music), I realised how limited the piano is and how much I was missing sound-wise.

I was regarded a great talent from early age on, so it felt natural to pursue a career as a freelance musician. Freedom and self-management are very important parts of my being a musician – I love to explore, create, experiment, and also to say “no!”, if needed.

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

Mostly non-musical people first, like my grandmother, who told me to listen to my heart rather than to other people; later fellow musicians, teachers, etc..

I was puzzled when I looked around and mostly found men in charge and visible everywhere in the music business. At that point, my focus on fostering the multi-disciplinary artistic work of woman developed, and I started looking for like-minded people, like, for example, composer and fellow activist Dr. Dorone Paris. Together, we founded the organisation ArtEquality, and are on our way to turn the world into a better place through #ArtAsActivism.

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

To end the belittlement regarding my instrument and the difficulties of being a woman in the music business. Since I am active in the acoustic as well as the electronic sector, there is always a bunch of guys supporting their fellow guys to deal with. It is such a pity that so much creative energy by women has to be wasted on fighting repression and harassment…

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

My solo recording “Windserie” with my own works from basically the last 20 years, and my solo recitals from the series “the sadly unknown”, also the inter-disciplinary work with artist Carola Czempik, …

Which particular works do you think you play best?

The “fun fact” about the recorder is everybody thinks they know the instrument, but when they start to compose for it, it turns out to be a quite interesting and difficult challenge.

The works I play best are the works written for me, by composers who do the necessary research on the instrument, interact with and involve me, etc., like Nicoleta Chatzopoulou, Marc Yeats, Jeanne Strieder, Catherine Robson, Mathias Spahlinger, to name a few beacons in the luckily steady growing group of risk-taking composers.

With Jeanne Strieder, I also perform in an industrial-doom-electronic project called Catenation (as well as in two death metal bands, Coma Cluster Void and Infinite Nomad).

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

I am in the very lucky position of having a pool of incredible and diverse works, and also being presented with stunning new works regularly. Since I also travel a lot, many aspects have to be taken into account while creating a new programme: Where is the concert, festival, concert series? How many instruments do I need? (bear in mind that I need a different instrument for every single piece of music on the programme – recorders are very sensitive, and can only be played a certain amount of time on a daily basis, due to air pressure and condensation). Is it possible to use electronics and / or visuals / projection? Is there any composer I know and / or who has written for me residing at the place, or a person I would like to collaborate with? Which part of the world is the concert going to happen, what’s the temperature / air pressure / humidity, plane or train or car, and so on. So my programmes are always exclusively built and adapted for every occasion, place, and audience.

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

No, not really – I like many places for different reasons, like acoustics or atmosphere.

Who are your favourite musicians?

The ones I work with on a regular basis: violin player Alexa Renger (for over 20 years now), the Reanimation Orchestra, oboe player Freddi Börnchen, tenor saxophone player Dr. Dorone Paris, and partner-in-crime Jeanne Strieder.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Performing in Mexico in a contrasting concert programme of Bach fugues and contemporary music. The (mostly young) people greeted the performance with such a heartfelt enthusiasm, like a rock concert – an incredible experience!

The audience in general seems to be very mixed in age; you have the whole range from newborns to seniors. Unlike in germany, people want to express their feelings and gratitude, and love to talk to artists about their experiences: in the concert hall, in the parking garage, at the rest room… Everybody is so open and highly interested, it is just lovely to be and perform there.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To be creative, to be content with my artistic output, to be able to bring my music and my artistic creations to the global public, to be able to interact with other arts and disciplines, to be fostering a network and work towards equality.

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

Find your own way, and take your time! Don’t simply repeat, create!

What is your most treasured possession?

My collection of recorders from sopranino to sub-doublebass in different woods, models, and tunings.

What is your present state of mind?

Forward-looking, but impatient regarding the uprise of the right-winged. nevertheless, without art, there is no hope nor solace.


 

Praised for her equally fierce and bold dramatic performance style, Sylvia Hinz is one of the leading recorder players worldwide, specialised in contemporary music and improvisation.

sylviahinz.com

573033393031_01Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

My answer to this seems to change every time I answer it. My granddad was a massive influence on me musically. I come from a working class family. My granddad played jazz, and was mostly self-taught, but phenomenally gifted. He had an unbelievable ear. He regretted not being able to make more of his own talent, due to poverty and being drafted for WWII. So he was very encouraging of me in the early years, and remained so through my life. We sort of did our best to work things out together, by reading and listening together. But at the age of eight, I was dragged to Texas by a deranged father who had a fantasy of being a cowboy in the Wild West. He was an unemployed alcoholic almost the whole five years we were there, living his fantasy at the expense of his wife and kids. Apart from what we got at school, I was mostly self-taught until the age of 16. I taught myself the piano until that age.

Whilst in Texas I discovered classical music and Beethoven in particular. We had this percussion teacher at School who did these arrangements of classical music for the percussion group. It was very inspiring what he was doing, getting kids into listening to classical music that way. We played the arrangements, which would inspire us to go and listen to the originals – which many of us did. He sort of fostered this group of dedicated students around him, such that we would spend all our free periods hanging out in the music block. I heard Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and then I heard Beethoven and it was like – BAM!!! I’d previously been listening to the Beastie Boys and Iron Maiden. But when I heard Beethoven, all of that seemed so boring in comparison. So from then on, I just hoovered up classical music by looking for LPs in junk shops (there was nothing like BBC Radio 3 in Texas!). This music seemed all the more powerful at the time as my life was otherwise was so absolutely awful: I was being abused at home, bullied at School, we were living on food stamps and I thought nothing would save me. Then I heard Beethoven, and that was it! It seemed to contain the whole universe in it, and to speak to humanity at both its finest and most desperate. I get annoyed when I hear idiots these days saying classical music is elitist, and is only for the rich. That’s rubbish. I was a poor kid, in the most desperate of situations. And not only was that music speaking to me, it as the only thing speaking to me. Not only did it speak to me, it saved me. It saved my life…no two ways about it. From that moment on I discovered and that music had enormous potential to transform people in a way nothing else could, and decided that I would become a composer. Looking back that seems ludicrous: I had no access to proper musical education, and I was in the middle of a cultural void. But that didn’t matter. I decided that’s what I was going to do, so I did it. Moreover, I realized that if I was going to do it, I’d have to do it basically all on my own. And I think that was a good lesson because, to be a real composer, that’s basically what you do have to do anyway. Education can help you, but in the end you have to have something to say and be determined to see it through. I remember consciously thinking, ‘Right, I don’t have the access to the tuition those other kids have. So to be anywhere near as good as them, I’ll have to work twice as hard. But I want this to be my life…so I’ll work four times as hard as they do.’ And I did: I practised the piano at least seven hours a day, even on school days, by getting up very early. On weekends I practised the whole day. That in itself was hard, because the piano was from a charity shop that we got for free. Most of the strings were broken, so I would learn the fingering at home, and then take the music to school to play it on pianos with strings at lunchtime and break time. It sounds weird, but I think that did me good as it helped me to develop both an ear and an imagination. It helped me to hold pieces in my head, and to imagine what they might sound like rather than to hear what they did sound like. I may not have developed the composer’s imagination without that. I don’t know.

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

As I say above, my granddad, and my high school percussion teacher in Texas. The next piece of good fortune was ending up at the University of Exeter, and meeting the composer Philip Grange, who became my main teacher. I got in to university on a fluke, largely thanks to him seeing something in me in interview. I totally screwed up my A-levels. We were back in the UK then, and I did my A-levels whilst living in B&B emergency accommodation as registered homeless. I took my compositions to Phil in an interview, and he just saw what I was trying to do, so I got a silly low offer…so I just scraped in! Phil went on to become a life-long mentor and friend. He saw something in me, and was very inspiring, giving hours of his time. He also introduced me to Peter Maxwell Davies, who in turn became an advocate. At the same time at Exeter, there was the pianist James Clapperton and the musicologist Ken Gloag (both postgrads there). They similarly took me under their wings, and provided this combination of raw talent (James) and fierce intellect (Ken) such that they were the sort of musical Yin and Yang that shaped my approach. I think it also helped that they were both working class communists, and felt a need to protect me from all the Exeter posh kids. But that’s not fair on my fellow students: there was an inspiring crowd of undergrads around me there too: People like John Fosbrook, and James Mustard and Ellie Lane. Ken sadly passed away earlier this year. I miss Ken.

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

I have mostly found music inspiring and wonderful, rather than challenging or frustrating. The challenges and frustrations come with the stuff, and people, around music. I find the politics around classical music especially frustrating and, well ignorant, at present. But music is bigger and better than all that nonsense. I don’t really think of composition as a career: it’s a life choice: a decision to be part of something transcendent. If you want a career, become a banker or sell insurance. If you set out as a composer and expect it to be a career, you will be frustrated at every turn. If you think of it instead as being a process of having music in your head, a vision of what music can be, and writing it down and sharing that with people, it will work out better. There is nothing I abide more than ‘the professional composer’ – the sort of composer that swans around posing, more in love with the idea of *being* a composer than with actually composing. There is also the composer that is more interested in being talked about than listened to…but don’t get me on to that! Just watch Tony Hancock’s The Rebel if you want to get an idea of what I am talking about.

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

I don’t really care whether a piece is commissioned or not. I write what is in my head, irrespective of that. When I was younger, I used to think the worst thing you could do was miss a deadline. So I found that challenging. For me pieces need to grow for a long time inside me to be what I want them to be. I can see the reasoning in that way of thinking (not missing a deadline): no one wants to let people down. But as I have gotten older I realize there is something far worse than letting people down: letting music down (which ultimately amounts to a far worse form of letting people down). Music deserves the very best we can give it, no matter what. And if you compromise a piece by rushing to meet a deadline, no one remembers that you met the deadline or not, or at least they don’t remember that for very long. They do remember if you wrote a good piece or a crap one. And they remember that for a very long time. I only agree deadlines very far in the future. I write slowly; and I don’t take on many commissions.

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

I like to work with people that I like – as people and as musicians. Finding a performer that you really really click with is a real joy, and once I find those people, I tend to want to work with them again and again, because in working with them I feel that I learn more about music itself and about life and humanity. I don’t understand this obsession with ‘the professional composers’ of being commissioned by every ensemble under the sun. What’s that about? Being a composer is not so different than being in a band. It can take years to find the right drummer, the right guitarist or whatever. Once you’ve found the right drummer, why would you keep changing for the sake of it? Robert Plant was interviewed in 1975 and was asked if he would ever consider leaving Led Zeppelin and go solo. His response was total incomprehension, ‘But if I did that, who else would I have for a drummer, or a guitarist or a bassist than these guys? No, that just wouldn’t feel right.’ Unfortunately Bonham died in 1980, and then Plant went solo because as far as he was concerned that was the end of Led Zeppelin. Okay, I am not in a rock band, so I don’t need to stick to just three collaborators! But if I work with someone, it is always with a view to forming a long-term relationship that allows us both to learn and grow. I’ve had some wonderful collaborators: the Quatuor Danel (for whom I’ve written three quartets), The Lawson Trio, Richard Casey, Ignacio Lara Romero, the BBC Philharmonic… Mostly, I see working with someone as just forming an intimate human relationship. And I have never been into one-night stands!

Of which works are you most proud?

‘Starlight Squid’ was written in 1998. It’s had dozens of performances. I could lament that I only have one hit. But I’m completely glass half full on that one. I just think, ‘at least I have one hit!’ I like that piece very much as it is so fun. I suppose my Third Quartet is the greatest artistic achievement: a single movement 50-minute work that is one single shape. That took a lot of technique to accomplish. I also like my little ‘Scordatura Squid’ violin pieces, and my piano work ‘Notturno dalle fiamme del’inferno’.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Meticulous in detail whilst dramatic in structure. Music can have it all. I aim to write music that is optimistic, positive, direct and life affirming. When I was a student in the 1990s, I went to Huddersfield year after year and just seemed to be hearing this endless stream of dark, lugubrious, grey and pessimistic pieces; whilst on the other hand there was this facile post-minimalist thing going on that seemed like a timely shot of Prozac amidst all the depressiveness. I set out to reject all that: I wanted to create music that was direct, sincere, full of energy, made clear statements, and was not afraid to say what it wants to say – what I want to say.

How do you work?

In my head…almost entirely in my head. I used to make loads of sketches. With experience, and as my ear has improved, I have learnt to do most of that sketching in my head now. It had to happen as I was getting confused by all the paper, and losing stuff and getting all mixed up. It takes more time this way (in my head), but I think only because I am more thorough as a result. The advantage is the music is with me all the time, and I can work on it all the time – which is handy in boring meetings. I write everything down at the end in pencil sketch, and then go from there to Finale. I never ever do creative work at a computer, and discourage any student from doing that.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Beethoven, Bach, Led Zeppelin, Ligeti and Bill Evans. There are hundreds of others, of course. But those are the ones I keep coming back to. My favourite songs are Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Dancing Queen – again, the optimism!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

That’s easy! James Clapperton playing the complete piano works of Xenakis in Exeter in 1992. It was such a powerful experience because it was so completely out-of-place and, well, just plain weird that it was happening there of all places. There we were, in the middle of nowhere, in a music department that was basically a cupboard, and James just played this concert of the most hard-edged music you’d ever heard in your life. I have *never* heard anything like it. Remember, at that time Xenakis was not the cannoized figure he is now. In those days, it was still completely shocking music. I didn’t know or understand what the hell I was hearing. I couldn’t decide whether it was rubbish or genius or what, but I loved the way it challenged me and made me think. And of course, James’s playing was at its absolute peak and the most exciting thing you could hear anywhere in the world.

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

Integrity is crucial. You must have core values and hold on to those no matter what. You also must be prepared to work extremely hard – good enough is not good enough – and realize that it is mostly down to you. You can have composition lessons. You can have excellent composition lessons. But in the end, all the work must be done by you. The world owes you nothing. No matter how talented you are, the world owes your talent nothing. That was the lesson I learnt from having nothing to start with. Having nothing to start with isn’t much of a hindrance really; as, if you want to be an artist, everything is down to you anyway. If you are a composer, you are not competing against the other composers in your class, your age or whatever. The competition is Bach. It’s Beethoven. It’s Stravinsky. That’s the standard, and music demands that you offer the best you can. I say ‘competition’, but ‘competition’ is the wrong word. It’s not competition. It’s more like these guys are your colleagues, and you owe it to them, and all the hard work they have put in to getting music to where it was when you came to it, to try to give it the best you can in return.However good a teacher you have, chances are you won’t find the equivalent of a Bach to teach you. And even if you did, he’s not going to download his genius into your brain. Someone can give you a kick start, but then you have to do everything else…which is most of it.

What is your most treasured possession?

I guess my piano. I dreamt of having a grand piano as a kid, but couldn’t afford one. Being able to buy my Bluthner was a life-long dream come true.

 

Camden Reeves is a composer of contemporary classical music based in Manchester, England. Meticulous in detail whilst dramatic in structure, Reeves’ output encompasses many genres, ranging from large orchestral scores to chamber, vocal and solo instrumental works. In recent years he has been particularly associated with the piano through a series of solo works (pub. Edition Peters) and the colossal Piano Concerto of 2009.

Reeves is Lecturer in Composition at the University of Manchester, where he has taught since 2002.

www.camdenreeves.com

 

 

 

As Borough New Music‘s new season begins on 3 October 2017, Artistic Director Clare Simmonds surveys the exciting new piano music on offer from October 2017 to June 2018.

Borough New Music sets out to share music by living composers and the music of today. In each of the eight Series of concerts this season, we feature a different instrument. For Series 2 – which is five free concerts every Tuesday in October 2017 at 1pm at St George the Martyr SE1 1JA – it’s the piano.

In fact, the piano became the featured instrument for this second Series simply because of the preponderance of piano premieres that month. These include a fascinating new piano sonata by Ben Gaunt, based around the architectural principles of light, written for the wonderful pianist Christopher Guild (24 October 2017); eight miniature ‘cryptograms’ by Patrick Nunn, each inspired by composers who have in some way influenced his output; and two works written specially for the virtuoso José Menor: a mighty five-movement cycle by Sam Hayden and a sparkling Toccata by fellow Catalan Tomas Peire Serrate (all on 3 October 2017). Plus there is a selection of new works written specifically for the pianists who will perform them, by composers Michael Worboys , Harry Palmer, Rotem Sherman and Toby Ingram – all outcomes of the 2017 Trinity Laban John Halford Piano and Composition Competition, a little-known public event held every April, which deserves high praise for its innovation.

But that’s just Series 2 – the tip of the iceberg. One of the most fascinating things about the piano is that every player makes it sound different. Over the 2017-18 season, we have the opportunity to hear the voices of 14 very different pianists. That includes established contemporary pianists such as Philip Mead (1 May 2018), who gave the UK premiere of George Crumb’s ‘Makrokosmos’ at the Southbank in 1977, and the first London performance of Henry Cowell’s piano concerto in 2013.

 

 

Plus, there is the master improviser Douglas Finch (17 April 2018), toy piano specialist Kate Ryder (20 March 2018), as well as Matthew Schellhorn  (30 January 2018), Aleksander Szram (26 June 2018), Christopher Guild (24 October 2017) and José Menor  (3 October 2017); and young artists such as Joe Howson, Ieva Dubova, Mahsa Salali, Rotem Sherman and Neus Peris Ferrer (31 October 2017). The pianist Ben Smith  deserves special mention not only for his repertoire for piano and electronics (14 November 2017), but also for appearances in six different concerts (November 2017 and February 2018)! Here he is performing Helmut Lachenmann’s ‘Serynade’:

 

 

It is always interesting to hear what a composer chooses to give a pianist to play – and what pianists write or improvise for themselves to play. With compelling musical material in hand, what else is important to them: the listener’s impression, the player’s strengths, or the instrument’s potential? When pianists compose, do they opt for an easy life, and write what they find straightforward, or do they demand the (almost) impossible, to show their superhuman virtuosity? (Sometimes I think that’s the equivalent of those gourmets who go for the hottest vindaloo on offer!) It is not hard to be mesmerised by the multifaceted capabilities of the piano, and the programme this season certainly explores that. From a world premiere by Joseph Horovitz (even though he is over 90!) on 30 January 2018, to Edward Henderson’s refreshingly alternative look at piano performance (10 April 2018), the bluesy, frantic etudes of Nancarrow (21 November 2017) to the works of Janet Graham, Haris Kittos, Daryl Runswick and Simon Katan, there is a compelling range of piano works to discover.

douglas_finch_800x300
Douglas Finch

Borough New Music concerts take place every Tuesday at 1pm from 3 October 2017 to 26 June 2018 at St George the Martyr Church, Borough High Street, London SE1 1JA (just a short walk from London Bridge and Borough tube stations). Admission is free to all events, and light refreshments are served afterwards.

For a full programme, visit www.boroughnewmusic.co.uk.

Here is a selection of concerts in the 2017-18 season involving the piano (note the impressive number of premieres):

Series 2

Tuesday 3 October 2017, 1pm ‘Resonate’

José Menor (piano)

· Patrick Nunn (b. 1969) – Cryptograms I-VIII (2011-15) (PERFORMANCE PREMIERE)

· Sam Hayden (b. 1968) – Becomings (Complete) (2017) (WORLD PREMIERE)

· György Ligeti (1923-2006) – Piano Etude Book 2 No 9 Vertige (1994)

· Tomas Peire Serrate (b. 1979) – Toccata (2017) (WORLD PREMIERE)

Tuesday 24 October 2017, 1pm ‘Reverberate’

Christopher Guild (piano)

· Ben Gaunt (b. 1984) – Piano Sonata No. 1 (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Poul Ruders (b. 1949) – Piano Sonata No. 2 (1982)

Tuesday 31 October 2017, 1pm ‘Reward’

Trinity Laban John Halford Piano and Composition Competition Prizewinning Recital

Pianists: Joe Howson (winner), Ieva Dubova, Mahsa Salali (commended), Marisa Munoz Lopez (commended), Neus Peris Ferrer. Composers: Harry Palmer, Michael Worboys (winner), Rotem Sherman (commended), Toby Ingram

· Harry Palmer (b. 1994) – Birthday Song for Erwin (2017)

· Kaikhosru Sorabji (1892-1988) – Transcendental Etude 20 ‘con fantasia’ (1944)

· Thomas Ades (b. 1971) – Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face (2009) (Movts I & IV)

· Michael Worboys – Bone Memories (2017)

· Toby Ingram (b. 1998)- Into the Unknown (2017)

· Rotem Sherman – Home (2017)

· Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) – Präludien zu Tristan (2003)

· Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938) – Piano Piece IV (1977)

Series 3

Tuesday 7 November 2017, 1pm ‘Last Words’

Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano), Antonia Berg (flute), Ben Smith (piano), Yoanna Prodanova (cello)

Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947) – Due melodie per soprano e pianoforte (1978)

· Ben Smith (b. 1991) – New Work (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Kate Soper (b. 1981) – Only the words themselves mean what they say (2010-11) (UK PREMIERE)

· Salvatore Sciarrino – Ultime rose (from Vanitas) (1981)

Tuesday 14 November 2017, 1pm ‘Babbitt-Haas-Emmerson’

Ben Smith (piano), Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano)

· Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) – Philomel (1964)

· Georg Friedrich Haas (b. 1953) – Ein Schattenspiel (2004)

· Simon Emmerson (b. 1950) – Time Past IV (1985)

Tuesday 21 November 2017, 1pm ‘Sensations’

PERFORMER: Ben Smith (piano)

· Robert Reid Allan (b. 1991) – The Palace of Light (2016) (LONDON PREMIERE)

· Colon Nancarrow (1912-1997) – Three Canons for Ursula (1988)

· Julian Anderson (b. 1967) – Sensation (2015-16)

Tuesday 28 November 2017, 1pm ‘Haikus’

FEATURED COMPOSER: Eva-Maria Houben

Antonia Berg (flute), Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano), Ben Smith (piano), Yoanna Prodanova (cello)

· Eva-Maria Houben (b. 1955) – Haikus for four (I, V, VIII, IX) (2003-04) (UK PREMIERE)

Series 4

Tuesday 16 January 2018, 1pm ‘Islands’

Carla Rees (flutes), Ian Mitchell (clarinets), Clare Simmonds (piano)

· Robert Percy (b. 1961) – Touching the Void (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Dan Kessner (b. 1946) – Genera

· Robert Percy (b. 1961) – New work (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Tom Ingoldsby (b. 1957) – The Cathedral (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Robert Percy (b. 1961) – Beacons (version for piano, flute and clarinet)

Tuesday 30 January 2018, 1pm ‘Muscle Memory’

Matthew Schellhorn (piano)

· Roger Briggs (b. 1952) – Jitterbug

· Robert Percy (b. 1961) – Chopsticks

· Edwin Roxburgh (b. 1937) – Prelude and Toccata

· Colin Riley (b. 1963) – Joplin Jigsaws

· Joseph Horovitz (b. 1926) – Pierrot’s Hornpipe (WORLD PREMIERE)

Series 5

Tuesday 6 February 2018, 1pm

Ben Smith (piano), Kirsty Clark (viola), Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano)

· Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935) – Got Lost (2008)

· Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) – The Door of the Sun (1975)

· Martin Lodge (b. 1954) – Pacific Rock (1999)

Tuesday 20 February 2018, 1pm ‘Songwriters of 2018’

Robert Reid Allan (glockenspiel/melodica), Ben Smith (piano, glockenspiel/melodica), Siân Dicker (soprano), Mimi Doulton (soprano), Delphine Mégret (soprano), Krystal Tunnicliffe (piano)

· Jake Dorfman (b. 1993) – Short Songs on Liberty (2016)

· Clare Elton (b. 1993) – Escape (2017)

· James Garner (b. 1992) – Emily Dickinson Settings (2015)

· Jules Pegram (b. 1991) – Valentines (2015)

· Mo Zhao (b. 1993) – Just Watching (2017)

· Rasmus Zwicki (b. 1979) – Fly Little Birdy (2017)

Tuesday 27 February 2018, 1pm ‘Two Sopranos, a Cello & a Piano’

Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano), Mimi Doulton (soprano), Urška Horvat (cello), Clare Simmonds (piano)

· Harrison Birtwistle (b 1934) – Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker (1998-2000)

· André Previn (b 1929) – Four Songs for Soprano, Cello and Piano (1994)

· John Tavener (1944-2013) – Akhmatova Songs (selection) (1993)

Series 6

Tuesday 13 March 2018, 1pm

The Durufle Trio: Henrietta Hill (viola), Rosie Bowker (flute), Clare Simmonds (piano), Janet Oates (soprano)

· Rob Keeley (b. 1960) – Trio in One Movement (2017)

· Tom Armstrong – From Consort Music (2016): Monody & Concertino (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Janet Oates – Singings and Sayings (2017) (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Colin Riley (b. 1963) – New Work (2018) (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Rhiannon Randle (b. 1993) – New Work (2018)

Tuesday 20 March 2018, 1pm ‘Ear ring’

In collaboration with World Toy Piano Week

Kate Ryder, piano/toy piano

· John Cage – Suite for Toy Piano (1948)

· Stace Constantinou (b. 1971) – Cactus Prelude 6 for Toy Piano and Fixed Media(2014)

· Christian Banasik (b. 1963) – TRIMER for Toy Piano and Fixed Media (2001)

· Julia Wolfe (b. 1958) – Earring (2000); East Broadway for Toy Piano and Boombox (1996)

· Brian Inglis – New work for Toy Piano (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Yumi Hara – Farouche (2008)

· Katharine Norman (b. 1960) – Fuga Interna (begin) (2011)

· Meredith Monk (b. 1942) – Rail Road (travel song) for Solo Piano (1981); St Petersburg Waltz(1994)

· Stephen Montague (b.1943) – Mirabella – A Tarantella for Toy Piano (1995)

Tuesday 27 March 2018, 1pm

Loré Lixenberg (voice), Chris Brannick (marimba), Clare Simmonds (piano)

· Gregory Rose – Birdsongs for Loré, Volume 1 (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Gregory Rose – Quelques gouttes d’eau sur une surface (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Gregory Rose – Aphrodite and Adonis (UK PREMIERE)

· Gregory Rose – Music for a Kytherian Amphitheatre (WORLD PREMIERE)

Series 7

Tuesday 3 April 2018, 1pm

Elisabeth Swedlund (soprano), Jean-Max Lattemann (counter-tenor), Clare Simmonds (piano)

George Crumb (b. 1929) – Apparition: Elegiac Songs for Soprano and Amplified Piano

· HK Gruber (b. 1943) – Three Single Songs

· Ross Edwards (b. 1943) – The Hermit of Green Light

· Julian Grant (b. 1960) – The Owl and the Pussycat

Tuesday 10 April 2018, 1pm

Clare Simmonds, piano

· Edward Henderson – Black Box Flight Recorder (2012)

· Edward Henderson – Hold (2017)

· Edward Henderson – Tape Piece (2014)

Tuesday 17 April 2018, 1pm ‘Sound Clouds’

Douglas Finch (piano), Martin Speake (saxophone)

· Improvisations

Series 8

Tuesday 1 May 2018, 1pm

Philip Mead, Piano

· Tim Raymond (b. 1953) – Orbit of Venus (2014)

· Richard Blackford (b. 1954) – Sonata (2016) (LONDON PREMIERE)

· Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012) – Purgatory from 4 Images After Yeats (1969)

· Edward Cowie (b. 1943) – Preludes 1 and 2 from 24 Preludes (2004-2005)

· Lisa Reim – Pebbles (2004)

Tuesday 22 May 2018, 1pm ‘Cello, Electric Guitar & Piano’

Audrey Riley (cello), James Woodrow (electric guitar), Clare Simmonds (piano)

· Tom Armstrong – Diversions 3

· Stuart Beatch (b. 1991) – Three movements

· Joel Järventausta (b. 1995) – Elegy for Solo Piano (WORLD PREMIERE)

· David Ryan – New work (WORLD PREMIERE)

Tuesday 29 May 2018, 1pm

Joseph Spooner (cello) and Rebeca Omordia (piano)

· Matthew Taylor (b. 1964) – Sonata No. 1 (op. 29)

· Sally Beamish (b. 1956) – Gala Water (1994)

· Sally Beamish – The Wise Maid (1998)

· Matthew Taylor – Fantasy Pieces (op. 30)

Series 9

Tuesday 19 June 2018, 1pm

Janet Oates (soprano, flute), Clare Simmonds (piano), Jill House (mezzo soprano),

Nancy Johnston (cor anglais) Olivia Moss (soprano)

· Janet Oates – Atomic songs and fancies

· Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012)- Ah Sunflower (2008)

· Janet Oates – Blind Fool Love

· Tansy Davies (b. 1973) – Destroying Beauty (2008)

· Janet Oates – Arse-elbow (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Joel Järventausta (b. 1995) – New work (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Janet Oates – A Lover (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Frederick Viner (b. 1994) – New work (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Dai Fujikura (b. 1977) – Away we play

Tuesday 26 June 2018, 1pm

Aleksander Szram (piano)

· Hollie Harding – Suite P

· Janet Graham (b. 1948) – Sonata for Piano (2016) (WORLD PREMIERE)

· Daryl Runswick (b. 1946) – Scafra Preludes Book 2

· Haris Kittos – Athrós (2001)


 

Clare Simmonds performs regularly as a soloist and ensemble pianist, and enjoys presenting unconventional programmes. From 2016-17 she was a staff accompanist at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for Jane Manning’s contemporary song classes, as well as performing in several chamber groups. She also provides online marketing services to promote contemporary music and is a publicity consultant for Prima Facie Records.