Stephen Hough, composer and pianist with The Prince Consort at Wigmore Hall, Friday 28th October 2016

An evening of music for piano and voice by pianist and polymath Stephen Hough, performed by The Prince Consort, with Hough himself playing in the second half, promised to be something intriguing and special, especially as the programme included the world premiere of Hough’s song cycle Dappled Things, dedicated to John Gilhooly, director of Wigmore Hall.

In setting poetry to music, Hough is working within a fine English song tradition that includes composers such as Purcell, Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Butterworth and Britten, and indeed there were fleeting musical glimpses of these composers within Hough’s works

Read my full review here

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(picture: The Economist)

Benjamin Ellin, the award-winning and critically acclaimed British conductor and composer, has been commissioned to create a classical composition focusing on the concept of peace and this year’s centenary of the Battle of the Somme.  The resulting Oratorio One Before Zero is one movement for orchestra, solo baritone, solo mezzo soprano and boys’ choir.

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(picture source: 1914.org)

This large-scale musical narrative work is inspired by the moment before battle, before zero, zero hour, the time at which hostilities commence.  Benjamin Ellin explains: “It’s the time when all that is known can be turned upside down and where a world of emotions dominates the mind and soul of any soldier”.

The work is in English, French and German and aims to illustrate musically and linguistically how the race to war, the loss of life and the destruction of humanity affected all sides in this devastating war.

Benjamin explains the inspiration behind the new work: “The Imperial War Museum provided a great deal of the research materials that helped inform my understanding of the period and I used the archives of Royds Hall School in Huddersfield which was a military hospital during WW1.  I enlisted the talented writer Ben Maier to help me ensure the work flows as a  continuous and complete line. The work has a personal connection too. My great relative, Private Samuel Vincent Boot (No. 19463) was killed in WW1.  I used his army number to develop a lot of musical material and develop the narrative.”

The performance will take place on 11th November 2016 at the renowned Maison de la Culture in Amiens in Northern France which is located just behind where the front line was established in WW1.  A second performance is scheduled on 12th November 2016 in Beauvais, Maladrerie Saint-Lazare.

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In this Meet the Artist interview, Benjamin discusses his musical influences, the challenges of his career as a composer, and the creation of ‘One Before Zero’.

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

I heard a performance of the Nutcracker at the Royal Ballet as a young boy – my mother took each of us (myself and my two older sisters) to see a ballet when we were young by way of a musical intro – and I was hooked. I persuaded her to buy me the tape recording in the shop and listened to it constantly. Whenever I hear a great piece of music, in whatever genre, I just want to write music or do something creative.

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

There isn’t one single thing. My initial musical impulse often comes from the environment I am in or the world events of our time. I also love the sounds that are around us generally and how they often turn in to little musical ideas all by themselves. For instance, one of the tracks from the TAFAHUM album ‘Osmosis’ is inspired by the sound of the Victoria Line tube at Highbury and Islington; the piece is called Three Fishes Laughing.

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

Being pigeonholed really – or people trying to. For me, music is genuinely indivisible and once you try to put people in to boxes you are missing the point. Sadly it seems, at times, this obsession is a by-product of lazy elements of the ‘business’, but I have always believed that the most inspiring characters around do more than one thing and I genuinely just happen to love and feed off different musical arenas.

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

The shape of a piece is very important. Once the overall structure is set in your mind, even if it changes slightly in the process of being realised, you can really start to write it out. For ‘One Before Zero’ that really was the main issue; deciding on the form and arch because after that a lot of decisions have been made for you. The challenge is knowing what to not use or not do and structure helps that process of illumination a lot. Pleasures? I love harmony and the juxtaposition of chords and the resonances they have; that and treating the audience to the theatrical elements of music so they are – hopefully – truly gripped and engaged.

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

If you have a relationship with a performer or a group then you can try and build the musical material around them in subtle ways; this is a joy. A challenge is to always respect the skill and talent of the musicians. They have to play your music and you hope that they actually want to. I don’t believe music is all about the composer in an egotistical way but always about the collective.

Of which works are you most proud? 

I am proud of my Violin Concerto which was premiered last year with the Philharmonia Orchestra, my Trombone Concerto for Joseph Alessi, my tracks on the TAFAHUM album ‘Osmosis’ and the works I have written in conjunction with Violist Rivka Golani and the people of the Siksika nation in Canada – amongst others…

How would you characterise your compositional language?

That is a difficult question – in fact, all these questions are! In short a mix of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Britten, Vaughan Williams and the jazz world of Miles Davis and Count Basie amongst others. Jazz and blues were major influences growing up in that they were the main style of music that I heard and I still love them. In general, as a composer, I don’t seek to reinvent the wheel but I’ll always express myself as honestly and boldly as I can.

How do you work? 

It largely depends on the piece or the commission. Sometimes a solid idea for a gesture within a piece starts the process and other times I have to work relatively slowly. Waiting for inspiration is all well and good, but sometimes it doesn’t always flow and you have to then rely on your technique – however good it is – when a deadline is there! I also like to sow ideas in my mind and let my subconscious chew them over for a bit; they nearly always find a way of becoming a key part of the process.

Please tell us more about your new work ‘One Before Zero’, to be premiered on Remembrance Day. 

In short it is a large oratorio for orchestra, solo baritone, solo mezzo and SATB male choir to commemorate the Battle of the Somme.

Not so short, well, subconscious played a major part here too. I first worked in Amiens several seasons ago when I wrote two smaller pieces for a new festival there. As soon as I went on a research trip I was hooked on the area, the cathedral and the history of World War 1. I knew I wanted to write something about it and that was a good start for mental gestation! Then I had the chance to work with the orchestra in Picardie as both a composer (I wrote a new work for them) and also as a conductor in several performances. Therefore I got to know the players a little and I also got to work with their Music Director Arie. By the time the commission came I had soaked a lot up about the people, the area and so I could start from a decent place. The desired use of an all male SATB choir provided another set of options for the work as it was clear to me that the choir should be the soldiers and the baritone soloist is one of them whilst the mezzo represents the home front, picking up the pieces and trying to make sense of everything that was going on through the mirage of propaganda and misinformation through media…how things change!

Then, after lots of reading and textual research I decided on the structure of the piece. The soldier (baritone solo), drained, exhausted and battle-hardened from war stands at the front of the stage. Gazing out at the audience he begins to question who are the people across the stretch of no man’s land in front of him who he will shortly be ordered to attack, to kill, or indeed be killed by. Who are they? Are they anything like him? How did he get to this point where a mere order from a higher rank can result in him, a hitherto ordinary man, attacking with such aggression and ferociousness.

This awakening marks the start of the work. The title itself (ONE BEFORE ZERO)  underlines the importance of this moment before battle, before zero, zero hour  – the time at which hostilities commence – when all that is known can be turned upside down and where a world of emotions can surely fly through the mind and soul of any soldier.

The text is also a mixture of source letters, propaganda and diary entries from the time and also a number of commissioned texts by Ben Maier – a writer who I work with regularly. The new texts help knit everything together and I wanted to move away from using war poetry as it had already been done several times. The piece is in three languages, English, French and German as the aim of the piece is to underline the human cost on all sides of this conflict.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Again, there have been many for all sorts of reasons. I think my first concert as a conductor at the Philharmonic in St Petersburg was very special. I studied in St Petersburg and saw a concert there during my studies with the St Petersburg Philharmonic. Amazing. Then, years later when I used to do stage managing I stage managed a concert with the EUYO and Ashkenazy there. A few years after that I made my debut as  conductor and with one of my own pieces, WHITE CRUCIFIXION, so it was a powerful feeling of full cycle!

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

Be really honest with yourself about what you are trying to do, what you love and what you are doing. Lots of people will try and knock you down, directly or just through ignorance. If you genuinely love what you do, no matter what, then just keep going – however hard it gets. Take what you do seriously, but never take yourself seriously so that it becomes destructive – ego is the ugliest trait in people and especially in music.

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

Music Director of a Professional Orchestra, writing a small handful of film scores a year, touring and collaborating with Tafahum, guest conducting with a handful of organisations and carving out commissions that I am interested in.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?  

Now, as a father, a good afternoon picnic with my wife and children followed by prating around with them, and possibly some creative work in the garden with my daughter helping.

What is your most treasured possession?  

I would say my family, but they are not a possession, so, therefore, I don’t have one.

What do you enjoy doing most?  

Lots of things and as much as I can. I learn about other things from doing something seemingly different so I love variety in work and in life.

What is your present state of mind? 

A mixture of love, contentment, frustration at the world and hope in the many beautiful things that still manage to exist.

‘One Before Zero’, a new oratorio in one movement commissioned by l’Orchestre de Picardie for the Network ONE® – an Orchestra Network for Europe – to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme will be premiered in France on Remembrance Day, 11th November 2016. Further information and tickets

Award-winning and critically acclaimed British conductor and composer Benjamin Ellin is currently Music Director of Thursford Productions, Founder of the Contemporary Fusion ensemble Tafahum, Principal Conductor of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra, Music Director of Focus Opera and President of Pembroke Academy of Music, London.

His belief in the positive power of music within society is reflected in the wide-ranging projects of which he is currently a major figurehead. From his own ensemble Tafahum, major projects and collaborations at London’s Southbank Centre, his own commissioned works with the First Nation communities of Alberta, Canada to his commitment to outreach and development work as well as appearing on stage with leading ensembles across the globe, Ellin’s belief in a musical world without boundaries is equalled by a tireless commitment as a guest artist and as a Music Director.

www.benjaminellin.com

58386342367a289b279c863089709a30Listenpony is a concert series and commissioning body for new and old and pop music, run by three composers Josephine Stephenson, Freya WaleyCohen and William Marsey. The group has been producing eclectic music events in odd venues around London since 2011, premiering over 60 new works alongside international-standard performances of repertory classics, and sets from the most exciting up-and-coming bands.

Bringing the intimacy, eclecticism and high quality musicianship of the concert series to a wider audience, from 1 September 2016 Listenpony will begin releasing EPs of its live recordings, each release dedicated to one performing group, and including a mix of classical music and new commissions.

A triumph both of music programming and an awareness of how to have a good time at a concert. 

Nico Muhly

The first EP, taken from performances by violin duet Mainly Two recorded at our last event in March 2016, includes excerpts from Bartok’s 44 Duos for Two Violins and Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins, as well as new commissions from Dani Howard and Lawrence Dunn.

Mainly Two is formed of violinists Marie Schreer and John Garner, who came together to foster the creation of new work for two violins. Since forming the duet in 2014 they’ve built up a repertoire of over 20 new works written especially for them.

Dani Howard studied at the Royal College of Music and won a Royal Philharmonic Composition Prize in 2015. Her piece, Symmetry, moves at breakneck speed, seamlessly shifting between the leading and accompanying roles of the duet and spinning out joyful, dancing melodies.

Lawrence Dunn is a current Sound and Music New Voices composer. His intimate duet your wits an E la takes the form takes the form of a long, drawn out glissando framed by the repetition of a short melody. It takes its name from the highest note in the medieval gamut: E la. The word ‘Ela’ came to mean a high-flown place, a place of great strain, a place perhaps above which nothing could quite reach.

The EP is available on iTunes, Spotify and all major streaming platforms worldwide

www.listenpony.com

 

(source: press release)

26-apr-soul-zisso-contemporary-voices-web-131063328970695992Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
When I was 14 I started writing songs and realised I had so much music in my head that I didn’t know how to write down, as I couldn’t play any instruments. This led to a ‘eureka’ moment where I just knew that composition was what I was meant to do in life, which resulted in my deciding to go away to boarding school to study for an A Level in music from scratch when I was 15. 

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
My teachers (both composition and instrumental/vocal) and friends have had the most significant positive impact on my career. They have taught and supported me, always being honest and therefore helping me improve and acknowledge both the good and bad. 

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 
Having only started studying music at age 15, my greatest challenge was catching up with everyone else: first with general music and performing and then with composition. This meant always making sure I was working harder than everyone around me, and not giving up even when it meant not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for years and years on end.  

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 
Each piece is different and special in its own way. I treat the compositional process as a type of meditation, seeing the players playing in the hall inside my head, hearing what they’re playing and how it works spatially in the space. Once the initial idea of the piece is established, it’s all about answering all the different questions about what the piece is trying to do and how, until I can hear the whole structure in my head and can write it down.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
Every different instrumentation brings with it lots of possibilities and new ideas, which is always exciting. Working with musicians I know and admire is particularly great as it’s easier to write a piece that is influenced by them as players / singers and has that added element of being written especially for them. I find writing pieces for myself to perform (as a soprano) the most challenging – it’s like a constant battle between my performer side wanting to perform strange extended vocal techniques and my composer side needing to justify every choice compositionally.

Which works are you most proud of? 
Poke – a piece for large mixed ensemble I wrote two and a half years ago for a workshop with BCMG. Even though it was the only piece I’ve written in the last three years that has only been workshopped rather than performed, I worked on it for a solid three months and am very proud of the level of detail and complexity in it. I hope it’ll someday get a proper performance. 

From the Darkness, for symphony orchestra – this was my first attempt at writing an orchestral piece fresh from finishing my undergraduate studies and my chance to use all I’ve learned about orchestral writing from sitting in on weekly rehearsals and watching countless concerts (another attempt to catch up, this time by a 1st study singer catching up on orchestral knowledge). I’m still proud of this piece because it shows how much I’ve progressed in just a few years, from a singer who couldn’t tell apart oboe and clarinet colours to using the orchestra in ways I haven’t even seen being done before. 

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Ligeti, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Radulescu, Saariaho

What is your most memorable concert experience? 
A few years ago I was fortunate enough to have my first orchestral piece ‘From the Darkness‘ chosen to be workshopped and then performed by BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The experience of having my piece played by one of my all-time favourite orchestras when I didn’t think it even stood a chance to be chosen was surreal and overwhelming, one which gave me hope for the future and that I would never forget. 

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 
That pieces of music need to have a reason to exist, be it an idea or structure that comes across – there’s no point to writing pieces that just sound pretty without having something to say. 

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Working professionally as a freelance composer and teaching composition at a University / Conservatoire 

What is your most treasured possession?
I have a few items that, to someone who doesn’t know me, might seem childish and bizarre but actively help me compose. These include a ‘touchy-feely’ hamster book, a squeezable orange octopus toy (with its knitted hat), and my personal scores for the Berio Sequenza III for female voice and Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata (which are both symbolic in reminding myself I can overcome massive challenges when I set my mind to it)

How do you work?

I usually compose in what I like to call my ‘office’, which is essentially sitting on the floor in the hallway of the Conservatoire, opposite the composition notice board. It may sound bizarre (and passers-by keep wondering what I’m doing there or assume I’m queuing for a practice room), but it really helps to think about new pieces away from a piano or any other instruments at first in order to get a clear idea in my head of what I want the piece to sound like and do. The sound of lots of different students practising nearby actually becomes a kind of white noise that helps clear my head and I really prefer it to silence, and lots of people walk by so it doesn’t feel too alone. To add to the weirdness, I’m usually surrounded by my ‘composition aides and mascots’ which help me deal with stress – quite often I’ll be sitting there hugging my copy of Berio’s Sequenza III and petting my hamster book. I heard I’ve become quite a mystery for pianists who frequently practice on that floor.
How would you describe your compositional language?

I really like using different types of microtones to explore less common soundworlds. My pieces used to be mostly harmonic-series based but in the last year or two I’ve been frequently experimenting with other microtonal soundworlds, which feels like exploring a wealth of unexplored territory. As part of my doctoral research at Birmingham Conservatoire I am researching microtonal singing in order to create my own unique microtonal language that will incorporate voices as well as instruments, which is why I’m currently trying out lots of different ways of using microtones. Another side of my compositional language is influenced by my work as a performer – using extended techniques and/or a greater sense of acting/performing, especially for voices.


Carla Rees and Xenia Pestova premiere Hidden Elegy for alto flute and piano at The Forge, Camden, on 6th September 2016. Further information and tickets here

Ever since commencing on her music studies at the relatively late age of 15, Soul has been dedicated to her dream of becoming a composer. She graduated from Cardiff University, studying with Arlene Sierra and Robert Fokkens and for a brief time studying with Alison Kay, before commencing on a Masters and later a PhD in composition at Birmingham Conservatoire under the tuition of Joe Cutler and Howard Skempton.

Her music, which has been described as “curiously original” (Wales Online) and having “real character and sensitivity” (Wales Arts Review), has been performed by the likes of BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Orchestra of the Swan, Xenia Pestova and the Fidelio Trio across the UK, Europe and Canada in a wide range of venues including Wells Cathedral, Hoddinott Hall and Stratford Town Hall, and festivals such as the Cheltenham Music Festival, Occupy the Pianos and Frontiers new music festival.

Her interests range from the use of different microtonal soundworlds and textures to children’s books and the exploration of various extended techniques. She is also interested in writing for dance and has composed music for Rambert Dance’s Vintage Rambert project.

In addition to composing, Soul is also a singer, specialising in performing contemporary repertoire, including Berio’s Sequenza III for female voice. She is a member of Via Nova chamber choir, has performed as both soloist and choral singer across the UK (including at the Wigmore Hall and at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival) and abroad and is committed to promoting new music, which includes premiering many new pieces, particularly ones for solo unaccompanied voice.

www.yfatsoulzisso.com

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‘Scenes from the End’ by British composer Jonathan Woolgar is a one-woman opera focusing on grief in a variety of forms, from the abstract to the deeply personal, from the philosophical to the everyday. It explores big ideas – the notion of “the end” and what it might mean at different times and in different forms – concepts far bigger and complex than our individual comprehension can easily grasp or make sense of; and the frustration of the individual in a state of grief, surrounded by people whose prosaic or patronising attempts at offering “comfort” merely compound one’s sense of loss and anger.

ywtdacbiHeloise Werner is a young soprano and cellist with a particular interest in new music and music as drama. She is co-director of contemporary ensemble The Hermes Experiment and a member of new vocal ensemble SHARDS. ‘Scenes from the End’ developed from previous collaborations with Jonathan Woolgar and Heloise’s interest in exploring the boundaries between theatre and singing, and how that might work in a one-woman show.

Each of its three parts has a specific musical and textural focus. The first part explores grief for the end of the universe, a concept so vast we cannot possibly understand nor process it. The second part grieves for the human species and explores the arrogance of humankind (“We have done well, but we forgot to survive“), and, to my mind at least, offers a comment on our reckless plundering of the earth’s resources and man’s seemingly insatiable need to wage war on others. The final part grieves for an individual life, the pain of personal grief and the griever’s frustration at those around her who seem unable to respond appropriately (“Do not speak to me……but, stay with me“).

Sparsely staged, with only a chair and stool as props, the work has an immediacy which is arresting and very powerful. Heloise’s voice has a piercing clarity and depth, one moment beautiful, the next visceral and freighted with distress. The sung episodes are interspersed with spoken words (whispered, shouted), and gasping and panting, which calls to mind the gulping sobs of a grieving person who almost cannot cry any more. There are also recorded episodes, Heloise’s voice heard hauntingly from a distance, and percussion. Quotations are projected onto a screen which inform and expand on the narrative. The work is direct and thought-provoking with a raw intimacy enhanced by the simple staging and small size of the venue: one is close enough to see the broad range of emotions passing across Heloise’s face as she performs.

While the performance unfolded, the sounds of Hampstead Road filtered into the theatre – people talking, the rumble of traffic, a police or ambulance siren – reminding us, perhaps appropriately, that human life in all its humdrum and everyday continues.

‘Scenes from the End’ is at Tristan Bates Theatre, London WC2 from 6-10 December 2016.

Further details and tickets here

 

heloisewerner.com

“Listening to music, for me, is like inhabiting a landscape – an inner world, bounded by an intricate web of feelings, memories, expectations and associations that are brought to life through the properties of sound and rhythm” – Douglas Finch

inner_landscapes_cdcoverInner Landscapes, the first ever recording of composer and pianist Douglas Finch’s piano and chamber music, is a compelling collection of ten works which capture an ‘inner world’ of a particular landscape – in Canada, Germany, North Wales and New York. Finch was drawn to the art of Canadian painter Emily Carr (1871-1945), who has long been one of his favourite painters, in particular for her landscape paintings of the west coast of British Columbia which evoke feelings of “loneliness and quiet rapture”, and his music explores similar themes of solitude, mourning and spiritual longing.

Performed by Canadian flautist Lisa Nelsen, pianist Aleksander Szram, cellist Caroline Szram, and violinists Mieko Kanno and Toby Tramaseur, the music spans Finch’s compositional output from his early 20s, when he lived in Canada, to the present, after he moved to the UK in 1993. A renowned improviser, most of the pieces on this debut CD grew out of ideas resulting from his improvisations.

I recently heard British pianist Steven Osborne perform music by Morton Feldman, and I was immediately struck by a similar stillness and sense of time suspended in Douglas Finch’s music, with its carefully chosen and exquisitely placed sounds, delicate droplets of notes, plangent bass interjections and haunting melodic fragments. The piano’s resonance and decay is used to great effect – elusive and meditative in Ruins (1984) ‘Calm’, or declamatory and insistent in ‘Quick March’. In the last movement of Ruins, Finch takes the circling fragment from ‘Die Krähe’ from Schubert’s Winterreise to create his own Winter’s journey – a piece inspired by a gloomy day walking around an old castle on the Rhine, whose spare instrumentation and spooling melodies reflect the desolation of Schubert’s winter traveler. Other pieces on the disc have some kind of relation to a particular place: ‘Fantasy on a Russian Folk Song’ emerged out of the North Wales coastal town of Pwllheli – “practically the whole of the wildly ecstatic final section came to me while walking on the beach during a fierce gale” (DF). I am familiar with this part of North Wales, having holidayed there frequently as a child, and for me the music expresses the rugged, landscape, long empty beaches and changeable weather.

The three ‘Chorales’ on the disc reference the Lutheran Chorale tradition of J S Bach and Cesar Franck, and utilise the piano’s unique nuance and decay. Fragmentary, terse, and introspective, they express in their briefness a profound sense of contemplation, solitude and lamentation. It is the restraint in this music that makes it particularly arresting.

The launch of Inner Landscapes is on Monday 20 June at The Forge, Camden. Drinks from 7pm, performance at 7.30 to include selections from the CD and improvisations by Douglas Finch. Further information and tickets

Inner Landscapes is available from Prima Facie Records. CD notes by Douglas Finch and Aleksander Szram

Meet the Artist……Douglas Finch