There was a palpable sense of tension and expectation as I made my way through the tourist crowds milling around the Houses of Parliament. Across the road, on College Green, the press pack was settling in for a long night ahead, tracking the results as they came in and offering minute-by-minute comment and analysis. Not far away, nestled amongst government buildings, is St John’s Smith Square, an English baroque church which is home to a wide variety of concerts, including an excellent lunchtime series. And on Britain’s 2015 Election Day it was a civilised oasis of culture for those of us attending Richard Uttley’s lunchtime piano recital.

Pianist Richard Uttley presented a programme whose theme was dance. Bookended by works by Bach and Beethoven, the middle part of the concert featured the world premiere of two movements of Matthew Kaner’s ‘Dance Suite’, which Richard commissioned from the composer. The first movement, Mazurka, drew many influences from the traditional Polish dance in its rustic rhythms but also from one of the greatest exponents of the form, Chopin, in its melodic fragments. There were references to Szymanowski too in the more reflective, haunting melodies. The second movement, Sarabande, was a more meditative and lyrical, redolent of the sombre elegance of Bach’s sarabandes which are found in his French and English Suites. Uttley is a keen champion of contemporary music and he seemed completely at home in this repertoire. In the lively ‘Mazurka’ he brought crisp articulation and robust rhythmic vitality, while the ‘Sarabande’ was graceful and sensitively shaped. This same attention to detail was evident in Bach’s Partita No. 4 which opened the concert. A florid and sprightly Overture gave way to a serene Allemande, given an almost romantic cast through Uttley’s elegant legato and subtle shaping. The Partita ended with a lively Gigue. Beethoven’s Sonata in A Op 101 seems to begin in the middle of things, as if we and performer have come upon it half way through. Its elegance mirrored that of slow movements of the Bach. This is offset by a lively March, which was emphatic and decisive. Another movement of serenity was followed by an exuberant finale, underpinned by that most stable of musical devices, the fugue, and played with much wit and vigour. As if often the way when contemporary music is programmed alongside more well-known works, the new revealed striking similarities in the Bach, Beethoven and contemporary works, while the old gave the listener a useful jumping off point into the new. I very much look forward to hearing further movements from Matthew Kaner.

More on Mazurkas here

photo: Malcolm Crowthers

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

Early years are formative so the environmental factors would include access to pianos (my dad repaired them at one stage) and listening to my mum’s record collection.

Hastings, where I grew up is also a very inspiring place. The American travel writer Paul Theroux singled it out in his tour of the UK coastline as “an artists’ colony full of optimistic romance and spirited intimacy”.

I played one of my piano pieces to Henze and (without knowing where I was from) he said it reminded him of the vague coastline of the south coast of England!

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

Channel 4’s series ‘Sinfonietta’, presented by the pianist Paul Crossley who introduced Berg’s Chamber Concerto. Spurred on by this, I bought a recording and tried to get to grips with this tough piece.

Broadcasts from the BBC Proms which stand out: I particularly remember Xenakis’s Keqrops, Barry’s Chevaux de Frise and Michael Finnissy’s Red Earth.

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

Surviving. Beyond that, every new piece presents an artistic challenge, even a more modestly piece such as this latest one for Jonathan Powell. Titles can be tricky. In this instance, I got the idea from a furniture shop of the same name, near the Columbia Road flower market in London.

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

Of course, It’s ideal to be commissioned (ie.funded,however small the fee!), but  the challenges are identical to that of a non- commissioned piece.

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

Jonathan Powell has a good understanding of my piano music, so it is always a pleasure working with him.

In 1999, I played ‘Flaking Yellow Stucco’ (for piano) to the composer and conductor Richard Baker and he noted a similarity with Jonathan Powell’s piano music. At that time, I didn’t know Jonathan or his work.

Which works are you most proud of? 

My Violin Concerto, written for Keisuke Okazaki. A few years after the premiere, it was recorded for NMC with the Esbjerg Ensemble conducted by Christopher Austin.

On a smaller scale, and more recently, I’m very proud of my ensemble piece for Ensemble Reconsil called “The Unrest Cure”.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?  

Oh, so many!

Of the more recent composers I’d include Aperghis, Babbitt, Dillon, Finnissy, Holt, Toovey and Xenakis.

As well as composing, I also play for dance classes and within this sphere the New Zealand born John Sweeney is without doubt the most amazing improviser I have encountered. He also accompanies silent movies.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

The London Sinfonietta celebrated its 25th Anniversary in 1989 at the Royal Festival Hall and a frail Michael Vyner (at that time artistic director of the ensemble) walked onto the stage to give a speech. It was a landmark occasion which was also televised, and with hindsight marked the end of an era. I particularly remember the new pieces by Birtwistle and Simon Holt, and the Suite from Henze’s opera ‘The English Cat’. I went backstage where Simon Rattle and Paul Crossley kindly signed a Birtwistle record I’d recently bought.

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

Don’t get sidetracked by commercial considerations.

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

London is a fantastic city so I’d happily still be here, albeit hoping for a halt on the unfortunate homogenisation and destruction which seems to have taken grip recently. In a nutshell, private interests prioritised above every other value humans might hold.

What is your most treasured possession?  

Besides an upright piano, a huge print I’ve got on the wall of somewhat dilapidated buildings in Cuba.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Besides more art-orientated things, swimming – ideally in the sea, but i like the Olympic Pool in Stratford.

What is your present state of mind? 

Cheerful

Jonathan Powell gives the London premiere of Morgan Hayes’s ‘Elemental’ on Friday 8th May at Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hamsptead, London NW3. Concert starts at 7.30pm, tickets on the door.

Morgan Hayes won the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s coveted Lutoslawski Prize in 1995; he subsequently studied with Michael Finnissy, Simon Bainbridge and Robert Saxton. His early works include Mirage (1995) and Viscid (1996), the latter recorded by the Composers Ensemble for NMC.

Since then, a series of ambitious pieces composed for many of Britain’s leading new-music ensembles, has included Shellac (1997) for piano and orchestra, and Slippage (1999). An accomplished pianist, Hayes has also composed numerous works for solo piano, which have been performed by soloists including Andrew Ball, Stephen Gutman, Rolf Hind, Sarah Nicolls, Ian Pace and Jonathan Powell.

As 2001-2002 Leverhulme Composer-in-Residence at the Purcell School, Hayes’s major achievement was the ‘Tatewalks’ project, based on Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and involving young composers in collaboration with photographer Malcolm Crowthers and with the London Sinfonietta, who featured the work in the 2002 ‘State of the Nation’ festival; the Sinfonietta also commissioned Hayes’ transcription of Squarepusher’s Port Rhombus for the South Bank Centre’s 2003 ‘Ether Festival’.

Hayes’ works include Opera for violin and piano, inspired by Italian director Dario Argento’s giallo classic Macbeth and written for Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea; Lute Stop (2003) for solo piano, premiered by Sarah Nicolls; Hayes’  2005 BBC Proms debut with Strip; and the Violin Concerto, a Birmingham Contemporary Music Group ‘Sound Investment’ commission, premiered by Japanese soloist Keisuke Okazaki.

More recent commissions include Original Version, for the 2007 Spitalfields Festival; Futurist Manifesto for string orchestra, commissioned by the Munich Chamber Orchestra. A period as composer-in-association with Music Theatre Wales, resulting in Shirley and Jane, an operatic scena based on the career of Dame Shirley Porter; a Smith Quartet commission, Dances on a Ground (2009); and Dictionary of London, for the NMC Songbook.

I was moved to write this post after reading this article on the wonderful Brain Pickings site, in which Nassim Nicholas Talib (author of Black Swan) talks about the writer Umberto Eco’s “anti-library” of some 30,000 books, many of which he has not yet read. This article struck a chord with me, as a few years ago I read a fascinating book by French psychoanalyst and University of Paris literature professor Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, in which the author makes a very good case for freeing ourselves from the conventions and obligations of being “well read”. Professor Bayard explains that reading is a way of engaging with literature in various ways – books we’ve read, books we’ve skimmed through, books we’ve heard about, books we’ve forgotten, books we’ve never opened. As both Bayard and Taleb both state, the books we haven’t read are the most interesting for they offer new possibilities in broadening our knowledge and widening our cultural horizons. In the world today, knowledge can be accrued incredibly easily and quickly via the internet, and this accrual of knowledge becomes a compulsive need to enable us to rise in the hierarchy of  perceived “intelligence” or “knowledgeability”. In fact, all those books which haven’t been read yet represent a wondrous research tool, for they are all waiting to be explored.

The same can be said of music. Today, with a huge variety of recordings, films and live concerts and opera available to enjoy every hour of every day, we can feel under tremendous pressure to be seen to have covered all the “classics” (the big warhorses of the classical repertoire by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler et al – not to mention 20th century and contemporary classics……) and to know them. I admit to some hefty gaps in my musical and listening knowledge, gaps at which certain friends and colleagues are apt to pull their eyes and wring their hands: “What? You don’t listen to Wagner???!!!”. But for me, those gaps stand for something rather special and exciting.

Just as the large pile of books by my bed attests, so the huge library of music waiting to be explored – via CDs, streaming services, concerts, sheet music and more –  represents a wondrous journey of discovery, and one about which I am very excited. In fact, this journey began at a young age, when I first became aware of classical music through my parents’ own listening and concert-going. By the time I reached my teens, I had developed fairly trenchant ideas about the kind of music I liked, and would touch at the piano. Growing musical maturity and an irrepressible inquisitiveness have led me to discover a wealth of music, but still I have hardly scratched the surface. The great thing is that I know there is plenty more out there, just waiting to be heard and explored.

It is for this reason that I grow increasingly frustrated with concert programmes at London’s mainstream venues (where I spend a lot of time, in my role as a concert reviewer and ardent live music fan). The same diet of largely the same “classics” by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Mahler, Brahms comes round year after year. There are too many “safe” programmes, not enough brand new music, nor even 20th-century repertoire being performed. Sometimes it feels like one is picking up the same dog-eared favourite copy of Austen or Dickens. There’s nothing wrong with the programmes, nor indeed those authors, per se, but our listening horizons would benefit greatly from the opportunity to explore more unusual or lesser-known repertoire.

When selecting concerts, either as a reviewer or simply for pleasure, I tend towards those programmes which include unusual juxtapositions (for example, a recent concert at the Wigmore Hall by the Rubenstein Competition winner, which paired Scarlatti with Ligeti and Chopin with Messiaen), or music which I haven’t heard before. I may not like all I hear (and by the way, it really is ok to admit that you don’t like Schoenberg or Birtwistle: it doesn’t make you a lesser person!) but I intend to remain open-minded and open-eared at every concert I go to.

As an active musician, the voyage of discovery is even more potent: so much repertoire out there just waiting to be explored! The prospect is hugely exciting.

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read – article on Brain Pickings

Umberto Eco’s Antilibrary

(image credit: http://www.goodwp.com)

_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