Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Audience review - Coaxing interesting sounds from a flute

It’s been a long time since I was asked to pay close attention to a piece of music. Some 20 years, in fact. I was studying for a GCSE in music and we thought our teacher was pretty contemporary when he asked us to discuss pop classic Alone by the big-haired, big-voiced band Heart. This was the late 1980s after all.

But I suspect when it came to our discussions on the more traditional notion of classical music, the closest we got to contemporary was Gabriel Fauré. And he died in 1924.

So, as I listened to four world premieres and one UK premiere at the latest New Dots event at The Forge in Camden, I realised just how little I knew about this area of music. Classical means Mozart, Bach and Wagner, right?

New Dots was founded in June 2012 to dispel exactly this myth. The charity brings together emerging composers and musicians to collaborate on and perform new works. Clearly, there is a thirst for this sort of partnership with 40 submissions for the May concert and 70 already submitted for the next one in November.

In the end the New Dots team had to whittle 40 down to five, selecting a range of international rising stars to compose music for wind and piano. The result was an hour and a half of fascinating work, ranging from Yuko Ohara’s flute solo inspired by human DNA, to Michael Cutting’s piece for piano, flute and clarinet inspired by the E.E. Cummings poem [in Just-], to a full-blown wind quintet about the way we experience spaces in our day-to-day lives by Aaron Holloway-Nahum.

As well as the collaborative part, New Dots is also determined to bring this vibrant contemporary music scene to a broader audience. So, as well as the performances – in this instance courtesy of the Atéa Wind Quintet and Richard Uttley on piano – the composers and musicians shared their inspirations while composing and their experiences of playing this technically demanding music. I’ve never seen anyone coax such interesting sounds from a flute as Joshua Batty; at one point he sounded exactly like a violinist plucking their strings pizzicato-style.

Yuko Ohara and Josh Batty talking about Double Helix for solo flute

Not all of it was to my taste – I preferred the solo pieces to the ensembles – but that’s the beauty of music. My husband detests my passion for 1980s pop. You don’t have to like everything you hear, but you cannot help but admire the work that goes into the composition, along with the skill required to make the instruments themselves – the very way they are played – a crucial part of the music.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Audience review - In need of some Beethoven?

Some years ago whilst at university, I attended a terrific (and rather liquid) dinner party at which the music of Frank Sinatra was played without respite. Eventually, a wonderful Bavarian lady in attendance stood up and declared "That’s it! I must go home. I just cannot listen to any more Frank Sinatra.....I must listen to some Beethoven". Some of those attending the New Dots concert of new classical music, may well have felt they needed to do the same after such angular and often dissonant compositions.

But hang on, I reckon these New Dots folk are onto something....

We heard five new pieces from already accomplished young composers, performed by excellent young musicians at the start of their own careers. Added to this, an audience willing to take the plunge into this often strange sound world (mainstream classical audiences please take note: new music doesn’t bite). 

We started with Piers Tattersall's "At a distance of less than a yard…" performed for horn, clarinet and piano. A feisty tale of marital angst based on a theme of jealousy, with the 'bit on the side' represented musically by the French horn (keep it clean). A long, languid clarinet introduction led to a more frenetic ensemble in which one could picture the fur-flying antics of an arguing couple. As the pieced moved on, the wife (clarinettist Anna Hashimoto) led us back to a calmer section; did the wife have some resilience; some strength underlying the unhappiness? The piece continued through some dissonant pairings between horn and clarinet, eventually leading to a calmer section and finally a move into the major key with a quiet sustained final chord. Arguments over, one suspected. Jealousy remains but maybe each learning to live with it.

Moving from the sad to the positively sombre, the composition "caught on the corner" by Emma-Ruth Richards. This dark tale of an immigrant woman forced into sex work was never going to have a happy ending. Yet the wind quartet taking us through this ordeal began with a Roma-themed folk sound, complete with slurred tonality, pointing to the ethnic origins of the main character. Underlying the piece we had a near-constant pulse which had the effect of moving the story on or possibly simply representing the inexorable path of the poor woman in question. Dissonant fanfare-like moments could have been her cries for help.   Difficult scoring and syncopated rhythms seemed not to phase this excellent quartet of players.

Moving next to a solo piece by flute "double helix" (composer Yuko Ohara), we entered a more scientific phase with the sounds aimed at representing the evolving complexities of DNA. A composer would struggle to do that with a full orchestra, much less with the typically sweet-voiced flute. More sound than music; more experimentation than exposition, never did I think the flute could be classed as a percussion instrument. Yet the accomplished technical skills of Joshua Batty took us on a journey of staccato, breathy and alien sounds combined with shrill attacks right throughout the range. If the audience were left bereft of any sense of musical line or direction from this piece, we were certainly left in no doubt as to how these sounds reflected the chaotic and complex nature of DNA itself.

Next we had “Barkham fantasy” by Mark Simpson, performed by Richard Uttley which offered a more familiar and shapely music line. Less adventurous maybe, but a welcoming and warm sound nonetheless. A slow alberti bass-style accompaniment underpinning a calming rain-like ornamentation in the right hand, provided quite the atmospheric opening. Increased movement and volume provided this short piece a natural arc of sound, before building to a fierce crescendo at the top range of the instrument, and then a return to the original theme. Uttley knew exactly where this music was going and took us with him.

The penultimate piece was “when the world is puddle-wonderful” by Michael Cutting which offered a view into the sense of playfulness encapsulated within the text of In Just by E.E. Cummings. This mischievous theme was captured immediately with pianist Richard Uttley placing an impromptu mute in the form of a scarf no less, over the strings within the piano... almost as if the game of hide and seek was already underway. From then we had interlinked mysterious snippets from piano, flute and clarinet: breathy sounds; sharp jolts and surprise flourishes of sound. Lighter moments did convey a sense of children in their games, whispering and causing merry mayhem. No children’s playtime would be complete without some tantrum or other, and an aggressive crescendo from the trio certainly made their point known. What fun.

Finally, we had the bustling and cosmopolitan melee of “How to avoid huge ships” by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, which began with a neatly conceived, but possibly overpowering, musicology class outlining harmonic and rhythmic intentions. As with wine tasting, sometimes you just want to skip the theory and get stuck into the practical. Yet, once it did start, this piece for wind quintet brilliantly portrayed the pulse of a busy city; people swept along in the same direction yet each with their own voice and intention. The players kept a tight grip on complex and syncopated entries with occasional moments of bassoon and clarinet breaking away as if to re-establish their own place in this busy cityscape. The frenetic soundwaves from this city-scape suddenly gave way to a quiet, almost nonchalant final motif.

Mainstream classical music venues in London are often seen as the heartbeat of the genre. Yet the important work that New Dots and others are doing to champion new music and its next generation of performers is, like those stimulating flute sounds we heard in Double Helix, part of music’s very DNA.

So, did anyone actually rush home after the concert and seek musical solace in Beethoven? Probably. But I bet that many, like me, will be back next time...

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Audience review - From the front row

For our concert on 21st May we asked 3 audience members to write short reviews of the concert for us. We didn't give them any guidance or constraints about what to write - just that we wanted to know what they thought/felt/liked/didn't like. Here's the first of the 3 reviews, the other 2 will follow in the next couple of days.

I wasn't sure at first that my front row seat at Tuesday night's Sounds Of The New event at The Forge in Camden was such a good idea, I had planned on a cosy seat at the back where I could relax, close my eyes and just listen to the music. But I soon realised I had one of the best seats in the house to appreciate all the finer details of the experience; the physicality of the instruments and the challenges of the music. Just inches away from the stage I was fascinated by the pianist's super-fast fingers and transfixed by every button and lever of the flute as both instrument and player were tested to the limit by a seriously complex score. And who knew that much saliva could come out of a french horn?

This was the second New Dots event I have been to and once again their clever formula of combining on-stage conversation between the composers and musicians along with world or UK premieres of their contemporary classical music worked brilliantly and provided much-needed context to the six works. I am possibly the least musical person I know but with help from New Dots I am finding enlightenment. Particular highlights were pieces by Emma-Ruth Richards, Yuko Ohara and Piers Tattersall dealing, respectively, with the tricky subjects of sex-slavery, the double helix structure of DNA and adulterous jealousy.

Emma-Ruth and Piers talking about their inspiration with Matt Downes

As is often the case with contemporary art, this is music which you might not want to have in your living room but which challenges you to think about important subjects in a new way. New Dots provides much-needed performance opportunities for emerging composers and musicians and a fantastic opportunity for everyone to experience the sounds of something very new indeed. Highly recommeded.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

An interview with Richard Uttley

Please tell us a little about who you are and your background
I'm from Yorkshire and I play the piano. I studied at Cambridge then the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and I now live in London. I play lots of different kinds of music - old and new (borrowed and blue too I suppose!) - and a mix of solo stuff and chamber music.

What inspires or motivates you?
Creating amazing experiences with sound. I can remember discovering chord inversions when I was young: I bought the sheet music for World in Union, which we used to sing at school, and I managed to decipher it - at this stage I hadn't started proper lessons, and couldn't really read bass clef - but I was so excited to have unlocked the mystery of this particular bit I loved. I still get that kind of feeling a bit today when a composer does something really special. That's why I prefer playing other people's music to writing my own - I like to be surprised by something I couldn't or wouldn't have done. So I guess I'm inspired by what composers can create and that motivates me to practise and bring the piece to life in performance.

What have been the most exciting performances you've given recently?
The one I most enjoyed recently was a recital in the Sage Gateshead. It was in Hall 2, which is a tall tube shape like a chimney (with seats all the way up) so it's got a great intimate feeling at the stage level but you're also aware of the space above you which gives it this fantastic acoustic. I'd never seen a hall like that before and they've got a gorgeous piano in there too. I had a lot of fun in that concert and particularly remember some fiendish Britten going very well!

Credit: Sage Gateshead

How would you describe your style?
I wouldn't.

What are the challenges with performing newly written pieces?
The main challenge is that the emphasis is on the first performance. When you play traditional repertoire you usually play it a lot - wherever and whenever you can - working towards a big performance, but with a new piece the big attention is on the première  so you don't have the same chance to get comfortable with it. Also, much of the music written today is extremely hard! Composers can be quite evil.

Are there any particular composers that you like performing?
In terms of living composers, I love Mark Simpson's music; I've played the piece he wrote for me (Barkham Fantasy) a lot and am recording it later this year. His music combines sophistication and directness, which is something I really admire. In terms of the dead composers, there are too many greats to choose from but some of my favourite moments onstage have been with Bach and Beethoven.

What does the future hold?
Later this year I'm making my third recording and I'm extremely excited about the pieces going on it - a particular highlight is the first recording of a piano paraphrase on Berg's opera Lulu by Marvin Wolfthal - so that will probably shape a lot of what I do over the next couple of years. I'm also going to be collaborating with a video artist for some concerts in 2014; I don't know exactly what kind of direction that is going to take yet so that's going to be interesting.

What makes you smile?
Larry David.


Friday, May 10, 2013

An Interview with Chris Beagles

Please tell us a little about who you are and your background
My name is Chris and I'm the Horn player with the Atéa Wind Quintet. We as a group have been making music together in varying formations for the last 5 years or so.  Aside from the Quintet, each of us are busy forging our own freelance careers in the Orchestral world along with budding solo careers.

What have been the most exciting performances you've given recently?
As a Quintet we did a great concert for Southend Council a month or so back which went fantastically well and both us and the audience seemed to come away with a real buzz.

Do you have a distinctive sound?
I think that we do, yes.  As a group we work really hard on blending our individual instrument sounds to try and create one unanimous voice, something that comes incredibly naturally to our string quartet friends but requires a little more work from us.

Who makes the artistic decisions? Or is it team work?
We really try and incorporate everyone's thoughts and ideas in the process of exploring and performing music.  Some of us are slightly more verbose than others in the process though!

What are the challenges with performing newly written pieces?
Often, a big hurdle is trying to understand exactly what a composer wants from us, frequently they use notation that can be ambiguous. Thankfully for this project, the composers are just a short email away so is not such an issue and actually they have all been very clear in notating their intentions thus far.

What do you talk about in breaks in rehearsals? 
Varying topics from gossip to big ideas for the group, although we always have things to eat whilst we discuss thanks to our oboist-cum-resident-Chef, Philip, baking many, many cakes for us


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

An interview with Yuko Ohara

Please tell us a little about who you are and your background
I was born in Yokohama, Japan and studied musicology and composition for a BA and MA in Ferris University. In London I graduated from a diploma in advanced composition at the Royal College of Music and have finished a PhD at Brunel University recently

What/who inspires or motivates you?
Since I knew a piece by Xenakis, I have been listening to contemporary music.

What is your favourite piece of your own work and why?
I like a piece for mixed ensemble called The Butterfly Effect because I could hear instrumental sound effects and sound colours.

How would you describe your style? 
I always find a concept and try to write a piece. How to represent the concepts into my pieces is very important and also the connection with structures and the process of composition. 

What is your composing routine. When do you like to write?
I should work at day time but it is necessary for me to concentrate at night, especially before composition deadlines.

What were the challenges in writing the piece for the New Dots concert? 
I had a premiere with the piece by Michael Schmid at the Tzlil Meudcan Festival in Israel and then revised a few parts for the New Dots Project.

What does the future hold?
I hold a fellow at Institute of Musical Research and will attend seminars and keep researching there. A piece for chamber orchestra is being performed by ensemble mise- en in October and a performance with Tokyo Ensemble Factory in December

What makes you smile?
If performers play my pieces very well and I felt lots of energy from them, it makes me happy and a big smile. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

An interview with Piers Tattersall

Please tell us a little about who you are and your background
I was born in Salisbury where I studied piano and 'cello. In 2008 I  graduated from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester having studied with Gary Carpenter. I then studied composition and orchestration with Joseph Horovitz and Kenneth Hesketh at the Royal College of Music generously supported by the Countess of Munster Musical Trust. In addition to studying music I have also written on aesthetics for the Thomas More Institute as well as organising seminars on 20th Century aesthetics.

What/who inspires or motivates you?
The three composers who have had the strongest influence on my music are William Byrd for his control of melodic line, and Beethoven and Gerard Grisey for being so consciously modern while so immediately intelligible. I would like to make the music of these composers more intelligible and I think the best way is to write more music developing the culture that they helped to establish but working in the present.

What is your favourite piece of your own work and why?
I find this a difficult question to answer as however I answer I will always be missing something out. I think my most complete piece is a short passacaglia for flute and piano that I wrote for my wife. It contains everything I could say in a melody. I have other pieces that are quite different; this one (written for New Dots), for example is very good.

How would you describe your style?
Overall I would say my music is fairly abrasive but essentially melodic. I began singing in church choirs towards the end of my studies in Manchester where we regularly sang Gregorian Chant and Renaissance Polyphony. This has had a strong influence on my approach to writing individual parts, so whatever crashes and bangs may be happening there is always something melodic underneath it all.

What is your composing routine. When do you like to write?
 Usually I will spend a few days at the start of a project testing my material and finding out what works and what doesn’t. This can be quite slow-going at times and quite frustrating as it invariably involves scrapping ideas that are no good even if they’ve taken a long time to create. After this is over I find that a piece can progress fairly swiftly and I can compose in between doing other things or early in the morning.

What were the challenges in writing the piece for the New Dots concert?
Where all of the instruments have such different ways of making sound I found it a challenge to create material that allows them all to operate as a coherent unit. However this is also a constant source of expressivity where instruments produce the same sounds (usually pitches) but in different ways.

What does the future hold?
I have a couple of projects lined up – a collaboration with Christopher Guild in a piece for piano and electronics and an opera with the Librettist Katherine Longworth.

What makes you smile?
My son


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

An interview with Michael Cutting

Please tell us a little about who you are and your background
After studying piano and violin from an early age, I gradually became more interested in composing my own pieces than practicing scales. After discovering The Rite of Spring with my youth orchestra, as well as being introduced to works by Ligeti, Benjamin and Grisey by my hugely encouraging A-Level music teacher, a composer in his own right, I realised this was the kind of music I wanted to write and subsequently applied to the Royal Northern College of Music to study composition. Having completed both my undergraduate and masters at RNCM, I am currently living and working in Manchester whilst undertaking a PhD at Kings College London supervised by George Benjamin. Aside from composing, I direct ACM Ensemble, a new music group currently working in association with Ensemble 10/10.

What/who inspires or motivates you?
Nothing is more inspiring for me than witnessing the performance of a masterpiece by great musicians. One such vivid memory was travelling last minute to Birmingham just to watch BCMG's performance of Gerard Grisey's Quatre Chants pour Franchir le Seuil. Incredible experiences like this inspire me to write and organise more performances of new music.

What is your favourite piece of your own work and why?
Difficult to say, as there are moments in all of my works I am proud of as well as those which could have been more refined. I guess the work which I feel is the most successful is a suite for violin and piano called Winter Visions, in which each movement creates its own distinct musical world but together form a set of complimentary pieces. However, my language has changed so much since then I would probably write something very different now.

How would you describe your style?
I wouldn't say I write in a particular 'style', the word seems contrary to most composers' desire to be innovative and push boundaries. However, some features remain common in all of my works, namely an interest in intricate musical colours, a sense of drama, and a striving for bold and original sounds.

What is your composing routine. When do you like to write?
My routine seems to consist of a lot of sitting, thinking and listening and not much writing! Composing for me is always a challenge, as I am constantly striving to do something new and original in each piece, which requires lots of re-working of material. Ideas are easy to find but it's what you do with them that determines the work's success.

What were the challenges in writing the piece for the New Dots concert?
The combination of flute, clarinet and piano offers lots of possibilities but also numerous limitations, particularly the lack of lower register. It also suggests a specific sound, which although I wanted utilise, hopefully in a slightly more surprising way than expected.

What does the future hold?
It depends what opportunities open up for me. I have numerous works in the pipeline, such as a large theatre work, string quartet, and other ensemble pieces. I look forward to getting stuck into some larger-scale works, having been refined to chamber works in this last year or so. I am also enjoying directing ACM Ensemble, which has some really exciting projects coming up and seems to be gaining recognition for its ambitious programs.

What makes you smile?