The IMS conference ended a few days ago. I meant to mention a few of the final papers at the time, but got tied up with other things, mostly sightseeing—Japan is a very lovely country indeed.
If I’m honest, the papers at the conference varied alarmingly in quality. It’s actually better, I learned, to go to papers of people that you know will do a good job, regardless of the topic. With that in mind I saw a superb presentation given by John Rink, an old lecturer of mine who is now at Cambridge. He spoke with wit and insight on performance practice in Chopin. There was also an interesting session on film music, with Gregory Camp’s paper on the various means by which an actor may be musically characterised standing out. I was also pleased to be introduced to a largely unknown Swiss composer, Hermann Meier (1906–2002), in a paper given by Michelle Ziegler of the Hochschule der Künste Bern.
Meier was a primary school teacher by day, by night a composer of some substance. His long career followed some of the major trends in Europe music. He wrote in the dodecaphonically until 1952, later adapting a more personal serial style in works such as Klaviervariationen and Stücke (1956 and ’57 respectively). In the 60s he began using montage, the subject of Ziegler’s fascinating lecture. In doing so Meier sketched using graphical representations of his musical material (which occasionally also became a final score). These representations are influenced by artists such as Piet Mondrian. Indeed, his sketches, many of which we were shown in the presentation, are works of art in themselves:
Graphic sketch for Mauer for winds - Piece for large orchestra and three pianos HMV 60 (1964)
In the 70s Meier was introduced to electronic equipment at the Südwestfunk's studio, subsequently realising a number of works for the medium. He stopped composing in the late eighties.
For those interested in seeing Meier’s sketches, they will be exhibited at Kunstmuseum Solothurn on 28th October 2017.
The graphics were, of course, only a part of the composing process for Meier—in most cases they were realised in normal staff notation. Here are is a playlist of Meier’s music:
Further examples of his works are available, here.
I am currently spending a few days as an observer at the International Musicological Society’s 20th Annual Congress (19th–23rd March) in Tokyo, partly to provide company to my partner, who is giving a paper on Thursday, partly because there are so many interesting topics being discussed, many of which relate to contemporary music. It has so far been a lot of fun, if a little bewildering—the programme is so packed that many papers occur at the same time, often of things you would like to attend. We are also based in Chigasaki, some way from the centre of Tokyo. This makes getting to the morning sessions tricky.
As well as the lectures, there have been a couple of concerts organised as part of the event. The first was the performance of Gagaku, held before a sake-fuelled opening reception on Sunday night. It was my first live experience of this elegant and ancient art form. We were treated to both traditional Gagaku works, and a modern piece by Sano Kōji. This latter was clearly respectful of its roots though it made me wonder what might be achieved by taking a rather freer approach.
Last night there was a concert of contemporary music. It provided a superb showcase for graduates of the Tokyo University of the Arts (which is hosting the conference), almost all of the performers having attended the institution. Of the works, Regis Campo’s witty and well-heard Pop Art (2001–2) and Grisey’s more substantial Talea stood out. Kenji Sakai was in the audience to hear his Monopolyphonie/Défuguration for solo cello, a work that effectively explored the possibility (or not) of writing polyphonically for the instrument. Boulez’s Derive I left me rather cold; dating from 1984 it feels rather less substantial than some of his more cerebral early efforts. Most bewildering, however, was Wolfgang Rihm’s Fremde Szene II for piano trio. It was easy enough to hear the work as a kind of dialogue between Rihm and Schumann, much of the figuration and even the harmonic writing deriving from the latter, but there was a heaviness to the writing with problems of balance that did not derive from the performance.
I would write more, but finish this in haste. Hope to catch the keynote lecture by Toshio Hosokawa this afternoon, as well as a session on twentieth century French music….
Sam Hunt is a PhD researcher at the University of the West of England in the Department of Computer Science and Creative Technologies. His current research is looking into technology that can support computer based music composition, specifically looking at integrating algorithmic music techniques into existing composer workflows, as well as music analysis and visualisation techniques.
He has designed a survey that looks to understand current composer workflow and practice, and invites music practitioners and professionals to participate in it. A link to the survey is included below. The survey should take around 10-15 minutes and any response is greatly appreciated.
Output from this survey will inform the design of new composition software and hopefully provide a significant research contribution to the field. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, Sam can be contacted directly through the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A belated happy birthday to Tristan Murail, who turned 70 on 11th March. At a time when composer birthdays are marked with endless retrospectives and whole years dedicated to their work, it seems strange that such a respected figure is not being fanfared a little more. Perhaps spectralism is out of fashion…
I would have mentioned him at the time, but was preparing for a trip to Japan. Now arrived, my intention was to do a little roundup of new music events from this corner of the globe, but it turns out that this is rather the wrong time of year, both in terms of season and because one of the main concert venues, the Suntory Hall, is closed until the end of August for renovation work. I will, however, be going to a concert of contemporary music organised by the IMS conference (one of the reasons why I am here) on Monday, so may have more to say after that. Just as interestingly I’ll also have my first authentic taste of Gagaku, traditional Japanese court music. The conference itself offers a bewildering range of papers (371 free papers, 23 roundtables, and 12 study sessions to be exact) packed into just four days. I’ve already got a few things earmarked, and am especially looking forward to a keynote lecture that will given by Toshio Hosokawa.
What is true of Japan is true of the rest of the world—contemporary music seems really to get into its stride with the onset of festival season around May. Those looking for something in April, however, could head to the Malta International Music Festival (12th–30th). The composer in residence, Alexey Shor, has pieces being performed in almost every concert. In the UK, meanwhile, the Barbican will host a mini-festival, Sound Unbound 2017, on the weekend of 29–30th. Highlights include music by John WIlliams, experimental music from Gabriel Prokofiev and Nonclassical, some Nordic Noir from the The Samuelsens string duo and a site specific piece by Anna Meredith for the Curve Gallery.
Lack of festivals does not mean a lack of individual premieres, though these are quite scattered around. For a complete breakdown, take a look at C:T’s concert listings. Almost every event includes a premiere. A few that jumped out at me include a Viola Concerto from Andreas Zhibaj in Stockholm on 5th, an as yet untitled orchestral work from Esa-Pekka Salonen in Los Angeles on 13th, a Trombone Concerto by James Macmillan in Amsterdam on 20th and a new chamber work by Colin Matthews in Winchester on 28th.
Talking of James MacMillan, younger composers will want to consider attending his Inspire Session at City Halls Glasgow on 2nd April. Part of the BBC Proms Inspire scheme, it will offer the chance to hear music by Macmillan and to submit pieces for performance by BBCSSO musicians. Those who wish only to observe the workshop section are also encouraged to attend.
A very happy birthday to Samuel Barber, who would have been 107 today. To mark the occasion, here is a preview of a soon to be released documentary about the composer, made by Paul Moon. More information about the film is available at its official site, or on Facebook.
Susanna Eastburn, Chief Executive of Sound and Music
Today is International Women’s Day, which celebrates the ‘social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women’ whilst calling for action to accelerate gender parity.
In this context two articles recently caught my attention. One had geographical relevancy to me, having just moved to the Flanders region of Belgium. It describes a study of 5,227 students from the area, asking them to rate their interest in 24 leisure activities, including in the arts; the extent to which they felt typical of their gender; and whether they felt pressure to conform to gender stereotypes. The result was that ‘the more typical a male adolescent considers himself to be, the lower his interest in highbrow culture’. Conversely, the ‘more gender congruent a female adolescent is, the higher her interest in highbrow cultural activities.’ It went on to observe that this gender gap is reflected in the US in females outnumbering males both in school musical groups and in audience attendance for all highbrow art forms.
The second article was Chief Executive of Sound and Music, Susanna Eastburn’s passionate advocacy of female composers in The Guardian on Monday. In her piece she noted that in 2014, a study found that at every stage of development ‘the gap between male and female applications widened – from 50% at GCSE level, to the 35% female applicants to our summer school, to the 25% female applicants to Sound and Music’s various professional artist development programmes.’
Putting the two studies together begs the obvious question: if women are statistically more likely to be interested in the arts and to be more involved in music-making as students, why are they not following through and becoming composers? Why are they are turning from being creators and participants as youngsters to consumers only as adults? It seems abundantly clear that something, somewhere, is going wrong.
With the weakening of the liberal consensus both in the US and Europe it has become more acceptable to criticise efforts to redress gender imbalances. Some would even argue (as has Milo Yiannopoulos with regard to women in science) that Eastburn’s statistics are simply a reflection of women making life choices and even that there are roles to which men are more suited. Just as insidious, however, is a more subtle and unconscious bias against women composers. As Eastburn observes: ‘Unconscious biases…can take many forms, from asking questions about their personal lives rather than their music, to offering shorter or lighter commissions, or even (a real-life example) asking a famous female composer who had helped her with her orchestral piece, because she clearly couldn’t have done it all by herself.’
It would seem that such conscious and unconscious views are a product of hundreds of years of predominantly male musical history. The stupidity of allowing our judgements to be clouded by the past is evidenced, however, by how much progress we have actually made in the last forty years. If I think only of my native UK, the profession is effectively led by a woman, with Judith Weir as Master of the Queen’s music. I was lucky enough to receive tuition from her and another woman composer, Arlene Sierra, as a student. And more widely we have names such as Helen Grime, Tansy Davies, Rebecca Saunders, Errollyn Wallen, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Charlotte Bray. There are many more.
This is what makes Susanna Eastburn’s argument so compelling. The point is, we have made progress, but not nearly enough. The statistics suggest that women composers are still being lost as they progress through the various stages of their training. But, conversely, when we realise the female talent that, against the odds, has managed to break through, the question becomes: what music are we losing because of our failure to support and promote women composers? As Eastburn says, ‘it's not about tokenism, it's about talent.’
Happy signs that new music is more fashionable than ever. Jim Farber makes the argument in The New Music Paradox, Part 2: Lessons From the Front Lines over at the San Francisco Classical Voice. Well worth a read.
The Glass@80 celebrations are already in full swing, the maestro having celebrated his birthday on January 31st. Anne Midgette points out, however, that the festivities are not quite so all-pervasive as one might imagine. Dennis Russell Davies, who has conducted all eleven of Glass's symphonies, offers some thoughts as to why that is.
The Women Make Music Fund was created to draw attention to the gender gap between men and women in the music industry and increase the number of women creating new music in the UK. In 2011, just 13% of PRS for Music members were professional female songwriters and composers. Now in 2017, female membership sits at 16%.
The outcomes of the Women Make Music Fund speak for themselves. To date, the fund has:
•Attracted 1,300 applications
•Awarded £522,790 in grants
•Increased grantee annual income by an average of £3,513
•Awarded an average grant of £3,600, representing almost 100% return on investment
The report found that over three-quarters (79%) of Women Make Music grantees – which consists of 157 female songwriters, composers and music creators including; Mercury-nominated ESKA, genre-defying composer and producer, Anna Meredith and Women of the Future Award winner Hannah Kendall – said the fund significantly helped their confidence by enabling them to grow their professional profile.
A fascinating and disturbing article by Douglas Jarman argues that Alban Berg initially planned to use the motto of the Deutscher Turnerbund as a structural device in his Violin Concerto. The Turnerbund was ‘a movement concerned with the setting up of gymnastic and sports clubs…[and]…believed that physical education was not only a cornerstone of health but the very identity of a nation.’ By the time that Berg was writing the concerto, however, the organization had been banned because of it sympathies with the Nazi Party.
NMC D220 Hallé, Hallé Youth Choir, The Manchester Grammar School Choir, Jamie Phillips and Sir Mark Elder.
It seems ridiculous that a disk that has no overt political agenda should, as the clock ticks inexorably down to the triggering of Article 50, have acted to calm my jittery Brexit nerves. It’s not been fun being British on the continent these last few months, wondering what on earth is going to happen once we leave the EU.
There’s something unashamedly international about this disk, a tonic at a time when our politics seem much meaner. O’Regan himself was brought up in the UK, but spent a lot of time in North Africa, his mother being born in Morocco but from an Algerian family. He now lives and works in New York City. These myriad cultural influences are woven deftly into his accessible musical language.
The opening work, for example, A Celestial Map of the Sky, contains a collage of texts with a distantly international tone. One of the threads which binds the whole together is Walt Whitman’s Salut au Monde! which includes the lines:
I see the cities of the earth, and make myself at random a part of them.
Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens; Asia, Africa, Europe, [...] America;
I see the cities of the earth;
I am a real Parisian;
I am a habitan of Vienna, St Petersburg, Berlin, Constantinople; I am of Adelaide, Sidney, Melbourne;
I am of London, Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh, Limerick;
That these words are performed by the fresh, and excellent, voices of The Manchester Grammar School Choir (for whom the work was written) and the Hallé Youth Choir, makes them more poignant still. Citizen of nowhere Mrs. May? Count me in.
The music itself reflects wonderfully the changing tone of the different texts. There is the mystical opening of the Gerald Manly Hopkins, the positive and exhilarating energy of the Whitman, the more tonally ambiguous and searching quality of the Mahmood Jamal. Tarik O’Reagan identifies himself as a fan of Benjamin Britten. There is certainly an element of that here in his responsiveness to the text, his facility in writing for young voices and the flexibility of his musical style. Combined with this, there are more obviously American elements—hints of minimalism, a certain stylistic unpretentiousness, an occasionally Coplandesque ‘openness’ to his orchestration—making him truly transatlantic.
The stylistic net is drawn wider still in two works: Raï and Chaâbi. Written for orchestra alone they draw upon popular North African dance forms, though the composer is quick to observe that ‘neither is an ethnographic study.’ Raï, which is Moroccan influenced, takes things a stage further with the inclusion of darbuka drums, which add a propulsive energy to the proceedings. In fact, of the two, Raï is rather the more successful, its taut rondo structure containing a plethora of well-executed ideas. Chaâbi, has a wonderfully elegiac quality, especially in the opening dialogue between soloists and orchestra. It nevertheless feels a little diffuse, and towards the end some of the ostinato patterns begin to overstay their welcome. As if to emphasise this point, the download version of the disk contains a bonus track, Now Fatal Change, for solo violin and countertenor, based on the same material as Chaâbi. It is a beautiful work, poised and focused in a way that Chaâbi can’t quite manage. It also once again highlights the Britten (this time via Purcell) influence.
J.S. Bach’s Sonata No. 3 for Solo Violin in C Major provides the inspiration for Latent Manifest, which was commissioned as part of a programme of musical transcriptions at the 2010 BBC Proms. O’Regan explains that his method of transcription is also derived from Bach, for when the composer himself adapted the violin piece for harpsichord ‘the result was more fantasia than conventional transcription.’ The same is certainly true here. The opening is a literal enough quotation, but O’Regan quickly leads us on an exhilarating reinterpretation of the original material. The brassy, and expertly prepared, peroration five minutes in had me clutching the arms of my sofa in delight.
The programme ends with Fragments from Heart of Darkness, a suite extracted from O’Regan’s chamber opera Heart of Darkness, based upon the novel by Joseph Conrad. Again that text is seems apposite for our troubled times—though seen through the prism of imperialism, the central question of how one race perceives another remains relevant. The piece, the most substantial in the programme, works in a way that opera suites don’t always manage—we are not merely presented with a bouquet of nice moments from the larger work, but a composition that contains a thrust and narrative drive of its own. It’s not unlike listening to a Strauss tone poem; it is vividly pictorial and contains a circularity (we begin and end in the same place) familiar from, say, An Alpine Symphony. In any case it provides an excellent conclusion to this splendid and highly recommended programme of music.
A Celestial Map of the Sky: Interview with Tarik O'Regan
It is with some exhaustion that I have just updated the concert listings here on C:T. Another period of change sees me now living in Leuven, Belgium, having wended my weary way here from sunny Nice a couple of weeks ago. Hunting an apartment has been enervating, rendered more stressful by the desire to become established before Mrs. May begins the business of Brexit.
I hope, soon, to be able to bring some more interesting perspectives from this part of the world. I am, indeed, excited by the possibilities. Nice is a beautiful place, but it is artistically out on a limb. Here I am one train stop from Brussels, with other important cultural centres within easy reach, including London, Paris, Amsterdam and Cologne.
One thing I can report is that linguistically Belgium is fascinating. Here in Leuven the main language is Dutch, or Flemish to be exact. Yet one can quite happily get by in daily life speaking English which, whilst not being an official language, is much preferred to French. And yet if you take that one-stop train journey to Brussels the world turns Francophone. The eastern cantons of Eupen-Malmedy, on the other hand, are Germanic. Different regional languages are, of course, pretty common in Europe—indeed I grew up with this in Wales—but the degree of linguistic homogeneity within each region makes one feel that Belgium is several countries in one, a fact, I suppose, reflected in the country’s federal system of government.
Anyway, I digress. March is still a bit early in the season to be a bumper month for new music, but if you cast your eyes around there is, as ever, plenty going on. On 3rd Oliver Knussen will conduct BCMG and Huw Watkins in the world premiere of Helen Grime’s new Piano Concerto at Wigmore Hall, with a second opportunity to hear the work at the CBSO Centre on 5th. In New York on 3rd, meanwhile, Gene Pritsker’s new Violin Concerto with Big Band will be premiered by Vesselin Gellev at The Cutting Room, 19th West 24th Street.
James MacMillan receives a brace of premieres at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh in March. The first, on 4th, is his Concertino for Horn and Strings, to be played by Alec Frank-Gemmill accompanied by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. On the 23rd is the Scottish Premiere of his Stabat Mater, performed by The Sixteen.
At the Concergebouw, Amsterdam on 11th is the first performance of a new Requiem by Willem Jeths. If one premiere is not enough in a concert, however, there are two concerts worth checking out. On 19th, the New London Children’s Choir celebrates its 25th anniversary with a programme that includes eight world premieres. Similarly, in Paris on 30th Ensemble Intercontemporain marks its fortieth anniversary with concert that includes seven new works, each of which is based on one of the days of Genesis.
At Wigmore Hall on 25th, finally, is a day dedicated to the music of Thomas Adès. It begins with a concert at 1pm that contains his The Four Quarters, Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face and Piano Quartet, as well as music by Lutosławski and Walton. At 6pm is the chance to hear Adès in conversation with Wigmore Hall Director John Gilhooly. The day concludes with BCMG performing his Concerto Conciso and Arcadiana Op. 12 alongside works by Kurtág, Janáček and Gerald Barry.
The BBC Concert Orchestra recently performed a tribute concert to mark the 85th birthday of John Williams, the complete concert being available here.
Much more fun, and educational, however, are their three performances of Star Wars, Jaws and Jurassic park, now available on the Radio Two website. They are interactive, so that you can zoom around the orchestra spotlighting different instrumental sections. Doing so reveals interesting details of orchestration. Unfortunately, it seems that Flash is required, so it won't work on mobile.
I have always been amazed at the opportunities offered by Ablaze Records. Especially I’ve wondered how they manage to finance such a lavish range of competitions.
Well, according to a story over at Slipped Disc, they do it by asking the winning composer to pay for the performance. Composer Nikita Suhih recently won a competition, but was then asked to stump up $19,000 for the performance.
John Adams, who turns 70 this month, has just given some reactions to political events in the U.S. The interview, with Gabe Meline, can be found, here. Well worth a read…
This also come as the Seattle Symphony tonight plays a programme of music from the seven countries whose immigrants were banned from entering the country. From their website: 'As artists and Americans, we are committed to freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas which create an environment of mutual understanding and the capacity for empathy. At the Seattle Symphony, we are inspired to add our voice in the hopes that we can come together through music.'
Christian Morris talks to Philip Sawyers, whose Symphony No. 3 will be premiered by the English Symphony Orchestra on 28th February at St John's Smith Square, London.
Tell us a little about your background. How did you come to compose?
Almost as soon as I started learning the violin at the age of 13, making up music just seemed a natural thing to do. I was very lucky at Dartington College of the Arts, where I studied for my A-levels, in having an inspirational teacher in the person of Helen Glatz. She held a 'composers' workshop' every Friday and we were encouraged to bring anything we had written, however incomplete, to have played through and given her perceptive observations. It was a marvellously practical way to learn your craft. At the Guildhall I was a first study violinist so composition was not part of the course and I was left to find my own way. I had pieces performed and received various comments from my peers and from some of the composition staff. My most memorable occasion was conducting my Symphonic Music for Strings and Brass and having Rubbra make encouraging remarks about it.
You seem to have led a busy professional life after studying at Guildhall. Was there much time for composition?
After the Guildhall I had to make a living and again was lucky in getting a contract with the ROH orchestra where I played from 1973 to 1997. During that time I also freelanced with other orchestras, including the LSO and BSO, and, amazingly, found time to play in some light music and pop sessions as well! The marvellous thing about the ROH was the list of amazing world-renowned conductors and soloists, of whom I have many happy memories. This clearly left little time for composition but, although fellow musicians and audiences enjoyed my music, it was distinctly out of fashion. In the late 60s and into the 70s only the fashionable avant-garde composers following on from Stockhausen and Boulez seemed to get commissioned and large organisations like the BBC seemed only interested in 'cutting-edge' work. This I found hugely discouraging as a mostly 'tonal' composer and that played some part in my drop in output during those years.
On 25th March at The Barbican is the chance to hear Shostakovich’s piano score New Babylon, which will accompany a screening of the film. This is the first performance of the work as it was originally conceived.
Shostakovich’s spectacular first film score, New Babylon, was written when he was just 23 years old and is, alongside The Nose, his most important early dramatic work. Numerous re-writes of the film were demanded even before shooting started and the directors’ final cut completed in December 1928, when the composer was contracted to join the production. His myriad musical quotations matched a fast cross-cut film to produce a work of astonishing complexity and precision unequalled in silent film composition.
However, after two industry preview screenings with the composer himself performing his original solo piano score, the Moscow Sovkino office ordered the removal of over 20% of the film. Re-editing Shostakovich’s score to match proved impossible, parts were incomplete and early performances, a series of debacles, were beyond the abilities of cinema orchestras. Remaining copies of the piano score, destined for smaller cinemas and now unfitted for the re-edited film, were sold off. A rare surviving copy has provided the material for this first public performance.
A very happy birthday to John Williams, who turns 85 today.
It would be impossible to number the composers I’ve met who have been influenced by him in some way. For me, his film scores were among my first introductions to classical music, even before I knew his name—his soundtrack to E.T. was one of the first vinyl single singles I bought.
It seems that the younger generation are just as enamoured by his music as was mine. Here are a couple of kids fanfaring the master six months ago. His reaction is delightful.
And here he is talking about the scoring of E.T. Though it’s a relatively well-known fact, it’s worth hearing the part where he describes how, in the final section, Spielberg cut the film to match the music, not the other way around.
The Konzerthaus Berlin has put out a series of videos in which an orchestra provides soundtracks to everyday events. They're very tongue in cheek, but a lot of fun. Perhaps there are even some real composition ideas in there somewhere...