Every time Ouija is performed it’s a bit of an adventure for me, because of the way that the solo violinist takes the expressive ideas of the piece and reshapes them in their own way, differently every time. The piece is ‘about’ discovering unknown voices and listening to what they can tell us, and in some ways that’s true of what happens with the soloist himself. Peter Sheppard Skaerved has played it lots of times now and it’s amazing the way that he is always totally creative with it, never repeating himself. In a different way, it’s always fascinating hearing the piece played by a different violinist, because every player has a different personality, and that always comes through very clearly when the piece is performed.
So I’m really looking forward to going to Romania next week to work with a fantastic young violinist Radu Dunca, who’ll be playing Ouija in Cluj on Thursday 4th December and again in Bucharest on Saturday 6th, in concerts by the AdHoc Ensemble. Radu plays with great spontaneity, feeling and virtuosity. See Radu playing in a rooftop concert. Radu’s been rehearsing the piece from the score, and it’ll be interesting to see if the score actually communicates the ideas that I want to put across – in the case of this rather unusual piece which gives a big creative role to the soloist, it was hard to decide how much to specify in the score, and at what point to back off and leave it to the soloist to decide what to do. Radu and I will have one rehearsal together on the Wednesday, and then he’ll be performing the piece (in a slightly shortened version) the next day.
The first concert is in the Sala studio, Music Academy “Gheorghe Dima”, Cluj, on Thursday 4 December, at 19.00, and the second is in the ISCM Festival Meridian in Bucharest at 19.00 on Saturday 6 December, in the “Aula Magna” of the Cantacuzino Palace (Uniunea Compozitorilor and Enescu Museum).
It was the first workshop with Peter Sheppard Skaerved on Tuesday (Valentine’s Day, as it happened), and as you’ll have guessed from my earlier post, I was quite nervous about it. In fact, it turned out to be a wonderful day, full of laughter and discovery.
There were three of us – Peter, me and Mark Doffman from Oxford University, who is interested in observing and studying the creative process in an interactive project like this one. I started with the sketches which I felt were least risky. Very quickly, Mark and I saw and heard not only how wonderfully Peter played them, but also how enthusiastic he was, and how quick and keen he was to get to the heart of the idea, and to inhabit it from the inside. This was absolutely ideal, for any piece, but especially for a piece like this, of course. So gradually I started bringing out sketches where I experimented with different ways of influencing and the player and setting up the ‘idea’, the ‘scenario’, without necessarily writing out every note and rhythm. It really was fascinating hearing these various different skeletons come to life.
Peter is a wonderful performer of Paganini, and also of unaccompanied Bach, so I decided to take their unaccompanied violin music as starting points for two of the movements. The piece falls into several movements – about five, it looks like – and each one takes a different approach to the question of how I as composer can shape the improvisation: what to specify, and what to leave open. I’m now hugely encouraged about the piece, and looking forward tremendously to the next workshop in March.
Bach and contemporaries like Telemann wrote, copied, rehearsed, taught and performed colossal quantities of music at a rate which still seems almost physically impossible (even putting aside questions of quality…). But Bach also had a taste for grand long-term projects, and despite his incredible productivity he didn’t always manage to see things through to completion. The much-loved Orgelbüchlein – Little Organ-Book – is a case in point. These jewel-like miniatures are all written in a small book. Bach planned to write 164, wrote the titles out at the head of each page, and then set about writing the pieces themselves. He completed forty-six of them.
William Whitehead has had the brilliant idea of commissioning composers today to write the missing preludes. Each piece must be based on the appropriate Lutheran chorale tune, but beyond that essential starting point there are no further rules.
I chose a hymn for Advent. When I first saw the tune itself, it was a bit of a disappointment – it’s a fairly plain melody which seemed a little short on joie-de-vivre. I hit on a sprightly, slightly fairground-like riff for the manuals, and also found a way of morphing the rhythm of the chorale tune (which is played in the pedals) so that it follows a different beat from the hands and continually jostles against them. From here on it was fun to write, and fell into place surprisingly quickly.
Greg Drott gives the first performance in Emmanuel Chapel in November, along with a dozen of Bach’s own preludes. I’ve heard him play it through and he has the jazzy cross-rhythms to perfection, and gets some delightful sounds from the organ too. William Whitehead’s Orgelbüchlein project continues with more recitals, and more new pieces by a variety of composers. Definitely worth going along to.