I’m very excited to have been invited by the fabulous violinist Krysia Osostowicz to write a piece for her Beethoven Plus project. I’ve long admired Krysia’s playing, as a soloist and in Domus and the Dante Quartet. She and pianist Daniel Tong have had the great idea of commissioning ten short new pieces, each one responding in some way to one of Beethoven’s ten violin-and-piano sonatas.
They have chosen an amazingly varied and exciting line-up of composers – the other nine are Huw Watkins, Philip Venables, Matthew Taylor, Kurt Schwertsik, David Matthews, Jonathan Dove, Elspeth Brooke, Judith Bingham and Peter Ash.
Beethoven is one of my very favourite composers and I listened to him a lot when I was a teenager. His personality is so strong that even 200 years later it seems wise to do something completely different rather than get too close and risk disappearing into his shadow. But that’s why this commission is so intriguing – I think the way I shall approach it is to do something completely different, and see what happens to a few snippets of Beethoven when they find themselves in this very different space.
The eighth sonata is a special favourite of mine for its endlessly cheeky, inventive, subvertive energy and charm. There’s a particular spot about a minute and a half into the first movement with a strange, devilish texture, twisting quick and light but also dark and momentarily sinister. Whenever I hear or play this bit I always feel that it’s Beethoven at the piano – in a cheeky mood, but with a strange undercurrent. I don’t know what will happen to it in my piece, but this will definitely be one of the bits that gets transplanted into an alien landscape.
Recently I seem to keep coming back to the violin – after In a quiet place, Primavera and Ouija, my last piece was Self-ablaze which was given a blistering premiere last month by Peter Sheppard Skaerved and Roderick Chadwick. If that was massive, fierce and direct, for the new piece I now need to find a very different way of thinking – nimble, elusive, oblique, teasing.
I posted earlier this summer about a new piece I wrote for recorder-player extraordinaire Robert de Bree. The piece is called Ladder of the Escaping Eye (a title from Miró: several of his paintings include a frail, spindly ladder, climbing steeply and improbably out of the picture-space. As in Landscape with rooster above). I had the idea that, as well as being done ‘straight’ as a solo recorder piece, it might also be interesting to make this into a film.
Robert came over and played the piece through in June, in Robinson College Chapel with its wonderful acoustic and glowing light, and I asked filmmaker Adriana Timco to film it for me. Later in the summer I was on holiday in a small village deep in France called Charras, which has a beautiful chateau, whose grounds are full of wonderfully crumbling stone staircases, and I took some video of them.
And later, back home, I had some fun putting them together into a short film. I’m no film maker – in fact I’d never even opened iMovie before – so it’s unashamedly cast in a homespun, rough-and-ready style, and it’s not going to win any prizes for technical finesse. I have no tripod, the video is hand-held and wobbly, the sound is low-resolution, and so on. But it was fun to do, and I do like the light on the stone at Charras, and the rhythmic repetition of steps and shadows. Anyway, see for yourself –
> Ladder of the Escaping Eye
Carmen-Elektra has pulled off another unforgettable evening, filling a huge disused warehouse with lights, staging, some seriously LARGE speakers, an orchestra, a bar, a dance troupe, singers (one of them dressed as a toy lion with sunglasses) and last but not least, a big, enthusiastic and wonderfully attentive audience.
This was a double bill of Terrible Lips, an exciting new opera by Kate Whitley, and my video opera A Sudden Cartography of Song. Performances of both pieces were committed and intense, drawing on Cambridge’s very best singers and players, conducted by Will Gardner and Harry Ogg. See more pictures of both pieces.
It was fantastic to have Alistair Appleton (who wrote the words and made the video) come to speak his own lines. And Alistair and I were delighted with the energy, professionalism and sheer beauty of the singing, and of the production, both imaginative and sensitive, by Thom Andrewes. All in all it was an evening to remember. Carmen Elektra believe that if you rescue new music from ‘old-music’ venues and etiquette, and let it do its own thing, people will want to hear it. They’re certainly making a good case with productions like this. There is talk of a Rite of Spring in a Peckham car park next. Not to be missed.
I’ve decided to call my new piece Slow Tide.
The idea probably comes from when I lived right by the sea, in Fife, and was often hypnotised by the long, slow, incremental creep of the tide, pulling back under even as it rolls forwards. The two pianos have a push-me pull me relationship which makes the same kind of progress – slow to the point of motionless, but inexorable. And behind them the two percussionists are caught up in slowly evolving tide-tables of their own. I’m really looking forward to the first performance, by pianists David Christophersen and Vivien Choi, and percussionists Peter Britton and Derek Scurll, in West Road Concert Hall.
Well, we’re now back from the trip to Hong Kong. We had a fabulous time, and one of the joys was working with such delightful musicians; we had such fun with them. The whole concert has been broadcast and webcast on RTHK, who also put together an excellent film about our stay in the city. We certainly got a taste of the high life….
The TV programme can be seen online at Music First/Power of Harmony
It includes Vivaldi’s Gloria, Bach’s double violin concerto performed by Catherine and Guy together with the wonderful orchestra of the HK Academy of the Performing Arts, a Purcell anthem and the new piece I wrote which brought together all the different soloists and ensembles of the concert, including Niu Niu, Yang Peiyi, Catherine Myerscough, Guy Button, the Orchestra of the HK APA, and Robinson College Choir. It also includes members of the choir proclaiming the HK Tourist Board’s inimitable slogan Hong Kong: Live it, Love it!
Back to the UK now, and reality. And onwards and upwards, in fact, as I need to write a piece for Cambridge pianist David Christophersen, who has commissioned a work for two pianos and two percussionists. My idea is to set the percussionists free of the pianists, while entwining them in a delicate and intimate dialogue with each other. We’ll see how it turns out.
Later this summer I’m taking the choir of Robinson College to Hong Kong, where we’ve been invited to give a concert alongside some of the brightest stars of Chinese music, including Yundi Li. I’ve been asked to write a piece which will end the concert and draw together the brilliant young pianist Niu Niu, the wonderful singer Yang Peiyi who delighted the world at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, two outstanding violinists from Robinson College, Catherine Myerscough and Guy Button, the college Choir, and the orchestra of the Hong Kong Academy of the Performing Arts. If this wasn’t enough of a mix, I’ll be setting words in Chinese, written by the distinguished and enormously successful novelist Louis Cha, famous for his best-selling martial arts novels. It’s looking like a hugely exciting trip, and the commission is certainly a challenge!
I’m having pieces performed at three concerts in the Cambridge Music Festival this November.
Firstly, John McMunn, Alec Frank-Gemmill and Matthew Schellhorn will give the premiere of my Keats setting Unbidden Visions, for tenor, horn and piano, on Thursday November 12th.
Then Lesley-Jane Rogers will perform The She Wolf in a late-night concert on Thursday 19th.
And finally, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet will perform my String Quartet, written for them and premered last year, on November 24th.
I’m also giving a recital of Faure’s extraordinary late Nocturnes, with poetry from Gerard Manley Hopkins and others, read by Michael Hurley, on Monday 16th at 10pm.