Ouija, Celadon, Messiaen, Magnificat, Slow Tide II

This is a quick news post with dates of some upcoming performances:

First up, Celadon will be played in two concerts given by the distinguished Korean musicians Kyung Sung Cho, Hyo Young Kim and Seungmi Suh during their visit to Cambridge this month – at 5.30pm on Wednesday 25 April in the Recital Room, University Faculty of Music (West Rd), and on Saturday April 28 at 5.00pm in Robinson College Chapel.

Next, I’m writing and presenting a programme in BBC Radio 3’s long-running Saturday morning series Building a Library on Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie; it’ll be broadcast on Saturday May 26th at about 9.30am.

Ouija will receive its first performance at 8pm on May 23 in Sidney Sussex Chapel, in a recital by Peter Sheppard Skaerved which also includes the premiere of Sonata Sospesa by Poul Ruders, and Bach’s G minor sonata and D minor Partita.  Full details and tickets available from Cambridge Summer Music Festival.  This is the piece conceived as a kind of séance, in which the violinist seeks to communicate with unseen spirits (see two earlier posts here and here).  Sidney Sussex Chapel will be a wonderfully atmospheric setting.

There will be further performances of Ouija at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford on November 2nd, and in London (details still tbc).

Later that week Gonville & Caius Choir, with senior organ scholar Annie Lydford and their director Geoffrey Webber, will give the second performance of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis I wrote for them (the Caius Service) – this is on Sunday 27 May at 6pm in Gonville and Caius Chapel.

And in June I will be giving a concert in Bonn, which includes performances of a newly revised version of A Sense of Touch (originally for four pianos: here in its alternative version for two pianos and tape) and the first performance of Slow Tide II.  This is a rethinking of the music of Slow Tide, a piece for two pianos and two percussionists, keeping most of the harmonic and melodic material, but radically rethinking the sonority and texture, and recasting the piece for piano, MIDI keyboard and tape.  The sounds of the MIDI keyboard and the tape are being realised by Jo Snape in The Hague.  The programme will also include more of my piano music.   This is on Tuesday June 12th in the Schumannhaus, Bonn, with the support of the Institut Français.

[Image: Celadon ceramic art, Korea]

a visit from Korea

A little while ago I was asked to write a piece for three fine Korean musicians who are visiting Cambridge in April to play and discuss traditional and contemporary music.  They play three beautiful and fascinating instruments – Taegum, a kind of flute with a fine membrane that adds a subtle buzzing quality to the sound; Saeng Hwang, a kind of mouth organ in which the pipes stand up vertically, rather an amazing sight; and Keomungo, a kind of zither.

I was told that I can also include one or two Western instruments.  Initially I thought I would avoid piano, because it carries such strong memories of a repertoire (19th-century, above all) and all that comes with that repertoire (perhaps this is because I’m a pianist myself). But in the end I decided to use it after all, and try to find a way of writing for it which would integrate with the sounds of the three Korean instruments.  I’ve also added a percussion part for two bells, and temple blocks.  It’s very interesting to write for instruments from another culture, not only because of the different sonorities and idioms, but also because I had to think about how to conceive and notate the music in a way which would engage the players’ own very refined sensibilities, allow them to bring their own imagination and expression to the music, and not merely try to get them to fit into a Western-style straitjacket.

Sometimes youtube can be very useful!  Gyewon Byeon, who invited the players to the UK and will be giving a seminar on their music, lent me an extremely informative book describing the instruments in great detail, by Keith Howard.  That was essential, but of course actually seeing and hearing the instruments is irreplaceable, and here youtube came into its own…

I’ve just finished the piece, which I’ve decided to call Celadon – it’s a kind of delicate jade-green ceramic perfected by artists from Korea around a thousand years ago.  The scores have been sent off, but of course with a situation like this the rehearsals are not merely practice, but a vital chance to find out how these musicians make music, and see how I can shape my ideas so that they can make them their own, and bring the piece to its final form.  I’m looking forward to this process, and to their two Cambridge concerts, at the end of April!

Song of Simeon

Last winter around Christmas I wrote a Magnificat: it was strange, and in the end quite exciting to immerse myself in words I’ve known very well for years and years but haven’t ever set to music before (see a post about this).  In England, the vast majority of occasions when a choir sings a Magnificat are Choral Evensongs, so it really made sense to follow up that piece with a Nunc Dimittis, setting the words of the old man Simeon when he sees the infant Jesus.  At some point last year I mentioned to composer Robin Holloway that I’d written the Magnificat and was now thinking about a Nunc Dimittis, and he said  – you’ll enjoy it: the Magnificat is an awkward text to set because it’s all chopped up into short separate sentences, but in the Nunc everything flows on in a single unfolding vision.

Looking at the two texts I can see exactly what he means, but strangely, I ended up finding the Nunc much harder to set.  I got stuck just once in the Magnificat, and found a way through that within a few days.  In the Nunc I made only a very uncertain start, and then got stuck for several months; later attempts in the summer to make a fresh start did little better.  It could simply be that it wasn’t a top priority, but at any rate, the musical ideas wouldn’t come.

The next thing that happened was that Geoffrey Webber offered to give the first performance of the Magnificat with the fantastic choir of Gonville & Caius College – but it was agreed of course that I’d write a Nunc Dimittis to go with it.   And then, once Christmas was done, there actually wasn’t a huge amount of time left in which to write it.  The sticking point (‘For mine eyes have seen thy salvation…’) didn’t open up straight away, even then, but when it did, what turned out to have been the crucial issue was rhythm.  It was only when I found the right rhythm, and with it momentum, flow, that the melodies and harmonies came, and then they came very easily.  All the earlier attempts went nowhere because they weren’t in the right underlying tempo, metre, groove.

So it’s done now, and I’m really looking forward to hearing the first performance, at Evensong on Sunday 5th February – it’s a superb choir and I’ve no doubt they will do it proud.  It’ll be an exciting service, with a new set of Responses by Robin Holloway and an anthem by Cheryl Frances Hoad.

And now I’m beginning to have an idea for a completely different setting of the Magnificat…

(to hear some of my other choral music, go to >listen/voices)

Light matter revisited

It’s two years since CCD turned the Senate House inside out and filled it with laser beams and dancing bodies, as part of the University’s 800th anniversary celebrations.  For two nights this august space pulsed with the movement of newly-made dance, including one that I wrote with choreographer Isobel Cohen (other scores were written by Ewan Campbell and David Earl, and also, at several centuries’ distance, Christopher Tye). The events were captured on video, but sound quality was less than thrilling; I’m delighted that it’s now been possible to clean up the recording of the piece Isobel and I wrote and I’m putting it up here where it can be seen and heard.

The dancers are all members of Cambridge Contemporary Dance: the piece takes as its theme Isaac Newton’s experiments with light and colour.  See for yourself:  Light/Dance

escaping eye – the movie

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

Friday night in the warehouse

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.

ladder of the escaping eye

I’ve been writing a piece for recorder-player extraordinaire Robert de Bree, after hearing him at Kettle’s Yard recently.  Somehow the ideas came out ladder-shaped, and started getting tangled up with some paintings by Joan Miró, whose currently the subject of an exciting exhibition at Tate Modern.  What’s come out is a solo recorder piece of about 6 minutes, which can be performed ‘free-standing’, say, in a recital (we’re planning one for Amsterdam in 2012).

But I’m also tempted to explore the connections with Miró’s paintings, and with images of ladders and steps more generally, by developing the piece into something more multi-media.  One plan is to make a film which explores a kind of snakes-and-ladders labyrinth against the sound (and at times, the sight) of Robert playing the piece. This could be viewed online, or screened as part of one of Robert’s live performances.  Another idea is to set up some gallery performances which engage with paintings and perform amongst them.  The Miró paintings would be fantastic – Tate Modern, are you listening?…

sounds of spring

Last month I enjoyed the chance to hear a short piece for four horns and choir which I wrote a few years ago for the opening of an outdoor theatre.  This is our Eden, a song of gardens, flowers and trees. It was beautifully performed by horns and singers alike – and it’ll be recorded on a CD this summer, along with the carol As Joseph was a-walking.

Meanwhile, I’ve been writing a new piece for violin and piano, for Guy Button.  Spring seemed to be what was in my mind, and a rather Italian, Vivaldi-ish spring too, hence the name Primavera.  It’ll get its first two performances next month in London (GSMD, July 5) and Winchester  (July 6).

my soul doth magnify …

Like anyone who’s sung in an Anglican church or chapel choir, I’ve sung these words many times, in many wonderful settings (and a few less wonderful ones, too). I had never set the Magnificat myself, though.  And over Christmas, I suddenly felt drawn to have a go.

They are wonderful words.  But it took a lot of work, reading and speaking them through again and again, to get to the point where I could actually approach them again as words, ideas.  Until then, every phrase of the text immediately rang out with musical phrases from all the well-known settings which I’ve sung over the years til they’ve become engrained in my brain, and even if I managed to let go of the particular rhythms and shapes of that setting, I was still left with a sense of it that was already interpreted, pre-digested.  Gradually, as I said the lines over and over, I felt I was beginning to clear some free space in my mind and strip my reading and thinking right back to the words themselves. And this was the place where I could begin to find some music of my own. I’ve now finished the Magnificat, and tried to focus on the feelings of awe as well as joy,  the sense of realising something all-encompassing and fundamental.  Now I need to start thinking about the Nunc Dimittis…

Vanessa and Virginia

This is a play based on Susan Sellers’ novel about the artist Vanessa Bell and her fascinating, complex, extraordinary relationship with her novelist sister Virginia Woolf.  This beautiful adaptation by Elizabeth Wright for two actors, and involving a moving backdrop based on Bell’s paintings is being produced by Moving Stories, and I’m writing the music.  We’ve now started working on it, and the process is rather different from how I usually write.  When I arrived after two weeks of rehearsals the actors and director had already done much wonderful work building up character history, body language, quirks of movement and so on,  and the first few scenes were up and running.

I watched the scenes, and then asked them to run them again immediately, while I improvised on the piano, responding instinctively to the atmosphere, pace and direction of the scene.  This means losing oneself in it and not trying to retain conscious control of what one is doing.  Which is all very well, but it means that at the end, it’s often very hard to remember exactly what it was that you played, especially the bits where it really took off and flew.  The solution was to video the sessions, and then play back and write up the bits which I want to use.  Of course, from there, there’s a process of editing and fine-tuning which is more like how I normally compose.  But the main part – responding to actors speaking and moving all around me, and just playing – and has been very refreshing for me.

The play opens in Aix en Provence in September, and then tours various theatres in the UK and also Krakow til September 2011.