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]

The Ouija project

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.

spirit voices and violins

I’m currently working on a new piece for the wonderful violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved.  It’s a double challenge for me.  First, the piece will combine the live violin-playing with electro-acoustic sound: this is territory which I’ve only peeked into a few times: there’s a great deal to explore, which is exciting, and also a lot of technical stuff to learn in order to make it happen.

Second, the piece is going to involve improvisation from Peter.  This might seem like making things easier for me as a composer – essentially, handing over the job to someone else.  But the point is that I really want to investigate ways of integrating elements of improvisation into the piece, so that it feels like a real collaboration, and so that it would be very hard to say exactly where my ‘idea’ ends and Peter’s interpretation and performance of it takes over (very much like conventionally notated music in this respect).

I’ve been finding it really difficult.  Interesting, though, as it’s made me realised just how used I am to fine-tuning and fixing all the details until everything feels ‘right’.   I still want everything in the new piece to feel ‘right’, so the challenge is to find a way to do this while allowing for more flexibility in how it can be realised.

Obviously, with this kind of piece it’s essential to work with the violinist throughout the composing process, not just at the end of it.  So we’ve planned two workshop/rehearsals, a few weeks apart and well ahead of the first performance, when we can try things out.  Unlike a normal rehearsal, for which a composer tries to present something that’s polished and ready to go, I am going to show Peter all kinds of ideas and sketches include several which really might not work at all.  The first of these workshops is coming up in a few days, so that’s what I’m preparing for at the moment.

One thing has helped me a lot, which is a kind of ‘scenario’.  Both the electro-acoustic and the improvisatory elements are interesting challenges for me, but may not seem innately all that exciting to anyone else, and I felt it would be important to give them a role, a character.  It was from looking through Peter’s website, a mine of ideas and information, that I discovered something fascinating about the Hungarian violinist Jelly D’Aranyi, for whom Bartók wrote his two fantastic violin and piano sonatas.  Apparently, she used to hold séances and communicate with the spirits of the dead –  Schumann especially.  It occurred to me that, in performance, the electro-acoustic aspect is not unlike the mysterious voices of spirits, emanating from nowhere, without physical body.  And also that the medium is necessarily engaged in a kind of dialogue which has to be improvisatory.

So, even if I keep nothing else after our first workshop, I think I have a title – Ouija.