Ouija in Romania

PellayEvery 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.

409px-Nicolo_Paganini_by_Richard_James_LaneSo 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).  

Beethoven Plus

beethovenI’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.

beethoven-home-page2The 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.

Self-ablaze

wild2Last October I found the idea for a new violin piece, reading a book by Robert Macfarlane called The Wild Places.  The book tells of his own personal attempt to get close to the wild, to feel it, think about its history and its value and the various ways in which we have related to it through human history.

At one point he writes about an ancient tradition called shan-shui: these artists, living in the mountains of China admired and revered the unconfined energy of the wild, its continuous coming-into-being. To this quality of aliveness they gave the name zi-ran, which might be translated as ‘wildness’, ‘self-thusness’ or ‘self-ablazeness’.

I was thrilled to discover this idea and make it the focal point of my new piece.  At the same time, with the busy-ness of termtime and then a bout of illness around Christmas, it was a long time before I managed to make any real start on it.  No doubt at some level ideas were brewing at the back of my mind, but they were far from being specific musical ideas, just some vague sense of what the whole thing ought to feel like.  As time passes, the fact that it feels like a very powerful, inspiring idea also starts to become a pressure: if you’re going to tackle an idea like this then you have to come up with something worthy of it…  Finally, in early March I was able to make a start, and (luckily, and quite unusually) once I’d got going the piece flowed with remarkably little hesitation.  I’ve now had the pleasure of hearing Peter Sheppard Skaerved and Roderick Chadwick, the violinist and pianist for whom I wrote it, give a truly barnstorming first read-through, which was very exciting.  I’ve rewritten just one part, where I felt the music slightly lost track of the central idea, and am now looking forward very much to the premiere on Sunday 27 April in Kettles Yard.

Quicksilver – new video

This is a video of Anuradha Chaturvedi dancing to a score I wrote for her a couple of years ago. This was the third performance, at the Exuberant Gala in the Pegasus Theatre, Oxford, last month. Anuradha made a new choreography so it’s quite different from the two videos you can see in last year’s post. It’s also a much better quality of video – thanks to Erika Montenegro who filmed it!

or for mobile phone users, this is a smaller file: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/10415359/quicksilver%20-%20for%20mobiles.m4v

The Wild Places

I’ve been reading Robert Macfarlane’s fascinating book The Wild Places, which is both a meditation on the meaning, value and history of the wild, and a search to find the few remaining truly wild, untamed places in Britain.

I was especially struck by one passage:

wild“There is a history that tells of wildness as an energy both exemplary and exquisite. … Such a love for the wild can be found in the Chinese artistic tradition known as shan-sui or ‘rivers-and-mountains’. 

Shan-shui originated in the early fifth century BC and endured for two thousand years. Its practitioners lived in the mountain lands of China, and wrote about the wild world around them. Their art sought to articulate the wondrous processes of the world, its continuous coming-into-being. To this quality of aliveness the shan-shui artists gave the name zi-ran, which might be translated as ‘self-ablazeness’, ‘self-thusness’ or ‘wildness’.”

And: “the wild proceeds according to its own laws and principles … acts or moves freely without restraint, … is unconfined, unrestricted.”

At the same time that I was reading this I was starting to think about a new piece I’ve been asked to write for Peter Sheppard Skaerved, the extraordinary violinist who has given a whole series of amazing performances of Ouija since I wrote it for him last year.  And immediately I read this I knew I had found a starting point.  Not yet a musical idea, but an idea nonetheless, a vivid and powerful one.

The new piece will be called Self-ablaze. The concert is at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, next April (27th), and will be given by Peter with Roderick Chadwick on piano (who played piano in the first performances of my flute-and-piano piece Plus avant que l’étoile, beautifully), so my new piece will be in very good hands!

Quicksilver – new choreography

AVARTAN MainThe wonderful dancer Anuradha Chaturvedi, who premiered my solo dance piece Quiverful in July 2011, has made a new choreography of the piece and will be performing it at the Exuberant Gala show at the Pegasus Theatre, Oxford, on Sunday 22nd September.

I’ve also changed the name of the piece to Quicksilver (to avoid the completely inappropriate associations of the name Quiverful for readers of The Barchester Chronicles!)

We aim to take a video, which I’ll post soon – watch this space.

 

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.

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).