Saturday, November 09, 2013

Morty and Me: Appartment House perform Patterns in a Chromatic Field at the Purcell Room

Patterns in a Chromatic Field was the second piece by Morton Feldman I ever heard, and it remains one of my favourites. The first time I encountered it was in Huddersfield in 1996, in a late-night concert straight after the one that featured the first Feldman piece I'd ever heard, For Samuel Beckett.

I was there because I had a piece in contention for the festival's Young Composer Award. (I didn't win, although I did get beyond the workshop stage and get a proper concert performance alongside the piece that did win. Long story.) Feldman was one of the featured composers that year (the first time a dead man had been featured this way in Huddersfield, I believe), so there was quite a lot of his music to hear. Being a provincial boy who'd been to a provincial university, I'd never heard of him before. Hearing For Samuel Beckett was an extraordinary experience. I'd read about him beforehand and so had an idea of what to expect (slow, quiet, goes on a long time), but I really wasn't prepared for how it would feel to sit through something like this. It started off well; Feldman's music has a sound that's immediately attractive. So for the first few minutes it was great. As it progressed though, the sheer apparent stasis of it began to get to me. By about 20 minutes in it began to feel like some form of torture. After that confusion and disorientation began to set in. And then something odd happened. The music seemed to be putting me into a kind of trance like state, not entirely unlike the state of mind you might find yourself in after a low dose of hallucinogens. By about the 50 minute mark when the piece finished, I couldn't decide whether it had gone on far too long or not nearly long enough. We left the hall and walked over to the venue where the late-night gig was happening. This was Patterns in a Chromatic Field, and here everything clicked into place, I experienced that rare sense of revelation that classical music delivers rather more rarely than it promises, and I became the devote of Feldman's music that I remain today.

So Patterns holds a special place in my heart. It's where I "got" Feldman, and it came into my life at a very exciting time when it briefly seemed I might amount to something. It's also a piece for cello, so I also get to have the (probably futile) notion that one day I might play it myself. In my mind it's become a rep piece for cello. I've heard a good four or five recordings of it since then, but last night's performance by Anton Lukoszevieze and Philip Thomas of Apartment House is only the second time I've heard it live.

That's important, because Feldman's is a music that feels significantly different in concert. It's something to do with commitment. Listening to a recording in your own living room, there are always distractions, the possibility of doing something else while the music's playing. Going to a performance requires a higher level of commitment. You're there for an hour and a half of quiet, often superficially uneventful music that demands a level of concentration that's almost superhuman. (This goes for everyone there, whether they're performing or listening.) At the same time, the fact that there's nothing else but you and the music (well, and the rest of the audience), makes it easier. It's just you and this intimidating experience ahead of you, and the only thing that can distract you (apart from the rest of the audience) is whatever thoughts spring into your mind as it struggles to maintain its focus on the moment.

I say superficially because of course there's actually a huge amount going on. You hear a lot of music written under the influence of Feldman, and what most of it fails to grasp is that although tiny motifs and ideas return and reiterate again and again, over and over, there's actually very little repetition in Feldman. Like walking into a dark room, once you've acclimatised yourself you find there's actually a huge amount of detail to appreciate where initially there seemed to be nothing. Patterns is unusual in late Feldman in that it's often quite antsy and fidgety in texture, and has a sense of nervous activity that only periodically dissipates to reveal a more glacial texture. Lukoszevieze and Thomas's performance tends towards the slower end of the range I've heard (they come in at just over 90 minutes), and yet they still mange to convey this jitteriness, a quality that I think often gets lost in the race to play Feldman as slowly as possible. This is quiet and defective and profound music, sure, but there's also humour to be had, another element of Feldman's personality that often gets neglected, and which they convey deliciously here in the the throwaway ending, for instance.

One of the startling things I find listening to this piece on the flesh again after all those years is how much of it has seeped into my own music. Feldman's been a huge influence on me, of course, but it's startling to sit listening to Patterns and real is how much this specific piece has left its mark on my own work. Sometimes this is the result of initial enthusiasm and half-absorbed lessons: you can hear this in Infinite Breathing, where a Feldmanish texture jostles for supremacy with passages in thrall to Ustvolskaya, whose music I discovered around the same time as Feldman's. Later on in Le tombeau de Feldman it's a more deliberate allusion, but it's startling to realise how what I thought at the time was a kind of generalised ersatz-Morty was a half-memory of this particular piece, the main difference being that my figures tend more towards the diatonic than Feldman's (that at least was a deliberate thing).

I sometimes wonder if Feldman, who twenty years ago was a fairly marginal figure, isn't now becoming too pervasive a figure. I certainly worry that it's become  cliché to write music under his influence (albeit often without a real understanding of what he's doing and why he uses those textures and strategies), and periodically try to kick the Feldman habit in my own music. Having said that, he's clearly not edged quite so far into respectability that some people won't walk out before he's done. Five did last night. One of them was a woman who heroically and selflessly sneaked out as quietly as she could before she succumbed to a coughing fit. I salute her. The other four confuse me (why on earth stick it out for over an hour and disappear with 20 minutes or less to go?) and annoy me (if you are going to duck out early, couldn't you at least try to leave quietly?).  But to come back to this piece, to her it live in that situation where you're stuck in a hall with it, and just as you settle in having made sure you went to the toilet first, you experience a momentary frisson of exhilarating fear as you register what you're committing yourself to, banishes thoughts like that. What's wonderful, what makes it great music, is its capacity to come out and startle you, and (particularly in a well-judged performance like this one) make you feel like music you've been listening to for years is music you've never properly heard before. You thought you had it figured, and then you realise that you've hardly scratched the surface.

Monday, August 12, 2013

On competitions

Clarinettist and Twitter pal Heather Roche recently wrote an interesting post about composing competitions. She asked a number of questions of composers about the whole business of entering competitions. As I spent ages wibbling on in the comments in reply, I may as well recycle that into a post here.

I have very mixed feelings about competitions generally, which are a lot to do with the notion (drummed into me as a teenager by a cherished teacher) that the very idea of a competition is utterly opposed to what music should be about, and of course nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that I never win the damn things. Nevertheless, I've entered a number of them over the years. This is partly as it's just one of those things you do, but it's also because I suffer from anxiety, and it sometimes seems like a way of getting my scores out into the world in a way that keeps things at arm's length, in some way, and makes it feel less like ACTUAL PEOPLE are JUDGING my music. As I've got older and lost most of my enthusiasm for the idea of career-building, these occasions have become fewer. Strangely, last month I put in for five or six competitions/calls. This was simply because I happened to see a lot that seemed like they might be interesting for one reason or another, or happened to be asking for pieces written for a lineup I'd already written for, or just seemed to fit in one way or another with an idea I already had at the back of my mind. So far I've had three outright rejections, one promising but noncommittal response, and deafening silence from the rest (probably because the deadlines are not reached or only just gone).

So with that in mind, and apologies for the length of this reply (I'm struggling to stay awake through this, god knows you just be losing the will to live), here are some answers to Heather's questions:

"what about a call for works makes you want to submit a work?"
Generally, an opportunity that fits in with whatever my interests are at the time, or fits a piece I've already written or have half written or have in mind, or features musicians who I think might be sympathetic to what I'm trying to do, or just sounds like it might be interesting.

"What makes you hesitate? What makes you run away screaming?"
Deadline! It amazing how often I find out about something about two weeks before the deadline. Maybe that's just me though. These days I'm less inclined to submit unless I can do so online; frankly it costs money that I don't have to print scores. I'm not so keen on the idea of writing for an obscure instrumentation (unless it's a really interesting one), as it's a lot of time to spend on something that may not have any use beyond the specific competition; remember, I never win these damn things. Fees (see below); I know a lot of groups, festivals etc. are short of money. But so am I!

"How can festivals or ensembles encourage you to submit?"
I've done the "turn up at a rehearsal, do a workshop, get a recording" thing, and while it's not entirely without its merits, these days what I really want to do is work with people who are interested in what I'm doing and might be interested in more than a one-night stand. So I guess anything that sounds like I won't just be rep fodder would attract my attention more.

"Under what conditions might you think it acceptable to pay a fee to enter a competition?"
Generally, never. I have entered competitions where a fee was payable in the past. I look back at those as money I might as well have burned.

"What kind of prize would you expect or like to see offered in both situations in which you have paid and those in which you haven’t?"
All I really want from these things is a performance, the opportunity to work with some sympathetic musicians who'll take the music and the aesthetic seriously and be helpful of technicalities and forgiving of my misjudgments, and ideally a connection with some musicians who I might want to work more with (and vice versa of course).

"Having described the situation at the Witten festival, does that sound like something you would be interested in, or advise your students to submit pieces for?"
Yes it does, and I did! But as I say, I never win these damn things, and so must add that to my ever expanding collection of rejection emails. C'est la vie. I console myself with the satisfaction of having gotten a working piece written in only a couple of weeks; I actually think it's one of my favourite things I've written for a while, so I hope it'll get a chance somewhere else.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

For Steve

There are plenty of people who knew Steve Martland better than I, and could tell you better stories than I. My principal encounter with him was in 2001, when my string piece "Infinite Breathing" was chosen by him for a SPNM workshop and concert. So I got to experience the generosity and big-heartedness of the man first-hand. Between the workshop and the concert we went for a meal and we had a fantastic conversation, which I can't really relate here because it largely consisted of things that would be libellous if i wrote them down. Very funny, though.  When I bumped into him afterwards at other events, he remembered who I was. This may not sound like much, but believe me that's a rare thing in this business. Steve was a man who cared about people above all.

I can't quite believe he's dead. No-one else can, from the people I've spoken to.  It's particularly sad because I gather that after a long period of creative stasis he was feeling re-energised: the commissions were coming in again, he was full of ideas and the hunger to realise them, and things seemed generally to be coming together for him.  It's a sad thing to consider what he might yet have had to give in music. It's a greater loss to the world though, no longer to have the man himself in it.

This is a tiny thing I did today as a memorial.  It seems dreadfully inadequate, but I couldn't not make the attempt.  I hope it's not sentimental, at least. Steve wasn't a sentimental man, just a passionately caring one.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Notes before a Final (5): Kaija Saariaho

One of the things I constantly find myself saying when I take part in discussions about future repertoire for the orchestra I play in is to emphasise the need to put in music by people who aren't dead. Everything I've played and planned to play thus far in this competition was written in the past century, and can be described as contemporary in the sense that it was written by people who were alive within living memory (my parents' if not mine). However, it's still all written by dead people (and reasonably long-dead people at that - the most recently breathing composer, Lutosławksi, dies over 20 years ago). It therefore seemed a matter of urgency to include something by someone still alive. As with the Falla, I found what I needed by trawling through Spotify and other online sources for recordings.

Kaija Saariaho scores double points for being not only a non-dead composer, but also a non-male one. She's white and European, but two out of four ain't bad, I figure.

Sept Papillons (Seven Butterflies) is a work for cello solo. This seemed to create a nice symmetry: I begin with just me, introduce a piano for the two 1914 pieces, and finish alone again (no singing this time though). I'm playing the sixth papillon. It's an extraordinary piece, that seems to exist on the edge of silence. It's full of tapping, high ethereal noises and harmonics, and has a sense of weightlessness abut it. After the richness of tone that the Falla demands, this is something's else entirely: silvery, glittering and brittle. At the end it just seems to evaporate. It connects to the Webern's gossamer textures, just as the Falla and Partch seem to connect by their more earthly moods.

Having moved from loss and despair through to consolation and peace, this seems to me to take things somewhere else, more ethereal and otherworldly. It's absolutely not a rousing climax, it's not designed to bring the crowd to their feet, but that's not what I'm aiming for. I figure that's what's expected in this sort of event, and what's expected seems to me to the least interesting thing you could do. I hope that rather, this sequence will provide something nourishing for the soul.

Notes before a Final (4): Manuel de Falla

This is in a sense a set of two halves. The first two pieces are ones I've been familiar with and wanted to play for a while.  The last two are fairly new to me (as a player, at least) and I've learned them specially for this gig.

Having set up a trajectory with Partch and Webern - in which Partch prepares for and amplifies the emotional world of Webern - I wanted what followed also to throw a light on Webern, but this time through contrast. After the devastated mood of those two pieces, I wanted something comforting, without being too sentimental.  I had a Mendelssohn Song without Words in mind, but this was a little too long for the context (especially as I'd decided I'd need a fourth piece to round things off).  Cue a lot of random looking up of cellists on Spotify.
Eventually I alighted on the Popular Spanish Suite by Manuel de Falla (which is a transcription of some of his Popular Spanish Songs), and in particular "Nana".

Falla is one of the most famous of Spanish composers (both in his nationality and his style), but perhaps surprisingly the Spanish Popular Songs are a rare example in his output of his using preexisting folk tunes. "Nana" is a lullaby, and had all the qualities I was after: it has that sense of consolation, but isn't sentimental, and has that aspect of noble melancholia that comes to my mind when I think of flamenco (the songs are all full of flamenco influences). It's also quite simply a very beautiful melody.

It's an unexpected juxtaposition with the Webern, and I hope an effective one. Curiously, it only dawned on me later that this and Webern's Three Little Pieces were written in the same year, 1914. Falla died one year after Webern, too. I chose this piece purely on the basis of its sound, and yet these connections and resonances seem to arise between the pieces.

A lullaby could be a good way to end a sequence, but I wanted something else, something to effect a further transformation. This is where the final piece in the set comes in.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Notes before a final (3): Anton Webern

When you look at a score by Webern, the really obvious thing you notice is there really aren't many notes there.  You might think this makes it easy to play. You'd be wrong about that.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was going to be playing Webern's Three Little Pieces as part of my set for the Office Musician Final, her reaction was something along the lines of, "All the rep for cello you've got, and you're doing that?" 

There are  lot of preconceptions about Webern.  It's cold. It's difficult. It's unrewarding to play.  All thse things are bollocks.  Webern's music is some of the most emotional there is. He was deeply traumatised by the death of his mother in 1906, when he was 22.  He never really got over it, and pretty much his entire output after then is, I think, consumed with grief at his loss. It's grief quietly expressed.  Not chest-beating, extroivert grief, but internalised, a weight held deep inside that never leaves.  It's highly condensed: a fleeting gesture or even a single note carries the sort of weight that in conventional music would be carried by a long melody or a cascade of notes.  This is what makes it so difficult to perform: you have to reach deep inside yourself and put so much into so little.  The other thing that people find difficult to appreciate is that it needs great accuracy.  There are complex rhythms and tempo changes that aren't necessarily directly evident to the listener, but it matters to get those silences and those placements of single notes just so.  I think the point is that as a musician, you need to be filled with that level of intense concentration to put the music across to the listener. I cn honestly say that rehearsing this music has been incredibly rewarding, and my admiration for it has only increased.  It's all very well to play somethign fast and showy with lots of notes and scrambling about, but to play a single note just right - now that's real virtuosity, and far harder to bring off.

There's a affinity between Webern's inconsolable grief and that of the protagonist in "The Long-Departed Lover" which I hope will come across whn they're heard one after the other.  This is what I hope to achieve in a good programme: that the pieces all fit together and illuminate each other in some way.  I hope that the contrast of the Falla piece that follows the Webern will also shine a new light on it.  If a few people come out of it feling better disposed to Webern than they were before, I'll feel like I've achieved something.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Notes before a final (2): Harry Partch

I can't recall precisely when I first heard of Harry Partch.  I have a vague memory that I was aware of the name when I was a student*, but if he was mentioned in British academia at all then, it was as a freakish footnote.  I knew he was a hobo, that he invented a 43-tone scale sand some weird instruments.  He was an eccentric, marginal figure, not someone to be seriously considered or studied. Certainly his infamous scale would have been presented as some kind of crazy folly, and the logic and impetus behind its creation not considered anything worth study (and anyway, getting hold of recordings of the music was next to impossible in that pre-intenet era. I may have been aware of the term "Just Intonation", but I didn't really have any conception of what it actually was until years later.

Something I never learned to do very well was to play the piano. I started playing the cello at 6 but didn't have a keyboard lesson until I was 17, when my mother (who'd decided not to force it on me as my elder siblings had nearly all hated it) figured I probably needed some keyboard skills for the A level I was studying.  At times this lack has irritated or frustrated me over the years, but latterly I've come to realise it was a blessing, as it kept me from becoming too trapped in the 7 white and five black bars covering the window of the cell called equal temperament.  Although I didn't have the understanding to fully appreciate the significance  at the time, I was always aware that the way I tuned my cello, in perfect fifths, didn't quite fit with a piano. (I knew I needed to tune my A string slightly sharp to stop the C string sounding really flat.)  This is what got me interested in the notes "between the notes".  I was fascinated by the quarter-tone music written by Ives and Lutosławski, and captivated by the "out-of-tune" intervals of the harmonic series.  It seemed strange to me that they were called out of tune; surely they, as natural phenomena, were correct, and the scale on the piano must be wrong?  But I didn't have the language to describe and understand such things properly, other than the quarter-tones which were what amounted to microtonality as far as my education was concerned. (It's astonishing to think that back then even quarter-tones were regarded by a lot of teachers and musicians as intervals too small to be perceived.  The degree to which received wisdom can smother your thoughts is extraordinary.)

So for years I had this vague idea in my head of Partch as this funny weird guy.  Then I heard his music, and perhaps as importantly read his book Genesis of a Music in which he explains in detail the theory and practice of his compositions. That was a major explosion in the middle of my preconceptions, the consequences of which I'm still getting to grips with.

So Harry's an important figure for me, who revealed truths I'd only half-glimpsed before.  Nowadays it's easy to get hold of recordings of his music - you can find the recordings he made of some of his Li Po settings on Spotify - and it's even possible to get hold of some scores.  I forked out the whatever-outrageous-cost-of-a-photocopy Schott charge for the Li Po settings, partly because I thought they were wonderful of course, but also because I liked the self-sufficiency they stand for - just Harry, with his voice and his adapted viola, making his revolution all alone. There's a strength and also a melancholy to this single-player set-up, and Li Po's poems also carry some of this sense of isolation and loneliness.

It also occurred to me that some of them at least might be performable on a cello.  And so it proves.  When I started transcribing them, I transposed them down a fifth, as the cello is tuned a fifth lower than an adapted viola (which is tuned one octave lower than a violin), and also because it seemed a more comfortable register for my voice. However, I've gone back to the original pitch of "The Long-Departed Lover", as I think the slightly uncomfortable, strained effect from my singing in that register suits the song.  In the poem Li Po's protagonist is bereft at the loss of his beloved. Whether the Beloved has left him or has died isn't made clear; that's something for you to decide.  It's a sharp, uncomfortable portrait of someone inconsolable, presented in a concise, stark manner that has no room for sentimentality.  I hope that coming before the Webern, it'll help amplify that work's similarly concentrated emotions.  This isn't going to be a singerly performance - I don't think Harry would have approved of that anyway, judging by his own performances†  - but it will, I hope, be a truthful one.

*Thinking about it, I suspect it was in connection with Tom Waits, and specifically "Bone Machine", that I probably first heard about him. 

†Not of "The Long-Departed Lover", sadly - that's one of the ones he didn't record.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Notes before a final (1): Balancing Act

Creating a programme for a concert isn't just a matter of chucking together a bunch of stuff you'd like to play, whatever some people think.  My original plan for the first round of the competition was to pair Feldman's Durations II with Debussy's Cello Sonata; I thought it would make an intriguing pairing, the Feldman both acing as a kind of warm-up for me and the pianist before we launched into the various difficulties of the Debussy, but also acting as a foil: there's the contrast between Feldman's slow, flat surfaces and Debussy's busier, jump-cut style, but also a shared interest in texture and colour.  The Debussy got cut because the time I had got cut, down from 15 minutes to 10. Lutosławski's Grave is a piece which, like the Debussy, I've been laying privately for years, so I had under my fingers (at least enough that getting it up to scratch seemed feasible), and in its changes of mood and  varied texture has a certain affinity with Debussy, and hence I figured would provide a similar fit with the Feldman (which I was determined to keep in the mix).

The Lutosławski's quite an overtly virtuosic piece, very dramatic and full of gesture (very much unlike the Feldman).  The obvious thing to do for the finale would be something similarly flashy.  Doing the obvious just isn't me though.  From the moment I dared to start thinking I might make it to the final I knew I wanted to do some kind of sequence that would create a certain mood, and progression of mood.  The one piece I knew I wanted to play from the off was Webern's Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano (I'll talk about this piece, and the others, in more detail in further posts). The other thing I was keen to include was one of Harry Partch's Li Po settings, and it occurred to me that one of them in particular would make a great prelude to the Webern, and really help the intense emotion of that to come through.  "The Long-Departed Lover" is, as you'd guess from the title, in part about loss, as is the Webern; pretty much his entire output as a composer is coloured by the trauma he suffered when his mother died.  Following that, I wanted something very calm and soothing, even comforting.  This was the hardest piece of the jigsaw to find; not just the right tone, but the right length to fit in the limited time I had.  In the end, I added two pieces to follow Webern: one to comfort, and another to bring a transformative, fantastical end to the set.

After my set in the semi-final, I was asked, "do you do any more... mainstream pieces?" I guess the answer is, "not this time!".  Mainstream doesn't seem a very interesting place to be to me.  It only occurred to me after I'd settled on the music I wanted to play that only one of the composers I'm playing through the whole competition isn't dead (bad), and that the piece most people would recognise as "Difficult Modern Music", the Webern, is the oldest piece I'm playing, by the composer who died longest ago.  I find that quite a satisfying thought.

Retuning to the stage

Here's me playing Feldman's Durations II and Lutosławski's Grave at the Office Musician of the Year semi-final, my first public performance as a soloist for about 25 years:

It's strange to listen back to it now.  At the time I thought it went really well, and others told me they did too.  But recordings are an unforgiving thing, and listening to this in the cold light of day, without the excitement of being present at or involved in a performance makes me start to hear everything that's wrong with it: the notes I didn't quite pitch right, the moments where the rhythm's a bit off, the failure to pull the bow quite straight or put the finger down quite firmly enough that just skews things slightly away from what I wanted.  This is partly inevitable, that small slips become magnified by a recording, and things that are barely noticed as they fly by in performance can be heard and re-heard.  I's like to think it's also down to the fact that I've been working a lot harder at playing than I have for years, and am becoming more exacting of myself and  more aware of what I need to improve.

In the end (post recording self-criticism aside), the semi went well, I thought. Having spent years living in fear of the idea of standing up* in front of people and playing as a soloist, it seemed to come remarkable easily.  My wife said she was surprised at the degree to which I performed, not something she would have previously associated with me.  This was something I and my accompanist Jon had worked on quite a bit since the masterclass - trying to make sure we injected a certain theatricality to proceedings (it's not called performing for nothing, you know).  We even planned our entrance, bow etc.  In the event our brilliantly planned choreography came to nothing, as the event was really rather more informal than that.  We came out of the audience, as there wasn't an easy route from "off-stage" to "on-stage."  I hope I managed to look vaguely like I looked like I knew what I was about, anyway.  I said a few impromptu things about the two pieces which I think managed not to be total waffle, and then we played.  It helped that Jon's a great musician and a good rehearser.  Most of our rehearsing ha to be squeezed into our lunch break, so time's at a premium, and making efficient use of it vital.  It was a massive boost to confidence walking on to the stage to know we'd really thoroughly prepared ourselves and had nailed all those tricky corners.  One of my old teachers once told me you need to allow for a performance being  around a quarter to a third less good than the best you're capable of.  The great feeling was being confident we were good enough to drop that bit of quality and still be OK.

Interestingly, the main criticism I had from the judge was that we could have given more space to the Feldman.  I actually agree with this, but as we'd been given only 10 minutes (and as you can tell from the recording above we were already pushing the boundaries of that) we had to take a particular approach that was a bit faster than I'd have naturally done.  Having said that, I think it's always a good idea to question received wisdom, and the idea that a piece like that should be done as slowly as possible is one such thing.

There were eight of us in the semi, and five went through to the final.  It's a strong line-up, but I think I may actually be in with a chance.  Of course, I'm scuppering that chance with a programme that's pretty much the exact opposite of a crowd-pleasing fireworks display.  I think having got there, there are two ways I can go: one is to do something to show off, and the other is to decide I don't care about the winning and just do something I really want to do.  Too much of my life is given to compromise as it is, so I'm going with the latter option.

* Not literally. This is cello playing, after all.