Historical Texts in Music of Today

Evelyn Ficarra

Evelyn Ficarra. Photo credit: Ian Winters

Evelyn Ficarra in conversation with Ed Hughes. 1

Evelyn Ficarra is a composer of concert music, multimedia and stage music, sound installations, and electroacoustic music. She is a Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Sussex. Her CD Frantic Mid-Atlantic is on the Sargasso label. This profiles six of her works – of which three (Plus Ça Change, Deuce and Search) are intended to be performed live by musicians on stage and feature integration of electronics; and three (Those Roads, Source of Uncertainty, and Frantic Mid-Atlantic) are for acousmatic 2 performance.

In this conversation Evelyn speaks to Ed Hughes about projects which engage with past music and indeed with particular recordings of such music. Evelyn highlights her sense that something beautiful or special can be released from those pieces through the acts of cutting them up and reassembling and recomposing the fragments directly through the medium of electronics and computer music. This leads her to consider the past as a place that is ‘touching’ but in the end not reproducible: where one is drawn to the poignancy of another world of expression but simultaneously prompted to produce something new. Thus, working with the past may ironically drive one towards the present and the urgency of expressing things with one’s own voice – but for Evelyn with a palpable sense of loss which leads her to ask where are we going as a musical culture?

Ed Hughes: So, Evelyn, why do composers plunder earlier notated music?

Evelyn Ficarra: Is it like the current fiction writers who base stories or novels on Greek myths? Like they need or want to engage with pre-existing structures… are the old musics of Verdi and Schumann like old myths for us that we feel like we have to encounter and rework in some way? Certainly Beethoven is a huge towering myth. Shakespeare was always using old stories. There’s currently a series that has commissioned specific authors to respond to the Shakespeare play of their choice. Jeanette Winterson has done Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale 3. Margaret Atwood has done The Tempest 4 . Perhaps that’s more the analogy – engaging with older texts. Shakespeare stole his stories from history and medieval stories. Maybe that’s just normal. Composers shouldn’t have to feel they have to be original all the time. They can take materials from the past. They can rework and that’s a totally authentic way of working.

EH: Can you talk about an example in your own work when you did this?

EF: My biggest foray into the idea of reworking older pieces was a piece called London Cries (2002) 5. It was written for seven players (oboe, trumpet and strings), two singers (one female, one male) and electronics, and commissioned by Judith Chernaik on behalf of Poems on the Underground to respond to the Cryes of London by Orlando Gibbons, which were musical settings of London market cries in the renaissance period. What Judith initially asked me to do was to go to London markets, record current London market cries, and play those in the background while the Orlando Gibbons piece was performed. I suggested that rather than doing that I’d be more interested in writing a piece of music that engaged with the Orlando Gibbons’ music as well as going to the markets and recording the cries. And having a couple of singers who would actually go back and forth between the Gibbons and the new market cries I was discovering in markets. That was my most direct engagement with older music. The other way I’ve done it is using recordings in my music.

EH: Do you have an affinity with the music you reworked?

EF: I really love the musical language of the renaissance; I grew up playing in recorder groups; going to renaissance fairs; attending Shakespeare plays; so as a young performer I was really into that. So for me it’s working on two levels. The nostalgia for a younger self, as well as the nostalgia for an incredibly beautiful tonal language that is not quite as robust and narrative and maybe bolshy and masculine as the later tonalities of Beethoven and so on. But just has this emotional pull. So I really enjoy working with those harmonies and messing around with them a bit. It was great fun finding all the modern cries.

EH: Is there a sense in which this kind of work solved or answered compositional problems?

EF: I think in a way it solves the problem of where to start. Of course I could have written a piece entirely based on modern market cries. But having the Gibbons was like having a mirror, maybe an old mirror in which new fragments of material could be reflected. It was very rich to have the Gibbons, it gave me something to play off of.

My other piece where I delved into older styles was a piece called Search(1997) 6 for string septet and electronics. At the time I was in love with Schubert and Schumann songs. I had recorded a whole bunch of radio static, short wave etc. I analysed the sounds and slowed them down to reveal unexpected pitch content, melodies. But I wanted this sense of human music floating through the electronic music. And in recording the radio sounds I had naturally come across little snippets of music, but I wanted something more specific. So I wrote some pretend Schubert songs for strings and voice, and it happened that one of our cellists could sing; so I recorded those pretend songs and had them floating past the sound of static and other fragments of radio sound. I was searching the dial of the radio waves. And so for me it was something to do with turning the music of the past into an object like a little jewelled thing that you can look at. There’s something very poignant about that. In this case it’s not about taking the musical material and developing it and changing it into my own musical language. It’s more like taking a fragment and polishing it and setting it into a musical space like a self-contained thing. And for me there is something poignant about musical sound because it’s like a trace of human activity – and that was actually someone singing at some point and now it’s just the sound of their voice. It’s the disembodied ghost of that moment in time. Something about fragmenting recordings makes that more visible or audible than if you just listen to a piece of recorded music. Because it’s there and then it’s gone and you cut it off. In a sense the piece is about looking for music, searching, turning the dial, so we find these fragments and they come and go.

EH: Yes – I like the idea of the dial on the radio, because now one’s experience of searching digitally for stations is tap and click. Turning the dial is much more exploratory and liminal.

EF: Yes, this reflects composing in another era! Initially, in turning the dial, you are looking for actual music and finding bits of it; it turns out if you listen to what’s just there (the static) then that becomes music – that’s when the live players start to pick up the notes inside the shortwave sound and so are making music out of the background sound.

EH: I know you have worked collaboratively to a great extent. Has that involved any composing with the historical?

EF: I worked with choreographer Mary Armentrout 7. She was obsessed with the second movement of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) Seventh Symphony (1811-12) and she wanted me to make a mix of that including her voiceover and any other sounds I wished to. So that was me responding not just to Beethoven but to a particular recording – chopping it up, fragmenting it and putting it with a collage of her voice and sounds from the industrial neighbourhood where the piece was performed. It was something I really enjoyed doing. I love that repertoire…

EH: But isn’t this repertoire you can love without having to engage creatively with it?

EF: I guess I love messing with it as much as, or more than, going to hear it in a concert. It’s really fun to chop it up.

EH: Given your engagement with composers like Beethoven – have those encounters and what you learnt from them changed the way you write, or in some way enabled you to discover any new method in composition?

EF: I don’t know that there’s a through line for me. I don’t know that writing is the right word for what I do. I feel that when I’m making music in the studio I am making something, not necessarily writing it. I’m not purely a note-based composer. I probably don’t write enough notes to be able to say yes that’s changed how I think of music. One of the things I like about working with older music, and this would apply both to using it as recorded samples or writing notes, is that, when you twist it or damage it in some way, to my ear, it makes it more beautiful, because there’s that poignancy of lost innocence. We can’t really write like that any more but it’s there for us to explore and remember, and confront that loss, in a way. I wouldn’t write like Schubert because that moment has gone, but it’s still very touching to engage with that language and then to make something different.

EH: So there might even be a sense that the process of working with the past draws you back to the present and the urgency of your own voice.

EF: Yeah, but with a very profound sense of loss, I think. It’s like confronting that loss. Very directly. It’s like admitting, my language isn’t self-sufficient, or asking where are we going as a musical culture? There isn’t a brave new world. We’re always reaching back and listening to older things in order to understand how we got to where we are and how to go forward, I suppose.

EH: Does this relate to anything you’re doing in current projects?

EF: I would say no, not directly, not at the moment. Although…. maybe it does, now you ask that question. My current project is a sound installation called Broken Open 8 which is made from recorded sounds coming out of smashed up, broken objects, including pieces of a piano. So maybe there’s an element of responding to an old piano as an object that is like confronting the past, in a way. I have been working with the sounds of dismantling a piano and smashing objects into it, and making a kind of musique concrete 9 with those sounds. But maybe I could add distorted or distressed fragments of older piano repertoire as a new element, like music ghosts being released from the object. That could be quite rich, and would definitely add another layer to the sounds.

1 Comment

  1. Emily Blake

    This is absolutely fascinating, and I had no idea you were interviewed on this subject. Revelatory.

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