Historical Texts in Music of Today

Author: tkant

Roxanna Panufnik

Roxanna Panufnik. Photograph by Benjamin Ealovega Photography

Roxanna Panufnik in conversation with Ed Hughes.

The composer Roxanna Panufnik’s work encompasses opera, ballet, music theatre, choral works, orchestral and chamber compositions, through numerous international commissions. Her affinity with many world musics, and her interest in creatively synthesising these interests with the western classical music tradition, led to ‘Four World Seasons’ for violinist Tasmin Little , which was selected by BBC Radio 3 to launch its 2012 Music Nation weekend and subsequently released on Chandos Records. In this conversation, Roxanna spoke to Ed Hughes about ways in which existing musical scores and practices are referenced in her work.

A recurrent theme in this conversation is how exploration of different musical cultures returns one to elements that connect rather than divide them; and also the importance, for Panufnik, of faith in stimulating and even originating musical expression. Music is used to explore the nature of religious faith and what connects varieties of spiritual experience. Is the exploration of both historical and current musics from all over the world an important element in releasing the personal creative voice? In this context, the conversation also considered the distinction between ‘appropriating’ music from cultures outside one’s own, whether historical or contemporary, and creatively assimilating elements as influences which start to inhabit and shape one’s compositional voice.

Ed Hughes: In your recent music there’s this striking interest in world music, and in making connections across genres.

Roxanna Panufnik: Also I use a lot of plainsong but I completely reharmonise it, and transform its rhythms.

An example of Roxanna Panufnik’s reharmonisation of plainsong

I work with world music and with faith music. For example, a new piece that is about to be premiered (November 2018: Faithful Journey – A Mass for Poland ) in Poland and the UK refers to a Sephardic Kol Nidre from the Middle Ages, which plays an important part historically in one of the poems I set. So I do work very closely with music from round the world , and historically as well.

‘Votive’ for string quartet, by Roxanna Panufnik, based on the Sephardic Kol Nidre, also used in Panufnik’s oratorio ‘Faithful Journey’.

EH: Is that to do with integrating music and text, making really direct connections between musical origins and text?

RP: The only time I really do that is when I’m bringing together music from different faiths. Particularly the Abrahamic faiths. Because the most important fact about Christianity, Judaism and Islam is that these all believe in the same one God. And that’s so seldom remembered or referred to. So I often make that point through music. And it’s really interesting because the chant from those three faiths all came from the same one place in the Middle East, starting off in one place as one thing, and as [practices] of how people communicated with God and received his message [changed and] moved geographically, it took on all sorts of things like different modes and different ornamentation . If you went back to the really bare bones of plainsong, and you put it in a middle Eastern mode, and added some ornamentation, that is what you would get – you would get some kind of chant that’s Sephardic or Oriental or Ashkenazi Jewish, or even – and you have to be very careful about how you write about this – the origins of Islamic chant as well, which I’ve studied quite carefully.

EH: How have you managed to do that?

RP: I wrote a Violin Concerto called Abraham for Daniel Hope. When 9/11 happened I was pregnant with my first child. And it made me absolutely terrified about what kind of world I was bringing her into. The Violin Concerto was based on the story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac and it appears in all three of those faiths. I wanted to start the piece with an Islamic call to prayer. I consulted two Mullahs – one Shia and one Sunni – and one said fine, go ahead, but the other one said I don’t think you should – why don’t you listen to lots of them and see what the common elements are and write one of your own? So that’s what I did.

Daniel Hope plays Roxanna Panufnik’s Violin Concerto ‘Abraham’
Savannah Music Festival, Georgia, USA (2008)

EH: Did that feel like a bit of a warning?

RP: It did and I completely respected that and I was very glad to have had that conversation. I had always suspected that that would be the case. But as a result, I studied mainly Pakistani and Turkish calls to prayer. And found the common elements of those: the ornamentation, the kind of rhythm, the way it moved, step by step, and then created my own chant.

EH: I like the idea you are allowing something profound to inhabit your voice.

RP: Definitely. But also I think you have to be so careful about cultural appropriation – people are very sensitive to that. When I am working with people of other nationalities or faiths I work very closely with them. There was a case in Canada recently where there was a musical made using spirituals. There was a backlash from the Afro-Caribbean community about how those spirituals were being used .

EH: I guess also it’s very difficult in today’s world in which sampling is considered to be both creative, and the subject of intellectual property disputes and exploitation in commercial music.

RP: I think the other thing that is important to consider – I have a collaboration CD coming out with North Indian musicians – the whole question of cultural appropriation came up in the context of an interview with an interviewer who clearly wanted some sort of radical statement which I wasn’t willing to give. But I did say we live in a big world where actually many of us are genetically mixtures of other cultures – I for one am a massive mix of Northern and Southern European, Christian and Jewish, I’m a melting pot of different things, but I also wonder if anyone ever said to any Asian composers you can’t write for a Western orchestra because that’s cultural appropriation. And you look at all the amazing works by Takemitsu, from Bollywood film composers, and I think all sides have to be looked at.

EH: I think motivation and intention are very important. There’s a soundtrack to an early film I listened to recently – a new score by Anoushka Shankar to the 1928 film Shiraz – and I think she did it very well. It felt like it was going to be very traditionally scored (sitar, tabla) at the beginning; but gradually she allowed Western idioms to infuse the score. In a way this starts to address the fact of Shiraz being originally an Indian/British/German ‘co-production’.

RP: Do you use world music at all?

EH: No, my appropriation to this point in time has been from early music – a fascination for early motets, particularly 15th/16th century early music. I fell in love with some of the Tallis Scholars CDs when I was a student. That was formative for my language, in particular John Sheppard’s music . This summer I’ve gone back to that and spent the summer intensively writing a Sinfonia for 17 instruments which is like a transformation of early motets. So I guess what I’m trying to do is go back over that ground and understand it better.

I’m interested that you use the orchestra – you don’t attempt to bring non-western instruments into the picture?

RP: Not orchestrally, but the recent CD ‘Celestial Bird’ (track 1) mixes North Indian instruments with South Asian performers; I have a Carnatic singer, I’ve got a sitar, I’ve got Indian violins, Indian percussion. And I’ve also worked with a Shakuhachi player; I wrote a piece for Chinese Hammered Dulcimer a long time ago – so I have done that. It requires a huge amount of research! It’s an intensive process.

Roxanna Panufnik discusses working with South Asian and North Indian musicians in ‘Unending Love’, a track from the CD ‘Celestial Bird’.

EH: That’s fascinating. I listened to your Three Paths to Peace (2014) which is related to your Violin Concerto. I admired the layers across the orchestra.

Three Paths to Peace (2014) [extract] by Roxanna Panufnik

I wondered, how are you making those simultaneous layers work – is the work notated or free?

RP: It is notated – everything is notated and there are written instructions as well. It’s all carefully planned. I use midi playback when I have ideas about combining different things: I use playback to help with that. Partly because I’m a terrible keyboard player – it took me 12 years to get to grade 5 and that’s where it stopped. I have this bizarre rhythmic dyslexia; I can hear, create and imagine rhythm; but I can’t play and I could never conduct. The Sibelius system helps to reassure me that I’ve written what I thought I heard, and also with the multiple layers of things.

EH: I like the way you gradually introduce the material so that you shine a light over the different parts of the orchestra and then gradually build up this really quite complex texture before the listener even realises what is happening.

RP: I do worry sometimes it is too complex. I’m very sensitive to what the audience around me are feeling. One of the worst things about being a composer is sitting in the audience while your premiere is happening. I can sense there’s a sort of ‘Huh?!’ going on in the audience! But I think as people hear these things more than once, if I’m lucky, it becomes clearer to them.

EH: That seems to me to be a quality of your musical language – the rich harmonies I detected in Three Paths to Peace (2014) and also in the Four World Seasons (2012). Is there any relationship to Vivaldi, as pre-cursor to works about the seasons?

RP: None whatsoever, but the seasons are a great format. I’m just in the process of writing Four Choral Seasons for The Bach Choir.

EH: So, the soundworld of Four World Seasons, am I right in thinking that this work surveys different parts of the world?

RP: Yes, in my orchestral Seasons Autumn is in Albania, Winter is Tibet, Spring in Japan, and Indian Summer.

EH: Did you go through a rigorous study process?

RP: Yes – finding out elements of music from all those different countries then using them with my own musical language. The people I go back to time and time again are SOAS who have a wonderful ethnomusicology department. One day I’d like to do an MA in Ethnomusicology. It’s just so interesting. I do think that student composers ought to be doing it too. There’s so much to learn from these different countries’ approaches to music, and genesis of their music.

EH: What are the benefits of this work with pre-existing material? In the sense that my former teacher Robin Holloway had to engage with Schumann in order to get himself out of the modernist paradigm, whereby you can’t write anything because there are so many rules, is it like that or is it more to do with projecting a vision of the integration of different cultures?

RP: I think it’s probably much more the latter. It’s actually an amazing tool for aiding inspiration. The most frightening thing for me is a blank sheet of paper. And I’ve got to start a piece and there are no words, no structure, no theme. And to have not only a theme and a concept but also some very different musical elements to play with is a fabulous gift.

EH: Do you love classical music? In the sense of pieces that come down to us through orchestral concerts, and so on? Has this kind of work changed how you feel about it at all?

RP: Well – I could take or leave a lot of late 18th and early 19th Century music. People are quite shocked when I say that because composers like Beethoven come under that banner. But I feel Bach says it all, in terms of emotion, and his amazing harmonic sense. Other music just leaves me feeling a bit flat, particularly the 19th century. And I only start getting really excited again with the late French romantics and the Russians at the beginning of the 20th century. So – classical music – I don’t tend to ‘put it on’. I do love really early church music and my son is a chorister. So for the last four years I’ve had a lot of the early music you’ve been describing and I love and have greatly come to appreciate that music and the partnership between that music and the acoustic of a big church or cathedral – it very much does what I like to do anyway which is to smear harmonies and to mix them together by the very nature of the reverberation within that building. So – it’s fascinating – it’s really interesting that I’ve come to appreciate that style of music.

Evelyn Ficarra

Evelyn Ficarra. Photo credit: Ian Winters

Evelyn Ficarra in conversation with Ed Hughes.

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 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 . Margaret Atwood has done The Tempest . 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) . 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) 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 . 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 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 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.