Historical Texts in Music of Today

Category: Uncategorised (Page 1 of 2)

Ed Hughes

Ed Hughes – Photo by Masato Kakinoki

Ed Hughes in conversation with Evelyn Ficarra.

Ed Hughes is a composer and Professor of Composition at Sussex University. In 2020 his third CD with Metier Records, Time, Space and Change, was released, featuring Sinfonia performed by the New Music Players.

In this interview, Ed Hughes and Evelyn Ficarra discuss Hughes’s quotation and transformation of early notated polyphonic music from England in his large ensemble work Sinfonia (2018). The discussion explores how a layered approach to early material in a contemporary ensemble setting may shape process, perception and the listening experience. In attempting to answer the question why plunder and transform earlier music, they also reflect on what this says about the continuing canonical status of certain older music today. Is plundering in fact less about homage and reverence and more about breaking out of canonicity and moving contemporary musical language on?

Evelyn Ficarra: Why do you think composers plunder earlier notated music?

Ed Hughes: Many composers are motivated by a love of earlier music. I believe this comes in part through the experience of taking part in music. An early memory is seeing friends in an orchestra – they were playing Vivaldi – and being on the outside, and thinking that would be amazing to be part of that. And so I learnt the double bass very quickly. Then what followed from that was the bug to write for live musicians, playing in ensembles, in realtime. And so, all of my work as a composer, has always been in some kind of relationship or reaction to the practice of music which in turn has always been actually about performing notated music from the past. It’s a natural relationship between writing music now or today, and a sense of historical awareness that there are these treasures from the past that you are uncovering by opening a music book and trying to play these notes. So why plunder the past? I suppose it’s about making a connection, to define yourself by articulating a relationship to that past stuff. You want to write something that is not merely a repetition of something that’s already been done. It needs to offer excitement and an edge that justifies the plundering.

EF: If it comes from your earlier engagement as a performer, is that the kind of engagement that has continued for you?

EH: For a long time I decided I was not a performer, I was a composer, teacher, organiser of concerts – and the pay back was regular performances of work and building up a relationship with a very special group of musicians, the New Music Players, who share their own knowledge and understanding of repertoire and musical traditions through the actual live action of performing your own music. That’s very exciting and rewarding. So, it is the case that I saw myself as a composer and teacher primarily, but in recent times – picking up the baton with the orchestra at Sussex University where I work, that’s been fun and brings you into direct contact with these canonical pieces of western classical music which you then attack with a mixed ability orchestra. And that has been an unexpected pleasure – because there’s the aspect of musicianship – you have to have some responsibility to be prepared and say something about the music – but there’s the actual experience of being in the middle of it which I think is very interesting, and has given confidence in terms of how I write, or how I suggest options for student composers to develop. For example, instrumental balance, orchestration and how these link to forms that live and breathe, are problems that people have solved before (for example, mixing of colours in  Claude Debussy (1862-1918) La Mer (1903-05) or sense of forward motion in the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).

EF: That’s really interesting to hear you talk about that – you’re talking about a direct, physical involvement in the music, in the sound, surrounded by the sound, in the act of music-making.

EH: Yes. I think that’s very important. The idea is that actually when you are making that music it’s about the now – it’s not about seeing it through sepia. It’s actually – when it works – whether the music is from 1600, or 1900, or 2018, it’s very present, that’s the excitement of live performance.

EF: So what I was connecting this up to, or contrasting this with, is that alongside this engagement with the practice of live music, you are also very dedicated to notated music – scoring and working music out in a notated form. So how do those two things relate to each other do you think?

EH: The kind of live performance that I generally engage with comes out of notated music. I’ve got huge admiration for Martin Butler and Peter Wiegold’s notes inégales ensemble and others who cross the border and connect composition and improvisation. For the time being my choice is to continue to work with notated composition. I do think it is extraordinary that skilled musicians can recreate sounds that were conceived centuries ago almost instantaneously, by responding to the medium of notation. And so how things become present when they originate in the past is radical and exciting – and can give people something that’s important that they don’t experience that much – historical consciousness through art. There were people who were around in 1600 who were modern in the sense that we are now. I’ve just discovered a video of Philip Glass (b.1937) Einstein on the Beach (1975-6) from a new production in 2014, directed by Robert Wilson – and I’m just beginning to understand the sensibility and aesthetic of this four hour piece. There is this sense that notated music provides archaeology of culture of 1975 which in some ways is as distant, or as close, as 1607.

EF: Can you talk about your Sinfonia (2018) in terms of the detail – how you interface with the earlier notated musics?

EH: In my conversation with Judith Weir she agreed that it is interesting when composers recompose old music – and Judith herself spoke about her work in which she responded to Pérotin (fl. c. 1200) – but also signalled that she felt it was a specialist thing to do, and she would not necessarily do it again. It would not be right, she argued, to say constantly now here’s my reinterpretation of Mozart, or Hildegard; which is a good provocation to have…. And it makes me want to say that Sinfonia is more than simply a set of arrangements. Sinfonia came out of a set of complementary motivations – a desire to respond to and ‘write through’ early notated music certainly, but also to go back to one of the impulses for composing in the first place; and one of those impulses was the discovery of the structures and the sounds of fifteenth and sixteenth century English vocal polyphonic music. So I suppose Sinfonia, which I wrote intensively between January and August 2018, was a vehicle for going back over how I made sense of first encounters with this music, and to ask myself the question how much has my musical voice rested on or been developed by that formative experience of discovering the structures and the sounds of early music – medieval and renaissance English music in particular. So it was a conscious project to take six pieces from roughly 1415 to 1600 and to recompose them. And that meant taking pieces that existed as vocal works, and transforming them into instrumental works for a relatively large modern contemporary ensemble (17 musicians). So I suppose it is an act of musical appropriation – transforming it by working with the sound. It’s a two-fold thing – because there is an element of homage, and transformation. For example, I love the – dangerous word – harmony of John Dunstable (c. 1390-1453).

EF: Why is ‘harmony’ a dangerous word?

EH: Because it’s anachronistic? There are no early music scholars in the room so I can speak about this! What’s fascinating – Martin le Franc (c.1410-1461) the French poet, said, in Dunstable’s own lifetime, that the sound of Dunstable’s music has a special quality – so you have that contemporary reference to an English soundworld disseminated across Europe through copying of musical manuscripts.

EF: So you mean we are not supposed to call it harmony because it’s polyphony?

EH: I think so. If I said there’s a cadence at this point that might be a controversial way of understanding early compositional processes. But the fact is that the sonic beauty of some of these early pieces – whether radiant or strange and mysterious is an element I wished to highlight and reflect on in my own recompositional work. There is a strong sense in which the fifths and the thirds combine to yield sonorities which are extremely intense and beautiful in the context of that music. So, there’s the aspect of homage to this early music, and also the aspect of wanting to take it and use it to understand one’s own voice and new directions in terms of personal compositional development. It is this feature that makes it a pivotal work for me.

EF: You used quite a strong word just now – appropriation in terms of rethinking existing music.

EH: Yes, that may not be the right word but recomposition does involve taking something out of its context and placing it in a new one. In addition there is the matter of moving from the vocal to the instrumental. However in another way that actually resonates with a process that went on through the period covered by Sinfonia, from 1415 to 1600 – that of recycling and appropriating vocal music and developing it in new and unexpected ways in instrumental settings. I suppose I was reflecting almost a feeling of ‘what have I done’? I’ve taken mainly unaccompanied vocal polyphonic music and have started to write it for a horn, or a grand piano, or percussion and so on. What am I doing? A better word might be transformation. There has to be some active role for the composer in this process. I was talking with popular music scholar and colleague Mimi Haddon recently. Mimi has been challenged recently to say something [confessional] about where she is coming from in the context of writing an introduction to a new monograph; she was really interesting about the issues of gender and politics in popular music writing. Essentially whenever we write a book about anything, it’s about us. If that is even to some extent true of scholars, it’s certainly got to be true of composers. So on one level it’s all about me(!) but in another sense perhaps it means that through the process of composition, and through acknowledging my subjectivity, I can say something about Dunstable that can’t be said any other way and that may yield something of value.

EF: How important to you is it that the original is legible, or do you like obscuring and hiding the original?

EH: I think in movement 1 of Sinfonia, which responds to the Agincourt Carol (1415), the main melody is strongly delineated and it is evident that it is there, if you know the original, even though it is simultaneously transformed by various methods. And made almost cubist – like those famous Picasso portraits where the strong lines of the figure are clear but you see several perspectives at the same time.

Example 1. Hughes – Sinfonia, Movement 1. Extract. The trumpet and then oboe carry the main tune from Agincourt Carol transformed by registral displacement and a completely new context.

Whereas, in the second piece, which is inspired by a motet by John Cooke (c.1385->1442), called Stella Celi Extirpavit, the tunes are there, from this delicate little 90 second three part motet, but they are as it were sinking beneath the weight of all the other things going on around them. And that’s the way I’m speaking about this piece – where a creative role impinges – it’s not merely an arrangement. In the sections like Stella Celi the original starts to dissolve in the other stuff around it – so it provides a starting point and then disappears.

Example 2. Hughes – Sinfonia, Movement 2. Extract. Cooke’s original three part motet Stella Celi Extirpavit is in the wind lines (in red) which are enmeshed in music coiling around it  through a process reflecting the chromatic turns of the original

So in the Dunstable section, movement 3 of Sinfonia, there’s a bit of both going on – I can identify fragments from the original that surface – melodic shapes for example – they sit almost as quotations. Simultaneously there are other aspects of the relationship with the original which are more oblique or transformed.

Example 3. Hughes – Sinfonia, Movement 3. Extract. Fragments of Dunstable’s motet reworked through compositional processes and layered over Dunstable’s changing harmony  represented by cello notes (in red)

EF: I love that word you use – “sinking” – that the material is sinking into this other material – like waves – to keep the same metaphor going! But when I listen to it the metaphor for me is undergrowth or overgrowth, or the sense of other tendriles supervening. Because it’s very complex and dense often – very layered. Are you interested in talking more about specific techniques that you use? How you abstract your materials?

EH: I really like that metaphor – it implies a process of ornamentation. So we’ve touched on the first three movements. Then movement 4 is in response to Tallis. And that was actually the one I wrote first. This started off as transcription for ‘Pierrot’ ensemble of a motet for the University of Sussex Attenborough Centre’s Tallis Festival (2018) – quite a late piece, from no later than 1575: In ieiunio et fletu, in Cantiones Sacrae, ed. Byrd & Tallis (1575). It’s about priests pleading on behalf of the people for forgiveness, and occupies quite a dark piece – but the harmony has clarity and an extraordinary volatility. I can only think that this was intended: the very sharp swerves in the harmony are quite breathtaking. But they are more imaginative and logical somehow and less mannered than say Gesualdo. So Sinfonia‘s movement 4, began life as a transcription, as a homage.

But I was talking a few weeks ago to Robin Holloway and as part of preparing for that I rediscovered his fine response to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, The Goldberg Variations were written for one player but on a two manual harpsichord – and so the hands often crossover. Robin’s thought was that you could transcribe the Goldberg Variations for two pianos so that you would overcome the clashing hands. He has a great phrase. As he started to work on the transcription, ‘interference crackled the transmission’. He means by that his composer’s mind, uninvited, started to add things between and above notes. And I suppose that’s what I feel about my experience of transcribing the Tallis piece for a modern ensemble. You can hear that in the decoration and ornamentation going on in some of the instruments, particularly the piano. But it was the violin that became almost a piece in its own right – the violin could conceivably play its line as a piece on its own – and then the Tallis motet would slip away. So the violin is a commentary upon the original and in itself something new.

Example 4. Hughes – Sinfonia, Movement 4. Extract. The original lines of Tallis’s motet In iejunio et fletu are heard distantly spaced between instruments such as the high flute, low clarinet and mid piano. The violin is on its own path – reflecting and extending Tallis’s expressive world.

EF: When your composer’s mind is finding new things to do, what’s your go-to domain – do you think timbre, or hamony? These moments make me think of other harmonic possibilities…

EH: I think you’re right – it’s harmony and colour. Harmony and timbre. I suppose that places me firmly in the classical and modernist tradition, but actually I feel less and less concerned about dividing lines, and more and more interested in how things connect and what underpins musical experience and musical excitement. That’s why I’m pleased that Sinfonia in effect crosses borders by taking cues and ideas from historical ‘folk’, sacred music, domestic music making genres and street songs.

In terms of ‘domains’ and thinking about compositional process though there are two things I do that are fairly consistent. One is a kind of counterpoint between the diatonic and the chromatic. And I usually think the diatonic as a background thing – with the chromatic heard as ornamentation. My densest work occurs when the chromatic material is foregrounded and almost displaces the diatonic. And yet the diatonic is still there. I think that goes back to being introduced to plainchant by attending Prof Alexander Goehr’s lectures at university, and his notion that it could shape the form of a piece as well as the line. And another thing that is related to this – because I’m interested in counterpoints – not just classical counterpoint – of textures, blocks, colour, and durations, and co-existing tempos. This strangely fitted in with the realisation that minimalist composers, as well as Ligeti, Cage and others, are strongly indebted to non-classical, non-mainstream and non-Eurocentric approaches to rhythm and rhythmic structure.

EF: Does your approach to rhythm bear these other influences, or perhaps via these other composers?

EH: For me, I would argue that I found these elements were most powerfully forged through  early notated polyphonic music. But, yes, definitely. I studied Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts (1950) when I was a student, and this strongly affected me. Not least because Cage himself told me about the Webernian canon that runs through the third movement.

EF: That’s interesting because I was really struck in looking at the score by some of the shifts in rhythm where you are, bar by bar, changing the rhythmic pattern of notes in the strings particularly in the opening of movement 3 of Sinfonia ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’. Here, you experience shifts bar by bar, which to me is a really elegant combination texture and harmony and rhythm all at once – and allows us to perceive these shapes simultaneously.

Sinfonia – Movement 3 – opening – extract from Ed Hughes on Vimeo.

Example 5. Hughes – Sinfonia, Movement 3. Extract (opening). The rhythmic patterns in the violins are freely formed in 3s and 4s around underlying harmony, creating a sense of textural flow and drift.

EH: Thank you. You could also argue that Dunstable is helping me here to be a little more fluid. Because the strings, particularly the violins, are, essentially, following, tracking, or working through, the harmonic implications of Dunstable’s music. And of course Dunstable’s harmonies are always coherent and yet constantly shifting to reflect the literally layered texts.

Richard Taruskin argues that earlier composers rejected the old music that existed before their own time as inferior. Now it’s the reverse – we canonise old music, including old ‘modern’ music, at the expense of new music. And so, coming back to your opening question, why do composers plunder old music: the appropriation and remaking of old music could be seen to as a necessary reaction or correction to this state of paralysis in western art music – in reinventing the old music we take ancient pioneering music and remake it now, to infuse music today with fresh perspectives and expression and break away from the museum culture.

EF: The overall structure of Sinfonia is very strong with each individual movement having its own particular world. And one thing that stood out for me was the fourth movement – where to my ear the original material is more legible than it has been previously and is subsequently. And so it struck me that this notion of legibility is in itself a kind of structural element to the whole piece, because if you had something that is more legible earlier on it would have been almost too easy. But that, the complexity draws us in – so that while we know that it’s based on this old music, we are listening in a slightly different way than we would to something that didn’t proclaim that it’s based on, or a homage to, something earlier. I was always listening out for things that I might recognise, or relate to my own experience of that older music. And then in the fourth movement it flowers – it opens out – and there it is – and it’s like the light comes out for a bit. And everything transcends in a more effortless way, and that’s really powerful structurally. Not that everything leads to this moment, but it’s like a little gift that you get, and then the overgrowth comes in again and you’re pulled back into that more complex, layered, way of listening.

EH: Thank you again! One thing I was trying to say, probably because I was being a bit paranoid about being accused of being nostalgic or retrospective, I was clear that it was not a classical symphony – it’s not a symphony in the sense of having a fast, slow, scherzo, fast type structure. It isn’t that. But maybe I’m worrying too much because perhaps at a kind of archetypal level those patterns you are identifying – like how and when you play the ‘cards’ of composition – and with what intensity and volition you play them – I guess that’s something we share (whatever compositional aesthetic we have). So yes what you said is very interesting – withholding and then conferring clarity. Because actually that’s another and probably quite refreshing way of thinking about the symphony including recent symphonies. I met the composer Martin Butler for a conversation recently; and we touched on Berio’s Sinfonia briefly; because Martin said of course that the ultimate quotation is the Mahler movement in Berio’s Sinfonia. So I then said, yes, that is an amazing piece, but even more influential on me, personally, was the O King movement, which is the second movement, and I was talking about the orchestration; and Martin said, well you do know that that’s the slow movement of the symphony – and I hadn’t really thought of it like that. So that Berio is in fact speaking directly to the Beethovenian symphonic form. Radical, yet referencing a recurring pattern.

EF: I wasn’t thinking so much of symphonic form, I suppose, but rather that [your] Sinfonia is a group of pieces that are deliberately together, and that the process of flowering is designed into it, so that they have to proceed in a particular order even as their sources are multiple.

EH: I do like this idea that there is a journey across it and it is not simply a set of fragments.

EF: Yes – definitely – the journey and the sense that the pieces speak to one another across it.

I’m curious about what is coming next for you as a composer?

EH: I know I’m writing a piece for string ensemble in spring 2019. I haven’t got a strong sense of what the piece is going to be like yet, but I have got a title – it’s going to be called Flint. This will reference the environment of the Sussex Downs. It will be a concert piece but it will connect to my 2018 Cuckmere project and interests in the relationship between music and the external world.

EF: So no more Tallis for the moment. Do you feel like, when you are composing music, and not using an external source as a prompt, is it your whole oeuvre that is then your external source in a way? It’s like you are referencing yourself at the same time as trying to do something new?

EH: I think it’s something that you can’t control. It’s probably a problematic thing to say or generalise about, but I think it is a good thing if at some meta level there is a unity to one’s interests but perhaps it is best if this is unconscious and revealed in the work itself. In fact, that is my best experience of composition – when one attains a sense of flow which transcends pre-determined structures and planning. If one looks at a scholar like Richard Elliott, for example, no matter what his subjects are his work is driven by certain underlying preoccupations. That’s probably true for composers as well. And it’s probably impossible – no matter how much one would like to for purposes of applying to the AHRC or whatever – it’s probably impossible to say definitively ‘I am going to deliver this, this and this.’ This brings me back to the problem is composition research? And my immediate answer to that is ‘yes, it is, when through its very processes it produces new sensations or insights’.

EF: I agree!

EH: But then what do you say after that. Because you then have to acknowledge the precarious or provisional nature of the work… I think I am doing a form of research whenever I write. I don’t write unthinkingly. And I produce stuff that one can share.

EF: I think the problem for us is that it is research but in a different language, that not everyone speaks, necessarily. And not everyone understands verbally. And we’re obliged to explain it using words, so that people can understand it … because I suppose it’s a smaller group of specialist people who will understand certain aspects of the research. But we want the music to be understood by a broader range of people. And we want it to have value for them, and anyone who listens to it. So it is fair that we need to explain our work and include our own reflections too. Yet for me the truth is that, at some level, that’s always a parallel discipline. And so that’s a challenge in an academic setting. I have one more question – what might be interesting is to interview you about the interviews! I am curious about whether people shared ‘in points’ to this type of composition, for example.

EH: That’s something that’s come out of the interviews – it’s a form of witness that’s not normally revealed – one’s formative practical engagements and where that initial impulse to compose comes from. And actually people don’t realise that, but it is revealing and often resolves the tension between apparently abstract methods and the sources of compositional ideas.

Tom Armstrong

Tom Armstrong. Photograph by Francis Western-Smith

Tom Armstrong in conversation with Mimi Haddon.

Tom Armstrong’s interests include historical sources and their transformation, extending to treating his own music as an object of transformation. This is because Tom is not so much interested in composing out processes building on a skeletal structure, or composing into processes by getting ‘under the skin’ of an old work; he is more interested in processes of reworking and how they shape composition, perhaps through accretions, but also, particularly in the pieces discussed here, through reduction. By applying filters, in order to throw elements into relief from the silence surrounding them – like ruins treated as objects – revealing their qualities in this new context, and through repeated listenings, music becomes like architecture, like physical objects that the listener ‘walks’ around with some consciousness of their residual historical character.

Tom Armstrong and Mimi Haddon consider the nature of the historical. Is it narrow, or broad? Is it about examining forensically or considering themes that cut across musical history? What would it be like to compose out or work through the stand-out works of classical modernist composition which is already very ‘old’ in terms of current perception? Echoing reservations expressed in other interviews, around the problem of quotation, they frame this composing the historical project with an alternative postmodernism, one that de-emphasises ironic play with juxtaposed styles in favour of a more unified, albeit defamiliarised, musical surface. This music functions more as a homage to the past than as a distancing from it.

Mimi Haddon: Could you talk about your work JPR (2015), which borrows from Rameau, or other works that draw from historical sources?

Tom Armstrong: It’s the earliest of three pieces that have done this fully. However, previous work led in this direction. In about 2003/4 I wrote a transcription of a Syrian lute improvisation for brass quartet. A straight transcription with a few additions from me. I composed an amateur orchestral piece in 2001 based on sea shanties; I also borrowed and reworked my own music. More recently, I’m interested in processes of revision and their role in composition. The issue with the “Rameau” work, JPR, was the way that I reworked the older music. In my work previous to that there had been quite a lot of ‘clever’ things going on. I did a piece for my Dad’s 60th which was quite a serious piece, even though it was an occasional work. I created lots of serial rows, cells, generative harmonies, whereas, with the Rameau, there is no other music in there apart from his. So there is on the one hand the idea of borrowing, and then on the other hand, the idea of the filtering technique. For example, I say, I am only going to allow through appearances of the tonic chord. It doesn’t matter where they occur – whether they are on the second quaver of a bar – or on the downbeat – that’s all getting through. So that produces a lot of silence which seems like I’m rubbing stuff out – whereas what I’m doing up is setting up rules, and only letting through certain things. My approach is fairly informal, without the systematisation of composers like Brian Ferneyhough or Maxwell Davies who employ pre-compositional filtering techniques – it’s very much about looking at the piece and saying ‘in this particular piece, if I only allow through the tonic and dominant chord, do I get something that is interesting and aesthetically valuable?’, and if I don’t then I’ll try a different technique.

So, the Rameau was an explicit borrowing coupled with an informal technique of filtering. The final thing that makes it different is the experimental music I have been interested in in the last few years: Cage, Feldman, Brown, Christian Wolff. Christian Wolff’s music I’ve found particularly valuable and interesting. It has a fragile quality – not at all demonstrative. It is music that you feel could break down at any moment. By contrast, my music until about ten years ago was really quite conventional in its aesthetic values. Music that is unified and organic – complex, with decoration. I’ve gradually become much more interested in music that is less demonstrative; and also in indeterminacy. So, in JPR, the pieces do line up, but there’s no split-second coordination. The three pieces line up in a loose way. The players are not having to work hard to coordinate. They are in their own worlds and their own tempos. So that gives the work a strange sound. You get these fragments that might be Rameau, while others sound disembodied and abstract. And these are combined so that you get unpredictable moments of silence; then you might get hectic activity where people are bumping into each other all the time so that the music is hard to understand; then the texture thins out again; silence; someone is left on their own at the end of the piece. So it’s a very different kind of aesthetic for me, but one that is very recognisable from the experimental tradition.

MH: I was interested in what you are saying about Wolff, and things turned around for you from not liking it to liking it; were there any particular pieces that caused you to change your mind and become attracted to the kind of fragility you are talking about?

TA: There’s a whole set of pieces Wolff wrote which are just called ‘Exercises’. They present many different kinds of approaches to ensemble playing. For example, in Exercise 1, the object is that the players all play from the same part, and they have a very loose rhythmical guide – a short note and a long note but apart from that a completely free rein. The idea is that at any point a player can push ahead of the rest of the pack, and the others have to decide either to catch up with them, or to leave them out on a limb, so that person has to come back to the ensemble. So, it produces a very beautiful, hazy, heterophonic effect. The instruments aren’t specified and there are a number of different recordings. They tend to use electric guitar, vibraphone, piano so you get this music where you can hear the misalignments and ‘out of time’ elements. ‘Exercise 15’ is particularly interesting; on one of the commercial recordings it lasts for 7½ minutes, then there’s another by the Wandelweise Collective on YouTube which lasts for an hour and ten minutes. The score permits very different interpretations. That’s something I’m very interested in. However this doesn’t come through in the Rameau piece. My turn towards the experimental really comes through my interest in the composer-performer relationship. About ten years ago I had an argument with a performer about interpreting a piano piece of mine, where I was trying to ask the performer to play certain sections in a particular way. And the performer turned round and said, ‘I did what you wanted Tom, but I wasn’t that happy with it; I didn’t feel I had much ownership of the piece; and I didn’t feel it was ‘my’ piece and yet you wrote it explicitly for me.’ We had this conversation about it and at one point there is this particular moment in the piece which is a real stumbling point for both of us. And I suddenly saw the passage from the performer’s point of view, and saw how the performer might shape this section very differently. And that made me realise that the piece could have come out very differently had we started collaboratively much earlier: it could have been about nuance, reverberation. As soon as I saw that point of view – allowing the performer latitude – that responsibility and freedom could change the nature of the music – that led me very quickly towards re-evaluating the experimental tradition.

MH: So, in the context of the topic of the Composing the Historical project, there are three or more layers: the material is from Rameau, but the influence is from the New York School. And then there’s also the influence of the performer as well. So in terms of drawing from ‘historical’ sources you have multiple influences coming into the piece. It’s not just the Rameau, it’s other things as well.

TA: And also Baroque music itself is renowned for giving the performer freedom. For example Louis Couperin devised the unmeasured prelude, an 18th century graphic notation – wonderful – the Baroque is a good place to explore that kind of relationship.

MH: And I suppose you have traditions of improvisation that you don’t see in later periods – for example the Da Capo aria where you do the first part again but differently.

TA: And in JPR there is no improvisation although the way I’ve laid out the parts (there is no score) is unconventional. I don’t use rests, I use blank bars. Each individual part is an intact Rameau composition. So all the proportions are exactly as they were in the original – it’s just that most of the notes are missing. And the reason I kept the bars blank (as opposed to rests) is that I did want to suggest to the performers’ minds that the bars might be filled with something. It’s to raise the performers consciousness a little – it can be interesting because it encourages them to reflect on what this means and ask more questions of the score, rather than taking it at face value. But I should say that to this point there has been no improvisation – just a sense of flexibility. The first performers I wrote this for were not interested in introducing new stuff – they felt it wasn’t necessary.

MH: This idea of leaving the bars empty is that something you use in the ‘Schubert’ piece Tänze (2018) as well?

TA: Tänze is one of three works in this vein. It would be good to talk about the third, which is Distant Beauties (2017), later on. Tänze is different from JPR, which was a kind of indeterminate mash-up of Rameau where each instrument is playing a filtered part from a different Suite from Rameau’s Collection Pièces de clavecins en concerts (1741). Different tempos, different metres, different keys presented simultaneously. But the performers are not free to align the music in any way – entries are instead subject to time cues. That differentiates the trios.

The thing about the Schubert piece is that there is none of that structure at all. Each of the waltzes are taken from 36 Original Dances (36 Originaltänze, D.365, Vienna, 1822) which would likely have been improvised by Schubert before being written down, and presented for two or more keyboards. The difference from JPR is that all the pianists are playing from the same score, and they can start at whatever number of Waltz they like, and cycle through the collection e.g. 15 to 36 then back to 1 and up to 14. The idea is that the negotiation of the texture  is up to the performers; the only guide is the instructions in the score.

Tom Armstrong, Tänze (score) – instructions for performers

There is a maximum of five or a minimum of one Waltz per page. Where there is more space on the page this implies more time before moving on to the next Waltz. That is one way I intervene in influencing how the texture might evolve. But, apart from that, what the performers are doing is, essentially, improvising in terms of the way they collide with each other. They are improvising a very slow canon – because they are all playing the same thing, but starting at different points.

Modernist Tom · Tanze (2018) @ Surrey 13 Feb 2019

Examples: Tom Armstrong, Tänze.
(1) Performance Surrey 13 Feb 2019 (link to Soundcloud);
(2) Performance York May 2019 (YouTube)

So Tänze is distinguished from JPR in its indeterminate aspect. The pianists decide how to negotiate the work. They could decide that each page lasts 90 seconds. I don’t specify how to work through the piece except for the simple guide at the start. So, there are greater differences between performances and with more players it can create a denser texture.

MH: So, this music – the Schubert, the Rameau – can you tell me what that means to you?

TA: The Schubert is hugely nostalgic. I got into music through piano lessons and a very good piano teacher who introduced me to Schubert. Schubert’s music is quite easy to engage with – relatively sight-readable. As a good pianist, but essentially an amateur, this material was congenial. My father was also a Schubert fan, and there’s a sense of remembering him through that music as well. This is a big driving force. With the Rameau, I didn’t know the Pièces de clavecin en concerts – the idea came by chance from Trio Aporia for whom I wrote these pieces and with whom I had been working experimentally with the intention that I should make a piece from the results of our experiments. I thought it would be something with improvisation but Jane Chapman said ‘come and hear us play Rameau’. They played Rameau’s Pièces and I was blown away – the music seemed free of many of the clichés of the Baroque. Jane suggested I use the Rameau as a starting point for my trio. So I went away with this idea. It was an accident – although what’s interesting about the Rameau is that it speaks to the flexibility of what the musical work might be. Some of them can be performed as harpsichord solo pieces, whereas with others you can add the viola da gamba and flute parts. So that ability spoke to the experimental interest I was caught up in at that time. The modernity of Rameau was also important – and this material is the lifeblood of the trio. So in the silences of my version, they (the players) are hearing the original.

MH: Early in this conversation you mentioned a Syrian lute transcription and sea shanties. What was your relationship to those pieces?

TA: The Syrian piece was one of my few political pieces and coincided with the Iraq War (2003). That’s the only time in my life when I haven’t voted Labour. I felt strongly that the War was terrible. I felt that what had happened was simply pitting East against West and served little if any discernible purpose. So taking Middle Eastern music and transcribing it for a western ensemble – which can’t play quarter tones – was interesting in that context. The piece was an appropriation on the level of instrumentation but I tried to intervene as little as possible in the material; for example, such harmony as is employed is generated heterophonically rather than being imposed from ‘without’. The Sea Shanties piece was commissioned by the City of Rochester Symphony Orchestra in Kent – and because of the heritage of the county – with its dockyard history – I felt that was a good source to use. And it connects to JPR because it is a kind of quodlibet – but the materials are layered in a finely controlled fashion and all align harmonically.

MH: How did you find the material – from a recording?

TA: From a trio of sea shanty collections. Hugill, Stan. (1994) Shanties from the Seven Seas (Mystic Seaport Museum Stores Inc.); Kinsey, Terry. (1989) Songs of the Sea (Robert Hale Ltd.); Palmer, Roy. (1986) The Oxford Book of Sea Songs (Oxford University Press). 

MH: So. What do you think Ed means by the historical? Is it specific, or open ended, or plural? What do we think composing from the historical is?

TA: It depends on your view of how music history figures in one’s upbgringing and how you feel about tradition. The music Ed selected for his Sinfonia project obviously speaks very strongly to his musical experiences, and it is further back in history than my own music. I like the idea of the historical being broad – I like broad categories. For example the post-war European avant garde are now historial, but that kind of modernism had a big input into my vocabulary. My own university training was at York University where I worked with Roger Marsh who is a devotee of Bernard Rands, who was in turn a devotee of Luciano Berio, so you have the post-war connection there. Then you have David Blake, who is more of an advocate of the second Viennese School. So just in that music department you have two aspects of musical modernism, pre- and post-war. I often thought of this as contemporary music, and continued to do so for a very long time. But only in the last ten years have I started to realise how old that music is.

MH: Yes, exactly.

TA: I think Ed is thinking of the historical in a broad sense. For my purposes – I’ve started to think about how I might do this with Webern, or Berio, or Birtwistle. Apart from the copyright problems, an issue would be the kinds of ways in which I am filtering and layering. This would have much less effect in atonal music, than in tonal music. What would be harder to achieve is the distancing effect. With Rameau and Schubert you start to get this distancing between then and now. There is a sense you are hearing something that is familiar but, at the same time, not. One is playing with history in a kind of post-modern sense. It is interesting to consider how Ed’s composing the historical seems antithetical to notions of the post-modern that emphasise the playful combination of different things. Certainly, Ed’s approach downplays quirky eclecticism or nostalgic longing for a past that cannot be recovered. And it’s the same for me – my JPR and Tänze are homages to those composers. So there is a sense of looking back affectionately on much older music. And putting this into the context of our own time but in a less angst-ridden way than one might find with a composer like Rochberg (hardly surprising considering I don’t belong to his generation). This is achieved by folding the music onto itself rather than juxtaposing it with my authorial voice. For me, the notion of historical distance is important but on a more general level history is there and that raises interesting questions. There is certainly a sense of defamiliarisation when listening to JPR or Tänze yet this arises through layering the historical materials, not framing them with materials from the present.

MH: I didn’t have anything particular in mind when I asked you this question of what is the historical, but when you mentioned the fragility of Wolff, I thought immediately of Webern: similarly delicate, similarly fragile, but perhaps it wouldn’t lend itself to the same treatment because it sounds too “new”. Even though it’s about 100 years old, at this point.

TA: That’s a very interesting challenge. If I were to do that with Webern, one might have to think of a para-linguistic approach, where you are actually talking about all the ways in which Webern has been written about – but what would be more interesting is to use analyses of Webern as a starting point. So it would be what people have said about Webern, rather than his own music per se.

MH: On that topic, and in relation to this idea of composing the musicology, and also the point that a lot of post-World War II music was written in a very specific context, vis-à-vis issues of race and gender, would you ever consider doing a historical project that was informed by gender? For example, we know comparatively so little about the history of women’s music, would you ever do this as a kind of archaeological excavation of female composers?

TA: I am with a colleague at Surrey thinking of a project on creative partnerships. It’s challenging the myth of woman as muse. It’s looking at how partners support one another creatively. It might be one is a composer, and one isn’t. A whole set of different relationships in the world we live now. My colleague is an expert on Ethel Smyth and her partnership with one of her librettists is very interesting. It was personal and affected the librettos. There was the output of Fanny Mendelssohn and how she influenced and sustained her brother, Felix. The artistic output we are planning from it may well take the Mendelssohns as a starting point. It’s true this is a rich and deep seam. I am a composer in a university and one is trying to find ways of working informed by research. My skills are as an artist – I am not a theorist. But if you can team up with a colleague who does theorise then there are ways in which your composition can be useful in bringing elements of research to light. There’s also a lot of related work on that in the act of completion, almost the opposite of what I have done to Rameau and Schubert, where musicologists and composers might share territory in the act of finishing off incomplete pieces.

The third piece I mentioned is actually the middle member of this trio of borrowings and, because of the particular function it was to fulfil, approaches an historical source slightly differently.  

My composition Distant Beauties (2017) is based on the Prologue to the Sleeping Beauty ballet by Tchaikovsky – commissioned by Jennifer Jackson. Every year London Studio Centre, an HE institution, with their final year students, form a series of companies and each one does a tour around the UK. Jenny wanted to use the Prologue and work with choreography in a way similar to me. Mixing and matching elements of existing choreography with new choreography by her students. So mixing the historical with the new. And I was doing my usual thing with filtering the original. But there were two interesting differences. One was to do with medium. Whereas the Tchaikovsky is a lavish orchestral score, I had two instruments – flute and viola. This was my choice, partly conditioned by budget. So there is no attempt to recreate the lushness of the original. I made the whole thing thinner and fragile. Sometimes they are playing the melody together in unison, sometimes elements of the accompaniment. There are elements in Tchaikovsky that my older music had – mechanical elements. Many sequences. Also a love of rhythmic drive and patterning. The other thing that connects to my outlook is the sense of continuity. I was often, in an attempt to critique this rather conventional aesthetic  of ‘seamlessness’, getting rid of the connective ’tissue’ and presenting the ideas much more starkly. Also there was no indeterminacy to the layering because this material had to be danced to. I couldn’t obscure everything in a kind of wash of mashed-up Tchaikovsky. So what you get in Distant Beauties is a process that is akin to sculpture and etching. What I’m doing is removing bits of it to produce something new from that. My music is the finished sculpture or etching – what is left in relief. A different but related process to that used in JPR and Tänze in which it is the combination of these etched parts that is important. More unadorned than those. Either people thought it was awful or they loved it! One person’s reaction was I had ruined the music – which got me into the idea of ‘ruination’ and the idea that it could become an approach.

MH: Yes – ruins can be quite beautiful. We like to go and look at them, for example.

TA: My angle on some of this music finds parallels in Robert Ginsberg’s The Aesthetics of Ruins in which he writes of the importance of dynamism, that a ruin invites movement in the spectator but also that it may itself move out to meet you in some way. How you do that musically is an interesting issue. My Schubert piece (Tänze) attempts to – you are hearing the same thing, but in a different context. When pianist number 3 comes round to waltz 1 you might have heard pianist 2 play it already but very differently – so that difference of perspective has something akin to spatial movement – and, of course, the context in which you hear waltz 1 again is bound to be different because of the indeterminate structure.

MH: You are elucidating its different dimensions, like a piece of architecture. A multi-dimensional object.

TA: Exactly.

Martin Butler

Martin Butler in conversation with Ed Hughes.

Martin Butler is a British composer, pianist, and Professor of Music at University of Sussex.

In this conversation, Martin Butler talks to Ed Hughes about new methods developed through his ensemble notes inégales which negotiate composition and improvisation by reimagining repertoire, and revisiting the memory of performances. In this ensemble’s re-imagining of English composer Henry Purcell’s King Arthur, a collaborative reading of a text creates a unique performance on each occasion. Neither conventional transcription, nor aiming for permanent status, this is rather an ephemeral meditation on identity which can be documented (through video) but is not captured in a score. Martin Butler distinguishes between working with the ‘skeleton’ of an old score, and his own approach of ‘getting under the skin’ of Purcell in order to evoke the process of working in towards the true meaning of the old text and how it can be understood or received today. The conversation also touched on the difficulties inherent in historical consciousness – how composers resolve training around originality and the problematising of quotation and mixing of genres. Are these ‘educational’ processes robust and vital, or stifling to creativity, free expression and exploration of identity?

Martin: One piece on the new CD is Lovesongs Waltzes and I only just remembered, in the light of what you were saying about delving into the past, or referencing the past, that’s a piece that references (not directly) Brahmsian styles very consciously; the title is a weird translation of Liebeslieder Walzer (Brahms op. 52 and op. 65).

Ed: Could I start then by asking you what’s your feeling about recomposition as a creative act?

MB: Well, I don’t think that my Brahms-influenced piece is recomposition. It’s a series of stylistic nods, really. I wouldn’t even say borrowing – because there is nothing quoted. And actually – do you remember that piano piece, On the Rocks? which homages Debussy but more kind of pastiche-y and self-consciously. But again, no quotes. But that’s in distinction to what Peter Wiegold and I did with (Henry Purcell’s) King Arthur which was recomposition – or partly recomposition.

EH: So, was that a special and slightly unusual thing to do in terms of your normal composition practice?

MB: Yes, it was very different – and it couldn’t have happened without the whole inégales  experience. It couldn’t have happened without using a mad orchestra of disparate cultures and backgrounds. People who can’t read music, people who can read music, jazz people, world music people. And, first of all, producing King Arthur – not all of King Arthur – a chunk of King Arthur – and creating a kind of cyclic structure by repeating it, twice. That’s a kind of Berio, modernist, layering idea – so it accrues different patinas of improvisations, colours and textures, and meanings, theatrically when we did it.

Martin Butler, Peter Wiegold, notes inégales King Arthur after Purcell [extract]

EH: Also, this sounds like a recovery of ancient musical practices, perhaps?

MB: Yes, exactly, old practices, cyclic structures. Repeating patterns – the cantus firmus or whatever it is. And Purcell, with his ground basses, is just made for that. He used those bass lines a lot. So (we had) recompositions, and just rearrangements. And then free composition over a bass line or whatever it happened to be, related to the original Purcell. So, it’s a real mixture of different things. It wasn’t just me and Peter. As always with the band, notes inégales, it came out of improvisation practice from those different traditions and cultures we have represented in the orchestra. Something like thirty people – a mad, creative, mixed band. It did sound amazing. But part of that, I have to say, was that Peter and I could suggest very crude, global strategies, of layering and decoration, and alliances between different parts of the orchestra, things like foregrounding, and assigning different textural roles and functions to different bits of the orchestra on different cycles or repetitions of a movement, or aria, or whatever it is. And then, letting them improvise with those broad structures in mind. And seeing what happens – and letting them shape it. And more or less solidifying the outcome. Write it down, if you want to. Record it as a score. But we didn’t see any point in doing that – we could never recreate it. We could do it again, with the same principles. 

EH: There were two performances and they were different, is that right?

MB: They weren’t structurally different – they were the same series of events. But yes in terms of musical details they were very different, on certain levels.

EH: So, it wasn’t scored out.

MB: It was a minimal, bare-bones rehearsal score. Which in some places did have a lot of detail. But then improvised upon, according to certain rules and approaches that we suggested. But that’s not recorded in detail in the score, and neither did it need to be. In fact it would have ruined the effect that we were after. That’s both the joy and the drawback of working that way. You can’t repeat things. But you can document them – we have actually recorded everything we have done – every note that has been played over seven years.

EH: That’s quite an archive, that’s better than my cassette tape collection

MB: Don’t talk to me about cassette tapes in your garage, I’ve got plenty of those.

EH: So in terms of process were you and Peter equally responsible for all numbers? Or did you alternate?

MB: We took it in turns, and assigned each other bits to do. And some of it we worked on together – we literally got in the same room together and decided how to do things. Peter had a bigger role to play in the performance – he was beating and using his hand signals – the practice of inégales realisation very much comes from him. I was more like a continuo player – this was my role in the band – to make sure everything is together and provide the glue! But in terms of curating the piece, yes, we were pretty much equal. And you can’t work with everyone like that. It doesn’t always work. And Peter’s got strong ideas about stuff, and so have I. We’ve never done anything quite like that before, on that scale.

EH: Can I ask why you did it? Was it the Englishness of it…?

MB: It was the Englishness of it… We wanted to do something at Spitalfields. And we’d been talking to Spitalfields for a couple of years, actually, to see what we could do. And the idea didn’t come from them – we just suddenly realised that Purcell was in the air and made the connection with Wilton’s Music Hall which is a prime Spitalfields venue. And it’s a stone’s throw from where Purcell used to recruit these school kids, trumpeters, from an academy down the road. That he would probably have used for King Arthur and for many other things. And this whole thing about the Frost Fairs, when the Thames in the 17th century froze over, it doesn’t now but it did then because it was much wider and shallower, so you had these funfairs and circuses, where elephants walked backwards and forwards across the Thames in the dead of Winter. And this was a great idea to make contact with the local area. And reading about life in that area of London at that time made you realise it was very multicultural. Extraordinary range of different cultures, ideas, foods…. And that’s our band. And so, King Arthur – it’s not really an opera at all. It’s often referred to as a ‘semi-opera’. It hasn’t got a plot. It’s just a sequence of vaguely interlocking episodes. Built out of ideas and representations of England, mythologies, King Arthur and Merlin and all that, the theme of love, ideas from John Dryden, slightly metaphysical stuff. We had the character of Dryden in the show. Walking around, pontificating. So there’s a whole mixture of different things. And the third act which is where Cupid wakes and warns the ‘Cold Genius’; and the Spirit of Love is there; so there’s a metaphysical exploration of the idea of love and different forms of love; so we played with that. We got Murray Lachlan Young, the performance poet, to do a master of ceremonies role – he had worked with us before. And he was fantastic, as a wizard, banging his wand, making magic – and he’s very funny too. So, it was a real entertainment. And a riff on what we thought Purcell’s view of what it was.

EH: That touches on my interest in the reasons why you reached back – is it fair to say there’s a response to the site/location, but there’s also this interest in making the history come alive? Making the history of music contemporary?

MB: Yes – and making it matter to our present. Because none of that would be as interesting if it didn’t resonate with the situation of our country now. To do with English identity or British identity. Role, function, multi-culturalism. Entertainment, versus celebrity, versus mythologies, all that stuff. That’s all happening now too. But in a different way. You take modern musicians but mix with modern meanings from a range of different musical cultures, traditions and backgrounds, and musical literacy backgrounds too, and put them all in one orchestra, and see what happens, with some very simple guidelines and approaches, and map that on to an ancient masterpiece, like Purcell’s very fluid piece of theatre – I mean what is it? A sequence of arias and some recitatives, with slightly dense and unfathomable philosophical discourses from Dryden, about identity – so it just seemed like a good mix. And we then let the compositional tools and strategies reflect that. A mixture of specifics – recompositions, a kind of free-floating broad brush approach to arrangement, with an extraordinary diversity of musicians. And, yes, recomposition. We had the skeleton of the Purcell but it wasn’t using the structure to then mould our own material. It was actually taking as read Purcell’s forms and structures, and trying to get under the skin of it.

EH: Judith Weir says recomposition should only be an occasional thing. I was remembering I had been to see a piece of Pascal Dusapin’s at the South Bank. It was a piece they had revived, called Passion. And it’s an attempt to recreate the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but he calls it a dance opera. And it was originally commissioned as a reworking of Monteverdi. But he refused to do that. So he made his own new piece, and was in a slightly conflicted position of being somebody who was working with the past, from an ideas and conceptual point of view, but actually his inner core as a modernist composer was saying you can’t quote. In the Q&A I asked him – given that you are clearly somebody who is deeply engaged in music and music history as well as philosophy why rule out quotation? And he just said, I immerse myself in this music for weeks and weeks, and then I close the book. The [resulting] music is totally my own.

MB: These modernists, scared to death! From our generation we were taught to borrow things and to be post-modern was bad. And to parade and to strut your stuff with commercial or popular entertainment – anything that smacks of that is bad. Very boring nonsense really. But no composers of our generation, you, me, Judith and beyond, escaped those ideologies. Unless you were studying with Philip Glass. People spent years and years trying to get out of that strait-jacket.

EH: This may be partly what I’m working through – talking to people. I’ve learnt so much: partly by talking to people about their formative experiences. For example Shirley Thompson said how difficult and problematic their experience at university was of learning to compose because she was told unless she wrote like Birtwistle she was bad.

MB: I sort of suffered from it from Tony Gilbert: we suffered in the ’60s to forge this language; you can’t ignore it – you have to adopt it. I always use a quote from Jacob Druckman – the American composer, really good composer. He said, not being a serialist composer on the East coast in the 1960s and 1970s was like not being a Catholic in Rome in the 13th century. My own answer to all this is where do you fit Berio’s Sinfonia? It’s such a powerful work – and he quotes the whole Mahler movement verbatim. And then slaps all these other quotes on top of it. And that’s it. It’s a mosaic.

EH: I was talking to my composition class about Berio’s O King as a study in scaling up. This was a great study in a very focused way of writing for small ensemble. And then how you transpose it on to the large scale canvas [of the second movement of Berio’s Sinfonia]. And it is very different from the ‘Mahler’ movement but it is also revolutionary.

MB: It’s the slow movement of the symphony. Always remember that about O King. It’s a prayer, it’s a memorial piece. And then after it you get the musical journey. It’s the prayer before you go into the feast. It does have extraordinary orchestration.

EH: Going back to the modernist/quotation problem. I went to a talk recently by Brian Ferneyhough which was chaired by Julian Anderson. Ferneyhough said I do recall the days when student composers were writing 12 note music, and they came up with the first five notes of the series and it was pretty good, and then they’d realise they still have to put the other seven in. Robin Holloway was next to me and he immediately said, ‘I remember it well’. It seemed to encapsulate the experience of a whole generation.

MB: Isn’t it Robin Holloway who came up with the infamous exam question which was something like at what point does an ism become a wasm? … Anyway, Judith was at King Arthur. She said, not quite understanding it, aren’t Martin’s orchestrations wonderful?

EH: I guess that’s a tribute to the work and the quality of the collaboration.

MB: It did sound fantastic.

EH: In a way, perhaps that does have to be spelt out – it does come over to the naïve listener as beautifully organic – so one might well think that is the product of a single mind as opposed to a collective. It’s a tribute to the process.

MB: It’s a tribute to the process – absolutely. Well, Peter’s been at it much longer than me. But I have been working with him for a long time now. Right back to the 1980s so I have sort of absorbed it too. It is a process, it is a practice, a kind of combination of approaches to improvisation. Not fusion. We hate fusion. But we like banging things against each other for friction – styles, traditions.

EH: I remember that was the principle of the club nights.

MB: It still is.

EH: So you hate fusion?

MB: Yes the idea of taking one thing from one tradition and another from another into a pot and stirring it around. No – it’s important to respect the two things as separate, and then see how they connect. 

EH: You know your Preludes inégales which I think are beautiful – you know I turned the pages for you when you played them at Sussex.

MB: You did – and that’s all on Youtube.

Professor Martin Butler plays his own composition at the University of Sussex.

EH: That was four years ago now. Are there still just three of them? Could you tell me once more about the process – you improvised them?

MB: They started as my memories of specific improvisations I did – two out of three at the Club. I didn’t write them down at the time and they weren’t recorded. Sometime later I remembered what I could of them and wrote that down, and very quickly started to improvise on that. That piece of paper with half remembered details of what I did.

EH: So was the notation an essential medium or interface?

MB: The notation started as a way of recording my memory – I deliberately didn’t listen to any recordings. I thought it would be interesting to set up a layering process whereby I would do fresh improvisations based on what was in front of me on the page. And then more writing down and more improvisations. It was about four or five times that process of going back and forth. So they are more like compositions than improvisations in the end – because you’ve got the quite detailed score, but they are rooted in something that was quite the opposite. It wasn’t just me writing a piece based on improvisation it was me remembering an improvisation, writing a piece, improvising on it, remembering that, and ending up with a solid object.

EH: That’s a great description of a flowing process that is highly adaptive. It seemed to combine classical harmony with arborescences – things flowing off.

MB: Yes. I remember thinking at the time that that process was kind of a physical one because in my house I had my computer up in my work room upstairs, and the piano downstairs, so I’d be running up and down – so the actual process involved carrying a piece of paper up the stairs. And bringing it down again. So it was actually quite physical. I intended to write more – or to use that process to write something else – but I haven’t found the right project.

EH: Do they reach back to tradition at all?

MB: No, not at all. One or two of them are jazzy – the prevailing stylistic patina of the band. I do remember the one in the middle was an improv led by me on the night and went off on all sorts of free-jazz. I think in terms of what you are asking me about there is an interesting territory in my activities as a performer and my training – almost inescapably you are engaging with what your hands have learnt to play and what you have been studying and thinking about since you were a teenager. And the question becomes, how do you open the door to it. The question becomes how much do you open the door to that, and how much do you keep it closed. You’re taking ideas, techniques and strategies – I find myself always thinking about Beethoven, what more do you need? He’s got the answer to everything.

EH: I found myself reading about Schoenberg and the Imagination – and this led me to an interview posted online that he gave to a radio station in California in which he owed a great deal to Mozart’s string quartets.

MB: Well, his quartets are very much endebted to Mozartian writing…

Kerry Andrew

Kerry Andrew in conversation with Ed Hughes.

Kerry Andrew is a classical composer and performer whose work reaches across genres, particularly folk music.

In this conversation, Kerry Andrew discussed with Ed Hughes how interests in folk music, and folk rock, have informed methods of composition involving existing material – for example, creatively working with and re-working folk song in new ways in her You Are Wolf albums. Perhaps this notion of ‘collecting’ and reimagining song in new work, a feature of classical composers’ work since the early twentieth century, inspired one of the methods behind her community opera for the Wigmore Hall? This was Woodwose, in which participants sang songs and lullabies that they remembered from childhood, and these were recorded, transcribed and woven into the final composition in which they performed.  Overall, there is a sense in this conversation that referencing other texts, or working creatively with pre-existing song, can produce an authenticity of expression, but only in the sense of one that arises from a creative engagement with material. Remaking the material for now, certainly engaging powerfully with memory, but transformed with an energy that speaks to contemporary experience. In common with other composers in these interviews, Kerry Andrew thinks this is not about a sepia-tinted reproduction of the past. It’s about a form of production that is rooted (see Shirley J. Thompson) at the same time as being hard-edged, colourful, vibrant and of today. English folk songs are not ‘sacred’. The important thing is that they are sung. Who cares how they are sung?

Ed Hughes: A piece of yours that I’ve been listening to a lot is Salve Regina, which I admire very much.

Kerry Andrew: Yes, it was commissioned by the Merton College Choir. They gave me the text – they asked me to do a Salve Regina . It was one of a number of commissions from women composers – Judith Weir, Dobrinka Tabakova, Hannah Kendall and me; they allocated us a text each as part of the larger project.

EH: Given the nature of the text was there any sense of mining the past for you?

KA: To be honest, with all my sacred music, I tend to look straight at the words, and not think about the history of Salve Reginas. I’ve realised more and more, recently, that the whole of my work has been on words and music. Sometimes the words are the most important. With Salve Regina I would have studied the text in Latin and English, and seen what comes. I like having a blank slate and not thinking about how a composer from earlier times might have treated those words. I go with my instincts. When you asked me for some tract to suggest I immediately thought, when I think of old forms that I work with, or the old material I work with, it’s folk music: works with older forms then it’s the work with folk material that is probably most relevant. But if we’re thinking about all the sacred stuff that I’ve done, one of the first pieces I wrote was for the Ebor Singers, Dusk Songs (2005). It was a 12 part compline mass; again I was interested in the words primarily and the interplay between the Latin and the English and the way in which the words emerge and combine. I tend to not thinking of anything musical but just begin with those words on a page.

EH: And yet you have a sophisticated sense of polyphony which might seem to emerge from an awareness of that culture/tradition of notated polyphonic music?

KA: I don’t have any knowledge of early music.

EH: What’s interesting me is the interweaving – I got that very strongly from Salve Regina with the stepped introduction of the high voices first, and then the lower voices. I admired this and it seemed to be polyphonic and therefore within that tradition and the idea of the motet.

KA: That’s interesting. I think it comes from a different place, actually. I think my polyphonic writing, which I never think of as very complex –

EH: It’s certainly very clear, but it is also complex –

KA: – comes from listening to West African traditional singing, when I was at university, and also getting really into Central African Pygmy tribe singing where, to my ears, I would often hear it that they would have a falling scale of five equi-distant notes and not at western tuning and that they’d all be doing that but at different times, all individually. And I was always totally struck by the idea of a choir; I know that’s not what you mean in the Salve Regina; but actually a lot of the time in my choral work it often suddenly does that and it probably goes back to that experience. I often put something in a box and say ‘freely and individually’ so it might sound complex but it’s actually just a little bit of material that I know in any combination, however they sing it in an overlapping way, will sound fine. So there’s a cloud of sound thing that I’m interested in, and there’s a more interlocking thing. In the end, my language comes from things like that, and Inuit throat singing, those type of hockets (as opposed to early music hockets). It comes from those sort of places which introduced me to experimental vocal music, and vocal music from around the world, and so it’s probably those traditions that influenced my choral writing.

EH: That’s great – but just to follow up on this point; the clear sense is that intervals and scales in that piece, Salve Regina, are based around G scales and A scales. Just purely as a listener; and I love the interlocking effect – and that comes from the non-western source really…

KA: Come to think of it I’ve still got something at home which I remember photocopying something at university. It was West African – Ghanaian I think – and it went [sings:]

Example: Kerry Andrew

So my Juice Vocal Ensemble writing comes from that.

EH: I love pattern making which is never quite a repetition.

KA: That again comes from those sources. But when I started working with a folk singer [in my folk work] I started to use a loop station, and so got very into the idea of repeated loops. But then what’s so nice about writing for live singers is those repeated patterns don’t have to be stuck in a box going round and round exactly the same way. I like doing that and you can trace that back to me doing loop station, and trace that back to these influences from world vocal traditions. And I’ve done that more and more. And talking about the scales as well – that comes from me getting into folk music, and sitting on modes, or sitting on scales; so I would naturally, if I was writing something tonal, which I do from time to time – e.g. for the National Theatre – it’s always a modal, aeolian, lydian [melody] because I’ve listened to and sung so many folk songs that that is a more natural scale for me than our western scales that we are taught first. I don’t consider myself very sophisticated. My priority is not harmony even when I write choral music. Obviously I’m thinking about it all the time, but I’m not thinking in grand harmonic schemes.  I just never have. For me, it’s much more about textures, words, modes, loops and interlocking things.

EH: One more question about Salve Regina! Am I right to detect a sense of journey or narrative through it. There’s this clear soundworld at the opening, then there’s the pattern section in the middle, then this fantastic tense close with maybe more chromatic sounds.

KA: Yes – it would be responding to the words – to whatever journey I thought was implied by the text. Or, whatever I wanted to make the text say. Not being in the slightest bit religious. So I try to find a personal way through the text. The shape/form of the work came from what the text demanded.

EH: I started to explore the new album Keld . I noticed you had drawn on a song that had been collected by Bert Lloyd and Vaughan Williams [track number 2: As Sylvie Was Walking].

There’s a distant vocal melody and a cello introduced in the mix which makes the atmosphere darker. So that piece is clearly based on existing music.

KA: It will be obvious which ones are original songs, and which are traditional songs, when you listen to the You Are Wolf albums.  And a bit like with me just working with the Salve Regina words, let’s say, when I would just print them out and scribble on them, with the folk material I take that melody and the words, and often I’ll try and find recordings by people like A L Lloyd , or Shirley Collins , or others that are as early as I can get – for example singers from the 1950s. And just hear an unadorned version so it’s the purest version you can hear. And there’s not any other associations. And you don’t listen to other arrangements of it. I don’t think there’s any need to. So the reason I would have chosen that song is because the tune alone struck me, rather than an arrangement by anyone else. So, with the second album, Keld, it’s very collaborative – I always choose the material and lead it, but the arrangement was collaborative in terms of what we did. And another layer is making the record, working with my producer, MaJiKer, and adding in a production later. So when you were talking about the counter-melody that’s my producer and me saying ‘let’s take it away from the live version and do a little bit more to it’. So very collaborative, but what I always say about the folk material when people say ‘very contemporary arrangements’ is it’s always the song at its heart – if you strip it back I can always just sing it. And even the arrangements have to be incredibly sympathetic to the original material. I never want to [impose an inappropriate creative elaboration upon] a folksong – it always has to be let’s see what is suggested by the [song’s] story and the melody.

EH: When I was listening I was thinking – could this ethereal voice [added voice in the production] be like a distant voice from the past? I think I was over-interpreting it!

KA: No but it could be – that’s nice. It emerged from the sense of wanting a bit more. But also, it feeling right in the story. It’s the idea of her feeling very lost, and her lover has left her. And so, it could be her lamenting voice, in counterpoint to her more factual voice. Or several lamenting voices as it develops at the end.

EH: So you said the West African influence is very important in forming your voice? Is the folk music also an influence on your voice?

KA: Yes, massive, and that’s become much bigger.

EH: Does that influence extend into your concert work?

KA: Not all the time. I have to work hard for it not to be. The tunes are there all the time. The folk thing came at university level – I’ve always been interested in folk legends and traditional stories. It’s just a feeling of a connection to an older – Sometimes I think this when doing British and English songs – I talk about being connected to the land – there’s not much wild land any more. That’s not in a wanting to get back to the past way, but somehow for me there are some roots there that I want to connect to. But then there are stories from all over the world that I’m influenced by, not so much musically, but more emotionally. But going back to the British songs, I think these are songs which should still be sung. And they can be heard in lots of different ways. There’s quite a good quote from Martin Carthy which is that you can essentially do anything with a song – it’s not sacred – the important thing is that they are sung. Who cares how they are sung? With all the You Are Wolf I sometimes worry about what people on the folky side will think – but not too much – nobody owns those songs. I can do what I like with them – but I have deep respect for them. So everything comes from those tunes.

EH: I am interested in what that signals – a bridge between the popular and then classical forms of transformation. I worked with the Agincourt Carol (1415) which is already widely interpreted but is in the manuscript in Trinity Library. I wrote it into a large-scale ensemble piece.

KA: I think I try to do that a bit more with some tunes than with others. My collaborators in You Are Wolf, Sam Hall and Peter Ashwell, are classically trained musicians as well – we all do a bit of everything; we don’t come from folky backgrounds – so in a sense anything is fair game. A community chamber opera I did for the Wigmore Hall, called Woodwose (2013) , which was an hour long project for 150 community participants, and one professional tenor, and Wigmore Hall’s Ignite ensemble – part improv and part classical band. I wrote the words too but there was a lot of song collecting with the participants as part of that. There were three different schools – two primary and one secondary – all youngish kids. And an adult community choir. And a small group of Westminster elderly residents who were persuaded to sing. I was very interested in lullabies, things that would have been sung to them or to their parents, or their grandparents when young, and monsters or creatures they might have been warned about. So I asked the kids to go and see what they could find, and also the elderly group. And because it’s Westminster, a borough which as people from very diverse backgrounds, I had all these great songs come back. It was really sweet what some of the kids brought back. They had to learn it from their mum, or from their grandad. So they had some songs that we would know – English songs; nursery rhymes; but also songs from South Africa, Poland, Lithuania, India, Bangladesh, etc. So we would learn bits of them and I would record everything. And then the elderly group were brilliant talking about monsters. Strange creatures from the Carribean, Macedonia.

Basically, Woodwose is a figure in the woods – an outsider, a wild man of the woods. Very Britten, and it was a Britten anniversary – centenary. It’s always winter in the village, and they blame this on the misunderstood Woodwose – but eventually they come to understand one another. So there are moments in which the parents are warning the children – and there’s a lullaby section in which I took some of the lullabies and layered them; and there’s an introduction in which I used lots of play songs. So in this work there is a lot of material collected from participants and then woven in.

EH: What was your method in the lullabies section?

KA: If I had ten lullabies, I’d choose four that fit; and kept moving them around. Lullabies the world over – even the one from India that I had – are very tonal. They share the same sort of melody shapes – also interesting. Lots work in rounds. They worked together naturally. I did a lot of research into folk lullabies. There’s variations on soothing words like lullay, lullo, in many parts of the world. So I became really interested in the commonalities in these songs. I wrote the libretto also. Some of the songs they taught me helped to shape the story. There was a man in the elderly group with dementia who sang if he was prompted. And so the ladies would say, ‘go on Robert, what’s that song; Early One Morning – go on sing us Early One Morning’. So I recorded that, and decided I would use that song towards the end where Woodwose emerges out of the woods, and there is a confrontation; but he ends up telling a story that he’s a traumatised soldier. And he’s been hiding for a long time; but he’s started to remember who he is, and that he’s from the village; and he sings a song that his father sang, and the idea was that Robert would sing the song – but he was not well enough to sing the song at the performance, but one of the other ladies did – and it’s very moving to watch the video because I think that she stepped up at the last minute to do it. But it’s nice to use that song – because it had real emotional resonance.

EH: I’ve been reading Marquez’s book One Hundred Years of Solitude , because Shirley Thompson was saying how she loves this literature and magical realism; there is a scene where the community is visited by an insomniac and the condition spreads across the town; but the particularly bad thing about this insomnia is it starts to erode memory. So they have to write things down like, this is a cow and you have to milk it everyday. They resolve it when a gypsy comes in with a potion, and they get their memories back. But the experience of losing memory is made very palpable through that story. But isn’t that beautiful that you can recover a form of memory through music?

KA: It’s incredible when everything is stripped away you can still remember the song that your sister sang to you when you were seven. I find that so interesting. There’s something about those formative years.

EH: I’ve got a linked question to that – I’ve found it’s really interesting to ask people are there any musical experiences that are particularly formative to you?

KA: When people ask about influences I say Meredith Monk . When I was introduced to her work, in my Masters year, that was a huge epiphany. Because I understood the power of the wordless voice; and the voice as instrument in a gestural sense. She uses a lot of repeating and varying patterns. I studied her during my Masters for a term; I also transcribed duets and solos, because nothing was written down. And learnt them with Sarah – before we were Juice Vocal Ensemble – these were the beginnings of the ensemble . So it’s getting under the skin of her music – not just learning about it but transcribing it – as a way of understanding it – was really important. And even though I played with taking text away, now I’ve gone back to words, I think I’m doing so in a very different way, as a result of her influence. Now I know I can set four words, and get loads out of them. Listening to country music and Fairport Convention in the car with my Dad was another formative experience. Also Willie Nelson when we lived in Canada. Those tunes stayed with me and they came back in a different way. My dad and I would sing in church choir – that was formative just in the fact of singing all the time, and realising very soon that I was an alto – I liked harmonising and not singing the tune – I wanted to be write in the middle doing something more interesting. Everything has a knock on effect to other things as well. I took it for granted I’d sing in a choir – it wasn’t a good choir but it meant you were singing all the time. And I didn’t sing much in school – so it was very important.

EH: I have one more question – it’s about notation. You are fascinated with Meredith Monk, and transcribing. So out of curiosity, a genuinely open question – is notation an active medium for you? Does notation enable composition?

KA: I think it’s changed a bit over the years but I was trained in notation, so I do think in notation first. If I was on a train, and something came in to my mind, I’d write it down; I would always notate it – when composing I always notate.  When working on a You Are Wolf song I will work like that but I cannot do it all like that; so I guess that’s more like a band – write down bits and bobs. Sometimes just an interlocking rhythm pattern. And the best way for me to understand it is to see it written down. So I do think like that; I know with Juice Vocal Ensemble we wanted to work like a band – collectively. But we always just end up writing it and bringing it back. It reflects the way we trained.

EH: My epiphany at university was discovering early music – motets and so on and discovering other ways of writing music than, say, sonata form. And I liked Cage’s early work for the same reason – different structures. But this idea of a motet you write music in ways that are really extreme – a piece of chant stretched out and you hear one note every thirty seconds – somehow almost architectural I find that interesting. In the back of my mind I’m thinking are there musical forms or processes that you can only achieve through notation?

KA: I’m often at the piano making chords and I’ll have to write them down. It is a mixture; sometimes when I’m writing tonal material I’ll just record things in. But generally – whenever any interlocking pattern is involved, for example – I will have to write things down. I can’t really think if any of my work is made by the notation. It’s an interesting question though.

Rowland Sutherland

A Love Supreme – Re-envisaged, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 22nd June 2014
Photograph shows (from left to right):
Orphy Robinson  –  electro-xylophone; Nikki Yeoh – piano; Rowland Sutherland – flute
This and all photographs throughout this interview by Roger Thomas

Rowland Sutherland in conversation with Ed Hughes.

Rowland Sutherland is a British flautist and composer whose extensive international work encompasses jazz, classical, pop, improvised music, and non-Western music. In 2014 he fully realised Enlightenment, his composition in four parts inspired by the John Coltrane album A Love Supreme (1964), on the fiftieth anniversary of its release. Enlightenment achieved notable performances at James Lavelle’s Meltdown in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London, and was broadcast on BBC Radio 3. The ensemble comprised soloists from a range of different backgrounds: Ansuman Biswas – percussion and melodic Indian instruments, Crispin Robinson, Dave Patman, Oli Savill – bata drums, Juwon Ogungbe, Cleveland Watkiss – voices, Tunde Jegede – kora, Neil Charles – double bass, Nikki Yeoh – piano, Orphy Robinson – xylosynth, Pat Thomas – electronics, Rowland Sutherland – flute and alto flute, Mark Mondesir – drums, Steve Williamson – tenor saxophone, Shabaka Hutchings – bass clarinet.

A Love Supreme – Re-envisaged, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 22nd June 2014; Ansuman Biswas  – melodic Indian instruments  ; Ade Egun Crispin Robinson – Bata drums; Dave Pattman – Bata drums; Oli Savage – bata drums; Juwon  Ogunbe – voice; Cleveland Watkiss – voice; Tunde Jegede  – kora / harp; Neil Charles  – contra bass; Nikki Yeoh – piano; Orphy Robinson  –  electro-xylophone; Pat Thomas  – electronics; Rowland Sutherland  – flute ; Mark Mondesir – drums; Steve Williamson  – saxophones; Shabaka Hutchins – bass clarinet; Byron wallen Tibetan Horn, trumpet; Tori Handsley – harp; Emi Watanabe – traditional Japanese flutes Rachel Musson – saxophone, flute; Paul Bradshaw – curator

In this discussion with Ed Hughes, Rowland Sutherland speaks of his dialogue with the recent past – a conversation with the iconic album A Love Supreme by John Coltrane (1964), in the form of a brand new composition, Enlightenment (2014), which reflects some of Coltrane’s structure, methods, experimental musical thinking, and philosophy. While Rowland Sutherland’s work is distinct from other approaches profiled in these interviews in that it primarily responds to a recording and not a score, it also has things in common, especially thinking of ‘texts’ as open and subject to new readings and interpretations . Rowland Sutherland points out that both Coltrane’s work and his own Enlightenment used notations to help shape and plan progression across the large-scale of an album in long movements which perhaps have an almost symphonic quality. But most importantly, this is a new work which absorbs earlier principles and ways of thinking in order to attain the ‘feel’ and ‘spirit’ that is vital to a strong new identity. This is not about mimicking past practices or adhering precisely to a model. Its vision is of a shared and collaborative musical language for today that embraces several cultures of the past and present, including Western, Indian, West African, and Cuban.

A Love Supreme – Re-envisaged, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 22nd June 2014; Rowland Sutherland – flute; Steve Williamson  – saxophones; Shabaka Hutchins – bass clarinet

Ed Hughes: I’m very interested in your composition Enlightenment in part because in an oblique way it has something in common with my project Sinfonia in which I worked with scores from the 16th Century. You’ve created a piece inspired by the work of an earlier artist. In my case I worked with scores from 500 years ago, in your case you worked with an album from 50 years ago. So, I admire your work, but would like to learn more about it. What is Enlightenment and how did it come about?

Rowland Sutherland: I chose that title after reading about John Coltrane (1926-1967) and his situation, and what he was going through, around the time before he wrote A Love Supreme (1964). And also listening to people who worked with him, and his family members and what they had to say about his experience. He’d been on a decline – not as a musician – but he got caught up in the drugs’ scene and with alcohol; and he got to such a bad situation… such as a time when some musicians got called to a session by Miles Davis, and on this occasion Coltrane didn’t turn up; and it became apparent that it was due to the drug abuse making him forget engagements. I think it got to a stage where Miles felt he couldn’t hire him any more, sadly . I know black musicians were going through a very difficult time during those periods. All kinds of horrific things they had to live with: being treated as second-class citizens; in comparison to white musicians and having reduced opportunities. A lot of the hardships caused many black folks to turn to drink and drugs. Not just black musicians though. Chet Baker , for instance, was an addict too, as were a number of other white musicians. But African American musicians found things particularly bad because of the abuse they met within society. I took part in physical theatre productions on the life of the pianist, bandleader and composer Thelonious Monk and his last seven years. He went through some awful things. He was befriended by the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter who was disowned by her family, the Rothschilds, for her friendships with Black musicians. They were both in a car once which was hailed down by the police who told Monk to wind down his window; spoke to him in a horrible way, for no reason, got vicious and demanded he got out of the car; Monk froze, whilst gripping the steering wheel; the policeman then attacked his hands with a truncheon. All kinds of terrible things like that went on. Going back to Coltrane, he fell into despair. His upbringing was from within a very religious family – Christian. I believe he went to Pentecostal church, surrounded by Pentecostal worshippers. Singing, dancing, playing of instruments. Almost celebratory environment sometimes, like when the congregation would be overcome by the spirit – speaking in tongues. A lot of that stayed with Coltrane and came out in his playing. There were some members of the audience who couldn’t stomach what he was doing. Some people feel he was replicating the speaking in tongues that he experienced as a boy. He’s always had a spiritual side to his playing. It was becoming apparent that he was abusing drugs; so, according to his second wife, Alice Coltrane , he decided to lock himself away to focus on a special composition: he asked God to help him; perhaps he went ‘cold turkey’; something hit home hard with him and he turned to God in a bigger way and said if you can get me through this and help me to play much better again and get me out of this mess then I’ll devote myself to you. A Love Supreme therefore became an offering to God, as a thank you. To the point where, in the last part of A Love Supreme, on the original album sleeve, Coltrane reveals his devotional writing to God. Not long after this he regained special qualities in his playing.

A Love Supreme – Re-envisaged, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 22nd June 2014; Ansuman Biswas  – melodic Indian instruments; Ade Egun Crispin Robinson – Bata drums; Dave Pattman – Bata drums; Oli Savage – bata drums; Juwon  Ogunbe – voice; Cleveland Watkiss – voice; Tunde Jegede  – kora / harp; Neil Charles  – contra bass; Nikki Yeoh – piano; Orphy Robinson  –  electro-xylophone; Pat Thomas  – electronics; Rowland Sutherland  – flute; Mark Mondesir – drums; Steve Williamson  – saxophones; Shabaka Hutchins – bass clarinet; Byron wallen Tibetan Horn, trumpet; Tori Handsley – harp; Emi Watanabe – traditional Japanese flutes Rachel Musson – saxophone, flute; Paul Bradshaw – curator

EH: He had a short life didn’t he. It was positive that he attained his powers again.

RS: Yes, he managed to reach an even higher plane. All that is behind A Love Supreme, his dedication and gratitude to God. The album is in four parts. My own work Enlightenment (completed in 2014) is also in four parts – under the influence of A Love Supreme. I think of it as expressing the turmoil and struggle that you can experience in life and lack of coherence, and being blinded by the wrong stuff, and taking the wrong path… and then you suddenly see the light; that’s how I see it but not exclusively. What I decided to do was to go more meditative with it. I decided to be more reflective about love and more in the zone with devotional love. Where Coltrane was heading in life, he was becoming more and more spiritual, as was his wife Alice Coltrane. She gained her spiritual fulfilment from what she discovered in Indian practices. She practiced yoga; had a yogi master. The point is that I took inspiration also from Alice Coltrane; as she had even released her own track called ‘A Love Supreme’ . Her albums strike me as being devotional with chant; they remind me of Hare Krishna worshippers with their chanting, mantras and bells. There are other albums by her which are more jazz-like with world influences. This particular album is incredibly ethereal and loving; there’s a moment where she gets her yogi master, Swami Satchidananda, to recite a love poem. And I used the words of that in what I wrote for the introduction to Enlightenment.

Interestingly, John Coltrane was also moving more into non-western musical elements and incorporating  African drummers, Indian musicians… Taking in musics and spiritualities from other realms and bringing these to his own music. So what we decided to do was to relate Coltrane’s approach to our own present day realities, concerns and experiences.

A Love Supreme – Re-envisaged, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 22nd June 2014; Ansuman Biswas  – melodic Indian instruments; Ade Egun Crispin Robinson – Bata drums; Dave Pattman – Bata drums; Oli Savage – bata drums; Juwon  Ogunbe – voice; Cleveland Watkiss – voice; Tunde Jegede  – kora / harp; Neil Charles  – contra bass; Nikki Yeoh – piano; Orphy Robinson  –  electro-xylophone; Pat Thomas  – electronics; Rowland Sutherland – flute ; Mark Mondesir – drums; Steve Williamson  – saxophones; Shabaka Hutchins – bass clarinet; Byron wallen Tibetan Horn, trumpet; Tori Handsley – harp; Emi Watanabe – traditional Japanese flutes Rachel Musson – saxophone, flute; Paul Bradshaw – curator

EH: You conceived and composed Enlightenment – but I understand you see yourself as working with a collective of musicians?

RS: Exactly. For example, I wanted an Indian element so I approached Ansuman Biswas – both a contemporary and traditional musician as well as an improviser. I couldn’t notate everything because it needs space, freedom, and improvisation. But what I did was give him the framework and I actually sang to him the themes that were going to be in the introduction. So he had the themes and motif; and he was able to play lines on the santoor that are centred on the themes that I gave him, to the point where it sounds like traditional Indian music, and relates to the traditional stuff he’s doing today in his community. And basically I explained how I’d like it to build; and so it opens with the tampura playing the sustained drone notes and then the santoor comes in gently, and starts building, and goes into a rhythmic vibe. Sometimes he actually would sing an Indian love poem that he knows; and I wanted an African element to add to this – and I wanted something very traditional. So I brought in a kora instrumentalist because they have a griot tradition with vast knowledge and storytelling traditions in West Africa. A kora player to evoke the West African spirit of the Griot/Kora traditions, and then marry together with the Indian traditions.

A Love Supreme – Re-envisaged, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 22nd June 2014; Ansuman Biswas  – melodic Indian instruments; Ade Egun Crispin Robinson – Bata drums; Dave Pattman – Bata drums; Oli Savage – bata drums; Juwon  Ogunbe – voice; Cleveland Watkiss – voice; Tunde Jegede  – kora / harp; Neil Charles  – contra bass; Nikki Yeoh – piano; Orphy Robinson  –  electro-xylophone; Pat Thomas  – electronics; Rowland Sutherland  – flute; Mark Mondesir – drums; Steve Williamson – saxophones; Shabaka Hutchins – bass clarinet; Byron wallen Tibetan Horn, trumpet; Tori Handsley – harp; Emi Watanabe – traditional Japanese flutes Rachel Musson – saxophone, flute; Paul Bradshaw – curator

EH: I read that Coltrane was interested in Indian music theory and that he had an idea that all music is connected, and there is a universality in music. So everything that you say about your own composition is in the spirit of Coltrane?

RS: That was our aim.

EH: So you were the composer, but your approach meant that it was a shared enterprise.

RS: The curator was Paul Bradshaw who appointed me as the composer and he was the editor of Straight No Chaser (1988-2007, and 2017-) a left field magazine that featured jazz and jazz related music, world jazz, jazz within hip hop, jazz dance – it had a big audience. The magazine collaborated with DJs as well as jazz artists. It had a particular style with an interesting focus on art work as well. Paul Bradshaw told me his ideas as a curator. These fed in to the process. It was agreed that the project should speak to our experiences today.

EH: So, a little like making motets modern, it’s not about being antiquated, but about speaking today by somehow connecting with the historical. It’s an attitude.

RS: Exactly. So what we wanted to do was to continue curating this melting pot, also reflecting the environment I grew up in as well. And so we added more and more elements. We wanted to infuse a Latin American element. And I did this from an African perspective – so I’ve got African Cuban musics that are also infused into it. There’s traditional chanting, of the kind of things that happen in Santeria which is based on the Yoruba tradition.

EH: As in Nigeria?

RS: Exactly. But there’s a big development of that in Cuba, which is ceremonial, and has chants that represent certain occasions.

EH: Do you feel you grew up with Coltrane?

RS: I grew up with Coltrane as much as I did with Miles Davis, Hubert Laws, Dave Valentin, Chick Corea, and a whole host of artists that influenced me strongly as I matured. I didn’t hugely focus on Coltrane but he was very much part of the environment.

EH: So – regarding these influences from Yoruba and Cuba – these are your world, it’s not really Coltrane’s world?

RS: No, some of it was where he was heading – he was working with the spirit of their culture and he wanted to become a part of that too, and absorb the traditions they grew up in and were sharing with him. Some players who were brought into the ensemble are musicians steeped in the spiritual, potent experience of music in Santeria practices, in Cuba. Music with certain specific rhythms that have certain specific meanings. And so I fused that with the Indian and West African traditions – they are all married together. And so the music is building all the time, and within that I’ve added the words of Alice Coltrane’s Yogi Master. I brought in a musician whom I first noticed featured in Straight No Chaser whilst I was still at music school, Juwon Ogungbe . He was becoming better known in London as a Nigerian musician with a unique voice. He possesses a rich classically trained voice singing from baroque to classical recital to opera to traditional and modern Nigerian music – with a well rounded, deep voice – and caught the attention of a lot of people like Paul Bradshaw and others involved in the left field scene. So, I brought Juwon in to recite this poem and it just keeps building – this is all just the intro! Later on I’m playing the melody inspired by the three of the first four notes that Coltrane’ played on A Love Supreme [C, F, G]. So that was like the seed of Enlightenment from which I developed the new composition. This musical motif then becomes the first theme of Enlightenment, once the introduction has developed. Just after that theme there’s a moment where I go into a solo.

By then it’s quite potent – you have the batá drums – and there’s three of those drums – going in rhythm; Ansuman is on the tablas; a rhythmic thing is going on, by Tunde, on the kora; Orphy Robinson then comes in on the xylosynth; and so it’s bubbling away, potent; with myself on the alto flute. And then once that’s been played, then I bring in the jazz side of things, and the jazz musicians. And that’s where it goes into this vibrant, pretty deep, Latin feel. It goes into African Latin Jazz. What used to be termed as Afro-Jazz. And it just keeps building from there. From that point, it has slight traces of some of the harmonies from A Love Supreme, at this point, but not the melodies. What you’ve got to remember is, if you looked at the score for A Love Supreme, it looks like a rough sketch. It’s not heavily notated – there are harmonies, but not lots of lines. It’s not that specific. So, it’s more like a feel. So, on the contrary, I wrote something which has specific lines, and has counterpoint.

EH: So your composition, Enlightenment, has a score?

RS: Yes – everyone has a part. It’s all scored out. Even Ansuman. And the kora player. The kora player changed a few times, but the main kora player was Tunde Jegede. Mosi Conde and Kadialy Kouyate were the other kora players.

The batá drums were the only ones without parts except at the start. I get some of the musicians to intertwine, like the vocalists, coming in and out, in and out. For me that’s all centred around the theme of love and developing that. But in the midst of that, especially when the sax solo starts, that brings in some of the tension and the turmoil. It is incessant; goes deeper – explores turmoil and anguish. After that there’s a bit more light and the piano solo comes in. The main theme comes back again, and then it goes in to part two.

EH: Is that main theme the one that references Coltrane?

RS: No – it’s more through-composing. However there is another echo of A Love Supreme. There was a song that someone wrote derived from chant. Coltrane does something like that on the original album – [sings] ‘A Love Supreme, A Love Supreme’. I did something similar that echoes my theme [but with the melody being amongst the instruments]. It repeats itself at certain points when the main theme with the whole band is playing [long, short, long: Eb, down to C, up to F]. It’s a three note chant-like pattern. It’s not the same, but it is similar [in function].

EH: It’s almost like an idée fixe ?

RS: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And so that comes back after the solos, and then it goes into the second part. And it’s got a similar feel to A Love Supreme.

EH: So just to zoom out a bit. The piece is very much your music. Although you are following the structure of Coltrane, it’s new music. But in the midst of that, there are some what you might call secret references to Coltrane?

RS: No, not really. Rather than secret, I would use the term subliminal. It’s more the first part – the opening and the first part. So… In the second part we are now more heading to swing. That’s inspired by what happens in Coltrane where there is a real swing feel. I felt that spirit so I composed something that had a strong swing feel.

EH: You are not quoting the Coltrane album; but you are using a similar method or approach.

RS: Yes…there exists a certain feel or spirit that you can detect in a sense from what he is playing. It’s quite loose. He does have a specific theme – but then they develop it radically once that theme is laid down. The second part is another. It’s important to understand that my response is informed by how my personal experience relates to Coltrane’s. I grew up in a church; I’ve got the Caribbean background where many embrace the Pentecostal church and I’ve seen the worship there and the, at times, ecstatic state of the congregation. And when the band is playing and you’ve got the tambourine going – there is a celebratory aspect to what goes on, and there is heightened spirit. I wanted to infuse that atmosphere in my part 2. Even when the horns are playing, it’s a theme you can sing back. I’ve got the bass clarinet doing the high notes, sustained theme, which gives off the wail that goes on amongst that – the calling out to the greater being. That shuffle feel makes this part the footstomper part. Somewhat like the Jazz Messengers (where the drum leader Art Blakey exudes a very spirited and jubilant feel) who are synonymous with this style. So this jubilation is associated with the Pentecostal church. You are being lifted. That’s partly why I called the work Enlightenment. You are becoming more spiritually aware and sensing the goodness of the spirit. At the conclusion of that I took it to this powerful and vigorous section which starts slowish, featuring the bata drums, the tabla, and chanting as well. Then the kick drum joins in and it builds, faster, louder, stronger and explodes in the drum kit players powerful energy – goes into this vigorous solo – this is on the Union Chapel clip. It’s another ecstatic moment.

And then it enters into the third part. On A Love Supreme, Coltrane goes to the blues; I also go to the blues. It keeps within that spirit. Fast, loose. Fast and furious. Now he’s up and running – he’s got his health back. For me it’s like when you are celebrating having fought the obstacles and you are back and raring to go. You are so bursting to go so it shows in that energy. When we did it at the QEH it really took off in a ridiculous way. It was like fireworks going off on stage – I had a brilliant player in Pat Thomas using electronics and it sparking. The whole stage erupted.

EH: So it’s like a scherzo?

RS: Yes, exactly, exactly it’s like the scherzo. For example, Beethoven 7 . Quite vigorous. Or the Eroica scherzo! They’ve got a merry romp feel to them. Or the 9th Symphony.

EH: The fifth is weird too with its segue into the finale. Beethoven’s work was also a dream of freedom, somewhat against the reality of the conditions in which he lived. This reminds me of my chat with Shirley Thompson. She said her utopian New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony (2002) was modelled on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

RS: Really! That’s very interesting. I haven’t heard her symphony yet.

EH: Her fourth movement is a ‘melting pot’. She used that phrase too. It has the Beethovenian dimension. But also she draws together a rapper and other musicians from different areas.

RS: Overall… the soloists in mine are also narrating, singing, chanting. The setting [moves into] an otherworldly realm for the fourth part. I took inspiration from the word setting of Coltrane’s psalm. There are these momentary phrases that go in and out of the horns. You have the psalms, and the build towards the end, and then an ending with calmness. I was touched by the response of the audience. I literally saw people moved to tears at the end. Nevertheless Cleveland Watkiss’s reading of Coltrane’s psalm-like poem was the most controversial thing about the whole piece, according to some of the press it received. I think there were some reviewers that weren’t totally aware of what was being recited. After all, there’s a lot of God thanking during this final part.

EH: Like Haydn who usually closed his works with the remark ‘Laus Deo’?

RS: Yes. Surely religious texts can be appreciated in art. Steve Reich’s Tehillim (1981) is purely psalms. Handel’s Messiah – nobody worries or complains.

EH: I saw Roxanna Panufnik – and she has had to face difficult reviews about style; but I wondered whether the reviewers actual problem was that some of her works are an explicit representation of faith.

RS: So that’s a no-go area is it.

EH: I’m totally with you on this – we wouldn’t have Messiaen’s music if you couldn’t celebrate divine ecstasy.

RS: Why is that not a problem – is it only when you go into words and scriptures?

EH: Somehow with Messiaen you’re listening to ecstatic chords and colours. Perhaps the problem is with text.

RS: So text jars with certain people who might be agnostic or atheist?

EH: This is purely my off-the-cuff speculation. I have no idea. I am just wondering if the worry, the anxiety, for reviewers, is if people are not using their music so much for serving a concert-going audience but instead actually aiming at an expression of inner spirituality. I don’t know – it’s an interesting point you have raised. I haven’t read the reviews to Enlightenment but it sounds like it was a huge success.

RS: It felt extremely well received to be honest – to the point where BBC Radio 3 broadcast it on the date of the 50th anniversary of the release of A Love Supreme. And, they interviewed me before they played it. And they interviewed me before they aired it. The interview was placed alongside archive interviews with Alice Coltrane and with the members of John Coltrane’s Quartet who played on A Love Supreme. Which was a real honour. And Jez Nelson, the presenter, made his own comments before they played it. Almost, in a subtle way, to prepare the listeners to his show.

A Love Supreme – Re-envisaged, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 22nd June 2014; Ansuman Biswas  – melodic Indian instruments; Ade Egun Crispin Robinson – Bata drums; Dave Pattman – Bata drums; Oli Savage – bata drums; Juwon  Ogunbe – voice; Cleveland Watkiss – voice; Tunde Jegede  – kora / harp; Neil Charles  – contra bass; Nikki Yeoh – piano; Orphy Robinson  –  electro-xylophone; Pat Thomas  – electronics; Rowland Sutherland – flute; Mark Mondesir – drums; Steve Williamson  – saxophones; Shabaka Hutchins – bass clarinet; Byron wallen Tibetan Horn, trumpet; Tori Handsley – harp; Emi Watanabe – traditional Japanese flutes Rachel Musson – saxophone, flute; Paul Bradshaw – curator
A Love Supreme – Re-envisaged, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 22nd June 2014; Ansuman Biswas  – melodic Indian instruments; Ade Egun Crispin Robinson – Bata drums; Dave Pattman – Bata drums; Oli Savage – bata drums; Juwon  Ogunbe – voice; Cleveland Watkiss – voice; Tunde Jegede  – kora / harp; Neil Charles  – contra bass; Nikki Yeoh – piano; Orphy Robinson  –  electro-xylophone; Pat Thomas  – electronics; Rowland Sutherland  – flute; Mark Mondesir – drums; Steve Williamson  – saxophones; Shabaka Hutchins – bass clarinet; Byron wallen Tibetan Horn, trumpet; Tori Handsley – harp; Emi Watanabe – traditional Japanese flutes Rachel Musson – saxophone, flute; Paul Bradshaw – curator

EH: Is there any possibility of reviving it live?

RS: It’s only been performed in London. The curator isn’t a promoter who has the capacity to promote it elsewhere. He did a brilliant job when it did happen. It kicked off at Kings College London, Chapel, Strand; in a raw, initial form . But there was still more to sort out in the music. And then we played it at the Meltdown Festival, Southbank Centre. And James Lavelle was curator… once employed by Straight No Chaser. Hence the connection. And it gave Lavelle a platform in an important magazine. When they released the tickets for sale, only 6 weeks before the Enlightenment concert, it sold out within a week. So when the Southbank Centre saw that they gave us a matinee show as well. Bear in mind, James Lavelle gave us the final day – we were on the last day of Meltdown. So, it was a big night (and afternoon). Both performances were sold out and it had rapturous ovations. A very memorable day. And then later on we performed it on two separate occasions at Union Chapel . It exhausted London. To be honest, I’m not totally sure why, but you couldn’t get the promoters outside London to take it on. So sadly other parts of the country didn’t get to experience it.

Judith Weir

Judith Weir. Photograph by Benjamin Ealovega Photography

Judith Weir CBE in conversation with Ed Hughes.

In this conversation, Judith Weir discusses with Ed Hughes aspects of her work in the context of connections with historical music. Though comparatively rare there are two examples in her work which overtly explore early musical scores as vessels for modern thought. Judith Weir speaks of working with and appreciating old music as a natural ‘affinity’ but not often as a public process. Recomposition can on occasion be a way to inhabit ‘fantastic’ early music material but there is also, for Judith Weir, a strong sense of resistance to the old; that the vital aspect of composition should be in the transformation and indeed that she understands a general dislike of quotation. Nevertheless, at a deeper level, Weir acknowledges the importance of indirect influences and recalls her exploration of Bach’s repertoire through a handful of organ lessons while at school as a teenager. Weir remarks on the fascination of playing three parts with the feet and the two hands – perhaps there is a sense in which this early exploration of contrapuntal music helped to shape compositional methods later on. Nevertheless, while acknowledging the productive tension between repertoire and contemporary expression, Weir asserts a resistance to the old – apart from occasional works – in the comment ‘When I am composing I am really not thinking about style at all’.

Ed Hughes: While thinking about ‘recomposition’ and its fit within the modern compositional voice – a paradox, perhaps – I read that some of your earliest works were modelled on existing music . There seems to be two approaches amongst composers: one which references other music from within a composition, in a complex or even covert way, the other where a new composition is openly modelled on an existing work. Are there any acknowledged pieces that are openly modelled on earlier work?

Judith Weir: I can give two examples immediately, and they are both Perotin motets. One is based on Sederunt Principes, and the other is Viderunt Omnes (in All the Ends of the Earth (1999)). The modelling is very evident with material like Perotin. It’s quite easy to imagine that such material could be very plastic and capable of being moulded in various ways. Sederunt Principes was a piece for a big instrumental ensemble: that’s quite an old piece and I can’t really remember too much about writing it. But Viderunt Omnes – which is 20 years old now and gets performed reasonably often and is recorded – is based on the Perotin motet, but only taking the plainsong element “Vi-“, and then about two minutes later “De-“, and so on; and then, filling in the spaces with another text which is freely composed.

Example: Judith Weir: All the Ends of the Earth (1999)

But I think of it as totally modelled on the Perotin because it’s got the exact spacings of the plainsong and, as you know, these become closer and closer together as the work proceeds.

EH: There’s a marvellous motet called ‘Nuper Rosarum Flores’ by Dufay which I learnt about at university in which the musical material gradually accelerates in a proportional relationship.

JW: Yes that’s a very interesting possibility. It’s almost like modern ideas of timing in composition – for example the golden section, or where form is conceived as a spiral so that the spaces between elements become gradually closer and closer together.

EH: Was this idea to build a new work out of a Perotin model one that you conceived, or was it suggested?

JW: It was a commission but it was one I very much wanted to do. It fitted into a request which was to write a piece for a series to do with the end of the last millennium. So, one thought was to go back 1000 years to the music that was about to be heard then. It didn’t seem at the time at all like a weird way to work, and that may well have been because I’d had really quite a long experience of considering models. I too have done very extreme editions of older music – like the transformation of King Arthur by Martin Butler and Peter Wiegold. I’ve certainly done that in my time – not necessarily as a published work but perhaps for use somewhere. Working with old music is natural to me.

EH: This reminds me that last week I met Robin Holloway in Cambridge. I’ve only just properly discovered his Gilded Goldbergs (for two pianos, after J S Bach, op 86 (1992-1997)).

JW: That’s one of the great [pieces] – I’m so glad you mentioned that – it’s marvellous.

EH: In the liner notes to the CD recording – generous because they give such insights into the ways in which the pieces were made through a diary of composition – Robin Holloway comments that, though the pieces started as practical arrangements, as he began to work on the variations ‘ “interference” crackled the transmission’; meaning that the creative spirit kicked in uninvited.

JW: I can think of all sorts of marvellous things about that project. Firstly just that he would have liked to have heard the counterpoint a bit more, but it was squashed in between the hands, so he had to have some means of widening it out – that was an early perception I think. And, also, that he played it with his pupils. I thought he should have had a teaching award for that project as well as artistic recognition. It was such a pure representation of what he does. I heard Huw Watkins and Ryan Wigglesworth play it.

EH: It came to my mind because clearly you wouldn’t have taken on a Perotin project if it hadn’t in some way been close to your compositional interests. And so building on that – and being aware of Robin Holloway’s work – that there’s a practical reason for starting (e.g. the two manuals on the old keyboard creating lines tricky to realise on a modern piano) – is it the case that work like this becomes a dialogue with musical notation, or with musical history? And what are the benefits of such work – for example it’s recorded that for Robin Holloway the engagement with Schumann was important creatively?

JW: Firstly there is the great pleasure of getting much closer to that model than one would do otherwise. I don’t perform in music, or conduct, and so just to look at it that carefully is fantastic – a sense of exploration. And of course, with the model there, one overcomes the perennial questions of ‘where shall I start’, or ‘what can I do’. Probably you should have the ‘where shall I start’ question before you go and work on that particular Perotin piece. But it’s a feeling of carving something out of some fantastic material, through a possibly more relaxed compositional process because there’s something there very clearly to work with.

EH: Can you recall any experiences with pre-existing music that you consider to be formative to your musical language? For example, Shirley Thompson was telling me that she was leader of her youth orchestra in Newham and they played Beethoven symphonies and Bach’s Passions every year, and that Beethoven 9 was formative upon the eventual overall outline and structure of her own New Nation Symphony, a portrait of London. Or in my own case I was transfixed at an early stage by the CD recording of John Sheppard’s music, by the Tallis Scholars.

JW: I wouldn’t know where to start because my whole wish to compose came out of my love of earlier music. It was difficult for people of my generation to hear music quite as old as, say, Sheppard. There weren’t recordings, really; but, being an oboe player as a student, I performed a huge range of music. Often when talking about a piece of music of mine, I recall some model that occurred to me – it’s almost difficult while working on a piece not to do that, to make a link conceptually to a pre-existing work – and so, just as you’re saying, the way that you compose [is conditioned by formative experiences with existing music]. Just to give one example, thinking back to my teens, I was given the chance by the person who taught me music at school to study organ. She said “I’m an organist, would you like to have organ lessons?” It was a weird experience – but I remember it being fascinating doing these three parts with the feet and the two hands. I think the furthest I got was Bach’s Orgelbüchlein – the easier movements – and somehow, the separation of the three lines, the top, middle and bottom – stayed with me. That’s an example that has come to mind, this afternoon.

EH: I was listening to I Broke Off a Golden Branch (1991) and I have that sense of two musics going across co-existing instruments, almost in two different registers.

JW: Yes that’s probably right – it’s a work with two bass instruments, and an upper and lower part – I’m sure that’s right; I could find many examples of that. That’s completely relevant to me.

EH: Do you connect with traditions and histories of music through the medium of instruments themselves? So I’m thinking of Art of Touching the Keyboard (1983), for example. Are you reaching into histories through the medium of the keyboard itself?

JW: I’m sure that is right – particularly working with solo instruments. It seems natural to think about their whole repertory. Often the players themselves offer you these incredible nuggets of inspiration, from their experience. The most recent piece I’ve composed like that is an Oboe Concerto (2018), and I’ve just got back from performances in Australia. I used to play the oboe so I can supply that history myself but [the soloist and I] were definitely talking in terms of the oboe repertory and making comparisons with this or that concerto from the past. It was a way of discussing the music that I’d written. I’d emphasise this is not because those pieces sounded like the music I had written, but there was something about the way they were written [which gave us a way of discussing the new material]. And so with instruments that I don’t play I’m really interested to hear the performers’ insights – after all, that’s their life story. If you play the horn professionally, you have spent thirty years or so thinking about these particular pieces from the past. That’s very interesting.

EH: I share the impulse to compose from a love of existing music. I appreciate Robin Hollway’s idea of ‘interference crackling the transmission’ because there’s a sense there that something new proceeds from what one’s building on. I’m intrigued also by the experience of being taught – Shirley Thompson and Errolyn Wallen, for example, have both spoken about the controlling or limited values of composition teachers when they were students who essentially said you can’t compose like that – you must use the methods of serialism and modernism. It makes me think that if one builds composition merely on techniques and therefore removes it from tradition there’s an impoverishment there which also creates a difficult tension. And in terms of the dilemma between having a new voice, a modern voice, and reaching back into the past in a way that is still fresh, I’m reminded of a recent very interesting talk by Pascal Dusapin before the performance of his dance opera Passion (2008) in which he said although he’s referencing the world of the early Baroque, and he immerses himself in musical histories and musical ideas, when it comes to composing, he said, ‘I close the book’, and the music is ‘totally my own’. I wondered what you think about that: is modern music still affronted by quotation?

JW: Funnily enough, the word ‘quotation’ would affront me a bit. There was a fashion when I was a very young composer, and I’m thinking of people even like Maxwell Davies but much lesser people also, who really would do that; you would hear the usual sort of modern [textures] and then there would be a little sentence from Monteverdi, or whatever; that seemed to me to be not quite right, really. I’d exempt something like Berio’s Sinfonia (1968-9) – that’s not the same thing at all. That actual thing of somebody else’s music appearing, especially recognisably, in the middle of your own, that would worry me too. But I know exactly what you are talking about. In a way I am a bit like Dusapin. I’m constantly out hearing this or that piece of old music. But when I am composing, I really am in a different world. I’m not really thinking about style at all.  And, at my stage, I really have stopped worrying about how modern it is. In a sense, in the context I compose for, it increasingly is not an issue. But I know exactly what you’re talking about because I wouldn’t want to hear a piece that sounded like a historical pastiche. I’d think, I’d rather be hearing the real work – Bach, or whatever. I think it’s a very interesting and dynamic question, and difficult to solve.

EH: This is helping me to understand that connection to histories of music needs to involve transformation or assimilation.

JW: I would say so – I think it’s very interesting when people create dynamic contrasts with some old piece of material, but I feel it’s not really the thing I’m doing myself. And I think critical commentaries are often so pleased to have an easy link – I mean if a journalist was going to write about your work and you say, ‘Oh yes, I was thinking about Bach’, then they gratefully latch on to that, and then it does sound like everything is a tribute act – but it really doesn’t work like that.

EH: Was Perotin therefore a specialist piece, a one-off?

JW: Yes – and I think it would be wrong to do that again, ever. It was a special idea that came out of that particular work, and the context of writing the piece. Yes – I think that could soon become quite a lazy thing – for example ‘now here is my new work based on’ the next great choral work!

EH: Yes, you express the dangers of that very clearly. But I still think there can be value and interest creatively and analytically in having a composer’s eyes and/or ears on earlier music through acts of recomposition. I was exploring Dunstaple’s (c.1390-1453) Veni Sancte Spiritus – multi-layered piece – and commentators rightly talk about the use of thirds which come over as an almost exotic effect. But for me it was helpful to go over that piece from a recomposition perspective, to experience the move from open fifths and octaves, to a moment where the third is added, as though with fresh ears, as a powerful event. A different sonority in fact. So that when you listen – with different ears [e.g. through recomposition] – to this music these moments are very striking.

JW: Yes – and often there will be tiny details that may not be that structurally enormous. I think that’s right. In almost any classical symphony there’ll be a strange moment with implications that you would never stop a rehearsal to remark on. Yes, you’re right, when I started as a composer it was not really possible to be based in these past composers – which is why Robin Holloway was such a controversial figure. Now the situation is different.

Shirley J. Thompson

Photograph by Gary Thomas

Shirley J. Thompson in conversation with Ed Hughes.

Shirley J. Thompson is a London based composer with international commissions across many genres, including orchestra, opera, ballet and ensemble. She founded the Shirley Thompson Ensemble in 1994 to develop boundary crossing work and in 2018 was awarded the OBE for services to Music. In this conversation, Shirley spoke to Ed Hughes about her interests in things that connect music, crossing or even demolishing the borders between high/popular music. This is what has motivated her to consciously reference contemporary and historical elements in her music, as well as to absorb and synthesise valuable methods from the western classical tradition. For Shirley Thompson the choral tradition, especially hymns and chorales, conveys ‘universal’, shared experience. But the key to this universality is that the experience is ‘lived’.

Ultimately, what connects musical cultures is far more important to her than divisions and distinctions based on style. In this context we considered the limitations that university training of composers sometimes imposes and associated ambivalent feelings about formal education: yet also acknowledge that experience of music outside one’s chosen field leads to enrichment and innovation. But most importantly, Shirley Thompson’s background and experience, and her interest in broad communication, led her to value and celebrate elements from popular musics, and political and historical topics, that have previously been excluded from western classical music platforms. Because of this Shirley J. Thompson has sometimes encountered resistance and lack of understanding, but has nevertheless developed a unique identity forged from the experience of multiple musics in collision.

Ed Hughes: Shirley, is it fair to say you bridge classical music and the popular? I notice you have many diverse influences, from very recently to long ago, and from popular to classical,  which can be heard in your New Nations Rising: A 21st Century Symphony (2003) with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. When you think about how your music relates to existing music does your reaction to music change according to how old it is?

Shirley Thompson: I look for good qualities in all music and am not really concerned about when it was written. With my Symphony, in the opening movement, I was trying to resurrect a kind of universal appeal. So the first movement was deliberately in a Beethovenian ‘Pastoral’ mood. In the second movement I worked the ‘We’ll Meet Again’ song and weaved it into the orchestral texture, to mark the world wars and how they affected London. Then in the third movement, about the industrial revolution – I went back to the Victorian period and tried to recreate the fairground with characteristic music such as the Viennese Waltz.

EH: So you immersed yourself in that kind of material? And then made your own one?

ST: That’s right. And then – in the Hip Hop movement, I was thinking of Lauryn Hill and the like .

EH: Is that the fourth movement of your Symphony, called New Nation Rising?

ST: Yes.

EH: Was the Symphony performed in concert as well as for the recording?

ST: Yes – before the Queen ; and in Romania ; and by orchestras in America. I even had a Romanian rapper perform the spoken word sections. I find that contemporary audiences really like what I do, audiences that aren’t necessarily classical music audiences. I’m not trying to write for a classical audience specifically – I’m trying to write for people searching for interesting cultural experiences. People, like myself, that like films, literature, a variety of music, and popular culture.

EH: I completely get that directness in your musical language. But I also like the way in which your music can be quite complex – for example in the New Nation Rising movement. And yet, also coherent. You can hear the layers – I really love music that does that – like Bach’s music, for example.

ST: Absolutely – Bach is one of my classical music heroes.

EH: So, sometimes with some tunes moving more slowly or quickly than other melodies. But somehow with your voice you’ve made it coherent and individual.

ST: I strive for coherence – and for musical lines that make sense to me at least.

EH: And hopefully the audience goes on that journey with you.

ST: Absolutely – my music is performed in local festivals, for example in East London, and not necessarily to classical music audiences. I need my audience to understand the music in the first take, and they do.

EH: Do you feel that, because they trust you, you take them on a journey to unexpected musical places, or is that not the point?

ST: Yes, I’d like to think that my audiences trust me. When New Nation Rising was performed in a local music festival, audience members said, ‘Wow! We didn’t know classical music could sound like this!’ Feedback from audiences really encourages me because I don’t get much encouragement from the establishment, necessarily.

EH: Well – who does!

ST: Well, one or two people, yeah!  But I’m very encouraged by my audiences – I get full houses when my music’s performed. Last week at Kings Place I had a packed house. My audience encourages me to write and pursue commissions etc.

EH: Could you tell me a little about the way you made the New Nation Rising? For example, with the rapper I hear on the recording – did you write all of that?

ST: I gave him a brief. I had to write and to realise the whole movement on audio before performance, because he didn’t read music. I recorded everything. The rapper created the spoken word to my brief – it was about a vision of altruism for our future, about optimism, about a progressive new leader coming over the horizon. What you hear in the track is what he came up with further to that discussion.

EH: Who was the new leader?

ST: Well, I was thinking of someone like Barack Obama.

EH: It was a really optimistic time!

ST: Well, at the time we were in the middle of the Iraq war. So I had no idea what would happen in 2009 – because I finished this composition in 2003.

EH: So it was more like a vision?

ST: Yes. I had a vision of progressive leadership from a strong, connected leader. At the time we had Bush, and I felt like we were on a precipice going to War, which we did.

EH: How very strong of you to write something optimistic in those times. And also that’s what you are doing now too.

ST: I think it is my duty as an artist. And now, we have Trump! I aim to lift spirits with my music and create optimism. With a tonal-ish language, I feel that my musical language connects universally. In my earlier years, at university, I was being encouraged to write like Birtwistle. If you wrote in that style you would be taken more seriously and get a good grade.

EH: The university environment has got some things to answer for.

ST: Yeah, the university environment was very much like that. I don’t think it’s like that so much, now. In my department, in the University of Westminster School of Arts, I teach composition, often in commercial contexts.

EH: I’m sure your department is very forward looking. My personal philosophy is if students want to write like Birtwistle they should, but there also needs to be space for all kinds of other styles. You’ve got to encourage great work and recognise it in whatever the style.

ST: Was Jonathan Harvey at Sussex?

EH: Yes – I knew Jonathan but that was after he left Sussex in the 1990s to devote himself full time to composition. Then, he got ill in c. 2010. I helped him write out his last, choral, composition, Plainsongs for Peace and Light (2012).

ST: I really like his work. Multilayered, very contrapuntal.

EH: Somehow Jonathan manages to be a visionary modernist. Also direct, and yet complex.

ST: I met him briefly with Peter Wiegold. Jonathan gave a talk at Brunel. Peter was my tutor for my PhD. I chose him because of his work in improvisation, which really interested me. I had an ensemble that improvised a lot.

EH: I also know Martin Butler – a colleague of mine at Sussex, and a collaborator with Peter Wiegold.

ST: I was right there at the beginning when notes inégales started in the Purcell Room.

So – I’ve been moving between improv, classical, film, popular musics, all these different styles and drawing on all of these having been immersed in them.

EH: Is it fair to say that you have been using these styles fluently, unconsciously – you don’t put things into big quotation marks?

ST: Yes, I think I have been immersed in all these musical languages. I’m not trying to put musical material in as an add-on. I think when people try to integrate popular music into what they do, and they haven’t lived it, it doesn’t necessarily work. In my case, I used to go to clubs, and so understood that whole vibe.

EH: I read your brothers are DJs. So you really know – from the inside – there’s a whole authenticity that counts. And it’s different from just lifting an artefact.

ST: I think so, that’s right. It’s all a lived experience, which makes the difference. Because I do feel authentic in my writing. I really have lived through these cultural experiences in some way or another and translated them into music. That’s what makes for me what I do resonate. It has to feel right, and be coherent.

EH: That comes over very clearly. Can I ask about the singer who sings “We want what is right for the world” in New Nation Rising. Did you write the words?

ST: Yes.

EH: So this is again a vision for a better world? More equality?

ST: Yes – we were in the middle of the Iraq war, so it’s an appeal for peace. It looked and felt like the world was going over a precipice and I felt I just had to say something, in music. Music can be very powerful in making change, or bringing attention to things.

EH: There’s a very interesting mix of elements including those purely coming from within, and music you are reaching out to, to evoke diversity.

ST: Yes, I used a kit drum which was unusual in a classical context at the time. I brought in a drummer who could play popular music to the recording. The recording was organised by the Royal Philharmonic CEO. I was working with the RPO on a project in Newham. I was also working with schools’ choirs in Newham at the time. I wrote specifically for that skill level of voice, as well as for classes from 7 to 17 year olds.

EH:  And were they used to any particular choral tradition?

ST: Yes, hymns, some from the basic choral tradition. It had to be a musical language they could learn very quickly as well. I like to reach out with a universal language that most people will understand from wherever they come from.

EH: Does that descend from Bach? Just thinking about the chords/notes you might use?

ST: I love Bach’s chorales; I love the Passions; Palestrina; Mozart’s operas…

EH: So that’s what you mean by a universal language – one that draws on all those elements?

ST: Yes and synthesising them. It comes out through me, as a 21st century person. And all those experiences I’ve lived, going to opera and so on.

EH: So you said Beethoven. Does Beethoven provide you with a compositional model, even though your music is new?

ST: Yes.

EH: There was an interview on a special channel and you were talking about a symphony; you brilliantly summarised what a symphony is – the guy didn’t know and you explained that it is like ‘mixing your tracks’.

Shirley Thompson interview on VoxAfrica UK 11.3.2013

It starts with a pastoral feel, and then there’s an energetic section, and then there’s a dance, and then you’ve got the ‘height of the story’, you said, and then it finishes with an anthem with singing. It sounded like a really cogent summary of symphonic form! It reminded me of Beethoven’s Ninth.

ST: Yes – well that was my model for this. You’re absolutely right! A striving towards Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

EH: Why – why Beethoven’s Ninth?

ST: I see it as a kind of ultimate in symphonic writing, yeah, still. I find it a very very moving experience. Especially the choral movement. I think it was the first symphony I was really exposed to. And I performed it in youth orchestra. I was with the Newham Youth Orchestra from the age of 11 until 18, I led it, in fact, for two years. We played all the romantic repertoire, the classical repertoire, Haydn, Brahms through to late 19th century. I had a lot of my orchestral experience through playing with the youth orchestra. We played the St Matthew Passion every year and the Bach B minor mass.

EH: These were formative?

ST: Entirely formative. And we did French orchestral music too. After that period I didn’t get back into orchestral music – at university it was more about musicology than about performance.

EH: So that period was difficult, was it, being told what to write?

ST: Well, I felt I was really going over what I’d already done – up to A level. We had studied the history of western music from medieval music up to the present day. That’s what we did again, for my first degree. I suppose we were going over it in more depth, with specialisms. So our specialisms were Mozart; we also had a Debussy specialist, and a Vivaldi specialist – so, like you, it’s all to do with who’s there. From the micro comes the macro – it’s transferable. Three years of Palestrina hasn’t done me any harm in my composition! Total immersion.

EH: One more question about the Symphony. I was struck by your loyalty to London – even though in your TEDx talk I heard you saying you had very mixed experiences growing up.

ST: Well, it’s my home. I was born here and have lived here all my life. And, having left London and gone to other places, I just see all the positives. So London has achieved a lot, culturally, because of the melting pot of cultures here. So I do see it as a sort of global place because of all the other cultures that are here and that you can be yourself, really, in London. Whereas you can’t in many other spaces around the world.

EH: So the piece is fundamentally celebratory?

ST: Very much, celebratory. Even with the experiences I’ve had, but that’s life. My challenging experiences have pushed me to be who I am.

EH: You really made me think when you spoke about your 10 year old self and having your grades suppressed by your teachers.

ST: Yes, apparently, I was being prepared for a factory life at school! The teachers supposedly thought that, because I was from a Caribbean family, I could not achieve very much in life. They didn’t say that, in so many words, but when my mother enquired why I wasn’t being sent to the same school as all my friends with a solely European culture (I happened to be the only person in my school from a Caribbean family) they said – oh she’ll be much better off in the lower ability school and hereby sealing my destiny, even though I was always obtaining A grades.

EH: Terrible. But yours was a really compelling talk.

ST: Thank you. And I made it up on the spot! The TED talk before mine was so heart-felt and I had prepared a musicological look at my symphony! I quickly changed my talk to make it more personal. It was totally and utterly improvised!

EH: Are there any other pieces of yours that I could look at that consciously use existing music? Robin Holloway’s music is haunted by earlier music, quite often. And recently I have done this too – so that’s why I was interested in the way you were responding to different texts. And consciously incorporating different musical traditions.

ST: With the Symphony I consciously employed direct musical samples that are known universally. I wanted the audience to relate to specific moments in history. But usually I integrate known music style, i.e. English folk, South African Township, Blue Beat, etc, subtly. Unrecognisably, in most instances. In my opera, Sacred Mountain: Incidents in the Life of Queen Nanny of the Maroons I employed the technique of signifying musically. Queen Nanny was a Jamaican warrior queen who defeated the English militia in Jamaica over a 20-year period. I try to set the scene with my music depicting a 17th century Jamaica when enslaved African people were working on the plantations and many escaped to the hinterlands of Jamaica forming their own enclaves. Queen Nanny was a famed leader of one of these enclaves – Maroon Town – and the British were always trying to capture her village. They had guns and gunpower to use against the enslaved – but without weaponry Queen Nanny was able to use guerilla tactics and ingenious strategy to defeat the English militia. The maroon soldiers would use camouflage to make themselves look like trees and then pounce on the [English] soldiers. They would create deep pits that looked like even ground, then the soldiers would fall in. They created all kinds of strategy to defeat the army, which they did. I employ several musical signifiers in the predominantly contemporary classical orchestral texture. These include the Abeng (cow horn), which was employed by the enslaved persons to send messages in code for miles across the land. I use the fife whistle to represent the presence of the English militia. I sometimes add a layer of reggae to capture the spirit of Jamaica etc etc

EH: And just curious again, are you quoting them, or are you living them and then composing them yourself?

ST: I would say that I’m employing compositional techniques to create musical textures that create an atmosphere; to create multiple layers musically and aurally and signposts with musical signifiers. 

EH: Any particular artists that were influential in respect of the reggae in your opera?

ST: I sometimes refer to a sub-genre of reggae from a period called Dub which was dominated by the sound-system period of the 1970s and 1980s. Sound systems playing Dub music were huge in particular communities and the bass line was everything. People would speak of having to ‘feel’ the reverberation of the bass line before the music could be authentic to them. In the opera, I integrate a Dub bass-line.

EH: Just using classical instruments?

ST: Yes, I use a double bass. Actually, I use both – electronic bass and acoustic double bass to emulate the sound and feel of a reggae bass-line.

EH: So innovation in opera is being driven by the knowledge of other music?

ST: That’s right, yes.

EH: A great reason for this kind of work. Without being able to refer to other music you don’t actually drive the innovation in [one’s own] classical music.

ST: That’s right. Yeah – I’m doing this as I go along but now you’re rationalising it for me – ha ha – it’s great!

EH: One thing I’m quite interested to do is ask why? The why. A personal reason for me to do this is actually what I’m really trying to do I realised before we met, I am really trying to work out what I am. Where I’m coming from. Because I was interested in early music at university and am still returning to it now.

ST: The thing is when we went to study musicology at our various universities, we weren’t encouraged to be ourselves, creatively. Whereas with my students it’s all about artistic persona – they know exactly who they are. But without the skills as yet!

EH: Often very true!

ST: You know they enter my class and say ‘I’m a composer’ – they know exactly who they are – and I’m writing in this style and doing this – they are very articulate. But we went in, wide-eyed, we’re learning about Mozart, Penderecki, Ligeti, the classical ‘canon’, without question. It was a while after I completed my Masters degree in Composition, that I began to explore my own musical voice.

EH: I can certainly relate to that.

ST: That’s why I think a lot of contemporary music is really lost because it’s not steeped in anything. It’s not grounded in anything.

EH: I think that’s shared with other composers. I think Robin Holloway might say something similar from his perspective – he sees some modern music as intellectually frozen and dogmatic .

ST: I felt that. How was Penderecki relating to me? How was Ligeti relevant?  Although I could admire what was being written, as a composer I was looking for a cultural ‘in’ as well. The culture of Eastern Europe, and how this music came out of this culture, was not discussed – it was all about the sound. We did not discuss cultural context. And that’s why I think now looking back, oh my gosh, I could admire all the music – and I did – but we weren’t taught it in a way that told the whole story.

EH: To be fair to Birtwistle I think there are some of his pieces which have a very personal sense. Soundworld of colliery bands and so on. I know what you mean – as well as teaching through analytical terms, you also need to give an indication that this is what drives the music which brings it alive…

ST: …So it becomes alive – yes – that’s all it needed. There was almost a fear of going into that in the teaching of it. I’m not sure how classical music is taught now because I’m in a music department where all music is given its cultural context.

EH: Yes, I was at a university in the late 1980s doing a first degree and (although composition teaching was more nuanced) the education itself was quite formal.

I was trying to remind myself why did I start this project of interviewing composers about sources outside their chosen genres? It’s because of my own recent Sinfonia, which you heard, which basically uses five different pieces as starting points: Agincourt Carol, Stella Celi by Cooke, Veni Sancte Spiritus by Dunstable, In iejunio et fletu by Tallis, Silver Swan by Gibbons. You said after the performance of this piece something really interesting. You said it was ‘very English’, which is great, because it’s true, because I’m English and because of all the references it builds on –

ST: Which I like – it’s very grounded.

EH: But then you said it’s magical, or surreal…

ST: Yes, because my favourite books are in that magical realist tradition where you’ve got all these layers of stories going on in different time spaces, in literature. A lot of my reference points are in literature and in film.

EH: Which authors are we talking about here?

ST: Mainly Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia, 1927-2014). One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) – one of my favourite all time books.

EH: Multiple simultaneous narratives?

ST: Yes – I love this style of literature. Marquez explores the minutae of his culture. Thinking of it – there are a lot of very successful Scottish composers – James Macmillan, Judith Weir, Thea Musgrave, Anna Meredith. There’s something about their grounding in their Scottish culture that affords them a distinct, confident voice. There doesn’t seem to be as strong an English identity. However, what strikes me about your work is its quintessential Englishness. You’re really creating this English identity in music. The French seem to have it, the Scottish seem to have it, the Irish seem to have it. But is there such a strong English identity? We seem to look towards Europe more than we do our own English culture.

EH: Perhaps there is an unconscious worry about the imperialist/colonialist past?

ST: Ah! Could be. Is that a recent thing? Did that affect early 20th century composers like Vaughan Williams and all those early composers – they seemed to have more of an English voice.

EH: They did, and they were certainly very culturally rooted in the sense that Holst and Vaughan Williams went round the countryside on their bicycles with wax cylinders recording traditional English folksingers in pubs. Or so I learnt from a BBC2 programme! But it fits in with what you’re saying about rootedness in the culture and with what we’re saying about this project and the impulse to compose out of earlier music.

ST: You’re really successful in what you are doing and it makes a lot of sense. Especially that whole reference to what happened at Agincourt, and all these spaces, because that’s what I was trying to do in my Symphony – recreate comparable historical scenes with a 21st century sensibility.

EH: Yes – perhaps we’re both saying that the present is vivid, exciting and complex, precisely because it’s still full of these voices from all different places including these distant voices from the past.

ST: Yes! Which is the magical realism. Because you’ve got all these voices coming in and out from the different spaces. All coherent somehow.

EH: So are you going to compose another symphony?

ST: Yes – I’ve had one on my mind for some time but not had a chance to compose it. I’ve been concentrating on the operatic work. I thought, I should have written another symphony by now though! I’d like to compose a comparable work to New Nation Rising, using a historical narrative. You’re doing something very comparable, with your stories. I love telling stories with music. That’s why I write operas as well. Music can really depict and deepen aspects of storytelling.

EH: So, for you, Bach is lived because the music was on the LPs that your parents played at home in childhood?

ST: Yes, and of course singing Bach every Easter. I also played a lot of his piano, violin and chamber music. I feel greatly formed by singing those Passions, and studying them too. Really going deep into the musicology and analysis. Ultimately, for me, composing music is about drawing on multiple experiences; including the lived experience, including the use of the narrative as well as being abstract. The imagination, is everything in creating new work. As long as I communicate effectively to my audience, I’m happy.

« Older posts