I’m very happy that Decontamination #3 is happening this Sunday at 11am and 3pm in the RNCM Library and Studio theatre as part of the Big Weekend.
It’s humbling how many people have contributed so much time, effort and energy to this programme. There are seven acoustic world premieres for the occasion from exceptional RNCM students; four short responses to Erik Satie’s furniture music from Ben Parker, Aaron Breeze, Sergio Cote and David Curington; a prepared improvisation by double bassist and composer Otto Willberg; a response to Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports from Richard Evans and; a new piece for saxophone and ensemble considering ideas of ambient music by Jack Sheen. I’m particularly looking forward to hearing and seeing the RNCM library used for half of this concert.
There are also new or new versions of electronic pieces by Michael Brailey, Aaron Parker and Harry Fausing Smith’s band Pope Vivian.
Other featured composers are Morton Feldman, Michael Perrett, Erik Satie, Kaija Saariaho and Tom Rose.
In the Foyer you will have the chance to hear music by Eric Satie, Brian Eno, John Cage, Matthew Sergeant, Aaron Parker, Chris Watson and myself with an unusually specialised sound system and some interesting mixing or works. This will be running all day.
Each part of each concert will last less than 40-min. Full programme details below.
I’m in the process of starting a new work commissioned by the kick-ass saxophonist Meriel Price (for saxophone, cello and piano). I don’t usually post sketches but I thought I’d share this as it’s a little difference (for me).
The project is a kind of chain reaction starting with a piece I wrote back in 2006 for saxophone and piano. Meriel (who is a saxophonist, artist, improviser and composer herself) has made a film in response to my original piece and then has commissioned different practitioners to respond to each preceding piece in the chain. I’m now in the process of making a new piece to round the process off. You can read more about her project, Stimuli, here.
In the spirit of this multi-disciplinary approach I thought I’d have a go at making a little visual sketch. This is somewhat cathartic in itself. When I was 14 I was taken aside and gently told that despite my wide-eyed enthusiasm, extra time spent in the relevant part of the school, love of the subject, and saved pocket money to unnecessarily buy high quality materials (I could go on); that it would be in my best interest if I did not apply to take GCSE art. I believe that an unintentionally abstract expressionist interpretation of a still life pencil drawing is ultimately to blame. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m still not entirely over this.
I’ve also been thinking about an approach relevant to two recent(ish)pieces; the first movement of the orchestral work The Rules and the first movement of the ensemble work The Devotions. In both cases musical material is confined to specific instrumental groups and gradually transforms and overlaps (in the former case against a borrowed chorale and in the latter far more starkly). In the sketch above the three layers are these three instruments/instrumental groupings. The fixed element is the darkening blue squares that are initially separated and, in groups of three, gradually overlap. All the other shapes and colours are what emerges naturally from this pattern; pairs from left to right that reduce in size (red/brown and green); a pair that seems like it might behave in the same way but vanishes half way through (pale blue); and two ‘solos’ that increase and decrease in size in the right hand two-thirds of the sketch.
I haven’t decided how I’m going to employ this. It has really just been a way or organising my thoughts at the start of a new piece. However in my own naive way I think it looks kinda pretty (although the colours look very different here to how they look in the original software, a fitting testament to my monumental lack of knowledge of web colours etc.) however much it may vindicate the opinion of a GCSE art teacher two decades ago.
The second Decontamination concert is coming up. Music and films by artists I love played by great instrumentalists.
Thursday 27 November 2014 – RNCM Studio Theatre – 9pm
Melodies, harmonies, hymns, anthem and lament
Music by John Cage and films by Bill Viola
Six Melodies for violin and any keyboard instrument – John Cage
Anthem – Bill Viola
No. 5 (“The Lord Descended” – William Billings) from Apartment House 1776: 44 Harmonies arranged by Roger Zahab – John Cage
Angel’s Gate – Bill Viola
No.21 (“Heath” – William Billings), No 15 (“Bellingham” – William Billings, No.42 (“Rapture” – Supply Belcher) and No.28 (“Greenwich” – Andrew Law) from Apartment House 1776: 44 Harmonies arranged by Roger Zahab – John Cage
Lyn Fletcher – Violin Benjamin Powell – Fender Rhodes
Two of Bill Viola’s extraordinary films: Angel’s Gates is ‘a succession of individual images focussing on mortality, decay and disintegration, are delineated by long, slow fades to black’ and Anthem ‘a post-industrial lamentation, structured on the single piercing scream of a young girl as she stands in the cast chamber of Union Station in Los Angeles’ is put alongside a selection of Roger Zahab’s beautiful arrangements of John Cage‘s Harmonies from Apartment House 1777, themselves studies in erosion of traditional hymns. Opening the concert is Cage’s early modularly constructed masterwork Six Melodies.
I heard the Roger Zahab arrangement of the 14 Harmonies from Apartment House 1776 several years ago on a CD by Annelie Gahl and Klaus Lang. I already knew the 1950 Melodies which I had discovered when studying the Quartet in Four Parts as the two pieces share composition processes (a modular approach in which different fragments of the music are separated into ‘gamuts’ for subsequent organisation). Some of the open approach to composition that features in Apartment House 1776 (as well as so many of Cage’s pieces) is prefaced in the Melodies and Quartet in Four Parts so despite Zahab’s fixed (and Cage sanctioned) arrangement of 14 of the Harmonies there is a logical progression between these pieces as well as the close relationship in sound and (in this case) instrumentation.
I have not been able to get this music our of my head. At the moment I listen to these pieces more often than anything else.
The two films and two sets of pieces examine comparable ideas of formulaic and free organisation as well as erosion/disintegration, religious music and practice.
I’ve been listening to Ben Powell play the piano since our student days when he was playing with Ensemble 11 – a new music group formed by Geth Griffith and Carl Raven which I was involved with. He is one of the finest interpreters of new music in the country, recently appointed pianist to Psappha and the 2010 British Piano Music Competition winner.
As leader of the Hallé I’ve heard Lyn Fletcher play often but a particularly memorable performance was her performance of The Quartet for the End of Time with fellow National Youth Orchestra tutors. One of the most moving performances of this piece I have ever heard. I have enjoyed talking to Lyn about new music and new ideas about music.
I’m very excited that the first of a series of concerts I’m curating with the Royal Northern College of Music takes place this coming Tuesday:
Tuesday 28 October 2014 – RNCM Studio Theatre – 20.00
Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco – Jonathan Harvey
“In iij. Noct.” (String Quartet No.3) – Georg Friedrich Haas Performed by The Solem String Quartet
Gran Coda Andante – Robert Curgenven
RNCM concert information here and box office here.
I’m looking forward to hearing these three pieces together. “In iij. Noct” is a string quartet by Georg Friedrich Haas than can last for at least 35 minutes and potentially considerable longer. The instrumentalists are positioned around the audience and play the modular score, as much text and instructions as notated music, in an order decided during the performance by a musical negotiation of the materials. It is played in pitch darkness, an intense and demanding situation for performers and audience, and oscillates between beautiful spectral harmonies and textures and more dissonant music of various kinds structurally punctuated by a quotation from Gesualdo.
This substantial quartet is framed by two purely electronic pieces. Jonathan Harvey’s monumental Mortuos Plango: Vivos Voco is inspired in part by the inscription in the church bell at Winchester Cathedral (the wonderfully evocative Horas Avolantes Numero, Mortuos Plango: Vivos ad Preces Voco – I count the fleeing hours, I lament the dead: the living I call to prayer) as well as the sound and spectral quality of the bell and his son’s chorister voice and singing. The music is realised through eight speakers placed around the audience – in part imagining what it would be to make music inside this massive church bell.
Finally Robert Curgenven, a sound artist living on the south coast, has made a track called Gran Coda Andante of his amazing album OLTRE. This short piece takes a dubplate he made in Milan (a dubplate is a one off single sided vinyl record – slightly softer than a normal record) and then uses this in live performances until the sound start to degrade. This meditative drone-based piece examines how the sound changes as this record gradually falls apart.
I’m delighted that The Solem String Quartet have taken on this unusual and demanding work. They are recent graduates of the RNCM and University of Manchester, are wonderful players and an exciting up and coming quartet (they have had numerous recent successes including winning the very prestigious 2014 Royal Overseas League Ensemble Competition).
So a new CD featuring music I wrote between 2008 – 2012 has been released today. I’m really pleased with the selection for this recording – it features three quite distinct pieces which nevertheless are very representative of that time and have, to me at least, interesting musical things in common.
I am particularly happy that some of my closest performer collaborators are featured on the recording. The London Sinfonietta first played my music back in 2001 and have been incredibly generous with their support ever since (the fact that Things that are blue, things that are white and things that are black, the longest piece of the CD and written for the Sinfonietta and Sarah Nicolls, features a minimum of 16 violins (there were actually 24 for this recording) as well as two pianos and a considerable electronic setup
demonstrates the support in what was, for me a least, an ambitious idea and piece). Oliver Coates, Sarah Nicolls, André de Ridder and Sound Intermedia have, as well as playing numerous pieces of mine between them, also been among the friends and colleagues that I would turn to for music discussion and I hope they don’t mind me saying that they have helped shape this music.
My first ‘new classical music’ (whatever that means) CD I bought was an NMC one (it was Melinda Maxwell playing Simon Holt, Harrison Birtwistle and her own composition) and I have known and enjoyed this label ever since. So much of the music I love; Michael Finnissy, Simon Holt, Harrison Birtwistle, Richard Barrett, Anthony Gilbert, Richard Ayres and, well, I could go on for a long time, is featured on it. I feel very privileged to have a CD of my music on this label.
I chose the title for the CD for various reasons. In part this is because of the literary references that litter the pieces. Things that are blue… is explicitly inspired by Paul Auster’s novel Ghosts, part of his New York Trilogy, and the terminus wreck is in part inspired by a poem by Paul Celan. The CD title is from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath; There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue, there’s just stuff people do. I find a particular fascination in my preoccupation with people and behaviour when I write pieces of music and then trying to consider or even reverse engineer those thoughts from the music when it is finished and played. At that point the music is just (hopefully) pleasing sounds, patterns and artificial relationships.
I certainly wouldn’t want the title to trivialise the enormous amount or work that has gone into bringing this music, some of which is extremely demanding to play, to life. I just like to dwell on the fact that all the people I know well involved with this CD would be making music absolutely regardless of any other circumstances. It is just stuff we do.
I find that having a CD released feels a bit like archiving a period of work and I am inclined to reflect on this in a very particular way. For the piece I’m working on now, similar in duration to the half-hour piano concerto, I’m responding to features of these pieces in a differently than I would have done if they had not been grouped together in this way. I find it strangely liberating. I’ll write something about the new piece very soon.
If you would like to buy the CD or a download of the music there here is the relevant link to Amazon, the NMC shop and further information on the release from NMC here.
New music ensemble Psappha have just released a film of my piece A glimpse of the sea in a fold of the hills from a concert from November last year at the University of Manchester. The concert was part of the New Music Northwest Festival. You can watch the film at Psappha’s website here or on Vimeo here.
This 12-ish minute long piece was originally written for French ensemble L’Instant Donné and I think of it as being one of the more gently peculiar pieces I have made. I wrote it while preoccupied with repeating melodies and with considering composition from a performer-interaction point of view (so the piece ranges from angular(ish) unison melodies to very pointillist material (sometimes free sometimes very controlled) with different smaller groups breaking away from the pack and conductor to play their own material often confused by pre-recorded instrumental sounds.
I’m grateful to Psappha for a beautiful and committed performance and fantastically well made film. Psappha have been filming all of their concerts for some time now and there is an amazing archive of performances on their website. Well worth a peruse.