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Hello all.

So. I’m in the middle of the piece. Quite literarily in the middle. Those of you who can remember through the last ice-age to the time of my last blog entry will remember the brainwave that was A2 manuscript paper. Well, it transpires there is a downside. The piece, and all its pages and all its associated sketches have now taken over my entire flat. There is paper everywhere. I am, as I say, quite literarily in the middle of the piece. All the time.

But such things are not what’s on my mind today. I’ve been thinking a lot about colour recently. And by colour I mean timbre (perhaps that’s obvious, a thousand apologies if so). I hear a lot of new music, it’s a kind of necessary by-product of being a composer-cum-new-music-fan, and much of the time my ears are bombarded with inventive orchestration; scurrying textures and thousands of mercurial shimmering dancing fleeting glitzy showbiz gestures.

Now don’t get me wrong. All this is very seductive, believe me; I’m often well and truly seduced. Music is about sound. If you like music, you probably like sound, and if you’re looking for interesting music – you’ll most likely love interesting sounds. But, if you’re anything like me, you’ll often come away from hearing a premiere and find yourself saying things in the bar afterwards like ‘I absolutely loved the orchestration!’ or ‘Did you hear the bit with the contrabass flexatone and piccolo bassoon playing in unison – so inventive!’ (Yes, they are made up instruments).

And this is all well and good. After all, music is about sound. If you like music you probably like sound… (etc, see above). But what ever happened to good ol’ fashioned material in a no-nonsense-cum-monolithic ‘ am the composer, these are my notes, these are my ideas laid bare, I’ll transform them for you later, but just for the moment these are my notes, these are my ideas and if you don’t like them you can shove off.’ …those are the words I can imagine running through Beethoven’s head as he wrote the opening his fifth symphony.

So here I am, sat here. Covered in paper. Wondering which piece of paper has that telephone number scribbled on that I’m really going to need in a minute. And I’m looking at my music and I find myself thinking ‘Ooooh – it’s the LSO! They can play anything! Ooooh – I could just splash out and add a contrabass flexatone here, a piccolo bassoon there – Oooh now there’s such wonderous colour!’ and with that I take a satisfied intake of breath, grasp my hands together and grin….

But then I think about Beethoven writing the opening of the fifth symphony (I’m not comparing myself to Beethoven by the way, although I think it probably goes without saying that I know he’s much better than I will ever be!) and things begin to change… ‘No.’ I think ‘I am the composer, these are my notes, these are my ideas laid bare, I’ll transform them for you later, but just for the moment these are my notes, these are my ideas, and if you don’t like them you can… well… give me some constructive criticism at the interval.’

Fine.

Attending new music festivals or weekends is like gambling – sometimes you come away feeling depressed after hearing all the note-spinning jumbles that get put on, and sometimes you come away feeling agitated after hearing something truly remarkable – not necessarily life-changing, but something excellent enough to give you a sense of discovery, something that make you think, and best of all, something you want to go back and hear it again.

I have lost count of the former situation; as for the latter, hearing Richard Baker‘s Learning to Fly (1999) for basset clarinet and ensemble at the (now discontinued) State of the Nation weekend in 1999 at the South Bank was definitely one. Since then, when I got carried away by writing too many notes, I would look at what Richard did, came back, sat up, went over my drafts and crossed out all the fluffy bits, or sometimes just simply started again.

Aaron Copland once said he composed by subtraction, which in turn reminded me of what Antoine de Saint Exupéry said about perfection in design is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away. Every time when I think about Baker’s works, I could not stop but thinking about Copland and Saint Exupéry.

Baker’s music is unpredictable, carefully crafted, and most important of all, profound without being pretentious. Every time I hear his music I am amazed by the economy of mean and yet the immense emotional power the music carries – Huiusmodi sunt omnia (2003) and Angelus (2004) are the prime examples of his ‘less-is-more’ aesthetic tactic – something too easily labelled but very hard to achieve.

His collaboration with the poet Lavinia Greenlaw has resulted in two striking vocal works to date – Slow passage, low prospect (2004) for the baritone Christopher Purves and Written on a train (2006) for the mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn. Judging from the quality of these pieces, I think an opera from him is something worth waiting for.

Besides his career as a composer, Richard Baker is also a fine conductor – his performances of music by Gerald Barry have been universally praised for their precision and musicality; if you know Barry’s music, you would understand the implication …

I am always suspicious about concert music with electronics – whether live or pre-recorded. I think it is partly to do with my engineering background, and partly to do with the lack of conviction of the presence of the electronics element in these pieces. The electronics element often seem to be out of context in the instrumental framework which lead one question the reason of its presence. Imagine a Lamborghini Reventón with a hip bath fitted in the passenger seat – unjustifiable silliness. Instead of unlocking the imagination with the help of technology, the composers become its prisoners.

To me, there are a handful of pieces which employ electronics with conviction; in fact, they are rather striking: George Benjamin’s Antara, Jonathan Harvey’s Bhakti, Boulez’s Anthèmes 2 and Julian Anderson’s The Book of Hours.

This list had expanded last Saturday when I heard Philippe Leroux‘s Voi(rex) for female voice, six instruments and live electronics as part of Philharmonia Orchestra’s Music of Today series. It is a serious, humorous, unpredictable and totally indescribable piece of music. The final minutes of the piece contain some of the most surreal and magical moments I have experienced in the concert hall for a long time. There is a recording, but I think it is best to see/hear it live. So look out for it.

I recently revisited the works on Renzo Piano and recall an interview he did with John Tusa for BBC Radio 3 which I discovered a few years ago.
 
The list of interviewees on The John Tusa Interviews is impressive and they are all fascinating to hear (or to read as the transcriptions of the interviews are published) online. It may be tough going to hear/read them all at once and definitely not a good idea to do so, but it is good to come back to these interviews and tackle one by one, as I have been doing for a while.
 
Since this is a composer’s blog after all, I might as well mention the five composers on the list (at the time of writing) – Louis Andriessen, Harrison Birtwistle, Elliott Carter, Heiner Goebbels and György Ligeti.

Last night as I was taking a break from drafting the opening of Xocolatl, I looked at the ‘Top 25 Most Played’ on my iTunes and discovered Lukas Foss appeared five times and topped the list. Bach, Mozart, Purcell, Ravel, Ella Fitzgerald and Bill Evans were close contenders, but according to the statistics, it was Foss’s music that I kept returning to – either when I felt uninspired, or just listening out of pleasure. After all, it was on hearing his Baroque Variations and Renaissance Concerto (sadly only on recording) that I realised composing was what I wanted to do.

The music of Lukas Foss is rarely heard in the United Kingdom. Even in his ‘native’ America (he was born in Berlin and moved to the States in 1937), not many of his pieces are played on a regular basis, with the exceptions of the early Three American Pieces (1944) and Capriccio (1946). These are nice pieces, and certainly deserved to be played. But his best works – the glorious, Coplandesque secular cantata The Prairie (1938); the achingly lyrical second solo biblical cantatas Song of Songs (1946); the spiky and yet sumptuous Time Cycle (1960); the riotously imaginative Baroque Variations (1968); the complex, semi-aleatoric Echoi (1963), Cello Concert (1966) and Non-Improvisation (1967); the dramatic and ironic American Cantata (1975); the strange, out-of-this-worldly Elytres (1964), The Fragments of Archilochos (1965), Geod (1969) and Quintets for Orchestra (1979); the minimalistic Solo (1981) and Solo Observed (1982); the poetic Three Airs for Frank O’Hara’s Angel  (1972) and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (1978), the playful Tashi (1986); an outstanding quartet of concerti writing in 1980s and 1990s – Renaissance Concerto (1986), Clarinet Concerto (1988), American Landscapes (1989) and Concerto for the Left Hand (1995) – are seldom played.

I always thought composing was not something that can be taught; and when I approached Lukas Foss for lessons, he confirmed that. I have learnt so much more about composing by studying his scores, listening to his music, reading/listening to him talking about inspirations (and sometimes the techniques too). When I asked him about what he considered to be a musical idea, his reply was simply ‘an idea is a surprise that makes sense’. This saying alone has served me well as a composer in the past ten years.

Like all composers who have an equal standing in conducting (Adès, Benjamin, Bernstein, Boulez,  Maderna, Knussen and Schuller to name a few), Foss’s choices of pieces were often unusual and never short of surprises. I studied his programming strategy closely and often found new, interesting connections – may that be historical, intellectual, musical – between these pieces, and often, with non-musical subjects as well.

Prommers had the chance to hear his Time Cycle in 2000 performed by Rosemary Hardy, London Sinfonietta and Oliver Knussen; it remained the only high profile outing of his music in recent years in the UK, and the one and only time his music featured at the Proms, although he was invited to contribute a variation to the Bright Cecilia: Variations on a Theme by Purcell for the Last Night of the Proms 2002; in the end, he did not write it. He told me he simply cannot do it. No work had come from his pen works since For Aaron (2002), and I hate to think Lukas had stopped writing.

I suspect the unpopularity of Lukas Foss’s music lies in the fact that he is a composer whose music is difficult to pigeon-hole, as eclecticism is often frown upon in serious concert music. But if you, as I quote the title of George Michael’s 1990 album, listen without prejudice, I hope you will find the bewildering depth and wealth of imagination in this kind, inspiring musician fascinating as I do.

If you have not heard his recordings of Bach’s keyboard concerti or Mozart’s chamber music, go and get them. They are truly amazing.

p.s. If anyone is interested in hearing any of Foss’s pieces, please leave a comment, or drop me a line; I will be more than happy to share them with you.

May 2008
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