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The Panufnik Young Composers Scheme 2008 is a thing of the past – the workshop took place over three months ago, and I have already met the six Panufnik Young Composers of 2009 (Francisco Coll Garcia, Edmund Finnis, Fung Lam, Vlad Maistorovici, Max de Wardener and Toby Young) last weekend, shared my experience on the scheme and gave (hopefully) useful tips. An impressive brunch, and apparently for the time since PYCS started an all-male selection. Their new pieces will be something one looks forward to.

 

PYCS has been a wonderful experience, as well as having my first orchestral piece played by the London Symphony Orchestra, the best thing for me was to meet the five wonderful fellow composers – Andrew McCormack, Ayanna Witter-Johnson, Joshua Penduck, Matthew Sergeant and Sasha Siem; each one of them with has an individual voice, and I would be delighted to share platform with all of them sometime in the future.

 

Out of the six of us, Andrew received a commission to write a 10-minute piece for the LSO, which is to be premiered later on this year. And I have the honour to receive a commission to write a piece for the Chinese pianist Lang Lang and the London based Silk String Quartet. It is a piano quintet with a difference as the four members of the quartet play not violin, viola or any familiar Western instruments; instead, the quartet is made up of four Chinese string instruments – erhu (二胡), pipa (琵琶), yangqin (揚琴) and guzheng (古箏). An interesting combination, and a challenging piece to write. I hope the end result, Maomao Yü, is going to turn out alright.

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I met the writer Nicola Christe on a conducting course at the Morley College this year. When she mentioned a project (co-ordinated and presented by her) involving composers ‘rewriting’ the classics featured at this year’s Proms, I agreed to take part as soon as she mentioned Brahms’ Third Symphony. Black Wings is the result.

After completing three pieces in the space of one month – Faerie Tales, Xocolatl and Black Wings – I feel a bit restless. This is not helped by the fact that I was made redundant from my day job, and therefore have loads of spare time on my hands before I work out what my next job will be – hopefully it will not be another boring office job. In the meantime, I have agreed to write a few articles on neglected/lesser-known British composers for the British Music Information Centre. The first composer to be featured is Elizabeth Maconchy.

I recalled attending a lunchtime chamber music concert at Imperial College when I was a student there which featured three 20th century string quartets – Britten’s 3rd, one of Shostakovich’s and Maconchy’s 4th. I did not care much about the Shostakovich’s (at least at the time), and thought the Britten’s was rather mild compared to the Maconchy’s. It was the first time I heard Maconchy’s music and I had not ceased to be amazed by her music ever since. I managed to get hold of the scores of some of the string quartets – 13 in all, and the recordings of the complete set is still available on CD. I have just spent a few days listening to pieces by her which are unknown to me. As a result, I am even more puzzled than before by the neglect her music has received. Maybe it is time to make changes.

I also discovered that one of my older pieces, Calendar of Tolerable Inventions from Around the World for wind quintet, is going to be broardcast on BBC Radio 3 this Saturday. If you are interested, tune in.

Amid the composition of Xocolatl, I took some time off to complete a song cycle which was long overdue – after two years of complete silence, I found myself finding my way around the music just the way I was when I first started composing – exciting, uncertain and very frustrating at times.

 

The idea of Faerie Tales, scored for counter-tenor, tenor and piano, came to me when I discovered one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s lesser known writings. Deaths in the family as a result of the First World War, most notably those of his son Kingsley and his brother Innes, drove Arthur Conan Doyle into depression. He found solace in spiritualism – although his interest in it went as far back as the 1880s – and its alleged scientific proof of existence beyond the grave. The Coming of the Fairies (1922), his book-length account of the Cottingley fairy pictures, is one such efforts.

 

No actual text from the book is used in the song cycle; instead, one of Conan Doyle’s late poems titled Fate (in parts describing things heard and seen during a séance) is interwoven with poems/writings by Wilfred Owen, Rudyard and John Kipling, Shakespeare, John Keats and J. M. Barrie to conceive a meditation on grief and make-believe.

 

At first glance, this collection of writers might seem a bit odd. But after reading the last letter John Kipling wrote to his father before he was killed (or believed to be, as his body was never found) in action at the battle of Loos in September 1915 and Rudyard Kipling’s grief-drenched poems written after this event, most noticeably My Boy Jack and Epitaphs of the War. I felt the dynamic between the Kiplings was not dissimilar to the Conan Doyles, and in turn, something I can relate to.

 

As for the Owen, I chose his The Parable of the Young Man and the Old for two reasons – one, his death and Kingsley Conan Doyle are less than a month apart, two, since the premiere of Faerie Tales is paired with Britten’s splendid Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, which serves as the prototype to his setting of the same Owen poem in the War Requiem. Intimidating it may be, but I saw no better choice of text.

 

And Shakespeare, John Keats and J. M. Barrie? Well, a song cycle titled Faerie Tales with no mention of fairies can easily be considered as mis-selling, don’t you agree?

As one of the readers of this blog pointed out after I published my Hammershøi and Dreyer entry, the Royal Academy of Arts is holding the first Vilhelm Hammershøi retrospective in Great Britain. Do not miss it.

There is a good article in the Daily Telegraph. You can also have a sneak preview on The Guardian website too.

While André Previn being one of the jazz pianists of the older generation I admire, Esbjörn Svensson, together with Brad Mehldau and Fred Hersch, are the three from the younger generation whom I think most highly of. Therefore I am sad to learn that Svensson was killed in a scuba diving accident in Stockholm archipelago last Saturday.

Svensson formed the Esbjörn Svensson Trio, as known as E.S.T. in 1990 with double bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Öström. Besides their technical brilliance and lyricism (particularly in Svensson’s playing), their subtle use of electronics and distortion add a grainier layer to the musical fabric which I find mesmerising and very beautiful.

For those of you who have never heard of E.S.T., listen to Strange Place for Snow (2002) – that is where I started, and it is spellbinding.

When it comes to choosing the best recording of William Walton’s First Symphony, without any hesitation I would go for André Previn’s 1967 reading with the London Symphony Orchestra. In fact, towards the end of his life, Walton was so impressed by Previn’s tireless effort in promoting his music that he decided to write a Third Symphony for Previn. Sadly, Walton only lived to complete the opening page of the work, which bears a dedication to Previn. You can take a peep at the manuscript in Michael Kennedy’s marvellous Portrait of Walton (1989).

Rather than getting acquainted with the name of André Previn by way of his work as a conductor or Morecambe and Wise, I first came across his name in some of his early recordings as a jazz pianist for the Contemporary label in the last 1950s – My Fair Lady (1957), Pal Joey (1957), Gigi (1958), and the three extraordinary solo albums he made between 1958 and 1959, each one of them dedicated to the songs of a single composer (or songwriter, if you wish).

André Previn Plays Songs by Vernon Duke (1958), the first of the trilogy, is the most fascinating on two levels: firstly, the choice of composer, and secondly, the playing itself.

Vernon Duke (born Vladimir Dukelsky) is now remembered as the composer of popular songs – Autumn in New York, April in Paris, I Can’t Get Started, or Taking a Chance on Love – well known jazz standards of supreme intricacy, and yet, the number of people who can name the composer of these songs are few. Duke must be turning in his grave in a tumble-dryer fashion to learn that his serious concert œuvres, once championed by Diaghilev, Gershwin, Koussevitzky and Prokofiev, hardly see the light of day nowadays. His Zéphyr et Flore and Epitaphe are available on the Chandos label, giving a glimpse of the works of yet another underrated composer.

There is a list of jazz pianists whose names keep coming up in conversations on iconic jazz playing – Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. Somehow, André Previn never quite makes it on to this list, and unfairly so. Listening to André Previn Plays Songs by Vernon Duke for the first time was a real ear-opener for me; perfect balance of technical sophistication and musicality; at times the playing got so complicated rhythmically one would wonder if there were two persons playing four-handed. I always had this funny image of Previn transforming into Vishnu at the piano when I listened to his early jazz recordings. His jazz playing got much mellower in his later recordings – After Hours (1989) and Uptown (1990) for example. To me, they are similarly loveable. But it is the electricity in these early solo recordings (which also include André Previn Plays Songs by Jerome Kern (1959) and André Previn Plays Songs by Harold Arlen (1960)) that is vividly etched into my memory. It is the same electricity that powers the extraordinary recording of Walton’s symphony.

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.

November 2017
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