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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.
As I was in Barcelona last June for the Sónar Festival, a friend showed me the catalogue of an exhibition titled ‘Hammershøi i Dreyer’ which was on show at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB) earlier in the year. From what I saw in the catalogue, I wished I were there for the exhibition. Until then, I have not heard of Vilhelm Hammershøi, nor Carl Theodor Dreyer, not to mention the artistic links between the two.
After my return, I tried to track down Hammershøi’s paintings in London Galleries, only to discover that they are not currently on display – and there are not that many of them. Edward Hopper has always been one of my favourite painters – that indescribable sense of isolation and solitude is something I always find haunting. You look at some of Hopper’s late paintings – Sunlight in an Empty Room (1963) for example – your mind would wonder what goes on outside the picture, the things that are felt but not seen. I get the same feeling when I listen to Sciarrino’s music; I have heard Omaggio A Burri (1995) and Esplorazione del Bianco II (1986) in concert, and they were possibly the most intense listening experiences I have ever had – very unsettling.
Why is Hammershøi’s art so neglected outside Denmark – just as the way Nielsen’s music once was? I know Michael Palin made a documentary called The Mystery of Hammershøi in 2005 for the BBC, which I have not seen. I wonder how much it helped to make non-Danish speakers aware of this marvellous painter.
On a brighter note, most of Dreyer’s movies are now available on DVD; my copies of Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964) have just arrived. Something for the bank holiday weekend when I get a bit stuck with the composing.
A friend took me to see Gergiev conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony with the LSO last night.
It has not been my favourite piece of Mahler – I appreciate the Sixth, Seventh, Ninth Symphony or Das Lied von der Erde more. But last night performance changed my point of view to the piece – not totally, but it certainly helped me to understand and appreciate the piece better.
First and foremost, there was so much more violence in this piece than I previously realised; at time, it was as frightening as the Sixth. But that was not all – violence and anger alone cannot conquer the world alone, if at all. Gergiev’s decision to play the three middle movements attacca was more than a touch of genius, and it really showed his understanding of the theatricality of the music: just as the ländler of the second movement coming to an end, the tranquility was interrupted by the short, aggressive timpani strokes. It hit you like the news of the suicide of your best friend for twenty-three years – shocking and merciless. Life would never be the same again – even the transcendental luminosity of the primal light could not turn back time. But that is just life.
It was interesting to note that Gergiev placed the first violins, cellos and double basses on his left, and the second violins and violas on his right – it made an arresting listening experience. Never have I heard In ruhig fliessender Bewegung sounding so kaleidoscopic and manic. If that was not spellbounding, I am not sure what is.
I look forward to his Rachmaninoff symphonies this autumn.
My reaction of hearing Harrison Birtwistle’s music for the first time ever (The Triumph of Time and Punch and Judy, in the early 1990s) was: ‘Can music get any uglier? Isn’t the composer a bit tone-deaf?’.
Since then, as my youthful arrogance and ignorance were wearing off, I came to understand and appreciate Birtwistle’s music more and more. In 2003, when I was a spnm shortlisted composer, Birtwistle (or so I was told) chose my wind quintet to be included in a concert at the Huddersfield Festival of which his Refrains and Choruses was to be the focus. In a pre-concert talk, I was asked by the host about my ‘secret’ of making the alto flute heard amid the busy texture in a particular movement. As I was rambling away nervously, clever words swirling in my heads and trying to sound sophisticated and clever, Sir Harry suddenly broke me off and said: ‘Raymond, you are allowed to leave some dirt in your music!’. I was lost for words. I was lost for words because of a moment of revelation – it is not cleverness that gives a piece of music its heart and soul; it is the earthiness and rawness that matter. There are things beyond analysis. In that sense, the music of Birtwistle and Janáček have a lot in common.
I went to the general rehearsal of The Minotaur at Covent Garden last Saturday. It really blew me away. It is a long way away from the Birtwistle of Punch and Judy or The Mask of Orpheus. In fact, I found Birtwistle’s music has been becoming more and more lyrical since The Second Mrs Kong. The opening of the new opera really reminded me of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.
Once again, as in The Second Mrs Kong, the cimbalom plays an important part in the orchestra, alongside Ariadne’s obbligato saxophone. In the entire duration of the opera, sonic wonders never ceased (and I can’t wait to see the full score). The last scene of the opera was doubtless the most moving moment in Birtwistle’s entire output.
First night is tonight. Go see it if you can. At the end of the day, who’s afraid of Birtwistle?
Last Sunday morning, all the houses were covered with snow; during the week, there was plenty of sun. It felt like spring has come and gone, and back again, in the space of one week, even though it felt longer. Changes of weather are like music – they distort our sensation of natural time flow.
My first meeting with Colin Matthews happened three days ago. Other than getting some interesting tips on ‘What and What Not’, we had some interesting discussion on music by other composers – some dead, some alive – and it transpired to be a very helpful exercise. We both agreed Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony is an underrated masterpiece; I would go as far as saying all Nielsen’s symphonies are underrated masterpieces, as well as his three concerti, two operas, and other orchestral pieces. Nielsen and Sibelius should be on equal ground. How long will we have to wait to hear the next Nielsen Symphony Cycle in London? Well, at least something is happening across the Atlantic, according to Alex Ross.
The title of the my piece, Xocolatl, came to me when I was re-reading Philip Ridley’s The Pitchfork Disney. On the day I went to see Colin, I found the perfect little preface to the score:
In that November off Tehuantepec
Night stilled the slopping of the sea.
The day came, bowing and voluble, upon the deck,
Good clown … One thought of Chinese chocolate
And large umbrellas. And a motley green
Followed the drift of the obese machine
Of ocean, perfected in indolence.
What pistache one, ingenious and droll,
Beheld the sovereign clouds as jugglery
And the sea as turquoise-turbaned Sambo, neat
At tossing saucers – cloudy-conjuring sea?
C’était mon esprit bâtard, l’ignominie.
The sovereign clouds came clustering. The conch
Of loyal conjuration trumped. The wind
Of green blooms turning crisped the motley hue
To clearing opalescence. Then the sea
And heaven rolled as one and from the two
Came fresh transfigurings of freshest blue.
Sea Surface Full of Clouds, Wallace Stevens
There will be no Holloway; instead, just a little help from Mozart.