Play it again: ‘The Ear’ returns 20th September

It’s a hard slog coming up with new ways to introduce audiences to a different musical genre. 

This one – ‘The Ear‘ – from New York has caught my eye.

‘The Ear’ is a mildly gladiatorial battle that pitches ten short pieces of new music selected from 650 submissions. Each of the ten are pitted against one another. The audience decides what new piece gets another performance and what doesn’t. The winner secures $2500.

The competition returns to New York on 20th September.

It’s an interesting notion: if you like the sound of something the first time you hear it you want to hear it again.

It’s an eye-catching idea too – selling itself as ‘The Voice’ for classical music’. I like the audience interaction and the possibility of an outlet for composers looking to raise awareness of their work. The winner gets $2000.

The Ear‘ featuring ten new pieces voted on by the audience is on 20th September in New York City. It will be streamed live with voting logged with a dedicated voting app. More details soon. 

Mark-Anthony Turnage named patron of contemporary music ensemble Psappha

I’ll be completely upfront here. I wasn’t aware of Psappha – the Manchester-based contemporary music ensemble – until yesterday.

More the fool me for not being more aware of the UK cultural scene and not having done more research. I’ve certainly spent enough time ploughing my way through the British Music Yearbook and the Arts Council NPO list over the past twelve months. Not quite sure how this slipped through the net.

The contemporary music ensemble from Manchester announced yesterday that composer Mark-Anthony Turnage would be taking up the role following the death of Peter-Maxwell Davies in 2016.

What’s important is the message Psappha gives off with this announcement. For those of us unaware of them, aligning themselves with another powerful force in the UK contemporary music scene helps raise the profile of the group. 

Psappha’s 2018/2019 season starts on Thursday 27 September with a concert of Bartok, Ligeti and Lutoslawski in The Stoller Hall in Manchester. 

Oliver Knussen (1952 – 2018)

Today has been a momentous day. First the resignation of the Brexit Secretary David Davis. Later, the announcement that Boris Johnson has turned his back on his responsibilities as Foreign Secretary. Tsk.

Amid such a febrile atmophere, the death of a much-loved composer could have struggled to gain attention. Fortunately Oliver Knussen benefited from the UK’s newest official classical music Death Correspondent breaking the news.

I was surprised just like everyone else. I’m not entirely sure I was especially sad. That’s not to say I am a cold-hearted bastard. Of course I’m not. I’m an emotional sort. No really, I am.

Here’s the thing about Knussen’s music. I never listened to it. That’s (partly) why I didn’t especially feel an overwhelming need to signal my sadness at his untimely death (and really, 66 is no age to pass away) like so many others did today. 

But I listen to his music now – his third symphony, for example – and feel like I’m discovering something new and exciting. So too the horn concerto and the violin concerto.

Was it ever so that the death of someone highly regarded triggers a moment when the rest of us ill-informed individuals suddenly embark on an all-too-late journey of discovery?

I have negative associations with Knussen’s music, wholly brought about by one interaction I had with him back in 1996. 

Back then, 24 years old, I was working at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies. All of us on the administration team had registered the surprising lack of applicants for the then three-year-old Contemporary Music and Composition Course led by Olly and (if I recall correctly) Colin Matthews.

That year’s applications had been collated – CVs, cassettes, and aspiration – and put in a box formerly occupied by five reims of photocopier paper.

The Director of the School charged me with delivering the ‘shortlist’ to Olly’s house somewhere in Snape. I drove up towards what looked like a delightfully cosy-looking property. I got out of the car and handed over a box of applications.

“Not very much to choose from in there, is there?” Olly said to me as I handed over the box like it was a goblet of communion wine.

The tone of his voice made me think he was unimpressed with the applications (none of which he’d yet seen), displeased with me, or both.

Sure, reading it back that doesn’t sound like much to write about. But the truth is that I recall driving away terrified by the exchange. Had Olly regarded me as personally responsible for the assumed lack of talent present in the box I’d handed over? What did he expect me to magic up? What did I know? Why was I responsible for this? Why hadn’t Kathy delivered the applications? She was the Director after all.

Olly appeared as an other-worldly man – tall, imposing and intimidating. People spoke about Olly, but I never saw people speak with him. His knowledge, experience and musical appreciation presented itself as uncompromising and, for me at least, massively intimidating. 

Today I understand Olly Knussen died at the age of 66. That means that when I delivered those applications to his house, he was the same age then as I am now. 

The feelings which arose have resulted in me avoiding his music for the past twenty-odd years. I’ve looked on the love expressed for him ever since, and especially today, with an uneasy kind of confusion. 

I am surprised to learn of his death. I’m not sure I’m saddened yet. I get that he meant a tremendous amount to many many people. What saddens me right now is not understanding what our original exchange was really about, and not beginning to appreciate his writing until now.

Album Review: Fall from Earth (Philip Sheppard)

Every time I sit down to write about Philip Sheppard’s new album – Fall from Earth – I struggle to commit anything to the page. That’s not because there’s not anything good to say, more that there’s so much good to say about it I want to make sure I haven’t missed anything.

It would be all too easy to dismiss this album as crossover, or categorise it as TV incidental music. But listen to it a few times over – complete – and it takes on another form: a commercially savvy present-day multi-movement symphony designed for a pop-music generation. Discreet stories propel the action forward taking in euphoric expectation, epic landscapes, and resolute hope in the space of the first four tracks alone. Chosen Road is a heart-breaker. 

Breaking Light in particular treads an anxious but defiant line that can, depending on my mood, tip me over the edge into an intense and irretrievable sadness. That a three-minute track have such an impact is a remarkable thing.

Part of that is down to Philip Sheppard’s precision writing demonstrated in the multi-textured worlds his stories exist. The recording isolates distinct instrumental sounds, some familiar, others more ambiguous creating other worldly textures that avoid cliché and trigger closer attention.

This is Your Future Self is a good example. And if you’re a sucker for scurrying string lines captured by a microphone focused on the bridge of a violin, be sure to pay close attention to Chasing Thought – surely the signature tune Sheppard wished he’d written for TV medical soap Casualty.

After a reprise of the transcendent Chosen Road Alone, the album concludes with a much-appreciated resolution in Fallingwater Dawn. A renewed spirit permeates the track. Brimming with anticipation for a future not yet realised, by the time we reach Fallingwater Sheppard has marshalled whatever the tension was that compelled us to listen throughout the album, and turned into something altogether longer-lasting and more nourishing.

Clearly drawing on Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Elbow, Coldplay and possibly even Keane, Philip Sheppard’s Fall From Earth is his finest and most self-contained creation. It’s also an unexpectedly riveting listen. It’s the kind of music Augusten Burroughs would have used to escape into multiple personal montages in Running with Scissors.

The Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts. Please consider supporting its development in 2018 by giving a donation using this PayPal.

Q&A: Composer Moritz Eggert

I listened to ‘Number Nine VII: Mass’ for the first time the other day. Is sounded like tremendous fun. How does my impression of it relate to your intent when you were writing the piece?

That came about from a funny incident with a good friend of mine in a concert. He didn’t know anything about classical music. He was looking at it from an entirely different perspective. Of course there were lots of breaks in the music when the players weren’t doing very much. He was shocked at the end. All these people are paying for their tickets why are the musicians not playing all the time? I thought that was a really funny observation. I went on to explain to him what he’d seen and why the musicians weren’t playing all the time. That’s when I thought it would be an interesting challenge to write music in which everyone had to play all the time.

It sounds like you want to have fun when you’re writing

I’m not sure its necessarily about my own fun. I think it’s my obligation as a composer to not bore my listeners and also to involve everything that is present in life. If you look at Mozart or Beethoven they thought that everything that had a place in life had a place in music. This is what makes their music so great. I think as a composer it’s really something very difficult to achieve to be entertaining and say something that it is important.

Can you recall when you’ve received a negative feedback on your work? What was the quality of that feedback and how did you do handle it?

I think that the worst thing that can happen to a composer after a performance is a member of the audience can say “that was really interesting.” Interesting really means ‘it was really boring’. I can handle extreme reaction and extreme affirmation too. But if people are really hating something I think that’s a better reaction because something happened. There was a lot of music I listened to as a kid that I thought was horrible and I reacted against – Mahler is a good example. That strong reaction turned into extreme admiration ater in my life.   I know that sometimes that extreme reaction are sometimes necessary so that later you can love something. I think an extreme reaction is more important than being neutral about it.

Can you recall what music you found boring?

Yes of course. I got bored listening ot endless performances of Bach preludes and f ugues as a kid. Everybody has these experiences. Not everyone likes Shakespeare when its presented to you in school but they later grow to love it. It’s the same thing.

But I’ve felt very often that I’ve got very bored now in some contemporary concerts. I feel that some composers wear their intent on their sleeves and its more like presenting how clever they are rather than presenting music which is fascinating or inspiring or of honest artistic expression rather than something written to impressive their peers.

I’m struck by how speak of your sense of responsibility to the audience

I’m not trying to satisfy them. That would be the wrong word. When I compose I constantly try to put myself in the shoes of someone listening to my music for the first time. I try to find something that can be decoded by anybody. I often use theatrical or humorous elements or discernible melodies. That’s important to me because I know that I get very bored easily so I don’t want the audience to get bored. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to do something that challenges the audience – creatively that wouldn’t interest me.

To what extent do people like me – journalists – hamper composers of new music by being constantly obsessed by explaining context? I wonder whether that’s an assumption on my part or whether you experience that tension too.

It’s an interesting tension. I’ve had bad reviews and good reviews. But I’m not someone who thinks critics are always wrong and I’m right. It’s a necessary discourse. I can understand how if someone is experiencing something new that theres a gut reaction against it. If that person is intelligent enough and honest enough to reflect on how ideas and feelings change over time, that’s an interesting and valid process. I think we need people judging our work from outside. Critics write about our work from a knowing perspective. But we need people who aren’t experts writing about our work too. It’s a mix of things.

That sounds like a mature and grown up and sensible outlook, and is something I really admire and would probably like to be a little more like. But I wonder whether you’ve always thought that way.

Of course not. There has been horrible despair. I remember there was an opera that was really dear to me and people were really down on it. But then you know, it got a second chance. The same critics who ripped it apart the first time around, wrote about it in far more positive ways second time around. In the end you have to have an honesty to yourself. You cannot change who you are. It might not be the right strategy to write to satisfy the person who previously dismissed your work as crap. In the end I have to be authentic to my own musical language. You have to find what it is you believe in and then you have to stick to it. I firmly believe that.

I get that. But is there a way people write about contemporary music needs to change?

If a reviewer is fair then it can also be very critical. Sometimes it feels like writing is not always fair. That’s where the constant bickering between critics and composers comes about. Of course , this can be debated endlessly. I feel that if everyone treats it fairly then people can accept criticism. I think too that if we could return to how music was written about in the 19th century. If you read these old reviews they’re always very personal. The reviewer used to write about their experience about being there. A personal view is far easier to take if they hated the music than a review that merely states ‘It was awful.’

Can you describe for me how you hear the world around you?

I can only answer that I try to hear the world around me – I try to hear the complete musical world. That’s only an ideal. The world is so complex and I’m not an expert on all music. What I do with my students is to play music that we would otherwise listen to. Everything that I hear in music has a role in what I do. Influencing – I don’t mean I imitate it. I amalgamate it.

When you’re teaching composition students do you notice the same motivation that you had when you were younger?

They’re all very different. Some of them you have to break because they gush out music. Others you have to kick them a bit to get writing. I think the motivation is basically the same. I would hope that they are composing because of the love of composing. Sometimes you meet some students who are doing it because they think it’s a cool thing to do. Fundamentally though, they need to have something to say. Once they are honest about this and they really do it for the music I think that the motivation is alright. It’s the aesthetical discussion which is important – that’s what is constantly changing. That’s where I benefit from discussing and quarrelling with them about aesthetics and style.

How have those kinds of discussions changed since you were a student?

It’s far less dogmatic. I studied in London and its nothing like the dogmatism that was present in German. The Avant-Garde school was very big and very insistent in Germany when I was growing up. Sometimes the discussions were very heated. Its changed now because music styles have opened up. But at the same time some of the urgency is lost. I find that people gravitate to particular groups and stick to those groups and not seek out more. I find that problematic. In the 80s we were more insecure so we were trying to find our own way more.  I think an artist has to constantly rethink what it is that they do and are.

Muzak and Number Nine VII: Masse was premiered and recorded by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and conducted by David Robertson in April 2018. It’s now available on Spotify and Idagio

The Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts. Please consider supporting its development in 2018 by giving a donation using this PayPal.