Much of my music is influenced by reflection. As music can be such a powerful elicitor of reflective thought, I aim to write music which can give expression to existential emotions in a way that is universally accessible. Having grown up in the English Choral Tradition and singing on a regular basis from a young age, my music has been heavily influenced by the transcendence of sacred music and spaces, with it being described as ‘meditative and mellifluous’, with a 'great feel for choral sonority and textures’.
In terms of my compositional approach, I am very much led by my ear. As the composer Herbert Howells once said, ‘I have composed out of sheer love of trying to make nice sounds’.Musical sounds or ideas, like any auditory signal of course, unfold over time. When composing this piano trio, ‘Forget?’, for Prism, I wanted to explore ways in which music can be involved with memory and the processing of emotions, responses and ideas.
I knew from the outset that I wanted the opening section to reappear in different guises, each time incorporating different textural, harmonic, melodic and rhythmic ideas. I wanted the reminiscence of the initial theme to be clear, but for the memory of it to become altered through the processing of the subsequent contrasting sections. These are varied in numerous ways throughout the piece but hark back to ideas from the original theme.
I often find it helpful to refer to traditional structures, and with this idea of musical reminiscence and altered repetitions in mind, I decided early on to use Rondo form as a structural outline (ABA1CA2DA3). Polytonal ascending semiquaver phrases in the piano part juxtapose emotive and more melodic writing found in the string parts in the B and C sections. The D section sees a more contrapuntal interplay between all of the instruments. There are elements of jazz-influenced rhythms and harmonies throughout the piece, particularly at the end of the D section where the strings eventually come together into unison. This then leads us back into the final statement of the original theme, which, although featuring subtle differences and having been influenced by memories of the contrasting sections, has not been forgotten.
You can hear the trio amongst other premieres by Sarah Westwood, Blair Boyd, Angela Elizabeth Slater and Laura Shipsey on the 8th March at the New School of Music Concert Hall in Cambridge, MA; at the Women Composers Festival of Hartford, CT, on the 30th March; at the Music and Wine concert series at St Luke’s, Brighton, on the 30th August; at Late Music at Yorkon the 7th September; St Mary's Church, Stafford on the 14th September, and at Stonevale Concert Serieson Sunday 15th September.
The Choir of St Bride’s Fleet Street on ‘Gloucester Service’ (2018)
Professor Robert Saxton on ‘Ave Regina Caelorum’(2017)
Paul Spicer, Herbert Howells, Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press Ltd (1998)
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Dame Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) described in 2001 as ‘one of the most substantial composers these islands have ever produced.’ Looking at her musical rap sheet alone is impressive, you name it she’s written for it - symphonies, concertos, ballet, opera, chamber music, the lot.
So who was Elizabeth Maconchy?
Elizabeth Maconchy was born in 1907 in a village in Hertfordshire and spent her teenage years in Ireland. She started playing the piano when she was six and at just 16 years old she got accepted to the Royal College of Music to study piano and composition. At RCM she made a lifelong friendship with fellow composer Grace Williams and studied under Vaughan Williams who also became an important mentor and friend.
In 1930 Maconchy caught a big break when Henry Wood premiered her orchestral suite The Land at the Proms. It was the start of an amazing career. She received commissions from everyone from major orchestras including BBC Symphony and CBSO to individual musicians such as clarinettist Gervase de Peyer and singer Janet Craxton. Maconchy went on to become Chairman of the Composers Guild. She also chaired the Executive Committee of the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM) and helped develop the British Music Information Centre (BMIC), now both part of Sound and Music. Maconchy was made a CBE in 1977 and then became a Dame in 1987.
Maconchy was friends with her contemporaries Grace Williams, Ina Boyle and Britten, later on she also inspired and befriended a new generation of composers including Thea Musgrave and Richard Rodney Bennett.
RCM launched her phenomenal talent into the world but like many women Maconchy dealt with her fair share of misogyny and sexism. She was denied the Mendelssohn Prize enabling overseas study by the college director Sir Hugh Allen because she ‘will only get married and never write another note.’
Maybe Maconchy thought she’d be compared unfavourably to other composers because of her gender if she allied herself to a particular school of composition. Whatever the reason Maconchy forged her own path, composing in a unique musical language and not getting bogged down in the various schools and isms going on the rest of the musical landscape of the time. She rejected the English pastoralism of her mentor Vaughan Williams, if anything she was inspired by East European modernism from Bartok and Berg, although her later work moves on from that to create her own distinctive style.
Her fiercely independent voice means Maconchy’s music is more accessible, there’s something for everyone. You have the masterwork of power and strength in her Symphony for Double String Orchestra, delightly cheeky comic opera The Sofa, uplifting jubilation in her song This Day to the patriotic Proud Thames. Maconchy’s body of work explores the whole range of the human experience. Maconchy was continually innovating, constantly challenging herself and doing the unexpected whilst still having a clear sense of her music and style.
So, Maconchy wrote tons of music for different ensembles but she kept coming back to the string quartet. She wrote 13 string quartets over a 50 year period. They act almost as benchmarks to the whole of the mid 20th century, from the 1st in 1932 to the last in 1984.
String quartet no 3 is her shortest quartet but it packs in the drama. Written in 1938 No 3 sees Maconchy really getting into the nitty gritty of complicated family relationships. The piece is a 10 minute psychological thriller, seeing the four instruments engaging in a tense disagreement.
The only recording of this so far breaks the piece into 5 broad sections. The first section is a Lento, slow and full of unspoken tension, expertly paced and drawn out to heighten the drama. This leads into a Presto - frenetic and passionate. There’s a brief respite with a seductive Andante, sweet and manipulative before moving into another anguished Presto. This is succeeded by a calmer Poco Largamente which brings the piece to a close.
The interactions between the strings really seem like a story unfolding, the chords come together but never quite resolve themselves, just bouncing off onto another phrase, another sentence.
The four voices are constantly intertwining, breaking into canons then merging again only to separate completely once more going all the way through until coming to a final uneasy conclusion.
To hear this fascinating work performed come along to Illuminate at RCM on 16th February 2019!
Dame Elizabeth Maconchy is such an inspiration, her musical integrity, individual sound and breadth of composition continue to delight audiences. More recordings of her music are appearing and her work is regularly performed around the world.
Here’s to Dame Elizabeth!
Written by Elizabeth de Brito
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Sculpting and Refining, a cross synthesis in Amphora
1. an ancient Greek jar or vase with a large oval body, narrow cylindrical neck, and two handles that rise almost to the level of the mouth broadly : such a jar or vase used elsewhere in the ancient world
2. a 2-handled vessel shaped like an amphora
For the upcoming Illuminate concert, my piece Amphora for bass clarinet, violin and cello will be performed as part of the RCM Chamber Music Festival 2019.
Amphora are vessels dating back to the Neolithic period and also had been made for Ancient Greek vase painting. They were used for the everyday and rituals, prizes and for funery practices.
I had been working with pottery in previous pieces, including using various size clay pots as resonant speakers- in Cable Veins, for piano and electronics; Chalk.Body.Barrowelectronics for dance, and Rare Earth installation (work in progress). Whilst working physically with pottery, I wanted to focus on their tactile quality; the weighted and earthy and fragile and ancient qualities, to embody these in sound. The idea of writing Amphora began here.
At the same time, my compositions encompass other impetuses, and I am often drawn to dance (which I discussed in my previous post for Illuminate) or poetry, and I blend these with my sketches - sculpting, juxtaposing and refining original designs for the piece.
I’ve used the poetry of Georgie Lorimer as a catalyst for a few pieces, including Amphora and it falls within a triptych of works I am basing on Lorimer’s poetry: The Artist’s Kintsukuroi
1) Into the Blank Expanse of Space for bass flute, piano and electronics
2) Amphora for bass clarinet, violin and cello
3) The Artist’s Kintsukuroi for septet, narrator and conductor
it was autumn when we kissed
that first time after one
last summer storm on the beach
hair plastered against your face
and disfigured with sandwe
were hideous as tempests
battering into the cave
maybe if we’d stayed for more
than that moment we’d have been
trapped forever much later
i danced a fresh edge of sea
until even the soft shush
je t’aime je t’aime je t’aime left
my leaps sinking into sand
After developing these thoughts, a ‘cross-synthesis’happens where phrases, or larger structures, could have started as an embodiment of pottery which are then co-mingled with the poetry ideas, or vice versa. Once I have refined a section, the original meaning and ideas are hidden and transformed. In electronic music, the cross-synthesis occurs when spectral data is applied from one sound to another in order to create a hybrid sound, or a transition from one sound to another. I wanted to use this process in an acoustic setting - and so I imagined the cross synthesis firstly occurring in a short, exclamatory motif.
I then abstracted this motif, supporting it with different pressure, resistance, harmonics, multiphonics and pulsating vibrato and tremolo, always striving to sculpt the poetry and pottery together. I also endeavoured to blend an embodied sense of the pottery and poetry with the spiritual.
Example: [ https://soundcloud.com/sarahewestwood/amphora-extract/s-hTvVh]
Amphora extract, Heather Roche (clarinet), Patrick Dawkins (violin), Valerie Welbanks (cello) Deptford Town Hall, London. May, 2018.
To hear the please in full, come to the concert on 16 Feb!
1) Guillaume Baviere
Creative Commons: Attribution, ShareAlike.
2) Sarah Westwood, personal photo of the ocean
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Who is she?
Thea Musgrave was born in Scotland in 1928. She studied Music at the University of Edinburgh, and then in Paris under the tutelage of Nadia Boulanger between 1950-1954. In 1958, Musgrave attended the Tanglewood festival, and began studying composition under Aaron Copland. By 1972, Musgrave had moved to the USA, where she still resides now. Musgrave’s compositions have often been at the forefront of both British and American contemporary music.
An award-winning composer, Musgrave was also awarded a CBE from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in 2002. Her works cover a wide-range of genres, including opera, chamber music, symphonic works, vocal music and solo instrumental music. With her increasing popularity over the years, Musgrave has been able to work with music groups and organisations such as the New York City Opera, Los Chamber and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. In honour of her huge archive of music and her 60 year career, the BBC presented Total Immersion. This very special event saw three concerts consisting of Musgrave’s work performed in the Barbican Hall in a single day in February 2014.
Wind Quintet (1993)
Her Wind Quintet was first performed by the Orpheus Wind Quintet on March 19, 1993. The work came from a commission from the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University. Due to this commission, the premiere took place at Brigham Young University in Utah.
The quintet is played in one single movement, however there are four distinctive sections within it. Musgrave describes the role of the instruments in her score notes:
“In this work the five instrumentalists, alternating between soloistic and accompanimental roles, enact a kind of mini-drama without a plot. The players are therefore asked to play throughout with the kind of freedom of expression that is found in opera.”
Musgrave depicts the four sections in her programme notes:
“1. Andanate espressivo:con molto rubato. Out of a quiet unison note (E), the flute emerges as a lyrical, expressive voice. Shortly the oboe with increasing agitation begins to challenge this mood. The horn becomes increasingly restless.
2.Più mosso:drammatico. The horn finally interrupts with a dramatic solo. Against this, the bassoon, and then the clarinet introduce an even faster tempo (a kind of moto perpetuo) which leads eventually to a wild, anarchic cadenza, the climax of the piece (con passione).
3. Mesto: elegiaco. When the cadenza dies away, the bassoon sets a slow elegiac mood, accompanied by a simple chordal motif.
4. Andante espressivo. A return of the opening section, where both flute and clarinet now share the slow expressive theme. But this lyricism is not allowed to be re-established for long; the oboe again begins to intrude with increasing agitation, only to be fiercely interrupted by the horn who reintroduces the ‘chordal motif’ as well as a brief memory of the earlier moto perpetuo. The same ‘chordal motif’ eventually leads to a soft tolling cadence.”
The quintet is dramatic, exciting, emotional and ever-evolving. The complexity of some of the sections, such as the second section perpetuo, emphasises and celebrates Musgrave’s flair for musical excellence, her attention to detail, and her sheer knowledge of instruments and how they can work together in an effective way.
Thea Musgrave’s Wind Quintet is a marvel to behold in wind repertoire. Each part is important and plays a defining role in this work. The dichotomy between the lyrical and more agitated sections creates musical colour, which is further supported by the interesting textures that Musgrave has created between the instruments. Her use of the horn in particular is striking in this quintet, as it adds a real foundation to the music alongside the woody sound of the bassoon. Musgrave’s contemporary style shines bright through this work, with it being enjoyable both for the players and the audiences.
2018 saw Musgrave celebrate her 90th birthday - long may her and her music live on!
©Alex Burns 2019
Alex Burns is a musicologist, trumpeter, arts marketing professional and blogger. Her specialisms are the life and works of Gustav Mahler and the lost stories of women composers. She runs the No.1 Classical Music blog on the internet, and has written about a range of different composers with the aim to make classical music more accessible to everyone.
Take a look at this video of Thea Musgrave discussing how she came to be a composer:
In the last twenty years, American composer Jennifer Higdon has made a substantial mark on contemporary classical music. Her work receives dozens of performances each year, and she has commissions stretching into 2022. In addition, she has earned a Pulitzer Prize (2010) and two GRAMMY Awards (2010, 2018) for three separate concertos.
Congratulations, Jennifer! But . . . why should we care?
Higdon is a composer that is far more than the sum of her accolades. In interview after interview, Higdon shows dedication to and investment in the people who perform and listen to her music. She regularly communicates with performers, especially when composing a new work, in order to write music that showcases their instruments and individual skills. When available for a performance, she opens herself to audiences through interviews, concert talks, and various print and digital media. Higdon also recognizes that people will have different reactions to her work. She regards different perspectives of her work as valid, and as such allows performers and listeners to play an active role in interpretation. There is not a single “right way” to play or hear her music. With this inclusive attitude, Higdon invites people into her work, and, more widely, into new music.
Since Higdon encourages listeners to have an active role during a performance, I offer only a brief description of Dark Wood. My hope is that most readers of the blog will be able to experience Dark Wood at the Royal College of Music Illuminate concert on 16th February 2019 and form their own musical thoughts there!
With just a single listening, it is clear that Dark Wood alternates between fast and slow sections. A discerning ear, though, may notice a structural organization of ABA’B’A”. Each time a section returns, tempo and other musical elements connect past music with present sounds.
More specifically, the fast A sections are punchy, featuring separated and sharp articulation. This pointed sound, alongside dissonant chords and trills, creates a “bite” that Higdon references in her own program notes.
“Dark Wood” is a work that features the bassoon...a wonderful instrument that does not have a tremendous amount of chamber literature. I wanted to create a work that features the bassoon prominently, but also respects it within the framework of a true chamber dialogue (along with its partners, the violin, cello, and piano). Since much of the literature for this beautiful instrument is slow moving, I made the conscious decision to explore its virtuosic abilities. While there is slow music within the piece, there is an emphasis on real “bite” within the language, rhythm and tempi.
The title refers to the beauty of the bassoon’s wood.'
The A sections also contain brief periods of single, repeated notes and passages where instruments trade musical fragments, with the latter creating a sense of almost agitated conversation.
Conversely, the slow B sections are lyrical. Often an instrument retains a sense of individuality, moving independently of the others to create its own melodic shape. In fact, independent melodic lines are a hallmark of Higdon’s style, appearing frequently in her orchestral and chamber music. Additionally, the bassoon and the violin utilize their high registers in this section, adding unexpected colors to the calmer sections of the work.
Timbrally, the choice of instruments is slightly unusual. Higdon alters the fairly standard piano trio (piano, violin, and cello) by adding a bassoon. She explains that Dark Wood refers to the wood of the bassoon, the featured instrument of the work. Yet, it is worth mentioning that all the instruments in this ensemble – violin, cello, bassoon, and piano – consist of primarily of wood. The colors may vary, ranging from lighter spruce or maple on a violin to dark or black-lacquered wood on a piano, but wood is central to all four instruments.
Performances of Dark Wood (and Beyond!)
There is little, if any, scholarly writing on Dark Wood, but a handful of reviews over the past twelve years reveal generally positive reactions to the work. Premiered in 2002, the work was written around the same time that Higdon made a big splash with her Concerto for Orchestra at the national conference of the League of American Orchestras. As such, a review by Steve Schwartz places Higdon as an emerging composer in the early twentieth century.
[Dark Wood] is music with a sharp tang, even in the slow sections, and we see the composer coming into maturity. Her artistic search has begun to yield fruit. The momentary echoes of somebody else have been sublimated into a distinct personality. [. . .] The most recent score on the program, Dark Wood rates as my favorite, I'm happy to say, and adumbrates the considerable composer just around the corner.
Performances of Dark Wood have occurred across the United States in large metropolitan areas including San Francisco and New York City, as well as “smaller” big cities such as Tulsa (Oklahoma), Charleston (South Carolina), and Hartford (Connecticut). Dark Wood has played in formal halls and brewery taprooms, in ticketed concerts and open rehearsals. This myriad of performance places and spaces points to what Andrew Farach-Colton of Gramophone identifies as Higdon’s “most striking achievement.”
[This] achievement doesn’t fit so easily into a biography, and that’s how thoroughly her music has filtered into every stratum of classical music culture in the United States. Glance through the “Upcoming Performances” page of her official website and you’ll find that her work is being played not only by the Houston Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra, but also by municipal, community, and high school ensembles across the country. On the surface, it appears to be a simple formula: Higdon writes music that audiences like to hear and musicians find gratifying to play.
Though Farach-Colton wrote these words in early 2017, his observations hold true today. From October 2018 to June 2019, Higdon’s music is scheduled to play in 29 states and Washington, D.C. Performances are also scheduled in Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and the United Kingdom.
But perhaps more significant than the number of performances is the fact that Higdon’s music resonates with musicians and audiences. Why? Higdon has taken the time to build relationships with performers and listeners and create inclusive environments. She has advocated for her music, and new music, to play in all types of spaces. Her most recent and upcoming concerts are scheduled in museums, churches, and concert halls with performances by youth, university, and professional ensembles. Higdon’s music truly is for everyone: student musicians, seasoned performers, and every person that wants to listen to it.
Written by Dr Laura Dallman
To get a taste of the piece before Illuminate's concert at RCM on 16th February 2019 take a listen to a clip of the Dark Wood from Jennifer Higdon's website.
Bibliography and Further Reading
The City of Charleston, Office of Cultural Affairs. “Magnetic South Music: Bártôk, Higdon, and Koumendakis.” November 2017. http://charlestonarts.org/event/magnetic-south-music-bartok-higdon-koumendakis/(accessed 2 January 2019).
Edwards, Grego Applegate. “Jennifer Higdon, Sky Quartet.” Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review Blog. 6 August 2013. http://classicalmodernmusic.blogspot.com/2013/08/jennifer-higdon-sky-quartet.html(accessed 2 January 2019).
Farach-Colton, Andrew. “Contemporary Composer: Jennifer Higdon.” Gramophone. 20 March 2017. https://www.gramophone.co.uk/feature/contemporary-composer-jennifer-higdon(accessed 2 January 2019).
Gasser, Nolan. “Jennifer Higdon Exclusive Interview.” Classical Archives. 24 April 2012. http://classicalarchives.com/feature/jennifer_higdon_2012_interview.html(accessed 3 January 2019).
Hamad, Michael. “Bach, Brahms, Beethoven (And Beer) at Hog River.” Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT). 11 November 2017. https://www.courant.com/ctnow/music/hc-hso-intermix-hog-river-brewing-co-hartford-20171110-story.html(accessed 2 January 2019).
Higdon, Jennifer. Composer’s personal website.http://jenniferhigdon.com(accessed 2 January 2019).
———. Interview by Bruce Duffie. “Composer Jennifer Higdon: A Conversation with Bruce Duffie,” Duffie’s personal website. 14 February 2004. Transcript. http://www.bruceduffie.com/higdon.html(accessed 3 January 2019).
———. Interview by Marianne Lipanovich. “Composer Jennifer Higdon: Enjoying an Explosive Year . . . and Career.” San Francisco Classical Voice: Events and Previews. Online. 25 July 2010. https://www.sfcv.org/events-calendar/artist-spotlight/composer-jennifer-higdon-enjoying-an-explosive-year-and-career(accessed 3 January 2019).
Kelly, Jennifer W. “Jennifer Higdon.” In In Her Own Words: Conversations with Composers in the United States, 42-60. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.
McKinney, Donald. “Jennifer Higdon (1962- ).” In Women of Influence in Contemporary Music: Nine American Composers, edited by Michael Slayton, 141-89. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011.
Midgette, Anne. “Medicine That Really Tastes Smooth.” New York Times. Music Review. 3 November 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/03/arts/music/03chamb.html(accessed 2 January 2019).
Oteri, Frank J.“Jennifer Higdon: Down to Earth.” NewMusicBox. 1 September 2007. https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/jennifer-higdon-down-to-earth/(accessed 3 January 2019).
Reitz, Christina L. Jennifer Higdon: Composing in Color. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018.
Schwartz, Steve. “Jennifer Higdon: Early Chamber Works.” Classical.Net. 2014. http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/n/nxs59752a.php(accessed 2 January 2019).
Sferra, Joe. “Jennifer Higdon: Early Chamber Works.” Where Are We Now? Classical and Contemporary Music in the 21st Century. Blog Review. 11 October 2013. https://concerthub.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/jennifer-higdon-early-chamber-works/(accessed 2 January 2019).
Verzosa, Noel. “Reverberations.” San Francisco Classical Voice. Online Review. 28 October 2008. https://www.sfcv.org/reviews/reverberations(accessed 2 January 2019).
Watts, James D. “She Benefits from a Trend Toward New.” Tulsa World (Tulsa, OK). 15 June 2008. https://www.tulsaworld.com/scene/artsandentertainment/she-benefits-from-a-trend-toward-new/article_ed42ee04-f292-5e1c-99b8-5c2b679726ed.html(accessed 2 January 2019).
The Romanian composer, Hilda Jerea (1919-1980) was a triple threat, with her working as a concert pianist, teacher and composer. She studied in a variety of different European cities including Bucharest, Paris and Budapest. As a composer, she studied under the likes of Mohail Jora and Leó Weiner. Moreover, as an up and coming concert pianist, Jerea studied under the likes of Florica Musicescu and Pál Kadosa.
After establishing her career as a concert pianist and occasional composer, Jerea begun teaching younger generations. She worked at the School of Arts in Bucharest, as well as at the Academy and then at the Union of Romanian Composers. At this time in her career, Jerea put composition near the bottom of her priority list, and instead focused her attention on performance and pedagogy. In the last twenty years of her life, Jerea founded and conducted Musica Nova, which was an ensemble dedicated to promoting young composers and avant garde works.
As a composer, Jerea went through various stylistic changes until she found her style. For instance her compositions from the 1940s resembles that of post-Romantic works, with them engaging with long melody lines and largely functional tonality. However, from the 1960s onwards, Jerea’s compositions became more liberated as she begun experimenting with serial techniques.
Jerea’s best-known composition is Sub soarele deşteptării (Under the Wake Up Sun), which is a large-scale oratorio composed in 1951. Other works she composed include Suita în stil românesc (1939), Casa Bernardei Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba) (1966) and Dansuri româneşti (1946). Over the span of her musical career, Jerea was awarded the State Prize of Romania and the Order of Labour - two highly commendable achievements.
As part of the Illuminate concert series, Hilda Jerea’s Dansuri româneşti (for violin and piano) will be performed. Many of her works are seldom played, so this is certainly an opportunity not to be missed. In the Illuminate concerts you will hear the movements: 1. Cântec de joc 5. Cântec de joc 7. Din Drâmboaie. In the clip below you can hear a short clip from movement 1 played by Sabina Virtosu to tantalize your ears!
ⒸAlex Burns 2018
Alex Burns (BMus MA) is currently working as a freelance trumpeter, writer, teacher and arts marketing professional. Her specialisms are the life and works of Gustav Mahler, as well as the works and lost stories of women composers. She runs the No. 1 classical music blog in the world, and aims to make classical music more accessible to the masses.
The shakuhachi is a traditional Japanese flute made from a single piece of bamboo 54.5cm long.The name ‘shakuhachi’ refers to its length: one shaku (a measurement corresponding to a foot long), and one hachi (corresponding to 1.2 inches). The shakuhachi is end-blown, has no mouth-piece and has a sharp cutting edge called tsuno where the breath strikes, making the air inside the tube resonate. The instrument looks very natural but is in fact highly crafted - the inside of the tube or bore is carved to a conical shape that is narrower near the bell and painted with many layers of lacquer. There are four finger holes on the front and a thumb-hole on the back. When all of the holes are covered the shakuhachi makes the fundamental pitch D4 (the D next to middle C). There is a larger shakuhachi that is 70cm long and deeper in pitch but it is unusual and the majority of musicians play instruments that are tuned to a concert D.
The standard shakuhachi has a range of two octaves. The five holes produce the pitches of the minor pentatonic scale: D F G A C (Ro Tsu Re Chi and Ri) but much of the music is based on the Japanese In scale which consists of two sets of fourths (D to G and A to D) with a semitone added above the resting note - D Eb G and A Bb D. If the angle of the breath is changed by head movement, a player can produce pitches of up to a third apart on one fingering. Half-holing can also be used to flatten a pitch. This gives a wide variety of expressive tone colours and makes it possible to have several ways of playing one pitch that produce varying timbres and qualities. Consequently, in shakuhachi repertoire one cannot simply state that the character Ri is the pitch C because there are four different types of Ri.
This ancient instrument has been played in Japan for at least twelve hundred years. A similar instrument is thought to have migrated to Japan from China at around the time of the 6th century. There are records that state that the shakuhachi has been played by Buddhist monks as a solo instrument and to accompany religious services in Japan since the 13th century. It was considered to be a meditation aid because the discipline of learning the instrument involves controlling breathing. This kind of breathing was described as suizen or ‘blowing Zen’. Daily practise and meditation on the themes of the solo pieces were thought to be a way of finding enlightenment. Pieces were created as part of an aural tradition and each school of playing sought to preserve its repertoire and pass it on to the next generation.
The Fuke-Shu sect were a school of shakuhachi players who followed the teachings of Zen master Fuke (who allegedly lived from 770-840AD). The Fuke-Shu were particularly known for playing shakuhachi from the 13th century until the late 19th century. Notation based on Japanese music characters is very basic and has only been used for the last two hundred years or so. The music was taught by a master to a student by playing, listening and imitating – there was no written music - until a shakuhachi player called Kurosawa Kinko (1710-1771) created a set of thirty-six pieces based on the Fuke-Shu repertoire called Honkyoku (which means Original Pieces). The notation contains very few references to rhythm or tempo. Ornaments are notated and are very distinctive: meri is a pitch with the same fingering but played a semitone lower, ori is a glissando pitch bend down, suri is a glissando pitch bend up, nayashi is a glissando down and up again, ru is a percussive finger hit on the next uncovered hole, muraiki is a rough breathy sound and koro-koro is a trill that imitates the sound of the crane.
There are three main schools of playing in Japan: Kinko, Tozan and Myoan. During medieval times the players of the Kinko school became known as komuso or ‘priests of nothingness’ because they relinquished worldly goods and devoted their lives to prayer and meditation. They travelled around Japan begging for alms dressed in a traditional priests costume with a wicker basket over their head. The basket was a symbol of detachment from the world and served to hide their identity. Many of the ronin (or disbanded samurai warriors) became shakuhachi players and members of the Fuke-Shu sect during the 17th and 18th centuries. Shakuhachi performers occasionally wear this costume for performances in the present day.
There are three types of music that are played by the shakuhachi: the traditional solo repertoire – honkyoku, chamber music for shakuhachi, koto and shamisen ensemble – sankyoku, and contemporary music for shakuhachi (influenced by Western music of various styles) - shinkyoku.
An example of one of the thirty-six honkyoku pieces is Honshirabe, (which means Fundamental Piece or Original Tuning). Honshirabe literally is often translated into English as ‘Beginner’s Piece’ - but that is not really what it means. The title Honshirabe indicatesthat the simplicity of this pared down music allows for revealing the player’s true state of mind at a particular time of playing. It is usually the first of the honkyoku to be taught and comes from the Kinki region, Japan’s main island of Honshu.
Remembered for her progressive style, fearless musicianship, and commendable performance techniques, Grażyna Bacewicz is still one of the most successful female composers that Poland has produced. Her body of work is so exciting, and this blog focuses on her life, legacy, and work for solo violin: Polish Caprice.
Born in Łódź, Poland in 1909, Grażyna Bacewicz was introduced to music by her father and brother, who were both musicians and composers. Wanting to continue her musical education, Bacewicz enrolled at the Helena Kijenska-Dobikiewiczowa’s Musical Conservatory in 1919. Whilst there, she received training on the piano, violin, and music theory. When the Bacewicz family moved to Warsaw in 1923, a year later Bacewicz secured a place at the prestigious Warsaw Conservatory, where she studied composition with Kazimierz Sikorski, piano with Józef Turczyński, and violin with Józef Jarzębski. Although starting with three disciplines, Bacewicz graduated with diplomas in violin and composition, and had dropped piano halfway through her course. After graduating in 1932, Bacewicz secured a grant in the same year to study composition at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris (1932-1933). Whilst there, Bacewicz studied under the great Nadia Boulanger, as well as receiving private violin lessons with Henri Touret. Bacewicz then returned to Paris a year later in 1934, to study under Hungarian violinist, Carl Flesch.
As well as being a well-acclaimed composer, Bacewicz was also a virtuoso on the violin. 1935 saw her first solo success on the violin, where she won the Henryk Wieniawski International Violin Competition in Warsaw. Between 1936 and 1938, Bacewicz also played first violin with the Warsaw Polish Radio Orchestra. Throughout her life, Bacewicz remained very involved with violin performance, whether that be ensemble playing, solo recitals, or giving private violin lessons at European Conservatories. Throughout her performance career, Bacewicz travelled across Europe, and played recitals in Belgium, France, Hungary, and the USSR.
Bacewicz gave a large proportion of her life to teaching new generations music, more specifically violin, music theory, and composition. 1945 saw her appointed as a lecturer of music theory, and as a violin teacher at the National Conservatory (now known as the Academy of Music), in Poland. From 1966 to her death in 1969, she worked at the National Higher School of Music in Warsaw, where she led the composition course, and was soon made a professor in 1967. Bacewicz was also a definitive figure on jury panels for violin and composition competitions, as well as serving as vice-chair of the Polish Composers’ Union from 1955-1957, and then again between 1960-1969.
Bacewicz is chiefly remembered, however, for her body of compositions, which are still popular today. Her composition archives was recognized and honoured many times, which included her winning many composition competitions. Her Quintet for Wind Instruments (1932) won 1st Prize at the 1933 Aide aux femmes de professions libres competition in Paris. Her Piano Concerto (1949) won 2nd prize (with no first prize being awarded) at the the Polish Composers’ Union Fryderyk Chopin Composition Competition in 1951. These are mere examples, as Bacewicz won a large amount of awards for works, which also includes the Belgian Government Award and Gold Medal for her Violin Concerto No. 7 (1965).
Hailing from a country where women musicians are heavily underrepresented, it seems that Bacewicz made her mark successfully, as her legacy lives on today. Her compositions range through many genres, although as a violinist herself, Bacewicz composed more music for strings and solo violin, including her Polish Caprice, which was composed in 1949.
Caprice, or Capriccio (Polish: Kaprysy), is usually defined as a single movement piece, that has a free structure, which may contain one, or many different sections within. This made this kind of composition liberal in its style, and Bacewicz utilised this form on many different occasions. Bacewicz composed three solo violin Caprices in 1949, 1952, and 1968. Folk melodies were incredibly popular with European composers during Bacewicz’s lifetime, so it is to no surprise that Polish Caprice is laden with Polish folk melodies.
Polish Caprice is only a short work, lasting around two minutes, but it is full of dynamic twists and turns, which is perhaps why is is still a popular recital piece in the modern day. Bacewicz experiments with tonality, using major-minor tonality throughout, which resonates with Polish folk music, which often uses major-minor modes throughout.
Beginning with a slow E minor recitative-like introduction, this melodic line leads into a brighter E major dance section, marked ‘Allegro’. You could say this work is in ternary form, as you have clearly defined sections that line up with ABA’ format. Five different keys are heard throughout this work, which adds to the dramaturgy of the piece. The acceleration at the end of Polish Caprice is dramatic, exciting and sounds very virtuosic. The structure of this work has been likened to that of the Kujawiakfolk dance, which originates from Poland. The Kujawiak folk dance starts slow, has a faster middle section, and then accelerates at the end, thus one could certainly suggest that Bacewicz’s Polish Caprice has taken some sort of inspiration from this type of folk dance.
After her death in 1969, Grażyna Bacewicz is still celebrated as a composer, performer and educator in the modern day, with many of her works being performed in concert halls, examinations, and in recital programmes. Her progressive style of writing is one of the most exciting traits of her music, and Polish Caprice is no exception to this. A ground-breaking Polish composer, who has made herself an unbreakable legacy.
To hear the Polish Caprice come along to the Illuminate concerts this October 2018!
©Alex Burns 2018
Alex Burns has recently graduated from The University of Sheffield, after studying for a Bmus in Music, and for an MA in Musicology. Her specialisms are the life and works of Gustav Mahler, as well as the works and lost stories of women composers. She runs the No. 1 Classical Music blog in the world, and has written on a range of different composers, aiming to make classical music more accessible to everybody.
Drawing from influences ranging from Squarepusher and Dirty Loops to Stravinsky and Copland, Fumiko Miyachi is a composer and pianist currently based in Birmingham whose music I first encountered at a performance of her Variation on Purcell/Warlock Fantasia No.2 for strings by Aldworth Philharmonic in May 2016. Miyachi’s music offers a vibrant mixture of colour, driving beats, and morphing harmony. Her work as a performer alongside Kate Halsall as the Cobalt Duo is equally impressive. This blog, based on a recent conversation I had with Miyachi, explores some of her work to date as well as how she came to writing music, and some advice she has to offer for fellow composers.
At the time we talked Fumiko was looking forwards to an upcoming premiere of her recent work C8H10N4O2 (otherwise known as Caffeine). The performance was given by the Orchestra of the 21st Century which is a unique project based at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in which their Thallein Ensemble join forces with Orkest de Ereprijs from Holland, to create a radical re-imagining of the orchestra. To date Miyachi’s music has been performed and commissioned by a wide range of musicians and performance groups including the BBC Singers, Opera North, at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, at the La Linea Latin Music Festival, and (more recently) broadcast on BBC Radio 3 as part of International Women’s Day 2018. But how did she get to where she is today and what has influenced her approach as a composer along the way?
A journey to composition
Miyachi started her musical life as a pianist and for some years was convinced she wanted to be a concert pianist. However, whilst attending Junior Royal College of Music Miyachi took up composition as a second study because it was compulsory to have one and quickly realised that she enjoyed the act of writing dots on paper. Miyachi took up the cello at a similar time and in so doing gained an insight into the world of orchestral music. Soon, writing dots on paper had become much more interesting than practicing other people’s music and her path ahead was set.
The jazz pianist Dominic Alldis was Miyachi’s first composition teacher and introduced her to work as diverse as Bill Evans and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; a diversity of sound still evident in Miyachi’s music today. Miyachi takes a refreshingly matter of fact approach to talking about her journey into composition, recognising that for her the beginning of the journey was a circumstantial necessity but that once she was hooked the hours of study and exploration of what was out there were hers to give:
‘He told me to go and buy the score and study it, so I did.’
Miyachi’s composition teachers have also included Martin Butler (who supervised her PhD in composition at Sussex University, completed in 2005/6), Jeremy Dale Roberts, and Malcolm Singer. One she singles out as perhaps the most important is Peter Norris, a contemporary of Glen Gould with whom she spent numerous hours discussing anything and everything related to music.
Over the course of her journey to composition the styles and particular works which have influenced Miyachi are numerous and she continues to listen as widely as possible today. One work she did pick out during our conversation was Nielsen’s 4th Symphony The Inextinguishable.
‘I just thought it was the best piece ever!’
Nielsen’s work held Miyachi’s interest at around the same time as she was planning her Erasmus year abroad. With Denmark not an option, Finland was the place that attracted her the most and there she spent a productive year immersed in composition from all angles.
When exploring Miyachi’s work for the first time you can’t help but notice the lack of overly poetic titles, and yet there is a running theme: elements. In her recent debut album Transitional Metalthis theme becomes explicit but how exactly do the titles relate to the music? And Why metal?
For Miyachi using elements, molecular formulae, and coded titles allows her to avoid being too descriptive or suggestive about how her music should be listened to or what exactly it is saying. Molecular formulae also offer an interesting starting point when generating material. Miyachi’s music is about the sound itself and the titles are starting points rather than implications of narrative or subject. Nevertheless, given a title, it is impossible to listen to the music without looking for connections to it and perhaps this is part of what makes Transitional Metalso intriguing; it is a collection of characterful works each offering a very personal reflection on a specific metal we thought we knew. Throughout the album the Miyachi sound is one of sparkling rhythm, patience, and detailed motivic layering.
On writing music
Miyachi’s work as a composer is intimately related to her own experience as a performing pianist and her time spent as an orchestral cellist listening to the inner workings of an orchestra. The connection between people is an important part of Miyachi’s approach to writing music and whilst each piece she writes is a new journey, the starting pointusually comes from knowing the players, the brief and the occasion. Miyachi enjoys being a musician amongst musicians, bouncing ideas off others, but in the end as the composer, to be the decision maker driving her own work forwards.
‘As a musician it’s nice to have interaction and playing in a cello section gives you that much more than playing piano. Playing cello in an orchestra fine-tuned my ear and trained me in listening. Pianists are terrible at listening.’
This variety of experience as a musician in combination with her openness to discovering new music and willingness to draw on everything from Stravinsky to the Swedish band Dirty Loops puts Miyachi in a unique position from which to create her own musical voice.
But the actual writing of the music is, for Miyachi, only part of what it takes to be a composer. When asked about what it’s like to be a composer today Miyachi highlighted the challenges of being at once an artist, fundraiser, and manager. As a teacher she focusses on the technical:
‘You can’t teach people to be creative, but if someone has something to say I can help work on the technical things which will allow them to say it.’
To fellow, and future, composers her key pieces of advice are firstly not to be afraid to say you don’t like something, and secondly (perhaps more importantly) to perfect your ability to make pristine parts for your players. They’ll thank you for it.
Written by Laura Shipsey
A huge influence on my compositional approach is dance and movement. I spent fifteen years in the dance studio from age 3 learning various styles from ballet, jazz, and contemporary to tap and hip hop. I even tried tumbling and twirled the baton to the tunes of a marching band in a few parades. These early experiences have naturally fed into the way I approach and think about music. My work often deals with connecting with physical movement in some way, currently exploring the use of gestures inspired by Laban’s Eight Efforts: float, flick, glide, dab, wring, slash, press, punch, as well as groove perception through the use of long-range polyrhythms. A more specific introduction to my current compositional obsessions can best be found in a larger scale project, The Yellow Wallpaper.
Based on the short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman of the same name, The Yellow Wallpaper focuses on the theme of social isolation and its effects on mental health. For this project I am collaborating with Cardiff University postgraduate researcher in creative writing, Christina Thatcher, to adapt the original text. Written at the end of the 19th century, the story reflects on women’s mental and physical health through the eyes of the main character who is taken by her husband on a ‘rest cure’ in the country. The story is now considered by many to be an early, significant work in feminist literature and is taught widely in schools and colleges across America.
Gestures throughout the piece are characterized by Laban’s Eight Efforts in which four continuums: weight, space, time, and flow, are used to conceptualize movement. Such gestures in The Yellow Wallpaper are used to embody the character’s emotions as her mental state gradually deteriorates. Press, which is defined as being strong, direct, sustained, and bound, is the first effort chosen for scene one. This opening effort represents the woman’s initial state as she begins her prescribed rest cure. The directional quality of the semiquaver triplet embellishments leading into slow sustained pitches represents the self-reflection of the character as she struggles with her new surroundings. The resulting texture created by these overlapping gestures was explored intensely as part of Dartington International Summer School‘s Advanced Composition Course in the summer of 2016. Sketches generated during the course were also worked into a stand-alone piece retrospectively entitled Embers.
Another aspect I am exploring through the composition of The Yellow Wallpaper is the use of long-range polyrhythms for narrative purposes. Polyrhythms are conflicting rhythms heard simultaneously that cannot be readily perceived as deriving from one another. They are used in The Yellow Wallpaper to delineate the formal structure corresponding to important moments in the narrative. As the piece progresses conflicting pulse streams interlock into groves to symbolize the character’s transition in and out of lucidness. These changes coordinate with the physical movement of opening and closing a window to symbolize her connection, or lack thereof, to the world outside her room. Throughout the entire work moments of convergence between polyrhythms are expanded into sections of material rooted in dance rhythms to contrast her sense of belonging and purpose against delusion brought on by isolation.
As part of my PhD studies at Cardiff University, I have used my workshop opportunities with visiting ensembles to explore these ideas in a chamber music setting. My piece Up and Down and Sideways is a reduction of material from the second scene of the opera, which was workshopped by The Riot Ensemble. This piece incorporates a tango rhythm into a long-range polyrhythm as the unnamed protagonist unsuccessfully pleads with her husband, John, to repaper her room. The libretto excerpt included is from the moment after John leaves, and it is revealed that she sees a figure trapped behind the paper for the first time. The augmented tango rhythm can be heard most clearly in the viola and bass clarinet parts, obsessively repeating at different rates, which only align in the middle and very end of the piece. This creates an off-kilter background to the vocal part, symbolizing the moving wallpaper.
Text adapted by Christina Thatcher after the short story, “The Yellow
Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
There is a recurring spot where the pattern lolls
like a broken neck, revealing two bulbous eyes
which stare – up and down and sideways –
Those eyes which crawl,
those absurd, unblinking eyes.
I must not think about the paper.
those bulbous eyes
which stare – up and down and sideways –
In places where it isn’t faded
and when the sun is just so –
I can see a formless sort of figure,
that sulks behind the design,
moving back and forth,
back and forth, – up and down and sideways –
Copyright © Christina Thatcher, 2016
Used with permission.
Another piece of mine that works with long-range polyrhythms, albeit in a less straightforward way, is Slowly Tilting, Sinking which was written specifically for the Illuminate Concert Series 2018. A skyscraper that is sinking into the ground, tilting toward its neighboring building due to its deficient foundation system served as the inspiration for this piano solo. However, the piece is not meant to be a musical depiction of a leaning building. Instead, the idea of a fractured foundation influenced the construction of the piece. Beginning with a faultless long-range polyrhythmic structure, select bars are expanded, contracted, or clipped to set things slightly askew. Slowly Tilting, Sinking will be performed on Friday April 20th 2018 by Késia Decoté during our Illuminate Brighton concert. This concert is also part of the Music and Wine series at St. Luke’s Church, Queens Park Road, Brighton. I hope to see you there!
Dr Helen Thomas