Regarded today as one of the most influential and popular women composers, Clara Schumann’s body of compositions is incredibly impressive. Her style, technique and expression amalgamates into some truly fine chamber and solo music, which are still enjoyed today. For this blog, I shall be looking into her life and her work for solo piano - Scherzo No. 2.
Clara Josephine Wieck was born on September 13th, 1819, in Leipzig. Her mother was a famous singer in the area, and a lot of her musical experiences originated with her. However, when Clara was five years old, her parents divorced and she lived with her father. Friedrich Wieck saw the potential in Clara’s musical abilities, so he began to plan her career, including all the small details. She received daily composition, piano, violin, singing, theory and harmony and counterpoint lessons. This was then followed by 2-3 hours of practise. At age 8, Clara performed at Dr. Ernst Carus’ house. There, she met another young musical talent - Robert Schumann. Robert apparently admired Clara’s playing so much, that he asked to stopped studying law, so that he could take up piano lessons with Clara’s father. By age 11, Clara was touring Europe, giving recitals to the public. Her first tour was around Paris, and there she met Niccoló Paganini, who thought very highly of her, and requested to perform with her in the future. By age 18, Clara had performed in a series of tours and recitals around the continent, and she often performed the piano works of Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin.
Whilst in Vienna in 1837, Clara was named the Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso, which was the highest musical honour in Austria. Robert Schumann was still in Clara’s life at this point, and when she turned 18 he proposed to her (she was nine years his junior). Although Clara wanted the marriage to go ahead, her father did not offer his blessing. After much drama, which involved the courts, Robert and Clara wed in 1840. The marriage lasted sixteen years, until Robert died after being committed to an asylum for the last two years of his life (due to numerous suicide attempts). After Robert’s death, Clara began going on more concert tours, as well as shifting some of her focus onto composition.
Later, in 1878, Clara was appointed the position of piano teacher at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where she stayed until 1892. Clara passed away in 1896, and was subsequently buried with her husband. Her legacy as both a performer and composer has stood the test of time, as she is still highly regarded today. Her 61 year career was, and still is an incredible achievement. In regards to composition, Clara once said, and I think this should ring true with all composers in some way:
“Composing gives me great pleasure. There is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound.”
Although she enjoyed composing, due to her hectic performance schedules, she never regularly composed. As well as Clara feeling that this was a shame, her husband also thought similar things:
“Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.”
It has been said many times that Clara famously stated that “women are not born to compose”, however during the middle of her career, she churned out a significant amount of compositions. Her Three Romances for Violin and Piano was composed in 1853, and was very popular. It was dedicated to her close friend and violinist, Joseph Joachim, and the pair toured playing this work, with King George V of Hanover commenting that:
“All three pieces display an individual character conceived in a truly sincere manner and written in a delicate and fragrant hand.”
Clara Schumann Three Romances for Violin (1853):
As a pianist herself it is unsurprising that a large body of her work uses the piano, either in a chamber ensemble, or as its own solo instrument. Clara’s earliest composition date from around 1828, and the piano works she liked to compose show the virtuosity of the performers, with her writing bravura works that show technical dominances. Numerous caprices, concertos and variations showcases her evident brilliance on the piano. Op. 14 Scherzo in C minor was composed in 1845. This particular work very much reflects the stylings of Chopin. The stormy arpeggiated figure that dominates a large proportion of this work resembles that of Chopin’s game changing Etude style.
The fast pace and technical demands of the first section of the work add to its light, yet intense nature. The transition into the Ab major trio section, is mainly chordal, and brings the mood down just a tad from the previous section. This dance-like section shows her grasp on various genres, and how to express them in innovative ways. Her composition style is accessible, virtuosic and legendary still to this day. The seamlessness of her Scherzo No. 2 is perhaps why it is a well-loved work to this day. To hear a performance of this must be incredibly exciting.
Read the article written by Dr Angela Elizabeth Slater for Rhinegold's Classical Music Magazine by clicking this link
Through my composition I developed an interest in incorporating different aspects of the natural world into my compositions. I have created a large series of works that engage with the natural world, musically mapping certain aspects into the fabric of the music. Through this I have been increasingly fascinated by the idea of colour in music and how this can manifest itself in different ways through musical expression. I find it very exciting to explore the potential expressive impact that timbre can have within the musical space.
Within the broader theme of the natural world I have often found myself writing a number of works related more closely to a specific sub-theme. For example I have recently written a number of pieces to do with space particularly focusing on eclipses, the sun, moon and stars. These are Veiling of the Sun for string quartet, The Moon Runs Red for solo trumpet, Sun Catcher for wind quintet, and the three works I have written for the Illuminate concert series: The Moon is Falling for classical guitar and violin, Into the Scarlet Sky for shakuhachi and classical guitar, and Night Mirrors for solo piano.
When I compose I find it extremely helpful to have a clear concept for the piece before I begin. I often find the title for the piece before I start as this can give me a lot of stimulus from which I can develop musical ideas and a framework. I often first sit down with a blank piece of paper to plan the structure of the piece. This can take the form of written words and timings, but more often then not there are shapes and sketches and notes to myself about instruments or timbre. As much as possible I like to feel a connection to the instruments for which I am writing and will try to compose ideas on the instrument as much as I can, even if I can hardly play the instrument at all. This allows me to feel how the fingers sit and how the sound really resonates. Of course, this is not always possible however much I would love to own a whole orchestra of instruments. I unfortunately do not! In this situation my default tends to be the piano or relying on my inner ear to guide me.
In my work Veiling of the Sun the previous influences of using the natural world as an influence on different parameters is present as well as now foregrounding timbre as a modulating and structural parameter. The piece explores ideas and imagery associated with a solar eclipse. It explores different representations of light and uses timbral dissonance to represent the blocking out of light. These moments of timbral dissonance gradually increase in rhythmic pacing as the sun becomes more and more covered by the moon. Timbre is also used as a structural device to create progression within the piece, with the most dissonant moments coming in the form of bow over-pressure twinned with harmonic dissonance, and violent gestural material. The fading light of the sun is represented earlier in the piece through fragile timbral devices such as harmonic and quiet sul ponticello passages. As the sun’s light gradually gets more blocked out by the moon the rate of bow over-pressure moments increases. The last passage represents the final glimpses of light around the edge of the moon before the eclipse reaches totality and darkness truly takes hold.
Another piece that is based on the theme of eclipse and timbre as structure is my work As The Moon Runs Red for solo trumpet. This piece explores different timbres of the trumpet making extensive use of its different mutes through the lens of a lunar eclipse. A lunar eclipse is a natural phenomenon where the Earth blocks the sun’s light from reaching the moon. As the moon passes behind the Earth the shortest light lengths of colours, such as violet and blue, are scattered as they go through the Earth's atmosphere, leaving the longer wavelengths such as orange and red. This means the moon appears to go a deep red colour as the only light able to reach it is these longer wavelengths. This piece draws on the imagery of a lunar eclipse exploring each colours character and timbre before it is scattered away gradually building in intensity until only the violent red music is left to colour the moons surface.
You can hear this piece live at the John Armitage Memorial Trust 'Music of Our Time' concert on 22 March, 7.30pm. It will be performed by Alan Thomas, part of Onyx Brass.
Night Mirrors for solo piano (for the Illuminate concert series)
Before I wrote Night Mirrors I had recently watched several different documentaries about space and the training astronauts have to go through. One of the programmes showed the amazing natural phenomenon that is Salar de Uyuni (or Salar de Tunupa) which is where the world's largest salt flat acts as the largest natural occurring mirror. When darkness falls on a clear night, the night sky is reflected by the salt flat, creating a 360 view of the universe. These programmes and this image particularly stuck in my mind, as I was caught up thinking about the vastness of space and the complexities within it, but it also made me think about how everything is essentially created from the same elements and the simplicity of this idea.
This idea of complexity versus simplicity manifests itself in Night Mirrors with contrasts between some sections being very complex and dense in harmony and gesture, before gradually shifting to only three, three-note chords that control the harmony. This simple harmony then combines with the complex gestural material essentially pairing complexity and simplicity together.
Night Mirrors also explores the shapes and stars of the universe in the night sky and its mirror-image. The piece explores the depths and height of space, the drama and the stillness, using symmetry and reflection throughout the piece in different ways to create a musical mirror.
To hear the full version of my piece Night Mirrors live as well as my other pieces Into the Scarlet Sky for shakuhachi and classical guitar and The Moon is Falling for classical guitar and violin, I hope you will join us at one or more of the Illuminate concerts!
© Angela Elizabeth Slater
As a small child, I was intent on trying to copy the sounds that I heard around me. I created patterns of whistled melodies that I linked together in different combinations. Eventually, when I received flute and piano lessons, I began to create pieces on these instruments. I was keen to improvise using sounds in an attempt to capture feelings and experiences in the moment. I thus considered that my composing was a mirror of my experience and thought, like philosopher Immanuel Kant, who regarded art as a reflection of life. Kant wrote that ‘art can only be termed beautiful, where we are conscious of its being art; while yet it has the appearance of nature.’ Unless a piece of music copies an actual sound, it is an abstract art form. However, it is possible for a composer to associate certain sounds and sequences with meanings. I consciously create sounds that represent emotions, ideas or characters in my works. I believe that this helps me to convey meaning and may aid the listener to recognise pattern and structure in the work.
Two composers who have influenced my approach to composition are, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934–2016), and Edgard Varèse (1883–1965). I have performed Varèse’s solo flute piece, Density 21.5, many times. The music of Varèse introduced me to a sound world that appealed to me – music that is melody-led, imitates sounds from the environment, features wide intervals and appears, initially, to be rhythmically free. My solo flute piece, Tantrum, features the same components. It attempts to portray the raw emotion of a small child who is angry and inconsolable.
The consideration of pieces of music that have left a powerful impression on me has led me to realise that I particularly value works that have to invent a new language in order to express what needs to be said. I endeavour to write each of my pieces with an open mind as to the requirements of pitch, form, rhythm and harmony. Certain melodic fragments seem to recur - although they are rarely identical. For the most part, I am content to work within the confines of equal temperament and regular (but constantly changing) time signatures. My music is eclectic with regard to tonality in the sense that I like to mix diatonic, modal, chromatic, and atonal sounds as well as those from other cultures. I do not feel the need to unify my material by being exclusively wedded to one school of thought or historical fashion. I experiment with sounds that are held together in a collage-style piece with something other than a diatonic harmonic structure. Edgard Varèse also built chords around pitches that did not relate to functional harmony, often using pitches that related to the overtone series or sounds chosen for their timbral effect rather than their relationship to a particular key.
I have written a number of pieces that focused on patterns of melodic intervals or motifs. This has led to thoughts about repetition and experimentation with pieces that used phrases reminiscent of previous material in the same piece that were similar but not identical. This way of working with melodic development was a result of an interest in the form of shakuhachi (Japanese flute) music. The aurally transmitted collection of music played by the Honkyoku school was possibly created as long ago as the twelfth century. Many of these solo pieces have a basic phrase that reappears several times with more tones, effects or ornaments added as the music progresses. I similarly enjoy working with a process of continual transformation as ideas return but are always changed.
Hifumi Hachigaeshi - played by Katushi Matama is one of the Honkyoku traditional pieces for solo shakuhachi.
Many of my works have a back-story and are sometimes about a particular time and place. I admire many of Maxwell Davies’ compositions that convey a strong sense of time and place and take a story for their inspiration. This can be overt in pieces like Eight Songs for a Mad King or act as a backdrop in a composition such as the Second Symphony. Musical symbols can become part of the storytelling function of a piece. For example, my string trio, Betrayal, tells the story of two Viking earls who ruled jointly. One was jealous of the other and ordered his assassination. My music describes the horror of the recognition of betrayal and knowledge that death is imminent. This trio is part of my opera, The Story of Magnus Erlendsson which premiered at the St Magnus Festival in 2017.
I hypothesise that a satisfying piece of new music creates symbols that each listener can attach meaning to even though the sounds and structures of the piece may be unfamiliar. I have explored this idea more fully with my found sound electronic pieces that have accompanied sculpture installations. Found and The Fabian Strategy
were created in collaboration with sculptor Craig Ellis. I have recently set up a bimonthly series of inter-disciplinary performances called The Experimental Music Project with a view to promoting events that remove boundaries between different art forms and allow audiences to be more inter-active.
© Gemma McGregor, 2018
An American composer based in London, Arlene Sierra’s large and diverse catalogue includes chamber, orchestral and vocal music, as well as opera, music for dance, and music for film. In 2001, she was the first woman to win the Takemitsu Prize for her first orchestral work Aquilo. Following on from several prestigious commissions, many of Sierra's mature works have their origins in military strategy and game theory. Other interests include writing dramatic works for the stage, as well as connecting with physical movement through her series of scores to films by Maya Deren.
Another important inspiration for Sierra is her fascination with the behaviours and mechanisms of biological life forms from tiny insects to humanity itself. It is the processes of nature, rather than a simple reflection or meditation that form the basis for Sierra’s compositional approach. Her 2009 work, Game of Attrition, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, takes its structure from processes described by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species. Another such example is Butterflies Remember a Mountain (2013), a piano trio commissioned by the Bremen Philharmonic Society, which was inspired by a peculiar detour in the annual mass migration of monarch butterflies, the cause of which is theorised to be a long since eroded mountain that once stood in their path. This trio was the starting point for her biggest statement yet, recently premiered Nature Symphony (2017) commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic and BBC Radio 3.[i] A selection of other works that employ natural sounds and processes include Urban Birds (2014) for three pianos with percussion and sampled birdsong, as well as Birds and Insects, Books 1 and 2 (2007, 2015) for piano solo, selections from which will be performed as part of Illuminate’s inaugural season in Cardiff on 11 March.
Arlene Sierra’s Birds and Insects, Book 1 (2003-2007), included on her 2011 chamber music release by Bridge Records, has been a touchstone for many other works exploring the natural world, as well as maintaining a connection to the piano, her primary instrument from childhood.[ii] Far from her place of birth, settling in London was another importance impetus that prompted Sierra to set a number of Pablo Neruda’s (1904-1973) Odes to Common Things, which reflect on nature and memory.
“The poetry got me thinking about using birdsong, and other associations from nature that I’d experienced as a child. London has its inspirations too: for example, I love the huge scarab beetle sculpture in the British Museum, and when I read about the living insect’s ability to navigate using magnetic fields, that immediately prompted a musical idea for a piece.” The result was the first of a series of piano works that became Birds and Insects, Book 1. [iii]
In a 2013 conversation with pianist Xenia Pestova, Sierra discusses her use of birdsong as a natural outgrowth from her love of sampling when she made her first electro-acoustic compositions as an undergraduate at Oberlin College-Conservatory.
“Birdsongs and insect calls give an immediate sense of place, and of space, so were a welcome resource when thinking about creating atmospheres connected with nature. They also tend to be short, fitting nicely into the kind of motivic construction a lot of my works are driven by.”[iv]
Sierra’s first explorations into composition were actually through electronic music.
‘It was a way of getting ideas down, manipulating musical materials without having to worry about notation. And for someone who studied piano and didn’t study composition, that was really a relief and a wonderful opening to ways of manipulating sound and making new things.’[v]
Her PRS New Music Biennial Commission Urban Birds (2014) in which three piano soloists play music in response to pre-recorded birdsong was an important piece written between Birds and Insects Book 1 and Book 2. It allowed a chance to return to electronics and sampling, as well as to focus on more percussion and percussive effects in her piano writing.
Our Illuminate pianist, Késia Decoté, will perform two selections from Sierra’s Birds and Insects, Book 2: Hermit Thrush and Thermometer Cricket at 2.00pm on 11 March at Cardiff University Concert Hall.
Sierra’s music is published by Cecilian Music and further information may be found on her website, arlenesierra.com. She holds degrees from Oberlin College-Conservatory (BA, Bmus), Yale School of Music (MMus) and the University of Michigan (DMA). Dr. Sierra is currently Reader in Composition and Deputy Head of School at Cardiff University School of Music.
[i] ‘Premieres: November’s new music’, Wright, Katy,
[ii] ‘Color and Rhythmic Dexterity: Interview with Arlene Sierra’, Nomos Alpha, Published 15 April 2013, http://nomosalphamagazine.com/admin/2013/04/15/color-and-rhythmic-dexterity-interview-with-arlene-sierra/
[iii] ‘Unflinching Depictions of Nature: A Conversation with Arlene Sierra’,
Natural Light, Published 7 September 2015, http://www.naturemusicpoetry.com/news-and-blog/unflinching-depictions-of-nature
[iv] ‘Conversation with Arlene Sierra’, Pestova, Xenia, I Care if You Listen June/July 2013
[v] 'The Evolution of Process' Gardner, Alexandra, New Music Box, Published: May 1, 2013, https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/arlene-sierra-the-evolution-of-process/
Throughout history storytelling and narratives through music have both entertained and educated audiences. From Bach’s Messiah to John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls these works have brought worlds to life and engaged audiences on a range of issues. Having originally trained as a dancer, being able to capture an audience’s attention whilst telling a story has always been important to me, something that has also followed me into my work as a composer.
Composers have had many different approaches to narrative over the years. One technique that has been under-utilised over the years has been transcriptions, with particular regard to transcriptions of found sound (sounds from the natural environment). I first came across the idea of using transcriptions after watching Honor Harger’s TED Talk by Honor Harger ‘A history of the universe in sound’. Having a brother from a scientific background, currently studying for a PhD in epigenetics, I have always been curious about the world around us and the different ways this could be explored. Listening to Harger’s talk, I became transfixed by the unusual yet strangely relatable sounds and the idea of exploring a world previously unheard.
I began aurally transcribing these sounds onto piano and then incorporating them into my work as either motifs, pitch or rhythmic material. I decided not to incorporate the found sounds as electronic recordings as I personally found there was greater flexibility for both performers and myself by using them as acoustic transcriptions, although I do appreciate that many composers find this the most effective way of working. By using aural transcriptions of found sound, I discovered it created a strong connection and a basis of reality to the source material that was both accurate and musically engaging.
Over the years I have explored this technique with various works. Here are three examples of work that include this approach to narrative, including A Note from the Blue, a new work for Illuminate.
Songs from the Stars Movement I
Having listened and transcribed the sounds from Hargers’ talk as well as from other sources I desperately wanted to put these sounds into action. At the same time two events were happening: The first being the comet lander from the Rossetta project Philae had woken up after seven months, having been shrouded in darkest and unable to operate its solar panels. The second event was that I discovered the Disney film WALL-E (2008) and had become transfixed by the idea of a robot with feelings alone in space. Combining the narrative of WALL-E, the true events of the Philae lander and the transcriptions from various sounds in space I began to construct Songs from the Stars.
The first movement, played here by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales as part of their Composition: Wales Project 2016, introduces the audience to space. Using the sound of a radio storm between Jupiter and Io, stardust from the NASA soundcloud database as well as the drone of the sun the movement works similar to that of a panoramic photo in guiding the listener through the various parts of space. As each motif is introduced the texture builds to cacophony of sound, illustrating both the vastness and mind crushing beauty of space, before dying away and returning back to the original motif, the sun.
Bulawayo Railway was a very personal piece for both myself and my family. Over twenty five years ago my parents and paternal family left Zimbabwe for the UK. During their time there my grandfather worked for the then Rhodesia Railways and later National Railways of Zimbabwe, finishing his career as Station Master of Bulawayo Railway Station. I have always been fascinated with the country and the role it played in shaping my family history. In addition I have always been fascinated by Steve Reich’s Different Trains and the way it explores the different cities and the struggles the people experienced, including the Holocaust. This ability to discuss difficult subjects in a smart and engaging way challenged me to discuss the issue of Zimbabwe in my family history.
After many conversations including stories of lonesome visits to outposts, sabotage of train tracks and the increasingly hostile political landscape, Bulawayo Railway, explores some of these events. I then listened to and transcribed various videos of Garratt steam trains (use during the time my grandfather worked) and used a combination of these transcriptions as motifs to trace the journey of he Garratt steam trains through the beautiful setting of Zimbabwe, illustrating the constant shifting motions of the time - both mechanically and socio-politically.
A Note from the blue Written for Illuminate
(picture National Geographic)
Having spent the majority of the last few years writing about space I very much wanted to come back down to earth. After some research I discovered the database of Discovery of Sound in the Sea, a vast collection of sounds of both marine life and the impact humans were having upon it. I particularly became interested in the Humpback whale and was fascinated to discover that Humpbacks actually sing and compose their own songs.
Through research from scientists such as Roger Payne and Scott McVay, scientists have discovered that whales, much like minimalist composers, begin with a unit, grow this into a phrase and then develop this into a theme. Whilst the purpose of these songs is still undetermined, though most likely for mating and territory, I wanted to explore how these songs could be developed.
Using research from the Whale Trust in Maui, Hawaii I transcribed these themes. However unlike other compositions, here I used only the first part of each theme and then developed the material, similar to that of a Humpback. In addition I tried to emulate the harmonic language Humpbacks use, using only notes from each theme for that section of the work. This lead to the work beginning with a rich harmonic language, similar to that most audiences would expect, and gradually becoming more sparse, as if the Humpback was unable to find anyone.
another dance - open score for violin and guitar - ca. 3’
Shiko - for amplified flute - ca. 6’
I met composer Angela Elizabeth Slater in 2016, during a BFE/RMA conference in Bangor, North Wales; where a few composers were selected to have pieces workshopped and performed by Okeanos ensemble. I had composed the work while studying with Katarina Rosenberg at UCSD, with support of a Bliss Trust Scholarship for artistic development in USA. Whilst there, I had months to work, uninterruptedly, on my practice, during which time, I had cocooned myself to create a series of graphic notation that felt very intuitive to me. A practice which I have continued with for two and a half years, and something which I had integrated into my score for Okeanos, at Bangor.
For all of my pieces, I write by hand, which slows down my output but means, for me, each note, line, or gesture, is made with intention and care. I feel it is important for a performer to receive a work with beauty and intention. Since all we give performers is lines on paper (or iPads) I feel this is my gift to them, and should make it special.
For this blog, I would like to especially write about the two pieces for the Illuminate project, another dance and Shiko, although I will mainly touch upon my work surrounding this project, and concepts used - as I hope it gives you an understanding of my approach to composition. Once these two pieces are performed, for me at least, they will feel more tangible.
I am grateful that Angela created this opportunity, and honoured to be a part of the 2018 Illuminate Women Composer’s and Performer’s series.
another dance, an open score for violin and guitar
The score for another dance was taken from my collaborative work Chalk.Body.Barrow. with dancers Eleven Farrer House. I wrote electronic music for their site specific dance, on Wolstonbury Hill, Sussex, which was funded by Rebecca Skelton Fund and Arts Council England.
another dance is a memoir of my time spent with them; I was there during rehearsals and the performances. The open score can therefore be defined as a non-representation of the dance, and a reflection on how both sound and movement both pivot between similar worlds: dealing with time and spatialisation. The shear preparation for rehearsals was a performance in itself - the hill could only be walked to, and so we had to carry all the equipment by hand and barrow, often uphill on small dirt tracks. Needless to say, before they began dancing, and myself composing, we already had a work out. After this time spent with dancers, and I had finished their music for this dance, I started work for another dance.
We decided from the outset that the music would be electronic, and that there would be four speakers placed inside portable clay pots, making wonderful resonances, and could be placed and moved to difference spots on the hill
What is particularly interesting to highlight for another dance, is the sounds I used for the hill project was taken from recorded samples of my previously performed graphic notation, which are in turn based on memoirs of dancers. In essence, my graphic notation can be described as a feedback loop; the music for Chalk.Body.Barrow. was taken from recordings of previous graphic notation, which were based on a previous dance. Chalk.Body.Barrow. has informed my graphic work for another dance (a more accurate title would perhaps be another dance within another dance). The first graphic notation I created in this way was whilst collaborating with Phoenix Dance Theatre, in Leeds, 2015, where I received much encouragement from Keneth Hesketh in the composer’s voice. I have since written over 100 open scores, mainly in my collection entitled OMAV (Of Minerals and Ventricles) but another dance will be the first one with a specific instrumentation in mind.
And so this project is multifaceted; they can be used as performance pieces, to record and for the samples to be used for material in a larger work, and also for another piece which I am creating for my PhD in practice-based research at Goldsmiths, University of London, supervised by Patricia Alessandrini.
On writing open scores:
When writing my score, I clear my workspace, so I have no indication of time - as I leave clocks out of the room, and if there’s a phone or computer, I switch it off - and begin to meditate. Within this space, after some time, I begin to prepare my paper and pens and work on my non-representational memoir of the dance (including rehearsal, and preparation). I allow the pen to go over the paper and whatever the outcome, is a finished score. When I first started this graphic notation, I had no instruction for the performer, and felt apprehensive that performers might need something to go on, or to communicate my meditation in written word. However, performers I’ve had the pleasure of working with, have felt that there is enough information in the score themselves; they have been written with intention and gesture. When people ask me how long it has taken me to write them, I have no idea of duration. Since my workspace is without time, I have not calculated how long I meditate, prepare the paper (sometimes including cutting down to size and drawing the staffs) to creating the notation. I leave the same playfulness to the performer.
For another dance the time is predetermined, to fit within the programme, and so I invite the violinist Sabina Virtosu and guitarist Cassandra Matthews to treat it as a miniature work, with a duration of no longer than three minutes. If the time was longer, I would prepare several cards, and ask the duo to view them as movements. The parameters I have given myself are aesthetic, I cut the card to the same size, use the same pen, the same ink, and keep the notation within the same world - lines, dashes, and often circles. The score can be read however the performers chooses, some read it as a linear format, others choose to see the intentions and gestures as a whole, and others as a continuous drone, with quasi-baroque ornaments entwined. Even with these examples, there is no right or wrong way to perform these works.
Since another dance will be a World Premiere, I have no audio examples, so to get a flavour of my open scores, here is a recent performance of one of the graphic scores taken from the OMAV collection, performed at Estalagem da Ponta do Sol Contemporary Music and Electronics Residency, Madeira (Portugal). Another OMAV score was featured in Notations, Canadian Music Centre Magazine, and so I also enclose a link to that as well, http://issuu.com/canadianmusiccentre/docs/cmc_spring2016_final_v2/56
Open Score Example: Amy Bryce (flute), Karin Hellqvist (violin), Joan Jordi Oliver (saxophone), and Marina Sibyl (voice), performance of one graphic notation from the OMAV collection. A Cappella de São Sebastião, Madeira, Portugal.12th January 2018
Composer: Sarah Westwood
Shiko, for amplified flute
A dog drifting off…
their eyes closed… with twitching paws
playing in a dream*
Before I started work on this piece, I woke up from a dream with flutes, clouds and the sound of the wind. I can remember little else except the sound and quality, and knew there was a piece for solo flute brewing in my subconscious. I find it fascinating how much working out, or inventing, we do whilst sleeping. Sometimes with my friends, we tell each other our dreams, and before I mentioned this dream to anyone, the next day I got a message from a good friend of mine, to say he had a dream about some flute music I was writing, even though I had not told anyone I was writing this.
From this dream encounter, I decided to focus my thoughts upon the possibilities of dream sharing: by having a similar (or the same) dream to other people, and also in sharing dream stories with friends. Rather than try to interpret dreams into music, I wanted to look at one particular aspect: what are our bodies doing during our most vivid dreams, and whether (for me, at least) Shiko can reveal moments of dream sharing.
Unless the sleeper is a heavy snorer, or talks in their dream, the act of sleeping appears soft, quiet - movements perhaps juxtaposed with the internal dream. For that reason, I decided to make the levels of the flautist reflect the sleeper, and use some amplification so to hear the nuances in a larger space.
I also thought about some of our physical traits when we dream; how our heart rate and breathing can become irregular; how the dog mentioned above may begin to shiver (as our body temperature fluxes); how our closed-eyes begin to rapidly move (r.e.m). From a compositional point of view, it was nice to discover our eye movements are likely to loop back to their original starting point, and begin moving rapidly again in a similar pattern, and that about seven of these loops take place over one minute of r.e.m sleep. Since my work is less direct representations, I’ve enjoyed taking this information and exploring it, mixing it with tones and phrases I remember from my initial dream about the piece.
Shiko uses proportional notation, so depending on the performer, or concert space, there is a flow of phrases and pauses. This style of notation allows the performer to interpret the information freely, which mirrors the personal touch of dreaming. We may sleep for the same amount of time, with the same phases of sleep (of 90minutes), perhaps even a similar dream, but our rhythm and breath will be unique; so Shiko will last for 6’, with the flautist having this amount time to perform the piece.
Proportional Notation Example: Hong Kong New Music Ensemble: Chiu Chan Ching (guzheng), Euna Kim (violin), Selena Choi (violin), William Lane (viola), and Zhu Mu (cello), performance of ‘The Hands We Used to Make Were Clay’
Paralelní Polis, Prague.6th May 2016
Composer: Sarah Westwood
When working on the flute piece, I was creating an electronic work for LA based architect and artist Moses Hacmon, for his work and art Faces of Water**. As I watched his work, I reflected on my cloud dream, how the atmosphere is mostly water, and so we are living and dreaming within a current of water waves. In all of my work, there are no symbolisms, direct references, or word painting, but I hope an energy imprinted from the inspiration. Therefore, anyone listening to Shiko might pick up on a water-esque quality: as I might be working on a few projects at once, ideas could feed one another, or my personal emotions to soak into my musical decisions. I don’t work, compose or meditate in a vacuum.
Eleven Farrer House: http://www.elevenfarrerhouse.com/
Estalagem da Ponta do Sol Contemporary Music and Electronics: https://www.madeiraresidency.com/
Phoenix Dance Theatre: https://www.phoenixdancetheatre.co.uk/
Hong Kong New Music Ensemble: https://www.hongkongnewmusic.org/
Moses Hacmon: http://www.facesofwater.com/water-portraits
Jouvet, Michel (1999). The Paradox of Sleep: The Story of Dreaming. Originally Le Sommeil et le Rêve, 1993. Translated by Laurence Garey. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Mallick, B. N., & S. Inoué (1999). Rapid Eye Movement Sleep. New Delhi: Narosa Publishing House; distributed in the Americas, Europe, Australia, & Japan by Marcel Dekker Inc (New York).
September 2017, saw the 150th birthday of prolific woman composer, Amy Beach, yet her music is rarely placed in modern concert repertoire. Although she is perhaps one of the most well-remembered women composers, there is still a long way to go to make sure her wonderful works are fully integrated into modern concert halls. This article aims to highlight her fruitful life, and also look into her work for violin and piano: Romance.
Amy Beach was born in New Hampshire, 1867, and it was said that from a very young age she showed the signs of being a child prodigy. It has been documented that by age 1, Amy could sing forty songs. By age 2, she could improvise melodies over pre-existing music. By age 3, she was competent at reading music. From age 4, Amy began composing simple works, such as waltzes. It was Amy’s mother who was the driving force behind her musical education, as she herself was a well-known pianist and singer at the time. At age 6, Amy began taking formal piano lessons with her mother, which she excelled at. Thus, by age 7, she was giving public recitals, playing the likes of Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, and of course, herself. In 1875, Amy and her family moved to Boston, and she began taking piano lessons with Carl Baermann (a student of Franz Liszt). At age 14, Amy received her only composition lesson, which was with Junius W. Hill. Therefore, the rest of her career she was a wholly self-taught composer.
A lot of articles about Amy Beach focus on the sexism she encountered throughout her life, and the ways in which she overcame them. It is important to understand this, as it was such a large part of her life, and therefore it affected the way she was able to work at times. Amy married Dr. Henry Aubrey Beach, who was a Boston-based surgeon, who was 24 years her senior. Henry did not agree with Amy giving so many recitals, so he restricted her to just two a year, with all proceeds from these recitals going to charity. Due to this, Amy began to focus more on composition. Henry forbade Amy to learn composition formally, so she instead bought an abundance of books on composition, orchestration and arranging so she could learn her own art. Even through this, Amy is still recognised as a powerful force when it comes to composition. Her Mass in Eb Major was received with particular positivity when it was premiered in 1892.
Amy Beach: Mass in Eb Major (Kyrie)
Amy Beach was part of a group called the Boston Six, which was comprised of John Knowles Paine, Arthur Foote, George Whitefield Chadwick, Horatio Parker and Edward MacDowell. Being a part of this collective aided Amy to get her work published, and by 1896 she premiered her first symphony - Gaelic Symphony. This was a large milestone as Amy became the first American woman to composer and then further publish a symphony. Further to this, in 1900, Amy was the soloist for the premiere of her Piano Concerto in C Sharp Minor, and from here her composition career really took off.
1910 was a tragic year for Amy. She lost both her husband and mother in the same year, and to deal with the grief, she stopped composing for a short period of time. After taking a year off to grieve, Amy began composing and giving recitals once more. She went travelling around Europe with American soprano, Marcia Craft, and together they gave many recitals in major European cities. Throughout her travels, Amy was known to be the first American woman who was able ‘to composer music of a European quality of excellence.’
Amy Beach: Piano Concerto in C sharp Major
Amy returned to America in 1914, just after the outbreak of World War I. She became the primary carer of her terminally ill cousin, Ethel. Amy began offering coaching and feedback to young composers and musicians. In 1928, Amy received an honorary Master’s degree from the University of New Hampshire. During the last years of her life, Amy travelled to Europe once more, and gave some of her last public concerts. Upon her return to America in 1940, Amy retired from composing due to ill health, which overcame her in 1944.
Romance for violin and piano was premiered in 1893, and published within the same year. Technical complexity is at the heart of many of Amy Beach’s compositions, with this one being no exception. The relationship between the piano and violin is very special in this particular work, due to the amount of musical communication between the two instruments. Amy’s originality is crystallized in Romance, with it being a real homage to technical chamber music from the Romantic era. Romance is dedicated to Maud Powell, a close personal friend of Amy, and also a virtuoso violinist. The premiere of Romance, was played by Maud and Amy, and it is noted that it was received incredibly well by the audience.
As one of the leading representatives of the late-nineteenth-century Romantic style, Amy keeps the feeling of this in Romance. Her use of dramatic dynamics, extremities in range for both instruments, and the way they both fuse together to create one voice is incredibly beautiful. The charm of Romance is perhaps one of its greatest assets, with it really tugging at your heartstrings in some places. The dainty, yet powerful melodic lines sing through the complex piano accompaniment, and show off the versatility of the violin in just six short minutes. The ending of this work acts as a reprise of the beginning of the work, and slowly begins to wind down, before ending on the tonic, with a beautiful arpeggiated chord from the piano.
Amy Beach: Romance for violin and piano
Unlike a wealth of forgotten women composers, Amy Beach has retained a presence in musical history. However, there is still a long way to go before her works are properly integrated into modern concert halls. Her music is daring, powerful, emotional, complex and full of character, and there is no good reason why she shouldn’t be at the forefront of many concerts. Just before she passed away at age 77, Amy was concerned that her legacy would be shadowed by gender politics, rather than it being about her musical efforts. She said ‘My work has always been judged from the beginning by work as such, not according to sex. The question has rarely ever been raised.” Even after all the oppression she received in her lifetime, she still downplayed it to ensure her art was heard in the future. Well, Amy, we can hear your music, loud and clear - thank you for your contribution to classical music.
©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.