My initial background is as a pianist, although composition entered into the picture quite early. Shortly after I started piano lessons, I began to invent little tunes, and at some point I began to write out these little tunes. My piano teacher suggested I take composition lessons, so I did. At this point, I had move over to the junior department at New England Conservatory – as a result, I got to know quite a few musicians my own age, some of whom were also interested in composition. We wrote pieces for each other to perform and played quite a lot of chamber music. This collaborative approach is still a fundamental part of how I work today.
When I started at Boston University, I was in for a bit of a shock: at NEC’s junior department (which they call the preparatory division), I was surrounded by other school-aged composers and performers, and had started to feel quite comfortable as one of the older students in the group. In college, all of the other composers were at least two years older than me, and most of the department was made of graduate students. I did gradually find my own space within this network, and came into contact with a lot of repertoire that has remained essential to my own aesthetic to this day. In London, I have once again found ways to interact with my musical environment. There is a particular kind of attention to detail that many composers here exhibit, which I find quite attractive, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have found a group of very supportive colleagues and mentors.
Overall, my musical landscape is quite broad from many perspectives – my approach to harmony, for instance, initially stems from a solid understanding of common practice voice leading, but I draw from a wide variety of post-tonal approaches, including planing, focusing on particular intervals and pitch-class sets, juxtaposing distorted diatonic structures with other pitch collections such as octatonic, and whole-tone scales. In particular, I use a variety of spectral treatments in my approach to harmony and combine this particular approach with quarter tone voice leading in many instances. I find the interaction of musical elements that are often kept separate to be highly interesting and rewarding.
Apart from my harmonic landscape, my timbral palette is quite broad as well and I have explored different approaches to timbre over the last few years. This is admittedly something I am still exploring and will probably always continue to explore! As I mentioned earlier, I came into contact with lots of very important repertoire in my undergraduate years: composers such as Scelsi, Saariaho, Grisey, Haas, Benjamin, Knussen, and many others. One very clear memory from this time is listening to Haas’ 30-minute long piece for large chamber ensemble and six pianos tuned a 12thtone apart called Limited Approximations: I remember being absolutely mind-blown and feeling quite disoriented, but fascinated.
From this repertoire, I gained insight into how other composers use colour, and would make note when I found particularly pleasing combinations. I tend to listen in a highly analytical way, and tend to be quite good at deconstructing various timbral combinations or figuring out recombinations that sound similar. This deconstructive approach is quite central in my work in general, and certainly is important to how I work with timbre. Something I particularly enjoy is carefully constructing timbral combinations from unexpected doublings, particularly using instruments in slightly odd ranges or subtle use of certain extended techniques.
These harmonic and timbral approaches do make themselves known within the piece I have written for the Illuminate concert series, and I found the instrumental combination an interesting one to work with. I am a pianist, and have written several solo piano pieces and chamber pieces that involve piano in one capacity or another. In one way, I find I am quite good at imagining whether or not things are possible and idiomatic on the instrument, and I can always try things out on my own. On the other hand, I have to always be mindful about falling into habits (and this is something that one must do for composition in general!) as I do have certain predispositions towards particular pianistic motives and patterns that tend to appear in the repertoire.
In contrast to my work with the piano, my experience with the saxophone is far more limited. My initial dealings with saxophone were in the first year of my master’s degree at RCM, when I was asked to write a piece for clarinet, saxophone, trombone, violin, viola, and cello. The result was a piece called Night Train to I don’t know, where I combine swelling chords with a distorted jazz-inspired section and loud rhythmic material.
However, the following year I had the opportunity to work with Jonathan Radford, who is a phenomenal player. He showed me how the instrument works within different registers in great detail, and demonstrated many effects like multiphonics, slap tongue, subtone, growling, and so forth. At one point we went into a practice room and tried every single alto saxophone multiphonic in the Barenreiter saxophone book – I think there’s around 120 of them – and I recorded them all. Then I went home and produced spectrogram analyses for most of them on Audiosculpt, making note of where the overtones would lie.
The harmonic content of the resulting piece, Mirage (flute, saxophone, piano), is largely based on this analysis: there are many sections in the piece where the saxophone holds multiphonics while the flute and piano parts seem to fuse with the multiphonics because of how the overtones of the various instrumental parts interact. Following Mirage, I have also written a short, blistering altissimo piece for soprano saxophone, also for Jonathan Radford called Isthiophorus. Unfortunately I don’t have a recording of Isthiophorus, but here is the concert recording of Mirage:
When I was asked to write a piece for saxophone and piano for the Illuminate concert series, I was excited at the prospect of working with saxophone again. However, I decided to take a more rhythmic approach to the piece than I had in Mirage.
The piece initially grew out of two contrasting fragments, one of which was a rhythmic slap-tongue line:
The other fragment is far more lyrical and flowing:
Note that these fragments are at C (in sounding pitch).
At this point, I started to try and make some sense of these fragments: I thought about how they could relate to each other, and see if either of them suggested any related material. Through these explorations I began to gradually see a shape for the piece, and came up with additional related material. The opening of the piece relates strongly to the first fragment with its rhythmic intensity that mirrors the ending of this fragment.
As I started to notate the piece, it became clear that there needed to be a driving rhythmic force underpinning the entire structure, even through the lyrical sections (albeit in a more subtle way). The piece has a mechanical aspect to it, and it feels to me as though the energy has been tightly wound up somehow, as if it waiting to break loose. From this aspect I came up with the title, Mainspring: a mainspring is a wound up coil that propels a mechanical toy or clock.
Most of the writing process was fairly smooth, and I was able to work things out as I had originally imagined them. However, when I got to the last section, I reached a climactic point where I felt as if I had broken or fractured the energy, and continuing with a continuous rhythmic pulse did not feel convincing to me at all. I felt I needed to come up with a different solution altogether, and ended up with the fractured, disjointed coda that now ends the piece.
This is a really exciting project to be a part of, and it’s amazing to have so many performances of Mainspring lined up. It will be really interesting to hear how Naomi and Yshani’s interpretation evolves over the course of the series, and this is something I’m really looking forward to seeing. Meanwhile, I have several other projects lined up: I am currently working on a large orchestral piece for the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, and will have a string quartet premiering in the Santa Fe Chamber Music festival this summer.
For more info, concerts, and work, here is a link to my website: www.larapoe.com
Looking forward to seeing you all at various concerts!