Features

Interview: Dominic Parker & the BBCSSO 17/18 season

First published in The Herald on 22 March, 2017

Hanging on the wall of Dominic Parker’s office at City Halls in Glasgow are framed photographs of a concert hall from various interior and exterior angles. “Ah, right, a different hall,” says the new director of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, looking as though he’s just been caught with pictures of an ex. The photos were a leaving present from his previous job at Sage Gateshead; in one of them, he and the Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell are harnessed onto the roof, which was no mean publicity stunt given the building’s architecture is all curves. Apparently Tickell managed to play a total of five notes before fear and the Tyneside weather set in.

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Interview: Harrison Birtwistle

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First published in Gramophone, March 2017

In his autobiography of 1936, Igor Stravinsky articulated a claim that would end up being skewed, misconstrued and chucked back at him throughout his life. It was his theory of anti-expression, of music’s inherent emotional sterility, of listeners’ outmoded romantic habits of ascribing meaning rather than simply loving music for music’s sake. “I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all,” Stravinsky wrote. “If music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it.”

Exactly 80 years later, at his kitchen table in Wiltshire on a midwinter afternoon, Sir Harrison Birtwistle is expounding on similar themes. The 82-year-old composer says he doesn’t believe in consciously expressing something — that expression comes in spite of oneself. Another thing he doesn’t believe in is inspiration. “I’ve been lucky enough to be musical, and maybe at one point I was inspired,” he admits. “You hear it all the time in the media: what was your inspiration? What it probably means is that you filched it from someone else. I think of it as something like the draft from under the door. It’s not conscious.” Perhaps inspiration filters through, whether he likes it or not?

He ignores the question, or rather answers it in a roundabout way by talking about place. “This thing about being English is an interesting one, because if anything I self-consciously — for so much of my career — I tried to write music that was not English. I mean to do with landscape and pastoralism and Vaughan Williams and all that.” When he says Vaughan Williams, he pronounces the G with exaggerated disgust. Is he implying that he was born with everything he would write already in him? “Probably,” he shrugs. “I wouldn’t be so pretentious as to say something like that. But yes, the thing that I had back when I started out, what made me do it, that’s what’s been making me do it all along. It has different guises, it manifests itself in different forms. Chameleon-like I suppose. But I think it’s all the same, what I’m doing.”

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On the Scottish Awards for New Music

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First published in The Herald on 8 March, 2017

Tonight is the first Scottish Awards for New Music. Winners will be announced during a ceremony at Drygate in Glasgow. That the inaugural event is literally a piss-up in a brewery sets the tone for an industry shindig that is pointedly less formal than the British Composer Awards or any equivalents I can think of. Winners will receive a ceramic singing bowl made by Elaine Henderson and decorated with a sonic wave from, or linked to, their winning pieces.

As with any such endeavour, much chin stroking and committee debate has gone into defining the perimeters of who is eligible, who can nominate, who will benefit, who will be left out. The awards are the initiative of New Music Scotland, itself a loose association of composers, programmers, performers and academics. Its members are mostly of classical-ish persuasion though NMS is keen to kick that image. The awards, they say, are ”intended to highlight and showcase the innovative, experimental and ground-breaking work taking place in Scotland, as well as the depth and breadth of the country’s contemporary music scene.”

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Interview: Nicolas Zekulin

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First published in The Herald on 1 March, 2017

When Nicolas Zekulin was a music undergraduate at the University of Calgary, he co-hosted a regular 6am jazz programme on the local student radio station. The show was called Cereal Focus, and as well as playing “the most out-there” records he could lay his hands on — hour-long bootleg Coltrane solos for drivetime, anyone? — Zekulin would invent mock-serious critiques of breakfast cereals and read them out in elaborate detail. More than 20 years later, he still gets stopped on the street when he’s visiting his parents back in Calgary and asked what he had for breakfast that morning. (His default choice nowadays, he revealed to The Herald, is Stoats porridge oats served a la Canadiana with nuts and maple syrup. No salt.)

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Interview: David McVicar on Pelléas et Mélisande

First published in The Herald on 22 February, 2017

Sir David McVicar is waiting for me in a rehearsal room engulfed in greys. Grey mock pillars, grey flooring. The set for his new production of Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande — which opens at Scottish Opera tomorrow — is inspired by the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershoi, an enigmatic Danish artist whose late 19th century portraits are layered in grey upon grey. When Hammershoi thought one of his works wasn’t quite grey enough, he would add another wash across the surface: more grey.

“It’s just a stepping off point,” McVicar warns me when I start to ask about visual-musical parallels. “It’s not like we’re slavishly recreating Hammershoi paintings or the singers are doing Hammershoi poses. It’s simply a visual correlation for the way I feel about the music. The sense of mystery. If there are subjects in the paintings, they’re often looking away from the viewer. Half-open doors, a sense that you don’t know what’s happening in the other room but you’re certain something is happening in the other room.”

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Interview: Rory Kinnear

First published in the Guardian on 14 February, 2017

Rory Kinnear is walking through a Shakespeare scene. It’s The Winter’s Tale, week one of rehearsals, jeans and t-shirts all round, and Kinnear is delivering a intent stream-of-consciousness while acting out what the character Leontes might experience the moment when he realises the daughter he thought he’d killed as an infant is now standing before him as a woman. “When you’re guilty and someone is nice to you, how good does that feel,” he murmurs. “And now I’m clocking her face, her hand, and now there’s this incredibly slow sensation of, oh wow, what the fuck.”

Kinnear is a solidly respected British actor, born into a theatre family and acclaimed for intelligent portrayals of Hamlet and Iago at the National Theatre as well as his marvellously dependable and subtly wry Bill Tanner in recent Bond films. “What I admire about Kinnear is that he pays scrupulous attention to language,” wrote the Guardian’s Michael Billington in 2010 — and even in early-stage rehearsals there is plain evidence of how his ultra realistic and unhysterical articulateness can bring a room to standstill.

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Interview: Elim Chan

First published in The Herald on 15 February, 2017

Neemi Jarvi has withdrawn from conducting his own 80th birthday concerts with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra this week, having been instructed by doctors to keep weight off a bad knee. His replacement is Elim Chan: a 30-year-old rising star from Hong Kong who came to international attention two years ago as the first woman to win the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition and was introduced to Scottish audiences two weeks ago when she conducted the RSNO in Kirkcaldy and Musselburgh.

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Preview: Tectonics 2017

First published in The Herald on 8 February, 2017

Yesterday the BBC Scottish Symphony announced the lineup for the fifth annual Tectonics — that’s the orchestra’s springtime weekend festival of new, experimental, DIY, improvised, collaborative and/or non-categorisable music. Five years might be time enough for various things to take place: for the festival’s adventurous spirit to soften, for the energy to dissipate, for the BBC to reconsider its funding priorities and roll back support for such a relatively risky and out-there venture.

None of which appears to have happened. Partly that’s because the BBC knows it’s on to a good thing here. Tectonics has raised the bar internationally for the way orchestras engage with new forms and noises made outside their venerated walls. The model has caught on all over the place: as the programme points out, this is the fifth Tectonics in Glasgow but the 19th globally, with Athens poised to be the next city to join the rostrum this summer.

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On Scottishness, folk music and gender balance

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First published in the Guardian on 25 January, 2017

Is Scotland’s folk music stuck in gender stereotypes of the 19th century? In a nation striving to define ourselves through progressive liberalism, whose political leaders are women, whose folk culture helps shape a national image at home and abroad, why do we still fall for proto-Romantic notions of what Scottish masculinity and femininity should look and sound like?

This year’s Celtic Connections is billed as “a celebration of inspiring women artists”. Headline acts at the Glasgow festival include Roberta Sá, Olivia Newton John, Martha Wainwright and Karine Polwart. The opening concert features Laura Marling in songs orchestrated by Kate St. John with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; the penultimate night features 81-year-old English folk revival legend Shirley Collins. The theme was originally devised as an outward-facing statement, says festival director Donald Shaw. Last March he visited Lahore just days after a female musician was shot dead in the street, and that “got me thinking,” he says, “about how women can be empowered through music.” He mentions the singer Aziza Brahim, born in a Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria and appearing at the festival’s opening weekend. “Music was her road to freedom. If festivals like us make a point of expressing positives around what women bring to music and what music brings to women, at the very least that might embarrass platforms in other parts of the world that don’t give women proper representation.”

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Interview: Eliane Radigue

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First published by Edition Festival, January 2017

A composer writes an orchestral piece by inviting every member of the ensemble to visit her at home, one-by-one, to devise their parts collaboratively. This is how Eliane Radigue makes music: slow, exacting, verbal, personal. In many ways her work is a paradox. She writes drone music that dances. It is simple and rich, spacious and detailed, unhurried and full of movement, spiritual and non-didactic, narrative and abstract. Over the past 50 years she has honed a uniquely concentrated creative practice in order to access an expansive realm of partials and subharmonics — “sounds within the sound,” she calls them. She works instinctively, and her instinct has always drawn her to slowness and subtle modulations, yet she demands from her performers a kind of precision that is physically and mentally virtuosic. She claims with a shrug that her technique boils down to “fade in, fade out, cross fade,” whether in her early long-form synthesiser works or the acoustic pieces she’s been writing for the past decade. Yet it’s the complex, iridescent interior expanses of her music that achieve exquisite lift-off.

For many decades Radigue entrusted nobody but herself to illuminate those sounds within the sound. In the 1960s her vision went deeper, longer, lower and higher than the musique concrete pieces that Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry were producing — she worked as an assistant to both, then stayed extra hours in the studio experimenting with the ephemeral potential of electronic feedback. And while feedback was conventionally a noisy domain of wildness and abrasion, Radigue trod gently and tamed the beast to make breathtakingly delicate pieces like Jouet Electronique (1967), Stress-Osaka (1969), Usral (1969), Omnht (1970) and Vice-Verse, Etc (1970).

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