Features

Stockhausen syndrome: men-turned-myths in classical music

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First published in the Guardian on 21 May, 2019

Surely we’ve learned by now: things get dangerous when we make myths out of men. This week, the Southbank Centre presents a huge opera by Karlheinz Stockhausen – self-mythologiser extraordinaire who had entrancing charisma, bullish intelligence, no shortage of game-changing opinions, no shortage of confidence with which to assert them. A guru with disciples and rivals. A magnetic teacher with major institutional clout to play with – king heavyweight at the heaviest-weight new music school in post-war Europe. Students worshipped him. He himself fostered a personality cult that went way beyond the music to encompass fashion, spirituality, even a galactic origin story. Isn’t this precisely the artist-as-hero narrative we need to dismantle? When do we quit indulging one man’s outlandishly supersize phantasmagorical credo?

Matched in musical-myth-mania perhaps only by Richard Wagner, Stockhausen is the ultimate conundrum for those of us who believe keenly in shifting classical music culture away from its alpha-male genius complex – but are still enthralled by the music. Do we get to have it both ways? I’ve laid under the stars in a park in Oslo watching the epic theatrics of Stockhausen’s Sternklang with its astral emissaries dressed all in white. I’ve dragged myself out of bed at 5am to experience a dawn performance of Stimmung in the woods outside Darmstadt. This week, I’ll be at the Royal Festival Hall for the first UK performance in my lifetime of Donnerstag from the gargantuan opera cycle Licht. I find his quasi-religious symbolism basically tedious, and I’m furious that German white men still dominate the classical music cannon at the expense of other essential voices. But I still want to hear his music, and experience the weird collective abandon it permits. The key is sidestepping the cult of Karlheinz.

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Interview: Mark Simpson

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First published in BBC Music Magazine, June 2019

“The act of writing music – I find it overwhelmingly difficult. Painful. Dark.” Not the statement you might expect from one of the UK’s most abundantly gifted classical musicians. Mark Simpson is so effusively, so urgently talented that he could have chosen either of two world-class careers. Instead – after being thrust into the limelight aged 17 when he simultaneously won the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer of the Year and the BBC Young Musician competition as a clarinettist (he wrote himself a piece for the semifinal) – he chose both. In conversation his mind overflows with ideas and his words race to catch up. He flings references across the table: cultural theorists, digital poets, Victorian occult writers, 16th century mystic nuns. His clarinet playing is similarly loquacious. Surely he can compose just as thick and fast?

“Yeah, sure I could,” he acknowledges, “but it would be crap music, and what would be the point of that? I could sit and write – it would come out – but no way would it would have the emotional depth I’m after. I don’t like superficial music. I don’t like facile music.” Besides: on the day I visit him at home in South London, Simpson’s concerns are elsewhere. On this particular afternoon – though I suspect not only on this particular afternoon – the 30-year-old Liverpudlian is grappling with an existential angst surrounding all contemporary classical music whose weight he feels on his shoulders every time he starts a new piece.

“The state of mind I have to be in before I even allow myself to even trust myself… it’s wrought with a lot of existential woe,” he says plainly. “I have to suffer to the point where I can no longer take it, and then I allow myself to write.” When it comes to the writing, he doesn’t have “elaborate systems or techniques,” he tells me, almost apologetically. “Some people will start with two or three precise notes and work outwards. I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum. I’ll see and feel the whole piece in its essence before I’ve written anything. It’s dark. It’s like a dark, deep expressive thing. It’s there, and I don’t know what it is, but it cries out with pain. That’s the emotional rawness I need before I even get going.” A traumatic work cycle, borderline paralysing, but over the past decade Simpson has come up with plentiful strategies to overcome it, and the strength of the music is proof that those strategies work.

For the full interview, see BBC Music Magazine, June 2019 edition 

Interview: Pekka Kuusisto

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First published in The Herald on 21 March, 2019

“I would say that the monstrous conductors, the really mean bastard conductors…” Pekka Kuusisto pauses to choose his words carefully. “Well, at least maybe there was a clarity to that role. Everyone in the orchestra knew exactly where he stood in relation to the mean bastard conductor: he became a common enemy. It’s going out of fashion, thank goodness, but the question then opens up of what kind of relationship should replace it. And that is a really interesting and actually very exciting question.”

Kuusisto is a poster boy for the new guard in classical music. Not just in terms of the contemporary music he plays, or his integration of non-classical music into his programmes – though he does all that brilliantly. It’s also about his approach to core classical repertoire. A violinist of elite international credentials (Indiana University, Bloomington; first Finn to win the International Sibelius Violin Competition) Kuusisto is now also a conductor, composer, folk musician, improvisator, curator, and generally one of the most holistic and politically engaged musicians in the business. For 20 years he curated a chamber music festival on the shores of Lake Tuusula in Finland, where programming included Amnesty International spokespeople and indie rock singers alongside Bach and Sibelius. It was the kind of lateral approach to programming that makes us listen afresh – that can’t be faked, can’t be forced and has been way too slow catching on elsewhere.

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Interview: David Fennessy

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First published in The Herald on 6 February, 2019

It’s a routine many artists will recognise: long periods of solitary graft then every project accidentally culminating at once. Glasgow composer David Fennessy is in the thick of it. In January, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra premiered an orchestral work called Ground – intensely jubilant music built on archive pibroch recordings and the heartbeat of Fennessy’s unborn daughter. The piece is bright-eyed, bright-lit, lion-hearted; it reconfirms the visceral and original way Fennessy writes for instruments.

This month brings the long-awaited premiere of Fennessy’s full 70-minute orchestral trilogy Conquest of the Useless, which would have been unveiled at the New Music Dublin festival last year if the entire event hadn’t been cancelled due to the freak snow and ice of the so-called Beast from the East. The aptness, or possibly the irony, of that intervention from the heavens was not lost on the creative team. The piece is the summation of a decade of work for Fennessy, inspired by diaries written by Werner Herzog while making the film Fitzcarraldo. The piece is about obsession, crazed ambition, compelling vision – and failure. When Conquest of the Useless finally comes to fruition in Dublin on 28 February, many fingers will be crossed for meteorological cooperation.

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Interview: George Benjamin

First published in BBC Music Magazine, January 2019

George Benjamin began writing his first opera at the age of 12. “Setting the story of Pied Piper of Hamelin,” he winces. “And it was naive and terrible and thankfully came to an end halfway down page 34. Terrible. Terrible! Unspeakably terrible!” Who can corroborate? The world never heard those 34 precocious pages, but the operas Benjamin went on to create – Into the Little Hill, Written on Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence – have changed the sound, scope, brutality and sensuality of 21st opera. All three were premiered in the last decade but were somehow a lifetime in the making.

Benjamin laughs as he tells me about his early endeavours – a neat, precise giggle. He laughs with clarity and conviction, like every aspect of his conversation. Thoughts are held until they’re fully formed. Words are only ever the exact ones. If he can’t find the right word, he’ll wait, hand suspended in the air, eyes screwed tight as he searches his mind. He won’t make do with sloppiness and, veteran teacher that he is, the effect rubs off so that in his company I become acutely aware of my own language. None of this meticulousness seems to get in the way of his enthusiasm, though. It’s a boyish, eager, clever enthusiasm, a wide-eyed marvelling. At 58, Benjamin says that above all he is “so, so enamoured with the nuts and bolts of music. Utterly passionate. Completely enthralled.”

For the full interview, see BBC Music Magazine – January 2019 edition

Nordic Scotland: lessons from Helsinki

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First published in The Herald on 21 November, 2018

Nordic envy. You might know the one. It’s a common affliction for anyone who visits our neighbours to the north. Spend a few days in Oslo or Reykjavik or Helsinki and you’ll come home envying the kindergartens, the elderly care, the oil management, the sauna culture, the liquorice, the knitwear. You’ll regale your friends with utopian statistics on cycling networks and statutory maternity leave. You’ll lament our comparative deficiency thereof. If only Scotland could be more… Nordic.

Music provision is yet another envy-inducing factor here. The early-years exposure, the level of state support for performing groups and education, the extensive infrastructure for learning and making and promoting new music. Ever wondered about the inordinate number of Finnish conductors? The obscene creative talent emerging from Iceland – a country with the same population as Cardiff? There are easy explanations when you look at the root support for the arts. We have much to learn.

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Interview: Diana Burrell

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First published in The Herald on 24 October, 2018

In a parallel universe, Diana Burrell is an architect. The composer talks about buildings in vivid musical terms: the rhythms, the phrasing, the forms, the bold cacophony of lines and gestures. She lights up when she describes music that has the brutal physicality and gruff, jutting angles of the buildings she likes best. “My music,” she says, “has to make a clean, bold shape on the skyline.”

I love Burrell’s list of favourite sounds. Church bells, steel pans, the shrieking of seabirds, the clanging of metal in a building-site or scrap yard – she says she finds these sounds alluring for their impureness, their out-of-tune-ness and their strident imperfections. “I dislike prettiness,” she wrote in a kind-of manifesto in 1991. “I loathe all blandness, safe, pale and tasteful niceness. I detest the cosiness of pastiche and the safety of too much heritage. Give me instead strong, rough-edged things, brave disrespectful shapes and sounds, imperfect instruments that jangle and jar. I love both savage nature and the brutal modernism of the city’s concrete. There is passion and beauty in both.”

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Autumn preview : classical concerts in Scotland

First published in The Herald on 19 September, 2018

The dawn of a new era for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with fresh management on the way (yet to be appointed) and a promising reshuffle on the podium. We already know how sleek and energised and generally alive the orchestra can sound under Thomas Sondergard – he was principal guest conductor for six seasons, always getting the best from the band – so it’s tantalising to hear how he’ll develop the ensemble now he’s been promoted to music director. And as if to cement the new role, Sondergard will be in Scotland a lot before Christmas: he opens the season with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (4 October, Dundee; 5 October, Edinburgh; 6 October, Glasgow) then turns to Ravel’s sultry, lambent Sheherazade with mezzo Catriona Morrison (12 October, Edinburgh; 13 October, Glasgow; 14 October, Aberdeen), Poulenc’s grandiose choral Gloria (8 November, Perth; 9 November, Edinburgh; 10 November, Glasgow) and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (23 November, Edinburgh; 24 November, Glasgow).

Meanwhile, don’t miss a giant of Polish music, Krzysztof Penderecki, conducting the RSNO in his own Violin Concerto and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (30 November, Edinburgh; 1 December, Glasgow) and the bright-spirited Elim Chan – who fills Sondergard’s shoes as principal guest conductor – conducting Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances (1 November, Dundee; 2 November, Edinburgh; 3 November, Glasgow).

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Emily Hoile on Stockhausen’s Freude

First published in The Herald on 5 September, 2018

The harpist Emily Hoile was 19 the first time we met. She had never done an interview before. She was just through secondary school in Edinburgh, newly a college student at Julliard in New York, still getting to grips with life outside the UK. She told me about the dismal calibre of tea drinking she encountered in the United States, and the lifeline that was her mum’s regular care package of chocolate bars. She was utterly self-effacing about having just been booked for a major five-concert residency at the Lammermuir Festival.

Seven years later, Hoile’s voice comes down the phone with her native Newcastle vowels now rounded by stints in New York, Munich and Berlin. Much has happened since we last spoke. She completed her studies at Julliard and immediately won a place on the world’s most prestigious orchestral apprenticeship scheme – Berlin’s Karajan Academy, in which select young players work side-by-side with members of the Berlin Philharmonic. Which is to say, a month after finishing her undergraduate, Hoile found herself touring with the most august orchestra on the planet. But even that didn’t last long – because a year into the scheme, Hoile was poached by another top German band. At the age of 23, she became principal harp of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

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Brian Irvine on Drive By Shooting

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First published in The Herald on 22 August, 2018

It’s 11.30pm on a Friday night in the festival and I’m outside, in the rain, staring at a wall. There is no bar on this side of Summerhall, no official performance space, but chairs and tables have been arranged on a little veranda facing the bare stone facade. An usher hands out sets of wireless headphones and tells us to wait.

And then a tiny epic unfolds. A miniature opera buffa. It lasts for nine minutes and it careens us through a grand drama of life, love, regret, violence, state-of-the-nation political commentary. The visuals are gritty and vivid, a street-art aesthetic laced with tender heart. The music is punchy, searing, propulsive, extravagant, apposite.

Brian Irvine and John McIlduff’s Drive By Shooting is opera, alright: this is no parody. Real voices, real orchestra, real techniques, real emotional impact. The fact it’s a looped graffiti projection with pre-recorded music delivered through headphones – that adds a dislocated, absurdist appeal, as though the dregs of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre had been distilled into a cartoon strip only to infiltrate your unsuspecting night out. Even in the midnight drizzle, the unlikeliness is a delight.

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