Features

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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Interview: David Wilde

First published in The Herald on 25 January, 2017

If you were to index a conversation with pianist and composer David Wilde, 82 next month, it would read like a compendium of 20th century western music. Solomon. Boulez. Boulanger. Hindemith. Barbirolli. Yo Yo Ma. After winning first prize at the 1961 Liszt-Bartók competition in Budapest, Wilde was one of the core names in British pianism, an astoundingly busy and versatile performer for at least two decades. Upstairs in his house in Cockenzie, East Lothian, an entire room is devoted to reel-to-reel tapes — hundred of recorded radio broadcasts, many of them of major modern repertoire in his trademark robust, heartfelt and intellectually steely interpretations. Bartok’s Second Piano Concerto with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 1977. Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds with the BBC Northern. Stockhausen’s Gruppen, in which Wilde played first celeste in the British premiere under Gibson in Glasgow and first piano under Boulez in London. And on and on.

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Interview: Martin Suckling & Katherine Bryan

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First published in The Herald on 18 January, 2017

Composer Martin Suckling and flutist Katherine Bryan are old friends. They have known each other since National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain days, aged 11 or 12, though “you never  spoke to boys then,” he teases her now, over coffee in Glasgow where he grew up and she is now principal flute with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It was when they graduated to National Youth Orchestra aged 14 that they started spending all of their time together. Between courses they would write letters and Bryan would send mix tapes. Both of them remember the Joni Mitchell tracks, but can’t or won’t recall anything more embarrassing.

Suckling was in NYO as a violinist but had already started composing, and one of his first ‘official’ pieces was an ensemble work for all of his friends. After some cajoling he admits it was was called Delirium. “It had a double bass doing a heart beat kind of thing and a big flute solo for Katherine at the end that went up to a top C-sharp. I thought that was very daring.” Does he still have a copy of the score? “No. Yes. No!” He studies his sandwich.

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Interview: Harrison Birtwistle

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First published in The Herald on 11 January, 2017

At the end of our interview, Harrison Birtwistle pours a couple of glasses of whisky that contain at least five drams each. We’ve been talking about Raasay — the composer spent seven years living in the Hebrides in the 1970s — and he jokes that the reminiscing has brought out old island drinking habits. “I still know every inch of that place,” he says. “I mean, the way of the land. I used to go fishing. I loved the east coast, where nobody ever went.”

Now we’re at his current home in the Wiltshire village of Mere, approximately a universe away from the Hebrides. There is a pot of tea on the kitchen table next to the whisky, and a bowl of lemons, and a potent Camembert that I brought with me from London and which seems to have ripened precariously on the train. “Aha, I know just what to do with that,” Birtwistle said when I handed it to him, eying the label. After Raasay he and his family moved to France, an hour outside of Toulouse. He claims his French is about as good as his Gaelic.

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Scotland / 2017 / concert diary

First published in The Herald on 4 January, 2017

First highlight of the new year comes as early as next week, when the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra performs a rare concert-staging of Harrison Birtwistle’s opera The Last Supper. Imagine grand ritual meets temporal implosion — a morally confrontational, perception-warping, very human music drama that telescopes two millennia of Christian mythology into a kind of friends reunited scenario for Jesus and his disciples. Roderick Williams sings Jesus, Jennifer Johnston sings Ghost, Martyn Brabbins conducts. (City Halls, Glasgow, January 14.) Brabbins and the BBCSSO also continue their exploration of Michael Tippett’s symphonies with the Second, a searing work from the 1950s that avows its message with bright and rigorous optimism. (City Halls, Glasgow, February 9.)

Scottish Opera’s spring season features, refreshingly, not just one but potentially two worth-travelling-for productions. Debussy’s symbolist glory Pelléas et Mélisande — lush, penumbral, limpid — was one of the first works Scottish Opera ever staged back in 1962 when it was a bold young Turk of a company. Now director David McVicar teams up with the design team behind War Horse for a production “inspired by the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi”. Carolyn Sampson is Melisande, Andrei Bondarenko is Pelleas, Stuart Stratford conducts. (Theatre Royal, Glasgow, February 23 – March 4; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, March 7 – 11.)

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Favourite classical recordings of 2016

First published in The Herald on 21 December, 2016

Here are ten of my favourite classical releases of 2016. I’ve taken a pretty relaxed approach to the term ‘classical’. It’s a subjective list. I’ve cheated by adding an extra five at the end. And no rankings: how to score late Beethoven sonatas against the final recording by Pauline Oliveros? Basically these are the recordings of the year that most opened my ears and that kept me coming back.

In mid-November, those confounding days after the American election, I kept coming back to Laurence Crane’s Sound of Horse (Hubro). Crane is an English composer who builds graceful, discreet music out of ordinary things. He sets musical objects spinning like points on a Calder mobile with plenty of space and time and elasticity between them. It’s about the beauty of small and immediate sounds, precise and properly done sounds. Experimental Norwegian ensemble Asamisimasa treats his ensemble pieces with exactly the right tenderness and deadpan anarchic humour. Everything appears new and not new, and in November that seemed to fit. The album has been released on vinyl as well as CD just in time for Christmas with a gloriously blissed-out bonus track called Sparling on the vinyl edition.

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Knussen in Stockholm

First published in The Herald on 7 December, 2016

On Saturday, Bob Dylan will be not travelling to Stockholm to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. (He has acknowledged his award for Literature by jotting down a speech to be read out at the banquet — an “unusual” move, says the Nobel academy.) The venue for Dylan’s Nobel no-show is the Konserthuset, a neoclassical beauty built in 1926 as home for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra as well as for the annual Peace Prize. Inside it is full of soft-lit orphic statues and chandeliers exhibited at the Paris 1925 exposition. Outside its facade is a smoky sky blue.

Every year since 1986 the Konserthuset has hosted a November festival dedicated to the music of a composer of our time. Past portraits have featured Lutoslawski, Schnittke, Penderecki, Part, Duttileux, Reich, Adams. In 2000 Sofia Gubaidulina became the first woman to be given a solo edition; last year’s festival was all about the music of the Boulanger sisters, Nadia and Lili. And until this year there had been just two British composers in the festival’s history — Tippett and Thomas Ades — then last month came a third. A sizeable banner was hung between the Greek pillars of the Konserthuset adorned with a single name: KNUSSEN.

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Thoughts on a new concert hall for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: what kind of venue does Edinburgh really need?

First published in The Herald on 30 November, 2016

A fortnight ago the Scottish Chamber Orchestra announced a plan that’s been hatching backstage for years. It will get its new concert hall in Edinburgh. The statement comes now, the orchestra’s Chief Executive Gavin Reid told me, because next step is to launch an architecture competition and he’d be hard put to do that in secret.

Major details are yet to be finalised but here’s what we do know. The venue will be located behind the Royal Bank of Scotland at 36 St Andrew Square. (A 1960s RBS office block will be flattened to make way) The land will be leased long-term from the RBS to a charitable trust set up by the new hall’s major donor Carol Grigor and by Ewan Brown, former deputy chairman of the Edinburgh International Festival. This trust is called IMPACT Scotland and it will own and run the hall; the SCO will effectively be a tenant.

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