Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Playing Carter with Charles Rosen

In November the University of Rochester Press will publish Variations on the Canon, a collection of essays by leading musicologists in honour of Charles Rosen’s 80th birthday. Covering a range of topics from Bach to Modernism, the book will also include a section on “Criticism and the Critic”, an essay by Rosen himself, and three tributes: from Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter and Charles Mackerras, from which the following is extracted:

Although conducting the Chopin concertos with Charles was indeed a revelatory experience, for me, the greatest revelation of all was when we did the Elliott Carter Piano Concerto together in 1978. At that time I was Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Although one of the main functions of that orchestra is to play contemporary music, at that time my experience of twentieth-century music was limited to the styles of such composers as Britten, Shostakovich, Bartók, and Schoenberg. Thus, the immense complications of Carter’s Piano Concerto were for me rather daunting. However, Charles had already played the concerto several times in America and was able to steer us successfully through the very gruelling rehearsals, and especially rehearsals with the concertino, which plays such a crucial part in this work. When it came to rehearsals with the full complement of solo piano, concertino, and large symphony orchestra, I was quite nervous when Carter himself appeared. But Charles had as intimate an understanding of that charming man as he did of his cerebral but passionate music, and the composer seemed delighted with our efforts. The concert in the Festival Hall also included the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements and the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, but it was the virtuosity and intellectual power that Charles Rosen brought to the Carter Piano Concerto that transformed it into the hit of the evening.

Later in the year we repeated that memorable concerto at a Prom. The number of rehearsals for the Proms is always fairly severely limited because of the huge number of concerts that the BBC Symphony Orchestra has to perform during that period. But with his extremely sympathetic attitude toward his concertino and the orchestra, Charles got us through, despite the fact that we had less than a quarter of the rehearsal time that we had originally had. Afterward, I remember the Prommers stamping their feet with the same enthusiasm as if it had been a concerto by Tchaikovsky.

Charles and I are approximately the same age, and I regard it as a privilege to have known and worked with him and, in fact, to have learned so much from his prolific writings and his charming conversations. Charles Rosen is one of the truly great musical minds of our time and a great virtuoso to boot.

Variations on the Canon is edited by Robert Curry, David Gable and Robert L. Marshall.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Exploring honkyoku with Minoru Miki

Minoru Miki is one of Japan’s leading contemporary composers. His orchestral works often champion Japanese traditional instruments such as the koto and shakuhati, while his operas are performed to considerable acclaim worldwide (of Joruri, Andrew Porter wrote, “the audience seemed spellbound, and at the close the silence that is the deepest mark of appreciation yielded gradually to cheers and a long standing ovation”). The University of Rochester Press has recently published his classic work, Composing for Japanese Instruments. Here, its translator, Marty Regan, reflects on the origin of the project:

I first met Miki in 2000 when I was enrolled as a government–sponsored research student at Tokyo College of Music. The composition faculty knew I was interested in learning how to compose for Japanese instruments – and urged me to sit in on his classes. These classes – which never had more than half a dozen participants – consisted of listening to Miki’s works and enjoying sometimes hours of anecdotal stories, following by a casual dinner as a group. By the second year, this “class” had dwindled down to two students, and I officially requested Miki as my composition teacher. Early attempts at composing for Japanese instruments were futile. Then, one day Miki asked me to show him the honkyoku – a term used for classical shakuhachi repertoire from the Zen Buddhist tradition – I was working on for my shakuhachi lessons. The ‘scores’ for these pieces, like traditional Japanese texts, are read from right to left and top to bottom. He took the score to this piece and turned it vertically so that what previously appeared to be vertical lines to indicate sustained pitches of indeterminate length now appeared to flow from left to right. In a moment – like a moment of satori, or enlightenment – I discovered how I could compose for Japanese instruments or even Western instruments and imbue them with a Japanese aesthetic – I had to remove the bar lines to allow the music to ‘float’ through time and adopt the graphic ornamentation symbols of shakuhachi honkyoku as a means to notate ‘Japanese’ ornaments in Western staff notation. There were countless moments just like this with Miki, and the original Japanese version of this book served as an invaluable source of reference for my lessons. This allowed me – and his other student! – to come prepared to our lessons with ‘basic’ knowledge such as the ranges of instruments, various idiomatic techniques, and their respective notation. The book helped to demystify these instruments on a profoundly practical level, making the learning curve less steep.

In 1964 Miki founded the Pro Music Nipponia, an ensemble of instrumentalists devoted to creating new repertoire for traditional Japanese instruments. As Artistic Director of the ensemble for over twenty years, they performed more than 160 concerts abroad in an effort to globalize Japanese instruments. Through his collaborations with the members of the Pro Music Nipponia, Miki had an opportunity to perfect his craft and arguably became Japan’s – and hence the world’s – foremost authority on composing for traditional Japanese instruments. Those experiences form the basis for this book. As Miki himself writes in the Afterword after thanking his former colleagues from the Pro Musica Nipponia, “The theories and descriptions in this book are based on notes I have been taking for many years.” I hesitate to simply call this book an orchestration–instrumentation manual, although this is somewhat of the role that it may fulfill for many potential readers. Rather, it is also partly autobiography/aesthetic treatise, as Miki contextualizes the practical details of the instruments into his lifework and musical ideas/compositional approach. Composing for Japanese Instruments was also translated into Chinese, which, according to Miki, has resulted in countless numbers of idiomatic compositions for Japanese instruments by Chinese–literate composers.

Despite the fact that I finished the translation eight years after our initial meeting and felt that I had come a long away in my own creative work with these instruments, having to translate this book for an English–speaking audience forced me to address personal gaps of knowledge. In short, although I had used the book in my lessons and read it in Japanese, for this translation project I had to approach the book with more precision and degree of detail. As I translated the book and struggled through many difficult Chinese character readings and opaque passages, I became aware not only at the extensiveness of Miki’s intimate knowledge of these beautiful instruments, but also his love and passion for them. I sincerely hope, and in fact, predict, that the English translation of this book will lead to an embracing of Japanese traditional instruments on a worldwide scale. Composers from around the world who have wanted to delve into the world of Japanese instruments now have the resources to do so.

Monday, 13 October 2008

The Alwyn Papers

In this second extract from his new biography of William Alwyn, The Innumerable Dance, Adrian Wright discovers some crucial documents in Cambridge. But will they tell him what he needs to know?

What was it that Alwyn’s son Jonathan had said about Doreen Carwithen coming into their lives and ruining everything in the late fifties? The secret had been kept from his family for much longer. And even when we remember what Alwyn confessed in his last years (the time scale not to be trusted), and the pencilled notes in Carwithen’s diaries (whether her tutor was in a jolly mood, or asked her for tea, or kept her waiting while he scurried back from a recording session), and her recollections when she was failing of the afternoon spent in a haystack, we couldn’t hold any of this up as evidence. Alwyn had proudly proclaimed that it had been love at first sight, but when had the relationship changed from teacher-pupil to something more personal? In June 2006, I heard that Barbara Jackson had given some material to the Alwyn archive at Cambridge University. This included a batch of letters from Alwyn to Carwithen. The heart quickened. Could these at last hold the answer to an understanding of what had happened? After all, no other letters from Alwyn to Carwithen had ever been found, although I had vague memories of being told about them when she was confined in her room in a Kessingland nursing home. The archivist at Cambridge, Margaret Jones, was excited, and tantalised me with her enthusiasm. I told her that I was controlling my excitement in case they turned out to be disappointing. ‘They won’t be’ she wrote, ‘I thought they made a lot of things clearer. And I think William comes rather well out of them.’

It was a broiling morning in July when I drove over to look at the letters. My suspicion about the airlessness of the Music Room was confirmed; I was the only person brave enough that morning to sit through several sweltering hours in what was obviously Cambridge’s most elegant sauna. Perhaps the heat had something to do with it, but I turned each page of the letters with less enthusiasm. Where was the blinding light, where was the explanation I looked for? These letters left me more perplexed than before as to what had happened between Olive and Peter and Carwithen and Doreen and Mary and Alwyn. Margaret Jones obviously had a better understanding than I did; his biographer, the man who was supposed to know everything about his subject, had come away from this crucial evidence with all lights dimmed. Craftily, I wrote to her. What had she thought of the letters? I would be most interested to have her views, and I gave no hint of mine (no chance, really, as I had none). This was a dastardly way to carry on. She replied, a long letter, with all the reason that biographers need to be reminded of. And the points she made had the resonance of good sense, with a dash of detective work neatly done.

She felt for Jonathan when she realised that the letters confirmed what we had suspected, that the affair began very much earlier than the late 1950s. This is clear from the very first of that batch of letters sent by Alwyn to Monks Risborough and postmarked 21 July 1945, to ‘My dear Doreen’, with the request that next time she writes she should write ‘Personal’ on the envelope. This in itself suggests that only at this time did she start writing letters to him. A few weeks later she was holidaying in Devon (a favourite retreat) when he wrote from his mother-in-law’s home that he ‘felt very dreary after leaving you […] needless to say I was very wakeful and during the night watches thought of you sitting (I hope) through the long night’. He had been busy recording for a film, and negotiating the rent of a house he had found in Hampstead. He was thinking of her in Devon. ‘You might see some sea lions or seals (do you remember the sea lions?) – very romantic perhaps they will sing to you (did you know seals croon?) […] I went for a country walk yesterday evening and heard distant church bells ring across the woods and fields – this is a lovely world, isn’t it, dear.’

Monday, 6 October 2008

Imogen Holst, Composer

“It is quite impossible to thank you for what you have done for me & meant to me these last months…Everywhere one goes one hears praise & affection for you, …echoed in my own heart,” wrote Benjamin Britten to Imogen Holst in a letter reproduced in the latest volume of Letters from a Life.

It is easy to see Imogen Holst as a handmaiden to others’ creativity: Director of Music at Dartington; Britten’s assistant; editor of her father, Gustav Holst’s, music, etc. However a new CD release reminds us of her own talent as a composer. Court Lane Music, a young group of musicians founded by Simon and Thomas Hewitt Jones, have finally released their CD of Imogen Holst’s String Chamber Music, including such pieces as the magical Fall of the Leaf and the haunting String Quintet, which includes a set of variations on a theme she discovered in one of her father’s notebooks.

Much of this music has remained unpublished and a number of the pieces on this remarkable disc are world premier recordings. It’s a project that has been in the works for some time, one that has felt almost “jinxed” in Simon’s words, and one that the London criminal fraternity couldn’t stop. Reward Court Lane’s tenacity by buying Imogen Holst’s String Chamber Music, and read about her life in Christopher Grogan’s acclaimed biography which includes her own diary covering her time as Benjamin Britten’s music assistant.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Britten Down Under

Philip Reed, one of the editors of Letters from a Life; The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, was recently interviewed on ABC Radio National’s Music Show by presenter, author, musician and composer, Andrew Ford. The interview and the full show may be heard here.

Andrew Ford’s knowledge of and enthusiasm for Britten’s music informs the interview, which lasts for over twenty minutes, and Philip Reed gives a fascinating overview of the material covered by this fourth volume of Britten’s letters. The Music Show is gloriously wide-ranging, focussed – but not exclusively so – on classical music. The list of past interviewees is impressively eclectic: critics such as John Amis and the late Wilfrid Mellers; musicians Nigel Kennedy, Mitsuko Ushida and Trevor Pinnock; and living legends such as Tom Lehrer, bassist Danny Thompson and jazz vibraphone player Gary Burton. Andrew Ford is also a highly-acclaimed composer, with some fine examples of his own music – including the superb Icarus Drowning - available on CD from Tall Poppies.

Letters from a Life is available from good booksellers .