Yesterday I attended the Piano Trio Society's annual workshop day, where four young trios were coached by members of the fantastic Barbican Trio. Watching the trios undergo their masterclass was a bit of a masterclass for me too as a composer; it's always interesting to see performers talk about their interpretation of a piece (i.e. what they think they know about the composer and/or the music without the composer's knowledge!) The Barbican Trio players were each excellent teachers and communicators, and it was impressive (and sometimes amusing!) to watch them take on board suggestions and put them into practice.
I also gave a public interview with Christine Talbot-Cooper, the Society's extremely able administrator; she asked me about my own Piano Trio (being premiered by the Bedriska Trio on Sunday 26th November at Gloucester Cathedral) and about some general issues surrounding contemporary music.
One of the issues we discussed was the relationship of harmony and interpretation. During their coaching sessions, pianist James Kirby and cellist Robert Max talked about the importance of understanding harmony and key in order to be able to interpret phrase and form successfully. This is incontestably important, and undeniably true, if we're talking about playing Beethoven, Mendelssohn or Brahms (as the Trios yesterday were). We learn about classical harmony as training performers (at music college or university etc.) and teachers continue to teach from this standpoint. There is nothing wrong with this and it is important that performers understand harmony. It was interesting that when James Kirby asked members of one Trio "What key is the music in now?" they were unable to answer. But if you're playing a Piano Trio written not in a traditional/classical major/minor key structure, and with all the rules of harmony and modulation that that implies, but in a harmonic language which is in any way different, you can't say to an ensemble "What is the key here?" or "What chord is this?" I feel that one of the reasons that performers don't perform as much contemporary music as I think they should is that they feel alienated before they even open a score of a modern piece. If all we teach about harmony is Mozart and his system of major and minor, young players will lack the necessary interpretive and analytical skills to approach any piece written using a different harmonic system. Ensembles often say that they don't play very much contemporary music because they don't have very much time to rehearse. By saying this, they are suggesting that they don't need to rehearse/learn Brahms or Haydn or Schubert too much, because they can already play it; it is how they were trained. It is therefore unsurprising (on the surface) that they say they can't perform much contemporary music due to lack of time, but in saying this they are also implying that any contemporary music is automatically more difficult to play than Beethoven or Brahms. This is not necessarily the case.
It is probably time that some of these issues are addressed more earnestly at our teaching institutions.
Ensemble 2021 gave the first performance of my first String Quartet at the Seoul National University in South Korea on Monday 9th May. Since the piece was written in 2011, it was both a relief and a revelation to hear the recording of the premiere. When you have only heard a piece in your head for so long, you have only one idea of how the piece sounds; yet it has never been heard. Listening to the recording taught me several things about the way I write, as well as reminding me that my own interpretation of my music is certainly not the only one. The quartet gave a thoroughly committed performance which comes across really well on the recording. My Quartet was played alongside works by Sukja Na, Donatoni, Peter Eotvos and Schoenberg. I only wish I could have been there!
Link to page to the College of Music at SNU.
Next Sunday I will be attending the Piano Trio Society's annual workshop day, where young and aspiring student Trios receive expert coaching from professional Trios. As part of the day, I will be giving an interview on writing for Piano Trio. The fabulous Bedriska Trio recorded my Trio last year, and they will give its first public performance on 26th November at the Gloucester Music Society's concert series.
The Piano Trio is, when you think about it, a slightly unusual ensemble. It is unlike the string quartet, where the family connection allows the instruments to naturally blend together. The piano is potentially an overpowering partner to the two string instruments, but its presence allows for a richness of texture and infinite harmonic palette. In my Trio, the piano's ability to provide huge washes of sound (by playing arpeggios whilst depressing the sustain pedal) is exploited, as is its ability to accompany and present material on its own. The two string instruments need to have sturdy material of their own to stand up to the might of the piano. It's an endlessly fascinating medium for all these reasons (not to mention its rich heritage) and I'm sure I will write another one at some point.
I've just completed the first draft of my devised harmonic system. The system is based on a scale; the scales and intervallic relationships create chords; observations are made about the chords, their inversions, and other resulting properties. Although I have used my scales in a fairly primitive form in several previous pieces, I'm now going to start a set of orchestral studies to thoroughly test-drive the new system. I view it a bit like an artist having a palette of colours to choose from when starting a new painting.
A busy few weeks have resulted in several works being completed: a setting from The Tempest for soprano and clarinet (the first time I have written for this combination), two Scottish folksong settings for choir, a TV pilot, and three "Harmony Studies" for piano. The Harmony Studies chart a segment of my journey towards the devising of my new harmonic system.
I'm going to start a blog on my compositional activities and observations. Check back soon to see if I've remembered to update it. The only thing about blogs and things is that it shows that you probably aren't getting enough writing done if you're blogging and tweeting all day, so I will try to strike a balance which combines a positive hive of activity with carefully-timed, witty and succinct commentary.