I have just finished three wonderful days at the fantastic Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Peabody is not only the senior conservatoire in the US, but it is home to a truly fantastic composition faculty, who are lucky enough to have my dear friend and collaborator Michael Hersch to lead and inspire.
This post will include material about the pieces which we explored in this two part mini-residency. To begin with, though, here’s the programme which I played to sign off last night.
Giuseppe Torelli – E minor Prelude (Walsh no. 33)
Michael Hersch-Five Fragments 2004 (premiered by PSS, Mexico City 2004)
Biagio Marini – Capriccio ‘imitation of a lira’
Evis Sammoutis – Nicosia Caprices (2016)
Nicola Matteis – C minor Prelude
Sadie Harrison – Movements from Gallery 1 (Premiered by PSS London 2012-13)
Peter Sheppard Skaerved – Snowtracks/Untitled (from ‘A Futhork for Jan Groth’) 2017
Heinrich von Biber – ‘Der Schutzengel as Begleiter des Menschen’ Mystery Sonata 2016
Michael Hersch – ‘…in the snowy margins…’ (2010) (Premiered by PSS London 2010)
Malene Skaerved/Pindar-Rousseu – ‘Keep Going’ 2017 (Speaker and violin)*
*Malene Skaerved – Speaker
Baltimore is an inspiring place to come and work. The Peabody Conservatory is at the centre of the old city, next to the Washington Monument on Mount Vernon, which is also graced by a statue of General Lafayette. There’s a real power to be found in the exploration of new music in such beautiful and historic surroundings. The first workshop day took place in the exquisite Griswold Hall, which is adorned with the Parthenon Freize, and an astonishing 17th Century French (gobelin style) tapestry of the Triumph of Scipio.
This sense of the very present past is heightened by the Walters Art Museum, which is not only one of the greatest small (a relative term) of painting and sculpture in the world, but, as all museums should be, free. At every opportunity, we popped in to revel in the wonderful collections of Baroque and Renaissance painting, classical statuary, and, charmingly, 19th Century ‘conversation piece’ style paintings, and astonishing Lalique, Faberge and Sevres which the Walters family bought on their annual trips to the Paris Exhibitions in the second half of the 19th Century.
To start each of the workshops off, I gave a short ‘show-and-tell’ about current projects, with an emphasis on collaboration and the connection to the past. On day one, I talked about my work with Jan Groth MORE HERE, and day two my 17th Century project PRELUDES AND VOLLENTERIES
Eleven composers submitted new work for this project. There was a bewildering array of styles, languagues and approaches. The unifying features were seriousness of intent and the determination to communicate with clarity, both to listener and player. From here onwards, I will waymark this post with the thoughts of the most important people for this process, the composers, with links to their websites.
ZACH GULABOFF DAVIS writes: ‘While composing Chorale, I attempted to highlight both the emotional restraint and romantic expressivity of the violin. The moniker Chorale is derived from my notion of the ideal performance space rather than a strict interpretation of the word. I invasion this work being performed in a great, cavernous, and majestic space. It was a great joy writing this movement; I cannot wait to complete the other four sections of this set./Collaboration is key to everything I do as a composer. Handing a new composition to a performer is always thrilling. I often have an exact sound quality in mind; articulating it in a clear manner can be another story. In this regard, the opening of the work was exactly what I had imagined. As the movement reached its climax, we discussed the precise sound I was searching for: was it a romantic wall of sound or a more restrained voice reminiscent of the opening? It was the former—a point we considered how best to express in the score. (We decided on additional expressive markings.) Along these lines, we also explored the best way to approach the closing. This short recapitulation harkens back to the opening, yet possesses a more ethereal quality. To achieve this effect, we decided on harmonics—rather than my original notated pitches—thus creating a sound evocative of the opening without being derivative. In such collaborative pursuits, I have found that one point often leads to another: even a small suggestion may open the door for others. As I went through the score, noticed other places where I could add expressive markings, dynamics, and perhaps even harmonics to most fully articulate the character of the work. I will take these thoughts with me as I continue work on the other four movements of this set. Website , YouTube ‘
What is always striking to me, is that no two composers ever, ever, want the same sound. One aspect of the dialogue which always returns, is ‘what is your baseline sound?’, or ‘what do you mean by normale, or naturale?’ . For me, these are questions of texture as text, and as I walk around any city where I am working with composers, enjoin me to look carefully at the materiality of the place that I am in.
JONATHAN HUGENDUBLE writes: ‘When my named was called and I walked up, I was initially a little bit nervous about the whole process. Immediately, my nerves were mollified after Peter played the first couple bars of my piece. It is rare to see such sensitive and attentive playing combined with an insatiably curious musical mind. I was given quite a bit of practical advice, and an understanding of what my musical ideas sounded actualized at the highest level. The whole process felt remarkably relaxed and upbeat, which is a credit to Peter’s spirit of collaboration. I would recommend collaboration and/or interaction with Peter to anyone, as it’ll surely be a musically enriching experience.’ SOUNDCLOUD
One question comes up, and it comes up all the time when I work with composers. What are the relative merits of handwritten/computer-set scores? In Baltimore, this was given particular heft, as a number of the composers submitted scores which were especially expressive in handwritten form. I was asked what it was, which excites me about handwriting, and I pointed out, that for many years the ‘composer’s hand’ has, it seems to me, to reveal, even betray messages and meanings in the music. I feel that the sensitive composer, artist or writer is (and this a good thing) unable to control their reactions to their material as it courses through them, even if they are copying out a Rheinschrift (fair copy), as is the case with (nearly all) of Brahms or Michael Finnissy’s beautiful scores. The tremor of the hand, the layout of the material, seems to give me clues as to how I should approach the music, emotionally, conceptually, manually.
‘The Composer’s Hand’ can become particularly interesting when the composer knows that layout is being discussed and assayed. In conversation with Laura Spence, the subject of classical notational layout (note values fanning out from the middle of the bar-the ‘Christmas Tree’) came up. Today she sent me some simple trial examples, to see how this system works for her.
Two things emerge from this discussion. The first is responding to a question that she asked today.
‘At Dooby’s after the masterclass, in regards to standard (?) notation practice, you mentioned mapping out a measure like a tree rather than graphically from left to right. Is the example I’ve attached an example how to do it properly?’ Laura Spence, E mail to PSS 14 4 17
The answer to her question is that this system of notation, which is what Beethoven used, clarifies voice leading beautifully, and even more excitingly, steps away from some of the anomalies of proportional/space-time notation which be-devil even standard printed notation (What happens between a marked measure/bar-line and the first note in the bar! what is that space for?). Here’s an explanation of the system, from William Pearson’s ‘Compleat Musick Master’.
It’s very clear that Laura’s first ‘go’ at this method allows the material to find itself beautifully within the measure, and, in the case of the contrapuntal exemplars she has offered, shows us the music as line, not just vertical/chordal material.
But there’s another benefit, from my point of view. Look again Laura’s example. She has written very neatly, and I think that she has used a straight edge for note stems. But look at the first two eighth-notes/quavers … there’s a slight pull between them, as if she’s reluctant to relinquish the E-natural for the G-natural. It’s an accident, of course, but it tells me something, and having seen this, I would naturally play ‘poco rubato’ on these two notes, and more excitingly, that might offer a paradigm for this figure across the piece. I may be wrong, and Laura might put me right, but even that discussion/disagreement offers another entry point into the nature of the music.
I hope that it’s not stretching a point, to say that Malene and I were entranced by a similar fascination with detail in the Walters Museum. This view of lute pegs and strings by Jan Lievensz stuck with me, all through the conversations with composers and musicians. Detail was the essence of my conversation with Kris McCormick, as we searched for the best way to realise his virtuosic movement.
KRIS McCORMICK writes: ‘Hi Peter! It was such a pleasure to work with you this week, it was a huge learning experience and was quite inspiring for me. I think my only comments about the piece would be this- I was trying to create a sort of foreground with the p arpeggiations throughout, which is gradually interrupted more and more by the accented notes and fortissimo licks. My intent was also for the “interruptions” to have a relationship to one another, so the two elements (p and f) should almost be thought of as separate voices.
Talking to Ben Kapilow, the question of structural and motivic integrity came up. He was very gracious when I suggested that there was too much in his piece; that I could perhaps, see how everything linked up too well. Perhaps it’s because I am British, but there is no question in my mind that irrationality, inconsistency, is vital to making a dramatic structure. It’s clear that this is something that Ben is interested in, and I think that the adjustments which will result will make his a very powerful piece.
BEN KAPILOW writes: ‘A common issue that arises in master classes is finding the appropriate balance between “big picture” comments and more “detailed” comments. Too much big picture and it comes across as superficial, but too much nit-picking and it comes across as tedious and short-sighted. In almost all master classes I have attended, the speaker goes too far in one direction, either making an abundance of big-picture comments and then begrudingly throwing in some more detailed comments here and there, or vice versa./Mr. Skaerved, however, engaged with both domains in a way that was both idiosyncratic and immensely helpful. For instance, in my piece, he commented about everything from the specifications of different types of glissandi to finding a way to incorporate strains of irrationality within my more rational musical “core.” This perfect balance that Skaerved achieved left me with the feeling of being both vastly more knowledgeable about the intricacies of writing for the violin, but also artistically and philosophically rejuvenated. It was a great experience for me, and I am excited to work on a revision of my piece, taking Skaerved’s advice into consideration.’
Steve Crino is clearly influenced by the early 20th Century virtuoso tradition, and most particularly the solo sonatas of Eugène Ysaÿe. What is impressive, is that not only has he listened to these works very carefully, but has worked out what he can learn technically from these pieces to forge his own approach to the violin.
STEVE CRINO writes: ‘I cannot thank you enough for getting to know my piece. I learned a great deal from this experience, not only from directly talking to you about my own music, but from listening to you talk with my fellow colleagues about their compositions. In particular, you revealed to me the myriad of ways a performer can interpret a score. Going forward, I will to be far more specific with my notation so that I can give the performer a clear idea of my artistic vision. Also I will consider condensing sections of my piece, as we discussed. As of today, my intuition is still telling me to keep the music the same, but I will try to spend some time away from the piece so that I can revisit it with fresh ears. Maybe then the superfluous material will present itself. Finally, I want to express how much I respect your commitment, enthusiasm and attitude towards new music. You see the beauty in pieces regardless of the sound-world they inhabit. This example you set inspires composers to express their unique compositional’ voices proudly. I hope I am lucky enough to work with more musicians like you throughout my career.
One of the questions which emerged in conversation with Steve was that of structure. I confess, that I like to go to the edges of what is often seen as being verboten for performers to ask, and to find out how committed he was to the scale of this piece. The reason was simple: once I found out that he really feels that piece in that configuration and structure, I can really commit to it.
YUTING TAN writes: ‘Dear Peter, It was really nice meeting you at Peabody. I really appreciate your time, passion and attention to detail in going through each and every student work. I was especially inspired by your comments and recommendations for my piece “moon on water” and your commitment to shaping the sound of every note when playing my piece. I never knew there were so many possibilities of bowing a sul ponticello note! Working with you has really made me think more deeply about every single note and gesture in my music. I am looking forward to hearing back from you about my revision and listening to your recording of my piece!’ website: www.tanyuting.com.
Ithaca Composers works too!
From here on, I am going to interweave the Peabody works with pieces by my collaborating composers at Ithaca College New York. There are two slightly different processes at work here. The collaboration with Peabody began with a light-touch visit (a presentation and conversations) in the Autumn of 2016 LINK. The real intensity began this week, with the public one-to-one exchanges with the composers, who had submitted their works at the beginning of this month (April). There will be continuing exchanges online until I record the pieces later this Spring. The process with Ithaca has been a longer one. I spent time in one-to-one sessions, and open workshops. with the composers there in September 2016 LINK, and they submitted what are essentially final drafts earlier this year. The sessions at Ithaca beginning in two days time will lead to a recording and a concert of the finished works this week.
Here’s an extract from composer Jacob Kerzner, who is also a singer. Of course the coloured markings are mine. The score is in landscape form, without measures/barlines (something which emerged in the course of our discussions). There’s a real advantage to the horizontal form, which was also used very successfully at Peabody by Elliott Grabill.
Here’s Elliott’s score-note the differences betwen two very well laid out scores in landscape, but one type-set, the other hand-written.
It’s interesting how long it took for the glistening world of Sciarrino to find its way into the vernacular. Back in 1990, I gave performances of his ‘Sei Quartetti Brevi’ and these techniques seemed so natural then (an inevitable consequence of the work of Locatelli, Paganini and Liszt). But, in the past 5 years, there’s been a flood of these very idiomatic textures into solo string writing by younger composers. Duncan Krimmel (Ithaca) makes very personal use of this. I will speak more about this piece later, but for now, I wanted to illustrate how I mark-up morphing technical instructions (tasto/green-ordinario/blue-ponticello/brick red).
By way of contrast, it is equally fascinating to find composers who are engaged with the virtuoso tradition of the later 19th and early twentieth century, using technical devices that Leopold Auer or Jacques Thibaud would recognise. This is fundamental to violin playing, and all great writers for the instrument, whether David Matthews of Brian Ferneyhough, lean heavily on this continuity. Here’s Steve Crino (Peabody) showing his understanding of Tchaikovsky’s violin writing and Nick o’Brien (Ithaca) referencing Enescu and Ernest Bloch.
There’s a constant conversation, in all art, with, towards, away from, against, the ‘canon’. Violin players have this, perhaps more than any other string players, in their DNA, so pieces such as this, which lean towards the ‘grand manner’ of the first heroes of the recording age, are fascinating, and provocative!
Then there’s the question of scale, of drama. Emmanuel Berrido at Ithaca, has written a dramatic ‘scena’, entitled ‘Miserere’ for me. It’s very much, a monodrama, and good to see all four pages laid out thus.
Monday 17th April
I arrived at Ithaca after an idyllic bus ride up to the Finger Lakes and was greeted by a wonderful sunset, and my dear friend and colleague Evis Sammoutis
Before we get to work with the young composers tomorrow, there’s the next stage on another adventure-our collaboration with the innovators and inventors from Georgia Tech., who had send an intriguing parcel full of the latest fruits of our enquiries and their invention.
But, in the meantime, more reflections from a Peabody composer. Read here:
ELLIOTT GRABILL writes: ‘I feel like part of why I do classical music is so I can write it out by hand. Once, I read about how monks viewed copying the Bible (and laying bricks on a cathedral) a form of prayer, and I feel that creating a Reinschrift is in a way similar. You contemplate every note. You’ve also got something you can hold in your hand, tape to your wall, or fold it up and put it in your back pocket to show someone./In addition to feeling closer to the music, I think it invites collaboration between the composer and performers. My former teacher, Kirk Nurock, a jazz composer, was always collaborating, and always writing and rewriting his music by hand. Michael Hersch is also both a collaborator and a handwriter, I always admired him for that. I’m not sure how it’s linked to handwriting, but both Michael Hersch and Kirk Nurock also write with individual performers in mind, and put thought into every single note in their compositions.’
The conversation about handwritten scores is one which in many ways, is heating up. I think that, possibly, this is because now there are generations of composers who have never written ‘by hand’, which curiously, means that it is easier to have a discussion about what it means, what the composer can communicate, and what the performer can intuit, from the intentional and unintentional messages of mark-making.
If there is one way if I can give a clue as to an aspect of what can aries from this, it is worth looking at what happens when I draw in vehicle. So here’s a 3 second view of one of the hills on the drive from New York to Ithaca. The drawing, just a mnemonic of the movement of the bus, the memory flashing past, the reading (Nan Shepherd) that was in my mind. Aspect of all that are to be found in this rapid scribble-it’s quite literally, a notation.
The first half of the morning here is focusing on this question of intentionality and precision. Working on Duncan Krummel’s elegantl ‘The Sky was an Ocean’, we have been drilling down into the opportunities and hazards arising from detailed notation.
After a fantastic day of intense detailed work with my colleagues, including a midday seminar sharing the work with other composers. The six composers talked about the issues that concern them: rhetoric, colour, voicing, drama and many others. The day finished with a supper and more conversation (mostly about John Cage) downtown Ithaca. A good day.
Day two in Ithaca!
This was an extraordinarily intense, emotionally rich day. From 9-11, I made studio recordings of all six new works, with the composers supervising. I was so impressed and grateful, for their input here; when recording is done well, it is the perfect opportunity for composers to push their work to the next level, and to push we performers to a more precipitous edge!
This was follower by one to one sessions with composers not involved in the writing project, but who presented more fascinating new works for solo violin, and for string quartet. Then Evis Sammoutis and I rushed back to his house for an hour of Skype discussion with our collaborators at Georgia Tech, working on the the ‘extended’ violin and bow. Shortly after this was over I was onstage, back at Ithaca, performing the new work to a fantastically responsive audience.
20th April New York City
After a wonderful overnight drive back from Ithaca, my bus pulled into Port Authority at 630am, and I was able to stop, for a moment, and take stock. But not for long. The Peabody composers have been hard at work since last week, and, opening the computer when I returned to the Upper West Side, I found four revised scores, the first fruits of their labours last week. I have to get back to work.