Re-opening the composers’ workshops!

Posted on May 20th, 2023 by

Robert Saxton – Sketch for his major new work ‘Reflections in Time’ May 2023

  I have been friends with the marvellous composer Robert Saxton for many years. This began in my early twenties, when a conversation began, about music, writing, art, politics, well everything really, which has not abated. Curiously, and perhaps this was selfishness on my part, most of the outcomes of our collaboration have been private. My quartet is dedicated to his wonderful quartets and has recorded/is recording them. The 4th is, indeed, dedicated to us. And there is one tiny solo piece which I premiered, dedicated to our dear and much lamented friend, the American composer Elliott Schwartz. Here it is.

But, since long before the years of the Covid-19 lockdowns, Robert and I have been talking about the possibility, the ideas, the inspiration and the materials for a major work for violin alone. But until very recently, this was like a dark secret: we would meet with paper and pencil, for lunch, coffee, whatever, and the foundations were discussed. I even managed to document Robert sketching out some of the building blocks for the

The composer’s hand. Robert Saxton demonstrates how he builds material in my notebook 2017

piece. The picture at the left was taken over five years ago, during lunch in London, while the composer drew some of his ideas for how this piece would work and evolve. But up till now, that was all there was (on paper anyway!).

In the course of our discussions, over the years, Robert revealed that he felt that my paintings and drawings would be crucial spur for the piece. A number of composers have used my graphic work as inspiration, starting points, or perhaps, as a ways of scrutinising who I am, getting inside my skull. This has resulted in cycles and individual pieces, from Sadie Harrison, David Riebe, Michael Alec Rose, Nigel Clarke, and others.

I had a feeling, that the works of mine that Robert was most interested in, were my landscapes, or more to the point, my waterscapes. Robert and I both hail from East London, and both regard our relationships with the tidal Thames, which I live right next to, as fundamental to who we both are.

Full tide. Heavy Swell, Wind 6mph NNW, High Tide, Late Nantucket & Bon Accord Wharfs. Wapping 6 7 19

My forbears worked on and by the river, a few minutes walk from where I am writing this: at Billingsgate (Fish) Market, which is between the Tower of London and London Bridge, and next to St Magnus the Martyr (one of the wo two historically Viking Churches in the Square Mile).

What it means to live next to and around a great river would take and book in itself. However, I can say that, seen, heard, smelt and felt , the moods and timbres of the Thames, find their way into one’s system. At the very least the ebb and flood (the Thames has an 8 metre-plus ‘spring’ tide where I am writing), to a greater and lesser extent, the ‘circulation of the lymph’ (T S Eliot) of one’s own body and imagination.

So I am surrounded by geological and historical souvenirs from ‘our’ beach, just down an iron ladder near our front door, and right now ( I am writing this) at 9 am), I can feel the slackness of the river emptying itself out (low tide is in about one hour. And I have been drawing and painting this stretch of river for decades. It is, to a greater or lesser extent, who I am.

Part of the process of study, learning Robert Saxton’s piece, will be to unearth more about how how ‘Thamesis’ has found its way into his bones and imagination. But for now, all the investigation, all the learning has to focus on fine detail, which is the same as broad principles ( will return to this). For yesterday, Robert sent me a bundle of photographs of the working materials, on his desk. At midnight last night, I got to work on three pages of this music, violin in hand. As much as possible, as we move towards first performance(s), I want to accompany, shadow, stalk him on his journey.

The title that Robert has given the piece is integral to its nature, or so it seems to me, as I work with the violin:

‘Reflections in Time’

He wrote me a note, a few days ago, insisting, ever so gently, that I take careful note of this moniker:

‘Reflections (plural) in Time….everything that goes forwards is ‘reflected’ non-literally in reverse…….don’t take my word for it!!!!!’ (E -mail Robert Saxton to PSS 18 5 23)

Now, in music, this could imply a number of things: Reading Robert’s instruction (especially ‘don’t take my work for it’), this is likely to be as fluid as the river itself. But at the very least palindromes and reflections are likely to be present in the music on a micro and macro-level. There are many precedents:  Haydn’s 47th Symphony has  a “Minuetto al Roverso”, and consequently the work is sometimes called “The Palindrome”. In the  third movement, the second part of the Minuet is the same as the first backwards, and the Trio is also written in this way. Now, the sharp-eyed and eared will cry out. ‘al roverso’ means ‘upside down’. And of course, you are not wrong. If you play something backwards’ not only does a melody reverse direction, but necessarily movement upwards becomes movement down and vice versa. Indeed when Bach returned to fugue theme in his giant C major Fuga  for solo violin, he wrote:

‘al riverso’

… today, would be ‘al reverso’, or ‘al rovescio’ – ‘in reverse’, and of course, the tonal realisation of the theme (gagfefgadfefgfe), is (dbcdedcfededcdedcb) is very much ‘upside done’, and in order to still be in C major, starts on the supertonic, not the dominant of the scale as the theme had done. It’s all shook up.

The tide goes in and out. From where I am sitting, that’s right and left. And the water rises and falls. And the wind shifts. And the fish stop biting on the ebb. My point being, the substance and the meaning change:

‘Madam, I’m Adam’ is a classical example of meaning and substance morphing – the comma, spinning into the contracting apostrophe is the least of it.

Last night, after guests had left, conversation ebbed away, and the dishes were washed and packed up, I spread out two of Robert’s variations on my practice desk and started my violinistic explorations. What would I find, and how would it relate to that ‘upsidedownunder-ness’ that I was neurosing about. And writing was on my mind: after all, yesterday Martin Amis died – and all night, I was thinking about his ‘Time’s Arrow: or The Nature of the Offence'(1991) which is written in reverse Time. The reader and the narrator experience the chronology of the story in reverse. However the events do not happen backwards, and nor no the characters live  backwards, like Merlin, or how Einstein wanted to… . As T.H.White explains, in character as ‘Merlyn’:

“You see, one gets confused with Time, when it is like that. All one’s tenses get muddled for one thing. If you know what is going to happen to people, and not what has happened to them, it makes it difficult to prevent it happening. If you you don’t want it to have happened, if you see what I mean? Like drawing in a mirror.”/The Wart did not see, […] )(The Once and Future King/The Sword in the Stone Page 29)

I feel as confused as The Wart. So for now, I will watch and listen, to see what Robert’s score tells and teaches me. I have a feeling that, not unlike the 16-year-old Albert Einstein, I might, ‘observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest.’, which translates into ‘see the world as if I were riding on a beam of light’. Or that is how I remember Jacob Bronowski putting it.

So here we go: Here’s the result of a few hours work at dead

Saxton’s sketch for his 4th variation, with technical notes by PSS – overnight 20-21/5/23

of night , violin in hand, on Robert’s (apparently) 4th variation. What did I focus on. Just a specious observation: this bit of music looks like, is, a wave. It falls-rises-falls-rises. The  material is predominantly dyads (two-note chords). but there are single notes, some of which might not immediately be apparent, as they are notated as ‘artificial’ harmonics (which require the touching of two nodes on one string), and have resulting pitches notated above the stave (so they can look like three-note chords).  Straightaway, I start asking the question – what is the relationship, the balance between the single notes and the dyads – should a single note have the weight (expressed as

Designer Jonathan Levien (Nipa Doshi behind) in their studio on Columbia Road

volume, emphasis or meaning) of a chord, or is it half the worth? I don’t have an answer … yet.

But a conversation earlier in the evening was beginning to help me. Our guests at supper were our dear friends, the visionary designers Nipa Doshien and Jonathan Levien. Jonathan and I settled into a discussion about sailing (we are sailing next week), the challenges of wind and tide,, my recent excitement about the voyage, and near disaster of the Belgica into the Antarctic ice in 1897, the relationship between cloud-reflected light and the water … which drifted, most appropriately, into a conversation about drawing, which is so important to both of us.

Jonathan noted, that, what was exciting him, at the moment, about drawing, was the relationship between people, the human figure, and formal space, architecture. Naturally, this slipped into a conversation about how all designed space was defined by the human form and dimensions, and our shared wonder at the beauty of people (on the tube for me, how they relate to each other in space for him).

But, before I make breakfast, I will leave this here. The fundamental argument that Robert’s piece seems to be reflecting upon is the human presence, experience of huge and minute forms – the sailor on the ocean swell, the wash of fluids through the body, the blood-brain barrier,  the osmoses, real and figuratively, through the epidermis, from that which is witnessed to idea… and in my case, through the vast ocean of Robert’s imagination.

“O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small” – old Breton fisherman’s prayer.

At this moment in preparation, or should I say pre-preparation, it is helpful that I find my way into the composer’s particular headspace (for this piece – as opposed to what I know/expect from decades of playing their music). One of the reasons for this, and here I am a broken record, is that I passionately believe that bespoke technical means must be created for each individual piece, to complement and counterpoint the special challenges which a composer has set themselves in writing it.

So here’s a clue to what I will be aiming at, from an E mail that Robert sent me, last week:

‘Have been going like the proverbial clappers today on the 3rd movement/piece of the 5, and dealing with some tricky (to write, hopefully not to play) enharmonic cadence ‘areas’. I WILL send some bits asap…..but don’t want you to get ‘wrong’ impression (ie: that it’s more exciting than it is). Each movement is some sort of non-literal palindrome but, unlike ‘proper’ non-tonal ‘stuff’(!!!) I have to work through consequences of modal/tonal shifts so that the ‘spotlight’ changes…….’ (RS to PSS 19 5  23)

So, I find that it is a good idea to ask some questions, about how this compositional challenge needs to be matched, mirrored, or even opposed in the resulting technical procedures. The first thing to say at this point, emphasising what I wrote a minute or so ago is that there is never any point in generic technical solutions. If I am honest, this is something that I owe to two great violinists, my most-loved teachers, Ralph Holmes and Louis Krasner. The two came from completely different ages, and Ralph (who was over 30 years younger) died some years before I met Louis. But they share one notion, which was that there was a strict ethical element in the selection and developments of technical apparatus to answer particular musical conundra: that is, that there was simply never any excuse, or use, in taking the easy route. I remember Louis saying:

‘Violin playing is like mountain-climbing, but it only means something if you are hanging on by your fingernails!’

So, to go back to what Robert Saxton has revealed, there is an interesting question when composition is using what he describes as ‘non-literal palindrome’ (I refer you back to Amis’s Time’s Arrow above). The majority of technical procedures are, to a greater or lesser degree, teleological, or put crudely, ‘goal-orientated’. They get from here to here, with particular processional and resultant consequences. How does our thinking, and our approach, shift, when we know that the composer is thinking forwards and backwards at the same time. Should our problem-solving reflect that?

By way of an oblique answer, think about how we move around the violin, vertically. It is clear to me, that there is an analogy, in all the arts between movement up and down and from past to future (and backwards). After all, thing of the great 3 octave Bflat-Bflat”’ leap in the first movement of the Siblelius concerto ( a piece I don’t like or play, whilst admiring certain gestures!). If this is not a leap into the future,

Where should the hand go? Saxton, up close

expressed in space, then I don’t know what is.

If you look at the passage ringed on the left here, you can see that the composer has been thinking about this problem, very carefully. I I invite you to observe the ‘progress’ of the note ‘D’ in the chords where it occurs (in the crude red ring). As you can see, from the Roman numerals, Robert has moved between the D(III)string and the A(II) string, thus D-AA-D. At a micro level, we are looking at the palindrome system he is describing, expressed in the vertical space, or axis of the fingerboard (laterally) and between the used fingers 4-11-4.  Snaking around that is (one possible melody) GEABflatED, played on the following strings GAEEAD. Now the arc of this melody retains an element of the palindrome but the technical and musical shape is an evolving arch, a sort of Tonic-to-Dominant (I know, I know). So any technical solution (and here he has pretty much obligated one (44, 1 or 2, 11, 12, 2 or 1, 14) reflects the balance between the verticalised palindrome and the small-scale teleology. He has made it very clear, with the succinct technical requirements included even at this stage of the score evolving, that he is thinking about the instrument in an enormously sophisticated way.

Which means, that so should we. Here’s another glimpse of the emerging material. Inspiration for this continuing journey!

Another glimpse of the working materials of Robert Saxton’s amazing, emerging ‘Reflections in Time’ 22 5 23

Shortly after writing this, I ran into Robert Saxton on the street in Greenwich and we had an excited conversation, which was further illuminated by his thoughts about what we are exploring, in an E mail, which awaited me on my return: Here’s an extract.

‘Peter Maxwell Davies once made it clear to the Dartington class (I was his assistant in the early 1980s there) that a palindromic arc (as in the 2nd movement of Berg’s Kammerkonzert) is nothing to do with Time being perceived backwards, but a structural conceit at various levels (he was not being judgmental). He explained that, if you want the listener to hear Time/events in reverse or, more realistically, in a Proust-like manner to do with memory, then you have to compose this in an utterly different way (eg: a film run backwards is wholly dissimilar to a director (re)-‘composing’ events during a movie in terms of editing etc….)’ RS E mail to PSS 22 5 23

Now that is profoundly brilliant, and goes far beyond my fumblings for the truth above. He also made some particular observations about

There is really no escape! Chance meeting with Robert Saxton in Greenwich today, after writing about him this morning. He says he’s off to audition for the part of Nelson (he has just had eye surgery,tba) 22 5 23

the variation that I was exploring above. This, perhaps, a better explanation of what I was reaching for (but remember, in my defence, he is writing, from the inside, whilst I am hunting for clarity looking in!):

‘The reflections in No IV is/are around a vertical axis as regards a transposed Ground, and a horizontal axis as the harmonic groups (rather then chords) reverse in terms of interval content.’ RS E mail to PSS 22 5 23

I am aware that this is pretty technical, so let us back up a little bit. As a player, I have a number of motivations for digging deep into the music that I study and perform. These are complicated when that happens in the building stage of the material.

The first and simplest of these motivation is a practical one. If a composer ‘lets me in’ to the ‘making process’ then, I hope that I can been helpful beyond merely being curious. One of the great privileges of my working life is that many of my collaborators have welcomed me into their workshop in the early stages, and that, sometimes, I have been able to be of use. At the very least, I have been privileged to watch, to learn.

In some cases, and I am not alone in this, my work with composers has been entirely behind the curtain, not resulting in any material ‘for me’ at all. In the decade running up to his death, it was my pleasure to work extensively with Peter Maxwell Davies, who Robert mentioned above, in precisely this way. Peter would send me scores, and I would make

With Peter Maxwell Davies 2006, break in recording session for solo violin works

suggestions, some of which would be taken up, some not. For one major work, my ideas were completely rejected (that’s another story, which I can’t tell, yet), on other occasions, my small contributions became part of the score.

The great Danish composer Poul Ruders has another way of working. When we were talking in detail about complex contrapuntal writing for the violin, he sent me ‘exercises’ – not for me, but for him. These were possible exemplars of how he was thinking of writing for violin alone. I worked these up, sent him notes and recordings of this ‘not pieces’ and they gave him the material he needed to proceed.

Discussions with composers about what they are doing; how and why they are doing it, and what else we might do, are a constant for me. I need to allow myself a quick rant at this point. Today, I ran across an interview with a starry, or shall we say, starrier colleague (who I spent a lot of time arguing with when we were a lot younger).. the interviewee made some remarks about playing and appreciating new music, in a recent interview, which got me going, somewhat. To jump to the end of my rant: we don’t play music by living composers as some kind of adventure, or because it is more exciting than playing Beethoven or Mozart. We do it, because music is always being made, in the present, and we have a duty, which is a joy, to engage with the making of music, constantly, not as some kind of special adventure, a sort of naughty treat. I will leave you to work out who I am talking about…..

But back to the nitty gritty – I have been diverted/distracted from the detailed work on Robert Saxton’s material, over the past 24 hours, by other music, other composers – Sadie Harrison, Mozart, Bach, Michael Finnissy, Priaulx Rainier, Eleanor Alberga, David Matthews, Michael Alec Rose and Jim Aitchison. If there’s a side-benefit from working in detail with a living composer, it is that it enables us to dig deeper into our dialogues with composers we can’t get on E mail, have a coffee with, or ring up on the phone. Yesterday, my quartet have been working on this piece. After the rehearsal, I posted the rehearsal recording anonymously on YouTube, with a challenge: can any listeners venture a guess as to who wrote it and when?

If you are reading this, I can give you the answer. Those on Twitter and Facebook alone can just toil in the vale of un-knowing. It is a single movement quartet written by the 19 year old ‘Ivy Rainier’, then a violin student at the Royal Academy of Music in London. ‘Ivy’ later changed her name to ‘Priaulx’ and the rest was history. I will not get into my continuing astonishment that this work was written in 1922.

However, what is exciting and useful, is that this score is not completely finished. There are no clear tempo markings, and the middle section, which is a sort of quartet recitative/dramatic episode, is not as clearly demarcated on the score as it might be. The form of the piece is

Viola solo (landscape music) – Dance – Drama/Recit (enfolding a memory of the viola solo/landscape) – Dance 2.0 – Viola Solo (lanscape) 2.0

Without going into enormous detail, I can say that, as a group, Neil, Clifton, Mihailo and I use the tools we have resulting from working with (and for Mihailo, being) a composer/s, to help unpick, resolve some of the ambiguities, which a score like this presents. There are a couple of bars where beats don’t add, up, and very much a feeling, that this work was ‘finished’ in the rehearsal room, and that the outcome did not find its way onto the page. In some ways, this is the case, to a greater or lesser degree, with all scores. This is not a matter of precision, or lack of precision, but rather owing to the fact that music is a living, breathing thing. I might work with a composer, for months, leading up to the premiere of a new piece: then after the performance, there may be revisions, and over the years, such revisions, whether large or small, will come at different levels of detail. A composer might decide to return to a score after years, and rewrite it, as Brahms famously did with his first piano trio, or Hans Werner Henze did with his 1978 Solo Sonata. Or there will be an ongoing conversation between performer(s), composer, and materials, about the shaping of materials. There is always going to be a question at this point as to whether these ‘shapings’ find their way into the performing matter, or whether they are, quite literally, temporal. By way of example, look at these bars, from a relatively recent piece by David Matthews, who has been writing solo works for me for over two decades.

Digging deeper into David Matthews’ ‘Dancing Shiva’ which I premiered in 2022 Here no the practice desk 26 5 23

Having premiered this work about 6 months ago, I am now preparing for a recording (my third disc of Matthews’ works for violin alone). I won’t deny, that when I am getting ready to record a work, and especially a work written for me, then I dig deeper into the question, of ‘what is permanent, and what temporary? Last summer I did a considerable amount of work with Matthews, at his desk, exploring the colour and shape of this piece. Here we are/were, hard at work.

Composer David Matthews at our shared work desk , London 10 9 22

I think that it is fair to say, that the outcomes of those sessions, running up to the first performances last year, where both compositional and performative. I don’t talk about interpretative issues, as I really don’t understand what that notion means ( I am not alone in this, however much critics and musicologist blather on about it). Let me clarify: as I tried out each phrase with the David, we would either say ‘that goes in’ or, ‘no, that’s just a personal issue for the player’. The divide between those two notions is very particular: every composer will have a different notion of where it stands, as well as every collaboration.

But, if you look at the technical work on the passage illustrated above, you will note that a number of my revisions, and reevaluations, which are personal, tip into the compositional area-particularly when it comes to questions of shape and syntax. I am, clearly now, however unconsciously ( I never actively ask myself this, alone at my desk), bringing the experience of the work, on stage, in a number of different size, acoustic and configuration of concert halls in the US and UK, to bear on phrasing and voice-leading. How much should be in the authoritative score, or not? I don’t know yet – it’s too soon to tell.