Location, Location, Location?

Connecting composers

This article was written for the programme for the very first concert given by Radius, now The Radius Opera Company.

Welcome to Radius.

Our programme this evening draws upon the work of a truly international array of composers, from the USA, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, and Japan. The composers are nationals of these countries; but where is their music really “from”? Answering this question should provide an insight into the various connections between these composers: musical connections, scholarly connections, personal connections.

To begin with: Ian Vine, whose new work underpaintings we present tonight, lives in Manchester, which is where I met him when we studied together at the Royal Northern College of Music with Anthony Gilbert, who is also featured in tonight’s programme. All three of us “from” Manchester, then? Although both Ian and Anthony continue to live in the North-West — I have since moved to London — their music could hardly sound more different. Indeed, it is the time they have spent in very different parts of the world that has shaped the music we will hear tonight. Ian grew up in Hong Kong, and Anthony Gilbert’s time in Australia had a pronounced and audible effect on his music, as illustrated powerfully in tonight’s performance of Moonfaring.

Perhaps a closer relation, musically speaking, to Ian Vine’s music might be found in composers Jo Kondo (Aquarelle) and John Cage (Five). Both of these works share a sense of thoughtful introspection, worlds of texture, timbre, and a meditative atmosphere. Indeed, Cage’s ideas on Zen have been a strong influence on Vine, as have the works of Morton Feldman (along with John Cage, also from New York City).

Yet one aspect of Kondo’s music — indeed, a strong influence in many of his works — is the hocket (a rhythmic linear technique using the alternation of notes, pitches, or chords), but the hocket is today virtually synonymous with the work of another of tonight’s composers, Louis Andriessen: another musical connection. Listening to Aquarelle and Tuin van Eros this evening, however, is a vivid illustration of the different approaches taken by composers from shared starting-points.

Louis Andriessen had a very profound influence on my personal musical direction. It was during a performance of his De Snelheid that I first knew that I must compose, and during which I experienced a “lifting of the veil” onto a new world of sound very different from the music of my childhood. Although some of the sounds of De Snelheid may (just!) be audible in the first of my works performed tonight (Prelude I for solo piano), the work of Andriessen is very remote from my second, Five Bagatelles. Indeed, of the various bits of the music rattling around in my mind that the Bagatelles tip their hats to, both European minimalism and Feldman-esque trance-like atmospheres are clearly absent.

From European minimalism, to the American version: when we think of modern quintessentially American music, we might immediately think of Steve Reich and John Adams, or we might think of Morton Feldman and John Cage. But arguably the leading light of American music today is Elliott Carter, a most remarkable composer still working (and attending international concerts) in his 99th year. Carter’s Esprit Rude / Esprit Doux II, which we perform this evening, makes much use of complex rhythmic relationships between musical materials. Both Kondo and Andriessen have also taken a mathematical approach to their work, but the difference in the resulting music is stark.

To my ears, Carter’s Esprit Rude / Esprit Doux II sounds much more “continental European” than it does “American”. The closest relation, musically, in tonight’s programme is perhaps Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VIII. Is there a connection?

Berio studied in the United States at Tanglewood in the early 1950s (with an Italian, Luigi Dallapiccola), and later that decade he attended the New Music Summer School at Darmstadt, which was a famously influential meeting-place of many leading composers of the late 20th century. It was at Darmstadt that Berio met (French) composer Pierre Boulez (to whom Carter’s Esprit is dedicated as a 70th birthday gift) and it was during this decade that Berio became interested in the technique of serialism. In identifying connections between composers, it is interesting and perhaps revelatory to note that Louis Andriessen was a student of Berio, in both Milan and Berlin.

Where do all these connections lead us? Is there really a sense of “location” in a composer’s music, and to what extent does a composer’s teacher influence their music? I’ve claimed above that Andriessen had a powerful effect on my music; perhaps it’s just coincidence that my first composition teacher, Steve Martland, was a student of Louis Andriessen. Both Ian Vine and I first met Louis Andriessen in Manchester, where we were students of Anthony Gilbert; he in turn is a contemporary of Manchester composers Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, but between the five of us, is it even remotely possible to identify a common sense of “Manchesterness” - or even “Britishness” — in our music?

Far more powerful, I believe, are the musical connections composers spark in each other, and in particular those musical connections between a teacher of composition and his student. I still have on my bookshelf the copy of Andrew Ford’s Composer to Composer which Steve Martland gave to me in 1994 to send me on my way to university. Perhaps it is indeed “composer to composer” that our musical ideas most effectively spread.