Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Ghosts of War

Tracing the path from FS Kelly's death in the Battle of the Somme, through the rediscovery of the Schumann Violin Concerto on the eve of World War II, to the exile into which that tragic conflict threw so many composers including Bartók: the concert The Ghosts of War is one of my dream events made real. It's been built around my book Ghost Variations and the story of Jelly d'Arányi, who was deeply connected with not only the concerto but also the other two composers. On 1 June I'm narrating the concert for the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra in Oxford Town Hall, with the conductors Marios Papadopoulos and Hannah Schneider (who will do the Kelly) and the stunning Russian violinist Alena Baeva as soloist in the Schumann. I do hope you can join us! Booking here.

Here's some more about the concert and the personalities behind the pieces, to help whet the appetite...


From the death of composer Frederick Septimus Kelly in the Battle of the Somme, through the bizarre rediscovery of Schumann’s long-suppressed Violin Concerto on the eve of World War II to music that Bela Bartók composed in exile in 1940, this concert traces the inter-war years through the extraordinary figure of the great Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi (the heroine of my novel Ghost Variations, which inspired the programme). 

One of the most significant musicians of her day, muse to such composers as Ravel, Szymanowski, Holst, Vaughan Williams and Bartók, d’Arányi was born in Budapest in 1893 and in her heyday premiered many seminal new pieces of music. But in 1933 she claimed to have received spirit messages purporting to be from the composer Robert Schumann, asking her to find and play his long-neglected Violin Concerto. In her quest to find this work, which had never been published, d’Arányi found herself trapped in a race against the Nazi regime’s Department of Propaganda, which wanted to conscript the newly discovered concerto for its own purposes. The concerto’s rebirth was almost as traumatic a tale as its birth; it had been Schumann’s last orchestral work before the mental collapse that led to his hospitalisation and death. Its modern premiere was eventually presented in November 1937 in front of Hitler and Goebbels. D’Arányi gave its UK premiere at the Queen’s Hall, London, in February 1938.

Flanking the concerto are works by two of the most significant figures in d’Arányi’s life. Frederick Septimus Kelly was described by d’Arányi’s family as “her only fiancé” (if in the French sense of 'suitor' or 'boyfriend' rather than 'intended'...): a highly talented Australian composer and pianist, he studied at Eton and Oxford and frequently met the d’Arányi sisters to rehearse and perform chamber music. On the outbreak of World War I he became an officer and survived Gallipoli, composing a violin sonata for d’Arányi while there. His most famous work, however, is the exquisitely beautiful Elegy in Memoriam Rupert Brooke, written in tribute to the poet, who was a close friend and died in 1915. Kelly met his own tragic death at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. D’Arányi kept his portrait on her piano for the rest of her life - even though there was no sign that Kelly had ever actually returned her feelings. 

Jelly plays Kelly

Bela Bartók was close to the d’Arányi family in Budapest before they moved to Britain: as a young man he was frequently at their home to give piano lessons to their middle sister, Hortense. He was enraptured first by the eldest of the three, Adila (herself an eminent violinist under her married name, Adila Fachiri); but later, when the youngest, Jelly, grew up, she became a crucial inspiration. For her he composed his two impassioned sonatas for violin and piano, which she premiered with him in London respectively in 1922 and 1923. This time the unrequited love was his.

After the outbreak of World War II, Bartók left Hungary and spent his last years in America, where he had to struggle for acceptance and survival. In exile, he composed his magnificent Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who conducted its premiere in 1944. Despite the distance of several thousand miles, the work seems to overflow with the energy, lyrical beauty and exotic colours of Bartók’s - and d’Arányi’s - native Budapest, the dazzling rhythms of the Hungarian language and the soulful, rhapsodic qualities so characteristic of Hungarian folk music. 

The Schumann Violin Concerto’s modern rediscovery seems highly symbolic. D’Arányi’s career was on the brink, tipping from greatness to decline in a combination of physical and psychological pressures; the work is by a composer about to experience a catastrophic breakdown; and it was revived for a world poised on the cliff edge, ready to tumble into the madness of fascism and war. Yet the concerto’s Polonaise finale carries a message of hope that bore a startling relevance to those times and to the future. It was a story crying out to be told, especially in a world that can seem once again to be on the brink of madness. In Ghost Variations I wanted to pay tribute to these great musicians, but also to capture the resonance that their world carries for our own.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Brainstaves: a string quartet on a mission

The Ligeti Quartet is presenting a programme at Kings Place tomorrow that's so extraordinary I just had to ask them how it works. This is string quartet work with a mission, a whole new concept for a new century. This concert is called 'Consciousness' and involves a collaboration with the neuroscientist and composer Cliff Kerr, using the musicians' brain activity to generate music. The works by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Shiva Feshareki and Lutosławski all connect to the theme in ways of their own; in particular, Feshareki's quartet Venus/Zoreh is a planetary journey with a difference. The concert is part of Kings Place's astonishing Venus Unwrapped series. First violinist Mandhira de Saram has agreed to answer some of my questions...

JD: What inspired this programme and how have you chosen the pieces for it? 

MDS: Like most ensembles, we put an inordinate amount of thought into programming - we want to make sure that programmes are always challenging, thought-provoking, but (hopefully) with some sense of fun. After all we have a lot of fun planning them although we agonise and argue over details. Often our programmes are built around a particular piece or concept or around around a few pieces which we love performing. 

This programme, Consciousness, was inspired by discussions with neuroscientist and composer Cliff Kerr over a year ago about using our actual brain activity to generate music. We realised that some of our favourite pieces would show different ways in which composers as well as we, as performers, approach awareness and responsiveness, shared consciousness. Shiva spent a long time with us leading meditative exercises as an essential preparation for her piece. In fact, we found that after working with Shiva for just a short time, we became more aware whilst performing other repertoire too in terms of our receptivity to sound, noise, texture and our shared consciousness as a string quartet. 

Ruth Crawford's string quartet, and especially the third movement, uses as its compositional base an extremely new and unique (for the time - 1931!) sound world. Composers are still exploring the same techniques and concepts - her ideas were so new and meaningful that they are ageless! The dense writing in her music requires us to be totally 'in tune' with each other - a huge amount of rehearsal goes into preparing this music even though the piece is very short. 

In contrast to the condensed miniatures which make up Crawford's work, Lutosławski's only string quartet (both Crawford and Lutoslawski wrote only one work in this form) is a long work, which uses some aleatoric devices, but carefully controlled and calculated so that the outcome is always the same - like a chess grandmaster who has foreseen all possible moves. The result is that the performers feel they are playing in a quasi-improvisatory style, feeding off and interacting with each other, but in fact we are always within a grid of cues and meticulously worked out 'mobiles' or episodic material. 

MDS: This is what Cliff says: "When musicians improvise, their brains create musical ideas, which are translated into muscle commands, sent along the spinal cord to the muscles, and then these muscle movements make music. But what if you were able to read the music directly from the brain? The concept behind Brainstaves is to use EEG headsets to record the electrical activity of the performers' brains, allowing the score for the piece to be generated in real time. The challenge here is twofold: to be scientifically accurate enough to do justice to the brain's bubbling activity, and to be musically sensible enough to keep the audience from reaching for their earplugs. To solve this, I created a structural and harmonic environment that is static, but within which each individual note is determined by mapping the amount of brain activity in different frequency bands onto a statistical distribution. The result is effectively an improvisation between the performers and their own brains - an exploration of the wild, wacky, and perhaps wonderful signals that are transmitted within, and between, our brains."

MDS: We are still working on the piece every day - it is certainly a collaborative process, three-way: Cliff, the LQ and our brains. That is not taking into account getting to grips with the tech - for example, the EEG headsets to a long time to get working in a way Cliff could actually use for composing a piece (the ones we have are actually to be used with a meditation app!). Over the next few days we will be developing the piece further and also using it as the basis for our workshops with Hearing Impaired children, an ACE funded project. The exciting (and stressful!) aspect of this piece is that we will always be sight-reading, even though we will have a sense of what the music might be like through pre-generated or fully composed examples. We have yet to experience how our brain activity might change during an actual performance as opposed to simulating this experience in rehearsals or workshop sessions. Perhaps we are in for a surprise, but, I know that Cliff (like Lutoslawski did in his quartet) has controlled parameters so that the feedback loop is always predictable in most ways, certainly in its sound-world and rhythm, even though individual notes change. 

JD: What’s most exciting to you about creating new music by linking with a scientific process in this way? 

MDS: This is something which is certainly stimulating, and more than anything generates even more ideas for compositions and collaborations. In fact, I think working with a scientist and the process of collaborating on a piece inspires a lot of non-scientific ideas, which I guess is the idea. We always want to find new concepts, sounds, techniques and ways of creating. The novelty and inventiveness which is needed to make this work is in itself important research. Scientists and composers sometimes work in similar ways and most often the process is as important as the result. For us, we would hope that between Cliff's and our own musical knowledge, the piece produced would be artistically successful, but the work we had to do to get there is as important to us as it will hopefully give us a model for developing further such collaborations. 

JD: Please tell us more about Shiva Feshareki’s ‘Venus/Zohreh’ - and how come you were touring planetariums? How does the music relate to the planets? 

Shiva Feshareki, winner of a British Composer Award 2017
Photo: Mark Allen
MDS: The planetarium tour came about as the Ligeti Quartet, Sam Bordoli and Sound UK wanted to commission a new 'Planets' as a homage to Holst's piece. By complete chance, we realised that the 100th anniversary of Holst's planets would coincide with this project. So we commissioned a diverse range of composers from different musical backgrounds, selected a planet for them and paired them with a scientist who is an expert in their particular planet. Shiva and Dr Philippa Mason brainstormed and looked at data together, as did the other composer-scientist pairings. The idea was that each Planet would be inspired by science rather than Astrology, as in Holst's Planets.

Shiva's programme note: VENUS/ZOHREH is one exponential crescendo in volume, intensity, speed, and pitch exposure. Within this expansion a rich array of direct expression is exposed. The piece was composed using a variety of techniques such as plotting pitches, dynamics, duration, and rhythmic ideas as graphic shapes, that together create one overarching shape. The realisation of the composition draws on deep listening exercises that bring together other physical elements related to sound such as movement and space.
After collaboration with the Venus expert and geologist Dr Philippa Mason, the composition was crafted using the same methods as used to extrapolate information about Venus through what we know about Earth. The emotional journey behind the piece is inspired by my mother Zohreh. Zohreh in the Persian language translates to Venus, or the Morning Star. Therefore, the scientific journey behind the composition is forged through the collaboration with Dr Mason, and the spiritual journey is from my mother Zohreh. These energies combine to create VENUS/ZOHREH.

This piece is dedicated to my mother Zohreh as well as Envision: a planetary mission to Venus which aims to measure the rate and nature of geological activity and its influence on atmospheric chemistry. The piece was commissioned by Sound UK for the Ligeti Quartet.

Other composers approached their planets in different ways.  For example, Mira Calix literally translated geological data into notes, Richard Bullen concentrated on the 4 moons of Jupiter, Laurence Crane the 'iciness' of Neptune etc. All were hugely inspired by their meetings with experts on their planets. 

JD: What most appeals to you in the music of Ruth Crawford Seeger and Witold Lutosławski?

Ruth Crawford Seeger
MDS: Ruth Crawford (this piece was written before she married Charles Seeger) is a landmark piece of music, probably one of the earliest examples of writing a string quartet using this kind of modernist language. The piece is so tightly constructed, full of expression as well as fun and absolutely amazing to play even though it is technically challenging. The third movement especially is groundbreaking - a crescendo of rising cross-swells which arrives at a climax and quickly descends and dies down. A few days ago in rehearsal we were thinking that the effect created in all 4 movements is like a backwards tape! But written a decade before tape was actually invented!

The Lutosławski requires a very different kind of quartet mentality. Whereas the Crawford requires that we are absolutely synchronised, the Lutosławski allows us at least a sense of freedom even though he has in fact calculated outcomes so carefully that the piece always sounds the same. The composer did not want the players to see a full score for the piece (I have to admit, that when we first learned it, we did cheat), The effect of this is that when we do actually play together, and this is indicated in the individual parts, it feels amazing to play into that string quartet sounds, and then we drift away again. 

JD:  How do you see the current upsurge of interest in music by women? Do you think it can transform our musical landscape? 

MDS: It is high time that diversity is embraced in classical music (and in any other discipline). It is quite obvious that we have in no way reached a point where women are commissioned as much as men. It should not be considered a vogue or trend but something that should have always happened, a mistake which is now being corrected. in order for there to be equality, we need to redress the balance perhaps more in favour of women and minorities before finding a real balance. We aim for a 50:50 balance in our programmes and actively seek out composers to commission. 

JD: The Ligeti Quartet is doing some truly fascinating programmes - do you see yourselves as an ensemble with a mission? What would be your mission statement? 

MDS: We certainly do have a mission! The music we commission and perform, we feel, is thought provoking. We try to programme in ways which challenges the audience to listen actively, find connections, images, stories and engage with what we, the performers are doing - in fact, encouraging the audience to make some of the same kind of decisions and choices that we make when interpreting a piece. It is a three way interaction between composer, performers and audience (sometimes four-way if we consider the space/acoustic) I guess our mission is to invite as many people as possible to enjoy the music we love with us and to defy those who feel that new and challenging music has no meaning. Music is constantly evolving and we enjoy being a part of this.

Ligeti Quartet: 'Consciousness', Kings Place, 9 May. Booking here:

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Music and politics don't mix, right? Wrong.

Three cheers for Rhinegold and Classical Music Magazine, now home to a new podcast entitled Music Plus, hosted by music journalist and human rights activist Chris Gunness. Chris used to work for the UN in the Middle East, but he is now back in the UK and interviewing the musicians who burn to change the world. Music Plus focuses on the role that classical music can play in social justice and also supports the magazine's efforts to inform and educate re mental health for musicians. 

Among Chris's interviewees to date are the pianist Gabriela Montero, who speaks powerfully about the situation in her native Venezuela; Chineke! founder Chichi Nwanoku; Mark Wigglesworth on the responsibilities of the conductor, and much more besides. Do have a listen. In the meantime, I wanted to interview Chris himself about why he does what he does – and why classical music has lagged so far behind its potential in this invaluable field. JD

Gabriela Montero: free improvisation on Venezuela

JD: Chris, congratulations on this splendid new series and thanks for talking to us. First of all, why do you think a podcast about music and social justice is necessary? What do you hope it will achieve?

CG: I created the Music Plus Podcast because classical music and social responsibility have come of age. After years or retreating from society, classical music, at last, is re-engaging with issues of social justice; and I wanted both to showcase the work of classical musicians who are passionate about making our world a more just place and also to encourage others in the industry to do more. 

Pop music has been promoting the rights of the most disadvantaged for decades. I attended the Live Aid concert in Wembley Stadium in 1985 which was watched by 40 per cent of the world’s population and which raised billions to combat starvation in Ethiopia. Look at the black musicians who provided the sound track for the American civil rights movement. 

By contrast – and despite notable examples -- classical music is only now beginning to look more seriously at its social responsibilities; and the truth is that although it’s easy to ridicule elitist musical institutions, many of those in the UK today are doing transformative work with some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country. I wanted to highlight this, while at the same time, pricking the consciences of those who should be doing more. 

It’s also been important for me to draw in younger audiences and to show them that classical music resonates with their ideals of a better world.  And already youth audiences are listening in.

JD: I don’t know of any other initiative quite like this. Have we in the music world been too slow to wake up to the potential for a stronger role for music within society?

CG: The answer to your question is a triple fortissimo, resounding YES. Music is deeply embedded in our lives at all levels and there is massive potential for classical music to create change within our society; on a personal level with music therapy for example, but also at a societal level.  My interview with Chi-chi Nwanoku, who founded “Chineke!”, Europe’s first majority black and minority ethnic orchestra, highlights this beautifully. 

Chi-chi has broken down barriers and destroyed stereotypes, drawing in younger more diverse audiences, transforming the classical music landscape forever. It is this sort of cutting-edge work that I feature. Certainly there’s no other podcast that showcases world class musicians with a burning sense of social justice. And by the way, the podcast also supports a campaign by Classical Music Magazine to promote mental health in the classical music industry:

The Chineke! Chamber Players in part of Schubert's 'Trout' Quintet

JD: Tell us something about your line-up so far. Why have you chosen these particular interviewees? 

CG: Beyond Chi-chi, I interviewed Mark Wigglesworth on the responsibilities of the conductor, both within musical institutions and in society more broadly; Gabriela Montero – Amnesty International’s first Honorary Consul -- on the role of music in promoting human rights; James Rose, the world’s first professional conductor with cerebral palsy on disability and stigma; Julian Lloyd-Webber on universal music education and Dr Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey who recently brought to the UK the Afghan Women’s Orchestra, surely the world’s bravest ensemble, who were attacked by a suicide bomber simply for playing. These are all musicians, passionate about social justice and whose work is ground-breaking and inspirational.  

JD: You’re a musician, but you worked for the UN in the Middle East. Tell us about your path into that - and back from it? What have your experiences there have shown you and what do you hope to do with that knowledge now?

CG: I decided to work with refugees in the Middle East because after 23 years in the BBC writing about social justice, I wanted to go and do it! When you work with people who’ve been robbed of everything – their land, the property, their history – when you work with communities who are forgotten and marginalised, you begin to think deeply about those things that bind us, the common humanity that unites us. You search for and hold tight to those things that can bring joy and a sense of values amid the most terrible loss. Music and all it engenders is one of those things and I hope that each and every edition of the Music Plus Podcast illustrates this in one way or another.

 The Afghan Women's Orchestra perform in Zürich

JD: “Music and politics don’t mix” - your thoughts on this little maxim, please?

CG: It’s demonstrably wrong. We know that music was an integral element of public life in ancient societies and music has been an element of the political order throughout human history; think of Protestant and Catholic music during the Reformation; think of music and nationalism in the nineteenth century; think of the musical conversation between Shostakovich and Stalin! Music has always moulded society and vice versa. 

Moreover, music retreats from society at its peril: it will be condemned to irrelevance. Conversely society is impoverished when music and musicians retreat; they bring so much richness. That’s why I am delighted that classical musicians are re-engaging and why I believe the time is ripe for a podcast that focuses on how classical music is transforming our communities.