02 July 2021

A Northumbrian Anthem for orchestra

 

You may be getting the feeling that I am inordinately proud of A Northumbrian Anthem. If so, you would be slightly off the mark, but it would be my fault. You have seen me publish it in four guises, no less, roughly at yearly intervals. Let me clarify: my insistence on sharing one version after another of this ditty is a sign not of pride, but of the need to ensure that it is put to the service it was designed for: to bridge a chasm, to promote togetherness, to spread love.

 

The piece is, of course, a paean to the part of the world I called home for the longest and most meaningful stretch of my life, and to the handful of people with whom I shared it. Newcastle upon Tyne and, more specially, rural Northumberland are places where I took the fundamental decisions that signal definitive commitment. I nailed my colours to the mast in a way that seemed irreversible. To be forcibly uprooted from that settled configuration was more traumatic than I can describe. A situation of enforced separation supervened and it was then that I wrote A Northumbrian Anthem.

 

As I have explained before, I composed it to a commission which came with specific requirements demanding simplicity, accessibility and, of course, an anthemic character. This, added to the challenge of writing for solo organ, would have made for a testing brief at the best of times. The additional ingredient that I was facing a personal cataclysm gives the resulting piece, in my own perception at least, the quality of a testimony. The fact that the commissioners decided that they did not want my piece for the designated event after all does, in retrospect, fit rather well with the moment’s drama. I hear that they chose to use a composition by John Treherne instead.

 

To write the original organ version, I studied organ scores and took advice from a professional organist. To arrange it for brass band, I had no one to ask, so I studied what brass-band scores I could lay hands on. In both cases I was in unfamiliar territory. Writing for the orchestra is a different matter; I have been doing that since the age of seventeen, by which time I had been working as a player in an orchestra for over a year. I won’t waste everybody’s time counting how many orchestral pieces and arrangements I have written. Suffice it to say that with the orchestra I feel on home ground. Although it did take the best part of a week, it would be fair to say that the orchestration of A Northumbrian Anthem wrote itself. The music knew where to go, what orchestral spaces to occupy. It was easy to feel that the orchestra is where the piece belongs.

 

To address the issue I started with: do I feel proud of A Northumbrian Anthem? Pride is not the word, but the piece is enormously special to me. Although I wrote it away from the Northeast of England (or because of that?) all the circumstances around its composition invest it with the quality of a summation of everything I did and experienced in the region. The resulting piece moves me, which is more than I can say of most of my music. The Northumbrianness of it stirs me. Define Northumbrianness? I can’t. In my time there I was regularly exposed to traditional music of the area, but I cannot objectively say that my piece has any audible traces of any of that. What it probably does share with those splendid tunes is the love, that depth of feeling that is most quotably expressed in Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s famed peroration:

 

God bring me to Northumberland, the land where I was born.

 

In some important respects, I was born there, too. I desperately yearn for the day when I can again see the landscape I love and I can again be with the people I love. I know that there is no true or fair reason why that should not be possible. If anything in these deranged times still makes any sense, I am not alone in knowing that.

 

I cannot promise that this will be the end of the series. I have in mind versions for choir and for choir and organ, and maybe more after that. I feel a need to fill the space with versions that will make this music accessible to as many as possible of those who love Northumberland and the Northeast of England, and of those who share with me the belief that love, truth, loyalty and respect (including self-respect) are values worth living for and, if necessary, worth dying for.  

 

 

 

 

 

12 June 2021

On Diary of Exile

Those who were in the habit of following my blog Diary of Exile will have been either disappointed or relieved to find that it has been withdrawn from public access. It has not been closed or deleted; it has been switched from “public” to “invitation-only”. I have volunteered invitations to a few key people. Others can request access by emailing agustin@agustinfernandez.com.

 

The paucity of requests received so far, in contrast with the unsettlingly high readership stats Diary of Exile was returning before the switch, suggests a number of explanations, any of which I am happy with. The most likely is that the majority of erstwhile readers used to come to the blog out of simple curiosity, and that once the blog was out of easy reach they directed their interest elsewhere. I know there were some who were genuinely concerned about my case; I know that because they contacted me through the blog’s private-comment facility. I can only conjecture that these readers may have had second thoughts about sending me a request lest their contact or their access, once given, may become known to others. I doubt whether reputable blogging platforms would allow that kind of snooping, but I would understand that concern.

 

I am also aware of another contingent of readers, those who read hastily and selectively to extract passages they can use to further undermine my position. Some of them even egged me on to write more of the kind of thing, I was later to learn, they wanted me to say to fit the story they were wanting to tell. I am glad I resisted their urgings, even though, without the need for them, I did unwittingly give them some material to twist and distort. Whatever is lost by foregoing a platform on which to bring my plight to public attention, much is gained by not exposing myself to that kind of tendentious prurience.

 

In any case, Diary of Exile is not gone for good. It is up and running, and in due course I may make it public again. For the moment, a more targeted and discreet approach is called for. My battle is far from over.


03 July 2020

A Northumbrian Anthem for organ (2020)


The updated version for organ is now available to hear on Soundcloud

It is still only the computer demo, I’m afraid, but it is a start. I did hear passages of the original version tried out on the organ of Nossa Senhora de Fátima in Sumaré, São Paulo, nearly two years ago. The purpose then was to try out the various organ stops with a professional organist. The sound was impressive. I do look forward to hearing the piece played one day.

08 June 2020

A Northumbrian Anthem for brass band


You may think it underwhelming that all I seem to manage these days is short tuneful pieces and folk arrangements, but there are good reasons for it, most of them not suitable for a blog of this kind.

Here is a version for brass band of my own A Northumbrian Anthem of 2018. I am a novice on this medium, and the mind is still boggling after so much transposition, but after so many years in the Northeast of England it would be something of an omission not to have written at least one short piece. There have been other adjustments too, which may now find their way back into the organ version.

Best listen on proper speakers or headphones.



02 April 2020

Updated arrangement

And, of course - a little update on a little arrangement. 




09 October 2019

Ve'ulai: reconstructed arrangement

He aquí mi arreglo reconstruido de Ve'ulai, la canción de Yehuda Sharet sobre el célebre poema de Rachel. 

Grabación casera de una ejecución del Coro Juvenil de la Orquesta de Gran Canaria y miembros de la Orquesta de Gran Canaria, dirigidos por Marcela Garrón Velarde. 

-------------

Here is my reconstructed arrangement of Ve'ulai by Rachel and Yehuda Sharet. 

Homemade recording of a live performance by Coro Juvenil de la Orquesta de Gran Canaria and members of the Orquesta de Gran Canaria, conducted by Marcela Garrón Velarde. 

02 October 2019

Ve'ulai


VE'ULAI
Imagine if one could understand Hebrew and if, in addition to the beauty of this voice, of this song and of this arrangement, one could at the same time take in the searing nostalgia of the poem?
That would be simply too much – at least for me. Just as well I can't. 
I am, however, reconstructing my own arrangement of Ve’ulai. It is for eight vocal parts and string quartet. It was written for Coral Nova in 1983, sung beautifully by them and then lost. Is losing scores something of a habit, you might ask? I suspect the answer would interest only music librarians. Or, perhaps an even more apt question, why bother to rewrite a lost arrangement?
I hope to find a way to explain the imperative in due course.
Poem by Rachel
Song by Yehuda Sharet
Sung by Esther Ofarin
Arranged by?
Accompanied by?
(Tut tut, The Orchard Enterprise - but thank you for posting it in the first place.)


_________
VE'ULAI
¿Se imaginan poder entender hebreo y, encima de la belleza de esta voz, de esta canción y de este arreglo, poder absorber al mismo tiempo la nostalgia calcinante del poema?
Eso sería simplemente demasiado – por lo menos para mí; menos mal que no sé hebreo.
Estoy, sin embargo, reconstruyendo mi propio arreglo de Ve’ulai. Es para ocho partes vocales y cuarteto de cuerda. Lo escribí en 1983 para Coral Nova, quienes lo cantaron estupendamente; luego la partitura se perdió. ¿Es un hábito mío perder partituras, preguntarán? La respuesta interesaría sólo a bibliotecarios musicales. O, una pregunta aun más idónea, ¿para qué tomarse la molestia de reescribir un arreglo perdido?
Espero saber cómo explicar el imperativo en su momento.
Poema de Rachel
Canción de Yehuda Sharet
Cantada por Esther Ofarin
¿Arreglo de?
¿Acompañamiento de?
(No está bien, The Orchard Enterprise - pero gracias por compartir.)

30 September 2019

End of an era

End of an era

 

On Friday 6 September 2019 I tendered my resignation, bringing to an end nearly twenty-five years’ work at Newcastle University, first as lecturer in what was then called the Music Department, then as senior lecturer, and then as professor in the by now renamed International Centre for Music Studies. The resignation was accepted. 

 


 

 

A quarter of a century’s worth of work could fill a book if recounted in detail, but that would be a book few would want to read. Suffice it to say that I worked and, for much of the time, I overworked. One does not leave senior employment to go on to discuss institutional matters in a blog, so I only offer here some personal recollections by way of valediction.

 

Periods of particular frenzy were two: the early years when, as a youngish sapper, I ran admissions, the Hopkins Studios and the music technology front, as well as my own discipline of composition and a contribution to the pool of general music teaching. The other especially frenzied time was my three-and-a-half years as Head of Music. These were dramatic in more than one way. The rest of the time was challenging, but not titanically so.

 

The number of students I taught in all these years would be hard to estimate. There were brilliant ones, there were average ones, there were those who struggled and there were a few difficult ones. It would be invidious to single any individuals out, but I will allow myself to mention groups. The Year Two in what was the only available music programme (BA) the year of my arrival, (1995-6) was a colourful collection of interesting individuals with whom I developed a special rapport. They welcomed me with warmth and humour. I still have occasional contact with some of them. As was not uncommon before tuition fees were imposed, there was a fair smattering of mature students in the group, and they were among the more interesting personalities.

 

Over the years, there were two or three absolutely outstanding composition students to whom I owe many hours of delight reading through their work and discussing it with them as I followed their progress. I hope that they will continue to do justice to their potential and, if they remain in England, I hope that today’s harsh realities will not succeed in snuffing out their talent. 

 

There were students on the Folk Degree who filled the air with music-making of a high calibre; I remember a number of them with admiration.

 

As to my colleagues, what can I say. I learned an awful lot from them. The most important and influential one of them I must not name. As the majority of staff in my time, I remain in awe of Richard Middleton. He transformed the place with his intellect and drive. Within the folk area, Alistair Anderson showed a similar single-mindedness and transformative power. I did not always see eye-to-eye with either of them, but admire their dedication I certainly did. Other than them, to mention only the veterans from my time, I admired the flair and formidable linguistic ability of Ian Biddle, the intellectual capacity of David Clarke, the decency and rectitude of Eric Cross, the musicianship and passion of Bennett Hogg, the rigour and productivity of Goffredo Plastino, the exquisite wit of Magnus Williamson. Inevitably over a long period interpersonal relationships fluctuate; much of the time we each got on with our own thing, leaving each other alone. But I do owe each of these colleagues, and some of the others, moments of fond warmth and inspiring conversations, seminars and meetings. There were difficult moments with one or two of them, but that is not what I take away with me.

 

Being a sucker for grand old architecture, I enjoyed the Armstrong Building and having an office overlooking the quad. The King’s Hall was the venue for numerous concerts I enjoyed as a listener and for other events I instigated, or played in, or conducted. A particularly fond memory is conducting the University Orchestra in one of its better ever line-ups in two programmes of mostly Russian music, including Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto with the excellent Robert Markham as soloist. My A Northumbrian Anthem, written for the new Aubertin organ, was to be my most intimate engagement with this space, as well as a homage to the most important adult in my life, but the piece was never performed.

 

In my last two years I worked with enthusiasm to set up the interdisciplinary Eastern European and Russian Research Group (EERRG). This gave me the opportunity to interact with colleagues from other disciplines, including some brilliant minds and wonderful people such as Robert Dale, Joanne Sayner, Valentina Feklyunina and others. This also gave me the opportunity to deepen pre-existing professional relationships with much liked and much admired personalities Marina Frolova-Walker, Valentina Sandu Dediu and Adrian Pop. I had ambitious plans for this group and I am sad to have had to leave it in its infancy, but I am pleased to see signs that it is still up and running. I wish it much success.

 

Over these near-twenty-five years I was far from infallible, but, on the scale of fallibility, I know that I was not among the problem cases. If that is anything to go by, my inbox, now out of my reach, contains many expressions of satisfaction or gratitude and few indications of concern. That was also my experience in the daily interaction with colleagues and students.

 

This self-obituary would not be complete if I failed to mention that, on my arrival in 1995, the Music Department was a small unit, still recovering from a recent attempt to close it down, having performed unremarkably at the recent research-assessment exercise. During my time it grew in size and in performance, raising its standards, becoming one of the most successful music departments in the country, being selected as a Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and achieving some of the highest research-assessment results in the Kingdom. It would be ludicrous for me to claim any special credit for that, but that I was an active participant in this growth and this success nobody can truthfully deny.   

 

There is any number of ways I might have imagined my time at Newcastle University to come to an end, but not the way it happened. I was loyal to a fault and conscientious with my work at the expense of my personal life and my creative career. Countless small hours and weekend hours that should by rights been family time were spent marking, preparing or doing pressing admin. Colleagues were always respectful, as I was to them. Aside from the customary grumblings from a negligible number of dissatisfied souls, I enjoyed cordial and productive relationships with the students. I will not try to justify the institution’s handling of my case. As far as I am concerned, I was put in an untenable position by facing three processes at the same time, one within the University and two outside. Their progress was uncannily synchronised, with milestone institutional meetings and hearings almost always coinciding in the same week as the external ones. When, near the end of my tether, I saw written evidence that the make-or-break hearing was strongly predetermined against me, and that to fight that predetermination would take more strength and finance than I could muster, I had to accept that it was time to resign. I know that I will question this decision over the years to come, but, writing these lines still reasonably soon after the events, I hope the view that this was the most sensible course of action will stand up to retrospective scrutiny. In today’s view, other, thornier problems would need to be cleared before I attempt to straighten out unresolved issues with Newcastle University.

 

  

  

18 August 2019

Yungueñita

Yungueñita, on the other hand, is a straight arrangement. "Straight" in the sense of not having as its primary objective to establish a dialogue between two musical languages, as is the case with the Beethovenianas bolivianas. In a wider sense, however, every arrangement is a dialogue between the arranger, his time and his cultural context, and the composer of the original - whether known or anonymous - his time and his context. 

My own understanding of arranging was transformed radically when I discovered the work of Percy Grainger. I did so somewhat belatedly. About twenty years ago (I write this in 2019) my friend, the magnificent all-round musician Alan Fearon, played me a recording of Shallow Brown. We were in his sitting room in Jesmond Vale, overlooking the Dene, and I remember being struck by the sea-like texture provided by the guitar tremolos and by the epic, affirmative responses from the male choir. I knew too little about the context of the sea shanty and the context of Grainger to give it much more thought than that.

About a decade later, my companion in life experienced something of a Grainger epiphany. Of course she knew her Grainger already, but something must have happened to bring it back to her attention. I remember her exhilaration when she came back to the house having listened to Shepherd’s Hey in her car. She played it again for me and I was thrilled; it was the orchestral version, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. That launched a period of listening, reading and talking Percy Grainger. Before long my composition students had to engage with some Grainger too. Said companion went on to curate a very successful Prom concert showing the connection between Grainger and specific tunes from the English repertoire.

Having immersed yourself in Grainger, arranging could never again be the workaday task you once did semi-reluctantly, usually on request and as a compromise between your keenness to have work performed and the performer’s half-hearted commitment to engage with your work – keen enough to play something yours, but not so keen as to play one of your "proper" pieces.  

Grainger elevated for me the task of arranging a folk tune to a level of the highest order of creative challenge. Any arrangement to be undertaken from then on would have to engage not only with the melodic and rhythmic contents, but with the performance practice of the tune’s time and place, and with its cultural context. And it would have to do so from a position of respect, affection and as much knowledge as possible. Daunting.

I met these challenges headlong in the next arrangements I wrote after that. The first was Collier’s Rant which began for six choirs and then had to be shrunk for four. A quick scan through this blog reveals I did not write about it at the time; that has to be remedied and I should do it soon.

The next was not one, but a series of arrangements for string orchestra commissioned by Bolivia Clásica, which I refer to as Arreglos bolivianos. Two of them, Collita and Viva mi patria, are being performed and reproduced with touching frequency in Bolivia, for example by the television channel ATB during a ten-day period leading up to the 194th Independence Day this year. I may come back to that project in this blog if I have time.


Today’s post is about Yungueñita, a taquirari – another taquirari, if you remember that the piece in the last post, Beethovenianas bolivianas No. 1, is also one. Taquirari is probably the first music I knew, or at least the first music I remember hearing back in my childhood in Montero. My current obsession with the genre may have something of a closing of a loop.  

This arrangement, which I finished a few days ago, is for Trío Apolo, Bolivian friends, based in my native town. They are the ones who commissioned my Trio back in 2004. They are currently embarked on an ambitious programme of outreach work and, as part of that, they have asked me to write a number of arrangements. I understand that they were motivated to approach me about this after hearing Arreglos bolivianos when Bolivia Clásica did their patriotic project with Jaime Laredo in 2014.

It was perhaps wayward of me to give them Beethovenianas bolivianas No. 1 as my first instalment, since, as I hope to have explained in the last post, that is not an arrangement of any known folk tune. Yungueñita is closer to the brief.

Yungueñita closes a loop in more than one sense – not only by virtue of being a taquirari. This arrangement is, in fact, informed by another arrangement, one I wrote around 1978 for Orquesta de Cámara Municipal. I was a member of it at the time, leading the viola section, and I was very much in the position I alluded to above, desperate to have my work performed but finding that the management, although well disposed, was not willing to risk a contemporary work. They suggested a folk arrangement instead, and I gave them Yungueñita.

The title means "female from Yungas". Strictly speaking that would be yungueña, but there is a very Bolivian diminutive ending which makes the word more personal,  more affectionate. Yungas is a semi-tropical region near La Paz, and this song is something of a classic of La Paz folk music. Taquirari, quintessential to the eastern lowlands, is by no means a La Paz genre – even though, strangely, another La Paz classic which I have also arranged, Collita, is a taquirari too. Collita’s lyrics make it clear that the song is a homage to a woman of La Paz by a man from the east of the country. There is no such explanation for Yungueñita. All the lyrics do is reproach her for a change in her loyalties, mentioning in passing that the man singing is black. 

I was blissfully ignorant of Yungueñita's authorship in 1978 and, to my shame, the first few performances had the composer’s credit as Anonymous in the programme. It was after one of the concerts of Orquesta de Cámara Municipal that the manager, Juan Antonio Maldonado, came to tell me that a composer had materialised, that his name was Víctor Hugo Serrano and that he was indignant that he was not being credited – but that he was delighted with the arrangement. It was all settled in a friendly manner.

I do not have access to the score of the 1978 arrangement, but, although forty-one years have elapsed, we played it so often around that time that I remember it reasonably well. The new arrangement for Trío Apolo retrieves the melody of the introduction (not part of Serrano’s tune) and a couple of countermelodies. The rest is new.

Something that was distinctly lacking in the older arrangement was any serious attempt to engage with the rhythmic subtleties of taquirari. I did some detailed exploration on this for Collita and for Pensando en ti (both are in Arreglos bolivianos of 2014). I take the search one step further in Beethovenianas bolivianas No. 1 and, I think, another step in Yungueñita.

Computer simulation!


-->

31 July 2019

Beethovenianas bolivianas, No. 1


At this bizarre conjuncture maybe I should be saying, as Samuel Beckett said to Edna O’Brien when she asked if he was writing anything: “and what use would it be, anyhow?” What use, indeed, if he was on his deathbed and if any lines he might pen at that point could be his last, going nowhere, leading to the completion of no meaningful work?

In my case, I am composing, but not in any sense I might have been at any time before.

The circumstances of the last year have precluded a proper immersion in creative work. I have remained productive, first of all in order to fulfil existing commitments, such as LoA (Sage Gateshead, September 2018) and A Northumbrian Anthem (August 2018). Composing them was difficult, not least in a logistical sense, with no music keyboard or even of an alphanumeric keypad, which until then had seemed essential for music notation input. But the effort also helped to sustain me when things were hard, and to focus on something positive.

After that, other pressing challenges - not of a musical kind - absorbed my energies. But it was not possible to defer composing for very long. Writing music was and is essential to who I am, and to abandon it for any length of time would endanger my sense of self.

After some struggle, I found a compromise: I could go on composing by writing shorter, less demanding pieces in the crevices of time and strength the situation allowed. And, since we don’t know how long I will be in a position to continue to write music, thoughts have to turn to debts, that is, pieces I had been feeling for some time that there was a moral imperative to write. That was the case of the choral piece A Don Franklin (October 2018), a homage to Franklin Anaya Arze which is intended to rectify an imbalance left by the oft-performed (too oft, I wonder?) Himno al Instituto Laredo (1979).

There are also what could be termed aesthetic debts to repay. I cannot forget the mission statement I came up with in a late-night conversation with my eldest sister, Beba, back in 1970 or 1971. I was twelve or thirteen then, and was in the process of discovering the classical repertoire after a few years spent playing folk and traditional music. I told my sister that my ambition was to absorb the technique of the classical masters to put it at the service of a new folk music. I said words to the effect that my music would have to be a conversation between the two traditions. Mind you, I had not heard much twentieth-century music at that point.


Naïve and juvenile perhaps, but that manifesto was sincere, and in some important ways I have adhered to it. There is no denying that my immersion in classical music became total for many years – as it had to be, given how much there was to learn. But it is equally undeniable that the “classical” music I wrote throughout the 1970s in Bolivia (say, Rapsodia, or Misa de Corpus Christi) was, recognisably, also folk music. In the following decades I wrote music which, to British and USA audiences, might sound “very Bolivian” (or, for those who know less, “very Latin”), whereas for Bolivian audiences it would sound “very classical” (or, for those who know less, “very contemporary”). Those are typical reactions from audiences. Each constituency would be aware of the otherness. This could mean that, as in today’s BBC bias argument (“if all sides are unhappy they must be getting it right”), I have been hitting the right spot. Or it could mean that, whatever the demographic of my audience, they find my music alien.

Do we want to be defined in terms of our otherness? I am sure I am not the first composer to ask this question. Of course, the absolute majority of creative artists would like to be perceived as original. But do we want to be perceived as other? As alien, even? What would the opposite of that be? What would it be like to be recognised as familiar, kindred, relevant, congenial? How would that music sound? Unappealing thought, especially if we think of the traits such music would need to have to sound familiar, kindred, relevant and congenial to listeners  present or future  of today’s contemporary music.

The thought is more appealing to me if I imagine a Bolivian listener – Latin American, even, and not necessarily one from the thinly-populated spheres of contemporary music audiences – recognising what I write as familiar, kindred, relevant or congenial. What would that music have to sound like? Have my decades of working immersion in classical music first, and then in contemporary classical music, distanced me beyond recall from that listener? To the first of these two questions I have been addressing my thoughts for quite some time. To the second, I do not have to think to answer: the answer is no.

I am not, I cannot be too far removed from a Bolivian, or Latin American, who is sufficiently interested in music to listen to something I have written. I would go further: I cannot be too far removed from any listener from any origin who happens to cross paths with my work. Not if by “being far removed” we mean that my music leaves them behind by virtue of being too rarefied. The reverse is more likely to be the case, and I am sure it has happened already. In the lofty echelons of post-serial music practice and thinking, I am pretty sure my music must have been dismissed many times as “post-tonal” or “emotive” or other such dirty words from the avant-garde lexicon – not that I have heard them; I would be very unlikely to, since such circles are oh so universally polite. These high spheres are prone to exclusivism, and my heart does not ache unduly at being excluded from them, other than to regret the denial of access to some superb performers and performance opportunities. It must be said, however, that I suspect that the reasons for the exclusion are not musical, or not always.

If those stratospheric practitioners and thinkers have shown mistrust towards my serious works – the quartets, the orchestral pieces, Approaching Melmoth – perhaps I ought to shudder at what they would say about my efforts of the last year. But I am past shuddering. I am too busy facing real dangers in other parts of my life. Let the lofties sniff, let them sneeze, let them choke if they have to. I have a job to do, and not many months to do it.

To what extent national identity can be part of a recipe for originality is debatable. I have no intention to use mine in that way, and am under no illusion that being Bolivian will save me from oblivion. All I know is that I started off as a folkie; a premature one, maybe, but an earnest one; I was serious about what I did back in 1969 and 1970. Are you too young to be serious about what you do at that age? Well, I wasn’t (too young), and I was (serious about what I did).

I started off as a folkie, I was saying, and then life put other exciting music in my way. I loved this even more, but I also saw the need for consistency, for loyalty. So that is what I came up with – the formula I confided to my sister. To save you scrolling up, it was: “my music [will] have to be a conversation between the two traditions [folk and classical].

I had hoped to have plenty of time to consider this challenge in my maturity, but I may be being overtaken by events. In an implicit sense all my work has been that: a dialogue of two traditions – at least two. But a conversation in an explicit sense in which two characters are put centre-stage and are seen to converse, distinctly enough for any listener to distinguish between them, including that hypothetical listener who is not used to contemporary music or even to classical music. Have I done that before? I hadn’t, but I have now. This is the first attempt. Ideally it will be the first of a series. Let us see.

The title should be self-explanatory as to who the characters in the conversation are. The title is also an affectionate homage to Heitor Villa-Lobos, who did something comparable. He did it more subtly – but hey, mine is only the first of a series. Or so I hope.


For those unfamiliar with the genre, the structure and rhythm correspond to taquirari, the emblematic genre from the eastern lowlands where I grew up. Is this a pastiche? Emphatically not. This is my mother tongue. 


Until Trío Apolo of Cochabamba have the chance to record it, all we have is the dreaded computer simulation. 

30 May 2019

City Hall



Walking the streets of Newcastle yesterday, I came to the old City Hall. To call it ‘old’ does not mean that it is particularly ancient; it opened in 1927, which, for the standards of central Newcastle, is mature, but not that aged. Nor does it mean that there is a new one to replace it - not formally, at least.  In musical terms, City Hall is an old venue because many of the events that used to take place there are now put on in the modern, scenic and altogether more glamorous Sage Gateshead. 

Since its opening in December 2004, Sage Gateshead has developed a high profile, attracting the artists and the punters that would formerly have come to City Hall - and more, many more artists and many more punters. The river views make going to Sage Gateshead an even more attractive, aesthetically meaningful experience.  

Not much hope left for City Hall, it would seem. And yet, it is still standing. It has survived threats of closure and it has outlived the City Baths nextdoor. It now calls itself 02 City Hall Newcastle and its descriptions of itself defiantly define it as a concert hall. 

Seeing it out of the blue yesterday, I was reminded of Mauricio Kagel's delight when he was my guest to attend the performance of a work of his at Ulster Hall in Belfast in 1993. He said words to the effect that these old halls were the heart of a city's music: good acoustics, central location, a sense of history. Why replace them?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s City Hall was a weekly stop for me. The concerts of Northern Sinfonia - yes, this was before it was awarded its royal appellation - took place there, I believe, almost always on a Friday evening. I remember some extraordinary ones, including one conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. 

For me the strongest memory is the Newcastle première in 2000 of my Approaching Melmoth for baritone, choir and orchestra. The commission had come from Northern Sinfonia's then executive director, John Summers, before he left to direct the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. The management recruited an excellent team including none other than Sir Thomas Allen in the solo part and the conductor Nicholas Cleobury. The management also asked me what piece would go well with mine in the programme, and my suggestion of Bach’s Cantata No. 4 was accepted. I had time to reflect on that choice and to build in connections to it in my own piece. 

After a pre-première in Carlisle which took the edge off everybody’s nerves, the team gave a confident, hugely committed performance at City Hall. By comparison with other premières I’ve been blessed with, say, at Lincoln Center or in those fabulous new halls in Spain, this was perhaps not the most glamorous of settings, but the piece was one of my strongest, the team was hard to surpass and the audience responded with enthusiasm. 

One of the best musical memories. 




24 November 2018

A Northumbrian Anthem, an update


That contemporary music has distanced itself from society is a frequent contention. That society has given up on new music is the obverse claim. 

A simplistic view would be that educated composers have secluded themselves in ivory towers where rarified music is heard by a few connoisseurs, mostly other composers. They compose for themselves and for each other, and they regard any concession to the public taste as a betrayal of high art’s precepts. This, of course, is an unhealthy state of affairs, and the remedy for it is for composers to write accessible music that is designed to be heard by a general audience.

At the other end, an equally simplistic view would be that concert audiences and concert promoters have become lazy, philistine and averse to risk, as a result of which concert programmes have become conservative, excluding music written in the last century. This is seen as a symptom of a decaying society, spread by the contagion of easy consumerism. A healthy reaction to this is for composers to keep their integrity in the face of adversity, adhering unyieldingly to their aesthetic values in the face of the incomprehension of audiences and promoters. 

Each of these simplistic views has no shortage of proponents, but most intelligent people on both sides would take a more nuanced approach. This is not the blog entry where I intend to discuss the issue in depth. Will I ever? I expect I will, but not just yet. Sitting on the fence would be an evasion; coming out in favour of one contention or its opposite would give the growing number of my detractors even more rope with which to hang me. 

Today I mention the above debate only by way of context. Regardless of where one stands as a composer, it is a fact that there are times when a piece or project demands that one engages with the audience more directly than may be one’s habit. That is the nature of some projects. If one doesn’t like it, one is free to pass up the opportunity. If one accepts it, one has to deliver. It would be difficult to imagine Boulez, Ferneyhough or Barrett agreeing to be involved in such a project. But for those of us who, as well as wanting to keep challenging standards of rigour and innovation also want to keep a dialogue with society going, the ‘direct engagement’ proposition is appealing. 

In this particular case, the proposal came from a Source it is usually impossible to say no to. The piece needed to be short, simple, accessible to a general audience, with a positive feeling and - this was the key descriptor - anthemic. It was to be for organ. The fact that there was a commission fee, but that, in keeping with the spirit of the occasion, it was suggested that I should donate it to charity, made the challenge more quixotic and, for that reason, more appealing. 

After accepting the commission, I confess to feeling a great deal of trepidation. I am no stranger to straightforward, diatonic, tonal, singable writing. I had done lots of it for my friends in Bolivia, chiefly the choirs at Instituto Laredo in Cochabamba.

Choral writing is a time to be tonal. This used to be a contentious notion, but the best-known composers currently producing for the medium in England and Scotland seem to accept it. Through familiarity with the people and their music (say, Tavener, Weir, Casken, MacMillan) one can feel surrounded by a relevant context. To be anthemic in that framework would be, for the composer, a natural extension, a question of channelling the available means in a particular direction, a point of focus. 

But the organ? Having never done it before, I felt the sheer fact of writing for the instrument was a steep enough challenge. And then, what was the contemporary context for organ writing with an anthemic character? I found an inspiring precedent in a work by the young Romanian composer Alexandru Murariu, Espaces IV Spezzati. Written for double choir and (single) organ, this beautiful piece is stirring indeed. In terms of the number and density of the notes it probably has the right degree of simplicity for my ‘anthemic’ challenge. But the aesthetic breadth of Murariu’s statement is on a grander scale than I understood my commission to require. Much as I enjoy listening to Murariu's piece, for my project a more demotic approach was required, one that would engage a diverse audience on more than one level of perception: accessible on the surface, melodious to the point of hummability, and also solidly constructed and capable of standing up to analytical scrutiny. 

Is it possible for a composer to write something that will stir a community in and 'anthemic' way and to remain true to oneself, avoiding a pastiche of old masters of the anthem - Walton, Elgar, even more ancient precedents? Would my own youthful and not so youthful anthemic vein, hitherto for Latin American consumption, be applicable to this project? Would I be able to manipulate these stylistic parameters to articulate the right statement? These and other questions preoccupied me, delaying the start of composition.  

In the meantime, events of a life-changing magnitude supervened. From one day to the next, I woke up to a new reality where it was not possible to know whether anything could go ahead as planned. I tried to salvage as much as I could, at least the things over which I had some control. The pieces I had committed to write were among the battles to be fought, and I fought them. In the hardest conditions, I wrote every one of them - well, it was only three pieces, but that was a hard enough challenge in the circumstances. A Northumbrian Anthem was completed as requested. I honoured my part of the deal.  

Tonight should have been the première. Whether it went ahead, I do not know. What I offer here is - yet again - a computer simulation. 



03 November 2018

Momenta in Bolivia


The Momenta Quartet have been among my main collaborators for quite some time. In 1997 they gave the first performance of my String Quartet No. 1 ‘Montes’ at Rock Hall Auditorium, Philadelphia, and they went on playing the piece many times since. In 2008 they visited Newcastle, playing ‘Montes’ at the ¡Vamos! Festival and at King’s Hall.

Years later, Momenta successfully applied for a Koussevitzky commission for what was to become my String Quartet No. 2, ‘Sin tiempo’, which they premièred in 2013 at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, and this work too became part of their repertoire. A highlight was their performance of ‘Sin tiempo’ as part of the 2017 Momenta Festival at the Americas Society, a performance which attracted much attention and heart-warming reactions from the press.

A visit to Bolivia by Momenta was long overdue. Over the years I repeated spoke to relevant institutions in the hope of arousing their interest in a Momenta project. It was only when I eventually approached the USA Embassy in La Paz that I met a receptive response. In retrospect it seems odd that I did not think of them in the first place.   

So it was that Momenta came to Bolivia in October 2018. The project included working with the students at Instituto Laredo coaching the strings of the Laredo Youth Orchestra, giving a concert as a string quartet and taking part in an orchestral programme as soloists and as members of the string section. 


The chamber concert took place on 24 October at the beautiful church of Convento Santa Teresa, which has been lovingly restored with funding from the USA Embassy. The programme consisted of works by living composers from the USA and my ‘Sin tiempo’. Admission was free. The public began to queue up about an hour in advance, and by the time we were due to start there were so many people standing in the aisles and in the atrium that many were unable to get in and had to go home. 

Momenta gave a spirited rendition of Eric Nathan’s Four to One, of Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 2 ‘Company’, of Roberto Sierra’s String Quartet No. 2 and of my String Quartet No. 2 ‘Sin tiempo’. These works proved an excellent choice for the occasion, and the audience surprised us by staying put till the end of a not undemanding programme of contemporary music. 

As to ‘Sin tiempo’, it may be because over the years Momenta have grown to know my work deeply, or because they were in my home country and hometown, playing within thirty metres of the spot where I was born, or because they were playing in a beautiful church to a rapt and numerous audience, or because of a combination of some or all of these factors. The fact is that they played magnificently. Rarely, if ever, have I heard my own music performed to such standard of perfection and commitment. This was one of life’s most rewarding musical experiences. 

The next two days Momenta were soloists in an orchestral programme at the theatre of Instituto Laredo. The conductor was Alejandro Posada, a maestro with an international career who had been invited for the occasion by Fundación Bravura. The same foundation had invited three Venezuelan musicians, members of Orquesta Juvenil Simón Bolívar, to take part in the project. They played one of Vivaldi's Concerti Grossi, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante and Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 ‘Jupiter’. This orchestral experience was a logical continuation of last year’s Beethoven programme which I had prepared and conducted in August 2017. It was reassuring to see that the orchestral standard continues to rise at Laredo and that the recurrence of international projects involving visiting professionals is producing the desired results. Momenta shone in the Vivaldi in the Mozart, gaining many admirers among the orchestra members and the audience. 

Throughout the week there were rehearsals and masterclasses, enabling Momenta to leave a lasting mark in the development of all the young people with whom they interacted. 



To say that Momenta in Bolivia was a success would be an understatement. It was a truly inspirational and developmental experience for many, bringing audiences and students in Cochabamba into contact with excellent music and musicians from the USA, enabling students to improve their technique and musicianship, and making it possible for a Bolivian composer such as I to interact at a high level with his native audience. 

Thanks are due to Instituto Laredo, which is now the main driving force for music in Cochabamba, to the Embassy of the United States in Bolivia for their generous and determined support, to Fundación Bravura for seizing the moment to enhance this project with the presence of an outstanding conductor of international profile and of three young Venezuelan professionals whose contribution as performers and coaches was very noticeable and enjoyable. 

To the four members of Momenta, Emilie-Anne Gendron, Alex Shiozaki, Stephanie Griffin and Michael Haas, there are no words to thank them and congratulate them. They were outstanding in every respect, and they have left a trail of admiration and respect among those who heard them and those who worked with them.  

 
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