The latest in Gramophone's series of guest blogs by NMC artists
Last year, when pianist Jonathan Powell – collaborator and soloist on my new album on NMC – was asked whether he preferred to play contemporary music or standard repertoire, he answered that he didn't really see any difference, and 'that it was all part of the same continuum'. This is reflected in Jonathan's programming, and his observation resonated strongly with me – not least as I remember the surprise of encountering Debussy's music for the first time, which was so wildly different to music which I’d heard before. In this respect, it's worth remembering the obvious point that all music was contemporary at one point in history.
For me, one of the biggest stimuli to compose music came from listening to recordings: there were other factors like the cover artwork, programme notes and even the less than perfect LP surfaces which gave the experience an almost magical quality. Local libraries were an invaluable resource, as was my job as a kitchen porter, which enabled me to acquire all these releases!
Reviews in Gramophone and the The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music also spurred me to investigate composers – for example, Michael Oliver's coverage of DG’s luxuriously packaged Alban Berg edition, or Arnold Whittall on Babbitt's piano music. It was exciting to return to Babbitt's music long after my teenage years and be reminded of its boundless energy and invention.
Growing up in Hastings meant that access to live classical music was limited (especially the more adventurous repertoire), though I have a fond recollection of going backstage to get Klaus Tennstedt to sign his Wagner Ring excerpts disc at the White Rock Theatre, in a smoke-filled dressing room!
In the late 80s things improved as I could travel about more easily: the London Sinfonietta's 25th anniversary celebration at the Royal Festival Hall was a landmark event, as were the yearly IXION concerts at Brighton Festival, which introduced me to the music of Morton Feldman (rarely performed in those days) and new talent like Luke Stoneham, Andrew Toovey and my composition teacher at the time, Michael Finnissy.
My NMC disc brings together some of my most ambitious compositions, played by friends who have been closely involved with my music – violinist Keisuke Okazaki, Jonathan Powell and not least conductor Chris Austin, who dreamt up the project three or four years ago. The programme spans a 15-year period – including new revisions to Lute Stop, which I presented to Jonathan on the day of the recording session!
The logistical aspect of putting a recording together has also been fascinating – half was recorded in Denmark in 2009, while the remainder (piano solo) was recorded last year at the Yehudi Menuhin Hall. Recording engineering is something I'd only given cursory attention to until this project, when I became aware of the sometimes seismic impact different choices can make.
The photographer Malcolm Crowthers who attended the concluding recording session this year said, 'Thank goodness I took shots in the first ten minutes because once Jonathan had played himself into the unfamiliar piano that was it! He just went hell for leather recording piece after piece without a break. I've never known anything like it in the recording studio. He completed the entire 35 minutes of immensely complex music in record time, finishing ahead of schedule. There was a certainty and absolute focus, which resulted in startling accuracy. But at the end he collapsed like a broken Petrushka! At last another shot!'
1. Milton Babbitt Allegro Penseroso
Marilyn Nonken pf (CRI) Amazon
2. Iannis Xenakis Keqrops
Roger Woodward pf Abbado (DG) Amazon
3. Moritz Eggert Hämmerklavier No 4
Moritz Eggert pf (Wergo) Amazon Germany
6. Michael Finnissy String Trio
Gagliano Trio (Etcetera) Amazon
7. Gerald Barry The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra / Gerhard Markson (RTÉ) Amazon
8. Harrison Birtwistle Silbury Air
London Sinfonietta / Elgar Howarth (NMC) Amazon
9. Simon Holt Klop’s Last Bite
Rolf Hind pf (NMC) Amazon
10. James Dilllon Ignis Noster
BBC SO / Arturo Tamayo (Montaigne) Amazon