15th July, 8pm
Mad Song
The Friends' Recital Hall at Queen Elizabeth's School

Missy Mazzoli, Vespers for Violin

Kaija Saariaho, Oi Kuu

Joan Tower, Noon Dance

Richard Causton, Sleep

Barbara Monk Feldman, Duo for Piano and Percussion

Steve Reich, Double Sextet

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We talked to the ensemble about life playing contemporary music...

What brought the group Mad Song together?

 

We started life playing Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ infamous Eight Songs for a Mad King (hence the name of the ensemble) which is this crazy piece depicting the madness of King George III. We had a fantastic time doing it, and have gone on to give concerts around the UK of 20th & 21st century music, including at HBCMF last year.

 

Tell us a bit about the programme you’ll be performing. Why are you playing these works?

 

Well it’s a bit of a potpourri really! We’re trying to explore some of the stylistic eclecticism that has defined new music over the last few decades and juxtapose styles that are often held as opposites: American Minimalism, European Spectralism, and their influences.

 

Steve Reich is one of the most famous Minimalist composers, and Double Sextet is one of his best works (in fact it won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize). The influences of his music are obvious in the Mazzoli piece we’ll open with, but also in the repetitive figures of Joan Tower’s Noon Dance, and in a different way in the pared-back simplicity of Barbara Monk Feldman’s Duo.

 

The Duo is nonetheless more of an overtly avant-garde piece, as is Richard Causton’s virtuosic flute solo, Sleep. Meanwhile, Kaija Saariaho is one of the major composers associated with the Spectral style (generally characterised as music that is influenced by the physical reality of sound in space, and by the human perception of it).

 

There’s also a rather pleasing symmetry to the programme: each half opens with a short solo item, then proceeds to a duet, and then concludes with a larger ensemble work. It’s nice that all six members of the ensemble get to play a solo or duet, as well as in the bigger ensemble works.

 

What do you think are the challenges of performing contemporary music?

 

To my mind, the major challenge in performing music from the last 70 years is trying to balance fulfilling the intentions of the composer, whilst retaining your interpretative vision and musical personality. There’s often a tendency in the performance of new music to act almost like a computer programme, carrying out the written instructions (of which there are usually many!) perfectly, and the danger with this is that you sacrifice your emotional connection to the music. I think it’s much more important that you develop a concept for the piece and play it accordingly than that you follow every tiny marking with neurotic detail.

 

You know, we had this fantastic thing a couple of weeks ago when we were rehearsing an ensemble piece (Phoenix) by Richard Causton with him. The piece ends with this utterly gorgeous slow chordal epilogue, and in the (only) recording of the work—and indeed in the marking in the sheet music—this is taken at quite a lick. We’d rehearsed it at a slower tempo to give it space to breathe and separate it out from the rest of the music, and in the rehearsal we asked him how he felt about this: were we too slow? Richard’s answer was that although he wouldn’t want it any slower, if that’s how we felt it then he was totally supportive of that, and in many ways that’s the perfect answer. Once you write a piece of music it goes out into the world and lives its own life through performers playing it, and it’s wonderful for a composer to support you in finding your own interpretation of the music, which might be different from theirs, but is just as valid.

 

If our audience wanted to listen to some other music related to your programme, what would you recommend?

 

Well Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is one of the all-time best pieces, so that’s always a good idea, as is his New York Counterpoint. Partiels from Gérard Grisey’s Les Espaces acoustiques is lush, and a nice way into the soundworld of Spectral music. You might also try Morton Feldman’s (wife of Barbara) Rothko Chapel: it’s this stunningly beautiful piece that was composed for the building of the same name in Houston, Texas, in which hang fourteen Rothko paintings. It’s very sparse, but stick with it and towards the end (21:30 in the linked recording) he introduces this gorgeous viola melody. It always reminds me ashes floating on the wind above a fire, as if gradually making their way up to heaven. Magic.

 

As a more light-hearted way to get to know you, if you were a sandwich, what flavour would it be and why?

 

Great question! I reckon the Boxing Day sandwich: an experimental use of traditional items, which might even be an improvement on the original…