Earlier this year the death was announced of the veteran Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson, a significant influence at various stages of my musical life. I first encountered his work in a programme note for the QEH performance by John Ogdon of Sorabji’s “Opus Clavicembalisticum” in 1988…in fact, was was seated almost behind him during that legendary event. As this was a period of involuntary “exile” from Scotland, I was fascinated to discover a composer from my own part of the UK, though his scores were not easily come by: this was before the heroic publishing project undertaken by the Ronald Stevenson Society. A decade later, having managed to return to Scotland, I attended a performance of the DSCH Passacaglia in St Andrews played by Murray MacLachlan in 1998, Ronald’s 70th anniversary year: I was, at the time, a “matriculated student” at the onetime seat of learning in that burgh. Another decade was to pass before I spoke to the now octogenarian composer at the celebratory events at St John, Smith Square, and also attended the final Ronald Stevenson summer school held in the diminutive cathedral at Millport, during which I had the honour of performing a couple of Ronald’s smaller organ pieces in concert alongside some illustrious musicians, aswell as playing Shostakovich’s little played organ Passacaglia. I saw him at a few events over the next few years, most notably when Ronald and Marjorie attended a recital including a number of his works which I played with soprano Chloe Foston at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011.
It was only natural, therefore, that I should want to pay some sort of tribute at the passing of this influential figure: so far I have played four lunchtime concerts in Dundee and Aberdeen; next February, I’ll play a full length recital in Edinburgh Society of Musicians of which he was, until his death, a patron.
The previous post on this blog, pertaining to the increasingly controversial exPM of the UK, Sir Edward Heath, very likely appears out of place; however, his sole appearance in my life-experience was as a musician.(Indeed I was born while he was incumbent in 10 Downing Street-perhaps the only time the post has been held by someone with a serious interest in music: though Disraeli did write on the important role of Jews in our musical culture…if only Heath, our worst PM in 300 years, had had a fraction of Beaconsfield’s political talent…)
The occasion was a concert celebrating the retirement of the controversial Tory peer, Lord Aldington (the controversy being that he was accused of war crimes in Yugoslavia at the end of WW2 in Count Tolstoy’s book “The Minister and the Massacres” ,on which account he was later awarded record damages)….Heath conducted only one item: Wagner’s prelude to “Die Meistersinger”. It’s hard to think he was unaware of the political symbolism: this was the only opera permitted to be performed at Bayreuth throughout the war. The only other piece I remember on the programme was the Adagietto from Mahler 5, which I later learnt was used in Visconti’s film of “Death in Venice”, made when Heath was in office. Interestingly, Britten’s operatic treatment of the Mann novella also dates from the Heath years (1971-1974).
Yesterday (Saturday 20th) Mars in Aquarius was joined by a new player, Colin Edwards, in our second public performance (and our home town debut) in St Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral, Aberdeen, playing a 30 minute programme of Intuitive Music by Stockhausen, punctuated by 3 Tierkreis melodies on the cathedral’s 3 manual & pedal organ. This was a significant advance on our very successful debut in the Royal Burgh of St Andrews last month: the spacious acoustic of the venue combined with new instruments and expanded amplification technology allowed us to make significant musical progress. An attentive audience of over 30 responded with interest and enthusiasm. (Thanks to Carla Coulthard for some very fine photos).
Last Sunday afternoon(10th May) the new Intuitive Music ensemble “Mars in Aquarius” made its debut performance in the Cosmos Centre, St Andrews, Fife in a programme of compositions by Stockhausen: several Intuitive Music pieces from “Aus den Sieben Tage” and ” Fur Kommende Zeiten” (Meeting Point, Unanimity, Halt and It) and another complete performance of Tierkreis, this time starting in Taurus as part of my yearlong project marking the 40th anniversary of this work. 2 other founder members of Mars in Aquarius joined me in the Intuitive Music: Haworth Hodgkinson on percussion,recorders and melodica; Mandy Macdonald -voice,recorders and Yamaha keyboard; I played melodica, Stylophone S1, Korg Monotron delay, and in “It” shortwave radio (in fact, SW reception was so poor that I also used other frequencies, as suggested in the explanatory text for Stockhausen’s “Spiral”). Tierkreis was in our now established antiphonal mode, alternating between Casio keyboards and Haworth’s improvised interludes on gongs. The whole event proceeded through set-up to performance with incredible smoothness: the enthusiastic and sustained applause from the attentive audience was an unambiguous vote of confidence and affirmation of what we are doing. We keenly anticipate our next scheduled performance in Aberdeen’ s Episcopal Cathedral at midday on 20th June.
When considering what music to play alongside Tierkreis in my project to mark its 40th anniversary this year, it occurred to me that some of Stockhausen’s Intuitive Music compositions would fit the bill: indeed, having been involved in a couple of improvisatory projects at the Aberdeen-based Sound Festival in recent years, they had been coming into my consciousness with increasing regularity anyway. It was relatively easy to find skilled improvising musicians in NE Scotland: I had already worked with Petra Vergunst (not least in the premiere of her “Family Business” last November as a SoundLab project) and Haworth Hodgkinson who introduced me to Mandy Macdonald at my first Tierkreis performance in January.It turns out that Mandy has previously taken part in a performance of “Stimmung”. Together we form the core membership of Mars in Aquarius, the idea being that we will be joined by other musicians on a more occasional occasional basis.The Intuitive Music texts are included in two volumes: “Aus den Sieben Tagen” and “Fur Kommende Zeiten” and represent a development in Stockhausen’s “process” music of the 60s. Considering the wide variety of performance options permitted in Tierkreis, the Intuitive pieces do in fact have a great deal in common with the later work, while also strongly contrasting. We have already rehearsed with a wide range of instruments including recorders,melodicas, much percussion and even the introduction of some electronic elements such as the stylophone. Readers are invited to visit and “like” the Mars in Aquarius” Facebook page where details of future events and the launch of our website will be announced. At the moment of writing we have 2 confirmed dates upcoming,with others taking shape: afternoon of May10th in the Cosmos Centre St Andrews Fife, time tbc; and 12noon on Sat 20th June at St Andrews Episcopal Cathedral, King St Aberdeen.
At short notice I undertook to play the first Cappucino Concert of the calendar year at Dundee Central Library’s Wighton Centre, choosing as the main item in the programme Stockhausen’s Tierkreis, beginning this performance with the Aquarius melody. For this performance, I invited Aberdeenshire-based poet and musician to add improvised interludes played on his Chinese gongs, a scheme we have gone on to develop further in Inverness; I played the Star melodies on 5 keyboards- Casio & Yamaha keyboards, melodica and the two manuals of the Wighton harpsichord. I also employed this latter instrument in short pieces by Ronald Stevenson and Bartok (excerpts from Mikrokosmos IV). It was great to have in the audience Eddie McGuire, whose organ piece “Ae Fond Kist” I played on the new Casio. I also played his “Farewell” written in memory of writer Tom McGrath and Morris Pert’s “Moon Dances”, the first time I’ve played them in Dundee. Haworth also performed two of his own poetry/music pieces.