Of several new musical friendships made in the past few years, perhaps the most unforeseeable is with organist-composer Godwin Sadoh whose “Nigerian Organ Symphony” I played in its Scottish premiere a year past July in Dundee Congregational Church, repeating it the next month in St Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral Aberdeen. I first saw a film of Godwin playing the Finale of the Symphony on Facebook, and struck by its originality, asked him if there was film of the rest. Having heard the whole, I bought the score and set about learning the 4 movement piece which places certain Yoruba musical idioms in a framework suggestive of the early organ symphonies of Widor or Vierne (a combination reminiscent of certain works by Ronald Stevenson eg his “Ghanaian Suite” for piano). The symphony is an immediately attractive piece, characterised by sincerity,directness and a good sense of proportion. I hope to play it again in 2016. Additionally, in October 2014, I had the honour of playing the World Premiere of Godwin’s “3 Studies on Atonality” for piano at a piano recital hosted by Tayside Organists Society in Dundee University Chaplaincy.
Godwin is the leading representative of the fascinating Nigerian organ school which also includes such figures as Fela Sowande. Having begun his creer in Lagos, he now teaches in the USA, and in addition to the above mentioned activities, has written a number of books and articles on the ethnomusicology and musical history of Nigeria, includingtexts on a number of Nigerian composers.
Of the several remarkable venues to have hosted the Tierkreis40 project this year, Mills Observatory in Dundee stands out as possibly the most striking and memorable, aswell as the most challenging. Held on a Sunday afternoon in late August, we were blessed by good weather and magnificent preconcert publicity on the part of Leisure & Culture Dundee: we were told that atotal of around 90 people attended the event, whether on the Observatory balcony, inside the building or on the grass around the building. In this performance, Tierkreis (on Casio keyboards and gongs) began and finished in a Dundonian Virgo and was played in 4 segments around Intuitive Music compositions from Stockhausen’s “Fur Kommende Zeiten” and “Aus den Sieben Tagen”, namely “Meeting Point”, “It”, “Halt” and “Awake”, employing the varied instrumentarium characteristic of Mars in Aquarius. We look forward to another opportunity to play at this unique venue.
I first played Tierkreis in its entirety at the Fringe in 2013 in a solo organ version, so it seemed a natural destination for an organ and percussion version as part of my Tierkreis40 project. The Op.1000 Frobenius organ in the Canongate Kirk turned out to be a good choice for this: placed in a gallery at the liturgical west, my colleague Haworth Hodgkinson was located at the chancel step with the 7 gongs which have featured in this project since January, the idea being the audience being positioned between the two sources of sound would experience a dramatic antiphonal effect. As at the previous Fringe performance,this Tierkreis began and ended in Leo.
The Stockhausen was the closing item in this hourlong recital, which I opened with Judith weir’s brief “Michael’s Strathspey” which was last played at the Fringe in this organ version in 1986, but is better known in the original piano version. I followed this with some Pieces from Kurtag’s Jatekok VI which the composer specifically states may be played on the organ: indeed these pieces work better on the organ than piano, not least “humble regard sur Olivier Messiaen…” whose slow sustained chords were a suitable introduction to the French master’s “Monodie”. Messiaen’s numerous pupil’s included Stockhausen, whom he influenced very significantly, but also the composer of the other major piece on the programme, Jean-Pierre Leguay, whose recent “Et puis,et puis encore?”, inspired by Baudelaire’s poem “Le Voyage”, worked well on the Frobenius, being designed to be playable on organs of a classical, indeed historic, design.
The audience of around forty was larger than I had hoped for, exhausting the supply of printed programmes, and appeared to respond with enthusiasm- an impression confirmed by Miranda Heggie’s 4star review in The Herald; after the event we discovered that Scotsman critic Ken walton had flagged us up as one of few programmes of “contemporary music” at the Fringe (even if at 40, Tierkreis is surely near the end of being considered contemporary?). The dyspeptic review in “TV Bomb” by composer Robert Dow seems to reflect the critic’s jaded state of mind more than anything else, but to divide critical opinion as we did surely suggests we were doing something right?
“Red Nocturnes” is the fascinating first part of a trilogy of albums being released on download only label High Moss (www.highmoss.co.uk) by composer,writer and improvising musician Haworth Hodgkinson. The balance in the contrasting qualities of unity and diversity in this album are all the more remarkable in that the programme consists of pieces from either side of a 14 year hiatus in formal music composition, though one would need to read the concise but informative composer’s notes to know this. Indeed some of these pieces have been audible on SoundCloud for some time, but in this context they are invested with new meaning – the almost alarming qualities of the urban (indeed Dundonian!) “Induction Games” for instance,seems to no longer jar against the more expansive pieces which have their origins in a rural setting. So: a journey in more senses than one: temporal, spacial (from Dundee to rural Aberdeenshire), technological (tape to digital), psychological (between states of consciousness such as waking,dreaming,travelling,composing). The programme is framed between two “Red Nocturnes”, two decades of music contained between two sunsets: the keystone of this arch being “Studies in Balloon Behaviour” in which two pieces from the 90s based on the sounds of a red balloon are digitally transformed by 21st century technology into a journey from bestial flatulence to an aurora of spectral subtlety. The second part of the trilogy,”Speech Songs”, which will reflect some of the composer’s literary interests, is launched on Sunday evening (25th) in Aberdeen.
Yesterday evening I had the rewarding experience of singing with a community choir specially convened for the World Premiere of “By Reason of Darkness” by Phillip Cooke, the opening event for this year’s Sound Festival. I’m an occasional choral singer- I took part in a B minor Mass in Glasgow 6 or so years ago- so it was good to return to this activity in what the composer, a lecturer at Aberdeen University and acknowledged Howells expert, deemed his most “experimental” work to date. Written for three choirs, tubular bells and tape (which did not appear on this occasion) the underlying Anglican character of this setting of words from the Book of Job and Aberdeenshire poet G.S.Fraser was adorned with touches reminiscent of MacMillan,Tavener and Part, aswell as an opening section using extended vocal techniques to suggest the wind in various manifestations…indeed the passing of chords between the three choirs reminded me of Stockhausen’s “Gruppen”, though that perhaps reflects my own concerns this year! The outdoor performance was in the atmospheric location of King’s College Quad in Old Aberdeen, next to the 500 year old chapel and was attended by a sizeable and appreciative audience. My congratulations to all who contributed to this, especially our conductor, Kathleen!
The performance was followed by a pre-concert talk by Aberdeen Astronomical Society in preparation for a programme played by Canberra based Griffyn Ensemble and Red Note Ensemble of works by Estonian Urmas Sisask (“Southern Sky”) and James Clapperton (“Northern Sky”). To be blunt, the Estonian music sounded like an easy-listening equivalent of neglected Arbroath-born composer Morris Pert, and while it had its moments, it outstayed its welcome…also mediocre sense of instrumental colour and amateurish use of extended playing techniques. Clapperton (whose work I have known since his youthful London appearances with Michael Finnissy’s Ixion a quarter of a century ago- I recall a piece callled “Out Jumps Jack Death”) was much more substantial, a very personal and intellectual response to the location of four northern cultures: thought provoking if a touch academic for my own taste…to these ears the recordings of spoken poetry in various northern tongues conjured the mephitic atmosphere of a 1980s language lab.
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 (1970-1974).