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Darmstadt Review I: Bryn Harrison

September 23, 2012

July saw EXAUDI’s first visit to the Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt. It was sad that we didn’t have more time to spend going to lectures and concerts and meeting the many interesting people gathered there: in fact, we arrived one day, did our concert the next day, a Reading Session the morning after and left at lunchtime. Too bad; next time…

Our concert seemed to go down quite well. We were asked to bring a ‘tasting menu’ of our ensemble’s core repertoire, so we took a cross-section of new British work: recent commissions from Ensemble Plus-MinusJoanna Bailie and Matthew Shlomowitz, a new work from me for solo soprano (Juliet Fraser) called Nakedness and a new work from Bryn Harrison called eight voices. We surrounded that with pieces by Cage (Four2), Feldman (Only), Lucier (unamuno) and Clementi (Im Frieden dein, o Herre mein), plus a Staubach Honoraria commission from upcoming Cologne-based composer Niklas Seidl. I was quite conscious that we were not offering your typical Neue Musik (so many pitches, so much harmony) but it became clear that Darmstadt is not the party-line monoculture of old, and it was good to see serious new work exciting curiosity and interest for what it was, rather than opprobrium for what it wasn’t (which is not to say there wasn’t plenty of that flying around too). One is never stuck for opinions in Darmstadt – but how refreshing to be among people who really know their stuff and care about what they are hearing.

This post and the next one will offer more insights into two of the premieres we gave at that concert – the pieces by Bryn Harrison and Niklas Seidl. There will be a chance to head Bryn’s new piece soon when our HCR (Huddersfield Contemporary Records) disc is released later this year, and we intend to bring Niklas’ work to the UK in 2013. To kick off this two-parter, then, I asked Bryn some questions about his new work, and about some wider compositional issues.

You’ve not written for voices before. How did it feel to do this for the first time in Eight Voices?

I’ve written for solo voice before (most recently a piece called ‘Five Distances’ for voice and piano (2010)) but never for multiple voices. It was an interesting challenge. People kept telling me that they could imagine my music on voices and I was similarly interested in finding out how some of the weaving contrapuntal textures of my previous instrumental pieces might translate. So, in a way, I wasn’t approaching the piece that differently, but tried to keep the writing flexible enough to allow for changes in tessitura to be made where necessary. Some of the techniques explored (glissandi and moving from non- to wide vibrato for instance) are techniques that I have utilised in other instrumental pieces, particularly when writing for strings.

How does the piece fit into your current work overall – a new development or a continuation of previous preoccupations?

Most definitely a continuation of previous preoccupations. The harmonic language is conceived from chromatic pitch cycles that translated particularly well for voices I felt. Each set of two bars is essentially a self-contained harmonic unit which then repeats in the subsequent two bars. This allows for different repeated units to be juxtaposed on top of one another to create an ongoing tapestry of continual variation. The piece is presented in four sections or panels, each closely related to the last, which is something I like to explore.

Talking about the rehearsal process itself, did the piece sound as you intended? What were your concerns in rehearsal (concerns in the neutral rather than negative sense!)?

Yes, the piece generally sounded as I intended and the singing was truly beautiful. I try to avoid having too fixed an idea of the outcome, however. The changing numbers of repetitions in each part and the subsequent lack of vertical alignment in the score makes it extremely difficult to hear the exact outcome of every moment on the page. I was familiar enough with the harmonic language to know it would work, though. The tessitura issues mentioned earlier did present a small problem for the players as I hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be to sing so quietly in those ranges, and odd phrases would stick out too much from the texture. These problems were easily rectified by taking the odd phrase down the octave.

Your work has always had a strongly integrated and consistent aesthetic – for me always seemed most closely related to the work of Feldman and Clementi in particular (Feldman most of all) – but that could be just my own perspective. Is that fair?

I think that is a very fair comment. I see my work very much as part of a tradition, coming, in part, out of Feldman’s late music – the pieces he wrote in the last decade of his life. I think one of the problems with contemporary music in general is that it is constantly trying to break with tradition, so there is no sense of continuity. Ideas are constantly fractured and dislocated. There is no opportunity for composers to build directly on the work of previous generations in an attempt to discover a personal identity of their own. I don’t see this as being a problem in other genres of music – jazz or popular music for instance. I studied Feldman’s music closely some years ago to the extent that I am only aware of all the differences now, rather than the similarities. I don’t really hear Feldman’s music in mine any more – my music is so much more linearly conceived than his, and the formal structuring very different. I acknowledge that there is still a close relationship there, though. Clementi’s music interests me a great deal and the notion of being able to look within a texture more and more closely is something I’m particularly fascinated by, although I have never made a detailed formal study of his music. I’m very keen on the music having an aesthetic, even surface quality to it, but this quality is something that has to arise from a synthesis of process rather than me sitting down to craft something beautiful that is simply sumptuous to the ear. The desire to work with a consistent musical langauge is a conscious one. I’m friends with several painters who see their work as almost being part of a series. There is no desire to do something radically different from one work to the next in the ways that composers sometimes do.

So what are your current compositional preoccupations?

Well, within this framework of a gradually evolving musical language, I’m trying to look at slightly newer ways to work with pitch cycles, including generating pitch material from juxtaposing different cycles together. I’m, also considering the use of microtones, which is something I experimented with somewhat unsuccessfully in a previous piece a few years ago. More generally, I’m very preoccupied with writing pieces that remain almost unchanged throughout – i.e. letting change occur in the listener’s mind rather than in the piece itself.

I was struck by your LSO orchestral piece, Shifting Light, which moves into tonal, almost ambient-music territory (you mentioned Brian Eno in the programme note). A one-off hommage, or will we be hearing more variegation of the overall harmonic spectrum in future?

One of the things that I particularly like about the pitch cycles is that they lend themselves to both a chromatic and a tonal/modal language. I wrote a piece for Asamisimasa (Linden quartet) several years ago that moves quicky from chromatic to modal material. I haven’t found a way of utilising that type of material in the pieces that I’ve written recently but I’m interested in perhaps allowing moments of tonality/modality to emerge. The ‘ambient’ reference was a nod to the past, really. I like to retain a degree of inner dynamism in the pieces, which I think is sometimes lacking from ambient music.

You’ve been teaching at Huddersfield University for some years now – that must be a stimulating place to work these days?

Huddersfield is a great place to work. Like any academic post these days the hours can be quite demanding, but I have some excellent work-colleagues, some good students, and a degree of autonomy in terms of my input into courses etc.

Listen to more Bryn Harrison here.

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