For over 60 years, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony has inspired audiences with its extraordinary performances. Formed in 1945, the KWS rose to national prominence under Music Director Raffi Armenian [...]
They spoke about it
From Here on Out
When the choreographer Benjamin Millepied and I first met in Paris in 2006, he was always playing Bach. For our project with American Ballet Theatre, I thought I would incorporate his love of repeated chords into a set of variations on a bass line, making a simple outline for the structure of the piece (an energetic ramp with a plateau representing the central pas de deux). The music begins with a brief introduction outlining the harmonic language and pulse-based rhythms. The passacaglia theme emerges in the double-basses and celli. Instruments are drawn towards the line – a bassoon, a piano, a marimba, an insect-like rustling of strings, – and the piece becomes a gradual process of addition, as the sonority changes from earthly obscurity to piercing brightness. The pas de deux interrupts this process, with a new bass line, a louche, French texture, and some ominous growling from the low brass. The energies of the final section clear the air, and a loud statement of the bass line closes the piece.
© Nico Muhly
Popcorn Superhet Receiver
This was my first commission for the BBC Concert Orchestra – and a chance to try out a long-held ambition to write something using large, Penderecki-style microtonal clusters. I understood that two octaves of quarter-tones would produce white noise, and wanted to start from there, treating it like a big block to carve up and distort.
At the first workshop with the orchestra, we also tried out rhythmic material based on this cluster of tones. Its aim was to reproduce the sounds of an electronic drum machine (which, in their early days, also built sounds from white noise). It didn’t work at all: the players would have had to play at exactly the same dynamic as one another, and for every beat, to reproduce the sound of electronic high-hats and snare drums.
But the failure of this idea showed the way forward. I started to enjoy these ‘mistakes’: the small, individual variations amongst players that can make the same cluster sound different every time it’s played. So, much of the cluster-heavy material here is very quiet, and relies on the individual player’s bow changes, or their slight inconsistencies in dynamics, to vary the colour of the chords – and so make illusionary melodies in amongst the fog of white noise.
As I wrote, I became mindful of the 34 players who would eventually play it: I had a page on the wall over my desk, ostensibly showing the instrument distribution in the orchestra, but also listing their names. I got a little obsessed by this list: and was happy that I could stop thinking of the violins as sections, and instead write separate parts for all the players.
I wrote the microtonal material laboriously – it started with graph paper, pens and rulers, and, when I made mistakes, real-life cutting and pasting. Free of a computer, it felt like I was building something solid. The librarian at the BBC Concert Orchestra was very nice about it – but explained, rightly, that a graphic score was not a useful thing to present an orchestra with. Apart from anything, it left too much explaining to do. So I wrote it out long-hand. Now I realize that without that process, I’d not have had the confidence to let the notes be so invariable in pitch, for so long.
Other sections were written by multi-tracking an Ondes Martenot, and transcribing that. The aim was to have as much richness and colour as I could, whilst celebrating the inevitable lack of uniformity in an orchestra.
© Jonny Greenwood. Rights administered worldwide by Faber Music Ltd, London
Wish You Were Here
I’ve always suspected that cartoons and illustrations do a better job capturing the emotional content of the unknown than pictures and first-hand narration. I have a picture in my head of the illustrators of the 1940s and 1950s, holed up in Belgium drawing the tribal peoples of the Congo, or in California articulating gorgeous Arabian landscapes for early animated films, participating along the way in all of the politically charged problems that arise from empires, colonies, and the abuses of political power. There is something inherently romantic about willfully ignoring the complexities of drawing on sources; artists who ignore political overtones go on to inspire the next generation who, in turn, worry about them too much, and so on and so forth in an unending cycle of guilt and influence. Wish You Were Here, written for the Boston Pops, pays homage to Colin McPhee, one of the first Western musicologists to study Balinese gamelan, as well as to the great illustrators Carl Barks and Hergé (responsible for Donald Duck & Tintin, respectively). I tried to write a completely romantic and fanciful gamelan-influenced piece, attempting nothing but the most superficial authenticity. On top of this twittery and excited music, a long, lonesome melody unfolds. After a desolate interlude with severe, ship’s-horn brass, the energetic patterns start again, and the long line returns, this time with a triumphant, revelatory ending.
© Nico Muhly
For heart, breath and orchestra
This piece was based on using the quiet, varying internal rhythms of the human body – specifically our heartbeats and our breath – as the essence of the music. There was no actual tempo or meter built into the piece. Instead, the individual breathing rates of the conductor and soloist were used in combination with each performer’s individual heart rate to determine the pace at which all notes were played.
The performers wore stethoscopes positioned over their hearts in order to play along with their own heartbeats. Additionally, the soloist was at times required to play in perfect synchronization with his breathing. In sections of the first movement he followed his inhalations, the second movement his exhalations, and in the third he followed both, leading the entire ensemble with the subtle rhythm of his own breath cycle. At other times, it was the conductor’s breath rate that led the orchestra.
The stethoscopes required that the performers play quietly and delicately so as to be able to accurately hear and play along with their own heartbeats. This, in combination with the natural variance between the performers’ individual heart rates, resulted in a kind of delicate musical “pointillism” – starts and stops which were somewhat staggered. The different musical phrases repeatedly fell in and out of time with each other as the individual musicians’ pulses rose and fell.
The piece has never been performed exactly the same way twice, and literally has new life breathed into it every time it is played. This is the recording of the premiere performance.
© Richard Reed Parry, 2011