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StrangeBlooms-promoSTRANGE BLOOMS – compositional approach
A new Contemporary Dance work by The Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company
Choreography by Shobana Jeyasingh
Music by Gabriel Prokofiev

Tonight is the world premier of a new composition of mine called Strange Blooms. It’s a collaboration with Choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh, and has been a fascinating and very enjoyable experience that started back in April 2013.

At our first meeting Shobana explained that she was very interested in the concept of the ‘remix’. She knew that I had been exploring the form of the remix over many years, and wanted us to work on a project that was focused on remixing a work from the baroque era. She was thinking of theme based on plants, their inner formal structures (which seemed to connect to the formality of baroque music) and how plants cross-polinate – which brought in the idea of remixing.

When we were listening to various Baroque repertoire, Shobana remembered that as a student at Edinburgh University, she had a flat-mate who was a Harpsichord maker and he often played a Chaconne by Louis Couperin (uncle of Francois) called La Complaignante. We found a recording and I was stunned by the simple beauty and yearning of the piece, and agreed that it would be an ideal musical seed for this new work.

It soon became clear however, that my music would be more of an electroacoustic composition than a remix, as we wanted to create a musical world that went deep into the inner workings and life of plants and far from the sound of the harpsichord.

So the remix concept is taken to a point of extremity, and the original work of music is barely recognisable, becoming an extended ‘sound source’ for electro-acoustic composition.

After further discussions and research Shobana arrived at the title, Strange Blooms and a clearer themes emerged:

ideas of plant growth and plant evolution; exploring how plants often evolve in very different and seemingly exotic ways; ultimately creating an imaginary world of Strange Blooms, which is perhaps a metaphor for continuing evolution and mixing of different cultures and peoples that we find in many modern cities. Also, Shobana brought many references to our first creative meetings, including stop-frame films and mathematical diagrams of plant growth, as well as historical descriptions and photographs of ‘exotic’ plants. All this fed into composing the music.

The first stage of the process was to make a recording of the Chaconne, and in May I spent a day recording brilliant harpsichordist Jane Chapman perform the Chaconne on a period harpsichord, at various tempi, with different settings on the harpsichord, and with period tuning (mean scale) and modern, equal temperament. Then the composition process began in the studio using a wide range of electroacoustic and remix techniques to create new music ideas from the original material. By using the Couperin as the only sound source, I was very restricted: the harmony of La Complaignante  barely modulates beyond the tonic key, stays just within a four octave range,  and of course the harpsichord itself has quite a narrow timbral and dynamic range.

Particularly challenging  was the restriction of Louis Couperin’s early diatonic harmony, and many of my early sketches didn’t feel like my own music at all; in fact, taken out of context from the yearning melody of the original, much of Couperin’s harmony loses it’s original impact. This led me to pay particular attention to tuning, and play with the different micro tunings used in Baroque music. I made subtle re-tunings to give the harmonies extra nuances and to create new harmonic inter-attractions and magnetisms (inspired by the way that seedlings learn and search for the sun, or climbers are drawn to supports).

Other important approaches were:

– To vertically layer harmonies, often with dynamic movement so that shadows and light moves across the sound.

– To the stretch the spiky harpsichord tones to more wistful, singing lines.

– To freeze small grains of the sound – in particular the more earthy timbres of the harpsichord – in order to create much more muscular and physical sounds, representing the strength and persistence of root growth.

– To race quickly through molecules of sound, creating an agitated growth-type movement.

The original version of the chaconne is finally revealed in the fourth chapter of the composition, as a metaphor for the act of blooming, after a period of growth, survival, discovery…

info on live performances here:
http://www.shobanajeyasingh.co.uk/new-commission-from-southbank-centre/
Links to future performances coming soon.

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Just when I though I’d never get this blog going I’ve finally found a train journey & a window of time to get it going; many things to write about but best to start with the one of most recent…

Last month (well… March 2011), I did a quick, but wide, tour of USA: from Portland to Nashville to Austin…
It was kick-started by the Nonclassical team agreeing that we should host another NONCLASSICAL showcase @ the SXSW festival in Austin. We did one in 2009 – I went as the DJ along with The Elysian Quartet, John Mathhias & Nick Ryan (of Cortical Songs), and label manager David Halliwell; we did a gig at Le Poisson Rouge (New York) on the way to Austin, and got some great reviews in both New York & Austin newspapers.

This year we were keen to go again, and make an even bigger mark. Todd Puckhaber @ SXSW was enthusiastic and helped us get a venue, right bang in the centre of the mayhem of Austin’s 6th st, for Friday night @ a very cool club: The Velveet Room. Newly signed Nonclassical artists: Juice Vocal Ensemble managed to get some funding from PRSF for their travel out Austin, and then I got in touch with a very adventurous selection of American performers and ensembles I knew, in order to build a complete program for the night.

But, in the mean-time FearNoMusic, a new music group from Portland, had been in touch; one of their violinists Paloma Griffin had facebooked me after reading a Wall Street Journal review of our 2009 Poisson Rouge show. FearNoMusic wanted to do a full program of my chamber music and have me over as a guest (sit in on rehearsals, and do some DJing), and realised they could tie their event in with this trip.

Finally, another visit that I HAD to tie in with this trip was to NAXOS USA in Nashville (especially as Nashville looked quite near to Austin, according to my naive European eyes).
Nonclassical Records have been distributed by Naxos for the last 2 years, and they have been the nicest people we’ve worked with, not only totally behind what we’re trying to do with Nonclassical, but really helpful and friendly swell. We agreed that it would be great if we could set up a NONCLASSICAL club-night in Nashville while I was in town, and Megan (our label manager at Naxos), managed to book a very cool venue: The Mercy Lounge AND get local percussion legend Ray Wooten (aka FutureMan) involved as well; he has an interesting new ‘classical’ project called Black Mozart & we were going to share the bill; me DJing & his band doing a live set, and then a bit of jamming together to end the night…. yikes.

PORTLAND

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FearNoMusic, were one of the most hospitable groups I’ve ever met, from the moment I arrived in Portland, I was really well looked after. Jeff Payne, their Pianist, even gave up his apartment for me for the 4 nights I was there, and Paloma took me out on the town with her good friend Thomas Laudedale (of PInk Martini) -who gave me his infamous tour of Portlands night-life (which included ‘Marys’ & ‘Silverados’, female & male strip-clubs respectively).
This gig was a first for me, in that the whole concert was dedicated to my chamber music, and it was a real honour that it was performed such talent as FearNoMusic. – On the night before gig Paloma took me to a Portland Symphony concert, and there leading the Viola & Cellos were three of the FearNoMusic musicians, along with Inés in Violins & Mark on Clarinet (-the following night they were all going to playing my music in the characterfully Aladdin theatre…! )

The program for the gig was:

G Prokofiev String Quartet No.1 (2003)-Northwest premiere
GP Dance “Silente” for String Trio, Bass Clarinet, piano and scratch DJ (2004) -US premiere
GP Sleeveless Scherzo for solo violin & solo dancer (2008) – choreography-World premiere
GP Piano Book No. 1 (2009) Excerpts -Northwest premiere
GP Multi-track Cello Suite (2010) Excerpts – US Premiere
GP Bogle Move for string quartet (2009) – US Premiere
Sergei Prokofiev: Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34 (1919)
—-

Particularly exciting for me was to hear the first live performance of Jerk Driver, a piece I composed 1 year ago for multi-track Cellos. Nancy Ives, had recorded all the mulitrack cello parts a week earlier in a friend’s studio & I was blown-away by the accuracy and understanding of her interpretation… The piece is based on a very jerky, stuttery, crunchy double-stopped bass groove, which she got totally spot-on, as well as all the extended-technique cello percussion stuff. I had assumed the piece would need quite a bit of work-shopping, but she understood, really enjoyed & pulled it off; so our rehearsal session together was just to fine-tune a few details.
And in the concert, the audience seemed to get the feel of it too (now, I’m really looking forward to Peter Gregson, performing all 5 of the Multitrack pieces @ my Eclectica gig in LSO St Lukes) – and hopefully Nancy learning more of them aswell).
Another real revelation of the FearNoMusic gig was the new interpretation of Sleeveless Scherzo by Solo Dancer; Gavin Larsen, and Solo Violin: Paloma Griffin.
Sleeveless Scherzo was originally composed in collaboration with choreographer & dancer Trish Okenwa for 3 Rambert Dance Company Shows in 2008 and had not been performed since. Gavin’s new interpretation (based on Trish’s & my original notes for the piece) was really fantastic, and Paloma played the tricky Violin part so eloquently -they made a great duet.
The other performances were also very strong, and Jeff Payne did especially well with the very physical Tuff Moves (for solo Piano), of which I had only sent him the (rather ugly) score just a 2 weeks before.
I got a nice taste of performance stress too: playing the DJ part in my ‘Silente’ (2nd Dance for String Trio, Piano, Bass Clarinet & DJ). It had been a long time since I’d actually properly put hand to vinyl in a rhythmic way (I tend to DJ from laptop these days) and I only just managed to pull-off the DJ-part…

There is much more I could say, but most importantly if you are ever in Portland check out FearNoMusic; they are a really special group of very talented players who are genuinely dedicated to playing new music – but as Jeff said: “only stuff we actually like playing” -which is how it should be. And hopefully we’ll be working together again soon.
They have now been going nearly 20 years, and are one of a number of unique groups around the US (and Europe) who are keeping new contemporary music a living / breathing force, and who actually have dedicated followers; like Present Music, Milwaukee (who I had the fortune of working with in September 2010)

NASHVILLE (15th March):

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It is always interesting when you actually get to meet the people behind the emails & phone calls. And with the Naxos team it was an very overdue pleasure to meet everyone in person.
Colin, was missing his infamous mohawk (he hadn’t warned me that he shaves it off to make way for a hat in the winter) but he was as kind and knowledgeable as I’d imagined, with an incredible music collection, and also a few surprises: fore-arms covered in tattooed signatures of female foot models (in his spare time he is a leading foot-fetish photographer !)
He introduced me to everyone in the Naxos team -we went from office booth to office booth meeting the all faces behind names from different emails. I saw the gigantic CD warehouse next door to the offices (and even the small temperature controlled Vinyl room, where our 3 Nonclassical 12″ Vinyls are stocked). then lunch @ psychedelic-styled pizza restaurant in downtown Franklin (a model of the classic southern, single-street town centre).

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Then to the Mercy Lounge to meet FutureMan & his infamous Black Mozart Ensemble and soundcheck for the Nonclassical night there.
I can’t deny this whole show had me slightly nervous… Firstly I’ve never really consider my DJ sets as being a ‘performance’ (in fact I’m sceptical that many DJ-sets could really be seen as ‘performances’); my DJing is something that has happened out of necessity; I put on a Nonclassical club night & needed someone to DJ appropriate music in-between live sets and couldn’t find the right DJ so had to do it myself.
So being on equal billing to Future Man and his live set worried me, as did a previous email with Zach (his concert master) that we should definitely ‘jam’ together for a third set…
I’d seen some Youtube clips of the FutureMan shows & they did proper crowd-working ‘shows’, whereas my DJing is normally for setting an atmosphere, not getting everyone ‘whooping’, etc..
– I have been planning (for a while) to develop fully functioning ‘live remixing’ set-up on my laptop so I really can interact with acoustic musicians in-real time: live, but just have not found that spare week to do it yet; but fortunately I remembered a ‘jamming’ project I had been involved in last summer at the Glastonbury Festival:
BBC conductor: Charles Hazelwood had this wicked idea of taking a selection of Purcell Figured-Bass and using them as Bass-lines for more electronic, contemporary styled music. Charles was on keys, Adrian (from Portishead) on Guitar, Jason Yard on Sax & fx, and somehow I had ended-up as the ‘beats & bass’-man; pre-programming a bunch of Electronic beats & bass-lines using Purcell figured-bass that would form the basis of our extended jams. I had set up these beats on ableton live so that I could tweak/mash/process/twist and jam with them.

In the end the whole night out turned out well. I did a warm-up DJ-set, then The Black Mozart experience began: (too much to fully explain it here) but it opened with a really powerful film, and then Ray Wooten (on percussion), and String Quintet led by Zach jammed in a classical-meets-country-meets-angular-funk-with a dash of contemporary classical for about an hour – and it was a lot of fun, with Ray Wooten’s own compositions being the high-light, along with some excellent solos from the ensemble & this really cool country-style of ‘chopping’ from the ‘rhythm violinist’ -who deadened his strings rhythmically stuck them with the heel-end of the bow. Then came a really nice surprise for me: a live ‘Remix’ of the 4th movement of my 1st String Quartet; done with an unexpected reggae-feel which actually worked very nicely; and there was a cool jam over the main bass-line (played by double bass pre-looped by DJ Black Cat, who guested for the remix).
Then after a bit more DJing, which Ray Wooten jammed along to, we had some fun with a couple of those Purcell Bass-lines, and it gelled really nicely. Afterwards I wished that I could’ve stayed longer & we could have worked together some more… Ray & his group are so talented and sharing the stage with them gave my DJ-set an extra energy…
Next morning I was up early & flying to Austin -which wasn’t as near as I thought (especially as my flight had a change a Chicago..!?!?). Anyway, this blog is getting LONG – the Austin SXSW chapter comes soon…
GPx