A Conversation between Three Voice(s)
Composer Christopher Fox recently took the opportunity to have a chat with Juliet Fraser and Nicholas Peters, co-curators of Voice(s), a programme of new music for soprano and electronics that will launch at The Pound, Corsham on Friday 6 November 2015. Voice(s) will also tour to Upavon (7.11.15) and Minety (14.11.15).
Christopher Fox: Why did you decide to develop this project? There’s a long history of sopranos working with new technologies, reaching back to the late-1950s and the music that Cathy Berberian made in the RAI Studios in Milan, and I wondered whether you think of this new project as a continuation of that, or a new perspective?
Juliet Fraser (soprano): To be honest, I wasn’t particularly focused on that tradition, no; the motivations were rather more personal and practical than that! I wanted to create a new solo show in the hope that this would be artistically challenging and liberating, and, more practically speaking, so that the programme was cheap and easy to tour. Designing a programme of pieces for voice and electronics grew quite naturally out of conversations with Nicholas: we knew his piece for me would be for voice and tape, and after he introduced me to Feldman’s Three Voices the rest just flowed. In terms of the technologies, most of them have been in use for quite some time but they were still new to me — I had some catching up to do!
CF: You say you were looking for challenges. How has this project been different from your other work to date?
JF: Essentially, ‘Voice(s)’ was my own little R&D project. Until recently, the majority of my work was as an ensemble singer (with EXAUDI, and other groups), but I wanted to find out what happened when I gave myself free rein as a soloist, curatorially and artistically. I wanted creative autonomy, and was looking for ways to stretch myself, to explore new repertoire, new technologies and techniques. In the end, of course, I’ve worked very closely with Nick, firstly creating the project and more recently working on his new piece for me, and with Newton [Armstrong, sound engineer], so it hasn’t been as isolated as perhaps I imagined, but the collaborative elements have been really enjoyable and I’ve still had the satisfaction of shaping pretty much every element of the project myself.
CF: Nick, could you say something about your piece? What made you want to write for a singer, or did the idea of tape recording come first?
Nicholas Peters (composer): I saw Juliet perform an excellent solo concert at the Cello Factory in London in late 2010, which made me want to write a piece for her. What impressed and interested me most at that concert was her expressive performance of selections from George Aperghis’s Récitations. I liked the theatrical element of her performance and this was something I wanted to explore in my own piece. Thoughts of using tape came later as I became interested in the idea of our relationship with tape recorders, in as far as how some people use(d) them to document personal thoughts — an audio diary, I suppose, that also captures the tone of voice. I was also intrigued by how our relationship with the tape recorder might change over time whilst keeping an audio diary, like someone not letting you forget about your past.
CF: The idea of the audio diary as an inescapable memory is interesting. How does this work in your new piece?
NP: Juliet is constantly trying to break free from the influence of her tape recorder, both from the collage of layered sounds (using just intonation) and text on the tapes as well as from the mechanical sounds of the machine. She does this in a number of ways when singing with the tape, e.g. through changes in dynamic, interval of harmony, tempo. In this context, the piece also explores what happens when the crutch of the tape is temporarily removed: is she trapped inside those memories or can she move beyond them?
CF: Juliet, what are the challenges in performing this music? How does singing with a tape differ from singing with live musicians?
JF: Well, I haven’t performed most of it yet, so you’ll have to ask me again in a few weeks’ time! The first big difference, though, is the process of putting the piece together: for those works with tape parts, there’s a whole extra dimension of constructing the pre-recorded material. That takes much more time to assemble than does an ensemble piece with other musicians, and I’ll admit that I find it uncomfortable to listen to my own voice — confronting that has been a challenge but it’s so rewarding to be involved in the process of building the piece, and I’m sure that this proximity and involvement informs, positively, the way I approach the live part.
This is the first time I’ve done a project in which I am the only performer on stage, and it’s been a completely different experience, from curation to preparation and, I suppose, ultimately, to performance. The soundworld feels different of course, but the energy too: I’m alone up there, even if there are other voices. A solo show is so much more exposing, but hopefully all the more enriching for that.
CF: Nick, you’re fascinated by the idea of tape recording, to the extent of reviving pieces like mine and Feldman’s, which were originally made with tape recorders, and buying old tape recorders. Why? Isn’t it much easier to record and edit digitally?
NP: Well yes, it is much easier to record and edit digitally and these modern techniques have been used for the pieces you mention. I believe however that the tape recorder played an important part in shaping the ideas of these pieces, even if they are now not realised using tape recorders. My piece, however, was recorded using my tape recorder, and I view it very much as ‘my’ tape recorder. My fascination is something that has grown out of discovering the way in which Feldman used the tape recorder to layer sounds of the same performer in Three Voices. I like the theatrical side of a tape recorder too but exploring ideas of memory, whether layered or played back, is something I find constantly intriguing. It is through this that a performer’s inner thoughts
can be opened up for the audience to hear.
NP: Chris, a question for you! What ideas do you explore in Magnification? Why did you decide to write for soprano and tape at the time?
CF: Magnification comes from a period when I was exploring ways of opening up the relationship between composer and performer and in this piece the score is essentially a kit out of which a performance can be made. I wanted to make this clear to listeners too, so first the performer records the material – a stream of sung notes – which she then elaborates in her live performance. That stream of notes is initially layered on the tape and then gradually thins out, ending up as a single strand. At the time, I was a PhD student at York University where the Music Department had been one of the centres of development of tape music in the 1970s and I wanted to use the studio but I wanted to use it not to make a fixed tape part for all performances of Magnification but instead to realise one which was unique to Amanda Crawley, the soprano for whom I wrote it.
I should add that the piece is a sort of Magnificat – the words come from the passage in the Bible when Mary discovers she is going to be a mother. I wanted Magnification to sound like a song that Mary was making up in the moment of discovering this.
NP: You taught at the renowned Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music in the 1980s with Morton Feldman. Could you talk about your relationship with Feldman and his music? Did you know much of Feldman’s music when you were composing Magnification?
CF: I met Feldman in 1984 and 1986 when we were both guest composers at Darmstadt and the encounter was much more significant for me than it was for him, although he did come to my lectures and therefore heard a recording of Magnification. I found his lectures inspiring and lots of what he talked about subsequently influenced my ideas about composing. The strange thing, however, is that before 1984 I really didn’t think about him or his music very much at all. I only knew a handful of his works and the ones I liked best were the small early ones, like the 1963 Piano Piece. Of the New York School composers I was much more influenced by Wolff and Cage. But in Feldman’s 1984 Darmstadt lecture (which was subsequently published) he does mention me, as the ‘English boy’ who talked about ‘process and material’ – he didn’t like the way in which I had considered them as different elements in composition, something he would have heard in Magnification.
NP: Exploring and questioning the relationship between composer and performer seems to be something you have frequently returned to in your music over the years (in your Generic Compositions, for example). Why?
CF: I think it’s the relationship at the heart of composed music and the score is the way we mediate that relationship. As a performer I have always enjoyed music that lets me into the process in more than just an interpretative role and so it would be selfish of the composer me not to open up at least some of the music I make to similar sorts of performer interventions.
CF: Juliet, can you tell me anything about the other new pieces please, by Scott Mc Laughlin and Catherine Kontz?
JF: The new piece by Catherine Kontz responded to a fairly specific brief: to create something using my recorded voice that would give me a little breather from live performance. Thus we have Tea Break for Juliet, and Catherine has applied her characteristic wit and imagination to transform a rather practical requirement into a 5-minute ensemble piece of eight Juliets accompanied on stage by flowering tea! Scott Mc Laughlin’s Snowflake was written in 2011 for my friend and fellow soprano Peyee Chen, and is the only work in the programme to use live electronics. The score is a single page of simple graphics indicating length and dynamic of two ‘higher register pitches’ which are to be microtonally inflected in the live part and then treated to spectral enhancement by the electronics so that, just as in the formation of a snowflake, ‘differences that are barely perceivable become magnified by iteration’.
JF: A final question for you, Nick: it’s brilliant that your work is being supported by The Pound – what else do you have planned for your time as composer-in-residence there?
NP: It is indeed great to have The Pound’s support and I am very pleased and grateful to be working with them. I am still in the process of bringing together plans for the rest of my residency as I wanted the music I write over the coming months to be a response from working and being immersed in The Pound’s unique atmosphere. One project that is starting to take shape, though, is a collaboration with the pianist Alex Wilson on a new piece for piano and small ensemble that explores the idea of duets between the piano and another instrument/voice. The intention is for the piece to be developed with Alex and some local musicians over a period of six months, culminating in the premiere at The Pound in June 2016. As I only moved to the area in September 2014 I am also keen to explore The Pound’s contemporary music history and draw together a picture of the great new music that has been performed at The Pound over the years. These are just two of the ideas brewing at the moment, and I remain open and excited by the possibility of new plans and collaborations forming whilst in residence at The Pound.
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