Andrew West and Ronald Woodley: Music for Two Pianos

This week’s Performance Platform provides a rare opportunity to hear the first performance of a new work for two pianos, Wild Man Dances, by Liz Johnson, composition tutor at the Conservatoire, written for Andrew West and Ronald Woodley and completed earlier this year.

The programme also includes the remarkable, early Fantaisie (Tableaux) of 1893 by Rachmaninov, performed much less often than his later Second Suite, as well as the two-piano version by Gaston Choisnel of the suite from Ravel’s crystalline score for his ballet Mother Goose.

Samantha Carroll spoke with Ronald ahead of the concert to find out more about this special concert for two pianos…

Two pianos at Birmingham Conservatoire

Andrew West and Ronald Woodley

Have you ever worked with Andrew West before?

Andrew and I first worked together as colleagues at Lancaster University in the 1990s, when I was Senior Lecturer in Music and Andrew was Pianist in Residence. We have regularly collaborated since then, both on 2-piano projects and clarinet and piano recitals.

Have you enjoyed working with him on this occasion?

It is always marvellous to work with Andrew — he is such a natural musician with huge experience of chamber music and piano accompaniment, especially with some of the top singers in the country, and always brings terrific ideas to rehearsal, which we enjoy tossing around and discussing at some length.

Do you feel a lot of pressure giving the first performance of the new work for two pianos ‘Wild Man Dances’ by Liz Johnson?

There is certainly a lot of responsibility involved, and this is a pretty tricky piece to fit together, with a lot of the musical material being thrown around between the two players. But I have worked with Liz before, and I know how supportive she is towards her performers, and what they can bring to the piece that she hasn’t necessarily thought of herself — so that makes the working relationship very flexible and flowing in both directions. Liz is also currently writing a new quintet for me, for multiple clarinets and string quartet, which we are performing and recording next year with the Fitzwilliam Quartet. Watch this space.

The Fitzwilliam Quartet

Are there enough 2 piano works out there to perform?

There’s actually a very large repertory of two-piano music, both works written originally for the medium and some really exciting and worthwhile arrangements, often of large-scale orchestral works from the first half of the 20th century, and often made by the composers themselves. When Andrew and I first started playing together, we performed Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring several times, as well as works such as Ravel’s La Valse and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, which sit beautifully in a programme alongside classics for the medium such as Debussy’s En blanc et noir.

This piece was written for you both. How much input did you have?

Basically my stance when working with a composer is to let her/him write what they want, and then see whether we can find a way to make it work. If there are seriously impracticable details, then these can be ironed out at a second stage in the process. With Liz’s Wild Man Dances, I think that I had a hand in initiating her writing a work that was rhythmically very alive and energetic, to contrast with some really beautiful, texturally intricate pieces for strings and voice that she had previously been working on.

Do you have any advice about how to work efficiently on collaborative projects like this?

When collaborating with other performers, such as a two-piano partnership, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should link up to someone similar to yourself in character: often more contrasting personalities can come together to create a different kind of unity of approach, provided that there is sufficient understanding and respect of one another’s strengths. When collaborating with a composer, he/she will often already have a view of you as a performer (for better or worse!), and it’s generally better to allow him/her free rein to write exactly what they want to start with, without your interposing too much, except in answering specific technical queries. How much subsequent revision of a first draft is feasible will depend very much on the dynamics of the personalities involved, but I think it’s true to say that these days the compositional process for most composers is much less beholden to precompositional technical systems than, say, a generation or two ago; so creative discussions between composer and performer at draft stage (or even post-first performance stage) are very much the norm rather than the exception.

Andrew West and Ronald Woodley  perform Music for Two Pianos at Adrian Boult Hall on Tuesday 27 October at 1pm. Book tickets.

Michael Janisch: Paradigm Shift

Jazz bassist Michael Janisch

Bassist and composer Michael Janisch performs arrangements of his album, Paradigm Shift at Birmingham Conservatoire

Composer and bassist Michael Janisch is known for his distinct virtuosity and a penchant for thematic material, attention to groove and a reverence for his past musical experiences.

He performs at Birmingham Conservatoire, in support of his latest album, Paradigm Shift,  (Thu 8 Oct) where jazz fans can witness Janisch and his exceptional band propel his music into new sonic terrain conceptually, harmonically, and rhythmically.

We caught up with Michael on his tour to get an idea of what the concert promises…

How is the Paradigm Shift tour going? In a recent blog post you describe the music as having taken a ‘big step forward’ during the tour. How do see the music as having evolved? What is different now from when you played the first show?

We’re 18 shows into the tour and we’ve had a lot of good times on and off the stage, this just gets the music to a deeper place. The musicians have long since memorised their parts and we’ve gotten beyond the initial settling in period.

We’re interacting on a more subtle level now but also taking more chances in the music, exploring, etc, and letting people have their space, the music just plays itself and we’re just having fun.  Also, when you do that many gigs in a row you get gig chops on your instrument which is nice cause you feel very connected with your instrument in a way you can never achieve from just practicing.

What can the Birmingham Conservatoire audience expect to hear? Will you recreate the album faithfully, or do you prefer to improvise with the material?

We’ll play all the songs from the album and the scored parts will be recognisable but we’ve developed everything to a new place and improvisation is always at the forefront.

Paradigm Shift was originally recorded in 2011 with further recording, post-production, mixing and mastering subsequently added throughout 2014 and 15. Was the intention always to work in this way – by recording it live and then finishing it off in the studio?

No, the reason I did this was because after it was recorded I had two other band/album commitments and had to see those projects through.  After they ran their course I got back to this music and I knew I wanted my new band to feature an electronic musician, so I thought it would be great to have him add the post production to the album and so that’s what we did over a good 15 sessions.

What was the reason behind you adding further overdubs rather than just releasing a live album?

I wanted to enhance the sonic landscape of the music and now we’re doing that live on the shows.

What are you listening to at the moment?

Steve Lehman’s albums
Sleaford Mods – Keymarkets
Jaco Pastorious (anything he plays on)
Paul Jackson (anything he plays on)

Recently I’ve been getting into London based bands Polar Bear (I did a gig w/ Sebastian Roachford and loved his playing) and also The Invisible.

Michael Janisch appears at Birmingham Conservatoire on 8 October at 8pm. Book tickets online.

Robert Levin: Swirling feelings of joy, terror, and everything in between.

One of music’s great polymaths, Robert Levin, performs a specialist programme highlighting Mozart’s improvisatory Preludes, and some of the greatest Sonatas at Adrian Boult Hall at 1.05pm on Tuesday 6 October.

Robert Levin - 6th Oct at Birmingham Conservatoire

Robert Levin – 6th Oct at Birmingham Conservatoire

He champions and composes contemporary music, but has also famously reconstructed Mozart choruses from sketches, including the Amen fugue in the Requiem. He has taught at The Curtis Institute, as the Piano Professor in Freiburg 1986-93, as Humanitas Visiting Professor in Cambridge 2012, and is currently Professor of Music Emeritus at Harvard.

The performance is followed by a public masterclass with some of the Conservatoire’s finest young pianists.

Jack Lovell spoke with Robert to find out more ahead of his appearance at the Conservatoire…

You are performing this recital on the fortepiano. Can you tell us a little bit about this instrument? Did you prepare for this performance knowing you will be using the fortepiano, and has that influenced your interpretation?

It is a copy of an instrument made in the workshop of Anton Walter.  I did indeed prepare for the recital knowing I would be using a period piano, which decisively influences both technical and artistic approaches to performance and interpretation.

The greater transparency, clearer articulation, equal balance between hands and voices, and the particular colours available on an instrument of Mozart’s time are central to my approach.

You have a long and complex relationship with Mozart, from performing his works to reconstructing choruses and writing about him. What is it about Mozart that excites/interests you so much?

Mozart’s music conveys a sense of perfection and perfect equilibrium between rhetoric, architecture, and expression.  He was a master dramatist and his music conveys a vivid sensuality.  It is a challenging voyage of discovery to attempt to get inside his thought processes.

How does it feel taking on the responsibility of reconstructing or completing works by Mozart or J.S. Bach for example?

One learns profound humility. To attempt such a completion is to aspire to speak perfectly a foreign language.  What is required is both intellect, infinite patience, and a clear sense of the outer limits of one’s abilities.

You are also a conductor. How do you find rehearsing a group of musicians impacts your musical language and approach?

It is a special privilege to convey to the musicians, and through them to the audience, the swirling feelings of joy, terror, and everything in between that the composer’s music expresses.

A hot topic in the UK at the moment is that of music education is schools. How do you feel about the state of music education in the UK, and wider around the world? What do you think we could be doing to improve it?

With the exception of Asia, where the virtues of classical music are part of basic cultural education, we need in the rest of the world to attach greater importance to the teaching of music and the appreciation of its immense expressive power.  This power is known by all, but principally through vernacular (popular) music, most of which consists of tunes that are typically 2-5 minutes long.  The greater complexity of Western art music is capable of engendering revelatory understanding of human motivations and emotions.  Present-day audiences are more likely to gain a sense of these from the cinema than from art music.  But surely Beethoven’s masterworks are not less powerful in this regard!

You will be giving a masterclass on Tuesday. What is it about the interaction with younger musicians that you enjoy? Is it just pianists that would benefit from this masterclass?

It is enormously stimulating to encounter younger musicians, responding to their abilities and stimulating them to surpass themselves in their aspirations and achievements—a mixture of the technical, the aesthetic, and the visceral.  In master classes I teach not just the musician who is playing, but address myself to all listeners, whether fellow musicians or laypersons.

What was the best masterclass you were ever in as a student? What made it so special?

The master classes of Sir Clifford Curzon at Fontainebleau in 1960 and 1962.  They were masterpieces of artistry, pianistic counsel, and wit.  Working with Sir Clifford as a 12-year-old was what made me decide to be a pianist.

Robert Levin’s recital programme includes:

Robert Levin fortepiano

Mozart Four Preludes, K.284a
Mozart Sonata in B flat, K.333
Mozart Sonata in E flat, K.282
Mozart Sonata in C, K.330

Buy tickets online here.

Seán Clancy: 45 Minutes of Music on the Subject of Football

Seán Clancy was born in Dublin and educated at Birmingham Conservatoire, King’s College London, University College Dublin and the Ecole Nationale de Musique. He is now a Lecturer in Composition at Birmingham Conservatoire and his work has been comissioned and performed by many of the world’s leading ensembles including the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, BCMG, Ensemble Krock and Orkest de Ereprijs.

To celebrate the release of Seán Clancy’s new full length album, 45 Minutes of Music on the Subject of Football with Birmingham Record Company we caught up with the composer to ask him about the origins of this interesting new work.

How did this composition come about? Was it composed for a specific event? And why now?

‘Around the summer of 2013 I became increasing interested in pieces that only had one overt action. Around the same time, I also got involved in studying different forms of attention spans and discovered that over the course of the past 20 years or so, the average attention span on a singular activity has diminished from 40 minutes to just 2 minutes! I got to thinking about structures in popular culture, and how they can sustain attention for longer periods of time. Football being an obvious choice for me, has the ability to sustain attention for 45 minutes at a time (focus is reset at half-time with adverts, analysis etc.) and I wanted to see if there was anything intrinsic to a football match that made it so, or do we focus on a sporting event because of the extrinsic elements (the team that we support, do we have a bet on etc. etc.)

It was composed with Ensemble Krock in mind, who were brave enough to commit to the project without me showing them anything, and it has been performed live a number of times throughout 2014 and 2015 in Birmingham, Dublin, and Stockholm. The recording is released now, owing to fine tuning every aspect of the recording which for a 45 minutes piece, takes a considerable length of time!’

Ray Houghton celebrates scoring the winner against Italy in the 1994 World Cup

What is it about this game in particular that inspired you to write this piece?

‘I have particularly fond memories of this match. The Irish football team in the 1990s were relatively successful and there was generally a sense of positivity around the country when they played. This was our opening match of the 1994 world cup and the country was so excited. After Ray Houghton‘s goal around 11 minutes however, the match very much ran out of steam, and I was fascinated at how an entire country could sit around and watch something so uneventful. I wanted to see if I could write something that kept people focused for the same length of time by using the flow, or the structure of this relatively uneventful match.’

You mention that the piece celebrates that particular 1994 match, but also “the average attention span on a singular activity has diminished from 40 minutes to just 2 minutes”. Can you talk a little bit more about why you think that is?

‘Yes, as I mentioned above, around the time I was composing this piece I began studying different forms of attention spans and was fascinated (if a little shocked) to learn that over the course of about 20 years, the average attention span for a singular activity has dropped from around 40 minutes to 2 minutes. This roughly correlates with greater access to the internet and maybe people consuming more information in much smaller chunks. As artists, we can either use this data and go along with it, which leads to interesting results, or we can also ask questions; again, leading to interesting results. There’s no right or wrong attitude, but I think it’s important for people to be aware of both sides of the coin. This piece I think, airs on the side of asking questions…’

At the risk of sounding naïve, how do you translate the physical actions of a football match in to a 45 minute piece of music? Are there exact points where we could say, “ah yes, that sound was that goal, or that moment was that tackle” and so on?

‘It’s not naïve at all! I sat down and watched the entire match and wrote out the duration that each team had possession. For example Ireland: 0’00” – 0’38”, Italy 0’38” – 1’07” etc, etc. I then had two blocks of sketch material which I composed the music from (one block for Ireland, the other for Italy). Every time Ireland had possession I used block A, whilst every time Italy had possession I used block B. This happens for the whole duration of the first half with significant events (Ray Houghton’s goal for example) punctuated in some way. The tempo of the piece loosely correlates to the tempo of the match also. It’s almost like composing a musical soundtrack to a silent film or to put it another way, it creates an alternative existence for a structure that occurred through chance in 1994…’

What made you chose a guitar quartet or Ensemble Krock for that matter?

‘I wanted to have a relatively homogenous sound for a piece that asks questions about focus and attention, and a guitar quartet is possibly as homogenous a sound as you can get (They are all tuned the same and all occupy the same register). However, as Krock are an electric guitar quartet you also have the ability to radically change sounds at your will. (The best of both worlds). On a more biographical note, all I listened to in the mid 90s (even though I was quite young) was Nirvana, Sonic Youth and The Smashing Pumpkins. As this is a piece set in the 90s, I wanted to capture some aspect of that soundworld, and the electric guitar quartet is the perfect medium for that.’

What is it like working on a project with such strong collaborators as Krock and John Murphy? Does it add anything special to the final product knowing that as a group you have shaped and created something unique?

‘Yes, it makes it far more special. Krock were absolute legends throughout the whole process. We met in 2013 when they were over from Stockholm doing a composition department project. We immediately hit it off and shared many interests and a similar working method. I had the opportunity to test the electronics for the piece in EMS in Stockholm in early 2014 and this really allowed us to craft the overall soundworld of the piece and not just the notes. Similarly, John Murphy runs a fantastic studio in Dublin where he has recorded the best underground and leftfield music around. He has a fantastic pair of ears and is such a perfectionist with an acute attention to detail. He is also remarkably kind with his time and was always willing to entertain my tiny suggestions and my constant ‘it’s not quite right, maybe a little more of this’ which lasted almost a year. Knowing the people you’re involved with, liking them, trusting them and having the time to explore all avenues has led to a very rewarding experience and a piece that I’m incredibly happy with. I am eternally grateful to all of them and am forever in their debt.’

You’ve mentioned somewhere that ‘nothing else of note took place and the second half was completely devoid of physical drama.’ …but what about John Aldridge and Jack Charlton’s bust up with the illuminous yellow baseball capped FIFA official? Surely that incident warrants a piece of its own?

‘Ah that was the match against Mexico! I know you’re just testing my football knowledge now!’

Haha! So then, what is next for you?

Upcoming things I’m involved in:

Featured Composer in Soundings at the Austrian Cultural Forum London, 2-5 November 2015.

Currently writing commissions for Crash Ensemble and a joint large scale piece for Ensemble Krock and Workers Union Ensemble (Whom I’m composer in association with) to be toured in Spring 2016.


Release of solo electronic music in early 2016 (Birmingham Record Company).

You can read and hear more of Seán’s work on his website or head over to the Birmingham Record Company to see what Seán and other Birmingham Composers are up to.