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Exploring illusion: Pierce Gradone

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Premieres: January’s new music

8:00, 1st January 2018

Exploring the idea of artifice, Pierce Gradone’s new work was inspired by a passage from Denis Diderot’s The Paradox of the Actor (Paradoxe sur le comédien). ‘His general theory is this idea that the great actors can’t feel emotion on stage, otherwise they can’t repeat it, so a big part of my music is this idea of agency and reproducibility and what that means for performers,’ the composer explains. ‘There’s one strange, cryptic line which really stood out for me; it’s about how spectator and performer engage with each other, and how you produce this emotional projection, and the technical ability required to reproduce it.’

Gradone says that the piece explores the ideas of ‘artifice, mendacity and authenticity’, likening it to ‘musical pantomime’: ‘At the beginning, you hear these high, cascading piano lines. It’s really quiet and there’s a single line in the woodwind. All the while, the cellist is playing on the tailpiece and dragging their fingers down the fingerboard. It’s visually matching the sound the audience is hearing. There’s a point in the middle of the piece where the string players go from playing very loudly on their strings to doing the same thing on their tailpiece, which produces a quiet whispery sound; however, the audience sees the intensity of the gesture, so there’s a disconnect. I love this idea of music that’s implied, or that you’re hearing something that’s not quite there. That’s a big theme in the piece. There’s a double layer of artifice: how the audience perceives it and what the musicians are actually doing.’

The composer also explores the idea of artifice in a more subtle fashion. ‘The opening is a 24-note microtonal idea, but it’s not at all serial,’ Gradone explains. ‘There’s a strange moment in the middle of the piece where you hear what sounds like a strange big band, but every phrase completes a 24-note microtonal aggregate. It’s quite silly, and it’s very much an inside joke; the obsession with aggregate completion is this goal within 12-note music, so I wanted to play with it and to make it sound familiar and not at all sophisticated.’ He pauses, then adds: ‘But I’m not a serialist!’

The ideas explored in To Paint Their Madness are of much broader interest to Gradone. ‘I’ve become very good friends with a number of new music performers, and speaking to them about their experiences has really informed my work,’ he says. ‘I think they often feel as if they’re machines, and are just meant to reproduce the computer sound that the composer created, and aren’t seen as living, performative agents. I’ve tried to make it so they can express their agency a bit more.’

He also wants to place the emphasis back on the physicality of performance. ‘I want this to be a visual experience. I think there’s something lost when we just think of our music as being for a really good recording. That takes away an essential aspect. This is a piece for people to experience and interact with.’

The piece concludes with the illusion intact, but Gradone says he would like to think that the audience ‘finally get to hear what they’ve seen throughout the piece’: the music reaches a crescendo, then the majority of the ensemble drops away, leaving the strings bowing the tailpiece, creating an airy sound. Ultimately, the composer says, ‘there is still this illusion and they are still behind this mask of performance.’

Pierce Gradone To Paint Their Madness UK prem (The Riot Ensemble, Aaron Holloway-Nahum, conductor, Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, London, 8pm)

For his new work for Aurora Orchestra, Martin Suckling explored how various scientific principles could be applied to classical music. The piece was commissioned as a reflection on a new low-voltage memory element by technology consortium PETMEM, which wanted to know how artists might respond to their ideas.

‘Computer chips have been getting faster and faster for decades, essentially because we’re able to shrink more and more transistors to ever-smaller spaces,’ Suckling explains. ‘Technology companies are looking for new ways of building chips, and exploring the relationship between shape and electricity. Theoretically, piezoelectric transduction devices use 100th of the power of a normal transistor, and can get things to run 100 times faster.’

Inspired by science: Martin Suckling Photo: Maurice Foxall
Inspired by science: Martin Suckling
Photo: Maurice Foxall

The composer visited the National Physical Laboratory with poet Frances Leviston, also commissioned to create a response to the ideas, where they spoke to scientists and used electron microscopes. The two worked in parallel, and the upcoming performance will see the movements of Suckling’s new work interleaved with readings of Leviston’s words.

Key to the piece is the principle of compression, which forces material to change speed. ‘In several movements the material is squeezed in one way or another, which forces a transformation in the material. That’s how the structure of the first and last movements work,’ Suckling says.

‘We met someone at the National Physical Laboratory who worked with electron microscopes, and created beautiful images through scanning materials. The pictures looked like alien worlds; of course, they’re all images of familiar materials, but it was looking at how that magnification can change something familiar into something foreign. There’s an aspect of that in the piece: I took a recording of Frances reading one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, did a spectral analysis of it, and used it as the basis of the musical material.’

The concept of memory is key to the new technology, and it is this which explains Suckling’s decision to quote Schubert in the work’s final movement. ‘To me, a string quintet with two cellos contains the memory of the Schubert quintet, because it’s the key piece for that line-up, and it’s my favourite piece,’ Suckling says. ‘The last movement of my quintet works its way towards the world of the Schubert quintet. There are moments where it quotes a prominent trill from it and another where it quotes the harmony of the quintet, refracted through a microtonal lens.’

Acknowledging that Schubert and technology might not be the most obvious bedfellows, Suckling says, ‘The thing music does really well – and poetry too – is that it can bring lots of different ideas together. It can make unexpected connections, or allow the listener to make connections.’

Martin Suckling Emily’s Electrical Absence (Stuart Parkin, speaker, Aurora Orchestra, Kings Place, 7.30pm)

Commissioned to mark the composer’s 70th birthday, Symphonies of Tide and Time reflects on Stephen Pratt’s 40-year relationship with the Liverpool Philharmonic. ‘It’s about the passage of time and, in particular, my relationship with the Liverpool Phil since the 1970s, really,’ the composer says. ‘I know the members of the orchestra well, and regularly work with them in educational situations. My first piece for the orchestra was a concerto for orchestra; I decided against that this time, but I suppose when you can almost hear and see the people who’ll be playing it there is a certain aspect of that.’

Anniversary celebrations: Stephen Pratt
Anniversary celebrations: Stephen Pratt

The new work incorporates small quotations from three pieces which Pratt wrote for the orchestra. ‘Nobody would particularly recognise them, but they’re like little snapshots and for me are like recollections of different eras writing for the Phil and my own compositional career. They’re important reference points for me, but they’re not important structural points in the piece.’

The piece comprises seven sections within a single movement, which has a broadly symphonic shape. ‘The sections tend to present material which is developed elsewhere in the piece. It’s quite traditional in that sense.’

The title refers to a well-known adage, but one element has added significance. ‘The tide aspect is because I’ve lived in Liverpool for a lot of my life and the sea has always been important to me. Each of the seven sections has a climax at the end, then the music winds down again, so they’re almost like little peaks and troughs, like the tides.’

Although the piece is broadly a reflection on the past, I ask whether it is looking forward too. ‘I hope so! I don’t want to sound morose! I’d like to think it is. With each piece I’m finding out more about my way of working, and each piece is a discovery of what I’m trying to do.’

Stephen Pratt Symphonies of Time and Tide (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko, conductor, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, 7.30pm)


Jörg Widmann Es war einmal (Fünf Stücke im Märchenton) UK prem (Jörg Widmann, clarinet, Tabea Zimmermann, viola,
Dénes Várjes, piano, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)

Aare Merikanto Ekho UK prem (Anu Komsi, soprano, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, conductor, Barbican, 7.30pm)
Colin Matthews Meditation (Tabea Debus, recorder, St James’s Church, Clerkenwell, London)

Poul Ruders Clarinet quintet UK prem (Harry Cameron-Penny, clarinet, Benyounes String Quartet, Kings Place, 6.30pm)

Antonia Barnett-McIntosh, Louis d’Heudieres New works (Joseph Houston, piano, St John’s Smith Square, 7.30pm)

Edgar Meyer Overture for violin and orchestra UK prem (Joshua Bell, violin, Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Cadogan Hall, London; also 20 January, National Concert Hall, Dublin; 21 January, Usher Hall, Edinburgh; 22 January, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester; 23 January, Symphony Hall, Birmingham; 24 January, Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham; 25 January, Colston Hall, Bristol)
Molly Joyce New work (The Riot Ensemble, Aaron Holloway-Nahum, conductor, Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, London, 8pm)

Huw Webb Trio for flute, viola and harp (Hugh Webb, harp, Eleonore Pamijer, flute, member of the Allegri Quartet, Kings Place, 6.30pm)

Robert Percy New work (Carla Rees, flutes, Ian Mitchell, clarinets, Clare Simmonds, piano, St George the Martyr, Borough High Street, London, 1pm)

Rebecca Saunders New work (Quatuor Diotima, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)
Irving Fine Toccata Concertante European prem (Parnassus Piano Duo, St John’s Smith Square, 7.30pm)
Simon Rowland-Jones New work (Carducci Quartet, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 7.30pm)

Huw Watkins New work (BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Xian Zhang, conductor, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 7.30pm; also 20 January, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 7.30pm)

Debussy Première Suite UK prem (London Symphony Orchestra, François-Xavier Roth, conductor, Barbican Hall, 7pm)
Alexandra Harwood New work (I Musicanti, St John’s Smith Square, 3pm)
Pande Shahov Transcriptions of Macedonian traditional music UK prem (Simon Trpčeski, piano, Aleksandar Krapovski, violin, Alexander Somov, cello, Hidan Mamudov, clarinet/saxophone/kaval, Vlatko Nushev, percussion, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)

Robert Percy New work (Miloš Milivojevic, accordion, St George the Martyr, Borough High Street, London, 1pm)

Hans Abrahamsen Left, Alone London prem Samantha Fernando New work (Tanara Stefanovich, piano, London Sinfonietta, Royal Festival Hall)
Leo Chadburn New work London prem (Britten Sinfonia, Jacqueline Shave, violin, Wigmore Hall, 1pm)

Hilary Tann On Ear and Ear (tribute to Milton Babbitt) London prem (Matthew Jones, viola/violin, Annabel Thwaite, piano, St John’s Smith Square, 1.05pm)

Leonard Bernstein Simchu Na UK prem (BBC Singers, Ragnar Bohlin, conductor, St Giles Cripplegate, London)

Brian Inglis Piano trio (Aquinas Piano Trio, Kings Place, 6.30pm)

Roberto Rusconi New work (Minguet Quartet, Cardiff University Concert Hall, Cardiff, 7pm)
Joseph Horovitz Pierrot’s Hornpipe (Matthew Schellhorn, piano, St George the Martyr, Borough High Street, London, 1pm)
Jörg Widmann Quintet for clarinet and string quartet, ‘Lento assai’ UK prem (Jörg Widmann, clarinet, Hagen Quartet, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)

Joanna Marsh 
Pearl of Freedom (Royal Holloway Chamber Orchestra, Chapel Choir of Royal Holloway, London Mozart Players, Rebecca Miller, Rupert Gough, conductors, St John’s Smith Square, London, 7.30pm)

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