‘Punching musical holes until he had the arm of a tennis player’ – listen to our special Nancarrow podcast

To celebrate our weekend festival Impossible Brilliance: The Music of Conlon Nancarrow, Saturday 21 – Sunday 22 April, we’ve created a special podcast exploring the hilarious impossiblity of Nancarrow’s music.

Hear from renowned composer Thomas Adès, festival coordinator Dominic Murcott, Nancarrow’s biographer Kyle Gann and more as they talk about the man, the music and the all-important player piano itself. From how long it took Nancarrow to punch the holes for an entire piece (a year for five minutes of music!) to his industrious work through the night with a bottle of tequila, we get to know the idiosyncrasies of this enigmatic, inspired composer.

To listen to the podcast, simply click the Soundcloud link http://soundcloud.com/southbankcentre/nancarrow, visit the iTunes podcast site or visit the Nancarrow series page here southbankcentre.co.uk/nancarrow

Impossible Brilliance: The Music of Conlon Nancarrow is at Southbank Centre, Saturday 21 – Sunday 22 April and features performances from the London Sinfonietta, the Arditti String Quartet and the Complete Studies for Player Piano, performed by the player piano itself. To book tickets click here.

A day in the Life… Principal Bass Trombone, Roger Argente of Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Ahead of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert at Royal Festival Hall on Friday 30 March, Principal Bass Trombone Roger Argente gave an insight into life in the orchestra and a little bit of background on the pieces which will be performed on Friday. You can buy tickets for the concert by visting the website


Ein Heldenleben – A Hero’s Life

I’m writing this post backstage at the Auditorio Nacional inMadrid, while the RPO, or the band as I call them, is on stage rehearsing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Julia Fischer.

The RPO are regular visitors to Spain, Madrid and the Auditorio Nacional in particular. On this occasion we’re doing two concerts here in Madrid and started with a concert in the newish (2007) Centro Cultural Miguel Delibes in Valladolid on Tuesday, about 100 miles north west of Madrid, playing repertoire including Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).Valladolid was cold and windy, it even snowed overnight on the outskirts but we made the most of it, as we always do. The small family-run taverna opposite our hotel in the Plaza San Miguel did a roaring post-concert trade in hearty soups and raciones (bigger versions of tapas that you share).

The morning after our first Heldenleben concert we made our way to the new AVE train station inValladolid. The AVE is Spain’s newest transport solution, using super-fast trains traveling at speeds of up 300 KPH and has cut down a previous 2.5 hour journey to just over one hour between Valladolid and Madrid.

Anyway, back to the music. The Dvorak New World Symphony is a great piece of music; the tunes permeate the brain and are hard to get rid of, but we do play it regularly, whereas Heldenleben only comes around every few years.

A bit of background on this piece…

It is a tone poem written in 1898, when Strauss was 34 years old. It utilises the leitmotif as ‘invented’ by Richard Wagner: the use of small musical themes that help glue the whole work together. The music itself is extremely romantic and many scholars believe it to be partly autobiographical while others go for the more tongue-in-cheek approach. We must also understand that it was written at a time when music in Europe was moving in lots of different directions, particularly those experimenting with modernism and impressionism.

The opening leitmotif is particularly well written and features the horn and cello sections; this opening rising motive really gets the hair on the back of you neck tingling – or at least it should do. Other favourite sections of this piece for me include the twittering critics, as portrayed by the woodwinds and the recurring ‘Dr Daring’ parallel 5ths of the tenor and bass tuba. Physically the Hero’s battlefield is a real blow for all the wind and brass.

The subtle drip feed of themes from other Strauss tone poems, particularly Till Eulenspiegel, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote and Death and Transfiguration are also very effective.

But at the end of the concert the glory belongs with the leader and the solo horn, played beautifully and sensitively by Duncan Riddell and Laurence Davies.

I first came across this piece while at school in South Wales when I started reading Norman del Mar’s critical commentary on Strauss. At that time I was very fortunate to have played good and varied symphonic repertoire both at school level (Dwr-y-felin Comprehensive School), county youth orchestra (West Glamorgan Youth Orchestra) and the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. The repertoire I performed then was challenging but not quite as challenging as Heledenleben. My first chance to play through the piece came about quite by accident when in my first term at the Royal Northern College of Music I stood in for an older student who was ill. I then played it several times with professional orchestras in theNorth Westand in Bournemouth, but it wasn’t until just over 20 years ago that I played it inLondon. I first played it with the RPO as part of my trial period under our then musical director Vladimir Ashkenazy.

After tonight’s concert the RPO is flying back to London, I’m personally off to Frankfurt for a few days, then we’re off to Budapest on Monday to repeat the Dvorak New World programme followed by an eagerly anticipated repeat performance of Heldenleben on Friday March 30th at the Royal Festival Hall.

Roger Argente

Roger joined the RPO as Principal Bass Trombone in April 1992.

He also combines his RPO commitments with a part-time position at Trinity College of Music, where he is Head of Brass Studies and runs his own brass and percussion ensemble Superbrass.

Limited tickets for Celebration Concert for David Fanshawe

For a limited time only you can get 2 tickets for the price of 1 on all tickets for the Celebration Concert for David Fanshawe on Saturday 31 March at 7.30pm.

The concert celebrates a huge range of David’s works, from world premieres of English Suite and The Owl and the Pussycat to a climactic performance of his masterpiece Africa Sanctus. David’s captivating, innovative compositions are brought to life by over 400 musicians, including the London Chorus, Southbank Sinfonia, BackBeat Percussion and soloist Maureen Brathwaite.

Click the link to listen to a sneak preview of Africa Sanctus.

To benefit from the 241 ticket offer, simply phone or come in person to the box office and quote ‘DAVID’ when booking tickets. Offer is available for a limited time only and ends at midday on Friday 30 March.

For more information about the concert visit the webpage here.

CONLONINPURPLE: Trimpin installation for our Nancarrow weekend

In this month’s Gramaphone Magazine, read about the unique installation moving into the Foyer of Queen Elizabeth Hall for our festival Impossible Brilliance: the Music of Conlon Nancarrow Saturday 21 – Sunday 22 April.

Conloninpurple, a stunning sound sculpture by MacArthur winning artist Trimpin, will transform the foyer for the festival and beyond. ‘The hanging chains of fuschia trumpets and tuned wooden and metal bars form a five-octave instrument, which operates via a magnetic field.’ See below for a glimpse of how the installation will look…

For more information about the weekend and to book tickets to concerts from the London Sinfonietta, the Arditti String quartet and the player piano for which Nancarrow wrote his music, see here.

Image: Conloninpurple 1 – James Porter, Courtesy of Tacoma Art Museum

Bionic ragtime – Prospect Magazine on the eccentric music of Conlon Nancarrow

In this month’s edition of Prospect Magazine, Louise Levene talks about the Nancarrow’s ‘rhythmic experiments’ and the ‘brain-frying complexity, the sheer wit and exuberance’ of his music…

‘Conlon Nancarrow couldn’t actually play any of his legendary Piano Studies – but nor could anyone else. Demanding up to 100 notes a second, embroidered with multiple melodies in widely varying tempi, his polyphonic compositions were so complex that only a machine could come to grips with them: the pianola.’

‘Nancarrow was born in Texarkana, Arkansas in 1912 and had his earliest piano lessions with a “horrible old spinster” but soon ducked them, preferring to pick up jazz trumpet from a “nice old drunk” instead. He completed his musical education at the Cincinnati and Boston Conservatories of music, but his epiphany came at age 18, when he heard Stravinsky’s revolutionary ballet score The Rite of Spring. Although his rhythmic experiments would far exceed even Stravinsky’s fiendish time signatures, the composer remained a touchstone for Nancarrow’s work. This focus on rhythm, rather than the Schoenberg-influenced adventures in pitch that dominated the interwar musical avant-garde, is perhaps what makes his work such fun to listen to – no one ever accused Schoenberg of being hummable.’

‘The pianola become Nancarrow’s faithful and tireless collaborator… He once spent a year composing and punching just five minutes of music – but the results were astonishing.’ His works are ‘remarkably accessible’ and ‘fizz with almost improvisatory energy’.

Hear Nancarrow’s ‘whimsical experiments’ for yourself at Southbank Centre’s Impossible Brilliance: The Music of Conlon Nancarrow, Saturday 21 – Sunday 22 April. For more information and tickets, see here.

Photo by Phillip Makanna courtesy of Eva Soltes.

The Lawson Trio interview Anthony Powers, who dreams of coffee (or a beer) with Brahms…

One of the UK’s finest young chamber ensembles, The Lawson Trio come to Southbank Centre to perform compositions by Anthony Powers, Camden Reeves and Cheryl Frances-Hoad. The trio caught up with Anthony Powers, whose piece The Lovers Ghost they will be performing in the Purcell Room on Tuesday 10 April (for more information or to book tickets see here).

For a sneak preview of the performance, listen to this clip The Lovers Ghost by Anthony Powers

What’s the most exciting thing about being a composer writing now, at the beginning of the 21st century? 
At the start of the 20th century that would have been one of the most remarkable times in the history of English music – and European too of course! With the twenty-first, it’s harder to say. New music seems to be losing its way in the clamorous attention given to pop and rock (now routinely, and confusingly, called contemporary or new music). Composers and their works (unless ‘about’ climate change or a current issue that will attract funding) are not important to most people, even to those who follow new developments in the other arts. One often feels more depressed than excited, but the best thing for me is writing for the many outstanding (often young) players and singers in this country who are selflessly committed to new work of many kinds.

Until comparatively recently, audiences listened almost solely to the contemporary classical music of their time. Now that we perform such a broad range of music, do you think the contemporary audience has become more specialised, and does that affect your writing in a any way?  
No, you can only honestly write for yourself and the idea of a specialized audience is dreadful. A kind lady once told me after a concert in which a new piece of mine had been played at the Wigmore Hall, along with Schubert and other standard repertoire, that she had come to hear the Trout Quintet, but preferred mine. That sort of open-minded approach is admirable (and rather encouraging to a composer!) but I fear all too rare.

If you could go for coffee with any composer born before 1900, who would it be, and what would you ask them?
Brahms famously liked his coffee, but would not have liked to be asked questions. It would be interesting to know, perhaps after a good lunch, beer and Schnapps, what he really thought about Wagner.

To aid their writing, Beethoven liked his long walks in the Vienna woods, Brahms liked his Austrian lakes, and Satie was fond of the odd absinthe. What does it for you?!?
Walking certainly, a soak in the bath sometimes, but as someone once said ‘work creates ideas’ and keeping going with what you’re writing, however slowly and frustratingly, is often the best way

Do you have any personality traits that you consider to be peculiar to composers?  
Not that I’m aware of – though composers can be peculiar! You do have to like your own company, as it’s a lonely process and nobody else can help.

Where did you grow up and did the local landscape have a bearing on your music? 

London, but with summers in Suffolk: unfortunately Britten had already rather cornered the market there. I have written a number of pieces that reflect the landscape of Herefordshire and the Marches where I’ve lived for many years

What was your most inspiring/memorable musical experience as a young musician growing up?
Probably singing Bach at school. To be ‘inside’ the St Matthew Passion at 13 or 14 is quite an education: otherwise London concerts, which in my teenage years ( late 60s and early 70s) were so much more interesting than now – Boulez at the BBC, the early years of the London Sinfonietta etc. We were lucky, and that’s not just nostalgia. It was a golden age.

We’re delighted that the starting point for the creation of this Piano Trio was the work we commissioned from you for the Chamber Music 2000 scheme in 2010. An extended version of this piece now forms the second movement of the set, entitled ‘The Lover’s Ghost’.
Can you explain the creative process of forming this larger scale work from the single movement?

I thought it needed some friends, so added other movements until an overall shape emerged. Though it may not sound like it, the beautiful late Trio of Fauré was much in my mind at the time.

Three folk song melodies are woven into the fabric of your Piano Trio, specifically named in the central three movements – ‘The Lover’s Ghost’, ‘Ratcliffe Highway’ and ‘The trees they grow so high’. In your programme note you describe how “these ballads are no pastoral idylls; their often dark and troubling narratives have as much bearing on the form and character of the music of these movements as do the tunes themselves”.
Do these songs hold particular significance for you, and are there threads of meaning from their narratives which seem to run through the work as a whole?
Not particularly. They are good tunes and good material, though it’s true that the words or stories – as so often in folksongs – are remarkable too. The tunes, though sometimes evident, are also variously buried in the music (and ‘The trees..’ is in any case a less well-known version from Devon) so spotting them is not necessarily the point.

Which other influences came to bear on the development and reflection on this raw material in the outer movements of the trio?
As ever, simply an attempt to make a coherent piece. The tunes hung around, so they form a background (on the whole) to the outer movements that don’t carry titles, often refracted through different registers, modes and harmonic contexts.

Do you feel that music is a reflection of your conscious self – the ‘self’ which those close to you would describe as ‘composer’s name’?! Or does your music allow you to access a self which is ‘other’ in some way?
I really don’t know. Self-analysis of this sort is rarely productive (it does seem to have been so for Tippett, if not his music), and any analysis probably best left to others.

If finance and time were no obstacle (ha ha!), what piece would you write next and where would you go to write it?
There’s an opera…and maybe a third symphony.

What message or advice wild you give to the next generation of composers? 
Trust your ears and musical instincts rather than systems or methods – and not always the advice of others .

What would be your top five desert island discs? 
Only five? I’d want music I don’t know very well. They would change all the time, so with any luck I won’t ever be asked to choose them for Radio 4!

For more interviews, clips and photos, see The Lawson Trio’s website www.lawsontrio.com

Interview with Alda Dizdari, star of Movements & Expressions

In her forthcoming performance at Southbank Centre, Alda Dizdari will explore some of the most important works written for the violin at the beginning of the 20th century. We catch up with her in advance of her concert ‘Movements & Expressions’ on 3rd April.

What are you particularly looking forward to about your forthcoming performance at Southbank Centre?
There was a lot of thinking going into creating a balanced programme that explores some of the most important musical languages and movements in the beginning of the 20th Century. Being such a rich century in every possible way, from the historical background to the impact it had on arts and music, it was an interesting process. I look very much forward to moving from one powerful musical language or from one musical world, to another because in themselves all these works are so unique, well defined, complete universes and the contrast in expression is vast. I love the idea of having such incredible variety of expressions in a short period of time. All the works were written between 1910-1947, some of them only a year apart from each other, and yet they belong to different worlds and aesthetics. I think the title evokes what I am seeking in “exploring movements and expressions”. My inspiration came not only from music but also from what was happening in the European culture at that time. I find it one of the most interesting eras, from art, music to fashion and architecture, it was an era of great style, artistic inspiration and individuality.

Is there a piece of music you would pick out as one of the ‘best’ works ever written?
They are all fantastic pieces requiring such a detailed work. I think they are all favourites of mine for very particular reasons. I love Debussy for the Sound colours he creates, a magical treat for the senses. I am fascinated by the world of Schoenberg, whom I find such a romantic, if one learns to hear his music with fresh ears and allows oneself to delve in that wonderful Viennese valse on which the fantasy stands, one sees so many mixed feelings of nostalgia, of rejection, of tenderness and a few regrets. A wonderful discovery for me has been the three short pieces by Sibelius. They stand in such contrast with the advanced musical languages of Debussy and Schoenberg, but they share that strong connection with the 19th century tradition. I adore the little harmonic tricks Sibelius is always using to make the simplest ideas into distinguishable jewels.

Bartok brings his unique emotional power which grips you from the very first note, which can be an open string, his musical language is so close to my heart, the music speaks to you, every rhythm is communicating a word, the folk element creates a very earthy feeling to his music, all the dances relate directly to our body language, it is the most natural music. I cannot get enough of Webern’s world, this condensed existence that says so much with so little. The four pieces a little like Sibelius’ create a complete universe. If in Sibelius’ case they evoked the 19th century tradition, in Webern’s case they evoke the future, predicting the world to come. Although written in 1910, the earliest written piece in the programme, Webern’s pieces are the most puzzling ones.
Ravel’s sonata is such a great piece to perform. It has everything in it, wonderful sound and feelings, you feel almost ancient one minute playing plain chant and the next minute you are in a blues bar in the deep south, playing jazz and blues. The transformation is incredible. It is great fun.

And is there a work that is for you, emotionally, especially important?
I think performers are like actors. We completely emerge in the music we perform and we find a deep emotional attachment to these pieces. I almost feel we live with the ghosts of the composers for a while, feeling their energy and their strength running through our veins. I am sure it is true to some extent, because their spirit is in their music. The reason why I became a violinist was because of Sibelius’ violin concerto which I heard for the first time when I was 5 years old. I have a deep emotional connection with that work, so strong that I was reluctant to performing the concerto until my late 20s because I didn’t trust my emotions and felt very vulnerable. I feel similar connection with Brahms and Bartok.

What other talent or skill would you like to possess?
I wish I could draw and paint. I think I would have been obsessed with nature and colours and I would have loved working with materials. I wish I could have more time to be an explorer of ancient civilisations, such as the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. I wish I had the talent to write short stories, especially in the style of Chekhov or Gogol.

If you could programme your ideal Southbank Centre show, which artists (living or dead) would you bring together?
My ideal conductor would be Jurowsky. I admire him so much, he has great energy, great technique. From the past I think I would definitely have Brahms on the piano giving me all the time in the world to breath and creating that warm sound filling me up with love. My dream musical companion on chamber music would be George Enescu. He would play everything from heart and would know every little detail on the score. Enescu, Cassals and Yssaye would be my dream partners.

What is the most played piece of music on your mp3 player or in your CD collection?
At the moment silence is the most precious thing to me. There is just too much music around. I play music all the time so the counterpoint would be silence. I love the sound of a black bird that sings in my garden. It relaxes me more than anything else. I often think of Messian and I start listening to the Quartet for the End of Time. There was a time when I started my day with Schubert Lieders and other times for weeks I loved to start with Mendelssohn’s chamber music. I never get tired of Brahms, anything he wrote was golden, I love his music. And I can never get tired of Mozart’s piano concertos and Bach’s music for strings, I can listen to them endlessly and feel fresh. I even find myself doing a little court dance around the house and regret being born in this century.

Do you have any strange rituals you carry out before or after you perform?
I like to eat a banana and some chocolate before I perform. I also have to hear the voice of my parents wishing me good luck. I feel their energy and I know it will be a good evening.

Click here for more info and to book tickets.