Colin Currie and Kalevi Aho in conversation

Read an interview with Colin Currie (CC) and Kalevi Aho (KA) about the new percussion concerto written for him by Aho in what is one of the most eagerly-anticipated premieres of the season .

CC Kalevi Aho – your new “Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra”, entitled  “Sieidi”, represents a colossal milestone within the Solo Percussion with Large Symphony Orchestra genre. This work is vast in scope and depth, as well as having a highly developed poetic and dramaturgical sense. Did indeed the project of percussion and orchestra present to you a near-optimum canvas to unleash the full power of your music, both its lyricism and explosiveness?

KA I cannot say which is for me the most optimum canvas to unleash my musical visions. If you write a concerto, every instrument has its own unique possibilities, which you only must find out. But the percussion world is exceptionally rich and gives such opportunity towards a very many-sided and rich musical expression, from the most silent and lyrical nuances to wild rhythmical drive and musical explosiveness.

CC The percussionist has a bold and commanding role in this work, playing a variety of instruments. I’m delighted with the inclusion of two ‘ethnic’ hand-drums in the work too, djembe and darabuka. Can you tell of your interest and study of these drums?

KH In the middle of the 90s I began to ponder, which elements of the music I should use in a richer way in the future. One element was the rhythm and the percussion instrumentation of the orchestral works. I was a little bit tired also with the western drum-set instruments, which dominate especially pop and light music. That time I began to study non-western classical music cultures, and heard a lot of Arabian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese and African music. I noticed that the rhythm in the western music is quite primitive compared especially with the Arabian and African rhythms. At the same time I found the djembe and darabuka, which I used for the first time in my Symphony No. 11 (1997-98), written for six percussionists and orchestra (the solo group in its premiere was the Swedish Kroumata percussion ensemble). I liked the sound of those instruments a lot; it is not as hard as the sound of the drums, which you play with sticks. You can get from the djembe and darabuka very many nuances. Especially the darabuka is also a quite difficult instrument if you use by playing the finger technics, as the Arabian and Persian percussion virtuosos do. I would like to use in my works sometimes also the Indian tablas, but almost no western percussionist can really play the tablas, and the Indian masters cannot read notes. In my many orchestral pieces and concertos, written after the 11th Symphony, you can hear a lot of influences especially from the complicated Arabian and African rhythms.

CC  Indeed – and I feel that the very keenly developed rhythmic language you use in the work will be thrilling in live performance. Seldom can influences from far-flung continents be integrated safely and effectively into our westernised compositional world, but here we see a highly compelling result.Could you tell us something about the very evocative title of the work, ‘Sieidi’?

KA The Percussion concerto has three commissioners, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Luosto Classic Music Festival and the Gothenburg Symphony orchestra. The concert on 12 August at Luosto, in Finnish Lapland (with the BBC Philharmonic) is a very special happening, because it is an outdoors concert on the slope of the mountain Luosto. Some hundred years ago the sami people lived in that area. They had many cult places, which they called ‘Sieidi’. Sieidi is a Northern Sami word meaning `cult images’, and referred to objects such as strange, big rocks, cliffs or entire mountains situated at strategic locations for the hunter, fisherman or reindeer herder. It is well possible that the mountain Luosto was for them a ‘sieidiŽ, too. The drumming of the djembe and darabuka at the beginning and the end of the concerto is quite shamanistic; you could imagine that it is a drumming of a shaman at a ‘sieidi’.

CC Very magical imagery, and as such then, the work has at least one specific reference to Finnish folk culture. This concerto, and indeed your whole output as a composer is part of the overwhelmingly valuable contribution to classical music in general made by Finland, a staggering and inspiring piece of recent history. Can I ask you more broadly for some comments on the culture for classical music in Finland and the legacy of the music of Jean Sibelius?

KA Sibelius was the leading musical personality in Finland in his time, and his works still dominate the repertoire of the Finnish orchestras. However, his style has had in Finland no imitators because he didn’t teach a lot, and his music is so original. It is difficult to find any influences of Sibelius also in my music; I have worked from other starting points. The situation of the classical music in Finland is probably one of the best ones in the world. The state and the cities financially support the orchestras. The Finnish concert programmes are very many-sided – it is typical that the orchestras like to combine contemporary and classical music in the same concert. The composers have a lot of commissions, and the state and the foundations give grants for the artists. For many composers from abroad Finland seems to be almost like a paradise to live in.

CC All in all, it is a great honour for me to be a part of this scene, and to give the premiere of this landmark in percussion repertoire. I look forward very much to taking ‘Sieidi’ home to the mountains of Lapland this summer, and seeing you in April in London for the premiere!

Colin Currie premieres ‘Sieidi’ with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on Wednesday 18 April at Royal Festival Hall.

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Ether 2011: Get to know Colin Currie

Colin Currie, photo: Chris Dawes
Colin Currie, photo: Chris Dawes

The Colin Currie Group are returning to Southbank Centre this week for Ether 2011 with one of Steve Reich’s most acclaimed works, Drumming. We caught up with Colin to ask him our quick questions.

What do you fear the most and why?

Struggling to answer this one, so I guess I’m fairly fearless! I dislike pigeons however.

Which mobile number do you call the most?

I speak with my sister very often.

What – or where – is perfection?

Spending time with my nephew and niece who are 6 and 4 and full of wit and imagination.

Who is your favourite hero from fiction (book/comic/film/opera) – and why?

I enjoyed the Richard Katz character from Jonathan Franzen’s latest book ‘Freedom’ although he is not at all likeable.

What’s your favourite ritual?

I enjoy tea and toast at home following red-eye flights back from the USA, which I take most months.

Which living person do you most admire (and why)?

I met some very brave people in Mozambique whilst visiting there with World Vision.

What other talent or skill would you like to possess?

I love basketball and in my other (imaginary) career I am an NBA star, in the mould of D Wade (Miami Heat).

Tell us about a special memory you have of Southbank Centre?

Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards’ and Barbara Hannigan tearing up Ligeti’s ‘Mysteries of the Macabre’. Good examples of what people can achieve when they put their minds to it.

If you could programme your ideal Southbank Centre show, which artists (living or dead) would you bring together?

I would bring back Ian Curtis and have a Joy Division re-union.

What’s your favourite website?

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

Be yourself and not what others or convention want you to be.

What is the most played piece of music on your MP3 player or in your CD collection?

Anything by Stravinsky.

The Colin Currie Group plays Steve Reich’s Drumming as part of Ether 2011 at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on 8 & 9 April 2011. Get tickets here

Ether 2011: Steve Reich’s Drumming with the Colin Currie Group

Ether has established itself as a festival of experimentation, contemporary classical and groundbreaking work. This year it features minimalist composer Steve Reich’s 1971 masterpiece,Drumming. Universally hailed as one of the great composers of our time and heralded by bands such as Radiohead and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Steve Reich has transformed the world of contemporary music with his innovative approach to harmony, rhythm and form.

A pioneer in his field, Reich used the technique of phasing in a number of his works. Phasing occurs when two musicians play a single repeated pattern in unison. Player One then changes their tempo slightly while Player Two maintains the original tempo. Eventually they are both several beats out of sync with each other. In Drumming four drummers phase in and out with each other, and are then joined by more musicians in parts two, three and four.

For Ether Festival the acclaimed Colin Currie group will be performing Drumming in its entirety as well as hosting a free pre-concert event where they will be demonstrating and discussing sections of the piece.

See the Colin Currie Group play Steve Reich’s Drumming at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on 8 and 9 April 2011 as part of Ether 2011. Get tickets here.

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