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7 Nov 2018

Music of Today: Q & A with Amy Dickson

7 Nov


We're joined by saxophonist Amy Dickson in our next free Music of Today concert on 15 November, performing Franco Donatoni's Hot as the centrepiece of our composer showcase. 

One of the world's leading saxophonists, Amy's performances fuse genres and styles, and in 2013 she became the first saxophonist to win a Classical Brit Award. We chatted to her ahead of her concert with us, revealing how she first picked up the saxophone, and introducing her passion for new music.


Audiences around the world are familiar with the sound of saxophones in a variety of genres, from jazz pioneers like John Coltrane or Cannonball Adderley, to the world of pop, with artists like Branford Marsalis featuring on Sting’s Englishman in New York. But until recently, saxophones have been a rarity in the world of classical music – so what originally drew you to the instrument and led you to this genre?

The thing that drew me to the saxophone when I was child, was the sound. There’s something about it that just touches my ear in a way that other instruments don’t. I had a wonderful teacher who covered all the musical genres with me, and it was classical and contemporary music that always felt like my native musical language. The saxophone is a beautiful classical instrument and actually, when Adolphe Sax invented it, was intended to be a classical instrument - to bridge the gap between the woodwind and brass instruments. 


Amy Dickson performing Philip Glass


You play a variety of saxophone types, and in your performance with us we’ll be hearing you on the tenor and the tiny sopranino – what are the differences and quirks between the instruments? Do you have a favourite?

I usually play alto and soprano saxophones, as they are the instruments for which most of our solo repertoire is written. Each of the members of the saxophone family are vastly different to play, although they all have the same fingering patterns so, technically, once you can play one, you can play them all - it just takes a bit of work to get used to them! 


Tonight you’re performing Hot by Italian composer Franco Donatoni. What do you enjoy in his music, and what would you encourage our audience to listen out for?

I absolutely love this piece - as do so many of my musical friends. It builds in intensity in the most gripping way and it completely effective as a work.


Hot by Franco Donatoni


Throughout your career you’ve championed the creation of new music for saxophone, collaborating with leading composers including James MacMillan and Cecilia McDowall. Do you think composers enjoy the chance to explore new sounds for your instrument? What’s it like to be the first person to play a brand new piece of music?

One of my favourite things about working with composers is the privilege of getting to know the inside story to a new piece of music. Most of the time, while working with a composer during the early stage of a piece, I hear stories which most musicologists would dream about hearing. Technically, the saxophone is still developing and boundaries are still being pushed. I try very hard to let composers have free reign - which can mean months of work for me, learning new ways of playing, which is really, very exciting.


Amy Dickson performs with us in Southbank Centre's Purcell Room on Thursday 15 November, 6pm. Tickets are free, available here.

19 Sep 2018

Music of Today: Powerful Monodramas

19 Sep


This September, the Philharmonia Orchestra presents the first of its Music of Today performances in Southbank Centre's Purcell Room, opening with a showcase of theatrical monodramas by Hans Zender and Philippe Manoury, loosely inspired by Schoenberg's ErwartungIn this post, Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces the music and the ideas behind it.

Hans Zender (b. 1936) Cabaret Voltaire (2001) UK premiere

1. Wolken

2. Katzen und Pfauen

3. Totenklage

4. Gadji beri bimba

5. Karawane

6. Seepferdchen und Flugfische

The Cabaret Voltaire was established in Zurich by the poet Hugo Ball, and his partner Emmy Hemmings in February 1916, and closed its doors in summer that same year. Short-lived it was, but immensely influential: a no-holds-barred forum for artistic performance, exhibition and experiment, it became a hub for the Swiss avant garde much like Paris’s Le chat noir, had been for French art thirty years earlier. Kandinsky and Klee were among its patrons, but its greatest creation was the artistic movement known as Dada, of which Ball must be considered one of the founders.

It is Ball’s poetry that the German composer Hans Zender sets in his own Cabaret Voltaire. Noise- and sound-poetry, as Ball called them, his poems call forth an entirely original vocabulary, strong on repetition, humour and sound effect, and devised for its uniqueness – ‘I don’t want words that other people have invented’, Ball claimed. On another occasion: ‘We should renounce language, devastated and made impossible by journalism.’ They are among Dada’s founding documents, performed at the Cabaret Voltaire by Ball, dressed as in a geometrical costume of luminous blue cardboard.

Ball’s aim in his poems was to create an intense expressive immediacy that did not depend on the faint ‘echoes of inspiration’ found in words already created and used by others. Zender’s  first movement, ‘Clouds’, begins by delineating Ball’s words into a catalogue, giving each its own instrumental gesture. Yet as the movement progresses, these isolated gestures gradually coalesce, as Ball’s nonsense words do, into phrases rich in implicit meaning. Elsewhere the text suggests its own readings. The third movement, ‘Death lament’, picks up the lament implied in Ball’s text – for language, for Europe, for a lost generation (the poem was written midway through the First World War) – in its funereal tread of piano and percussion. The last, ‘Seahorses and flying fish’, is lighter in spirit, a spray of sounds musical and verbal that glitters as though lit by the midday sun.

Salome Kammer, vocal artist in Cabaret Voltaire


Philippe Manoury (b. 1952) Blackout (2004) UK premiere

As Philippe Manoury points out, the key element of a monodrama, like Zender’s Cabaret Voltaire, and his own Blackout, is that it concerns only one character. As a result, he goes on, it need not be restricted to the usual theatrical conventions of space, time or setting. Blackout’s time is elastic, following not the clock of the dramatic scenario (a woman rides a lift to meet her lover; the power cuts out; she waits in the dark; the power comes back on), but that of the woman’s thoughts. As she ascends, time passes slowly; while she waits, and her mind drifts deeper into daydream and obscure memory, it speeds up. Pragmatic, ‘real-life’ time is slow; ‘fantasy’ time is fast. The journey in the lift – in reality a matter of seconds – fills a third of Manoury’s piece.

As the woman’s lonely thoughts wander further and further, up from Manoury’s expressionist score bubbles an unexpected sound: the crackle of a vinyl record and the unmistakable sweet-sardonic voice of Ella Fitzgerald (recorded in 1966). The reference is included in Daniela Langer’s text, which includes lines from Jay Gorney and Sidney Clare’s song of 1933. They are set apart from the rest of the words by a sudden change of font, and the effect is similar in Manoury’s piece: the Fitzgerald both does and doesn’t belong to the surrounding musical world, in that way that distant recollections, following a train of thought, both do and don’t belong to their real-life surroundings.

Yet recollections leave their own trace. Having introduced this alien element into his piece, Manoury studies it closely, transcribing precisely Fitzgerald’s nuances of phrasing and intonation and feeding them into the music that follows, in a sort of gradually dissolving passacaglia. With a concluding flourish the power suddenly returns and the woman’s reverie ends. ‘No! My God! No light! Not yet ...’

Hilary Summers, contralto in Blackout


© Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press) and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, 6th edition. He blogs about contemporary music at:

4 Jun 2018

Music of Today: Composers' Academy - Freya Waley-Cohen

4 Jun


In June, the Philharmonia Orchestra presents the culmination of the 2017/18 Composers' Academy, in partnership with the Royal Philharmonic Society. 

Under the baton of Anna-Maria Helsing, we will showcase three world premieres by outstanding emerging composers: Eugene Birman, Freya Waley-Cohen and Austin Leung. Watch the free performance on Thursday 7 June at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.

In this blog post, Freya Waley-Cohen introduces her piece, Ink, and the musical characters that develop as the work unfolds. 


Coming back to Ink for the final stretch of writing, I found I had a set of characters in my sketches which seemed to me like distinct individuals. I imagine it was like a playwright having a fully formed set of characters before there is a narrative, and then allowing the storyline to emerge through them. There is no underlying story to Ink, and I use the word ‘character’ in the loosest sense possible, but personifying musical materials and instrumental parts made writing a playful process for me. 

Permutations - the project in which Freya worked with architectural designers (you can read more about this at

The practice of personifying musical passages or instrumental lines was a seed planted in my music during a previous project where I was working closely with architects. They regularly personified the structures they designed, and during the process of collaborating with them, I started to absorb this into my way of thinking. 

In Ink this was magnified by meeting individual musicians from the Philharmonia for workshops during the year, and by the way my year unfolded in the Philharmonia Composer’s Academy. Between Philharmonia concerts, workshops, rehearsals and lessons with Unsuk Chin, there were a series of mini deadlines. Because of this timeline, I wrote Ink in bursts, interspersing it with other projects, and adding new sketches to my collection for each lesson or workshop. The time between writing sketches meant that each one could absorb different influences from other projects I was working on. This reinforced the separate characters, even though I knew that the final process would be the weaving together of these passages. 

Freya Waley-Cohen, Eugene Birman and Austin Leung in a workshop with Philharmonia musicians and conductor Anna-Maria Helsing

I have a poetry book by Caleb Klaces on my shelf at home, and as I was naming Ink - which was towards the end of the writing process - I was looking at it. The book is called ‘Bottled Air’, and it always gives me the image of capturing the writer’s breath and bottling it into ink. I like the kick of the K at the end of the little word ‘ink’, and it seems suitable for this piece, which starts with a playful sort of kick, before drifting into softer, airier, spaces. 

Snap Dragon - a string quartet commissioned by & premiered at the Santa Fe music festival, performed in the UK by the FLUX quartet - much of this string quartet is ‘character driven’ in an abstract sense - including in the moments where the four players become individual soloists, pulling out of the framework of the ‘togetherness’ of being a string quartet. 

© Freya Waley-Cohen 2018

1 Jun 2018

Music of Today: Composers' Academy - Eugene Birman

1 Jun


In June, the Philharmonia Orchestra presents the culmination of the 2017/18 Composers' Academy, in partnership with the Royal Philharmonic Society. 

Under the baton of Anna-Maria Helsing, we will showcase three world premieres by outstanding emerging composers: Eugene Birman, Freya Waley-Cohen and Austin Leung. Watch the free performance on Thursday 7 June at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.

In this post, composer Eugene Birman introduces his new piece, Adagio, and the inspirations behind his music.



I have never been shy about titles, ‘shy’ being an understatement. I have delivered such jewels as “I awoke and there were no walls to shield me from the moonlight”, or the somehow even more excessive, “Come tu non sapessi, che l’amore è un respiro lievitato” (As if you didn’t know, that love is like a leavened breath), all products of poetry that I had recently read and couldn’t shake, or just a musical concept, perhaps verging on the pretentious, that couldn’t be described any more concisely. So, on those terms, my composition for the RPS Composition Prize and Philharmonia’s Music of Today series must either be conceptually impoverished, or I have turned a new page. I titled it, most un-descriptively, “Adagio”.

That, of course, evokes only one famous work in music history - and it is meant to. The Samuel Barber magnum opus, he, perhaps my country’s best-loved musical export, did not inform my piece as much as imbue it. I rarely look back into the past when I am writing a new piece, but it is a little bit like driving without looking into your rearview mirrors. If you are obeying the law, you have nothing to worry about. But if you, like me, believe that speed limits are a polite suggestion, then one has to look back in case a representative of the police force doesn’t share such views. When creating a slightly dangerous piece, one that breaks from authority and convention, it is not a bad idea to know some history. 

Sketches from Adagio

My problem, compositionally, is that no matter how simple the final product, the materials that, literally, ‘compose’ the piece are genuinely difficult to grasp on their own until the piece comes together. And Adagio, indeed, seems to be made of very strange stuff. Fragile sounds as much ‘sensed’ as heard, I truly feel bad for the Philharmonia musicians who must learn it because they will really only get that rewarding musical ‘A-ha!’ moment past the dress rehearsal and probably just when they perform the piece. But just in case, I have sprinkled some more obvious Barber into the music. 

So what is it about? That’s simple. I played the Barber Adagio as a teenager; it stuck with me, and not because it is such a ubiquitous thing. It’s because the music is genuine, it’s so expressive and urgent, and despite my aesthetic being a million miles away from Barber’s, I feel very close to it anyway. My Adagio, despite the sprinkles, has very little of Barber’s in it; it is more about the sensation of remembering something happy from my past. It sounds and feels like the firing of synapses in your brain as you reattach to something you love that you are on the verge of forgetting - and then, like a vivid memory, it comes back. Then the Barber really comes, and just as well, it’s all over. Forgotten!

I awoke... by Eugene Birman

Much later after I wrote it, I remembered a passage from Kundera’s oft-cited The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: “The young man looks into her eyes, he listens to her, and then tells her what she calls remembering is really something entirely different: Under a spell, she watches her forgetting”. This piece is kind of like that. If it would have had a long title, those extraneous, spare words have burnt off and left me with the most clear, most descriptive name possible. Adagio - what it literally means is (from Latin), something to be said.

© Eugene Birman 2018

Eugene Birman photo © Kaupo Kikkas

21 May 2018

Music of Today: Christian Mason

21 May


This May, the Philharmonia Orchestra presents a showcase of music by British composer Christian Mason, featuring the world premiere of a newly-commissioned work, Man Made. Watch the free performance on Thursday 24 May at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. In this post, Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces Mason's music and his inspirations.

Poetry is an important thread in Christian Mason’s music. Although he didn’t write his first vocal work until On Love and Death – 5 Rossetti Songs of 2009–11, lines of verse appear as titles for many works, from at least as early as his orchestral From Bursting Suns Escaping (2006), inspired by words by David Gascoyne. The movement titles of the violin and piano duo Learning Self-Modulation (2011) even make up a six-line stanza of Mason’s own creation.

The poems themselves offer clues about Mason’s artistic preoccupations: in particular, ideas of revelation and wonder. In the texts, these are often conveyed through images of light and dark – Aspects of Radiance (2005), Clear Night (2007–08), The Years of Light (2013–14) – which Mason’s music translates into resonant, enveloping sonic spaces, punctuated by chant-like melodies, dancing instrumental exchanges, and bright, piercing timbres (chimes and harmonicas are among his favoured instruments). His works often move through stages of transformation, as though passing through successive rituals or stages of knowledge and awareness. In Learning Self-Modulation, for example, the violin is gradually detuned until the penultimate movement, when the violinist takes up a new instrument altogether, strung with four G-strings. “Once this sounds”, writes the composer, “we find ourselves in a new world”.

Layers of Love (extract)

Layers of Love does not find inspiration in a poem; at least not so far as the composer openly acknowledges. Instead, he says, it is inspired by a sometimes-felt desire for something “invisible, unknown and (inevitably) unattainable”. Written in gratitude to the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation, whose composer prize he won in 2015, it offers “maybe a glimpse of the possibility of beauty and transcendence from within the midst of a world where such things are generally granted little importance”. The piece uses a unique instrumental layout to create distinct and overlapping musical spaces – a violin duo, a wind duo (later trio), a central septet. The passage through them is articulated by a flugelhorn, beginning off-stage, who takes up the role of wanderer/wonderer through each layer in turn.

Seeking, grasping, enjoying and possessing: the idea of personal fulfilment through awe-inspiring experience is inverted in Mason’s new work for the Philharmonia, Man Made. This does return to poetry, and specifically three poems by David Harsent, who has worked with Sir Harrison Birtwistle (for whom Mason has served as assistant) on several pieces, including the operas Gawain and The Minotaur. Ocean, Rainforest and Icefield were written in 2014 to accompany photographs by his son, Simon Harsent, as part of an environmental campaign by the World Wildlife Fund.

Icefield, by Simon Harsent

Ocean begins ominously. Among interlocking string harmonics, soft vibraphone chimes and sustained wind tones, the soprano describes a watery Day of the Dead, when the bodies of the drowned return to warn of the finite limits of earth and sky and sea. In contrast, the animated Rainforest tells of a wondrous, rare plant that flowers only once every 100 years, and that no one has ever seen. Mason’s score uses short repeated motifs in free tempo to give the impression of chaotic profusion of life, and at one point includes the performance instruction “gradually accelerating like vines around a tree in a forest-scene timelapse”. Yet Harsent’s text bitterly repurposes the famous Zen koan about a tree falling in the forest with nobody listening: “One press of the boot, one cut of the saw, and who would know or care or count the cost?” The rainforest that Mason shows us is but a backdrop to our duty of care. This warning only sounds more urgently in the work’s final movement, Icefield. Simon Harsent’s WWF photograph is of a majestic ice cliff, filling almost the entire picture frame. His father’s poem, and Mason’s music, however, offer a bleaker outlook, as Arctic silence and whiteness are reconceived as absence, loss and catastrophe. “The water rising fast”, ends the poem, strings and wind anxiously rising with it, “and the music lost”. If Mason’s earlier music exults in beauty and its discovery, particularly natural beauty, Man Made seems to acknowledge our responsibility towards it and the impact that we – still hungry for experience – are having.


© Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press) and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, 6th edition. He blogs about contemporary music at:

9 Apr 2018

Music of Today: Vito Žuraj

9 Apr


This April, the Philharmonia Orchestra presents the first major UK showcase of Slovenian composer Vito Žuraj. Watch the free performance on Sunday 15 April at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, conducted by Joana Mallwitz. In this post, Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces the music and the composer's love of tennis.

It’s not often we know much about a composer’s hobbies. But in the case of the Slovenian Vito Žuraj, it is well known that he is a keen tennis player. Keen enough, in fact, for aspects of the game to have made their way into many of his titles. From these he extracts images of force and tension that either relate to the physics of the game itself (Crosscourt, 2008; Top Spin, 2011) or moments in its gameplay (Deuce, 2008; Changeover, 2011), which he then explores in his music.

By its title, Aftertouch might at first seem to belong to this group. Except of course that once you have struck a tennis ball it is no longer under your control: there is no ‘aftertouch’ here. Rather, the term derives from electronic music and a different application of physical action and control. It refers to the act of depressing the keys on a MIDI keyboard a little further after they have been initially struck. This sends a second electronic signal that can be used to alter the initial sound in some way. Often this is just an addition of vibrato or similar expressive effect, but in practice any alteration, from a change in pitch to a complete transformation of timbre, can be programmed.

Joana Mallwitz, conductor

There are no electronics in Žuraj’s piece, but nevertheless a striking attention to sonic detail. His ensemble is geared towards extremes of high and low registers, with many swift exchanges from one to the other. The piano’s strings are muffled with cloth and rubber to produce a sound that ranges from small gongs to dull pizzicatos, and the marimba is likewise played with ‘dead’ (that is, non-resonating) strokes. It is at first, then, an ensemble with few sustained sounds. This evolves progressively, however, as though an ‘aftertouch’ effect were being applied to the whole group, and the dry flurries of the start morph into a queasily wobbling chorale.

In Ubuquity, Žuraj's serious figure of fun is King Ubu, the central character of Alfred Jarry’s proto-modernist, proto-surrealist drama Ubu Roi of 1896. A parody of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King Ubu is a murderous, gluttonous grotesque who begins the play by killing the King of Poland, followed by many of his subjects. Žuraj’s ‘farces’ for soprano and instrumental groups take the perspective of his scheming and treacherous wife as she describes and then kills four figures (an Italian lady on a sinking ship, a Russian womanizer, a Spanish Humpty Dumpty, and Ubu himself) who are between them guilty of five sins: self-pity, egomania, carnality, and cowardice and brutality. Žuraj’s expressionistic score follows Madame Ubu’s madcap tour of human baseness with an appropriate level of distaste and ironic detachment, incorporating subtle musical quotations along the way – this last a nod to Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s collage piece Musique pour les soupers du Ubu Roi; its composer is one of three artists executed by Ubu in the work’s final scene for their ‘impertinent’ poverty and lack of fame.

© Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press) and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, 6th edition. He blogs about contemporary music at:

8 Feb 2018

Music of Today: Irvine Arditti

8 Feb


Violinist Irvine Arditti stars in the Philharmonia Orchestra's first Music of Today performance of 2018. Watch the free performance on Thursday 8 February at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. In this post, Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces the music of Salvatore Sciarrino and Aureliano Cattaneo.

Niccolò Paganini’s 24 Caprices, probably composed in 1817, are among the pinnacles of the virtuoso violin repertory, each one a study in an element of fantastical technique – rapid string changes, double trills, three- and four-note chords, and more. The last of the set, which brings many of these techniques together, has been described as one of the most difficult pieces ever composed for solo violin.

For his own set of caprices, written in 1976, Salvatore Sciarrino turned to six of Paganini’s 24, writing new works that don’t exactly quote their 19th-century models, but instead eerily shadow them. It is as though the Paganini caprices are photographic negatives that Sciarrino has exposed to too much light, or the wrong combination of developing chemicals, to produce related but very different images.

The Sei Capricci are all quiet, without any of the grandstanding bombast of Paganini’s opus 1. The music is almost entirely written in harmonics – notes produced by only lightly touching the strings and sounding much higher and quieter as a result – and employs a number of techniques, such as brushing the strings lengthwise with the bow, or tapping them with the left hand only, designed to produce exceptionally delicate sounds. Yet an irony of the music is that for all its sonic reticence it is no less difficult than the Paganini, and calls for a contemporary virtuoso of the stature of Irvine Arditti (who recently recorded the set). Indeed, that reticence is often a result of the underlying virtuosity: in Sciarrino’s first caprice, rapid ‘ricochet’ arpeggios across all four strings occur at such a speed that the strings themselves have hardly any time to sound; Paganini’s original outline (to which Sciarrino sticks closely on this occasion) seems to dissolve behind a haze of frictionful noise.



Until 2006, Aureliano Cattaneo had composed almost exclusively for chamber ensemble, developing a sensually intricate style that was nevertheless grounded in a dramatic, even Romantic, sensibility. In works such as his Trio for violin, cello and accordion (2002) moments of extreme fragility contrast with explosive emotions that are only heightened by their intimate setting.

Cattaneo was close to the late Italian poet Eduardo Sanguineti (1930–2010) and they collaborated on a chamber opera, La philosophie dans la labyrinthe, in 2006; Cattaneo also set his poetry in the vocal cycle Parole di settembre (2013). Sanguineti, a leading voice of Italy’s postwar avant-garde, has been described (by his translator Will Schutt) as ‘a poet of the jump-cut, of the mind-in-motion’, and something of his style – a lyricism of fragments, of fleet shifts of weight and perspective – can be heard in Cattaneo’s music.

Cattaneo’s exclusive focus on chamber music ended with the composition of his Violin Concerto between 2006 and 2008. He has written of the daunting challenge of managing the relationship between soloist and such a large accompanying group, and found an answer in treating the orchestra as a ‘super chamber group’. The ensemble version performed this evening, and composed a few years later, was an attempt to resolve that tension differently, through inversion – this time, treating the chamber ensemble as though it were an orchestra. The violin part remained the same, but its surroundings took on new, sharper colours, with unusual instruments such as accordion playing a role. The concerto’s four movements follow a relatively traditional introduction-slow-fast-conclusion structure, but Cattaneo’s soundworld, in which noise of all kinds stands on an equal footing with exquisite melody, is unmistakably contemporary.

© Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2017

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press).

30 Oct 2017

Music of Today: Beat Furrer

30 Oct


The Philharmonia Orchestra's 2017/18 Music of Today series continues with a celebration of music by Austrian composer, and founder of Klangforum Wien, Beat Furrer. Watch the free performance on Sunday 5 November at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. In this post, Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces Beat Furrer's intricate style.

Works for stage – seven so far and an eighth (Violetter Schnee) in progress – run like a spine through Beat Furrer’s output. Of them, FAMA (2005), performed in London last November, is perhaps the most renowned. In Ovid’s description Fama, the Roman goddess of fame and rumour, lives at the centre of the world in a house with ‘a thousand openings, and no doors to bar the threshold. It is open night and day: and is all of sounding bronze. All rustles with noise, echoes voices, and repeats what is heard.’ Furrer’s hour-long ‘sound theatre’, which combines Ovid with Arthur Schnitzler’s 1924 novella Fräulein Else, was originally staged inside a specially built box. The audience sat inside while the musicians, outside, played and sang through shutters – lined on one side with bronze – that opened and closed, continually amplifying, filtering and altering the sound.

FAMA, described by one reviewer as ‘a miracle’ after its premiere at the Donaueschingen festival, is almost a summation of Furrer’s work, and motifs of echoes and reverberations, as well as processes of filtering and layering, overflow into his instrumental pieces. The piano in particular – with its built-in echo chamber of copper-wound strings – has been an important instrument. After nuun (1995–96) for two pianos and large ensemble, ideas of resonance and shadowing were taken up in the piano solo Phasma (2002) and the Three Piano Pieces (2005) – the latter essentially studies in reverberation effects. The Piano Concerto (2007) sets these investigations within a highly dramatic trajectory. Over its 18 minutes the work traces a broad sweep across the full range of the keyboard, beginning with silently depressed bass strings that resonate sympathetically with the sounds of other instruments, up to the woodblock-like snap of the very highest register. Throughout, the ensemble (which includes a second, ‘shadow piano’) acts like a resonating chamber for the soloist, although not a straightforward one: it has its own agenda, and its reflections – like those within FAMA’s shuttered box – are often recoloured or recharacterised.

Nicolas Hodges, piano soloist

Twice the upward spiral is interrupted, the music’s frenetic dynamism freezing suddenly like a ‘bullet time’ sequence in an action film. The first instance feels like a system error as piano and ensemble appear to have peeled apart and halted one another. The second, after 10 minutes, is longer and has a more melancholy feel however, as though the piano, having reached its topmost register, knows that the game is up. Soloist and ensemble rally briefly, but the music – which had such momentum – has become stuck in ruts and loops, like a damaged CD. Left with nowhere to go, apart from a few cries of defiance, it simply burns itself out.

Despite his love of resonance as a dramatic and thematic device, the surface sound of Furrer’s music – exemplified in both this evening’s pieces – is rather dry, dominated by snapping pizzicati, staccato piano (especially in its very highest, least reverberant register) and muted brass. Resonance, then, is less a matter of washes of echoing sound, but of crisp relationships between a thing and its double.

Furrer’s doubles developed into polarities after the composition of another theatre piece, Wüstenbuch (Desert Book, 2010), whose libretto is concerned with the desert as a place between earth and the afterlife (it is based on Ingeborg Bachmann’s diary of her journey to Egypt in 1964, made in the midst of sickness and after the breakup of her relationship with the playwright Max Frisch). Linea dell’orizzonte (2012) picks up these themes: the ‘line of the horizon’ is where ground meets sky, and Furrer’s piece for nine musicians holds opposing elements – at the start, staccato jabs and drooping glissandi – in a similar balance, at the same time evoking the skyline’s intense, hazy glare.

© Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2017

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press).

3 Oct 2017

Music of Today: Michael Daugherty

3 Oct


The Philharmonia Orchestra's 2017/18 Music of Today series opens with a showcase of music by American composer Michael Daugherty. Watch the free performance at 6pm on Thursday 5 October. Read Daugherty's introduction to the works featured in the programme below.


Mermaid Avenue (2016)  from This Land Sings: Songs of Wandering, Love and Protest inspired by the life and times of Woody Guthrie

In 1943, three years after composing "This Land is Your Land,” American singer-songwriter and political activist Woody Guthrie was ready to settle down. He and his new wife Marjorie moved to a modest house at 3520 Mermaid Avenue.  Mermaid Avenue was located near Coney Island, the iconic amusement park located on the last subway stop from Manhattan on the Atlantic Ocean. The years Woody spent on Mermaid Avenue were the most stable and prolific period of his nomadic life.  During his years at Mermaid Avenue, Woody embraced the yiddish culture which surrounded him, along with the carnival atmosphere of the Coney Island boardwalk and beach.  But tragedy was just around the corner: in 1952, he was admitted to Brooklyn State Hospital, beginning a long battle with Huntington's chorea which lead to his untimely death in 1967.  


Walk the Walk (2005) 

Walk the Walk for baritone sax and percussion was commissioned by Opus 21 for a concert honoring pianist Joe Hunter (1927-2007) and the Funk Brothers, a group of Detroit studio musicians who played on all of the historic Motown releases from 1959 to 1972. Using a deconstructed fragment from the Temptations' My Girl as a compositional idée fixe, I  take the listener through a world of virtuosic Detroit blues, rock, jazz and Latin Motown musical grooves.



Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover (1993)

Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover for string quartet and pre-recorded sound was commissioned by Kronos Quartet.  The first performance was given by Kronos Quartet on January 23, 1993 at the Vic Theatre in Chicago, Illinois. My composition is about the man who directed the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation virtually unchallenged from 1924 until his death in 1972. 

My composition opens with one of J. Edgar Hoover's favorite mottoes: “The FBI is as close to you as your nearest telephone.” This “reassurance” to the American public also served to authorize his systematic invasion of their privacy: for Hoover, the telephone became an instrument for playing out his lifetime obsession with collecting sensitive information for his so-called “secret files.” Throughout his 48 years as director of the FBI, Hoover ordered the wiretapping of the telephones of movies stars, gangsters, presidents, civil rights activists, politicians, communist sympathizers, entertainers, and anyone who opposed his own political and moral agenda. 

For me, the motto offers an opportunity to listen in on Hoover’s voice, and to manipulate it for my own compositional purposes. The telephone, like the digital technology I have used, mediates voice so that it is both distant and near. I wanted to bring the dead voice of J. Edgar Hoover back to a posthumous life through technology, so that it may “sing” of its own death. I created the tape part by digitally sampling bits of actual historical speeches delivered by Hoover from 1941 to 1972, to such diverse audiences as the American Legion, Boys’ Club of America, and the FBI National Academy. 

It was eerie to be the first person to hear these tapes since they were made available to the public. I composed string parts to “sing along” with Hoover, in order to convey my sense of Hoover’s grim, threatening, yet darkly comic personality. The part played by the string quartet is also inspired by sounds associated with the FBI, such as sirens, American patriotic songs, and machine gun syncopations. The quartet therefore creates another context for hearing Hoover’s own words: “I hope that this presentation will serve to give you a better knowledge and a deep understanding of YOUR FBI.” 


Dead Elvis (1993) 

Dead Elvis was commissioned by Boston Musica Viva and Chuck Ullery, principal bassoonist with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. It is more than a coincidence that it is scored for the same instrumentation as Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat (1918) in which a soldier sells his violin and his soul to the devil for a magic book. In Dead Elvis, the bassoon is Elvis (or perhaps an Elvis impersonator). Does this rock star sell out his Southern folk authenticity to the sophisticated professionalism of Hollywood movies, Colonel Parker and Las Vegas in order to attain great wealth and fame? Dead Elvis goes far beyond this romantic Faustian scenario. For me, the two clashing Elvis images (the hip, beautiful, genius, thin, rock-and-roll Elvis versus the vulgar, cheesy, fat, stoned, Las Vegas Elvis) serve as a sturm und drang compositional algorithm. Further, my use of the dies irae (a medieval Latin chant for the Day of Judgement) as the principal musical theme of "Dead Elvis" signifies yet another aspect of the Elvis myth: some people believe Elvis is dead, while others believe he is alive and well in Kalamazoo. Perhaps the question is not whether Elvis is alive or dead, but why the phenomenon of Elvis endures beyond the grave of Graceland. Elvis, for better or worse, is part of American culture, history and mythology. If you want to understand America and all its riddles, sooner or later you will have to deal with (Dead) Elvis.

Programme Notes by Michael Daugherty


21 Jun 2017

Composers' Academy 2017: Meet the Composers

21 Jun


The Philharmonia Orchestra's Composers' Academy is a scheme that gives three emerging composers the chance to work with composer Unsuk Chin, Artistic Director of our Music of Today series, alongside members of the Orchestra. The project culminates with a new composition by each composer, performed in concert as part of the Music of Today series. This year's recipients, Gareth Moorcraft, Lisa Illean and Donghoon Shin, will have their works performed tonight at 6pm.

In this blog post, each of the composers introduce their work.


Gareth Moorcraft

Reflections (After Gibbons)

My new work Reflections takes inspiration from the Fantasias for viol consort by English composer Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). I think of the piece as a kind of musical conversation which develops and distorts the sounds and materials of the originals, exploring how they can be re-imagined in new musical contexts. Fragments from Gibbons's works form the basis for five short movements, each of which focuses on a single musical element (lines, harmonic progressions, imitative devices and contrapuntal textures). The movements might be considered as miniature portraits or studies, each posing a new question and exploring Gibbons's materials from different perspectives.


Lisa Illean


Landscape and natural elements seem to deeply influence my mind, my memory and the way I put sounds together. My piece takes its title from Southern hemisphere summers, where elements often seem to share two states at once: where air is swollen with water, and where afternoons give way to steaming rain one sweats in. The sensation of this lingered with me as I composed. It coloured re-imaginings of earlier sketches of music written for the Philharmonia Orchestra (so much so, that I eventually titled the work Januaries).


Donghoon Shin

The Hunter's Funeral for Ensemble

For a long time, I have been fascinated by different types of funeral march music in diverse cultures. What intrigues me is the irony in this specific genre - melody and harmony in minor keys express sorrow and remorse while a rhythmic feature repeats itself underneath, evoking slow dance music. For instance, in the third movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, what starts as funeral music turns into a sarcastic dance. According to the Mahler scholar Constantin Floros, Moritz von Schwind’s woodcut ‘The Hunter’s Funeral’ (1890) was possibly the inspiration for this music.

The Hunter’s Funeral is my response to the same woodcut. It depicts animals carrying the coffin of a hunter in a solemn march. This paradoxical scene gave me a strong inspiration for the piece. It starts with a very simple and rather mundane pitch cell, C-D-E-F. The harmony structure and the melodies in the piece are all derived from the simple pitch cell, which gradually changes colour from bright to dark.

The music is divided into two movements with no gap in between. The first movement has a fast and rhythmic feature like dance music- groovy, sharp and energetic. The tempo of the dance music gets slower and a funeral march emerges in the second movement. Over the repetitive rhythm of the strings, the melodies in the woodwinds and the brass dominate the movement. In the final section, the melodies become heterophonic and eventually obsolete.

15 Jun 2017

Composers' Academy 2017: Lisa Illean on Januaries

15 Jun


The Philharmonia Orchestra's Composers' Academy is a scheme that gives three emerging composers the chance to work with composer Unsuk Chin, Artistic Director of our Music of Today series, alongside members of the Orchestra. The project culminates with a new composition by each composer, performed in concert as part of the Music of Today series. This year's recipients, Donghoon Shin, Lisa Illean and Gareth Moorcraft, will have their works performed on 21 June.

In this blog post, Lisa Illean gives an insight into the process and inspiration behind her work, Januaries


I returned to my desk to finish work on Januaries in April, after two weeks in Australia with family in New South Wales and Queensland.  I had at this time many, many sheets of manuscript and some recordings: experiments with microtonal harmony and sketches made throughout the past months for our lessons with Unsuk Chin. There were many versions, unwinding across the page in different speeds and densities.

What I inevitably brought to the desk in this final phase were lingering sensations and memories that were awakened while I was travelling. Like the materials on my desk, these memories always settle in pieces and with some distortions, assembled in a logic closer to that of dreams than waking life. But underpinning these was a sensation—simple and precise—and it was this that I worked towards in the final version of the piece. 

In a world that seems to prioritise the visual, I’m very interested in the relationship between sounds and sensations (and how much of one’s interior life can be communicated through sound).  This is a question that I’ve taken into the many rehearsals, concerts and workshops that I’ve been privileged to attend throughout the Philharmonia Orchestra Composer’s Academy.  I’m very grateful for these opportunities to sharpen my imagination and practical understanding of instruments (and disrupt the pull of solitude that accompanies composing). 

In considering sensations that elude the eye, I am reminded of a description by Simon Leys (sent to me recently by a friend):

“Australian scenery is of inexpressible beauty, it is true, but it is also utterly inconspicuous and non­spectacular—and impossible to capture with a camera: this worn­down immensity, with its half­erased profiles constitutes a magic space entirely devoid of focal point; like ghosts, mirages, and supernatural visions, it escapes the photographer, it does not leave any impression on film.”

Januaries will be premiered alongside two other brand new works by Gareth Moorcraft and Donghoon Shin at 6pm on Wednesday 21 June in a free performance. For more information, click here

Photography © Catherine Pyle

30 May 2017

Music of Today: Mei Yi Foo

30 May


On 8 June, pianist Mei Yi Foo presents a specially selected set of solo miniatures alongside Abrahamsen's Piano Concerto, as part of our free Music of Today series. Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces the programme.

Unlike the visual arts, where the study is usually an exercise on the way to a later, finished work, in music it has become a genre in its own right. Yet the set of ten piano studies Hans Abrahamsen wrote in 1984 have played a more preparatory role than usual. Among the last extended works he completed before a long hiatus through the 1990s, they helped him write two works – Four Pieces for Orchestra (2004) and tonight’s Piano Concerto – before the breakthrough success of Schnee (2008). The concerto’s four movements draw on three studies: the Debussian ‘Arabeske’ is revved up a gear for the work’s glittering opening, the clangorous ‘Boogie-Woogie’ forms the basis of the turbulent third movement, and ‘Rivière d’oubli’ provides a tranquil ending.

If the Piano Concerto shows a composer of immense skill and invention, it also shows him at a transitional moment. Within just seconds of that stunning beginning, with the piano’s shimmering arpeggios enlivening a rich ensemble bloom, Abrahamsen yanks the emergency cord, and the movement abruptly grinds to a halt. The second movement – the only one not based on one of the 1984 studies – begins with the piano attempting to reconstruct something from that false start. The music builds once more, step by step, only to collapse again under its own weight. The third movement seems to find a happier home, although it continues to wrestle with dark interjections. Only in the fourth do we reach a compromise, with the piano withdrawing enough to retain control. There are hints of what might have been, but then the piece is finished, a quizzical last interval from the trumpets underlining its enigmatic quality.

Musical studies are also often exercises for the performer rather than the composer, and for players of different ages or abilities. Music for children and childlike music makes up the other half of Mei Yi Foo’s programme. Of these, György Kurtág’s two Játékok (‘Games’ or ‘Playthings’) are closest to educational studies: Kurtág began his eight volumes of Játékok in 1976 at the request of a piano teacher, and the early pieces (both of those this evening are from Volume I) bear some resemblance to Bartók’s Mikrokosmos in their construction of a progressive (if unorthodox) piano method. Kurtág was also influenced by Rudolf Steiner, however, and aspects of Steiner’s pedagogy are clear in the priority Játékok gives to childlike fantasy and physicality.

Elements of both are present in Helmut Lachenmann’s Ein Kinderspiel and Sofia Gubaidulina’s Musical Toys. The latter’s picture-book quality intends to evoke the sorts of pieces Gubaidulina would have liked to play as a child. Lachenmann’s pieces were written for his own children, but he insists that they are ‘Not educational music and not necessarily for children’. ‘Hänschen klein’ transmutes the popular German rhyme into a descent across the piano’s 88 keys and a study in sonority, while ‘Falscher Chinese (ein wenig besoffen)’ (‘Fake Chinese (a little drunk)’) smothers a ‘Chopsticks’-like left hand with parallel triads in the right.

Other pieces engage with childhood in different ways. George Benjamin’s ‘Hammers’ comes from a set of ten short pieces, Piano Figures, that are imagistic, Kurtág-like miniatures. The third of Rzewski’s Ludes harnesses the same bebop roots as Gubaidulina’s bass-playing bear; the first is a pot-pourri of half-remembered tunes and playground rhymes. Chris Harman reimagines piano cycles by Robert Schumann: After Schumann II, No. 2 strips ‘Wichtige Begebenheit’ (‘An Important Event’) from Kinderszenen back to its raw rhythms. Peter Eötvös’s Dances of the Brush-Footed Butterfly evokes dancing wings seen in the garden. Finally, with Unsuk Chin’s scattershot ‘Toccata’ we return to the true compositional étude.



Musical Toys

For solo piano:

György Kurtág Játékok – ‘Perpetuum Mobile’

Chris P Harman After Schumann II, No. 2

George Benjamin Piano Figures – ‘Hammers’

Peter Eötvös Dances of the Brush-Footed Butterfly

Helmut Lachenmann Ein Kinderspiel – ‘Hänschen klein’ & ‘Falscher Chinese (ein wenig besoffen)’

Frederic Rzewski Ludes I & Ludes III

Sofia Gubaidulina Musical Toys – ‘A Bear Playing the Double Bass and the Black Woman’

György Kurtág Játékok – ‘Ráncigálós’

Unsuk Chin Klavieretüden – V ‘Toccata’

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *


Piano Concerto (2000)

For solo piano and ensemble


Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press). Discover his work on his blog.