Interview: I Speak Machine – Tara Busch talks soundtracks

I Speak Machine are an electronic duo described as a ‘vocalist and synth nerd’ (Tara Busch, above) with filmmaker Maf Lewis. They are preoccupied with soundtracks, and specifically the working practices of Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone, who would write scores while the film itself was still under construction. The music of I Speak Machine, however, is centred on the golden age of analogue synths, and for new score Zombies 1985 they have restricted themselves only to instruments from that year, conceiving a zombie movie for them to soundtrack.

The apocalyptic music comes highly recommended, produced with fellow synth geek Benge but also receiving the enthusiastic advocacy of John Foxx and Black Swan / Moon composer Clint Mansell. Mansell’s blessing is perhaps an indication that on occasion Busch moves towards classical territory, a link Arcana wanted to explore in interview. With such a strong body of recommendation, as Tara talks generously we begin by asking her…

How did I Speak Machine begin?

Maf & I had been working together for several years before with our band Dynamo Dresden, and after that, collaborating on my solo work (my debut Pilfershire Lane on Tummy Touch). He did all the visuals; the videos, artwork, photography and creative direction for that album. We decided after that to pursue something that felt a bit ‘next level’ for us personally – we didnt want to repeat ourselves and do another album in the ‘traditional’ sense.

At that time I also wanted to explore the avenue of film scoring, but I wanted to do films that were more music driven and leftfield, and also keep the live component as a crucial part of what we would do as well. Meanwhile Maf had several film ideas in the works, that he was either writing or conceiving, and I began to write with these ideas in mind. So – it all meshed together pretty organically – we decided to pursue making our own films and screening them with me playing the score live. Then, in 2014, Lex Records stepped in and released our sountracks – the Silence and Zombies 1985.

How did you form the idea of composing a soundtrack for a Zombie movie set in 1985, and was it stimulating working within the restrictions that created?

Making it a period film actually happened by accident, really. We were looking for a place to film Zombies, and at that time we went to visit Benge in his new house in Cornwall. It was literally an 70s/80s time capsule, as he had just bought it – I dont think it had been touched in 30 years! We pretty much decided immediately to film it at Benge’s and shift it into a 1980s piece. We then invited Benge to collaborate on the score – he’s an absolute master of 1980s-style electronic music production as well. So again, it just fell into place.

I love working within a framework, or ‘limitations’. I am someone that can get lost in a sea of possibilities and have a hard time making final creative decisions if I have no sort of framework or focus; so having a protocol like this was fun and actually made me feel more creative, but never ‘comfortable’. I love it when you can find that sweet spot of feeling juicy and creative, but not safe or comfortable. Limitations help with that a lot, not to mention it saving me a lot of time and mental anguish, so to speak.

What did you take from working with Maf Lewis and Benge?

Well, part of I Speak Machine’s ‘manifesto’, so to speak, is that we work side by side on the music and the film – so that each component is given equal importance. So, to work with Maf is pretty intense as we’re very much entrenched in each other’s worlds to make sure we’re totally in sync with what the other is doing. There’s lots of encouragement from him, but also no bullshit – if something isn’t working for the other, we don’t use it. That’s not to say we micro-manage each other, but we like to have the film and music components to where they truly inform and feed off of each other. We have to know when the film needs to back off and give the music more of a voice and vice versa – a lot of this is due to the live element as well – it has to go down well as a live show. We’ve been working together for so long that I think we know what the other needs to push themselves and never compromise. I think he’s taught me to really be true to the work I’m doing, and try to do the best work we can, always. And he keeps me focused – I’m a bit like a child in kindergarten class that needs rules, schedules and guidelines at all times, or else it becomes the wild west. Sad but true!

I loved working with Benge, I always do. We met in 2011 when he & I were working on a track in his studio with John Foxx. Since then, we’ve done quite a few projects together. He’s a great producer and musician, and an amazing synthesist – he’s very capible of making quick decisions as he is very very knowledgeable, such as narrowing down which machines to use and not overthinking anything. He cuts right to the chase and I love that, as I can be quite the opposite – experimental to a fault if I lose focus. Its also refreshing to work with a guy that isnt patronizing and just treats you like an artist & an equal in the studio.…I certainly had enough of the opposite for one lifetime.

Are there any zombie movies and / or associated soundtracks that you particularly enjoy?

To be honest, I’m not massively into or knowledgeable about zombie films, though Dawn of the Dead & Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set (though actually not a film) are two that really are fantastic. I find I prefer ‘infected’ films; 28 Days Later or The Girl With All the Gifts. That said, making a zombie film was great fun – there’s always a huge metaphorical / social commentary element with those films, ours included, and it’s interesting & actually pretty disturbing to watch them amidst the current backdrop in the USA.

If we’re just talking horror / thriller / sci-fi soundtracks, there’s tons that I adore that are hugely influential…the biggest ones to me are probably Susperia, Andromeda Strain, Berberian Sound Studio, Rosemary’s Baby, Klute, Ex Machina, The Girl With All the Gifts, Halloween…all brilliant and mind bending.

Casting the net wider, what soundtrack scores would you say you respect – from the last few years and then from the period in which the movie is set?

Well, my taste is always a bit more on the darker side – I like scores that are brave and unique and have a strong ‘voice’ in the film. I always found just about everything Ennio Morricone does to be brave and moving to the point of tears. All of the ones mentioned in the last question mean the world to me as far as influence and ‘respect’, they’re all astonishing. Most recently the score to Good Time by Oneohtrix Point Never was very cool, and it was refreshing to see the music take such an upfront space in the film…I’ve been obsessed with Cristobal Tapia De Veer for the past few years, ever since seeing the TV series Utopia that he did – just incredible. Clint Mansell’s score to Black Mirror’s San Junipero also is beautiful and heartbreaking…great storytelling through music.

From the 1980s – John Carpenter’s Halloween is probably my favorite, but I also loved Halloween III – best opening titles ever. Again my taste isnt terribly obscure, but I loved: Bladerunner, The Thing, Alien, To Live & Die in LA, Cat People, The Dark Crystal, Terminator, The Last Unicorn (yep, seriously), Purple Rain, Tron, Manhunter, Thief & Videodrome… and Benge got me into Harold Faltermeyer, too. And Stu PhillipsKnight Rider theme is just as perfect now as when I watched the show as a kid (I know – not a film, but still deserves mention!)….I’m sure a bunch will come to me when I’m falling asleep tonight!

You’ve had a lot of love for this project from John Foxx and Clint Mansell among others – are they also artists that you mutually respect?

Absolutely. I learned a lot working with John – speaking of limitations, he is also one that knows how to employ a very efficient process in the studio while gving everyone space to express themselves & have fun. He is proper artist through & through, unpretentious and kind, yet totally confident..& I would die to be able to write lyrics like Just for a Moment or My Sex.

Clint is musically so unique, and in a league of his own (sorry for the cliche) – it was his score to Pi that first switched the bulb on in my head as to how powerful & important music can be when given proper space in a film. And Moon stands as one of those untouchable favorites – perfection, really. I think he has a gift of being able to convey huge amounts of emotion & storytelling without having to resort to wildly complex arrangements – that type of simplicity is incredibly difficult to pull off. His High Rise score was awesome too – surreal, bleak & bone chilling, reminded me a bit of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Do you ever cast your mind towards classical music when you are writing music for film?

Yes – I love to envision how my work would be if ‘translated’ by an orchestra, especially with vocal arrangements & strings in the style of Henry Mancini (one can dream!). But currently the music takes form using machines and vocals. I’d love to merge the two!

Has classical music played a part in your life, and if so what pieces are you particularly drawn to? (if this is the case, it would be great if you’re able to expand on it a bit!)

I did study classical music up until I graduated from high school (playing woodwinds and also in choir) but it has been many years since I have picked up a piece of sheet music! I was part of a competitive chamber choir in high school, and we did quite a few dark, dismal pieces that I loved. Sadly the only one I can remember was a suite called Prayers from the Arc, and I had a self-indulgent solo ( I was a cocky first soprano) that I loved to sing. I think classical music had a big impact on me growing up – once I realized that I could sing and had an aptitude for music, I loved to mimic opera singers… for a short time, I was able to pull off Queen of the Night, which must have been really annoying for my family…doubt I still have that high ‘E’ though.

Some of your music for synthesizer has the feeling that you are composing for an orchestra. Is that an important part of your writing for keyboards?

While writing, I’m not conciously composing for that purpose, but speaking just stylistically, what I write could easily be reimagned for an orchestra. I would also love to classically recreate the more stark, electronic pieces I’ve done just to hear the contrast…that said, I have written lots of vocal and string arrangements in recent years that I have either wound up recording on synth or mellotron, or pieces intended for strings that wind up becoming a ‘Tara choir’…

I remember reviewing – and really enjoying – your ‘Pilfershire Lane’ album, where I sensed Kate Bush and early Peter Gabriel might be two of your musical loves. Has that been the case?

Thanks for the kind words – that was a beast of an album! It was a difficult record to make as it was my first venture into learning to engineer and produce on my own, and bring in other people to play my parts, and learn about synthesis – I was a newbie with everything but I loved it. That is actually one that I wanted to use a large string section on, but it never came to pass.

I get the Kate Bush comparison all the time, especially on this album… and as much as I admire her work, she isn’t an influence on my own work & I’m not a massive fan – not sure why, but I never quite fell under her spell as I did with David Bowie, for example. I was obsessed with The Beach BoysPet Sounds, Smile, Friends & 20/20 and also Dark Side fo the Moon & Hunky Dory at the time… to me, those influences are pretty obvious, but I hear it from a very different perspective than the audience does.

Peter Gabriel! Interesting, but he wasn’t an influence either. I find it really interesting how other people interpret your influences.

What two soundtracks would you recommend for Arcana readers – one with beats and one without – and why?

It depends on my mood, of course! I have two classics, already mentioned them, but I’ve been revisiting them a lot lately:

The Andromeda Strain – it’s brave, totally bizarre and abstract, yet meaty enough for you to sink your teeth in & take you away. Gil Mellé also built all of the machines he used on that soundtrack! I listen to this alot when I want to incorperate more sound design aspects into my work, or to just get into a more surreal headspace for writing.

Then I would say Legend of Hell House by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. It’s beautiful, brave & gloriously bleak…the marriage of orchestration and electronics is totally unique, and has that wonderful 1960s BBC/ Radiophonic Workshop vibe to it. It’s all fog, screams & prowling black cats. Perfect.

I Speak Machine’s album Stories From Far Away is out now on Lex Records. For more information, head to the duo’s website

BBC Proms 2017 – Renée Fleming sings Strauss & Barber – Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Prom 61 – Renée Fleming (soprano), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Andrea Tarrodi Liguria (2012) (UK premiere)

Barber Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op 24 (194)

Richard Strauss Daphne – Transformation Scene, ‘Ich komme – ich komme’ (1937)

Nielsen Symphony no.2, ‘The Four Temperaments’ (1901-2)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 30 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom here for 28 days from the date of the performance

In her previous visits to the Proms Renée Fleming has proved a big draw, and although the arena may not have been full for her latest visit, with regular collaborators Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, it comprised a satisfying and ideally executed program.

Fleming’s contributions grouped into a loose theme of distant light and transformation. Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a love letter to the American home, and its dappled evening sunlight flickered beautifully under the hands of Oramo, the composer’s warm harmonies setting the scene for Fleming’s characteristically full bodied interpretation. She inhabited the storyteller’s guise with effortless and instinctive calm, though the animated middle section was also very well judged. With just the right amount of sentimentality, this was an ideal performance, and an aptly chosen encore of the song Sure on this shining night blazed a similar trail.

Fleming’s projection was ideal, particularly in the Transformation Scene from Richard Strauss’s second opera Daphne, where she moved from the front to a well-chosen offstage position for the culmination of the transformation itself, which sees Daphne take on the form of a laurel tree. The extended postlude from the orchestra reached upwards to a serene level of euphoria, and Fleming’s wordless vocalise at the end put the seal on a beautifully judged performance. Again we had an encore, and this was a special account of Strauss’s own orchestration of his best-loved song Morgen, with rapt solo from orchestra leader Andrej Power.

If anything the other two pieces were even more successful. The music of Andrea Tarrodi was new to the Proms, but on the basis of the orchestral piece Liguria this was extremely unlikely to be her only appearance. A colourful account of a visit to the Italian coast, Liguria is a kind of symphonic lettercard, its six scenes recounted in brightly lit orchestrations. The recurring, creeping brass harmonies from the first scene stood out, and reappeared towards the end, but also notable was the assurance with which the Swedish composer works with the orchestra, making original sounds and not resorting to contemporary music clichés. A composer whose acquaintance you are strongly advised to make.

Finally we heard Carl Nielsen’s Second Symphony, ‘The Four Temperaments’, receiving its second Proms performance in three years after the festival’s complete neglect of it in the 20th century. It is a powerful piece, and this account made a strong impression. Although the feverish first movement (Choleric) was convincing and brilliantly played the emotional centre lay in the Melancholic third movement, where Oramo wrought music of impressive angst and depth. Nielsen’s struggles were resolved by the Sanguine finale, where the composer lets rip perhaps a little too easily, but again the structure and the melodic groups made perfect sense. Oramo has built a strong affinity with the Danish composer’s music over the years, and there was something very satisfying in these days of disunity at seeing a Finn conduct a Swedish orchestra in Danish music.

Ben Hogwood

Stay tuned for the next in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Leanne Mison will give her verdict on the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Prom. Coming shortly!

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Tom Morley on Ravi Shankar & Philip Glass: Passages

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series Tom Morley gives his thoughts on the Britten Sinfonia’s rare performance of the Philip Glass / Ravi Shankar collaboration Passages, with the composer’s daughter Anoushka Shankar playing the sitar.

Prom 41: Alexa Mason (soprano), Anoushka Shankar (sitar), Ravichandra Kulur (bansuri), Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar), Britten Sinfonia / Karen Kamensek (above)

Philip Glass & Ravi Shankar Passages (1989-90)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 15 August 2017 (late night)

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Tom, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

There were two main influences in my musical upbringing. The first came from the local church choir which I sang with three times a week. Most of what we sang was very traditional although there was a piece by Messiaen which got wheeled out every now and then which was pretty out there.

Secondly, my parents were musical so I remember them playing and singing around the house. I’ve also got memories of sitting down with my Dad to listen to a recording, his taste is pretty eclectic so I remember listening to Phantom of the Opera, Donald Where’s Your Troosers, Return to Innocence by Enigma and Night Boat To Cairo by Madness!

What experiences have you had up until now with classical music, and have they been good or bad, or both? (Examples are great if you’re able!)

Aside from the choir, I played trumpet in an orchestra for a short while but decided it wasn’t really my thing. At university I had a few lectures on classical music but once again, struggled to find anything that really spoke to me apart from the odd piece here and there. I wouldn’t say my experiences with classical music have been either good or bad, probably somewhere in the middle.

What if any have been your previous experiences of the Proms?

I’ve never been to a Prom. I sometimes look through the schedule and think about going but have got round to going to see one.

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Radiohead – They always seem to keep their music interesting and challenging and I like the cinematic quality to some of what they write as well as the artwork and concepts that go along with the music.

Snarky Puppy – These guys are brilliant musicians, they’re really supportive of music education and they look like they’re having a great time on stage. Definitely more of a live band than a studio band.

The Beatles – An obvious choice, but they did so much to push the boundaries of popular music and created so many memorable tracks in a such a short while as well as having a massive influence on music and culture.

What did you think of the concert?

I loved it. I can honestly say I’ve never heard anything like that before. I think I was particularly fortunate to be at this one which was a real meeting of styles and ideas and the first live performance of the piece with great musicianship all round.

What did you think of the environment in the Arena?

Not what I was expecting at all. When we walked up the steps the atmosphere changed completely. Some people were standing, some were sitting or lying down and there was a buzz of excitement but when the music started everyone was listening intently. I think this was helped by the fact that this was a late night performance and in some ways, it felt more like a gig than a concert and even though we were close to the back, we still had a good view of the stage.

Is there anything you would change about the Proms?

More of the same please. If they’re all as varied and unique as this one then there’s nothing I’d change, stick to the same formula. If I had to change one thing, it’d be an outsiders perception of the proms. I thought that it was a strictly ‘classical’ music event but there seems to be a real range of different styles and types of music being performed. It’d be great if more people realised how accessible the proms are, even if you don’t typically listen to classical music.

Verdict: SUCCESS

Roger Vignoles – A Strauss Odyssey

Roger Vignoles is one of Britain’s best-established accompanists. Respected for his technical ability, experience, breadth of repertoire and the work he does nurturing singers old and new, he is regularly seen at the illustrious venues worldwide.

More recently at the Wigmore Hall he has plotted a course through the daunting output of songs by Richard Strauss, a lesser known corner of the composer’s output. This has been complemented on disc courtesy of Hyperion, their series recently completed by an eighth and final disc with tenor Nicky Spence and soprano Rebecca Evans.

In a fascinating interview he talks with Arcana about his own introduction to classical music, the technical and psychological challenges in performing Strauss, his highlights from the series and the principles of accompanying a singer.

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

I have an early memory of a concert at Cheltenham Town Hall when Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony was performed – it was one of my father’s favourite pieces, hence one of his first LPs, together with Beethoven‘s Fifth Symphony and Franck’s Symphonic Variations. But he also loved Gilbert & Sullivan, so my brothers and I who were all choristers were basically brought up on a diet of English Cathedral Music and HMS Pinafore.

I also remember Peter and the Wolf loomed quite large (my favourite bit was the appearance of the wolf out of the forest), as well as the audience songs from Let’s Make an Opera. And I treasured a 78 single of Sousa’s Stars & Stripes played by the Coldstream Guards Band: nowadays my favourite version is Vladimir Horovitz’s – he gives it such an aristocratic swagger, like a Grande Polonaise in 4/4 time.

What was it about Gerald Moore that made you want to follow in his footsteps?

It was when my elder brother Charles (on whom I really learnt the basics of accompanying when we were both in our teens) gave me the first LP of Winterreise, sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Gerald Moore. I was fascinated by the piano parts, but especially by Gerald’s beautifully judged piano sound and his wonderful sense of rhythm and pace, and I just thought: “I’d love to be able to do that.”

When did you first discover the songs of Richard Strauss?

It was probably when I went to the RCM in 1966. Hubert Dawkes, to whom I’d been assigned for accompaniment, plunged me in at the deep end with the Four Last Songs.  But I also thrilled to songs like Allerseelen, Die Nacht, Ständchen, etc.

Listen to Rebecca Evans singing September, the second of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, with Roger Vignoles. This is part of the eighth and final volume of Strauss songs released by Hyperion and available here

Are the piano parts particularly challenging? When I have seen you play at the Wigmore Hall before they often feel orchestral in concept, as though you are having to voice a whole ensemble.

Strauss’s early songs sound much like Schumann: pianistic in quality and perfect for a domestic soirée. But with Zueignung, the first of his Opus 10 group (his first published songs), there is an unmistakable sea change. It’s as though the Vienna Philharmonic has entered the drawing room, and from then on Strauss never looked back. Challenging?  Indeed, but Strauss also has a wonderful feel for the piano, and with very few exceptions his accompaniments are very grateful to play. Of course there can be a lot of notes to deal with and every now and then he does go completely over the top: Lied an meinem Sohn for instance, which sounds like a cross between Die Walküre and a Tchaikovsky piano concerto and was declared unplayable by Alfred Brendel, no less. It’s wonderfully sung by Christopher Maltman on Volume 4 (listen below):

As it happens thinking orchestrally has always come naturally to me, ever since my time studying with Paul Hamburger, for whom it was axiomatic that all song composers from Schubert onwards have a miniature orchestra in their heads. A couple of years playing Wagner and Strauss at Covent Garden helped cement this approach: many pianists make the mistake with Strauss of learning all the little notes first, but a stint in the opera house teaches you to see the wood for the trees, and as Paul Hamburger would often say, “If you get the gesture right, the little notes will fall into place”.

I should like to add that I owe an enormous amount to Paul, who taught me not only more about piano technique than any “real” pianist I ever worked with, but also about vocal coaching, style, language and poetry (even down to explaining Thomas Hardy to me in his thick Viennes accent).  Quite coincidentally the first song I ever took to him was by Strauss – Schlagende Herzen.

The Strauss series on Hyperion has had a really nice blend of singers new and slightly older, English and European. Was that a deliberate aim?

It wasn’t a deliberate aim, so much as the result of the series having taken twelve years to record, and at each stage looking for artists with the appropriate vocal and musical character for the volume in hand. It also very much reflects the singers whom I already was enjoying working with at any given time.

Do you think that in the Strauss songs we get a different view of him as a composer?

Strauss was naturally a composer of the large gesture, the panoramic sweep, with a distinct tendency to overblown romanticism of the kind that can turn some listeners off.  And of course the opera composer often shines through – there can be no doubt that the 25 years of song-writing that preceded his first operas were the laboratory in which he developed his gift for vocal characterisation.

But in the song format he is obliged to distil his musical ideas to their simplest essence. Just occasionally he doesn’t succeed, but on the many occasions when he does the result can be pure magic.  If I had to give just one example it might be Nachtgang, a tiny love-song of breathtaking tenderness – and unfathomable poignancy (listen below):

‘Accompanist’ feels like a slightly derogatory term for a role that requires such control and artistry. Is it your view that both performers have equal billing in a vocal recital?

It’s not often realised that the Lied or Mélodie is as much a piano art as a vocal one – it’s no accident that Schubert’s Lieder evolved with the early years of the piano – so of course singer and pianist should have equal billing. It is indeed a truly symbiotic partnership. But as for the A-word, I am proud to follow Gerald Moore as an “Unashamed Accompanist”. To me it’s the only term that naturally describes what I and my colleagues do. Nevertheless I can understand those who baulk at its negative associations and prefer the American coinage “collaborative pianist”. Just for the record the billing should of course always read “So-and-So, piano”, never “So-and-so, accompanist”.

What is the most common piece of advice you give to your students on accompanying a singer?

This from Geoffrey Parsons, another mentor: “Always have your own idea of how the song goes, rather than just be a blank canvas for the singer to draw on”.

But two other rules of thumb are useful: “It’s the singer’s job to slow down, the pianist’s to speed up again” and “Balance is as much a function of texture (ie transparency and clarity) as of decibels (as in am I too loud?)”

Is it important to have a personal affinity with the singer you are performing with, as well as a musical one?

It helps of course, especially if you are going on tour together. But I have had many experiences of wonderful music-making on minimal rehearsal, when there was no time at all to find out whether you got on personally offstage.

Are there any composers you have not yet recorded that you are keen to explore?

I love playing Rachmaninov songs (probably for the same reason that I love playing Strauss). And one day I might get round to Schoenberg’s Buch der hängenden Gärten.

If you could recommend a Strauss song to Arcana readers listening for the first time, which one would it be?

So many to choose from…  But for a real out-of-body experience, try Am Ufer, sung exquisitely by Christopher Maltman on Volume 4 (listen below):

Or for a remarkable stream of consciousness, Anne Schwanewilms singing O wärst du mein! on Volume 2 (listen below):

You are a painter as well, looking at Twitter…does music inspire your paintings at any point?

Not precisely: but a friend once told me they thought I painted with the same part of the brain that I play with.  Which is probably true. It is a fact that I have a very visual conception of the music that I play, especially in song where so much of the verbal imagery is itself visual. So in either medium I am playing with light and shade, with colour and texture, and with contrast – perhaps the most important tool in both.

You can read more about Roger Vignoles on his artist page, or click here for his Hyperion discography. With grateful thanks to Hyperion for the provision of highlights from their Strauss series, which are of course (c) Hyperion Records Ltd.

On record: John Pickard: Symphony no.5, Sixteen Sunrises etc (BIS)

Pickard Symphony No.5 (2014); Sixteen Sunrises (2013); Concertante Variations (2011); Toccata after Claudio Monteverdi (1998)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Martyn Brabbins

BIS BIS 2261SACD

Summary

The fourth release in BIS’s survey of orchestral works by John Pickard (b1963), featuring his latest symphony and two shorter pieces which between them underline the expressive scope of his musical thinking; rounded off by his sparkling transcription of a Baroque perennial.

What’s the music like?

Pickard has long been established as a symphonist of stature, with the Fifth as resourceful as its predecessors – a 32-minute continuity which unfolds an uncompromising argument with real subtlety. A key factor is the writing for three sets of timpani, distributed spatially to the rear of the orchestra, that pursue antiphonal exchanges of motifs and chords but also evolve melodic lines to a degree seldom attempted. This is most evident towards the centre, where timpani lines are heard over dense string harmonies in music as audacious as it is mesmeric.

The piece arrives here via a series of interrelated faster and slower tempi, the latter gradually predominating without any tailing-off of momentum so that the greater prominence of faster tempos in the latter stages feels as if a process coming full-circle. Aligned with this is a four-movement outline – the initial Tempestoso segueing into a Prestissimo then a Maestoso, before the final section culminates in a return to the defiant opening gesture. This is followed by a coda that brings suspenseful calm while also intimating activity still to be encountered.

As to the remaining works, Sixteen Sunrises was written for the Nagoya Philharmonic and takes as its inspiration those sunrises observable over 24 hours from the International Space Station. Pickard conveys this through an intensifying sequence of climaxes whose subsiding into stasis feels more pronounced each time; a process enhanced by some of the composer’s headiest and most atmospheric orchestration. Not that this is in any sense a literal depiction, as his admonishment to listeners who might attempt to count the 16 sunrises makes plain!

By contrast, Concertante Variations was written for the Presteigne Festival (and premiered there by Orchestra Nova) and represents Pickard at his most urbane. Scored for wind quintet, strings and timpani, this unfolds as an introduction, five variations and fugal coda. The theme introduces each wind instrument in turn, then the variations (alternately fast and slow) feature them as ‘first among equals’, before the coda sees the strings assume centre-stage as the piece races towards its affirmative ending – albeit given a droll twist by the laconic closing gesture.

Commissioned by the BBC as the ‘fanfare’ to a festival celebrating four centuries of Italian music, Pickard’s transcription of Monteverdi’s Toccata (the extended version as heard at the start of the 1610 Vespers) includes tuned percussion in what is a scintillating curtain-raiser.

Does it all work?

Indeed, not least when the Fifth Symphony is given so powerful a recording (made right after the premiere) by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (spearheaded by truly heroic timpani playing from Steve Barnard, Christina Slominska and Phil Hughes) under Martyn Brabbins, who has championed Pickard over two decades. Other pieces are no less committed in what is a finely balanced programme.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The sound is arguably the best yet in this series (SACD benefits the depth and translucency of this music’s textures), while Pickard’s annotations inform and amuse by turns.

Richard Whitehouse

You can find more information on this release on the BIS website

Listen here on Spotify: