Talking Heads: Elena Langer

The composer talks about her new work for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, a revival of her opera Four Sisters and how the Russian-born, UK-based composer channels her feelings on the conflict in Ukraine.

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Arcana is in conversation with composer Elena Langer. Born in Russia but moving to study in this country two decades ago, she is full of anticipation at the weekend she has coming up. On Saturday 18 March the London Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra, together with soloist Kristina Blaumane, will give the first performance of The Dong With The Luminous Nose, a major new piece for the forces.

Exercise is uppermost in Langer’s mind when we are connected to our call, however. “I’m rehearsing with the chorus tonight”, she says, “and after our call, I’m going to have a swim. I love cold water swimming, and I go to Hampstead Heath, where there is a well-known ladies’ pool.” Given the temperature on the day we talk is a little above freezing, this is a brave move. “Yes, it’s cold – but it will be a quick swim, and it gives you a kick for the rest of the day. It means I will be nice and well-behaved with the chorus!”

As you will have gathered, Elena has a healthy sense of humour, and a zest for life too. The primary reason for our conversation is to talk about a major new choral piece receiving its world premiere in the Royal Festival Hall soon. The Dong With The Luminous Nose is a setting of a nonsense poem by Edward Lear (illustrated below), though as we quickly establish it is a work of several layers. “It’s not nonsense as such, it is a love story”, she explains. “The Dong is broken hearted, and went mad – but it’s told in the right way.”

She recalls her first encounter with the poem, “maybe about 10 years ago. A journalist friend introduced me to it, and I really liked it – and then forgot about it. Then at the right time I remembered, because when I was asked to write this piece for chorus and orchestra I found it difficult to find the right text. Often composers set religious texts that don’t resonate, and I love setting poems, but poems for the chorus quite often feel wrong – the words never quite come across as they should. With The Dong it is a poem, but it’s a little opera for chorus. It tells a story, and you follow it, and it felt like the perfect vehicle for the task.”

The opening lines of The Dong set a telling scene: “When awful darkness and silence reign over the great Gromboolian plain”. Elena reveals how she set them to music. “I started with a big solo cello, a concentrated line. The cello represents the Dong or his longing, his soul. She is playing that solo, and that tells the story in music from beginning to end. Then the music continues in the very low registers of the orchestra, tremolo – and tam-tam, with low bassoon and trombones, low double basses too. I only used the basses in the beginning and introduce the timbres of the chorus gradually. The story is told by the basses, and then the tenors, who begin on the word ‘light’, and then all the female chorus only appears when it says “The Dong, The Dong”. We are introduced to every layer of the piece gradually, because there are lots of layers, all with the big chorus and the cello.”

With so many forces at her disposal, is it tempting to use them too much? “I have them and I like using everything a lot, but obviously it should make sense. The cello tells the story and follows the climaxes and moods of the text. It’s a strange genre – a cantata on one hand, but at the same time it’s a cello concerto because sometimes the cello is in competition with the chorus or the orchestra, and there are some instrumental bits which make it slightly symphonic.”

Rather than copy established formats, Elena has sought an original approach. “I tend to not think about what genre I’m writing in, like making new film”, she explains. “It’s not a romantic comedy, or a drama – it has everything – a bit like a good salad! This approach runs through my operatic work, when you have these resources and you use them as tools to make the drama and to have an effect on the audience. I want to tell the story as precisely as I can with my resources.”

The cello part is written for Langer’s good friend Kristina Blaumane, principal cello of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. “She’s an old friend of over 20 years, and she has this passionate, romantic side to her personality, with big emotions. I hope the cello part does that – it’s quite virtuosic, and it requires this soulful, deep, rich sound, which she has in her instrument. She looks wonderful on stage and tells the story in a dramatic way!”

Delving deeper into the story itself, the title – The Dong With The Luminous Nose – brings up a parallel with the young Shostakovich, and his first satirical opera The Nose. Would the story have appealed to him, possibly? “The plot is the opposite, as the nose disappears”, points out Langer, “so you have two noses! But you’re right, I love this in Russian literature where you get this fantastical thing which comes from Gogol, and runs through the work of Daniil Kharms, a Leningrad poet who behaved in a very eccentric way, and who I’m sure was influenced by the English tradition of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. It’s fantastical and surreal, but at the same time dramatic and real. All kinds of political, horrible things are happening around us, and I don’t feel like the kind of artist who comments directly on direct events.”

Elena qualifies her observation. “My survival technique is escapism, using music as something that when I write I am in control of my notes. I build this world, but I’m not in control of the rest of the world. The events – the real events – seem like a dream. In a way it’s my lament, to comprehend the world and what’s happening, done through this crazy little creature The Dong, who goes mad and loses what’s important to him.”

Inevitably, talk turns to the conflict in Ukraine. Elena may have lived in the UK for over 20 years, but the links are still strong. “I love being here, and I am in some way detached, but in some way not. I still have friends in both places, but I don’t want to run around with flags. I want to express how I feel in my own way.”

Langer’s music is indeed deeply expressive, as attendees to the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards, heard at the Queen Elizabeth Hall recently, will attest. Soprano Anna Dennis, oboist Nicholas Daniel and pianist John Reid gave a moving performance of her song Stay, Oh Sweet. It confirmed Langer’s intensely vocal approach to composition – even when writing for voices. “Yes, I think so”, she agrees, “and my cello writing for Kristina proves that. I see every instrument of the orchestra as a voice, rather than some composers who work the other way round.”

Coincidentally, on the night The Dong receives its premiere, Langer’s one-act opera Four Sisters will be performed in a new production by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. It is part of an appealing program, the 2012 opera paired with César Cui’s A Feast in Time of Plague.

“It should be fun!” she says with amusing understatement. “Four Sisters was commissioned 12 years ago by Dawn Upshaw, who had a class at Bard College in the Fisher Arts Centre, in upstate New York. They have a conservatoire there, and Dawn had a nice class there, mostly of girls. She asked me to write something that would involve more girls, as they needed parts for everyone. I thought of a funny mix of Three Sisters by Chekhov and something like Sex And The City! Each part is equal, there are no prima donnas!”

Langer studied briefly with Upshaw, but the pair’s connection goes back still further. “In 2009 I was invited to participate in the project writing for Carnegie Hall writing songs with Dawn Upshaw and Osvaldo Golijov, the Argentinian-American composer. I spent a week or more with Dawn and some singers, and she liked my work – hence the commission. She is a very good teacher, she teaches to sing and to understand what you are doing, what you are thinking about – not just the notes.”

Elena does not sing herself. “Oh no, I have a terrible voice!” she laughs. “I can play on the piano and play my pieces if I need to show them to directors or to performers, but never singing!”

On her arrival in the UK from Moscow, Langer spent one year studying with Julian Anderson, and then moved to the Royal Academy of Music for her PhD. “I saw Simon Bainbridge there, and he was very encouraging, a pleasant presence. That’s also where I met Anna Dennis, who has been my muse since then. When I write for sopranos, I have her timbre in my ears. She is very versatile, and a good musician too. She can play cello and piano.”

After the recent flurry of activity, “like a wave”, Langer is planning to take a short break. “I wanted to have a short break to stop the conveyor”, she says, as I have only just finished the arrangement that we made of Stay My Sweet for the awards. It was originally written for string trio, harpsichord and voice, and I arranged it for voice, oboe and piano. The original is recorded on Harmonia Mundi.”

Her musical thoughts are still active, mind. “It is my week off, but I’m already thinking about a Trumpet Concerto! I was working in November, and had a fantastic concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who were doing a suite from my opera Figaro Gets A Divorce. They have a fantastic, very bright brass sound, polished and very smart. Their trumpeter asked me if it is possible to write a Trumpet Concerto for him and the chamber orchestra, so I agreed – and now I imagine a kind of quasi-Baroque piece, bright and energetic. I will probably write that next.”

Is the Baroque period an inspiration for her work? “It’s one of the colours which I have. My taste, as you can probably tell from my music, is very eclectic. I like all kinds of music, like Baroque and Rossini, Donizetti, Strauss, Wagner and Handel. I get excited by music! The Baroque period I like, and have written a lot for harpsichord and oboe, partly because Anna has sung a lot of Baroque music. I have been commissioned through her – and soon in Aldeburgh, at Snape, they will perform another of my compositions, Love and Endings. They are three songs based on Middle English poems, and they’re written for Anna, Mahan Esfahani and Nick Daniel. It’s going to be performed at Easter.”

She is intrigued by Esfahani’s approach. “It’s going to be the first time that I work with him. While I was writing the new songs, I went to Oxford to visit his harpsichord, and I played the instrument which was specially built for him. It is much more resonant than your normal Baroque instrument, and has more notes. It has a very thick and groovy bass!”

As well as the wide range of classical music above, Langer also encounters pop music through her son. “He’s 17, and sometimes when he’s in a good mood he shares some music that he listens to. I love a lot of it, rap and RnB. He played something that was a crossover between Muslim prayer, and rap, and something else, made in East London. I like this kind of thing, and also older jazz from the 1920s to 1950s. My favourites are Ella, Miles Davis, Coltrane and my favourite, Oscar Peterson.”

Returning to her own compositions, a glance at Langer’s list of works on her website reveals that The Dong has the biggest orchestral group she has used so far. “I’ve never used chorus and orchestra like this, it’s the first time, other than in my operas. I was a bit worried about it, as it’s completely different.”

She will hear the piece in full two days before the concert, “but tonight I’ll rehearse with the chorus. We are rehearsing in bits, to give the chorus more time to prepare – and then Kristina will join the chorus, and only then will we have everyone. I hope it works!”

She laughs, nervously – but also modestly. “This whole thing, you spend so much time orchestrating, doing the parts and this and that, and you just hope it sounds right!” With experience, she is less often surprised by the results. “The older I get, the more close it is to the initial idea. I think it’s a part of being a bit more skilful, although when I studied at the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire some of our teachers would say we must take risks and write something where we don’t know what the sound will be. I don’t want that, as I have a vision. I want it to be like a well-built house, it should not have anything unpredictable.”

The Dong With A Luminous Nose will receive its world premiere on Saturday 18 March at the Royal Festival Hall. For ticket information and purchase, visit the London Philharmonic Orchestra website. Meanwhile you can find information about the performance of Four Sisters at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland website

Talking Heads: Leif Ove Andsnes

interview by Ben Hogwood

Arcana has time with celebrated Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, appearing via Zoom from his home in Bergen. A recent winner of the ‘Special Achievement’ at the Gramophone Awards for his inventive Mozart Momentum series for Sony Classical, Andsnes is now extolling the virtues of a discovery he made during lockdown, which forms his latest release on the label.

To many listeners and fans of classical music, Antonin Dvořák is best-known for his symphonies (especially the Ninth, the New World), other orchestral works and then perhaps his chamber output, headed by the American string quartet. He certainly hasn’t – until now, at least – received many column inches devoted to his piano music.

Yet this is the realisation made by Andsnes over the last couple of years, that Dvořák’s set of Poetic Tone Pictures, published in 1889, are long-lost gems of the Romantic piano repertoire. Before we get to the pieces specifically, the pianist tells me how they represented an unlikely first encounter with the composer’s music. “Funnily enough I think my introduction might have been with these pieces, which is strange because they are so neglected in the world. It so happened that my father brought with him a random collection of LPs once he was in London. He was just shopping, and I don’t think he knew what had come home with really – although one of the LPs was the Dvořák Tone Pictures, with the pianist Radoslav Kvapil. I listened to these pieces when I was very little, and I mostly listened to the first three or four. I liked them very much, and played the first one in a youth competition when I was 12. Strangely enough, that might be my first memory of Dvořák. I might have played the famous Humoresque when I was seven or eight, but before I got to know his famous music this was part of my world, though I didn’t think of playing the whole cycle until three or four years ago.”

Until now, Dvořák’s entire solo piano output has languished in the shadows, with other character pieces, waltzes and a Theme and Variations barely played. This doesn’t seem right to Andsnes. “For me, this cycle is exceptionally good”, he says. “It really stands out. Some of the other music is also interesting, but you do feel sometimes that maybe the piano wasn’t his natural idiom. Dvořák was not a natural pianist. When you come to these pieces, though, it’s like his imagination is freed. One theory is that it has to do with the idea of programme music, because he started writing much more of that around this time. I am thinking of the Eighth Symphony, which was originally going to have a program, and then later come all the symphonic poems. He is much more about imagery and stories, and so it is like he is finding his real personal voice at the piano.”

The personal significance is artistic, too. “For me, it’s a real joy that I find consistently through the 13 pieces. I was so happy than to find this quote from him a few years ago, where he said that he had tried to be a poet in the form of Schumann, though it didn’t sound like Schumann, and he hoped that somebody would play all 13 pieces of this cycle together – though he doubted anybody would have the courage to do that. So I took it up! He meant it as a cycle, for sure – and even if they are 13 short stories, and very different pieces, he builds it very cleverly, so that you have some of the climactic pieces towards the end and this wonderful farewell with the last piece, At The Holy Mountain. It is a wonderful journey as a whole, even if there are many, many different characters.”

The characteristics of Dvořák revealed here are very different to those found in his orchestral or chamber works. “I think so”, Andsnes agrees. “It’s like he is opening a book and saying, “Let me tell you a story. I have something interesting to tell you.” It’s a very intimate and magical world, and he was right in the way that it is reminiscent of Schumann, with something you open – along the lines of a cycle such as Kinderszenen.”

One of the pieces in this cycle is The Old Castle – which draws parallels with another cycle to use this imagery around the same time, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. “It has this bell like quality”, enthuses Andsnes, “and the kind of space it gives brings out the grandeur of the castle. At the same time it’s full of pedal, and you could imagine it in the fog or mist. It’s interesting you mention Mussorgsky, I hadn’t really thought about that. I’ve been thinking more about the piece called Tittle Tattle, which I was thinking could be a little reminiscent of the woman at the marketplace in Pictures. Who knows? It would be interesting to know, if he knew those pieces.”

Is it too far-fetched to hear premonitions of 20th century Czech piano music, such as Janáček, in the distance of Dvořák’s writing? “I think that is true. Of course the folk music is always there. I haven’t been thinking so much about the direct connection to Janáček, but it’s there also, I had a Czech piano teacher when I was a student, who was really important to me – Jiří Hlinka, who lives in Bergen. He came here in the 1970s and was on a contract from the communist regime in Prague, and had 10 years before deciding to stay and become a Norwegian citizen He’s still with us here, and he’s been a very crucial part of my life. I suddenly discovered Janáček through him, but he was also very much in to Dvořák’s piano music. I remember he would have certain pieces like the Silhouettes. He would emphasise more of Smetana’s piano music, and as a student I played several of the pieces. The big Concert Etude and On The Seashore were two of the pieces I played – and with his piano music it is clearly written by a very accomplished pianist. They are wonderful things, but maybe not with the same strong signature of Dvořák.

Leif has been able to play the cycle as part of a European tour, and when we spoke he was contemplating the upcoming performance at the Rudolfinium in Prague. “I’m actually playing the pieces until the middle of February, so it is spread out a little bit. These pieces are in the second half in each concert, so in three or four months I will have very much more experience on how it works for the audience. Before I made the recording I had the opportunity to play a few times for audiences in Scandinavia, and it was very heartwarming to see how they reacted to hearing the whole cycle. There is something special about having time to get into that world, which I felt the audience really appreciated. That convinced me that it really works as a as a cycle, even if it’s a long one at 55 minutes.

Typically for Dvořák, the cycle contains a great deal of memorable melodic content. “It’s fantastic”, agrees Andsnes, “and for me it’s the blend of textures and colours. The chamber music of Dvořák that I have played the most is the Op.81 Piano Quintet, which is also written around this time by the way, it’s one or two years before. Often I ask why it is so extremely attractive, and I think it is the blend of the instrument, the way he uses them together. It is very imaginative, using these bell like qualities and fluid qualities of the treble of the piano, which mixes with the strings in a very original way.”

He gives examples. “I have to say he achieves that in several of these pieces for solo piano – there are very original textures. The second piece called Joking has a middle section which is so fluid and wonderful, and there is something very original about that sort of writing from him for the piano. In other places you feel that he is taking from other composers things that he knows will work, like the Spring Song. You could imagine that is a very Mendelssohnian or Lisztian way of developing the piano texture, the accompaniment and the melody. In the Bacchanale it is very clear that he was inspired by Chopin, the Third Scherzo in the trio section, it is very reminiscent of that. You can see that he takes from things he knows will work for the piano, but there is a very original voice there in the piano writing itself. Part of the attraction, in addition to the melodies and these wonderful harmonies, is the blend of voices and the textures he creates, even on the solo piano.

Andsnes has recorded solo piano music by composers such as Nielsen and Sibelius, bringing forward these private aspects of composers not necessarily known with the piano as their primary form of expression. “I recorded the Sibelius a few years ago”, he recalls. “There I did feel that I had to very consciously select pieces that represented him in the best way. He wrote at least 150 piano pieces, most of them short character pieces, and I have to say it is very uneven. He didn’t particularly like the piano himself, he said terrible things about it! But he wrote all those pieces, and of course you can’t deny that he was a great composer. I think the 25 pieces or so that I chose really represent him in a wonderful way.”

“This is so different though, because there is a whole cycle of pieces that are ‘prime time’ Dvořák, the best period. It’s very strange that you have such a famous composer, with such a cycle, and that it’s not known in the world. We have piano students, sitting in their practice rooms playing the same Beethoven sonatas and the same Chopin pieces over and over again. You can ask 1,000 of them, and maybe two or three would know these pieces. That’s a kind of mystery and shows how imaginative we are sometimes.”

Does this highlight a lack of imagination in concert programmes? “Sure. We all want to play the great music, and I had this Mozart project recently where I dive into the really famous and most incredible piano concertos. But that’s only so much, and I was always thinking that it has an added value to bring forward something that people don’t know. There is such a wealth of repertoire that you can have something totally underrated like this to bring forward. I’m very grateful that I’m playing this instrument and have the possibilities to find these works.”

With the Mozart releases, Andsnes has presented the concertos with contemporaneous pieces, allowing different explorations of how Mozart writes with the piano. The series wrapped up with a concert in Salzburg, completing an examination of 1785 and 1786. “We had three cancelled tours during the pandemic”, he reveals, “but we were also able to do things. When it came to recording we had already done the chamber pieces, but we were able to miraculously meet in Berlin and do the first recordings of the 1785 concertos.”

Andsnes clearly drew much creative impetus from the project. “It was very interesting thing to look at just these two years and see what happened in Mozart’s life, to see the diversity and see how things were affecting his writing, particularly with the piano concertos and the operas. He was writing The Marriage of Figaro at the time, and you see how operatic the piano concertos become after a while. In the Piano Concertos nos. 22-24 the use of wind instruments is like singers, and bringing the clarinet into the orchestration. We also learned about the relationship with Freemasonry and how the music is influenced by it. I think the C minor fantasy, the Funeral Music for orchestra – this is a very different side of Mozart, not the seductive melodies but more about an atmosphere. It’s been really interesting to play the different music from these years.”

Is Mozart as difficult to play as is often famously claimed? “I think the piano concertos are the greatest joy to play”, he says, “and especially these concertos, because they are so alive and there are always things happening. There is not a foreground and background only approach, there are middle voices with things for the viola, the bassoon. It is bubbly and full of ideas, and is such a joy to work on. Of course Mozart is sometimes challenging in terms of finding the right expression, he can be more ambiguous than Beethoven. With Beethoven you always feel that he has a goal in sight, and we go through a struggle and find answers, but with Mozart, there is more theatre, and it is psychologically more complicated. Sometimes there is a feeling that you just need to trust, you know? I liked the expression ‘heavenly boredom’, because it is part of his music – simply it is just beauty. How do you define beauty, and how do you give expression to it? Sometimes there is a childlike quality to that which one just has to trust. Earlier I found that difficult but now on stage I feel these are some of the great musical moments.”

Extra insight came from Andsnes’ decision to conduct the concertos from the keyboard. “For me that is the best way of doing these concertos, because they are so full of dialogue, and one has to be so conscious of who is talking with whom. If you are sitting in the normal soloist position, with a conductor in between the orchestra and yourself, it can work wonderfully, but you are further away from each other and the orchestra don’t hear you so well. When I sit inside the orchestra, with the piano lid off, there is a heightened awareness of what the other one is doing, and the sort of quicksilver response that you need in Mozart is easier to achieve.”

Dvořák wrote a single, large-scale piano concerto in 1876, which Andsnes has also encountered. “My teacher, Jiří Hlinka, played a recording of that when I was 16 and in his class. He played the Firkusny recording, and got very teary about it because he was missing Prague and everything. I got to love that music so much, and I got to know the famous recording with Richter and Kleiber, where he plays the original version:

The others used to play modified versions of it, because again that comes down to Dvořák having this strange reputation as not writing really well for the piano. I do think it’s wonderful music, but I never got around to studying it. I think I have also have been slightly afraid of that piece! Of course it does have its challenges, with the piano writing having to cut through the orchestra and to make sense with an orchestra. I do remember also hearing Richter having said that he hadn’t thought it would be such a problem to study this piece, but it took him half a year just to learn it because it was so complicated pianistically. He compared it to Bartok second piano concerto which he thought would be very challenging, and which he learned in three weeks! That made an impact on me, and I really have respect for that piece. You should never say never, but the Poetic Tone Pictures became the project. I do like it a lot though, and I think it’s an underrated piece, as is the Violin Concerto which is an absolutely fantastic piece.

As to future projects, Andsnes is in dialogue with Sony about what to do next. “It has been rather productive with recordings, so I am taking a little bit of time to think about what to do next. I don’t have any projects in mind for the next few years, but there is a great freedom in that as well. I am thinking about several things but too early to tell where we will end up. It can be a good thing!” For now, though, he has the Dvořák to play live. “So much colour in the music, so you can come in from the rain and enjoy it!”

Leif Ove Andsnes’ recording of Dvořák’s Poetic Tone Pictures is out now on Sony Classical. To listen and for purchasing options, go to the Presto website

Talking Heads: Mark Peters

by Ben Hogwood

Mark Peters has enjoyed a richly creative year. A key member of the band Engineers, he has seen his own solo work flourish for the Sonic Cathedral label. His 2018 album Innerland made a strong impression, and now it has a complementary work in this year’s release Red Sunset Dreams, creating sonic vistas from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Arcana sat down to talk about the new album, its sense of time and place, its guest musicians – and how Peters has sparked creatively from them. It is a record working on several levels – on one hand you could bask in its Mediterranean warmth, while on the other it creates vivid imagery of a British summer. “It’s probably no accident,” says Peters, “as a lot of it was done at the back end of last year in the UK, and some of the tracks – the title track and one called Tamaroa that was done quite quickly, were done just as Autumn started.” Music experiences a resurgence as the seasons change. “It’s funny”, he says. “I think my music definitely suits the autumn, and I feel you get more attuned to your rhythms as an artist. It has a lot to do with visual aspect, and how we naturally hunker down.”

Peters grew up in Wigan, where he still lives – and where he had his musical epiphany. “I think the key moment for me was in a science class, and someone played me a record which I don’t regard as the greatest record ever, The Delicate Sound of Thunder by Pink Floyd. It was so different to anything I knew. I was into pop music like every other kid, towards more indie music like Echo & The Bunnymen. It really struck me as a wow moment, where things changed. It was the combination of a frivolous band name and the stark, gloomy presentation – and how relatable the lyrics were, with me being at school and questioning everything! It was “Oh, right – I’m not alone.”

This gateway moment led to the purchase of a guitar. “Wigan was a really fertile area for music then, with a lot of crate-digging. I think a lot of that culture gets attributed with funk and soul, but I was listening to Can at the age of 16, and Aphrodite’s Child, the band Vangelis was in. The doors opened and it’s carried on ever since as a massive melting pot!”

Peters’ music has a strong sense of time and place – which can be said for Innerland as well as Red Sunset Dreams. Does he have an image in his head when writing music? “I don’t know, but I am a very visual person, and I get a lot out of imagery and the natural world. Just looking at the sky, it does have a massive influence on me and my mood. It motivates me to write, record and mix, which is a big part of it for me – for some people it’s a more prosaic part of the process. Rather than a particular image in my head I think it’s more of a feeling, and then I start to work on something.”

The feelings can be personal in other ways. “These days I start to think about a feeling that others may have had, an essence of something or things that I’ve read or seen historically. Those things have quite a big influence on me. I did a project with Ulrich Schnauss in response to local landmarks, and I really got into the research, looking at things locally and in more depth rather than the everyday person in the car. That’s honey to the bees for me for creativity, those black and white photographs and seeing how people had to live. I feel tuned into the essence in places, which is something I would like to do that again. I’ve explored and formulated that with Nat from Sonic Cathedral.”

Red Sunset Dreams is essentially an Americana instrumental album, presented naturally and without cliché. “It’s about the stuff in our innate consciousness. I enjoy the kitschy thing that we’ve kind of explored on the artwork. It should be fun, and I don’t want to be pompous but at the same time I started to think about it. When I found out there was a local cinema showing Westerns purely from the late industrial revolution, that was massively popular, and that was a really evocative situation. You’ve got all these people working in mills all the time, who couldn’t see the hills because of the smog. They were going into the cinema to experience this vastness and freedom that had once been there, a generation earlier when it was all farmlands. That clicked with me, and I realised it may have been the reason that all the aspects of Americana came into the country.”

Was there a particular place that appealed in America? “There was one particular day I used for a video for Switch On The Sky that sadly got lost in time, just around San Francisco. There was a particular day where we drove from just north of San Diego, a place called Del Mar, up alongside the Sierra Nevada mountains up to a place called Bishop. The reason I took the title Silver River was because it was filmed near there. We drove all day, with loads of ambient tracks on – Brian Eno, Boards of Canada, and some things like David Crosby, It was a really evocative day, and the light was amazing – the sunset seemed to last from late afternoon. It was a real actualization of all those things you experience on TV – the sizes of the curbs, the fire hydrants. That day really stuck with me and gave it a mythical quality that really appealed to me and was enchanting.” He really enjoyed San Francisco. “I think it’s got a good atmosphere. The real journey for us though started once we got on the road out of the we just stuck to the coast road through Big Sur and right the way down, which was astonishing – especially compared to Los Angeles, which we now know as ‘Hot Warrington’!

Silver River was made with legendary slide guitarist BJ Cole. “I’d like to have a better story about this, but he just has an online service! It’s ridiculously cheap, and you send him the tracks. We had a chat about who I was, and we had some people in common. Being from Wigan, I know the guys from The Verve, and he briefly joined the band in the late 1990s. He wasn’t on any recordings with them but is on Richard’s first solo album. We talked mainly about that, and that was it really – he’s a busy guy and still doing a lot of really cool stuff. He sent me a guide track, and we made him the lead instrument. I felt I should show a due amount of respect. He sent me six takes of improvisation, and as with all those some were successful and beautiful, and others you go a bit wrong. I edited it to keep all the good bits. When I heard it all together as a collage I was blown away – it was so fluid, with a watery feel, and when I found out the title it felt ideal.”

Peters’ other guest, Dot Allison, is also a natural fit. “I’ve been working with Nat from Sonic Cathedral for many years now, and I said it would be great to have a singer on this. I don’t want to make the same album as Innerland. He said, “If you could choose anyone, who would you go for?” I said Dot – and then some months later she heard Innerland and thought it would be a great idea. I think the reason why I wanted her to do it, aside from having the perfect vocal sound, was that I think it’s really important to choose people who are really going to get what you’re doing. I can’t think of anyone who would get it more! On our first conversation we talked about Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch, and I realised it would flow incredibly easily – and it did. She actually worked with BJ Cole herself, on a track called Tomorrow Never Comes, which is such a good song.

Sonic Cathedral is the ideal match for Peters’ music. “I’ve known Nat since Engineers played a couple of shows for him in 2005. We’ve been friends and in regular contact since then. I don’t know why it took so long to do stuff like this, I think it was because I was used to being on big labels like Echo and K-Scope. I was maybe a bit spoilt, maybe not having the right priorities, but as you get older you realise it’s all about the A&R really. I couldn’t think of a better home in terms of having someone who understands me and has ideas that mean I never have to worry about how things are presented. We have so many current interests, and share music naturally, and that sort of thing can be contrived at major labels. I’m really proud of him for sticking to his guns like he does. Trust is the key word with a label, and that’s exactly what we have.”

Peters’ work is much more solo-based these days, though he does have a little contact with his fellow-Engineers. “I am in touch with Dan MacBean on a pretty regular basis. We made an album in lockdown called Pictobug, which we released under the Engineers name. It was a great experience because although we did manage to do a lot of experimental stuff on those early Engineers albums, we always felt like a lot of our time was spent trying to try and please the label. I can’t complain – it wasn’t a horror story – but when you are signed to a larger label, they’ve got certain criteria you are bound to try and fulfil. We always felt that the untethered, exploratory aspects were left aside. For Dan and I to make that record was really good. It was four pieces ranging from 8 to 13 minutes, just jams that we did as an online release – and people were enjoying it. I haven’t generally seen others from the band apart from when we got our publishing back last year.”

With an open musical mind, Peters is still open to collaboration. “Some things just naturally occur, and sometimes the universe is just pointing at you – you don’t need to think too much. When we did the tracks that are on my album, Dot and I agreed it had happened so quickly and so well that we should do some more. We’ve done two more tracks, and I’ve got a few more ideas to send to her too. With the live band, that’s been really enjoyable – and we’ve started to do some improvisation-based stuff that I’d like to pick up a bit more and record. We’ve got the live sound honed so now we can see what they have to offer as composers, and let them have some creative input. That’s a start of a nice little project.”

You can browse Mark Peters’ music at his Bandcamp site – which includes this Christmassy EP from 2019:

Talking Heads: Deepchord

Questions by Ben Hogwood

It is five years since we heard from Detroit-based producer Deepchord, aka Rod Lodell. The artist, who records for Glasgow label Soma Recordings, returns with the highly atmospheric album Functional Designs, described as ‘music born from the dusk; made for when the sun falls in a big city;.

Like much of Deepchord’s more recent music it makes use of field recordings and a wide range of electronic tones that take in the influence of dub, techno and folk. A keen photographer, Lodell takes great care in matching his music and art.

In this revealing interview, he talks Arcana through his compositional process, his musical upbringing and why the end of the day is a key point in his music.

Arcana: With it being five years since your last album release, have you been busy musically in that time?

Deepchord: There was a two-year hiatus from the studio due to some family/medical problems, but thankfully, those have been resolved entirely, and life is moving forward now. So back in the studio again. It’s great to feel inspired again.

What effect if any did the pandemic have on your music?

It’s funny, the music post pandemic is somehow different. Maybe a little more melancholy. Seems more like “listening music” rather than dance music. The last couple of years was a dark time. Friends succumbed to covid. It feels like we’re on the upswing now. Like we’re coming to the surface after being underwater for 2 years. Maybe the music reflects this. Melancholy from the past two years, but with a glimmer of optimism.

How has Detroit responded in the last few years?

There is actually a very small group of people into electronic music in Detroit. So, although not a big demographic, they are most certainly passionate, and their support and feedback is greatly appreciated. I was born and grew up in Detroit, and even though I’ve lived elsewhere over the years, it always feels like home when I get back.

What music did you grow up with? Out of interest did you listen to much dub and / or modern classical?

In my youth, I spent lots of time with my grandparents. They listened to artists like Andy Williams, Perry Como, and Percy Faith. I still listen to this stuff today for nostalgic reasons. Since the mid-80’s, I listened to primarily experimental music. musique concrete, sound-design, and early industrial. Haven’t listened to much dub growing up. Acquired a taste for this later. I did enjoy lots of modern classical. Lots of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Music for 18 Musicians was one of my biggest influences.

What music do you listen to now, and take inspiration from?

Today, I listen to mostly field recordings and acoustic jazz music. Very little electronic stuff. I love field recordings. They are playing almost all the time in my home. Little sonic snapshots that I made around the world. I love how they make me feel. And jazz is the best for chilling out. It does what ambient music is supposed to do, but rarely does for me, because when I listen to it, I start to dissect it, and pay too much attention to it, and can’t relax. But with jazz, I don’t do that, so I just let it flow and enjoy it. I’ve really been into jazz the last several years. I don’t listen to anything mainstream. I like ethnic music. Middle Eastern music.This is influential for me. Persian music. In the electronic realm, I look forward to the next Hyperdub releases from London. They really seem to push envelopes in very interesting ways.

I really like Functional Design, it’s very atmospheric – and does what you wanted it to do, painting a picture of dusk falling in a big city. Did you have Detroit in mind when you said that?

Painting a picture of ‘dusk falling’ is a very accurate way to describe the album. Very accurate. I think all of my music is ‘night oriented’. I seem most influenced by night time. I like big cities at night. I’m definitely not a morning person. To me, “morning” is about 10am. I always get a second wind at midnight. I love night walks. And yes, this album has more Detroit DNA in it than any others that I’ve done. With the pandemic and everything else going on over the past few years, I was trapped here. During the pandemic, I would go to Belle Isle park in Detroit and sit. Or wander the (near vacant) streets downtown. And these moments got balled up into the new album. To be honest, I like the music that’s more influenced by favorite places like Amsterdam and Barcelona, because it takes me away from home. But this one is definitely steeped in “Detroit after dark”.

Your compositions often feel like weather systems. Is that intentional?

Maybe subconsciously. In the early days, my ambient music was very influenced by this. Weather has always been a big influence. Pressure zones and storms. And I think this is still buried in my head somewhere. I like air movement. I love stormy days. I prefer rainy days more than sunny ones. I like weather patterns. Weather is a bigger influence than any other music. Similarity, is architecture. I find the work of my favorite architects (e.g John Portman) more influential than any music.

Do you always make your music in the studio or do you go outside?

I haven’t been successful at recording music outdoors yet, but want to try more. I remember years ago, talking to Steve Roach on the phone, and he was telling me about how he’s been recording outside in his backyard (Arizona). May have been his Dream Circle or Slow Heat album. This blew me away. I loved the idea. I made a few attempts, but they didn’t work out. I would like to pursue this more. Or maybe have a greenhouse behind the house with a small studio.

This is a slightly nerdy question, but how do you get your bass drums so deep, as in Memories? Do you spend a lot of time perfecting your sound?

I’ve been asked this before, and I think it’s just through years of trial and error. I have a certain chain of compressors, EQ, and limiters that work for me. Also, I think it’s my idea of what a kickdrum should be. I’m not into sharp whacks. I think a kick should be almost subliminal. I like a deep whoosh of air in the room. A metronome to line up the other blurry elements with. But I want those “blurry elements” to take precedence. I think a loud kick takes away from the subtleties. So I keep it quiet. But, I wanted it to have more presence, so I do it by making them deeper.

Do you always think of the full album and place each track in context?

I’ll record a sequence of tracks influenced by a particular place, then arrange them to tell a story. I think it terms of a full length rather than singles. I like the full story. A concept. I’m most influenced by geographic locations, and they have multiple facets. So an album lets me describe those facets in 10-12 chapters. I find trying to get the picture across in one track is too restrictive. Many times, when you combine several tracks into album form, they strengthen each other. It’s definitely about the collection for me, rather than a single.

Are you traveling much and playing live or DJing?

We just got back from Barcelona last week, and spent some time in Amsterdam. But it was for pleasure rather than music. I was kind of scared to travel for the past couple years, but I think it’s time to venture out a little. I miss my favourite cities. There are a few EU shows scheduled in November and December. I think I will be making short trips to EU in the next year. Probably not staying there long-term in the near future. We’ll see how it goes. I do miss Amsterdam. It’s my true home.

The photography for the album is stunning – you take great care in how your music is presented.

Thank you. I always try to match photos that reflect the music. The image on the front of Functional Designs is in Detroit. It was shot near Broadway and Grand River, looking towards Woodward. It was a dreary autumn day at dusk. Damp, cold in the air. It felt like the music to me.

Was it your aim to release ‘dusk’ music as the summer is coming to an end in the Northern hemisphere?

Not specifically. But again, I do think dusk and night time is a recurring theme in my music. I make music for driving around at night. Music that just wouldn’t feel right in the mid-day. Unless it’s raining and dark maybe.

You can listen to clips from Deepchord’s Functional Design album, and view purchasing options, at the Soma website. Meanwhile the EP Functional Extraits 2 is due on 14 October – and you can view and order, also at the Soma website

Talking Heads – Alison Balsom

interview by Ben Hogwood

We still think of Alison Balsom as a new artist, a breath of fresh air for the trumpet in and around classical music. Yet all of a sudden it is nearly 25 years since she burst onto the scene, winning the Brass Final of the BBC’s Young Musician competition in 1998. Since then her recording career has yielded no fewer than 15 albums, for EMI Classics and latterly Warner Classics.

Quiet City will be her 16th – and in many ways it is her most personal album yet, as Arcana found when we sat down for a chat with the trumpeter. Balsom has poured herself a cup of tea, and the chat is punctuated with comfortable silences as she sips tea and I write. An extremely affable presence, she clearly has as much enthusiasm for the music now as she did in 1998, if not more.

Quiet City, as you may have guessed, is named after the Copland composition for trumpet, cor anglais and string orchestra of 1939. A forward-looking piece, it became a popular pick for online concerts during lockdown, its scoring favouring smaller orchestras and its mood wholly redolent of the times. It has held a very significant place in Balsom’s life, too. “I didn’t know I was going to make an album like this”, she confesses. “Quiet City is one of the very first pieces that I fell in love with to a deeper level when playing the trumpet. Copland understands the trumpet’s qualities, the melancholy aspects of the instrument and how it could sing. It is a relatively short work, so it was interesting to think about what it should be programmed with. I don’t think of myself as a jazz trumpeter, yet there is a really interesting point where in America composers were writing ‘in the gap’, letting themselves experiment. It didn’t matter that it was classical or jazz, they were taking from both realms. I found that this made a coherent journey, and found the nuggets growing to album ideas.”

She recognises the relevance of Quiet City to the pandemic. “Copland was a visionary with what we needed.  We made this recording in November 2021, when we were just coming out of lockdown. We all had an intense feeling of gratitude to be able to play this music live with a feeling of stillness in the concert hall, a voice that said, “Aren’t we lucky to be here?!” It is such a powerful vision, evoking the atmosphere from the first section, looking between building in New York like an Edward Hopper painting. Even working with a piano reduction I was in a melancholy mood. With this music I think of a film like Lost In Translation, and of two people with a luxury life, going to very different places. There is an isolated melancholy but beauty too, like a friend. As a piece, though, it is technically and physically challenging to play.”

She elaborates further. “Sustaining the notes can be a physical struggle, but you need command of the sound, the articulated notes – and you somehow need to make them tentative and nervous. You want to convey someone practising in an apartment block or something, being wonderfully balanced with the cor anglais and communicating with your audience or listeners.”

The cor anglais part on this recording is taken by Nicholas Daniel, who Balsom professes undying admiration for. “He is such a great musician, and has such a strong feeling about that piece. It was inspiring working with him and getting his insight and thoughts. It was incredible working with the Britten Sinfonia as well, they have great integrity and are always minded for collaboration. I worked with them in 2017, when we did the Barbican’s Sound Unbound festival. We did Miles Davis and Gil EvansSketches Of Spain, using transcriptions from the original studio recordings. I didn’t realise about the manuscripts, and there was a trumpet part revealed to me. He knew exactly what he wanted! I felt privileged to hear the players as at home playing jazz as they do classical.”

Also featured in the Sound Unbound concert was Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, which appears on Balsom’s album in a very different guise – tastefully rejigged to bring the trumpet forward as a second soloist, alongside childhood friend Tom Poster on the piano. “I had a different hat on for this one!” she confesses. “I respect Tom so much, I think he’s the greatest pianist to play with. We met when I was ten, so we know each other really well. With the arrangement I phoned him up and suggested it, and he thought it was nuts but a good idea. We found that Rhapsody in Blue was out of copyright, but not in the Grofé arrangement. This made the job an enormous one for Simon Wright, who orchestrated it from scratch.  Any coincidences in the new version are Simon coming to the same conclusion as Grofé, and I think it is an amazing achievement. The piano part didn’t have to be set in stone, which gave Tom the opportunity to express himself even more. We did a concert in Norwich, when everything was closed, and we only had to get it right once to get it in the can.”

She may be 15 albums in, but Alison is keenly aware of how much the format has changed in that time, and how consumption habits are so different with streaming. “The greatest challenge has been finding my muse, making something that the world might want to hear”, she says, “and yet there is an amazing opportunity to pioneer. We put Quiet City with some things that we’re OK with, and some things that are more challenging, such as the Charles Ives piece The Unanswered Question, which I love, but Warner let me go for it. It’s a lucky situation to be in.”

Asking Balsom to cast her thoughts back, I ask who has been an influence on her career to date? “In terms of my teachers, I would say John Miller – an amazing teacher and trumpet guru. With him we focussed on sound, as the trumpet is all about the production of technique. I would compare him to Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid, he wouldn’t let me do the cool stuff but I’m so glad he did that! I then went on to work with Håkan Hardenberger, who taught me how to teach myself. Physically the trumpet is so challenging, but that’s not how you master it. Getting to Grade 8 is just the start! It has this incredible, multifaceted personality, it reflects who you are. We play our personalities through our instruments!”

Balsom’s husband, film director Sam Mendes, had a small hand in the album’s running order. “He suggested the use of Leonard Bernstein‘s Lonely Town”, she says, and was a good soundboard for how the album was fitting together.” Has she returned the compliment on any of his film scoring? “I have made a few suggestions!” – she smiles – “and of course he has got to know a lot of trumpet repertoire through me.”

She recognises a change of focus in the musical landscape since the pandemic, with much more emphasis on recorded music. In spite of that there are a couple of concerts planned for the rest of the year. “There was the launch concert at Snape, with full bells and whistles, which is quite a complicated affair but the only live version of the album we will be doing. After that it gets quite random, but on October I’ll be doing a recital with Anna Lapwood, the organist, and a lighting designer, at a school in Tonbridge. It’s going to be an immersive trumpet and organ recital. We know the music is amazing but how can we present it and immerse people in the music? I’m really looking forward to doing that, she’s a real force for good! I wanted an amazing acoustic and organ, and there will be a few new pieces for that one.”

Plans are afoot for a seventeenth album, too. “I have had a good chat with Trevor Pinnock about my next project. Over the pandemic we had to re-evaluate travelling and what we have a desire to do – and there are some exciting plans on the horizon!”

You can discover more on Alison Balsom by visiting her website – and you can hear more of Quiet City and purchase the album on the Presto website. Meanwhile for more information on her recital with Anna Lapwood, and to buy tickets, go to the Tonbridge Music Club website