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.

Interview: James Heather

Stories From Far Away is James Heather’s debut album, a set of piano pieces documenting his emotional and musical response to contemporary news stories. It brings out the pianist’s more ‘classical’ side, a complement to the work he does heading up the communications team at Ninja Tune, where for the last 15 years he has supported the label’s output of pioneering electronic and experimental music. In this chat with Arcana he talks about how the two strands unite for powerful musical impact, and his hopes for the future as a performer. But first…

Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

The most powerful memory is of a subscription we had to a magazine called The Great Composers Of Our Lives. It was a monthly, with 40 or 50 issues in a binder, and they were different colours for different composers. It started off with the big hitters, like Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, but it was aimed at kids really. It was quite thin and picture-heavy, but it had as much about the academic aspects of the music as it had about their life story. It added a more emotional side, and that seeped in at an early age. It showed me that behind these complicated pieces of work there is a human story. I collected each one in a binder and became obsessed with it!

On top of that my grandparents were very in to classical music. When they came round my dad would like to choose a piece and put it on at just the right level, and sometimes my role was to get the ambience just right with the classical music in the background. My granddad was into classical – personally I am more into the romantic era. My granny was also into Schubert and Schumann, and both of them used to come round and jump on the piano in our house. My granddad was good; he played in the Second World War when he and his colleagues had an off moment – playing in a hotel in Italy. That’s where he met my granny, who I think was a nurse out there. He was playing the piano and she fell in love with him!

My other granny played piano and had a tendency to go off on a mad one, which sounded like Debussy on drugs – quite wayward but had a very distinctive style, quite madcap. I think you can hear that somewhere in my style of piano playing. I used to love listening to them play, and my dad also sent me to blues piano lessons. We had a honky-tonk piano initially, and I learnt the boogie-woogie scales. I can still play them, though they are not what I’ve chosen to put on record so far!

A year or two later I did the classical grades, and got to about Grade Six before going on my own path. That was really good because I learnt some key skills, the scales and theory around it all. What I was most passionate about from 11 or 12 was playing my latest compositions. My teacher was patient with me, and I used to play my new songs for five or ten minutes before the standard lesson.

Even at that age I was composing. I learned to play Beethoven’s Für elise, the Moonlight Sonata, the more simple Rachmaninov stuff, but I wanted to do my own thing. Once a week I would go to my granddad’s house, and he taught me the simple rules of composition – how to change key into another key, the chord sequences – and I was faithful to the rules he taught me but then later on in life I bent them a bit. I always thought he was a stickler for some composition rules. He used to detune his piano so that it was equal temperament; we used to spend hours doing that, and it was really interesting.

How has your style evolved in that time?

Initially I was just improvising, so I would sit down and play for two or three hours, just going off on one, and just play. I loved getting totally immersed, and subconsciously I was training, going off on different tangents of scales and learning what was working. I think I have become more refined, as before I hadn’t worked out introductions and endings. This came later when I started to listen to popular music, and learnt tricks about recurring motifs / hooks, and having a proper end! My early stuff as a young teenager was too repetitive and loop-heavy. The loud bits got loud without a progression to the loud, it wasn’t subtle enough. Now I think I’ve found my style and a way to deliver it in a way that people might appreciate more. I think when playing live it’s good to have a good moment where you improvise, and show that side of you. As you mature as a person your sound evolves of course.

Do you find playing the piano cathartic?

In the early times it was primal; I would just get up and do it. Some people use yoga and meditation but for me if I’m going home and I know I’ve got time to step on to the keyboard I’m excited, because I know I’m going to be relaxed. It calms my centre, and for me that’s what it’s all about. It’s nice to share, and I never assumed that anybody would like it. That’s great, but I’m also sensitive that you should remember the struggle, that for many years nobody seemed to care. Just because people care now, you’ve got to keep it on a level plain.

Given your family history, that must bring an extra personal edge to what you do?

Yes. I do think of my family, and certain chord sequences my grandparents played that seeped into me, and my late Dad’s unparalleled enthusiasm for music. It’s a shame they never saw me have any sort of proper success, but I wanted to protect myself in my teenage years. Everyone heard me play at family gatherings, but I never opened myself up to a wider audience. I didn’t want to be criticised, but you get over that!

Was that partly because your work at Ninja Tune deals with the reception of records and music?

I did become acutely aware of that one, and maybe I was overanalysing what people might think of my stuff – but also I don’t think it was quite ready. I was so busy doing my job that I knew I would get round to it. Who knows why we do things in certain orders?! In the ‘electronic’ and ‘hip hop’ networks I was in a 23-year old classical pianist was slightly odd, but as you get older you find people becoming more responsive to it. I love a rave as much as the next person, but I also have this other side. People knew about it but I do believe in organic stuff, and don’t want to push things down people’s throats. If they want to hear it, then great!

I think it’s good I’ve left it late to let myself ‘out’, because there are intricacies in all composition, and I hope that mine sounds like ‘me’ now. I would hate to just be adding to things. As a solo instrumentalist it’s harder, because if you’re a producer you’re working with hundreds of different sounds. I think I had to find my ‘person’, what made me ‘me’, and sometimes you don’t know that until you’re older.

One angle I would like to potentially go down eventually is that I’d like to do a piano album with a grime MC. I listen to classical music, new classical musicians – maybe 10% – but I listen to all of Wiley and Skepta’s catalogue. Stormzy at Glastonbury was amazing! I don’t just want to put on a bow tie and play a classical gig. I would like to do that as well but it’s all about the flexibility.

There is a certain element of classical music that is very upper class and perhaps more elitist, but then you’ve got all the new people coming through like Nils Frahm, and earlier on artists like Amon Tobin and Cinematic Orchestra opening things up more from the indie world. Now you look at 6Music with the Proms, and people like A Winged Victory for The Sullen, it’s inspiring. There’s not really an obvious place for my current sound as a solo pianist whose brain is more in the electronic world, so I’m going to try and find that. Where I have to add other instruments, why not do more young facing, risky things? I don’t want it to be seen as elevator music!
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Have the artists you work with at Ninja influence you musically at all?

Before I was at Ninja I had a keyboard in my room at university I was very passionate about what I did, but I had no idea how I could make it successful – a few friends liked some songs. Before that I tried to be in a band,  and also make electronic music with friends, but it was hard to get off the ground for various reasons. Then at Ninja I started to get a feel for how the industry worked. I think I’m a very loyal and hard working person, and I was surprised to get the job with no experience – but was in the right place at the right time. For many years I was very focused on not fucking it up, doing well in my position, and became very passionate about promoting the artists and was blown away by their music. Piano remained a hobby, and in London I was in small flats so had a keyboard, which wasn’t the real deal. I kept it going, and what it did for me was realising I had to up my game. Hearing Bonobo and Cinematic Orchestra, and then hearing one of my piano tracks, I was thinking that I need to up it somehow.

That’s how it influenced me, and I guess Ninja has given me a knowledge of how the industry works. I got signed kind of by accident, but had this network of people and could lean on a few for help. I never particularly sent it to the artists, I didn’t want to be the person who had a self-agenda. It made me more ambitious, because I see the ambition in our office. For the foreseeable I think I can put both hats on. Solo piano music is pretty different to what I’m doing at Ninja Tune. I’m going with the flow really, and I don’t pr myself, i got the great Duncan Clark @ 9PR for that – that would be slightly strange and not particularly healthy for me to promote me!

You played at Glastonbury this year – how was that?

It was a random one, because it was a connection through Greenpeace. I know the booker there, and he asked me to play – but there was no piano there, so I had to take my USB keyboard. It’s not my perfect performing situation, but I’m a believer in Greenpeace, so I wanted to help them. It’s also pretty cool to have said that’s my first ever gig! I’ve done Sofar Sounds and random singer-songwriter nights on the piano as a teenager, but it was my first real gig. The scheduling wasn’t perfect for my music, because the act before was a vocal-techno set, and before that there was a very upbeat brass band! Then I was playing my style of piano music, which is on one level very chilled but there are things going on in it. It was a small stage with 30-40 people but then lots on the perimeter. It was Sunday, around 5pm, the sun had just come out – and Shaggy was on the other stage, there was a skateboarding competition – lots of distractions. I had to keep going, and couldn’t hear myself properly, but did a 45-minute set and didn’t bugger it up. Some people zoned into it and contacted me afterwards. It’s not something I would rush into again but it’s an early sign of me not doing what’s expected.

I have a Solidarity of Arts Festival gig coming up in Gdansk, with Johann Johannsson, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Penguin Café. It’s like a Barbican vibe, I’m playing a 400 capacity room on a grand piano. I’m also playing at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, not in the main room but the equivalent of the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall. I’m going to be the first gig in that room, and I’m really looking forward to it. Hopefully that will open up a new world. After 25 years of composing I’ll believe it when I see it, but hopefully those gigs will be the true James Heather experience!

Does the classical music you listened to growing up still resonate now?

Of course, yes. I grew up with Beethoven’s Pathétique Piano Sonata, and the whole grandiosity of it – but then it gets so quiet. Debussy, I have his ‘best of’ – and I just love it. The other day I was listening to the John Cage piece Landscapes, one of the first example of classical music and turntables, and loops. Then I put on a Gangstarr record – which shows how anything goes!

Finally, what does classical music mean to you?

It’s very hard to articulate in words. When classical music hits me in the right way it’s very profound, a transcendent experience. I think it means independence. In indie music you have bands, and in electronic music you often have duos, if you have an orchestra a lot of the time it’s coming from one composer, and it feels like a staunchly independent thing. This is the vision of one composer, and it’s like a big statement, and here are 50 musicians playing it. I think you possibly get less ‘bands’ or ‘duos’ in classical music so for me classical music means Independence. That’s a random on the spot theory!

James Heather’s album Stories From Far Away is out now on Ahead Of Our Time. For more information on James Heather, head to his artist website

Proms interview – David Lang (Bang On A Can)

This year the pioneering ensemble Bang On A Can reaches the grand old age of 30. Directed by three composer-performers – Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang (above) – the ensemble are to celebrate the occasion with a late night Prom. In it they will pay tribute to Philip Glass, but typically the concert will include a world premiere in Gordon’s Big Space, a London premiere in Wolfe’s Big Beautiful Dark and Scary, an established work by Louis Andriessen (Workers Union) and Lang’s own Sunray, written for his father. In this interview he tells Arcana about the challenges and rewards of running an ensemble regarded as one of the very best in contemporary music making.

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

My parents weren’t music people and there was no classical music in my house growing up.  My first real spark of interest came from seeing a film of Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic in Shostakovich‘s 1st Symphony – it was raining in my school when I was 9 years old and they played this movie during lunch, to keep us quiet.  Everyone was throwing food and making noise, but I was mesmerized, and after that, hooked.

You’ve described yourself as a ‘deep classical music nerd’. Does that mean you need to study classical music a lot more closely to get maximum enjoyment from it?

I wouldn’t say that what I get from the study of classical music is maximum enjoyment.  Music is a means of communicating things between people and many of the things people need to communicate aren’t enjoyable!  But I am really interested in the messages that underlie classical music and getting deeper into the music lets me find out more about what the music can mean.

If you could somehow sum up what you learnt from studying with Andriessen, what would you say has left a lasting impact?

I never studied directly with Louis, although when I was a young composer I spent many many hours talking to him about music.  I learned many things just from watching him – about how to be an active musical citizen, how to be generous to other musicians, how to be supportive of young composers, how to be engaged with the larger culture that surrounds us.  Those are all very important.  In his music he always has tried to push his curiosity as far as it will go, in the most honest and direct way possible.  Those are also very useful lessons.

Congratulations on 30 years of Bang On A Can. What has been the biggest challenge to the ensemble in that time?

Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe and I started Bang on a Can 30 years ago, because we were passionate about ways we thought the world needed to change, in order for experimental music to take its rightful place in our culture.  The biggest challenge for me personally has been setting aside the time to make sure I keep my focus on all the things I am passionate about.

Is the ensemble all about ensuring there are no boundaries between classical music and all the forms around it?

The ensemble was built to be flexible – just the instrumentation itself is hybridized between musical genres, and the players have backgrounds in different kinds of music as well.  We didn’t start the All-Stars so that the band could have no boundaries between it and the world, but so that it would be maximally useful to the widest assortment of composers who might want to work with it.

How do you keep Bang On A Can fresh and innovative?

Again, Bang on a Can exists to do the things we are all passionate about – playing new music, building new audiences, educating young composers and performers, commissioning new and stranger musics.  It is the kind of challenge for ourselves that keeps us going.

Do yourself, Michael and Julia have specific skills to bring to Bang On A Can, and what is the dynamic between the three of you?

The three of us have different strengths and weaknesses, and we complement each other pretty well.  Most of all we are close friends, which made it all possible.  I think in the first years of Bang on a Can we would sometimes get exhausted and might have quit if we were doing this alone, but because we were friends we didn’t want to let the others down, and so we persevered.

The Proms program looks to be a very personal one for you. Could you offer a short description of each piece and how or why you chose it?

I don’t know what Michael’s piece is about, so I can’t say how personal that is, but Julia’s piece is an intense examination of an inner terror, mine is a birthday present for my dad, in which I try to made solid a wispy ray of sunlight, and we have pieces by two of our mentors, Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen.  So I guess it is personal!

Does the program reflect how the ensemble has progressed in its 30 years?

I am not sure this program reflects any kind of progression – just challenging music by living composers, played fiercely and really well.  We have been doing that for a long while…

You are performing music by Philip Glass. Do you think minimalism is now a very established part of the classical music canon?

Philip Glass is one of the most successful and influential composers, ever.  And when the question asks if he is now an ‘established part of the classical music canon’ it reveals how odd the idea of that canon really is.  Philip Glass was already the most performed composer on the planet before the classical music world felt comfortable inviting him in.  Isn’t that backwards from the way the world should work?  Shouldn’t classical music be actively refreshing itself, all the time?

Do people look to you to set standards with performances of new music?

I hope so!  The idea of creating an amplified group that is part classical ensemble and part rock band, and that can play lots of kinds of music, including music that is technically really difficult, has been influential in New York and we are starting to see more musicians with a wider range of experiences and abilities.  I wouldn’t claim that we started that trend but we certainly have been a big part of it.

Is it difficult to say ‘no’ to things when new music is involved?

Why would you ever want to say no to anything?  Not just in music, but in life?

What piece of music have you heard recently that you would encourage others to hear?

Me personally, Dysnomia by Dawn of Midi.  I know it is a few years old already but I listen to it all the time.  Layer upon layer of mind-blowing polyrhythms, all played live, built up inexorably over time.  Check it out.

Víkingur Ólafsson – studying Philip Glass

Víkingur Ólafsson (photo: Ari Magg)

Last year, Arcana defined Víkingur Ólafsson as a true classical music entrepreneur. We explored his introductions to classical music, and talked about the two festivals he helps administer – Sweden’s Vinterfest and the Reykjavik Midsummer Festival. We also covered his friendship with composer Philip Glass, 80 this year. Olafsson professed his admiration for the composer and his creative energy, an admiration he has now transferred to disc in the form of his first recording for Deutsche Grammophon. Time, then, for chapter two in the interview!

When did you first encounter Philip Glass’s music?

It’s quite a specific memory. I was 13 years old, sitting with my two sisters in the back seat of our car on a family vacation. Dad was driving on the highway, heading from France to Switzerland and as we were bored and quarrelling in the back seat, he handed us this recording of Philip Glass Violin Concerto No.1 with Gidon Kremer (on DG as it happens) which we listened to on our Sony Discman players. It was unbelievable to discover this new sound world while passing by the French landscapes on 150 KM per hour.

Some of the Etudes on this album feel like extended meditations. Do you get into a kind of trance when you play them?

Not really, I’d rather have my audience in a trance… I just try to listen intensely and explore the possibilities of the instrument and acoustics, looking for the right proportions of sound and time.

Do you think the Etudes are actually much more emotional than the titles suggest they should be?

What is emotional for one person can be completely impersonal to the next. To me there is a nostalgia to the slow ones, but it’s emotions revealed through the filter of time. Etude means ‘study’, but one can also write etudes on emotions, just as well as on finger dexterity.

What technical challenges does the music present for you?

It’s relatively easy to learn the etudes and play them at an average level. But what I find difficult – as with any music – is to play them in the most specific way, when it comes to rhythm, texture, sound…

To get the clockwork fine tuned in a piece like Opening is extremely delicate and difficult, to take one example. And of course playing a piece like Etude No.6 is quite difficult, and the repeated notes make me feel as if I’m playing a late-20th century Scarlatti.

Etude No.20 requires intense layering of texture and pedal sensitivity and No 15 demands an orchestral palette on the piano. The etudes can be extraordinary when played well, but, like almost all other music, they can also be rather bland when played in a bland way. But blame the performer in that case.

Are you working closely with Philip on any new material?

We’ve discussed briefly a new work, but it’s too early to say more…

Aside from the piano music, what is your favourite piece by Glass?

I saw Einstein on the Beach in Berlin two years ago. It blew my mind to experience it live. I will also mention his Violin Concerto No.1, as it was the first piece I heard by him. And I have to mention Koyaanisqatsi. It’s actually on Youtube, I recommend spending a Sunday afternoon watching and listening to the great work.

Do you play music by any of the other so-called ‘minimalists’?

Yes, but they’re really not minimalists… at least not since the early 70s! I’m playing John AdamsPiano Concerto in Leipzig in June and I’ve played a bit of Steve Reich as well. I love these composers but I’ve played far more Glass than either of those.

What is it like being signed to Deutsche Grammophon, and do you have any plans for future releases on the label?

We are meeting in Berlin in March to discuss next albums. We have roughly three different ideas on the drawing board and they are all very different from one another – and from the Glass album. I don’t want people to know what to expect too much, I’d love for each of my album to tell its own story, independent from the previous ones.

I love working with Deutsche Grammophon as we have a mutual love of listening to, exploring and discussing music. And of course I’ve listened to so many DG records in my life and gotten to know so much great music and so many great performances through the label. It’s both a privilege and pleasure to work with them.

You can find out more about the Midsummer Music festival in Reykjavik here, while you can also discover Vinterfest here. For more information on Víkingur himself, head to his own artist website

Amy Dickson – the music of Philip Glass and how she had to redefine her breathing

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To mark the 80th birthday of Philip Glass this week, saxophonist Amy Dickson has expressed her love of the composer’s music through an album released for Sony Classical. The record – simply titled Glass – includes two important arrangements highlighting the flexibility of the composer’s music, and showing how well it transcribes for Dickson’s instrument.

In this interview with Arcana she talks about how the arrangements were made, how she had to develop a whole new form of breathing for the recording, and how Take A Breath, her campaign for primary school children, has touched thousands around the world.

As always, to start with, Arcana raised the traditional question:

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

I’m not sure I can! I do remember starting on the piano when I was two, and having music lessons early on. Pieces of piano music still take me back to early childhood. My fondest memory is being drawn in by a cassette that we used to listen to in my mum’s car. I would be absolutely rapt while we listened and then we would press rewind and listen over again. The piece I remember most was Andalucía by Ernesto Lecuona. I learned to play it on the piano after my mum went to great lengths to find the score of it.

How did you develop a love of the saxophone?

There was a great teacher, Melinda Atkins, who isn’t that much older than me. I had lessons with her from the age of six. It was just meant to be, she was absolutely amazing for me, and the chances were so slim of something like that happening. We looked at a lot of different styles of music, she was really cool about jazz and classical, and never made me think there was anything I couldn’t do. I was her student in Sydney until I went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18.

I played in jazz bands through my childhood years, and I had the widest range of musical influences you could imagine! I played piano classically, harpsichord in music from the Baroque, while for the saxophone it was so wide ranging. I feel very lucky to have had great teachers, and they have inspired me to have no boundaries. They helped me learn whatever I could, and I also have had parents who are very keen to give me opportunities. I am eternally grateful for that.

Has that approach carried with you to your recording career?

Yes. I definitely had no idea before it about a grand plan. I work from year to year and like to record whatever I feel particularly passionate about. I have recorded some really diverse repertoire so far, and I have no idea where I will be in five or so years – and I don’t really want to know either! I love playing with new and different people all the time, and that’s so interesting. There is no set path as a classical saxophonist, the only way to go is to be open.

What attracted you to the music of Philip Glass?

I feel very emotionally pulled towards it. When I first heard the Violin Concerto I fell in love with it. It was all to do with a place where I was in my life, and it tugged at my heartstrings. I thought about transcribing it, and that was ridiculous in a sense because there was nowhere to breathe! That was when I learned how to circular breathe.

The pieces from The Hours are particularly beautiful too – Morning Passages is lyrical and a complete piece in itself, and is remarkably complete for a film score. The Violin Sonata is similar to the concerto in terms of structure and content. I immediately felt as strong a pill to this as I did to the concerto, but it’s harder than anything I have ever played. Technically it’s tricky, but the element of stamina required is something else – there really is nowhere to breathe, nowhere with a beat’s rest. Since learning how to circular breathe I have dealt with that, but it really is playing constantly for around 25 minutes.

What is circular breathing, and how did you learn it?

While you’re breathing out, you sniff in through your nose and put more air into your lungs. You manipulate the back of your throat to put air into your cheeks, so then you release the air and sniff in again.

It’s a question of separating the muscle groups so that you can manipulate them. I knew a few people who did something similar, but I decided I wanted to play the concerto, and I set aside 20 minutes a day to learn how to circular breathe.

It took around two weeks, and was like learning a new life skill! It turned out to be the first steps, and it was six months until I felt I could really do it while I was playing, as the sound could be disrupted. If you can separate your lip muscles from your cheek muscles, it is much more instinctive now, but I still have to think carefully about it.

amy-dickson-glassWhat has the reception been like to your Glass recordings, and have you heard from Glass himself?

It’s been amazing. I got a message from Sony this morning to say that overnight the video had reached one million hits on YouTube. Philip has been very pleased with it too. Generally he doesn’t let other people touch his music.

Had you heard his previous work for saxophone before starting on this?

I got to know the Façades when I was doing the first transcription. I think the best way to get to know a composer is to listen to as much of their music as possible.

What was the inspiration for the ‘Take A Breath’ campaign?

The focus is to teach children to breathe well, but it stems from playing the Glass and teaching myself to breathe again as an adult.

I have spoken to experts about this and realised that children develop bad habits as they get older. As we get older, so much of our lives could be improved by breathing better. I was going into schools with the Children & The Arts charity, and we noticed that the kids would run and run around the playground, and could then calm themselves down if they took a breath and could breathe properly.

If I had been taught that as a child I would have benefited greatly! Over time with the kids we have developed a saxophone playing elephant – Ellie – that they can relate to. The children called her that, and they would pretend to have a trunk that they would breathe air into. They would breathe through it and it would put air in their tummies. All through the exercises we imagined they were playing a note on the saxophone.

elephant-poster

It’s amazing seeing children remembering these exercises and being mesmerised by them. Some of the children said how it had helped them when they had fallen over, taking their ‘elephant breath’. It’s about having a tool for emotional resilience too. It was amazing seeing these little people doing elephant breaths before exams.

Could you recommend a piece of Philip Glass that you wouldn’t normally play?

There is a violin piece that I have been particularly drawn to – the Chaconne from the Partita for Solo Violin.

Finally, what does classical music mean to you personally?

That’s really difficult! (Amy pauses) What is classical music? I think the term is difficult, I say I’m a classical saxophonist but I don’t play classical music – I see that as being music from between 1750 and 1820.

If you look at classical music it’s difficult to define. I reckon that in fifty years’ time they might call some of the pop music of the 1970s and 1980s classical music. We’ll have to wait and see!

Amy Dickson’s Glass is out now. For more information you can head to her website, where the Take A Breath campaign can also be found