Talking Heads: Augusta Read Thomas

Augusta Read Thomas (picture (c) Anthony Barlich)

On an autumnal day, Arcana has time with composer Augusta Read Thomas, known affectionately as ‘Gusty’ to her friends. The nickname is more than appropriate, since Gusty is speaking to us from her Chicago home. In a year that has been testing at best, she has taken the time to talk through her new album The Auditions, released by Nimbus in October. The collection proves an ideal introduction to her music, including as it does pieces for brass quintet, carillons and a ballet score for ensemble, The Auditions – of which more later.

Our interview subject is bubbly, engaging and intensely focused – rather like her music. The bubbly aspect is in part related to the recently announced result of the US presidential election. “The year has been so out of body, as we both know in lots of ways, but I’m so happy about Biden and Harris. Then we hear about Pfizer and the vaccines, and as such I feel better. In Chicago we’ve been having record temperatures, and it’s been 75 degrees, like a July day! It has been perfectly sunny, day after day after day, the best November weather I can remember in 30 years, which is definitely a bonus. Right now it’s insanely beautiful outside!”

Is her work as a composer affected by the weather? “Yes, I think so – not so directly as writing dark music on a rainy day, but I do feel that the sun is really a giver of energy. I mean that globally, over a lifetime, not a day-to-day thing. There is energy from the sun that I feel. I don’t know how it translates into the music, but it is a real feeling in my body. For instance, sometimes in my little apartment there is a slant of sun that comes through and I’ll move my chair to sit in it. It feels so beautiful to be having that sunlight and then the slant is moving, so you move the chair a little bit. Then it goes beyond the window, but I will gravitate to sunlight!” The Auditions release encounters different forms of light as you journey through it. “Absolutely. I think that nature is really a great teacher. If you’re going to write a piece of music, you should just look at a tree, and it will tell you a lot. Look at the snowflakes and all the differences in their swirls, then a flower, or a garden – or even DNA, the way that cells reproduce; the ocean. I’ve been telling my students this for decades – look outside, there’s a great teacher right there in the window. It’s really true. If you were to go to my website and just read titles of my works on the alphabetical index, a lot of them are to do with the sun, the moon, nature or spirituality. It is the perfume of my whole catalogue. This CD has evocations of light, or ripple effects like those in the ocean. It is like the caprice of birds, and their beauty – the difference between hummingbirds, flying from the north all the way to the south, and the majesty of the swans.”

We move on to discuss the ballet itself. The Auditions is the idea of moving from this other spiritual space, which is the arcs nos. 1,3, 5 and 7 of the auditions, and then these very earthy, playful jazzy bits. It is like going from the cosmos down to the earth and then back up in the ending. You definitely feel the rise in those arcs. The ballet is modelled on the instrumentation used by Copland’s Appalachian Spring. “It was the 75th anniversary of Appalachian Spring”, she confirms, “and the commission was for an anniversary ballet, with the Martha Graham Dance Company set and costumes, which was amazing. Her choreography for Appalachian Spring was very stylized and of its time – a period piece which was wonderful and absolutely fabulous. Then there was an intermission and then The Auditions. I had to use more or less the same instrumentation, and I added the percussion, a trombone, and a saxophone, so that when you got to my piece it was like smelling a different kind of like world right away. The dance company has many bookings for the show with the two together, but of course they all got postponed. They are touring the show though.”

The list of composers commissioned by the Martha Graham Dance Company is a roll call of some of the 20th century’s finest. “Martha Graham really had a tradition of working with living composers”, she says, “and some great works exist in repertoire because of it. I feel really fortunate to have been receiving this commission. I spent a year on the piece – it’s so detailed, nuanced and sculpted in terms of the form. I worked really closely with the choreographer. In parentheses, there’s a broadcast going out to New York on Sunday night. One of them is going up on my website today, so a lot of people will be able to actually see what the dancing was like. I love it, and wish I could send it over!”

That must be a boon in these times where performances have been scarce or even non-existent. “Absolutely”, she agrees. “One of the other pieces on the disc is Plea For Peace, and there is a version where the solo is played by flute, trumpet and violin. That version just aired on 55 television stations all over the country! That’s a big deal in America, to have things out on the television, but in a pandemic it’s just golden.”

Read Thomas studied with two figureheads of 20th century classical music, Oliver Knussen and Pierre Boulez. “I believe that Oliver Knussen is an ‘A’ list composer”, she says affectionately. “I would put Chopin and Debussy and Ravel on that list, all the greats. I want to say that as loud as possible and I also think, amazingly, he was a great conductor and teacher – he was unbelievable. All of that stems from the central core of being a great musician. Very few people are both – you have some conductors who compose OK, and then you have some composers who conduct, but he was both.”

She fondly remembers their meeting. “When I was in second year college in America, I would have been 21-22 say, he heard a bunch of my music. He invited me to be a fellow at Tanglewood, which in America is a very big deal. So, I was at least ten years younger than the other fellows. We would go through my scores and we would sing the lines, and he taught me a lot about nuance and form and when he was very detailed. Then he brought me back for a second year at Tanglewood, because normally you’re only allowed to go once, and then a third year. I learned a lot from him, and then we continued our friendship. I commissioned his piece Requiem: Songs For Sue, and I brought him to the Chicago Symphony. I have a beautiful score he wrote to me and we would share CDs of people’s music. He did my Helios Choros with the Cleveland Orchestra and also the National Symphony, and he brought my piece In My Sky At Twilight to the Queen Elizabeth Hall with the London Sinfonietta. He just supported me over all those years, and in my little modest way I tried to support him too. We could speak on the phone for a long time about pieces of music. It was a friendship, but I do consider my teacher because in the time I had with him, he taught me a lot but I learned a lot from his music. I studied his music and I teach it too. He was just a great artist.”

Having been fortunate to see Knussen in concert at the Proms, with his visionary programming, it was clear how music was a sharing experience for him. “Totally”, she agrees. “Towards the end of his life, when he did the Scriabin Poem of Ecstasy, he called me up and said, ‘You’ve got to hear this!’ It had all the extra players and stuff, so of course I listened and then I listened again. And then after a step I listened again to that Prom. At the end he did the Piano Concerto by Phil Cashian. For many summers I taught at Tanglewood, and he was a frequent guest. A great, great person.”

Of Boulez, Read Thomas is similarly enthusiastic. “The Chicago Symphony invited me to be their composer in residence, and that came about because Boulez and Barenboim reportedly liked my music. I was young, and it was in the mid-1990s. I was 32 or something like that. Just before that I was commissioned to write a piece, called Words Of The Sea. It’s a four movement piece for orchestra, and it’s easy to find the audio of it. I sent in my manuscript on huge pieces of paper and rolled it, and Xeroxed it, rolled it into the tube and sent it off. I got a call saying they had sent it to Boulez with about twelve other pieces. Then about a month later they called up and said ‘Out of a pile of 12 he’s only going to play one…but it’s yours!’”

Boulez conducted the world premiere of Words Of The Sea, and the two met over the manuscript. “It was a great premiere”, she recalls, “and then that night we had this dinner party with the orchestra, and he turned to me and said he would like to commission another piece. So I did a piece called Orbital Beacons. He was so generous, like he bothered to look at my piece and program it, and it was around this that they invited me to be a composer in residence. He nominated me for a prize for the Siemens Foundation, which I won. It is a generous prize! Then he did the premiere of In My Sky At Twilight, and recorded it as well as taking it to Lucerne. There were lots of different projects.”

Read Thomas’ stories are given with great affection and gratitude. “What I liked about him, and also Knussen, is that they would play my tempos. They were both so precise. I remember with Boulez there was one little thing with In My Sky At Twilight, and he said, ‘I think you have the oboe as mezzo forte there, I think it should be mezzo piano.’ I looked, and said, ‘I think you’re right. So the whole group is sitting there and I remember he had this little box with his pens, so he went into his pen box and opened it, looked around and then he took out the red little red pencil. Then he went on to the score and crossed it out and changed it to mezzo piano. It was very precise, and all about getting it right. The players loved him. They played perfectly and with such artistry. It was a teeny change but it was reflective of the fact that my scores are so detailed.” Knussen’s operating method were not too dissimilar. “Olly was also very precise. I remember when we did In My Sky At Twilight at the South Bank Centre, I said to him, ‘Ollie, it feels too slow – can we keep it going so many bars?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Let me think about it.’ Then, at the show, he did it slower! He came up to me afterward, and said ‘I did it slower! You see, it really works!’ He went with the musicality, and the harmonic rhythm of things.”

Moving back to The Auditions, we discuss the programming of the CD release itself. Was it tricky to get in the right order? “You’re absolutely right. I sat with the engineer and we tried it in lots of different ways. We decided to start with the brass quintet because it’s such a good performance, and it’s very hard! They make it sound easy, but it’s tricky – and it just blasts out of the machine. I’ve been listening to jazz my whole life, so while I am a classical composer, I speak a lot about jazz and my process is very full of improvisations and so forth. What I like about that is starting with be-bop. When you put it in a brass quintet, it’s like, ‘What’s going on?’ You know, there’s no other brass quintet that sounds like that piece, there are no folksong arrangements or church chorales. It’s pure protein in terms of material, a bite size thing that shows lots of different sides of me. The chords are jazz chords, but end up sounding like Stravinsky or Messiaen in this context, like Bebop meets Ravel.”

The next piece presents a contrast. “We thought after the intensity of that to go for the intimacy of Plea For Peace. It’s a beautiful recording, made by Chicago Symphony Orchestra members. You go into this other world, and for the contrast that seemed to be a good place to put that reflection.”

“It’s Ripple Effects next!” she says excitedly. This is a piece for 72 bells, and Renske Vrolijk’s wonderful picture above should be examined when listening to the piece, where each player is clambering over one another to get all the notes played in the final chord. “Some of those bells wouldn’t fit in my room!” she laughs. “One of the interesting things about this piece is that most carillon players play solo. They climb all the way up the tower and they sit there alone, they don’t see their audience, and by the time they get down whoever heard them as walked away. It’s very lonely, and there’s not much repertoire that’s not for solo carillon. Also, a lot of the repertoire is arrangements of a chorale or a song or something. What was really interesting to me was that the first version brought all those people together. The humanity made it very special for that instrument. The two player version is on this recording. It’s tricky, they’re going non-stop with their feet and hands. It multiplies in a way, it sounds like an orchestra in the way it goes, because of the way the bells ring. It’s such an interesting sound world, and again, like the brass quintet, there is no piece that sounds like that – it’s very singular in the carillon repertoire.”

While these pieces are for very different instrumental forces, Read Thomas notes the importance of a connecting thread. “I try to imbue all my pieces with the ‘Gusty’ personality, so if you hear a piece of mine you’re not going to say, ‘Oh well, that sounded like warmed-over minimalism, or retro movie music, or spectralism layer three. There are no categories, it’s just my music. With Plea For Peace, what’s interesting about that piece is it’s just a crescendo, but when you use a text, like post-Hiroshima, or an ancient poet, or a political figure, it narrows. When you make it just a vocalise, the piece means the same in South Korea as it does in North Korea, and as it does in Africa, Azerbaijan or Kansas. That was a big decision, to make it a vocalise, but I think it cuts so much deeper. It feels risky to do it, but in the deepest human way it is like a cry from the heart. While that piece is very total, I still think of it as very singular.”

The Auditions roll-call continues with Two Thoughts About The Piano, with Read Thomas effusive about her soloist. “Daniel Pesca was fabulous. His technical skills are outrageous, but he’s an artist, he sculpts the form as crescendos, and also the repeated notes are hard. He really did a great job. I appreciate his touch.” That is followed by Selene, arranged for percussion quartet and winds. “This is an arrangement that Cliff Colnot made”, says Read Thomas. “He took the string parts and put them in the winds, but the percussion parts are identical. I do think it works, there are certain things like when you get those bass clarinet and bassoons, it’s such a cool colour. I think it’s a very successful arrangement; the credit for it should go to him for the wind parts.”

From vivid experience, Read Thomas’s music consistently creates a picture in the listener’s mind. “One of the things that’s also really interesting to me in my practice and life, is how much, for example, Johann Sebastian Bach can fit into two minutes. If you take one movement of The Well Tempered Clavier, one of the Preludes and one of the Fugues – it’s two minutes, but there is a whole universe there. It starts and there’s just not a note out of place. I’ve really taken that to heart in my music, like the first movement of the Brass Quintet – four minutes is it, that’s all you need to paint the picture. We are matching the material to the duration, and to look at Bach’s Goldberg Variations, some of those movements are less than a minute, but there’s a whole universe there. I guess if I had to summarise, generally I’m a poet and not a novelist. I write shorter pieces with every word in place, every dash, every thought, and every line break to use a poetry metaphor, every adjective too. It’s only four minutes but that really interests me. This CD in a way brings out the poet side.”

The same tenets apply with music of longer duration. “The Auditions is a longer piece, but it still breaks down into much shorter sections”, she explain. “It is a kind of pure, protein poetry. You have to edit and sculpt move the comma, so to speak. I really believe that form conserves energy, and I say that to my students all the time. It’s three words but they’re very important. If you have the material and form that are allied, a four minute piece – like Plea For Peace – projects out to a universal statement that is 20 minutes, but you say it in a very short time. That kind of craft, for lack of a better word, I learned from Oliver Knussen. He was a miniaturist also, and so was Boulez. My main model would be Bach but those other two were the same.”

Our conversation pans out to consider the past year and all its challenges. Has it been difficult a a composer? “I will answer that in two layers, if you don’t mind”, she says thoughtfully. “The first layer is that I’m very mindful that we have a lot of people on this planet without shelter, water, healthcare and food, and so on. Also, in my opinion, the systemic racism is outrageous and should have been set right centuries ago. I would like to say loud and clear, that black lives matter. There is a whole social conscience side, and it is important to state that before I say number two, because they are very much interlinked. I think that when we look back in 10 years of what was created in COVID, there is going to be a burst of creativity, which is great. For me, typically, I travel every week. For 200 days a year I’m just zooming around all the time, and I’ve been doing that for 25 years. Then, all of a sudden, I stopped, and when I was cancelling travel and hotels I was thinking, ‘how did I do this?!’ To be honest with you I have been writing, non-stop, and have had enormous focus. It has been a huge boon. I’ve also continued with online teaching, so it has been really busy. I can’t wait to share what I’ve just made with people.” It is reassuring to hear a positive benefit to the imposed isolation, but not surprising when you consider the creativity such adversity can often inspire. “It is, but for me it’s not the adversity, because I’m really trying to help in whatever way I can. For 30 years I wish there was more than 24 hours in a day, and I typically work like 16 hours a day because I like to. I like to get at least eight or nine hours’ composing and then maybe five hours of teaching and then citizenship work. I think after this, with the whole work / home / travel thing, I think a lot will change for big corporations, and for artists. We realise now that certain things really can be done.”

Finally, I have to ask about the origins of Gusty’s nickname. She smiles warmly. “I have been called that since I was a little girl, because we had ten kids in the family and I was the tenth. Since I’ve been about two it was always my name. Then, as my life developed, then it seemed better for the public to have my formal name, which was fine given name at birth. So we just ended up using that. By coincidence the initials are A-R-T. It just fell into place!”

Augusta Read Thomas’s new release The Auditions is available on Nimbus Records. To listen to clips and for purchasing options, visit the Wyastone website. The composer’s own website contains a great deal of information behind the music, with multimedia and details of future performances. To read more, click here

On paper – Humperdinck: A Life of the composer of Hänsel und Gretel by William Melton (Toccata Press)

Humperdinck: A Life of the Composer of Hänsel und Gretel by William Melton, with a Foreword by John Mauceri
Toccata Press [hardback, 456pp, b/w illustrations, ISBN 978-0-907689-92-8]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Several years ago the singer formerly known as Arnold Dorsey was asked how he had chosen his stage-name, to which he replied that it was his manager’s decision and he had simply gone along with it – having known nothing about the composer in question and remaining ignorant of his music through to the present. Certainly, he took nothing by him in his eight choices on Desert Island Discs in 2004. Hardly unexpected, beyond confirmation that, then as before, the real Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) was fair game on account of his diminished status.

A status that, even now, is hardly what it was during the quarter-century up to the composer’s death and which itself was owing almost entirely to Hänsel und Gretel – the ‘fairy tale opera’ whose wildfire success throughout the Western world transformed Humperdinck’s reputation, in his fortieth year, from provincial teacher and well regarded purveyor of cantatas and songs to the leading German composer of his generation. Such success might have transformed his professional and financial standing, but it also created an aesthetic image such as could only become more stereotyped as time passed. Such acclaim that he later achieved was inevitably viewed (and not merely by his detractors) within the context of that one work, ensuring that Humperdinck’s legacy was fixed in the public mind even had he ceased composing thereafter.

This is reflected not least by the dearth of writing about his music, so that William Melton’s remark about this being the first biography in English is no idle claim. With the centenary of Humperdinck’s death barely a year away, its issue could not have been more timely – were it less than a total success. Melton, whose research into and publication on the ‘lost generation’ of Romantic composers is considerable and ongoing, has left little to chance when bringing to light vital information which, while it may have been known to specialists, has lain dormant in archives on both sides of the Atlantic until the present. Its sifting and distillation enabled a deeper appreciation than seemed possible or, indeed, necessary – Humperdinck emerging as the pivotal figure in German music from the demise of Wagner to the emergence of Strauss.

Although he does not exclude musical examples or eschew analytical discussion, Melton’s is primarily a biographical study as surveys Humperdinck’s emergence – halting and thereafter effortful – from his Rhenish origins, via dogged studies then extensive journeying in France and Spain, to his unexpected involvement with the circle around Wagner; on whose Parsifal he left more than a passing impression. Staying on cordial terms with Cosima and Siegfried, his distancing from the ‘cult of Bayreuth’ says much for his unforced independence of spirit.
Melton is mindful not to divide Humperdinck’s career into a crude ‘before and after’ Hänsel scenario, even if those changes arguably inhibited his future development with the demands of teaching and other duties. Succeeding operas Dornröschen and Die Heirat wider Willen enjoyed no more than succès d’estime, with his wartime stage-works Die Marketenderin and Gaudeamus hampered from the outset by poor librettos. Most significant was Königskinder, evolving from an innovative yet impractical melodrama into a drama of no mean profundity, but initial success in New York and Europe was not sustained after the outbreak of war; its deeper subtleties even now insufficiently acknowledged. The composer thought it his greatest achievement, making the lack of a UK production for almost three decades more regrettable.

Throughout this study, Melton is an informed and reliable guide to those many incidents and intrigues that make Wilhelmine Germany so fascinating if dismaying an environment; over the course of which, Humperdinck’s life unfolds as though intent on shunning the limelight into which he had been thrust. His final decade makes for poignant reading as he battles the effects of a serious stroke, then endures the death of his wife along with various friends and colleagues. His last creative act was not musical but literary: an autobiographical fantasy, Die Zeitlose, where he finds himself transported back almost half a century to his hometown of Siegburg – experiencing with accrued wisdom the sights and persons of his formative years. His death soon after the onset of the Weimar Republic could not have seemed less relevant.

The book is rounded off by a full Catalogue of Works then an extensive Bibliography, with the numerous illustrations reproduced as part of the actual text rather than as separate plates. Three decades ago, Toccata Press put many in its debt with the first biography in English of George Enescu: if Humperdinck emerges as a less significant figure, this is hardly the fault of Melton who, in his brief yet pertinent Epilogue, describes the composer as ‘Not a Genius, but a Master’: the case for which is presented methodically and persuasively throughout his book.

Further information can be found here

Talking Heads: Erland Cooper

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Erland Cooper is very much a ‘glass half-full’ musician. If anything, the glass is often full to overflowing as he has kept busy with creative projects through lockdown, up to and including a chance to finally realise the Barbican show he had planned for June.

Although he resides a long way from his native Orkney, both on a physical and spiritual level, Cooper finds solace and inspiration in his Hoxton studio. “It’s been an absolute safe haven”, he says gratefully. “When lockdown was very acute, I would still come over at 6-7am, before anyone was up, and not meet a soul. It’s obviously a bit different now, but it’s just been great, and I’ve been able to get under the fingernails of a few projects that I would perhaps not have had time for before.”

His third album, Hether Blether – the concluding part of an Orcadian trilogy begun by Solan Goose and continued by Sule Skerry – was released at the end of May. This was just as it was dawning that the UK tour, scheduled for September, was going to become a casualty of the restrictions brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic. He remains philosophical, however. “Live performance isn’t the be all and end all for me, it’s part of the journey, and literally part of the transportation to Orkney, when you’re up and down the country – in the Barbican Hall for instance. At the end of last year it came into realisation that there is a whole new enjoyment to bringing to the audience a room, a space, a ferry that takes you up to the North Sea and back again. That became a real process, but I’ve forgotten about it to a point. We were starting to put that into place, but that tour wasn’t until September anyway. Live music takes a lot out of me, and I tend to put it to the back of my mind until I’m ready to give it everything, so I hadn’t thought about it a great deal.”

In terms of the record, Erland had already let it out into the wider world. “You know a record is truly done when I play it to my close friends”, he says. “That’s when I feel like something’s done, and finished, but it’s taking it that bit further when you actually give it out to the world, and all of a sudden it’s getting reviewed – good or bad, it doesn’t matter – and it’s getting listened to. I got a message from someone who said they were trying to introduce music to my daughters, and trying to get them to sleep, a little bit earlier. Every night, about 15 minutes before they go to bed, they play one of my records back to back, and they said it sets the tone but it also gets them asking questions about classical music and electronic music. I just thought, you couldn’t plan that! There’s nothing you could try and do to plan that. So it really feels finished when it goes out the door.”

As with Solan Goose (air) and Sule Skerry (water), Hether Blether (land) is a deeply personal piece of work. “It finds some of the themes that we’re all feeling here during lockdown – those of community, ‘alone’ spaces, the people we spend our time with. Those are all feelings that are very much in this final record for me, personally. It is certainly a zeitgeist of it feeling like a good time to reflect and think about transportation, real or imagined. In a nutshell it was definitely surreal, but I also felt like it was important to just get it out. That was a good thing. Like a gannet!”

We agree on the importance of new music at this time, a source of positive energy. “I’ve really been enjoying the new records from Ghostpoet and Nadine Shah”, he says, “along with some classical releases, and going back to things I perhaps hadn’t heard before – Peter Gregson’s work, for example – and just going into things. Everyday when I come into the studio I listen to a new record, whether it’s a score by Alex Somers, or Julianna Barwick. It’s a constant, it’s a great thing.”

He was careful to control the noise around Hether Blether’s release in light of the pandemic, and found new positives from the experience. “When I was thinking about promoting the album I thought it was important not to shout about it, and just to have a break for a month or so. I think that was absolutely the right thing to do, and that’s the only thing I probably would have changed about the behind the scenes process. I quite enjoyed looking at it in a different way. It has been a great time for music, hasn’t it?”

We move on to discuss a mutual love, the Wigmore Hall – and its success in streaming live concerts, giving an indication of the live music we all miss. “That hall is very important to me”, he gushes. “I can’t wait to go back. I should take a little hip flask the next time I’m back there. I’ll do it very respectfully!”

Talk turns to a much wider space, and the video accompanying Skreevar, second single from Hether Blether. In it, Cooper dashes along the street in Orkney before jumping, fully clothed, into the North Sea. “I had a lot of e-mails from people saying ‘did you jump?’ and I had to say, ‘Did you watch the video to the end? Do you think a wee record label can afford to fake that?!’ We did one take, and that was it! I don’t know if I told you but when we did it I ran up to the edge three times. The first time was to judge how long it would take, the second time was so that Alex (Kozobolis), who was videoing could test running behind me, bearing in mind he had to do that with a camera and not fall in the sea as well, and then the third time.”

The shoot created quite a stir. “A couple of days before we did it we had to plan the tide, so we had that right. When we were practicing we had to stop traffic several times, and then there was a whole group of local folk who effectively started to egg me on, and then a bunch of tourists who were shouting like this sort of thing happens every day! Then, this really young couple were on the peer to the left, and they were oblivious to what was happening. They sat down where George Mackay Brown and I like to sit and reflect, and they must have sat down to have their supper and a glass of wine or something, after the second take. They got the fright of their lives when this six foot three, gangly bloke in a nice jacket jumps off the peer! They were just like, what? That was a highlight. It was very cold by the way, it didn’t look like it but it was!”

Watching it from the seclusion of a locked down living room is strangely liberating. “It was a great memory. I was saying to the guys at the time, I did it when I was 16-25, I’ll do it again when I’m middle aged, and then again when I’m 70. I’m only doing it once though, to get it right! It was only about a metre deep, so you would have reached the bottom. I’ll tell you what though, I’ll never forget that as long as I live! How often can you say that to yourself, really truly? That was what it was for, to create an adult memory as strong as a childhood one.”

Erland has already performed at the Barbican in a sense this year, taking over the Centre’s Instagram page for a week and projecting films made by Alex Kozobolis to his own albums across the estate. “That was so interesting for me. I don’t know if you ever used to develop film, where you effectively learn the virtue of patience – even just posting it off to the chemist. You don’t know what 35-40 pictures you’re going to get back, and there’s something about projecting digital footage that had come all the way from Orkney onto something as iconic as the Barbican Brutalist architecture. It felt like a slow development of film, and I really enjoyed that. I felt that Margaret Tait, the Orcadian experimental film maker, would be proud of that. Using the technology we have now, a portable projector, we were reframing work done by hand as a reference for true escapism. I know the question has come up for a lot of people, asking themselves where they truly want to live in the future, because of how limiting it is living in the city.” The duo enjoyed their endeavours. “It was really good for Alex as well, he really enjoyed the process, and I got to enjoy the process of curating some of his photos of the Barbican which again was a joy.”

Lockdown has brought with it a deep appreciation of the natural world for many people, and this is a key element of Erland’s music and life. “I think noticing that everyday joy and magic from nature has been so prominent up until now because of less noise pollution. It shouldn’t take a pandemic for people to value the great outdoors, but I’m glad people are taking notice. I think it’s like anything in life, if you take away the liberty, that’s when you truly value it. It’s very sad really. I hope it’s a wake-up call, a consistent driver for people.”

He has remained in close contact with his home island. “It’s been lovely. My folks were down in England, believe it or not, on a very rare potential holiday to Spain. I really feel for them, because they don’t really go away that much, and they’re both now retired so were really looking forward to it. There’s something about that generation when the pandemic first hit which was quite cavalier, which very swiftly changed because they’re very intelligent people! We agreed that going back to Orkney made sense, and so they drove through the night and got to the ferry crossing just before they closed – it was the last one for the night and before they closed for lockdown!”

Now their existence is completely independent from the mainland. “My dad said that lockdown for them isn’t much different from daily life. They have a cup of tea with the sunrise, and go for a walk or two a day. For them it was really good to get home. I’ve become friends with a few other people posting on Instagram, and I’ve been drawn to them. I’ve found it a great joy. I have one friend who is a wonderful artist, she sent me a little Orkney rescue package, some food, pieces of fudge and bits of art. I must admit I ate everything the day it arrived! I feel very connected with it. Also, you know very well that these records that I have been making are ultimately a tool for someone who isn’t there, and would go off with their books and tape recorders, and take snippets back with them, to try and capture an essence of it.”

Cooper has a number of musical irons in the fire. “I am using a different approach for the ambient ‘sister’ to Hether Blether, for as you know there has been an ambient companion to each of the albums so far, Sea Change and Murmuration. The final record that will be a companion to Hether Blether is called Landform. I’ve shared my work with Marta Salogni, the Italian producer. She’s a great lover of analogue production and recording, using tape machines as an instrument, which I enjoy too. Instead of throwing ideas around I thought I might put into three folders, titled, air, sea and land, and just put sounds into them, a whole collection of tones out of Hether Blether, drop them into the three folders and say there you go. It’s a bit like pick a card, any card – pick a few, and then break up the elements of the final record. It is about the community but it pulls together elements from the first two albums as well, so just putting the tones into three folders and asking her to pick what she wants when she wants, at no pace, and no urgency. That’s something I’ve started. I also have something else which is quite ambitious, but I will say no more at this stage!”

It was perhaps inevitable that Cooper would be busy, given his work ethic. “I think when you give something away, I just have this hunger to keep exploring the things that excited me the most during the process of creating and honing in on that. You’ll probably get a sense of what I mean. It’s a culmination of learning, developing and writing wrapped up together, so I’m working on that. “

The calm of the studio is helping creativity. “It is, and I’m very fortunate to have it. The lockdown is the only time I’ve ventured into watching movies there. I tend to just work in the studio but I’ve had a few 18-19 hour days in there. It’s not just a working environment, sometimes it can become like a cinema! I tell myself that I can only watch a film in there if it has an exceptional score.”

Erland Cooper performs with members of the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Barbican on Saturday 10 October, with images and video content from Alex Kozobolis. The concert can be seen either in person or online, with tickets available from the Barbican website.

Talking Heads: Rick Wakeman (part 2)

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

For part two of Arcana’s extensive interview with keyboard royalty Rick Wakeman we pick up where we left off, by asking the celebrated musician for his plans, virus permitting of course, to tour his new album The Red Planet.

“We’re celebrating the Mars landing in Armenia next year; we’re going to do the whole of the Red Planet live. Brian May’s going to come along and join us. That’s the plan for next year, as long as COVID-19 is behaving itself. In terms of space-themed albums I’ve got No Earthly Connection, Out There, The Red Planet and 2000 AD into the future which are all based on space. There’s enough to do a weekend but then you’ve got to convince a promoter it’s a good idea.”

Other plans are afoot. “There is so much planned for next year!” he gushes. “We’ve got the event at the National Space Centre in Leicester. There are three missions on their way to Mars at the moment, and they’re due to arrive the end of February beginning of March. We’ve gone for Saturday 27 March, because that’s just before a series of five prog rock festival dates. We thought we would have the launch then because the mainstream press will be going Mars potty. We expect by then they will have discovered how much water there was. Another great rock and roll thing that they recently discovered was that when it rains on Mars, it rains dry ice! How rock and roll is that?!” It’s almost as though Rick was meant to do a gig there. “Well that’s it!”, he laughs.

Taking a step back, he considers the implications of what the missions might find. “There are a lot of scientists and astrophysicists who believe there is a true connection between Mars and Earth, and that in the next 100 years we may find out what that is. If there is reincarnation I hope I come back as someone who might know what it was. My grandchildren might even get to know some of this in their lifetime. You can only go so far when you’re talking to them until they ask if Peppa Pig lives there, so I’m well aware it might be a bit down the line before they cotton on to what Grandpa Grumpy, as they call me, is up to!”

Talk turns to Rick’s musical work during lockdown – with several projects affected by his distance from co-writers. “The Red Planet has taken up a lot of time. I have been working on some other projects too, including work on a musical with Sir Tim Rice. We had planned quite a lot of get-togethers over the last few months, but he ended up in lockdown in Cornwall and I was in Suffolk. The counties couldn’t be further apart really. We had a lot of discussions on the phone but there’s not a lot we can do when we’re not in the same room together. That’s on the burner going nicely, another musical that is all funded and ready to go. I’ve been working on a couple of other recording projects, and also planning stuff for next year working on the premise that it will happen. I’m an optimistic person, so I don’t listen to the gloom mongering on the news at the moment. You’ve got to feel sorry for the politicians, because virtually every scientist has a different view on it all, so it’s pick the one that suits your politics the best! It’s a total no-win situation. Then in true British fashion it’s how you can bend the rules – you can open pubs but not clubs, the social distancing doesn’t apply to Bournemouth or Brighton beach. What is going on?! Each of the four nations has got a different view on how it should be done! You don’t know whether to laugh or cry really. I’m just 71 and a grumpy old man.”

I confess to assuming Rick was much younger than the age he has just stated – certainly his demeanour on the phone suggests a youthful spirit that has been retained – but he confirms. “Yes, I am 71 and as grumpy as you like. Grumpy but enthusiastic!”

Happily, he still feels that his keyboard playing has the same technical prowess, but is wary of the ageing process. “I practice every day. I do suffer from minor rheumatism and arthritis in the hand, and I do know that the day will come when I can’t have the dexterity I have now. When I do the piano concerts my hands ache, so it’s hot and cold water in the sink afterwards. I know a good doctor, who said, ‘Look at it this way – most footballers, when they get to the age of 40, they have to have knee replacements or hip replacements. The reason for that is those parts of the body have been battered, used 100 more times than the average person. Think of your hands, they have probably played at least three hours a day, sometimes more. Your hands have probably done 1000 times more exercise than the average person, so they’re going to wear out!’ He said just to keep playing and practicing and doing what you can, and then you’ll know the day when they can’t. I have made provisions a bit for that. When it happens, with some of the bigger pieces I’ve got, if I put a good band around me it will take a lot of the pressure off.”

He is aware of the possible impact on solo piano concerts. “I can still perform the pieces, but I think the piano concerts would suffer first. I don’t ever want to get to the stage – and I discussed this with my good friend Jon Lord when he was still with us – where we go on stage and we are applauded for what we were. You should be applauded for what you are, not what you were. We shall see, I hope there’s a lot more left. We’re just moving into a new house and I’ve got the most stunning music room to work in, overlooking a river estuary. I’m still working on the principle that there’s a lot left in the old boy. I love what I do, I enjoy what I do, I would lie if I said sometimes I don’t get tired, but when I get tired I just stop.”

Staying at home has other symptoms, too. “The lockdown hasn’t helped my exercise, because I like my food and I’ve eaten too much. I’ve always had a yo-yo weight problem, I’m the West Bromwich Albion of weight – up one season, down the next. I’ve got to make a bit of an effort but my wife’s brilliant at that. I’ve got a great family as well, the kids have a go at me. Grandpa Grumpy will do what he’s told I suppose!”

Classical music is part of his daily diet. “I listen to quite a lot, and most of the stuff I’ve got in the car is classical. I’ve got a huge collection of CDs of classical stuff, and I love choral music. At the moment I’ve got a ton of Prokofiev in the car – I’ve got works for cello in there, The Love for Three Oranges too, which I really love. I’ve got various compilations of opera arias, which are great in the car because I can join in and nobody can hear me sing! I use the Del Boy Trotter thing where they won’t let you join in the concert so you might as well join in the car. In the office there were about 4,000 CDs, and about half of those would be classical, but they’re all in boxes and have gone down to the new house. It’s very much what’s floating around at the moment.”

We close by pondering the benefits of music to our daily lives. “It’s incredibly good for our health in every respect”, he says passionately. And with that, our time is up – an hour in the company of one of the most enthusiastic musical minds around. When the Mars missions reach their goal early next year, we can expect to hear a lot more of Rick Wakeman, and once his house move is complete, don’t be surprised if they inspire more music! For now, though, The Red Planet comes with a strong recommendation.

The Red Planet, by Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble, is available with several packages at his online shop

Talking Heads: Rick Wakeman

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Music and outer space are natural bedfellows. For more than one hundred years now, the imagination of composers has been fired by the cosmos, and Rick Wakeman is no exception.

The one-time Yes keyboard player has made no fewer than four solo albums looking beyond the Earth’s orbit, culminating in this year’s newest release, The Red Planet. Generous to a fault, he set aside an hour of his time to give Arcana a substantial interview to talk all things Mars, to look at the classical music that inspires him and to speak of the excitement of returning to progressive rock after two well-received solo piano albums.

Rick is answering the phone at home, settling down with coffee at an impressively early hour. He is in very good, conversational form, affable from the off. Firstly, and inevitably, we have to talk about the strange days in which we find ourselves. “I’m struggling with the lockdown, it’s driving me nuts!” he confesses. “There are no concerts, no theatres, no solutions. All the musicians I know are scratching their heads, and it doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. I’ve had every single tour and concert cancelled this year, and if one more person says to me, ‘It’s alright, you can reschedule for next year’, I’ll hit them! The truth of the matter is that it’s not rescheduling for next year, it’s what I would have done anyway. Everyone’s tearing their hair out. Someone I know tried a drive-in concert, and they said they might as well have sat in the driveway of their house with the radio on. The whole thing about concerts and theatres is the atmosphere, the people around you, the audience and those on stage – where all is one in a strange way.”

He pauses to take a sip of coffee. “I’ve seen some of the government guidelines that have come through about social distancing – which they’ve got wrong, by the way, it’s ‘unsocial distancing’. If you have the two metre rule, and you get 300 people into a theatre that holds 2,000 people, those 300 people will want to go to the loo. You put them two metres apart and it makes the queue 600 metres long. It’s just nuts. I’ve got so many friends involved with theatres and they just don’t know what to do. I do feel for the whole entertainment industry and for sport. They said it’s exciting football’s back – no it’s not! It’s like watching a practice match. The whole leisure part of life has been decimated by the Coronavirus, and I don’t know what the answer is. Are they going to have everyone three seats apart? I do know of a few married couples who would be very grateful to sit three seats apart! Unless there is some sort of immunity like the flu vaccine to give society a chance, and the virus mutates enough to weaken itself so it is no worse than a cold, that’s our only hope really. I think it’s going to take a long time before people have confidence again. But there you go, I’ve had my moan for the day! It affects everyone.”

With the decimation of the live schedule, did he consider not releasing the album? “No. The official release date was 21st August, but as you know with special editions and all that lark the pre-orders go out way before then. We worked so hard and for such a long time that we said let’s just go ahead.”

He is aware of the importance of new music to those spending so much time indoors currently. “It’s interesting you say that, because we have had a lot of people say the same thing. With the so-called online concerts, the novelty wore off pretty quickly, with the quarter size screen phone concerts. People realised it wasn’t the real thing. With new music you can still get it. I personally am very glad that we just managed to finish recording before all of this hit, because it does put some new music out there. OK, it’s not in the ideal scenario, but what is that these days? We felt justified because thankfully – touch wood – the reviews have been really good all around the world. What’s interesting is the hardcore prog rockers, who are brutally honest about what they like and don’t like – it has been heart warming to see them say they like it, which makes it even more worthwhile.”

The Red Planet was recorded with a carefully assembled band, the English Rock Ensemble, and listening to the music gives a clear idea of the fun had while making it. “It was a lot of fun”, says Wakeman, “because all the pieces of the jigsaw were the right pieces. I’d been looking for a concept for a long time, and it has to come to you – you can’t go out and find it. This idea came from a friend Garik Israelian, who is an astrophysicist, a complete rocket scientist. You can’t talk to them about football or the weather; they just look at you blankly. He’s a lovely guy, and I was introduced to him by Brian May, who also introduced me to Stephen Hawking, both good friends. They run a festival called Starmus, which is a festival where all the world’s greatest astrophysicists, loads of astronauts and people from NASA give lectures for a week which are pretty amazing.”

There is a musical element to their week. “To finish, they always have a concert. Brian’s done it a few times, of course, and I’ve done it. We did it last year in Zurich, and it was the 50th anniversary of man walking on the moon. I was performing with Hans Zimmer, Brian May and Steve Vai, a massive symphony orchestra and choir. They don’t do anything by halves, and at the end of it we played We Are The Champions, and every surviving astronaut who has walked on the moon walked on the stage. I’ve heard ovations at stadiums and concerts when bands have walked on; I’ve never heard anything quite like when those astronauts walked on, led by Buzz Aldrin. We were loud, but we were drowned out!”

He returns to the concept behind The Red Planet. “A couple of years before that, Garik mentioned to me that 2021 would be the 50th anniversary of man arriving at Mars (seen above, in a global mosaic of 102 Viking 1 Orbiter images of Mars taken on orbit 1,334, 22 February 1980). He said, ‘It does look like your old friend David Bowie was right, there was life on Mars. A few billion years ago there were oceans and rivers. It didn’t have the atmosphere we’ve got but the new pictures, which will all be available online in a year or so, are phenomenal’. I went very quiet, and said, ‘You’ve just given me the concept I’ve been searching for.’ That’s when it all started. When I say it was hundreds and hundreds of photos, it really was, and I got those sent to me from my friends at NASA. I read up as much as I could and started picking out some of the great areas that are on there, and kept looking at them when I was sat by the piano”.

The inspiration flowed. “When I was looking at something and a musical idea appeared, I wrote it down. I built up a whole batch of musical ideas on the piano which I started putting into order. Then I started discussing with my co-producer Eric Jordan about the different sounds we were going to use. A few people had said to me, ‘You really should look at some of the classic proggy sounds that you used to use, but only used once.’ So I did! For example I went back over my No Earthly Connection album, and there were some mellotron flutes that I used as a lead instrument, but have never done since then. I wondered why that happened, because it worked so well! I looked at the various sounds that we wanted to use, and picked the three musicians I knew would understand what I wanted.”

The selection process was guided by the thoughts of his old friend. “David Bowie said to me, way back in 1971, to always pick musicians who will understand what you want. They could be the greatest musicians in the world but if they don’t understand what you’re trying to achieve, you’re not going to achieve it. I rate Lee Pomeroy as the greatest bass player in Europe if not the world at the moment, he is a phenomenal player, and understands prog probably better than any progger living. He is a lovely guy. Dave Colquhoun is a phenomenal guitarist who does not get the recognition he deserves. He is one of Brian May’s favourite players. Ash Soan, the drummer, came out and did a concert with me in Cuba. I couldn’t get over how technically clever he was, he reminded me so much of someone in the Bill Bruford mould. I contacted all three of them and they all just said yep, we get this.”

Wakeman’s enthusiasm is infectious. “The reason it sounds like we had a lot of fun is because we did! Everybody was on the same page, and nobody was frightened to say anything. We threw things backwards and forwards, and Lee or Dave would say have you ever thought about making that section longer, because we could build this or that. I’d have Eric my producer on another side, and he could be brutal at times! I would do a solo and I’d come in and go, ‘Yeah, that was good’, and he’d say, ‘I don’t think so, but if you’re happy!’ So I’d go ‘Yeah, alright, what’s the matter?’ ‘I think you’ve got a better one in you’, he would say, ‘but we won’t do it now, we can come back to it in half an hour.’ I’d go out and do something fresh and then come back to it, and it would be, ‘There you go’. To be fair 90% of the time he was right, and that was the great thing as well, that everybody was in on it.”

The collaborative spirit spread to the artwork. “We wanted to discuss that when we started the album, which is what we used to do in the 1970s. The cover was so, so important. The idea came up about a pop-up, and we thought that was great, let’s have a pop-up! They wanted a picture of me on the front but I said no, put a spaceman if you like. They said that won’t show him doing anything musically, and I said it would if he was playing a mini-Moog! It was all this kind of discussion. The only thing on the next pressing was that a lot of people commented we would really like to have a list of all the equipment that was used. We took that on board, and the next pressings, which won’t be far away now, will have all that information. So we do listen as well!”

While The Red Planet will impress with its power and poise, it also leaves a mark thanks to compositions such as Arsia Mons (above), where the textures are stripped back and the band create evocative pictures. These moments show a subtlety rarely attributed to the genre. “You’re right”, agrees Wakeman, “prog doesn’t get all the credit it deserves with things like that. I think one of the reasons for that is prog started with vinyl, as you know. I’m a vinyl nut. One of the things it has is surface noise, and it’s one of the reasons that certain classical recordings struggled with vinyl, because if you had a very quiet flute section for example, suddenly the surface noise became very apparent, because it was amplified the same as everything else. Quiet pieces on prog records were very difficult because of that.”

Efforts were made to reduce the volume, but to little avail. “With Yes, we had a few places where we tried to be as quiet as possible, but what ended up happening was that in the quiet sections the instruments were brought up to quite a high volume, so you didn’t get that atmospheric background. It was the same for classical music. If you listen to the opening of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony on vinyl, it’s so quiet all you here is a hissing noise! The moment CDs appeared, that all changed. Suddenly you could have a pin dropping and it would be as clear as anything. That was something we discussed, Eric and I, that we could make use of atmospherics knowing that it would be clear and wouldn’t have anything disturbing them. On the album, some of the atmospheric areas ended up being longer than I had originally written because of that, and that was very much where the lads said ‘that could be a bit longer, we don’t feel we’ve settled into that enough’. It was a mixture of old sounds and old things, bringing them into the 21st century and using the new technology to make them the best they could be.”

Rick Wakeman in the 1970s (from the Rick Wakeman’s Place website)

Talk of crackly records brings back a personal memory of my own, that of the opening of Mars from Holst’s suite The Planets – very much emerging from the depths. The Red Planet’s last track, Valles Marineris, has a complicated time signature that draws a parallel with Mars. Was that something Wakeman wanted to pay tribute to? “Not musically. I deliberately didn’t nick anything from Holst, but certainly it is a very powerful piece of music, and one of the things about Valles Marineris (below) is that if you go online and look at it, it’s huge! It goes on forever. I found one thing which was like a drone flying all over it and through it, and it’s just really mesmerising.”

Wakeman wanted to recreate this in musical form. “What I really wanted was to have something powerful, something that ran all the way through it in a strange way. It started as a form of Bolero, a very weird time signature, and it is weird how it changes all the time. Then I was building things on it but the underlying line was always there. When we did the recording we built it from the bottom up, and it was very important that we didn’t lose that. Sometimes it almost disappears, but it is there. When you look at the pictures online and in books, certain things catch your eye, and I wanted little bits that came in and out that would be eye-catching things, like a little melodic thing which is like, what’s that over there? It was meant to be a trip in the valley, and certainly I think Holst, considering he had no pictures of the planet, he didn’t have anything that I had, what he did with The Planets suite was nothing short of magnificent. He had no idea they were blue or red planets, he had so little to work with, and yet he captured it.”

This leads us on to other musical depictions of the great beyond. Rick himself has another three albums on the subject, which he considers. “I did an album called Out There which I enjoyed. It was sort of a concept but nothing like this. It came about when filming a concert, very seriously out the front someone said to me ‘where does music come from?’ You can’t hold it or touch it, but you can feel it inside, so where does a piece of music come from? You can’t dig it up in the garden so how does it come to you? I said that’s brilliant! And they said well give us the answer! I said can I go away and work on it? So I worked on it for quite a long time, the idea that perhaps everything came from space, which is enormous. It finished that it all came from space and filled out, and a bit like radio waves – you can’t hear Radio 4 or Planet Rock unless you tune your receiver in to get it. So maybe all this stuff is flying down, and if they just happen to be tuned in to receive it they get it. I worked on that principle, and I think it was my wife that said that’s great, but if it’s falling down from all the galaxies and that, where is it out there in the first place? I thought oh, great, here we go. So I came up with a thing called the great musical cathedral in the sky, that was firing this out all of the time.”

Unfortunately Out There, released in 2003, suffered from its juxtaposition to a terrible tragedy. “I really liked the album”, he says, “but we never promoted it for the simple reason that when I finished it, literally the day I finished it, there was the terrible disaster with the Columbia shuttle. I knew three of the astronauts on it. I changed the cover and did a tribute to them, but I didn’t do any promotion because I didn’t want anyone to think we were trying to promote it on the back of such an awful disaster. I got permission from the families to do it but the album to put it bluntly disappeared without trace. That for me was a shame because it was an interesting story.”

Another space odyssey, No Earthly Connection, was released in 1976. “I would like one day to do a two-day event where we play all the stuff from space”, he says. “I’ve made about four albums based on space now. It would be great to do them all, but I’m not sure if it would have much appeal or if any promoter would back it.”

Part two of this interview can be found here, with Rick discussing touring plans for The Red Planet, along with some of the classical music he has been enjoying during lockdown.