Vanessa Wagner – Expanding the piano

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We’ve already spoken to Murcof about his collaboration with pianist Vanessa Wagner – and now it’s time for her side of the story. She describes how she found classical music and how her meeting with Murcof opened up all sorts of electronic possibilities. Here they are on their work together:

Vanessa, can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

My parents were not listening to a lot of classical music. They were rather into jazz and the French chanson. Then one day, the piano of my great-grandmother came home, and I started to play. My childhood idol was a wonderful Romanian pianist named Clara Haskil, far away from the glamour girls are usually dreaming of! She is still an artist that I love.

Who are the composers you have grown to particularly admire?

I grew up with the music of Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Brahms and Janáček, who are still my favourites, Schubert especially. His melancholy, and the time stretched in his music touches me enormously. Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise are pieces that never leave me.

What was it that appealed to you about working with Murcof?

I was the one to initiate this encounter. I have listened to his music for a long time. I met him at the workshop of the Infiné label, and we made an improvised test. Then I had the chance to have a residency in a room of the Arsenal of Metz. They gave me carte blanche to develop new projects, I invited Murcof to play with me, and Statea was born.

How did you make sure you got a good balance between the piano and the electronics?

I always asked Murcof to pay attention to the acoustic piano sound. The piano is the starting point of this project, and it was important that the electronic effects do not swallow its sound even if it is sometimes distorted. Similarly, it also seemed very important to stay true to the scores of composers that I interpret. That’s why the album is called Statea, which means balance in ancient Italian.

Had you listened to much electronic music prior to working with him?

I have listened to electronic music for 20 years. At that time, in my classical circles, it was frowned upon. I had never heard of the big techno anthems, and I went right back to ambient/IDM artists – the likes of Autechre, Aphex Twin, Model 500, Maurizio, UR etc.

Do you think there are other albums or pieces of music that bring classical and electronic together well?

Max Richter´s Four Seasons of Vivaldi works pretty well. Brian Eno also has a beautiful piece called Fullness of Wind, taking its lead from Pachelbel.

Do you think classical and electronic music have a lot more in common than one would expect?

I think meetings of the two styles are quite possible, if one avoids falling into the mainstream that we call crossover classical. The approach focuses on the sound result. We must respect the original script. Adding a beat onto a piece of Mozart or Beethoven cannot be a creative artistic process in itself.

Moreover, music known as ‘contemporary classical’ and art music has a lot in common with experimental electronic. Bridges are possible and desirable between these universes.

Has working with electronic music helped your appreciation of classical?

This does not specifically help me in my classical interpretation. What I greatly appreciate is to exercise out of my classical world, to transform the sound of my instrument, and to experience concerts differently, giving a new fresh perspective to my daily occupation of being a pianist.

For me, it is an interior window that opened itself, and I strongly hope that this is new cornerstone in the musical world which will contribute to the opening of minds and ears!

If you could recommend one piece of classical music to Arcana readers that you’ve been listening to recently, what would it be and why?

I would recommend listening to the Goldberg Variations of Bach (Glenn Gould, for example), the Death and the Maiden String Quartet by Schubert, or Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt, especially the second movement Silentium.

Statea, by Murcof and Vanessa Wagner, is out now on Infiné. The pair will appear at the Barbican on Monday 31 October as part of a bill including pianist Lubomyr Melnyk. Tickets can be purchased from the Barbican website. Vanessa will also be giving her thoughts on classical music to Arcana shortly!

Murcof – bringing classical and electronic music together

murcof

Murcof is Mexican musician Fernando Corona, an artist who integrates classical and electronic music. Working with pianist Vanessa Wagner he has recently released the Statea album, an ambient piece of work that takes its source material from John Cage and Erik Satie amongst others. Here he talks to Arcana about his love of classical music, and how the two forms harmonise together. But first, here’s an introduction to their album together:

Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

It was a long time ago when I was a kid, and it comes from the side of my father in the family. It was an album of Wendy Carlos playing Bach in the late 1970s, I think. He also did some electronic / analogue synthesizer interpretations of Bach’s music, and so that was the first proper marriage of electronic and classical that I heard. I developed an interest in both, and I became much more familiar with 20th century music from composers like Stravinsky, the Schoenberg school, Xenakis, Ligeti and all the people up to Arvo Pärt, Silvestrov and the minimalists. Classical music has been with me all this time from my childhood and this album is a logical place to go because of that.

How did you get to work with Vanessa?

I met her before we started making music, through her husband Alexandre Cazac. He is director of the Infiné label, and I have been friends with him for many years. We’ve worked together, and in that time he has been very supportive. It wasn’t until a week-long workshop that we did a small arrangement together however. We were playing the same night, and Vanessa was the first one on, then me, so we interlinked the two. Statea has been a work in progress since 2010.

In that time we only did 20 or 30 concerts together, so it is still a fresh collaboration, and now with the album done we are adapting it for the stage. Many things have changed, and we have started from scratch again with some of the pieces, but we have always respected what we are doing.

For our Satie work (Gnossienne no.3) the piano sounds have a lot of analogue processes, where we have brought the piano audio signal into the modular system, before messing around with ring modulation, filtering, and experimenting with the possibilities. The piece is not too long, but I recorded around 45 minutes of messing around and cut the most important and interesting bits to fit the final track.

The album is called ‘Statea’. Is that because you achieve the ideal balance between classical and electronic music?

It’s because to make an album is sometimes the hardest part. It was open enough, it wasn’t going to encapsulate us in a direct way, a literal way, but we talked about a good balance between acoustic and digital. You can listen to the piece as one whole, not just the acoustic and not just the digital but something that works together. That is one of the things I am looking for, not getting lost in the sounds and what I have to say. That’s the reason for the name. We were initially going to use the Latin but Alexandre suggested the old Italian way.

Sometimes when classical and electronic music meet the results are a bit cheesy, but there is a very deep emotion to what you do.

That’s good to know, it’s a process and a matter of deciding what works and what doesn’t. It’s telling a story, and each sound needs a reason for existing. Vanessa and I were working together for a common goal. Most of these compositions are well known, and people have an idea about them, but even if it’s an abstract message it’s still there. You can enhance it or steer it off somewhere else.

With Satie, yeah, we wanted to see him a new light, especially as it’s one of the pieces that is most famous. It was tricky to work with it because of what you just said. We wanted to try and prepare a fresh view of the piece, to justify Vanessa and I working on it to contribute something new.

Is your approach in some way similar to that of Satie, a kind of ‘less is more’ viewpoint?

In a way, though I do find it quite a challenge to say when a track is done. I take that step very seriously, and I don’t like to overdo or underdo things. When a piece is finished it is when I have explored so many possibilities! Then I choose the best one, polish it and finish it.

Do you intend to continue working with classical music in this way?

Yeah. There are many things that can be done with classical music, and there are many approaches I would like to try. I would say ‘watch this space’, with compositions old and new. The acoustic instruments are so rich, and it is wonderful to work with them electronically and to open a can of worms with some of the weird harmonics that are peculiar to those instruments.

It has been a really strong emotional passage for me since our early ages, it is a big part of me on a personal level, and it is a natural situation for me to work with it.

You have a very fine ear for orchestration. Have you ever written for a full orchestra?

Yes. I did a small interaction with Jean-Paul Dessy, from Belgium, who is a composer and a director. Musiques Nouvelles is the name of his ensemble, and they adapted a piece of mine for orchestra. I have been sitting with this idea for a long time, and I would love to sit down with a composer / director who is open to the idea. It would be a bit stressful for sure but would be a lot of fun as well.

What does classical music mean to you?

For me personally each kind of music is a whole avenue of expression – classical, jazz and electronic with its many subgenres. Classical is long standing for so many centuries, and for me it is about always keeping with acoustic instruments – the more conservative music.

Classical music is a combination of centuries of studying, developing, trial and error of previous work. It is an emotional world but also a very strict one. The core essence is the compositions, but you need trained interpreters to play it. Because of that it can be stressful and competitive, but I think it is worthwhile to have highly trained interpreters so that we can enjoy the music of the past, from the Baroque to the 20th century twelve-tone music of Schoenberg and his school.

It is always this though – highly emotional and direct. In my case I formed an instant connection with it and because of that I have always found it very emotional.

If you could recommend one piece of classical music to Arcana readers that you’ve been listening to recently, what would it be and why?

I always go to one of my favourite composers of late, Valentin Silvestrov, a composer from the Ukraine. His latest work is amazing and I often go back to his Requiem, written for his wife. One small section of it is also part of a series of songs for piano and voice, but he also did a version for choir and orchestra. It is not a new piece but it is the one that comes to mind right now.

Statea, by Murcof and Vanessa Wagner, is out now on Infiné. The pair will appear at the Barbican on Monday 31 October as part of a bill including pianist Lubomyr Melnyk. Tickets can be purchased from the Barbican website. Vanessa will also be giving her thoughts on classical music to Arcana shortly!

BBC Proms 2016 – Håkan Hardenberger and HK Gruber perform Kurt Weill & Kurt Schwertsik at Cadogan Hall

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), HK Gruber (chansonnier, above), Helen Crayford (piano), Mats Bergström (banjo & guitar), Claudia Buder (accordion), Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Broström Sputnik (2015)

Lundgren arr. Pöntinen The Seagull (2007)

Weill Speak Low (arr. Pöntinen) (1943); Songs from The Threepenny Opera (1928); Der Song von Mandelay (1929); Song of the Rhineland (1944)

Schwertsik Adieu Satie – Gymopédie; Clownerie acrobatique (2002, arr. 2010)

HK Gruber 3 MOB Pieces (1968, rev.1977)

Brahms arr. Broström Hungarian Dance no.6 (1869 / 2016)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 8 August 2016

Listen to this concert on the BBC iPlayer

After A Satie Cabaret the BBC Proms chamber music series at Cadogan Hall continued in mischievous mood, this time bringing Kurt Weill and his associates centre stage. In doing so they managed to include another tribute to Satie, courtesy of Kurt Schwertsik, a member of the unofficial Third Viennese School with composers Friedrich Cerha and HK Gruber.

The three were responsible for the creation of MOB-art, in Gruber’s words ‘a celebration of enjoyment and invention’. The approach, enjoying tonal music but pushing boundaries and frequently encroaching on jazz and musical genres, was explored here by Gruber with good friends and long-time musical collaborators, trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger and Swedish composer Tobias Bröstrom.

As well as being a composer of some repute Gruber is an excellent conductor and vocalist into the bargain, and with Hardenberger he brought Weill’s music fair off the page, not to mention the words of his collaborators, Brecht and Ira Gershwin.

The concert began with Broström and a celebration of space travel, Sputnik. This completed one bumpy orbit of the Cadogan Hall, a lively and enjoyably syncopated curtain raiser. After this Jan Lundgren’s The Seagull was a mournful companion, beautifully observed by the muted trumpet.

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Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)

Neither principal performer could stay quiet for long however, and we swiftly moved to the music of Weill. This was in the form of an attractive selection that showed not just the importance of the trumpet in the composer’s work, but also his chemistry with the acerbic wit and poignant observations in the text of Bertolt Brecht. These were given out by Hardenberger himself, revealing unexpected gifts for vocalising in Song of the Insufficiency of Human Behaviour, but also HK Gruber, surely without parallel in this music. There was a glint in his eye as he characterised the selections from The Threepenny Opera, One Touch of Venus, Happy End and Where Do We Go From Here?

They were superbly accompanied by accordionist Claudia Buder and Mats Bergström on guitar and banjo, both stylish players, while pianist Helen Crayford enjoyed the colourful harmonies and spiky rhythms. The string players of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields supplied extra body and impetus, clearly enjoying themselves.

After the Weill came two movements from Schwertsik’s suite Adieu Satie. The first of these was a lovely piece of expanded pastiche in the form of a Gymnopédie, led by Buder and supplemented by the strings, before the irreverent Clownerie acrobatique took enjoyable liberties with syncopations and melodic figures.

This led us to Gruber’s flagship work, the 3 MOB Pieces, where chamber ensemble and drum kit team up neatly with humour and touching asides. Composer Broström was now required to play drums, and did so with aplomb.

Finally all the performers were united for Broström’s mischievous but rather brilliant arrangement of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance no.6, which called on Hardenberger to play at dizzying speed – and found him unexpectedly overshooting his final note. If anything this added to the enjoyment, for it was an occasion where spirit and humour were to the fore, with the distinctive colours of accordion, banjo and piano adding to the already ebullient strings.

The BBC Proms have delivered several imaginative chamber concerts this year, and this one was an excellent introduction to the music and world of HK Gruber ahead of a performance of Busking in Prom 34, where Buder, Bergström, Hardenberger and Gruber will once again join forces.

Ben Hogwood

BBC Proms 2016 – A Satie Cabaret with Alistair McGowan

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Alistair McGowan as Erik Satie, BBC Proms 2016 (c) Chris Christodoulou

A Satie Cabaret, Cadogan Hall, Monday 1 August 2016

Who was Erik Satie?

Or, come to think of it, who is Alistair McGowan?

Clues to the answers of both questions were on hand at this stimulating Proms Chamber Music concert, where the ‘bright, airy interior’ of Cadogan Hall, celebrated as such by Proms director David Pickard, became dark as night for an hour, the curtains drawn so we could enjoy A Satie Cabaret.

Listen to A Satie Cabaret on the BBC iPlayer

McGowan has already presented a concert in similar form this year, for Satie is one of his obsessions – and it is 150 years since the birth of the composer. Ever the arch impressionist (not in a French sense!) McGowan took on Satie’s character, dressed in a trademark suit and bowler hat, even managing to grow the composer’s facial hair – or at least don a very convincing disguise!

He chose a set of autobiographical readings that captured the French composer’s irreverence, his unique approach to making music and his oblique sense of humour, one that could often have you scratching your head in wonder after the laughs had died away.

Providing the musical entertainment – with some laughs, too – were pianist Alexandre Tharaud and tenor Jean Delescluse. Their mix of piano music and song was very well chosen. In the ambient balm of his piano writing we saw how Satie used simplicity in a very original way, and how he has gone on to influence generations of disciples, Ludovico Einaudi and Michael Nyman two obvious recent examples.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04388h5/player

The songs were much less inhibited, with the riotous Allons-y Chochotte (Let’s do it, Chochotte) bringing the house down near the end. We also had brief illustrations of ‘furniture music’ from Tharaud – music for solicitors to listen to, for instance! – which found Satie a century ahead of his time, predicting the environment where we would be treated to music on hold or in a dentists’ waiting room.

McGowan was funny but also completely respectful, and was the first to appreciate Tharaud’s control and beauty of tone, as well as Delescluse’s brilliant send-ups of songs like La diva de l’Empire (The Diva of the Empire) and La grenouille américaine (The American Frog).

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In all this was a highly entertaining hour, given in a spirit the composer would surely have enjoyed. Would that he knew his influence has been so far reaching – and even now is not fully appreciated.

Ben Hogwood

What’s coming up on Arcana in 2016?

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Caricature du Maître d’Arcueil, Erik Satie

A question. What do Janet Jackson, Steve Hackett, Gary Numan and Cesar dog food have in common?

I’ll let you ponder the answer while setting out what Arcana has planned for some of 2016! We’ve already wished you a happy new year but having survived the first week back this is a great chance to let you know what we have planned for the year ahead.

We plan to make much more of the links between classical and pop music this year – so you can expect further episodes of The Borrowers (which already includes Manfred Mann, Plan B, Village People and Greg Lake), interviews with artists who like to work in both areas of music, and reviews of albums that appeal to both sides.

These will include the forthcoming James Holden and Luke Abbott album, a homage to Terry Riley – and we might even delve into the daunting prospect of Rick Wakeman and Alice Cooper celebrating the 40th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, with large orchestra in tow! There is so much variety and depth in this area to explore. We also hope to hear from the artists themselves, whether electronic, prog, jazz or ‘other’.

shining

Arcana will also be training the spotlight on two composers who have been a big influence on pop music, albeit in very different ways. 2016 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Erik Satie, and we will explore his influence on pop music from several directions. A good contrast to Satie’s music can be found in the work of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók – famously used by Stanley Kubrick in part of The Shining (above). Arcana aims to show the breadth of his writing, as well as illustrating how rock music can be said to trace back through his work. Kicking off, Richard Whitehouse will be covering James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong playing Bartók in a concert from the Wigmore Hall tonight.

All that and the usual concert and new recording reviews…showing there is an awful lot to enjoy musically this year. Please do stick around for the ride! And the answer to the question? They’ve all used the music of Erik Satie! We’ll tell you how in due course…but for now we will leave you with his most popular piece: