London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Genesis Suite & Bartók Concerto for Orchestra

Simon Callow, Rodney Earl Clarke, Sara Kestelman, Helen McCrory (narrators), Gerard McBurney (creative director), Mike Tutaj (projection design), London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

Various composers The Genesis Suite (1945)
Bartók Concerto for Orchestra (1943)

Barbican Hall, London; Saturday 13 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

Collaboration in classical music is rare. Pop music is full of it – many of the best songs and albums are co-written – but for composers to work together on a single work is nigh on unthinkable. Full marks, then, to Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra for reminding us of an instance when that did in fact happen – no fewer than SEVEN classical composers coming together in 1945, at the end of World War II, to write the Genesis Suite. The project was held together by Nathanial Shilkret, masterminding the project from Hollywood.

The Suite, of course, has nothing to do with the rock band. Yet it is fully progressive, telling the story of the first book of the Bible from creation through to the construction of the Tower of Babylon in the space of an hour, working its way from Schoenberg to Stravinsky via Shilkret himself, Alexandre Tansman, Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Ernst Toch.

Rattle and creative director Gerard McBurney collaborated on a series of moving images and audio clips to put the Genesis Suite in modern perspective. These were thought provoking and occasionally daring. The story of Cain and Abel (with surprisingly upbeat music from Milhaud) was played out to a Middle Eastern backdrop, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were prominent during the story of The Flood (Noah and the Ark), while the construction of the Shard against Stravinsky’s music for Babel was a powerful allegory.

Unfortunately the music was overshadowed somewhat by the wordy text, taken directly from the King James Bible, and read as written. Nor was it helped by a lack of ensemble between the starry quartet of narrators. Simon Callow and Helen McCrory stood far left, Sara Kestelman and Rodney Earl Clarke far right – which meant for the audience it was a strain to hear two of the four speakers unless sat directly in the middle, despite the amplification. Some speakers were better versed than others in their delivery, too – and maybe because of my own seated position Kestelman and Clarke appeared to have greater emotional involvement.

The London Symphony Chorus, however, were as one in their powerful contributions, dressed in white to maximise their dramatic delivery. When the men came out into the stalls for the Stravinsky finale the Suite’s tension between creation and what man has done with it reached its ultimate, tense conclusion.

Musically the Suite was inconsistent. Schoenberg’s Prelude stood out for inventive orchestration and far reaching harmonic language, while in a dramatic sense Toch’s dramatic setting of The Rainbow (The Covenant) was a notable high. Creation itself, Shilkret’s contribution, felt hurried, the seven days of creation crammed into ten minutes.

Despite these reservations Genesis Suite made a lasting impression, especially following Rattle’s assertion that all composers except one wrote in exile. After the interval another such composer, the Hungarian Béla Bartók writing in America in 1943, was to light up the concert.

It is very easy to take the LSO’s virtuosity for granted, but in a performance like this they shone from every corner. Rattle challenged them to dig deep technically and emotionally and they delivered on every level, particularly in the work’s deeply felt heart, the Elegia. Rattle and McBurney opted to continue with images, which were slow moving or static this time, depicting the forests Bartók looked on during composition. However the gauze on which the images were shown did on occasion muffle the projection of the brass musicians sat under or behind the screen.

Ultimately this did not spoil a terrific performance, where sinewy strings and percussive outbursts were complemented by outstanding, colourful woodwind playing. The first of the two scherzos brought this out, with pairs of bassoons, flutes, clarinets and oboes outstanding in their delivery, balanced by the trumpets. The finale danced energetically, bathed in a luminous glow which proceeded to leave its spell on the audience.

Further listening

You can see Sir Simon Rattle talking about the Genesis Suite below:

The music from this concert, including Rattle’s own recording of the Concerto for Orchestra, can be heard on this Spotify playlist:

Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival Ensemble – Stravinsky, Ustvolskaya & Shostakovich

Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival Ensemble: Elena Bashkirova (piano, above), Marina Prudenskaya (soprano), Pascal Moragués (clarinet), Sergej Krylov (violin), Alexander Knyazev (cello)

Stravinsky Suite from The Soldier’s Tale (for violin, clarinet and piano) (1918-19)
Ustvolskaya Piano Sonata no.5
Shostakovich Seven Poems of Alexander Blok, Op.127 (1967)
Ustvolskaya Trio for clarinet, violin and piano (1849)
Shostakovich Piano Trio no.2 in E minor Op.67 (1944)

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 14 December 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

Pianist Elena Bashkirova founded the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival in 1998, and this celebration at the Wigmore Hall was part of a desire to continually expand the festival beyond Israel’s borders. Here we had a well-conceived program of Russian music, if a little unremitting in its darkly coloured focus.

It was especially gratifying to see the prominence given to Galina Ustvolskaya’s music. A pupil of Shostakovich, she has a small but potent legacy of works, which show a style already thinking well ahead of its time. In the first half of the concert we heard the Piano Sonata no.5, a remarkably concentrated piece of music lasting only half the 20 minutes it does on record. The suspicion was that Bashkirova did not follow some of the instructed repeats, or that her performance was simply much faster than those before it. Either way it left a powerful imprint, its refusal to budge from a central Db anchoring the music becoming a really strong musical device in spite of all the activity around it.

Arguably even more accomplished was the Trio for clarinet, violin and piano with which the concert’s second half began. This too left a lasting impression, thanks largely to the sensitivity with which Pascal Moragués and Sergej Krylov played the quiet music, and to the probing and penetrating tone of Bashkirova’s right hand. As Paul Griffiths’ booklet note pointed out, this music sounds more like late Shostakovich – but its composition date of 1949 shows just how originally Ustvolskaya was thinking.

From Shostakovich we heard two works, the late Seven Poems of Alexander Blok, Op.127, and the Piano Trio no.2 in E minor, Op.67. Both are hugely effective concert pieces, but it was the Blok poems that cut to the core at the end of the first half. Soprano Marina Prudenskaya, a late stand-in for Anna Samuil, got right to the heart of Blok’s verse, nowhere more so than in the savage destruction of Burya (The Storm). From this a wispy cello line emerged, Alexander Knyazev responding with a moving plaintive tone, after which the trio joined for the first time in accompanying Prudenskaya for the final song. It capped a tightly structured performance, the string players finding just the right tone if not always the exact intonation, while Bashkirova’s piano probed the lower reaches of the bass sound.

This was also the case in the Second Trio, which was occasionally a bit unkempt technically but which unerringly found the heart and focus of Shostakovich’s music. From the ghostly harmonics at the start, Krylov and Knyazev were clearly on the same emotional page, and with Bashkirova the three players achieved an impressive variety of volume and colour. Shostakovich’s powerplay scherzo and middle of the last movement were incredibly strong and lasting statements, but as ever with his music the greater meaning could be found in the moments of intimacy where the listener can hear a pin drop. The last movement thus became the focus of attention, music of sorrow, paranoia and anger – with just a little respite at the end.

The evening began with Stravinsky’s suite from A Soldier’s Tale, distilled into short movements for clarinet, violin and piano. Melodic and spiky, this performance was enjoyable and included just the right amount of humour, before taking a darker turn for the final Triumphal March of the Devil, where Krylov took over.

An excellent and thought provoking concert, particularly in the light of the various programmes marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution this year.

You can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below:

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Steve Hodges on the Philharmonia Orchestra playing John Adams

Arcana returns to the BBC Proms in the company of friends – and for our second visit this season we are dipping into one of the festival’s themes, the music of John Adams. Offering his thoughts was Steve Hodges (above)

Marianna Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen

J.S. Bach arr. Stravinsky Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her (1956)

Ravel Shéhérazade (1904)

Adams Naive and Sentimental Music (1999)

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Steve, what was your musical upbringing?

Personally, I would say it was broad. It started with The Beatles, The Monkees and The Rolling Stones. I grew up through the 1970s and enjoyed glam, and Sparks, and Elton John. Then after meeting people who had some really broad taste, I lapped up everything through electronica, David Bowie and punk.

I’ve gone on from there really, and gone sideways as much as I possibly could. I like to reflect on music and on what was going on at the time, socially, and what it actually represents. I think that’s an important factor about music. I really enjoyed the punk ideals that said anybody could do it, it made a new wave of music that was enormously important. Just because people could make a record didn’t mean they necessarily should, because some of them were awful, but there was so much choice and so many good things in the 1980s. Since then we’ve been through house and drum ‘n’ bass as well. My classical representation is a bit smaller, but I enjoy what I enjoy!

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

Starting with an old one, The Beatles – that was through my father’s record collection, which was a great influence as a young person. I appreciated them as they were. Then The Human League, as a lot of the Sheffield music was important to me, because at the time I was fortunate to be dabbling in music myself. It really crossed over, and Manchester music was a reference as well – so I would put Ultravox! in there as well. Those were the things that mattered really.

Turning to the concert, what did you think of the Bach / Stravinsky?

I thought there were subtler things here, I was surprised at the quiet volume, there were not so many people on stage I suppose. I was fascinated by the people playing, and the movement between the sections. I was watching for the technical side as much as the musical side. It was a nice ‘warmer-upper’ for the rest of it.

What about the Ravel?

I was much more in to this, and felt reflections of 1960s TV in the music, there were flurries that I kind of recognised. I really liked it. For the singer to remember the words was good, and being able to follow along in the book was interesting. I liked the shape of the music.

And the John Adams?

There was much more to think about with that one! I think the first movement built up, and we had the pleasure of seeing the orchestra and the punctuation, the offset rhythms, the bouncing around of the parts. There was a lot more percussive use here and the intricacies of the first piece were astonishing. He was definitely testing the technical abilities of the musicians. The crescendo at the end was almost human madness in my mind, it was almost too much to bear. The build up at the end, it went from the crossrhythms going on that were clear and observed, you could feel the pulses, and then that broke down at the end and it was completely consuming. You almost wanted to put your hands over your head.

The second movement was really nice at the start, I really liked that one. Because I’ve worked with sequencing a lot you could feel the repetition, the softness of the play, again testing the musicians in a different way at the limits of musicality. The lightness of touch stood out, and it was mostly driven by the harps to start with, and that was the bass, the pulse that drove it along to start with. I liked the guitar in there, I hadn’t spotted him and wondered where that was coming from.

What I liked about it most was where he was getting the strings to crescendo, it was like reversing an attack, and it was going round and round in a really interesting way. It was powerful and really interesting to hear that executed. I enjoyed that one most of all for sure. The arpeggios on the strings were really good, it was so delicate and ambient in its way. Even though it was gentle it was really strong.

How did you find the Proms as an experience?

Very nice. The reverence for the music was striking, and full marks for the quality of what you saw. The audience were obviously there to enjoy it, and treated it with the respect it duly deserved. It was a beautiful environment to hear such things. I’m almost a little disappointed it was quieter at the beginning but I guess we should have stood closer at the start. After a while though, you tune your ears into it. Everybody shut up so that we could all hear.

Having said that, the volume at the end of was enormous! The variety of the use of the instruments, like bowing the percussive instruments in the last piece, that was a softer element. It wasn’t orchestral techno by any means but there was a lot of crossover. It really was a testing thing for the musicians, and it really resonated how much was being put on them.

Is there anything you would change about the experience?

I did browse the catalogue and felt it was something I would like to do. I don’t think there is anything I would particularly change about it, and I’d be inclined to come again. I heard a few things on the TV last week, and I think I shall be listening out for more!

Verdict: SUCCESS

BBC Proms 2017 – John Adams: Naive and Sentimental Music – Philharmonia / Esa-Pekka Salonen

Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Voices and Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen

J.S. Bach arr. Stravinsky Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her (1956)

Ravel Shéhérazade (1904)

Adams Naive and Sentimental Music (1999)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 2 August 2017

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

This year’s Proms celebration of John Adams‘ 70th birthday moved on to some Naïve and Sentimental Music. Not my label, but the composer’s own – and a misleading one at that. The title implies a sketchily composed, throwaway fragment, but what we actually get is something very substantial, longer than many symphonies. The construction of the three sections making up the piece illustrate the ease with which the music of Adams expands to fill such dimensions, not something you could always say about the music of like-minded ‘minimalists’, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

Where others of his ilk tend to work in smaller melodic units, Adams thinks nothing of spinning out a long, intense melody over several minutes, hanging like a long telegraph wire above the sun-drenched plains. Such an image came to my head as we listened to the second movement of three, Mother of the Man, where the guitar of Huw Davies sounded rather like the early music of Pat Metheny in its deceptively lazy traversal. The strings held fast, creating the wide expanses of which Copland would surely have been proud. The treble textures were especially rich, but when the dynamic dropped to a barely audible whisper on the violins, members of the audience were subconsciously leaning forward to follow developments in the music.

It helped that the conductor was also the dedicatee of Adams’ sizeable score, Esa-Pekka Salonen taking delivery on behalf of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1999. Here he secured some outstanding playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra, who responded to the virtuoso demands of the music with impressive rhythmic impetus, intense focus and characterful phrasing. When the music gathered itself several times in the first movement, Naïve and Sentimental Music, the pacing and rhythms felt just right, with especially good work from harpists Heidi Krutzen and Stephanie Beck, not to mention percussionists Antoine Siguré, Scott Lumsdaine, Peter Fry, Stephen Burke, Tim Gunnell and Karen Hutt.

Towards the solemn close of Mother of the Man it was the brass bringing deeper shades to the forefront of the picture with exquisitely held chords. As Chain to the Rhythm hurried along the intensity built steadily and inexorably until it became nerve-shredding, the piece thundering along with gongs, bass drum, cymbals and massive timpani strokes giving it a mountainous perspective. We ended through the altitude of the violins, these massive orchestral sounds now a huge echo. It was a moving finish to a piece that is clearly underrated in Adams’ canon. Salonen clearly believes in it, and this audience did too.

A curious (but very interesting) first half began with Stravinsky’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her, a recomposition made to accompany the world premiere of the latter composer’s Canticum Sacrum in St Marks, Venice in 1956. This was an oddity of economical orchestration and sung text from a reduced choir. There was some quite tart colouring in the manner of Stravinsky’s later style, and his additions to the music of Bach added extra spice to the harmonies at unexpected points. An intriguing but puzzling arrangement, and one that threw the softer textures of Ravel’s Shéhérazade into relief.

This was no doubt intentional, for we were privy to a wonderful performance from French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa (above). Shéhérazade is a magical song cycle when performed well, but here it transcended all expectations – in fact I don’t recall ever seeing a singer who gauged the acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall with quite the accuracy of Crebassa. Her direct communication with the audience was reinforced by the elegance and understated strength of her vocal delivery, a truly beautiful tone that caressed Ravel’s lines with clear love and affection.

The first song, Asie, held an exquisite tension as the travelling scene unfolded, while La flûte enchantée, the instrument itself beautifully played by Samuel Coles, thrilled with its orchestral colours and heady textures. L’indifférent was a little more mischievous, and again the exquisite tones and textures were in full accord with the very best Ravel performances.

Crebassa is most definitely an artist for the future, and her blend and rapport with the Philharmonia was something to behold. The reverent string textures and typically pinpoint orchestration were viewed through Salonen’s technicolour lens, but the team brought something very special to Klingor’s text. If you get the chance to hear the broadcast, do so as soon as you can. You will hear one of the best young singers in classical music right now!

Ben Hogwood

Stay tuned for the next in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Steve Hodges will give his verdict on the John Adams Prom. Coming shortly!

Interview: Loscil – granular processes, emotive results

loscil

Scott Morgan (above) is the Vancouver-based producer behind the music of Loscil. Under this moniker his music is often found filed under ‘ambient’, but in reality it has more of a foreground impact through its deep and meaningful content. He talks with Arcana about his experiences of classical music, how it can be found in the fringes and structures of his work, while discussing his methods of composition and personal investment in the music.

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

That’s a tough question! I don’t know if I can remember listening to what I understand as classical music, as I wasn’t really from a musical family at all. I’m quite sure my first exposure would have been to some sort of film or movie. I did eventually go to university for music, and it’s funny because even though I took music at high school – saxophone and playing in a rock band – I don’t remember a relationship with classical music until later.

I was studying from modernism and moving on, and of course a lot of that is rooted in classical music. Certain composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky had their more retro periods; they were doing their experimental stuff and went back to more kind of tonal, traditional classical stuff.

I always look back and kind of regret that my parents never put me in piano. My first exposure to music was through my uncle who gave me an acoustic guitar which I self taught, and then I took saxophone in high school. I eventually gave up on that, but that was the road that led to me being more of a composer and an experimenter with studio stuff, in that I loved to play around with electronics and to muck with things and make sounds. I would pick up an instrument and learn how to play it but never that well, enough to make sounds with it.

In your encounters with classical music, who are the composers you have grown to admire?

I was really drawn to people like Ligeti and Penderecki, people like these 1960s composers who were doing stuff with texture and using the orchestra as a sound palette rather than writing melodies and harmonies and traditional stuff.

Xenakis too, and I really loved all that Webern twelve tone stuff. I was really drawn to this idea that you could play with texture, because texture and timbre – the colour of the sound – had always been present, and good orchestrators know how to manipulate that stuff, but it was never at the forefront, it was always rhythm and melody and harmony that were given all the attention.

When did you realise you had a real aptitude for working with texture in particular?

I wasn’t conscious of it in my teens when I was doing rock band stuff, but when I was first going to school the splinter for me was working with computers and electronics. I had a professor I worked with who was really in to this technique called granular synthesis, and actually Xenakis explored a lot of this stuff too. There are some overlaps with acoustic writing and practice, but granular synthesis is where you take a sound and you cut it up into a bunch of tiny grains or components, and it gives you this control over the sound in terms of multiplying it in density or growing it in time. You have this sculptural control over sound.

The first time I heard it and the first time most people hear this kind of process is so ghostly, and you hear all these voices that come out of the sound. The texture of it is so rich and inviting that it creates this instant kind of sound world, stretching and multiplying the sound. I was really taken by this process, and I think finding the connections from there into what people were doing acoustically was really interesting.

That’s why Ligeti is often a good acoustic counterpart in terms of building up these clouds and textures of sound. That was the genesis for me, and then I went on to muck with other computer, digital signal processing models to build up textures and sounds. That ended up being the root of the Loscil project, which has been about building these textures and working with sound in that sculptural way.

There’s something truly different from what you heard before, that eureka moment of doors opening, where you realise that you can think of it this way now. In my early school days I was having more moments like that with worlds opening up, and different ways of thinking about sound and music.

Your music has a vast sense of space in it. Is that something you are keen to have, or is it a by-product of how you write?

I think it’s a bit of both. When you’re working with electronics, everything is so instant in real time that you can almost be as much of an audience member or listener as you are a composer. I find there is this very zen-like state that I get in to making stuff where I can sit and listen to loops for long periods of time, and really enjoy that space, and in fact feel kind of guilty that I have to really impose myself on it as an editor and as a composer, to present it to people. I’ve done a couple of releases, one of them a digital release a few years ago called Stases.

It was this exploration of these long, drone-like textured arcing shapes that had a longer trajectory to them. They didn’t have really identifiable elements to them – rhythm, melodic components, and yet they have been some of my more popular recordings. People like to put them on and have them as this kind of aural wallpaper, while they’re writing or working on visual arts. I find people put these on as a mental stimulus. I get into these patterns when I’m working that is an altered state, half listening and have creating, and the tools let you do that. I guess a lot of instrumentalists get into a similar state, where you’re zoning out on scales or something.

I find your music very effective during travelling to work on the train.

Train travel is an interesting one. There is something inherent about the rhythm of the train and the movement outside the window and I assume a lot of commuters want to get out of the reality that they’re in when commuting!

What I perhaps wasn’t quite so prepared for at first was the depth of emotion or concentration in your music.

Sometimes there are things you can’t quite explain when you’re creating stuff, and where it comes from it’s hard to put your finger on. I know I am generally a happy person, but things come out when I’m making stuff! There is a way of using the creative process and the creation of music to express that which you can’t express in other ways, and that’s what ends up coming out a lot of the time.

With your new album Monument Builders, was it a coincidence to be releasing it on Remembrance Day, or was that planned?

It’s funny. I didn’t choose that, but I asked the label if it was intentional, and I got a three word reply that was something to the effect of ‘yes of course!’ I believe it was somebody’s intention, but not really mine.

Was it inspired by a particular event or set of events? I know you mentioned a link with the Philip Glass score to Koyaanisqatsi.

I rewatched Koyaanisqatsi, and the version I was watching was quite messed up. It was a VHS tape and the pitch was a little off, and the tracking on the machine, and I thought it was interesting. I saw it first in a Vancouver theatre, which has ironically been destroyed and replaced with condos, which is the Vancouver thing right now.

We’re such a young city, and that is my attraction to it. I used it for the cover of Monument Builders, a 1970s kind of brutalist thing. It is one of only a couple of buildings of that style in Vancouver now, everything else is like flashy glass towers. I found that related to Koyaanisqatsi as something that was very epic and meant to spark you and wake you up emotionally as to what is going on in the world – over consumption, over population.

Over time, as technology progresses, maybe what was once epic is no longer quite as epic, and especially when it was projected on an old format. It’s like you are looking into the past, warning you of the future. A lot of time has gone by now, over 30 years since that movie came out, and there is something interesting to me about that and relating it to architecture.

You look at our city, and my mum thinks that building is so ugly, but there is something beautiful about it too, and there will probably be one of the last things standing. It was a swarm of ideas about that kind of stuff. Some of it is admittedly a little dark but there is a core beauty about it too.

There is a certain brightness to your music too, for instance in the previous album Sea Island where there are bright, deep blues implied.

When I look back at most of my catalogue, I realise so much of it is unintentional when you’re inside it, but when you see it splayed out in front of you a lot of my work accidentally plays with the spectrum between the natural world and the industrial world. There are times when I have moved to one side over the other, but ultimately I think I’m after some sort of balance of what it is to be human, and what it is to be human inside of this natural world we live in. We are a part of it but we’re also outside of it – or we think of ourselves as out of it.

When you are writing with electronic sounds and samples do you feel like you are in charge of an orchestra, in a classical sense?

A little bit. I definitely take some of my musical education in terms of writing for instruments and apply that. You’re often working in tonal ranges or pitch ranges, the bass, the mids and the highs, and you’re always wanting to balance those things, and I definitely think I compartmentalise those things in a similar way. I don’t think of moving a melody among different instruments and things, but there is a slight touch that is definitely taken from acoustic writing.

Some of the Loscil tracks could in theory be played by an orchestra.

Yeah, I’ve actually tried to imagine that at times myself. It is a really interesting question, wondering how I could create this sound not using electronics and only using an orchestra. It would be a really fun challenge but I just need more money!

I think I have always really been a kind of acoustic composer at heart, who just ended up using electronics. I think that’s part of the reason I’m folding in acoustic instruments a lot of the time. On Monument Builders I wrote a lot for the French horn, I thought that would be interesting.

The final track on Monument Builders, Weeds – does that use cut-up vocal sounds?

Yeah, that’s my friend Ashley Pitre. She sang on a couple of tracks on Sea Island, and I had the samples still kicking around. I ended up using some processing on them, and it has some of the granular technique I was talking about, to chop up the voice a little bit.
When I play live I tend to leave that one towards the end, because you can’t do much after it! It has more of a dynamic range that is not as common in my work – most of it gets to a point where it sits at one particular level and will then gradually decay. That track really goes from nothing to everything over the course of seven or eight minutes, and when I do it live the volume gets quite a bit louder at the end.

Do you think your sense of structure has a lot in common with modern classical composers?

Yeah, maybe I’ve not experimented with structure as much as I could have done over the years. I did do a release, an interesting project with an Irish record company called Wist Rec, who asked me to score a novel and they were using these Penguin mini-classics, and asking composers to write music for this book. I was given Malcolm Lowry’s story Lunar Caustic, which is a short story about a pianist in New York who loses his mind and gets put in an asylum.

He mentions the Grieg music to Peer Gynt in his story, and listening to this in the asylum. I ended up writing and working with a friend of mine on the piano parts, and we ended up referencing elements of the Grieg piece. We played a lot more with the structure, and because the book is so structured it allowed us to think in a different kind of shape.

Normally I approach a piece of music as an isolated thing, and this was like four movements, so that was one of the few times I’ve stretched the structure away from what is common for me, which is making a bunch of pieces that might speak to one another but ultimately get compiled and turn out on an album. Because of vinyl’s popularity again you think about sides and the length of an album, and it’s interesting to be freed from that and be a little more flexible.

The original version with the book, I’m not sure if you can buy it anymore, but the version on Bandcamp is a reconstructed version with my friend Kelly Wyse, a pianist from Seattle.

What does classical music mean to you?

It’s a treasure trove. For me I would say any kind of music history. I am actually drawn more to early music, and the study of that alongside politics and history, and what’s going on in the world. I think you can draw so much looking back at classical music like that.

I also have an incredible respect and admiration for classical players. Any time I get an opportunity to work with performers who have dedicated their lives to an instrument, and are masters of that instrument, I have so much respect for it – probably because I am just not that person! I have not mastered an instrument. But the discipline that goes along with that, and the ability to read music off the page and understand an instrument so well that you can express through it, is fascinating to me.

Is that what makes electronic music so great, that it enables people to formulate more of what’s in their heads musically?

I think so, but I think there is another element with electronic music that you get the ability to not only do that but you get a feedback system, and get drawn in to areas of experimentation that you just would not discover. I think that’s a lot harder to realise than with a traditional approach of sitting at a piano and orchestrating. You don’t get that immediate feedback of what it does when you bend it and shape it. That’s relinquishing to the machine, but it is part of the process as well.

If you could recommend a couple of classical pieces for Arcana readers, that have maybe held a special place for you, what might they be?

Because we spoke about Ligeti I would definitely recommend Atmosphères. I’m obviously on the modern end of things here, but the opening of Koyaanisqatsi is high on my list these days. My composition teacher hated the minimalists, so it was held from us in a certain way, but I discovered those on my own later. He was really into Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

I love Gregorian chant, too, and Thomas Tallis. There is something about that modal music, and because it is religious music it is performed in these massive churches and cathedrals with their massive reverb.
Reverb now is such a massive part of electronic music, so the idea of a fully natural reverb is fascinating and interesting, and also when you think of what we are drawn to electronically does have its roots in religious music. I’m not a religious person but it makes you wonder if something fundamentally spiritual is being handed down in that sense.

Loscil’s album Monument Builders is out now on Kranky. For more information on Loscil and Scott Morgan, head to his artist website