This year it has been a pleasure to work with composer-vocalist-harper Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian. I commissioned her, with support from the PRSF, to write a piece for My Iris & the Emulsion Sinfonietta, to which I wrote a response piece. Both works – Cevanne’s Muted Lines & my Tap Dance (for Baby Dodds) – both appear on my latest album and received their large-scale premieres at Emulsion V in January, broadcast by BBC Radio 3’s Hear & Now and available to listen to on iplayer until early April.
The whole process has been extremely rewarding and so I have invited Cevanne to do an interview for my blog…
So Cevanne, what are you working on at the moment?
My lunch, and also I’m writing an arrangement for LSO strings to play with the St Luke’s Gamelan (June 22nd). I’m slowly completing two albums – one with inventor Crewdson, and another with Calum Gourlay and Chris Montague.
Both of which I look forward to hearing in due course!
You’ve just finished your residency with the LSO… I think you are the first composer to hold this post? And you were working mainly in a very unique place?
Yes, the LSO patron Susie Thomson established this residency in the house of her late partner, Khadambi Asalache. The house, 575 Wandsworth Road, is filled with his intricate wood carvings and paintings, and is now looked after by the National Trust as a work of art. Susie wanted me to create music for the LSO players to fill it with new life and ideas in response to Khadambi’s work.
CEVANNE’S BIRD DANCE (LSO SOLOISTS & SOPRANO VOICE)
Why the celtic harp?
Why, indeed. I often ask this question while dragging it around heavily populated areas. The harp, in general, is one of the earliest instruments invented. I love its simple structure – it feels essential, like how folk music, in the broadest sense, is essential to society. Hopefully, that doesn’t sound too pretentious.
[not at all!]
The celtic harp, in particular, has a beautiful, rich, ringing resonance (especially compared to classical harp, which has a shorter decay). However, it’s not my first instrument, and you have to work within the constraints of the levers which dictate modes. So I like writing for ensembles which can continue the tone of the harp, and extend its range.
Hmmm, definitely something for me to investigate and learn about…
What were the earliest influences on your music-making? Any heros?
As a student, I was inspired by the music of Monteverdi and his team, particularly the blend of improvisation and strong lines which entwined soloists with large ensembles; and the practice of positioning of players to achieve spatial acoustics in breathtaking architecture (ahead of the trend for ‘site-specific’ performance today). I always return to Purcell for his mastery of voice and narrative…
A lot of 20th-21st Century American composers had a lasting effect on me too, especially those who embraced humour, rhythm, line and experiments…
So, it follows that my hero is Laurie Anderson. Her work can be simultaneously direct and abstract. She is fearless to walk among many forms of art and science in the face of potential snobbery, finding it easiest to describe herself as a ‘multi-media artist’. She’s an impressive electronic innovator, and engineer. When I sat in on one of her sound-checks with the Kronos Quartet, it was the calmest I’ve ever witnessed – she ran it all with such clarity, assurance and kindness.
This all inspires me to express powerful ideas in the simplest way possible. I think balancing subtlety with clarity is a greater challenge than layering complexity. In a funny way, some pieces which seem to be saying a lot, very loud and fast, and throwing ‘big words’ around, are actually saying very little of substance.
I’d say to audiences, if you don’t understand something, it doesn’t mean it’s clever. If it moves you, it moves you.
…I could rant about this more in terms of genre, and even gender, but that’s another post, I think!
Yes, quite!! And wow, a lot of music for me to check out there…
You mentioned your album with Chris and Calum earlier… I believe this is an eye-music project? Can you tell us a bit about that? I think you sing in this project?
Eye-music is a general term for a branch of my work which is informed by visual art. Sometimes I create tactile scores where the music is structured by a visual form – my most recent one was ‘Inkwells’ for the LSO residency, where I’d cut fretwork holes into the manuscript paper to reveal layers of notes for the performer to improvise.
This specific project with Calum and Chris is called TRACES, for now, because we’ve been using tracing paper to derive notes from the work of visual artist Maya Ramsay. Her collection WALL OF SOUND began with my residency at ‘Handel & Hendrix in London’, where she made graphite rubbings of the wood chip wallpaper of Jimi’s flat onto manuscript paper. We’ve made cells of notes, and each of us has composed pieces from the same material, with very different results.
It’s a refreshing collaboration, because we’re all playing an equally creative role, and we feel liberated by working within restrictions, and without our usual patterns.
I sing, because that’s my first ‘instrument’ after composing, and for live performances I add live electronics with the laptop.
Calum has been playing electric bass, in addition to his usual acoustic – combined with harp and electric guitar it’s a lovely response to Jimi Hendrix ‘at home’.
Thanks to the PRSF funding our initial collaboration, we’ve now got material for an album…
CEVANNE’S LATEST EYE-MUSIC, INKWELLS (SOPRANO VOICE AND REEL-TO-REEL TAPE)
You regularly explore aspects of your Armenian heritage in your music and your commission for my band, ‘Muted Lines’, raises the issue of loss and silence, could you talk a little more about that, and why you chose this topic for the commission?
When you called me about the commission, you told me about how a trip to Canada had made you readdress the history of Jazz, with America’s roots in immigration and slavery. I suggested we could write ‘sister pieces’ on this theme, because while I can’t claim experience of American history, I do have some thoughts about the process of displacement following genocide, because of my Armenian heritage.
‘Muted Lines’ uses silence to represent how a displaced society gradually loses aspects of its history, language, art, cuisine, as generations progress. Sometimes this loss is enforced by new regimes, other times it is too painful to remember. However, I think that though this silence brings loss, it also provides space for new ideas, and new collaborations.
I represent this process by basing the piece on an Armenian poem by Nahapet Kuchak. The couplet, “Sing, although the exile’s heart fills with such unsingable songs” loses words to silence as the piece progresses, until an essential message remains with only the first and last: “Sing songs”. The silence is filled with music, including improvisation, which I find uplifting.
It is not productive to dwell on past injustices when it restricts new creative collaboration; when it constructs prohibitive borders, segregation, and negative concepts of ‘ownership’. However, it is useful to reflect on the past in order to know how to help those currently experiencing a mass displacement, and fleeing atrocities. The reductive process in Muted Lines addresses their potential future.
[you can also read the liner notes Cevanne & I prepared for the album in this recent post]
Do you have any favourite spaces for writing music?
The kitchen, because there is food in there, and people to distract me.
[you also have an incredible view! my kitchen pales by comparison…]
Also, Khadambi’s house is a wonderful place to focus or dream. It’s so full of detail that with each visit I spot a new scene to spark my imagination. But mainly, his confidence inspires me. His house is a work of art which is not designed for an audience, but for himself. He has not tailored or censored accordingly. He is free to interpret cultures on his own terms, without fear of appropriation. His fluent style embraces the similarities of lines from separate continents without reducing them.
What have you got coming up for this year? When can we hear your music next?
I’ve just got back from a short tour of galleries in Switzerland performing music inspired by the work of visual/performance art trio JocJonJosch. I’ll be recording it soon with field recordings of their work…
You can hear my music live at two LSO Discovery concerts – this month at LSO St Luke’s the Community Choir will perform my piece ’The Fence-Sitter’ with brass quartet, based on a poem by Khadambi Asalache (Monday 27th March); and on June 22nd, the LSO Gamelan will perform my arrangement with LSO Strings at the Barbican.
TRACES, with Calum and Chris, is planning gigs later in the year once we’ve finished recording…
Thank you Cevanne, it’s been a joy to hear your thoughts on music and beyond.