In July 2016 I approached Peter Reynolds, asking whether he would mind an informal to-and-fro by email. The subject was (at least to begin with) musicians taking liberties with his music and the extent to which he and/or the music itself could tolerate it. When we had finished (whenever that may have been), my intention was to publish the entire exchange on this blog.
Although Peter’s conversation with me was left unfinished following his untimely death on October 11 2016, I felt that it would have been a shame not to make public our correspondence nevertheless. With the exception of some of my overly-long responses, I have left the emails unedited.
Regarding the concert mentioned part-way through the exchange, this did go ahead as planned, taken forward by composer and friend Maja Palser, and was held as a concert in honour of Peter, attended by his friends and colleagues.
03 July 2016 10:14
Thanks for agreeing to answer some questions. I suppose I’ll get straight to the point: generally-speaking, how much adjustment to your compositions (if any) by the musicians playing it are you comfortable with?
03 July 2016 10:45
There was undoubtedly a move towards over-fussy and complex use of notation by composers from the 1950s onwards, which still persists in many quarters today. Like many young composers, I was attracted to this in earlier years, but have tried to strip my notation back to make it as simple as possible at the present time. This leads some performers to imagine that it needs a minimum of rehearsal, usually with pretty disastrous results. However, I would generally hope that the music is robust enough to withstand a variety of approaches. I am more concerned in performance through with projecting the large structural shape than getting involved with surface detail which, so often in many contemporary performances of the classics, detracts from that sense of shape. Tied up with this is a preference for rhythmically clean playing which, I think helps matters.
(Hope this does the trick…)
03 July 2016 11:56
That’s great. Going on from what you’ve said about rhythm in particular, a number of your piano pieces are very precise in a number of ways. With that in mind, how much room is there for flexibility of your pieces in terms of rubato and/or outright rhythmic adjustment? A parallel that comes to mind is Webern, whose music is written with rhythmic precision but who was said to have played his own piano pieces with a deal of ebb and flow.
03 July 2016 14:17
That’s a difficult one and depends on the piece to a certain extent. I’ve done several very slow pieces in the last six or seven years where the notation is very simple, but needs to “float” in a sense. With these the attitude to them can really be quite free – the barline shouldn’t be heard. These include pieces such as Beiliheulog (flute, viola & harp) or Sometimes there is a hoar frost (solo guitar). However, many of them whilst also preserving a sense of timelessness (the piano piece Bayvil for instance) need to combine that with a certain precision. The interesting thing about Webern is that he often tries to build the rubato into the music with very precise instructions – though it seems to me that the kind of effect he’s after is the freedom that can be heard in his recordings of his arrangement of the Schubert German Dances (D.820) or his BBC broadcast of Berg’s Violin Concerto. The Schubert in particular is extraordinarily free, yet one never loses a sense of the underlying metre; the effect is elastic in the best sense of the word whereas very often one hears performances which are free, but lack that elasticity. I would always go down the Webern road in this situation. However, I have also begun to experiment with improvisatory freedom in some recent pieces, and I can see this growing, though I think this is dependent on working with certain types of performer.
03 July 2016 14:42
To go off on a tangent, the way you describe Webern’s recordings (building rubato in with very precise instructions) sounds very much like popular music vocal lines, which are often notated very precisely but in an endeavour to sound free when performed.
I’m interested that you’re incorporating improvisation into some compositions. How have you gone about it? For example (and it may differ from piece to piece), where and how have you been setting the boundaries within which the improvisation takes place? What have you made of the results?
05 July 2016 20:08
I’ve often been struck by the analogy you make with vocal lines from popular music – I’m often very impressed by their elaborate ornamentation. It strikes me that many of the performances we hear these days are far too stiff and Webern was somehow trying to capture in notation a now lost tradition. We make a fad of authenticity and original instruments, but many who do this would be horrified if they were asked to try and recapture the portamento that can be heard in so many pre-1920 recordings or a similar flexibility to the ebb and flow of the music. The kind of rubato that can be heard in, say Mengelberg’s 1940 performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony sounds entirely natural to me – and he did give the Dutch premiere with Mahler present.
But to return to the present … perhaps improvisation is the wrong word, but whilst working with the double bass performance Ashley John Long, I have felt that it is possible to entrust the detail of certain ideas to him because he does have a background in improvisation and an understanding of how to make them work. An example was a performance I did at Partrishow Church in the Black Mountains (on the Welsh border) at dawn in September 2014. At the start I had envisaged a long low C pedal note that would gradually move through a series of crescendos and diminuendos, lasting around three minutes. I plotted this out very roughly in the score but explained to him what I wanted. In the event, he stretched it out to some eight or nine minutes on the morning itself – to fabulous effect. I would never have had the guts to ask him to do this, but when I heard it, I realised it was exactly what I’d intended. But not every player would be able to do that …
07 July 2016 10:21
Has anybody misinterpreted anything in your more precise music that has perhaps either strengthened your resolve in exactly what you’ve written or that has led you to reconsider the music you’ve written? Or both?
26 July 2016 14:06
Sorry Phil – the line has got broken a bit here … here’s the latest reply:
No, I’ve never really had that experience as such so far as I can remember. The problem tends to lie in the apparent simplicity of a lot of my music on the page: it looks easy, but it isn’t. And this can lead to various performances where people glide over the surface of the music or where it just falls entirely flat. In Britain, we’re used to such wonderful sight reading, allied to an incredibly fast musical response, that the idea of rehearsing in detail does get sometimes get lost. I witnessed a premiere of a piece recently by another composer, very simple on the page, played by some of this country’s leading performers which was rehearsed for the first time on the day of the performance – of course, it was brilliant. But there was no light and shade, no sense of getting under the surface which, of course, was exactly where the centre of that music was.
That’s it – send on the next question when you’re ready …
Btw – I am wondering about trying to get that piano recital on the road again – this is a bit of a long shot, but I wondered about either Tuesday 25 or Weds 26 October at the college. Not sure if I can get any sense out of them at this time of the year, but I should be able to progress things with the music office. Just a thought…
26 July 2016 14:24
Many thanks for your reply. I’ll have a think about a follow-up question to take it in a new direction. I’ve exhausted that line of questioning!
I expect the 25th October will be fine with me. Are you looking at an evening performance? I can pencil it in.
26 July 2016 16:32
Yes, it’s an evening performance – could you pencil please?
27 July 2016 14:11
All in the diary!
The piano pieces I have of yours are:
- Ecco Mormorar L’onde
- In One Spot
- Far Down in the Forest
Are there any more that you have that you’d like me to look at?
As a kind of a kind of follow-up question to something we were discussing a couple of weeks ago, are there any composers (past or present) whose music you think allows for greater extremes of interpretative freedom? And, on the other hand, are there any composers whose music is only convincing within more limited boundaries? (Following Webern’s precise instructions, but within the spirit of freedom may be one such example.)
27 July 2016 18:04
Yes, those are the ones – and I’d also like to include the one by Maja (plus another small one that she’s recently finished – I’ll get her to send it to you). I have to undertake a fairly drastic revision for the first half of Ecco Mormorar L’onde In the next month or so…
In answer to your question:
Undoubtedly – a significant body of music since 1945 has been predicated on aleatoric principals (from Stockhausen, Feldman to Cardew) whilst at the other end of the spectrum, it’s difficult to imagine some of the classics of minimalist piano music working outside very narrow boundaries. But in both circumstances, this is because composers are asking for a style of performance that basically did not exist before 1945. In the case of much other piano music, I think the basis has not changed. I have recently written a piano work that allows for very little freedom and, in fact, is not performable in a live situation. It can only be realised as a recording because it uses techniques such as doubling melody notes by plucking strings inside the piano or other ‘inside the piano effects’ whilst using the other two hands. In other cases, certain passages played ‘traditionally’ are speeded up and overlaid and so forth. When it was recorded recently we had to assemble it from around 60 or 70 fragments of different takes.
31 July 2016 21:40
Are there any unorthodox or unusual performances or interpretations of which you’re fond or regard highly? Indeed, renditions that may have left their mark as definitive for that work or composer.