Friday, August 3, 2012

Ayre, Divided: The album

For those very few who don't want to trudge over to Facebook to check the album out, check it out right here! And again, thanks to Cameron Brideoake for the cover art - check out his work!

Ayre, Divided

My dear friends, colleagues, and leaves on the wind!

What I've been up to
For the last while, I have been preparing a short album for digital release, entitled Ayre, Divided. It is comprised of a series of English lute airs and madrigals from around the turn of the 17th century, with divisions (variations, for those not yet in the know) by yours truly, written for solo recorder. It was inspired by the divisions of Dutch composer and recorder player Jacob van Eyck - he wrote first piece, Fantasia and Echo, which I have included as something of a tribute to him - and includes versions of songs by John Dowland, Thomas Campion, Philip Rosseter, Robert Jones, and Thomas Morley. The final track is just a little version of Autumn Leaves I whipped up, to demonstrate the similarity between the ancient art of division and the modern art of jazz improvisation. And because it was fun. Yes, I know jazz on recorder is a bit kitsch (although wait until I get my hands on one of those fancy new Eagle recorders, I'll be a jazz recorder player yet!) but bear with me, okay?
You can find the album, listen, and buy tracks on my Facebook page.

About the album
Let me be the first to say that this album is far from perfect. It was done on a limited budget, in a limited time frame, and was something of an experiment for me. I have never done any recording - at least not of baroque music - but I was lucky enough to have a chance to use the home studio of the wonderful recorder player and teacher Hans Maria Kneihs in Vienna, for nothing but the price of transport. He and I engineered it, too. A bit. This isn't really a commercial release, per se, but a chance for my friends and others who may be interested to both hear some of my music and to offer their financial support for my ongoing development. Living overseas is expensive, particularly in a city like Salzburg where there are very few jobs for English speakers, and very few concert opportunities for early music - despite Salzburg's reputation as a musical centre! So I guess you could say it's a fundraiser, both for me personally, and for some projects I'm lining up. More about that shortly.

The conception
I was fortunate this last semester to take a class on early ornamentation with harpsichordist Florian Birsak, with the focus of much of the course being on early Italian divisions. I was struck by two things in this class: first, that many writers on divisions had styles so distinctive as to make most of the 'rules' of division appear obsolete; and second, that we as contemporary performers generally focus our conception of 'divisions' on a very narrow repertoire, specifically Italian madrigals. But there are other examples - Van Eyck's Der Fluyten Lust-hof is one, The Division Flute is another - that look at entirely different repertoire, in the first case the popular songs of the day, in the second mostly older songs ingrained in England's culture. What I got from this: while it is all well and good to study these things, it is both more interesting and more musically stimulating to then just do it, to select your own music and divide based on your own personal experience and style. So that's what I did.

Projects for fundraising
As I suggested earlier, this album is something of a fundraiser. First and foremost, it's raising funds for me to keep living - kind of an income supplement, supplementing the income I don't have. Most of my income recently has been from busking, but I have begun to find that rather soul-destroying; I prefer this method. At least here I can't see all the people not paying me for my work. But if it raises enough, money will also go towards three other projects, which will all hopefully lead to both (somewhat more professionally produced) recordings and performances, both in Salzburg and, with luck, further abroad. The first is in a similar vein to this - lute songs with divisions - but fully arranged with lute and gamba, and possibly with a second recorder player at times. The second is a small baroque ensemble myself and Serbian cellist, Tijana Milicevic, are putting together, with the added intention of heading a more vibrant early music scene in Salzburg - which does house an awful lot of talent, after all!

The 'Doe Land' project
The third, and most ambitious, project is one I'm referring to as 'Doe Land' - this is apparently the correct pronunciation of 'Dowland', for those wondering why. But basically, I want to blend my experiences both as an early music performer and as a singer/songwriter (for those who only know me as a baroque musician - yes, I have also been, and continue to be, a singer/songwriter) to create essentially modern lute songs - think Sting's versions of various Dowland songs for an idea of the sound, but with new music, and with more instruments: lute, viol, violone, and hand percussion. And possibly recorder solos. Maybe. I think there is so much scope for early instruments in this area, to create a kind of acoustic baroque/folk fusion that on one side brings those instruments into a new area of endeavour rather than relying purely on music of the past (and contemporary classical, which I honestly don't think tends to suit them too well), and also has the chance to expose younger generations to these sounds in an environment they can actually relate to: the club rather than the concert hall.

Thank you ... 
... to Hans Maria Kneihs for the use of his studio, and for his time helping with both the recording and the final editing. Hans, you have been extremely generous! Thanks also to Cameron Brideoake for contributing the wonderful cover art - he is a fantastic artist, you should check out his Facebook page! A portion of the proceeds of the album will also go to him. And of course thanks to the friends and family who have supported this idea. This is definitely only the humble beginning of some really interesting and exciting projects to come, so stay tuned for more!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

And the winner is ...

Hallo all, and welcome, finally, to the next edition of the Early Bird Extra! As you may have noticed, I've been out of action for the last few weeks. This was thanks to me getting through to the second round, and subsequently the final, of the Wettbewerb für Interpreten zeitgenössischer Blockflötenmusik (Competition for the interpretation of contemporary recorder music) in Darmstadt, Germany, over the weekend. The preparation really did take all of my energy, particularly as I'm usually a purely early musician. But it was a great experience! And, of course, it provides me with an excellent topic for today's issue.

The competition itself had not been held before; it was being put on in honour of the 80th birthday of Gerhard Braun, an esteemed recorder player and composer. I did not know any of Herr Braun's music, but I had to learn quickly; the first round required submission of a recording of his Drei Epigramme (Three Epigrams) for tenor recorder, a work which showcases many of his signature techniques, particularly the blurring of the barriers between recorder and vocal sounds. I had only one month to learn the piece, which I submitted on December 31, the day of the deadline!

And two weeks later, I was in. Exciting! Except that I suddenly had a lot more music to learn. For the second round, I chose to play Shinohara's 1968 work Fragmente (originally I was going to play Berio's Gesti, but came to the conclusion that I didn't have sufficient time to prepare it) to accompany the set piece, Bass Burner (1994) by Pete Rose. I had played Fragmente before, though it still needed work, but the Rose was not a difficult piece; it's in a kind of fast-swing jazz style, and having played jazz sax in another life, it was pretty straightforward for me.

There were nine of us in the second round (there were supposed to be ten, but one had to drop out due to illness), representing England, France, two from Austria, two from Germany, Holland, Switzerland, and of course Australia. The judges were Johannes Fischer, from Darmstadt; Karel van Steenhoven, from Karlsruhe; Dörte Niensted, from Bremen; Nik Tarasov, from Basel; and Gerhard Braun, from Stuttgart. I have to admit, those names meant, and still mean, pretty much nothing to me. But then, like I say, I'm not regularly a contemporary player!

I unfortunately don't really know what the other players were like in that round - I was too nervous, and too focussed on my own pieces, to listen in - but though I didn't think I played superbly, I did play well enough to make it into the final five the next day! I received some positive comments on my interpretation of the Rose, and though nerves got the better of me in the Shinohara, my interpretation must have at least come across enough to impress the judges. I was really not expecting to make it through, and was very surprised when I was the last of the five announced!

The final was the following day (not much preparation time), and I had prepared, more or less, Außer Atem (1996) by Moritz Eggert, Voice of the Crocodile (1988) by Australian composer Benjamin Thorn, and the set piece by Braun, Wegmarken (2009). The others in the final were Marion Fermé (France), Caroline Mayrhofer (Austria), Susanne Fröhlich (Germany), and Cornelis van Dis (Holland). Susanne was the only one I had heard of personally; actually, the fact that she was there somewhat daunted me, as I knew of her as a consummate professional, and as a contemporary specialist.

I was on last, so I spent my day preparing rather than listening to the other performers. As for my performance, I felt that I played well under the circumstances. As is quite typical of me, I played musically, and certainly with every bit of energy I had, but not perfectly. Admittedly, the Braun and the Thorne suffered thanks to spending so much time and energy preparing Außer Atem, so though my nerves were pretty steady on the day, the lack of preparation probably showed. And Außer Atem, by any stretch, though true to its name (Breathless), was far from perfect.

So I wasn't surprised that I didn't win anything, though I did get some lovely comments from people who felt that my performance deserved third place! But interestingly, the jury decided not to pick a winner, instead awarding two second places and a third; the two seconds went to Susanne and Cornelis, the third to Caroline. Having not heard Cornelis, I assumed that he would have to be very good to be considered at the same level as Susanne; indeed, I had heard that he'd been a recent competition winner, which suggested as much.

The winner's concert that evening, though, surprised me. Cornelis performed Wegmarken and Ishii's East-Green-Spring (1991) which, in my opinion, though very exact technically, were incredibly, incredibly dull. His interpretation of the Braun in particular lacked many of the subtleties Braun wrote into the music, with slight changes of timing and mood, and very precise articulation; I actually heard Braun speaking to him about these after the concert. This bothered me in that I thought I could do better, though I admit, I felt that I didn't on the day.

Caroline was a clear place-getter, in my opinion. She played Contour (2001) by Sohrab Uduman in the concert, a piece with a pre-programmed electronics setup providing various effects by stepping on a pedal. The piece sounds amazing, and she played it flawlessly so far as I could tell. But admittedly, the work, while impressive, is not difficult, and it was no doubt the step up to the next level of repertoire in terms of technical requirement that set her apart from the other two. Still, I was impressed, and this was one of the two pieces I enjoyed most that evening.

Susanne played Seascape (1994) by Romitelli, for a Paetzold contrabass with amplification and digitally enhanced acoustic, and Austro (1992/2001) by Tedde. In all honesty, I was blown away by her performance. Austro is all about circular breathing, which I find extremely difficult, but which she pulled off seamlessly. Seascape, my favourite that evening, is just a beautiful work, recreating the sounds of being on a sailboat, and if you closed your eyes, that's exactly what it felt like. Her performance was utterly professional, and perfectly executed.

So that begs the question: why didn't she win a clear first place? Well, I'm not entirely sure, but I can think of two possibilities. First, Susanne tended towards works that created an effect, rather than those based on a musical line, and while brilliant in themselves, this perhaps limited the variety, and may have played against her given Braun himself tends toward more structured musical works. Second, and more likely, she was substantially older and more experienced than the rest of the group, and probably not who the competition was really aimed at; I suspect that the jury thought it was unfair to award a first prize to a professional against a field of students, and that awarding her first prize might discourage less experienced contestants from entering next year.

And yes, there may well be a next year! They are planning to make it an annual competition. So now that I've seen how the whole competition thing works (this was my first competition outside of uni), and know how much work needs to be put in, I will definitely be back for more next time, and searching for other competitions to enter too!

Though, I admit, I would prefer to find some early music ones. When it comes down to it, that's really more my thing.