Composer Outlook: Robert Percy

Clare Simmonds
June 20, 2018

CS: What were your thoughts behind each of your pieces in Series 4 (Beacons IITouching the VoidGravityChop and Change)?

RP: Each piece was a response to the different players and instruments I’d invited to perform in Series 4.

Chop and Change [for solo piano] was adapted from an earlier piece of mine called ChopsticksMatthew Schellhornhad already performed this piece and we decided that the piece could be edited. Matthew had expressed an interest in composer–performer collaboration, so we had a back-and-forth about it, reducing it, keeping the best parts, and eventually Chop and Change emerged. Matthew enlightened me about something. I once said to him, regarding a different work, “I’ve got a piece – it won’t be too demanding, it’s sightreadable and everything”, but he questioned this comment. After I’d said it, I realised why and it was a useful insight for me. I wanted a piece that wouldn’t demand too much rehearsal time, being mindful of Matthew’s time constraints, but he felt that this undermined the pleasure, depth and the connection that a performer gets from working on a piece. He said he’d probably disagree with me anyway, because he’d want to make the most of it. I now see how I was underselling the piece.

Gravity was written for classical accordionist Miloš Milivojević, whom I’ve known for years. It’s a piece that features repetition, variation and permutation and is influenced by Morton Feldman’s music (pieces like Piano and String Quartet and Crippled Symmetry). I’ve been interested recently in making short, repetitive pieces that involve a greater element of change than you’d find in those Feldman pieces. The title comes from the film, so it’s actually more to do with zero gravity. There was something about the physicality of Miloš‘s playing that suggested weight and weightlessness (watch the highlights on Youtube.)

In contrast, Touching the Void was written for Carla Rees and Ian Mitchell, neither of whom I’d met. That made a difference for me: I was simply writing for the flute and clarinet as I knew them. Touching the Void is a site-specific, spatial, processional piece and not, particularly, an exploration of instrumental technique – more to do with theatrical movement around the church, and finding textures and ideas that worked together across the ‘void’ of the space. Beacons II had been performed before as Beacons (watch the video on Youtube), but I adapted it by replacing the viola with a clarinet, using a lot of the same ideas, but reordering. There is a very effective calm section that I felt, after hearing it, would balance the form better if it came later, so I made the adjustment. It made me think of something Harrison Birtwistle once referred to as (as far as I remember ) ‘the still centre of a spiralling  universe’, concerning a certain passage in his own music; there’s a moment in his piece Secret Theatre that fits this image.


CS: Did the improvisation with Simon Allen in your 9 January 2018 concert at Borough New Music change your view of performance and composition?

RP: Yes, definitely. Simon and I discussed how the improvisation would be presented, and eventually we settled on including an activity that defined the timespan: the construction of a piece of furniture within the 45-minute performance. To grab something from everyday life was a pleasing, temporal, structuring approach. To relate that to composition, well, any performance of a score involves some degree of interderminacy, because every performer is different, and part of the performer’s modus operandi is to interpret, not just to be a mechanical agent of the piece. With the issue of structuring and the process of composing, you can plan everything or take a line for a walk, so to speak. I’m fairly certain I’ve heard both Harrison Birtwistle and Judith Weir talk about composing being like “driving in the fog and not knowing where the end is until you get there”. I now tend to combine these approaches, maybe getting an idea for the ending first. At one point, several years ago, I was planning my pieces thoroughly with worded descriptions and graphic scores. When it came to actually writing the piece, I found that (and I’ve heard this from others) you can lose interest in the piece because you haven’t left anything to discover as you write it. So I think a more balanced approach is better. It is practical to have a duration in mind, and I like to have a concept and a pallette of ideas, but something has to be left for the moment of composing. This can be compared with improvisation. I was familiar with Simon’s language, his textures and his sonorities (although he always manages to surprise me). So in a way I was still working with something I knew – I had a vague sense of the kind of piece we were going to make, but no way of predicting the details! (Watch the highlights on Youtube.)

CS: How did the space influence you in Series 4?

RP: A space affects the acoustics. The building is part of your instrument. Just as the body of the guitar is the sounding chamber, so the building is too. When writing each of the pieces, I was thinking how they would come across acoustically.

For the 9 January concert, Simon and I visited the church well before, because it was important for him to hear the church and see what kind of acoustic it had. In the event, some of his devices were very quiet and delicate, which gave the performance a special character. In contrast, the accordion [on 23 January] was surprisingly loud in that environment.

The church interior had inspired me to make a piece in which the players move around that space. This became the flute and clarinet piece Touching the Void [on 16 January], for the ‘Islands’ concert. The title is a reference to the distance between the two players — psychologically, sonically, spatially — and also between the players and audience. Having the players come together and walk side-by-side down the aisle was part of that idea, as was the audience participation. Interestingly, the sonic perception of movement wasn’t as effective as I’d anticipated, largely due to the resonance of the interior. When the players moved to the back, the sound was more perceptible than I had expected despite the distance, because the church carried the sound so well. But visually, it worked because the performers disappeared behind the audience and then reemerged. The effectiveness of the theatrical element was very much down to the performers (Ian Mitchell and Lisa Nelsen). If I did it again, I would consider a larger space, or reduce the dynamics to emphasise the sense of distance.

CS: What were the highlights of being composer, performer and artistic director in Series 4?

RP: As a composer, working with musicians and having them play your piece was a delight.

As artist director, stage management and looking after musicians was a challenge – guest musicians have to feel welcome, and (for example) I hadn’t seen Miloš for years, so it was great to catch up, but it made for quite a demanding concert day. In future, a mentoring scheme for guest artistic directors would be good. But I’d always recommend bringing in people you want to work with – it was a fantastic opportunity to once again work with and write for Miloš, Matthew and Simon – very wonderful for me.

As a performer, the first concert on 9 January was a highlight because I hadn’t done anything like that before and, actually, I think that specific activity was a first. Being a performer in that concert was an experience: I was anxious about hamming it up, but once I’d got into it and realised I need to move quickly, the task at hand took over and any self-consciousness evaporated. In fact, as I became aware that this thing was taking longer than expected and I needed to get a move on (it was important to me that I completed the chest of drawers assembly, because this was the principle structuring element), the resulting tension added a dramatic element which the audience picked up on — it was unplanned, but it worked. I used to perform as a jazz guitarist and now I sing with a ukulele in pubs, but assembling a piece of furniture as part of a improvised event is a very different type of experience!

CS: What do you mean by ‘a different type of experience’?

RP: Well, singing with a ukelele feels a world away from working with Simon and from composing for other musicians. It’s like putting a different hat on. But I don’t see these as conflicting and, in fact, it would be interesting to connect them somehow. Actually Simon mentioned he’d be interested in doing something with me with and ukelele/guitar. I need to think about this: he’s not talking about singing songs, he’s talking about extending the vocabulary of the instrument, and I see the two in different categories. There is a tendency to think composers have to have integrity, win the confidence of their audience, like a ‘brand’ to believe in. If you operate in other fields, it might weaken that integrity. Yet composers like Richard Rodney Bennett, William Walton, Max Richter and Nico Muhly have all written for film music as well as concert music. And I think, why not? I’m not doing quite that, but there are plenty of ‘classical’ composers and musicians around who do pop music or jazz gigs. It can broaden your outlook, and there might be cross-fertilisation that you’re not aware of – can make you unique. Because of the economics of being a musician, we should embrace the multi-faceted approaches that are possible by one person.