Born in 1979 in Fukuoka, Japan, Keisuke Okazaki started to play the violin at the age of four; aged thirteen, he was highly praised by Yehudi Menuhin, and he made his first public appearance aged 14. From Tokyo, he went on to study in Lübeck, Köln, at the Salzburg Mozarteum, and with the Berlin Philharmonic's Karajan-Academy.
He has won numerous competitions, most notably First Prizes in both the 54th ARD International Music Competition in Munich (2005) and the 1997 Wieniawski Violin Competition in Lublin; he was also a finalist in the 2005 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels.
As a soloist, Keisuke has appeared at festivals including Ceský Krumlov, and the Zino Francescatti Festival in France. He has performed with orchestras and ensembles including the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the St Petersburg Philharmonic, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Ensemble Modern. His repertoire ranges from the Baroque to contemporary works by composers such as Toshio Hosokawa; in 2006, he premiered Morgan Hayes' Violin Concerto with BCMG. As a member of the Aurata Quintet of Berlin, he has also given chamber music concerts across Europe.
His recordings include 'Keisuke-Debut!' (2000), 'Kreutzer & Franck' (2008) and an ongoing series of the complete Beethoven violin sonatas for Fontec. Since 2009 he has been a leader of the Zürich Opera Orchestra in Switzerland.
The Esbjerg Ensemble performs classical chamber music at the highest artistic level and is recognisable by its innovative and versatile programme. The ensemble at present consists of 11 harmonious and expressive musicians from all around the world all specifically chosen for their very unique qualities; divided into a woodwind quintet, a string quartet, piano and percussion.
The ensemble excels in classical chamber music from the baroque to the romantic period via the Wiener classics, but is to a great extent known for its stylistically consistent interpretation of modern works. Therefore the Esbjerg Ensemble is often the natural choice when contemporary composers are seeking ensembles to premiere or record newly written compositions.
One of the UK’s foremost conductors specialising in contemporary repertoire, Christopher Austin has given more than 80 world and local premieres in the last decade, including works by John Adams, Simon Bainbridge, Luke Bedford, Tansy Davies, Michael Finnissy, Morgan Hayes, John McCabe, Stuart MacRae, Colin Matthews, Olga Neuwirth, Steve Reich, Poul Ruders, Bent Sørensen, Joby Talbot, Raymond Warren and John Woolrich. More than 40 of those premieres have been given with the Brunel Ensemble of which he is Artistic Director and with them and many other ensembles he has consistently championed the music of Malcolm Williamson and Elisabeth Lutyens and he has had a long association with the music of John McCabe.
Recent work includes debuts with the Orchestre National de Lille, Orchestra della Teatro Regio Parma, the Danubia Symphony Orchestra and at the Aldeburgh Festival; returns to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, RTÉ Concert Orchestra and the Esbjerg Ensemble, as part of Sound Around – the Øresund Biennale of Contemporary Music in Copenhagen. Other work includes the London Sinfonietta, Composers’ Ensemble, The Philharmonia, BBC Symphony, Royal Philharmonic, Hallé and BBC Concert Orchestras, Present Music (New York), Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen, the Danish Radio Sinfonietta, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ulster Orchestra and the English Symphony Orchestra. He has also collaborated with John Cale, Michael Nyman and the rock group The Divine Comedy. Future work includes further concerts and recordings with the Esbjerg Ensemble, a return to the Orchestre National de Lille, his debut with the Odense Symphony Orchestra and a tour of the Far East conducting Joby Talbot’s score for Carolyn Carlson’s Eau for the Centre Chorégraphique National de Roubaix Nord – Pas de Calais. He has recently begun work with Azalea, a young, new music ensemble based at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
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Morgan Hayes’ delicate yet manic Violin Concerto forms the centrepiece to this debut release on NMC showcasing his instrumental and ensemble music. Included are his transcription of Squarepusher's Port Rhombus, commissioned for the South Bank Centre's 2003 Ether Festival, which captures the beauty and fragility of this experimental drum'n'bass work from 1996; Lucky's Speech for solo violin, inspired by a character from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot; a collection of piano miniatures Strides Book I & II; and the dramatic solo piano work Puppet Theatre, which refers to the title of the painting by Paul Klee, featured on the front cover of this release.
JP: I get the feeling you are more comfortable in our present age of transparency regarding matters of influence and allusion than you might have been in the self-conscious days of high modernism when dogma dictated that originality was a ne plus ultra of creativity – but do you feel that these two positions are not mutually exclusive? Your music doesn’t strike me, after all, as the product of a posturing, crowd pleasing post-modernist.
MH: In some ways the turning point was hearing some of the improvisations done in the ballet class, or accompaniment to silent movies by John Sweeney – it may not be the grandest form of music making but I noted that while the source material was identifiable (whether it was Chopin, Latin or Gibbons) the expression was entirely personal – it sounded bang up to date within its pastiche. I certainly preferred it to a lot of 'contemporary' music and Keith Jarrett improvisations.
This also relates to some of the best of the John White Piano Sonatas I’ve heard over the years. A more recent example was when I was listening ‘blindfold’ to an NMC sampler CD where the Robin Holloway Violin Concerto (with its explicit references to the past) leapt out as being every bit as fresh as the works it was flanked by.
JP: This brings us on to the subject of teachers: how do you think you benefited from composition lessons? And do you still feel the influence of your teachers on your way of thinking and writing? Who were they – why did they appeal to you?
MH: Unless entirely shielded from stimulus, I feel you're benefiting from composition lessons in one way or other – sometimes more obliquely. My introduction to modernism was via Paul Crossley's and Barrie Gavin's Channel 4 series ' Sinfonietta'. At Hastings Music Festival I also benefited from the encouragement and advice of people like Yonty Solomon and Ronald Smith (in the composition category). This in turn led me to investigate the music of Alkan.
I've gained a lot from the advice of performers, such as Stephen Gutman, some of whom have a more objective overview than a professional composer might have. However, Michael Finnissy was my first composition teacher as such – a fairly random choice based on the fact that the location was useful (I was studying in Lewes at the time when Michael lived in Brighton) and I remembered reading about him in the Proms brochure. If I were to pinpoint the most remarkable aspect of Michael as a teacher, it would be his ability to convey in words something of the excitement of what it is like to write music. In analysing other composers’ music I always felt his approach was completely unpretentious and practical. I hope that this has very much imprinted on my way of thinking!
Ixion’s concerts and the Brighton Festival were quite a major influence on me, at roughly same time as my studies with Michael: they exposed me to some of the most exciting younger composers. I always remember Michael Finnissy's performance of Luke Stoneham's thrillingly relentless Body to Centre – in a curious sort of way, I think Luke's music was as much an influence as Michael's – but also hearing a composer like Morton Feldman, who was at that time a marginalised figure.
ABOUT THE MUSIC ON THE CD
MH: The Sinfonietta wanted something pretty close to the original – recognisable – and that was quite a challenge; I wondered if I had pushed the boat out too far, and also what they actually meant by ‘recognisable’. A film of the Sinfonietta’s performance of Port Rhombus found its way on to YouTube, and Squarepusher’s fans expressed some pretty negative reactions: they were probably looking for something that wasn’t there. I wanted to convey the melancholy of the original, to preserve the melodic shape, but the percussive element didn’t seem that important to me. From my perspective, the limitation [of arranging the track] was a good one – not least because no score exists for this sort of music, so I had to write something down from the CD, exciting in itself, and use these scraps I’d written as materials for my piece. I used the tune heard at the beginning as an ostinato – and such repeating patterns are a basic building block of a lot of Warp artists’ work, so that’s perhaps a strong conceptual link between us.
STRIDES BOOK 1
JP: Each book of Strides does feel like an actual cycle, with cross references between the pieces in the books. There’s a distinct allusion to early jazz, to stride piano in particular, which is one reason for the title. The other reason for the title is the idea of strides or leaps across eras –
MH: Yes, it’s like a dial on a radio switching between different things, even in one piece.
JP: This piece is based on a section of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, isn’t it: how does the structure reflect this?
MH: What characterises the Beckett for me is the way it’s made up of lots of fragments of ideas, which don’t necessarily relate to each other, but which finally find some sense of continuity. I’m interested, in general, in packing quite a lot of material into a small time – in compressing it.
JP: This goes against the received wisdom that a good composer makes a small amount go a long way.
MH: If I look back I always see potential for expansion, but in the heat of the moment it’s not always what you think most intensely that realises the spirit of what you’re trying to do. – Also in this piece I’ve used the sound of folk music from southern and eastern Europe: it’s a type of violin writing and playing I like. It comes up in Slippage as well, in fact. It’s not actual pieces of music [that influenced me], more this physical approach to the instrument, a sense of energy.
JP: It’s got a relentless feel – it doesn’t take a breath really, like the Beckett itself.
JP: When BCMG commissioned you, why did you suggested a violin concerto?
MH: I’d heard Keisuke playing some Schubert with Stephen Gutman. Keisuke hadn’t played – and still doesn’t play – much contemporary music but, as it happens, he played in a Münich competition, and in fact won a prize for the best interpretation for the set work (by Johannes Maria Staud), so he had a good record but limited experience. The fact that he is not a specialist didn’t worry me unduly; and it certainly meant he came to the piece entirely through the way he’d approach a Romantic piece.
JP: I heard a recording of the first performance, and it sounded pretty different from this new version. What did you change?
MH: I made the textures clearer: for example, in the opening I took out some big pizzicato chords which I originally thought would give it a good sense of unity – but in fact they did the opposite, so they had to go! Chris [Austin], to be honest, encouraged me to do this, and to put in more harp glissandos. For me, the collaborative aspect is important – I take on board ideas from the people I work with most closely. Chris’s conductor’s score of the piece is full of expressive markings I didn’t put it: where I put non vibrato, he suggested it would be better with. I think the nature of the piece is Romantic – and so it’s in character with that type of writing – he knows this sort of thing because he’s known my work for so long and he actually teaches orchestration and composition.
I didn’t feel cowed by calling this piece a violin concerto; I actually borrowed a four-note chord on the violin from the Stravinsky concerto (itself a very referential piece), and I alluded to Dillon’s as well, which I like.
JP: It sounds really unlike the Stravinsky to me.
MH: Well, other people have heard Elgar’s Violin Concerto, and Szymanowski’s first, neither of which I knew at the time. It’s an instrument I feel distant from, not even with an amateur’s concept –
JP: Which is strange because Lucky’s Speech sounds like it was written by a fiddle player –
MH: – so at the suggestion of Stephen Gutman I used a picture representation, made a map to figure out what could lie under the hand, and what would be awkward. Without using special effects, there’s still so much scope with pitch content (which some composers don’t seem interested in), plucking or bowing, type of bowing – just because these have been done ad infinitum, it doesn’t mean you can’t have your own angle.
JP: I’ve noticed playing pieces like Lute Stop and Chipped Marble that some of your pieces have an inherent theatricality, but in Puppet Theatre this characteristic is made explicit by the title.
MH: The title refers to a painting by Paul Klee which inspired a much earlier piano piece of mine of the same title written when I was 15 or so. The ‘new’ Puppet Theatre isn't in any way based on that piece! However, like the earlier piece it does evoke the painting to a certain extent: the painting is primarily black, but with luminous colours coming out of it. Not unlike artwork we did at primary school which comprises of wax crayon, and with a layer of black paint on top. Then you scrape away at the paint to reveal bits of the crayon underneath. In simplistic terms, the blackness is the middle to low register of the piano but bright colours project out of it. There's a childlike quality to the painting which is a million miles away from the piece! Having said that, I think to compose music and create art in general you mustn't lose touch with a sense of the childlike.
An earlier title of the piece was Buffeting – a horrible title, but it conveys the endless hustle and bustle of the piece – like characters arguing with each other. The tremolos almost suggest a scene change; Stephen Gutman mentioned this to me once.
JP: You revised this piece quite radically before the recording – I gave the première of this new version in Kiev in March 2011 – and you told me you had simplified a lot of the textures and harmonies. Why was that?
MH: It was a case of de-cluttering! I wanted to give a much sharper focus on the piece.
JP: You wrote Lucky’s Dream after Lucky’s Speech, expressly for Keisuke for a concert in which he was also playing Bach’s E major Partita. I noticed, especially in the second half of piece, a kind of contrapuntal writing –
MH: A dialogue –
JP: – between different registers and types of music –
MH: I knew about Keisuke’s concert programme and did think about the way Bach could suggest quite complex polyphony within a single, solo violin line.
THREE DISTRESSED SURFACES
JP: These are the oldest pieces on the CD, written from 1995 onwards. So how do you think your music has changed?
MH: Rhythmically they are more intricate – there isn’t usually the sense of pulse that you find in later pieces, and they’re very changeable in mood.
JP: But when there’s no sense of pulse, the sensation of rhythm is far less complicated, even if what you’ve written down is mathematically complex.
MH: They seem to capture spontaneity of an improvisation –
JP: I’ve seen you improvise a piece of music at Malcolm Crowthers’ birthday party –
MH: – Some pieces probably started life as improvisations; like a lot of composers, for quite a long time I was frustrated by the gap between what I could play and what I could successfully write down, but over the years you gradually find ways to do it.
JP: You studied with Michael Finnissy – were you conscious that these early pieces bear quite an imprint of his style?
MH: Yes, that’s definitely fair to say.
JP: Whereas now your music seems to have much less in common with his.
MH: I was also really interested in Babbitt’s music as a teenager – and the mercurial, highly active nature appealed to me a lot. Also the way tonal references can shoot out of a atonal context – you find that in Xenakis a lot as well.
JP: These pieces are openly about physical material, textures. The title Flaking Yellow Stucco is from a novel by William Burroughs, Cities of the Red Night, and refers to an old building in Tangier.
MH: The title came at the end – the piece is dedicated to Michael Finnissy, and he lived at 48 Brunswick Square in Brighton and one of two of those buildings were a bit flaky – so the music wasn’t consciously written about a texture, it feeds the imagination in an almost magical way. The way the music can suddenly break off and ‘do’ something else is actually quite like the revealing of a layer underneath, as implied by the title.
Corrugated is very different from the others – it’s a single line that is actually extracted from Flaking Yellow Stucco – the course of the line is interrupted in several different ways throughout the piece. So the piece is about a melodic line that goes up and down – as per title – and you’re finding ways of changing it, stopping it, varying it while keeping the general shape in view.
JP: The opening of Slippage also reminds me of 1980s Finnissy (like Contretänze which has high melodic lines intertwined with quarter tones) – very dense, aggressive, lots happening, use of time-marking devices such as attacks by the double bass, massive piano chords, extreme registers. You'd written a piano concerto a couple of years before – Shellac (1997) – and Slippage is tauter structurally, and here the piano is sometimes in the ensemble, and sometimes very much the soloist. In fact, it gradually emerges as the piece goes on. Paul Driver wrote that the 'eruptive piano solo slips out of the geological layers in which it had been embedded', also suggesting a link with the Distressed Surfaces, so you feel sound has an almost tangible, physical quality, and you carve it materially like a sculptor.
MH: Another important factor – and in this respect perhaps different to the Finnissy you mentioned – is the gradual moving away from the angst which can be symptomatic of a lot of modernist music – the piano leads the way, where early on in the piece quite a bright/tonal sounding chord pokes out of the texture (2:15) and is spread over a longer period about a minute later. In the piano cadenza there's quite a bit of lingering over a very romantic passage (6:45) before it proceeds in a more aggressive manner.
STRIDES BOOK 2
JP: For me, this has echoes of Berio’s piano writing of the 1960s (which is itself now in the past), through the almost neoclassical capriccio and solemnity of the second and third movements, and to the references to Bach and the English virginalists of the final sections.
MH: I didn’t plan the cycle like this: although each piece was composed quickly, I arrived at the ‘set’ was more slowly. I was less concerned with wild contrasts from one piece to the next (as with Schoenberg Op.19) but with the sense of progression which you mention, coupled with cross references from one piece to the next – like the convulsive, downward runs in the lower register of the last piece which mirror the same figuration in the first piece.
JP: The music presents a stylistic paradox: while the later pieces allude to ‘older’ music they don't seem less ‘new’.
JP: Like some of your other pieces, Lute Stop has a complicated history in that you finished it once in 2003, when Sarah Nicolls played it at the Warehouse, and then I played it few times; then just before the recording – literally, a few days before – you added about half as much again. Are you going to write more?
MH: Oh no, there won’t be any more! I’d never used octaves in piano music before. I’d used them for years playing for dance classes, because it’s a very good way of establishing a strong pulse and making yourself heard. And I thought it was strange to be involved in so much music-making of this type on a day-to-day basis and it be completely separated from composing life. I’d been deterred from using octaves by composition teachers – one felt they were just something not to be used – but I actually use them all the time in working at dance classes. Also they’re double octaves – in both hands at either end of the keyboard, using a few specific intervals – so the result has a very characteristic timbre all of its own. Then the same melody is slowed down dramatically and placed in the middle of the keyboard.
JP: I remember you told the students at Košice Conservatoire when I played the piece there, that the abrupt changes in register – from extremes, to the middle – really define the structure –
MH: – and the bit I added at the end is a more ambiguous in this respect, as though the certainties of earlier sections are being broken down. The title actually came to me well into the writing of the piece. I’d been using these abrupt changes in sound, like those produced by a registration change in the harpsichord – the button used for one of these is actually called a lute stop. The muscular, slightly manic bull-in-a-china-shop kind of writing reminded me of Alexis Weissenberg’s playing, which I in fact really like. He has a block-like approach to dynamics, which I used in this piece to accentuate the shifts in register, and I used a quite scary speed at the beginning. His second sonata of Rachmaninoff sounds like he’s on the run, almost too fast!
JP: In Košice I played Lute Stop really fast, and I think I broke a string –
MH: Yeah, I’ll never forget the audience reaction!
"This elegant showcase comprises nine works, of which the largest is the 18-minute, single-movement, chamber-scaled Violin Concerto, written in 2006 (and revised in 2009) for the present fine soloist. The piece moves with vigour and colour washes comfortably between avant-garde jaggedness and a sort of nostalgia for the traditionally violinistic. ... Powell is soloist on the densely expressionistic Slippage (1999), for piano and ensemble, and by himself plays four typically pungent works ... Hayes's version of Squarepusher's Port Rhombus makes a striking overture." The Sunday Times
'Hayes makes witty assemblages out of brilliantly coloured shards and balletic gestures. Wonderful performances; luminous and warm recorded sound' BBC Music Magazine
'The music of Morgan Hayes is full of references to ordinary things, but with a suggestion of something dark...beautifully played' The Telegraph
"the Concerto is a beautifully wrought piece" Guardian
‘…beautifully packaged, if sometimes unsettling in its mix of airy, brilliantly coloured gestures and denser expressionism.’ Gramophone Magazine
NMC Recordings is grateful to Stainer & Bell Ltd for a contribution towards the cost of this recording, and to the RVW Trust for its support of this project. We are also grateful to Christopher Austin for his support of this recording and of Morgan Hayes' music, and to Frode Andersen and the Esbjerg Ensemble.
Violin Concerto, Port Rhombus, Lucky's Dream, Lucky's Speech and Slippage were recorded at West Jutland Academy of Music, Esbjerg, Denmark on 22-25 June 2009.
Engineer/ Editor EJNAR KANDING
Producers CHRISTOPHER AUSTIN, NICHOLAS MARTIN
Puppet Theatre, Three Distressed Surfaces, Lute Stop and Strides, Books 1-2 were recorded at the Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Surrey on 10 January 2011.
Engineer/ Editor ADAQ KHAN
Producers ADAQ KHAN, MORGAN HAYES, JONATHAN POWELL
Mastering EJNAR KANDING (tracks 1, 5, 6, 8, 12)
ADAQ KHAN (tracks 2-4, 7, 9-11, 13-18)
Executive Producer for NMC COLIN MATTHEWS
Cover image Paul Klee: Puppet Theatre (1923)
Graphic design FRANCOIS HALL
(P) 2011 NMC Recordings Ltd
© 2011 NMC Recordings Ltd