On this week's blog, composer Joe Cutler tells us about his second album on NMC, Elsewhereness, which was released in October 2018, and his selection process for the pieces which are featured on it.
In this age of streaming and downloads, there might be an argument that the album format has become outdated and obsolete. But for me, it’s a wonderful and highly creative medium. The process of thinking about what to include is perhaps rather like an artist deciding on what work to present in a solo show. How do you curate the space? It’s exciting to see what relationships and narratives emerge when you place various, contrasting pieces alongside one another. The results can be quite self-revelatory.
I always take a long time over creating a recording. There are pragmatic reasons for this; firstly, release schedules are generally planned well in advance, so labels prefer proposals which build in a reasonable lead-in time. Secondly, my experience of making records is that funding often happens in dribs and drabs. At Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, where I teach, there is a fund I can apply to but the amounts are not vast; certainly not enough for a whole disc. But if you stagger things over three or four years, then gradually something emerges bit by bit. That’s the reason why one of the first recordings on my new album, For Frederic Lagnau, dates from 2014. That was really the start of this whole journey.
My debut NMC solo album, Bartlebooth, came out in 2008. It was a very important chance for me to bring together a number of key pieces that, up to that point, presented a broad and representative range of my work. Elsewhereness comes ten years later just as I turn 50. In programming this album, I thought carefully about what to include, focussing on works from recent years, including those that might point to future avenues. All the pieces come from more or less the last decade, and what binds them all together is a celebration of creative relationships and friendships.
The album feels very personal to me. Even the cover is personal; it’s a wonderful photo taken by my brother-in-law Chris Redgrave near where we used to live in Oxfordshire. The image is of a tumble-down-barn set within flat fields which expand outwardly towards a deep, expansive horizon. I feel it captured a sense of ‘elsewhereness’ perfectly.
The title track, Elsewhereness, was written for Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s Royal Gala Opening of the new concert hall, and was my first large orchestral piece in over a decade. Having worked at the Conservatoire since 2000, the context of writing this piece felt very close to me. Having quite a long time to compose it offered the chance to really reflect on the impermanence of the cities we construct, and simultaneously think about how to personalise my orchestral “sound”. Whilst my relationship with Royal Birmingham Conservatoire goes back a long way, the piece also presented an opportunity to work with the remarkable Lithuanian conductor, Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla.
McNulty for piano trio was a commission from the Fidelio Trio and is also a very recent piece, written in 2016. I’ve known the members of the Fidelio Trio for nearly 20 years, and have worked extensively with the trio collectively and individually. Two members of the group are Irish and I’ve spent quite a lot of time with them in Ireland so I wanted to draw upon that experience. I grew up in a very Irish part of London, have a bit of Irish ancestry, and played fiddle in a band in an Irish pub in Warsaw in the mid-1990s. In McNulty I wanted to create a piece that celebrates a kind of faux-traditional music.
For Frederic Lagnau was a commission for Workers Union Ensemble, and is scored for saxophone, oboe, vibraphone, percussion, piano and double bass. The piece was written in memory of Frederic Lagnau, a French minimalist and complete original. I met Frederic at Darmstadt in 1992. We were both outsiders there, and got on immediately. The piece consists of five short “miniatures” which run continuously from one another, creating a larger whole.
Soprano Sarah Leonard is someone I have worked with regularly since 2002. So much of what I’ve learnt about writing for voice and setting texts has been through her. Akhmatova Fragments is scored for soprano and 11 solo strings, setting short poems by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova that deal with themes of love, regret, sleeplessness and ageing. I was particularly keen to include these pieces on the album as they have been “resting” for the last 10 years. I’m fond of the structure, the way the first four movements are very brief, concise and self-contained, whilst the final movement is much longer, unravelling in a completely different way.
Sikorski B was written for Noszferatu, a collective I co-founded with three close friends in 2000 (Finn Peters on sax, Ivo de Greef on piano and Dave Price on percussion). The group has been of great importance to me, offering a chance to explore the spaces between genres that I’m drawn to. The title is an homage to Tomasz Sikorski, a Polish composer who, in the words of composer Stephen Montague, used minimalism to “bludgeon rather that to entertain”. I encountered his music whilst a student in Warsaw and was drawn to the relationship between uncompromising structures and emotional intensity. My piece is also a slight foray into the incorporation of improvisation within fixed musical structures, something that is developed in the album’s final piece.
Karembeu’s Guide to the Complete Defensive Midfielder was a commission from the 2015 Cheltenham Festival and was written for Trish Clowes’ Emulsion Sinfonietta, an ensemble that was set up to go beyond defined boundaries of genre. The piece builds on my work with Noszferatu, allowing saxophonist Iain Ballamy and percussionist Tim Giles a free space to navigate through tightly constructed musical sections. The title alludes to football formations, where similar relationships between improvisation and structure exist. Working with Trish and her ensemble has certainly led me onto new ground, and I’ll be writing a substantial piece for her and the BBC Concert Orchestra for autumn 2019. Everything is work in progress really!