This week on our NMC Archive series is part 2 of our blogs on unusual instruments on NMC! We hear from David Sawer, Dai Fujikura and Joe Cutler with their article for our Friends newsletter back in 2012!
David Sawer: From Morning to Midnight – 'Velodrome'
We're continuing our Meet the Trustees series with Richard Fries, who joined our board in 2002.
Music is one of my greatest passions, but sadly only as a listener. Since youth I’ve had a keen interest in contemporary music, first prompted by the old Third Programme. I’d known Colin Matthews for some years, admiring not only his music (The Great Journey long a favourite), but also his selfless commitment to promoting contemporary composers. So when I retired from the Charity Commission, I was delighted to be asked to join NMC’s Board. As a charity committed to seeking a wider appreciation of contemporary British composers through making their work easily (and permanently) available, and driven by this mission rather than commercial considerations, NMC is unique – and uniquely valuable.
I came to music at an early age, working my way through my step-father’s voluminous collection of 78s. They introduced me to great singers like Alexander Kipnis and Isobel Baillie. But the collection hardly went beyond 1828 - Schubert was my step-father’s passion, especially Winterreise (a passion I share – I have over a dozen recordings!). The Third Programme introduced me to Webern, Elliott Carter and Stockhausen. My teenage rebellion was to buy CDs of the Bartok quartets – difficult to remember that Bartok was modern in the 1950s, and a challenge to the older generation!
My career was in the civil service, joining the Home Office in 1965, so different in ethos and scope to today’s Home Office. I worked on a wide range of issues from criminal justice and policing, immigration and race relations (and even horse-racing!) Then in 1992 I was appointed to the Charity Commission with the grand Victorian title of Chief Commissioner, symbolic of the journey of modernisation on which the Commission had to embark.
Retiring in 1999 I continued to be involved in initiatives to develop charity and not-for-profit law and regulation in this country, Europe and worldwide. It also gave me the chance to become a trustee of various charities – gamekeeper become poacher?! That was when I joined the Board of NMC, as well as St John’s Smith Square (long a favourite venue).
Living in London has been a wonderful place to enjoy all types of music. I was able to get to know contemporary music through the London Sinfonietta, the Arditti Quartet and others in a patchwork of venues, such as the Round House, the old Almeida Festival and St John’s. One of my proudest moments was hearing the string quartet Graham Williams wrote for my wife Carole and me premiered by the Carducci Quartet.
I’ve always been surprised at the resistance many music lovers show to contemporary music. Music must, to me, be a living, continually growing art. Historically how each generation has reacted to the past is one of the fascinations of music; and that fascination is part of the attraction of hearing contemporary music. NMC’s great contributions is to enable music lovers to keep abreast of what British composers are producing and, essential, to be able to hear their work more than at a single performance. The idea that contemporary music is all rebarbative dissonance is so wrong. Just one example to disprove this: Colin Matthews’ moving memorial Berceuse for Dresden, written for the rededication of the Frauenkirche.
Not that I like all that NMC produces! Indeed one of my criteria for whether NMC is doing its job is precisely that no one could like every release – that’s my test of whether NMC’s reach extends widely enough to give a good cross-section of what composers are producing now!
So often I hear a new piece, am intrigued, but need to hear it again to appreciate it properly. For example I found Emily Howard’s string quartet, Afference, fascinating but tough on first hearing (shades of Xenakis); but with repeated listening it has become a favourite. That is one of the Debut Disc series with which NMC makes such a valuable contribution for young composers, offering them a whole CD devoted to their music.
It’s a privilege for me to be able to support NMC as a trustee and friend as it approaches its 30th anniversary. The range and quality of what NMC’s small team led by Colin and Anne manage to produce on NMC’s stretched resources is a wonder. And their ability to keep abreast of new technology – so far from the era of 78s on which I grew up! – is stunning. My wish for NMC is that this year’s anniversary should be celebrated by the support of music lovers enabling NMC to grow ever stronger.
If you'd like to support our work, you can do so by donating to our Anniversary appeal here or becoming a Friend here. Every little helps and no contribution is too small! Thank you.
Last year, we were delighted to introduce a new label to our roster: multi.modal! We're now releasing their second album and we're sharing with you an article written for our Friends Newsletter by Claudia Molitor, co-founder of the label. Find out more about the label and their first release below, and find their new release, Boudaries, here.
Tullis Rennie and I met two years ago as we started lecturing positions at City, University of London. Over the first few months we quickly realized that in much of our compositional work we are interested in weaving together seemingly disparate fields of musical practice such as composition, improvisation and field recording. We also realized that we both had a passion for promoting such interdisciplinary work by fellow artists, and so we developed the idea of creating a record label that would aim to muddy the borders between improvisation, field recording and composition. A label whose releases would reflect contemporary music practices which tend to be collaborative, outward looking and multi.modal.
I have had the good fortune to work with NMC before, contributing a song to the superb NMC Songbook, being one of the composers involved in their collaboration with the Science Museum and in 2016 releasing The Singing Bridge. So I knew that if we were to launch multi.modal I definitely wanted to work with NMC, who understand our ambitious aim of developing releases that are interdisciplinary and adventurous. Needless to say collaborating with NMC has been wonderful and by working with them, multi.modal will reach many more people than we could have achieved on our own.
For our first release, Decoys, we asked artists and fieldrecordists Angus Carlyle and Mark Peter Wright to create a recording and a graphic score that for them represented their work. Their recording forms side A of Decoys and this is what they wrote about it:
‘The air was sharp as needles; painful to swallow; our eyes streamed. An ochre hue blanketed everything. Dusty haze seemed to drape from all things physical; shadow limbs haunted the space.
We kept moving; there was no other choice. Underfoot felt as though time had been composted, its roots were crosshatched with debris and discarded tech. You could read the materiality of the landscape like an archeological ruin, listen to it like a witness.
Winds wiped a molten energy through skin, stone and sky. There was turbulence down here that dragged a bubbling bucolic mass of movement, a micro-tectonic world of things being awakened and stirred.
Our relentless and ungainly movement continued – we didn’t know how to stop. The air churned in transmissions of static; weather turned metallic; teeth registered frequencies of the felt and uncertain. Here, high up on the mountain we sat, attempting to decode its auditory particulates.'
We then invited the fabulous violinist Alison Blunt to join Tullis (trombone) and myself (piano) to interpret the score Angus and Mark created. We deliberately decided not to listen to their recording, so we would be completely free to work with the score as we chose... it was therefore very exciting to realize how many commonalities there are between their recording and our interpretations which forms Side B of the vinyl release.
If you want to find out more about the artists involved or about SPARC, please visit:
sparc.london • www.anguscarlyle.com • www.markpeterwright.net
www.claudiamolitor.org • www.tullisrennie.com • www.alisonblunt.com
This week in our NMC Archive series, David Lefeber tells us about being a sound engineer and producer on NMC albums.
As a producer and engineer on many of NMC's recordings, I am in an enviable position of not only hearing the music of many of the composers and performers featured on the label but also of working very closely with them towards achieving those recordings. The listening required, rather different to that done for pleasure, is perhaps best described as technical listening. My role is to act as a mirror for the players, to listen to how they are interpreting the music, referencing the score, and reflecting back on the successes or otherwise of particular approaches. I am not an interpreter, merely a mediator between the score in performance and the final polished recording. This relationship is extremely flexible and always to the service of the music.
So much of the music recorded on NMC is very new. This offers up an added bonus of working alongside composers in the sessions, of helping the performance captured by the microphones reach their expectations as closely as possible.
For a composer, the very act of writing down in notation one’s musical intentions is an extremely skilled operation, one honed over a lifetime of experience. Notation, conventionally speaking, is an imperfect code for performance, this is why we need interpreters. Having the composer on hand during the sessions to elucidate her or his intention beyond the score's codification can never be underestimated. It is a perfect opportunity to fine tune small details (dynamics, articulation, phrasing, sometimes orchestration too), changes that often find their way into post-recording score revisions (...or maybe that little gem of information was meant to be a secret...). Scores, after all, are not carved in stone. In my view, it is important as producer to provide the time and space for a composer to find solutions to any small issues that arise. There is no other occasion where a work can be heard in such detail. A recording session offers the luxury of having as many goes at musical passages as it takes to reach the satisfaction of all parties involved. For composers new to recording, this is a revelation. NMC affords that opportunity to many young composers like no other British label.
Much of my experience of listening to music these days is thus during sessions. And then of course editing too. It is highly detailed listening. I might also describe it as structural listening, building a mental sonic picture during the sessions of how the piece will be put together during the edit whilst also representing what composer and players intend. Such an approach to listening can be exhausting and not ideal for domestic 'pleasure'. But the producer's hat is a difficult one to remove. It is hard not to spot mistakes or less-than-ideal recorded sound and just hear the music. However, the mere beauty, drama or perfection of some works can wrench that hat off my head. Janacek's String Quartets, every time. Bach's A Musical Offering, St John's Passion or Goldberg Variations. Stravinsky's Agon or Les Noces (Royal Ballet's production a few years back still resonates in me). A recent trip to hear WNO's production in Cardiff of Janacek's From the House of the Dead blew me away. And in two visits to the Royal Opera House, George Benjamin's Written on Skin (to my ear one of the best modern operas), and Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur will stay with me.
(photo 1: David Lefeber at Erika Fox sessions, photo 2: Anne Rushton, David Lefeber, the Mercury Quartet and Mark Simpson at recording sessions for Mark Simpson's Debut Disc)
This week in our NMC Archive is a blog written for our Friends Newsletter by Hannah Vlcek, who worked at NMC for more than 15 years and who shares with us some of her fond memories.
My first day at NMC started a day late. I received a somewhat strained phone call from Jenny Goodwin, then working freelance on CD booklets, asking me to stay at home as (it turned out) my intended manager had vanished; the Trustees had to decide what to do with me. I’ll always be grateful to Bill Colleran, Bayan Northcott, Noel Periton and Colin Matthews for deciding that I might be useful in helping Jenny to tidy up the chaos left by my predecessor. (Of course, my name may have helped: the first, highly efficient NMC Administrator had been Hannah Taylor, née Rogers, and for several years I was joined by NMC’s excellent Sales & Marketing Manager, Hannah Bissett, née Teale.)
For me, the best part of the job had always been arranging and attending recording sessions. My first were for an album of Robert Saxton’s chamber music, produced by Stephen Johns (now an NMC Trustee) and conducted by Christopher Austin at St Silas’s Church in Kentish Town, punctuated by breaks for Mass; very soon after that came the excitement of Elgar’s Symphony No 3 ‘completed’ by Anthony Payne. A small audience was allowed into the cavernous Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale to hear one of the first run-throughs by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Andrew Davis. I sat next to Bayan, trying to guess which parts were Elgar and which Payne, and got them all wrong (the sections that sounded like genuine Elgar to me were, of course, pure Tony.)
I also got the chance to sit in the control room with the engineer and producer. Watching a really good producer at work is fascinating – a mixture of psychology and extreme listening (or occasionally vice versa); at Maida Vale that would be either the legendary Trygg Tryggvason with Andrew Hallifax, Colin with Trygg, or the BBCSO’s own chief producer Ann McKay and engineer Neil Pemberton. Many more recent NMC recordings have been produced, engineered, then edited and mastered by one man, the multi-talented David Lefeber.
However, attending sessions could involve more than score reading and remembering to put five sugars in Trygg’s tea: I have found myself page-turning for several very tolerant pianists, though none so fast as Rolf Hind in Simon Holt’s breakneck Klop’s Last Bite; and, in BCMG sessions (also with Rolf), joining Stephen and Jackie Newbould in providing a hummed background note to Simon’s eco-pavan. The most recent sessions I attended have been among the most rewarding: Hugh Wood’s long-planned song cycles with James Gilchrist and Simon Lepper, and the ‘Watkins Trio’ sessions at Menuhin Hall of Richard, Huw and Paul, for Richard’s album of horn works written for him.
If any NMC Friends reading this are wondering whether it’s worth attending a session: there is no better way (other than performing it yourself) of getting to know the way the music is put together, since you’ll hear it rehearsed, deconstructed and then performed. All you have to do is turn up, and be silent when asked!
Back in the NMC office, I’ve had the pleasure of working on booklets for releases as varied as: Brian Elias’s Laments – which set verses in a near-extinct Greek/Italian dialect, Grico; NMC’s reissue of Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy, proofing its remarkable libretto by Stephen Pruslin; and plunging into the Baroque universe of Gerald Barry’s opera The Intelligence Park, its libretto by Joyce scholar Vincent Deane. Even these though are eclipsed by The NMC Songbook – not only its booklet, with nearly 100 composers and poems and 25 artists, but its planning. Scheduling it was probably the most fun I’ve had with a spreadsheet. It’s a perfect example of how so small an organisation as NMC can be flexible enough to accommodate a unique and expanding project: it was originally meant to be just one disc but ended up as four. And it could never have happened without Iain Burnside.
There has also been the occasional bit of glamour: at the Gramophone Awards for The NMC Songbook, NMC was on the same table as Bryn Terfel, there with the Hallé. As dinner was served, he carried bread rolls around the table, singing ‘Notte e giorno faticar’. This was the one name I could drop to impress my mother, until she heard Judith Weir on Woman’s Hour!
The most valuable part of working for NMC has been the opportunity to work with its catalogue of distinguished composers, artists and ensembles. It has been a privilege to work with Anne, Ellie, Helen and Lucile, with NMC’s invaluable trustees, past and present, and most of all with Colin (whose emails I shall miss particularly – I have fond memories of an early series which purported to be from one K. Stockhausen of Sirius). Thanks, Gustav and Imo. Long live the Blue Sheep.
If you'd like to receive our quarterly Friends Newsletter, you can become a Friend here (memberships start from £50). If you'd like to support our work with composers as well as our expanding Learning Programme, you can make a donation to our 30th Appeal here. Thank you!
Our latest NMC Archive blog is by designer François Hall. François designed most of our booklets and covers until 2017 and in this blog he tells us about his artistic process.
My links with NMC began in the early 1990s when I was commissioned to design a CD (and cassette!) for Bingham String Quartet. Back then, I was working at the Southbank Centre designing posters for Messiaen’s 80th anniversary, the 60th anniversary of Stockhausen, and the Schoenberg celebration concerts, which has proved not dissimilar to designing CD covers. Both need to have arresting images that are uncluttered, atmospheric and conceptual – this is what I try to achieve when designing for NMC.
By the time the design for the first NMC sampler was needed, it was clear that the look and sound of NMC’s recordings stood out from the crowd. The ethos of NMC was so different from other record labels and suggested the analogy of the black sheep. Adding NMC blue, turning the stray sheep around and using the Warhol style we created the Pastures New artwork and the distinctive blue sheep logo was born (you can learn more about our blue sheep here).
Being presented with such a variety of ideas and concepts each time I’m asked to produce a new cover remains the most enjoyable part of working with NMC. Sometimes I am able to hear the music in advance – this especially helped with Richard Ayres' NONcertos, which is among my favourite NMC recordings, along with Judith Weir, Howard Skempton’s Ben Somewhen and Jonathan Harvey’s Body Mandala. I also enjoy jazz improvisation, which is not a million miles away from the way my mind works when in designer mode. And it always helps if I can listen to my favourite composer Thelonious Monk when I’m working!
To encapsulate these musical ideas and references can be a challenge but also fascinating because it leads me down avenues I would never have ventured if not for the title of a piece or the notion of a composer. Once I have the idea I then need to decide how to creatively represent it. This could be photography through a blue plastic stencil ruler on Portland beach (Lento), borrowing a real human skull from the local museum (Vanity), waiting outside a block of flats from light to dark (Poles Apart), photographing Art Deco wax dolls (The Intelligence Park) or delving into the incredible NASA website to discover mysterious sounds from Saturn (Saturn).
My favourite covers are Divertimento, On Memory, Lento and Prime Cuts.