Interview: Composer John Casken and Counterpoise trumpet player Deborah Calland on the group's forthcoming concert at King's Place, featuring Casken's Deadly Pleasures

'Without a dramatic world being created, then the piece will fail'

25 March 2010


Counterpoise formed in 2008 as an unconventional grouping of trumpet, piano, violin, and saxophone, debuting Edward Rushton’s On The Edge soon after.

Since that time the ensemble has steadily built a reputation for genre-crossing activity where the contemporary concert is subtly reconfigured for an exploration of narrative, poetry, spoken word and visuals in the context of musical performance. Alongside the unearthing of neglected works from the canon, Counterpoise is dedicated to developing a new repertoire formed out of the music of leading British composers.

The group play London's King's Place on March 29 in a recital curated by Barry Millington as part of the venue's exceptional Out Hear series of contemporary music concerts. The programme includes the world premiere of Ross Lorraine's Not more Lovely, alongside new film music by Jean Hasse (to accompany The Fall of the House of Usher), Kagel's MM51/Nosferatu and Ryo Noda's Mai. Also included is John Casken's Deadly Pleasures, a 2009 Counterpoise commission that reflects the group's taste for the spoken word (Johanna Lonsky narrates).

Ahead of the concert I spoke via e-mail with John Casken and Deborah Calland, Counterpoise's trumpet player, about the nature of the ensemble, its particular repertorial and performing ambitions, and about the inspirations and particulars of the piece itself, Deadly Pleasures.

I began by asking Calland about the origins of Counterpoise. The last thirty to forty years have seen many instances of ensembles forming in response to the specific requirements of a piece (Hoketus, for instance), or of a composer, as it appeared Counterpoise had for On the Edge. The combination of instruments, described rather wonderfully as 'volatile' by Nick Kimberley in the Evening Standard, is highly unusual, but clearly something clicked early on that suggested future potential for the ensemble. What is it, I asked, that makes the combination of instruments and personalities work, and how does Calland feel about the development of the ensemble over the ensuing two years?

'The sequence of events was actually slightly different in that we had the idea for the ensemble and then commissioned Edward Rushton's On the Edge. The make-up of the ensemble evolved from a project I had initiated for trumpet and violin. My sister, Beverley Calland, is a saxophonist – she was a founder member of The Fairer Sax – so I had grown up with the sound of the saxophone in my ears and we had often played together. That's how the trumpet, saxophone and violin came to be in the ensemble and the piano was brought in to provide sonorities otherwise missing, not least in the bass. The other factor was the desire to incorporate a narrator, who would have a speaking rather than a singing role. My husband, Barry Millington, the co-founder of Counterpoise, had long been interested in the possibilities of combining text and music more than was generally done, so this suggested an obvious way to go. Similarly we felt that cross-genre works including visuals had a lot of potential and when we talked to Edward Rushton about the kind of piece he might write for us, he came up with some wonderful ideas. We thought it was a terrific piece and gave about a dozen performances up and down the country. Not every work we commission or play is necessarily for the same forces: in some cases we dispense with visuals, in others we use different permutations of the instruments'.

The second aspect of Counterpoise that is most striking is its efforts to found and develop something of a modern genre of melodrama that is divorced from genre cliché inherited from the Victorian era. Within this new form, spoken word narrative, poetry, and also visual elements are paramount, alongside the music. I asked Ms. Calland what particularly influenced the ensemble's desires in this respect?

'Barry and I find the 19th-century genre of melodrama an intriguing one. More composers than you might think had a go at the form – Liszt, Schumann, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Grieg, Strauss, Wagner, to name a few – and there's a fascinating body of work there which we are still exploring. This year, for example, for the Schumann bicentenary we've been investigating the three examples by him, one of which is a setting of a poem by Shelley. The other two are settings of German poets, though we always give these works in English – or in the language of the audience, I should say. Johanna Lonsky and Iain Farrington are actually performing a group of these works – by Schumann, Schubert, Strauss and Liszt – at the Austrian Cultural Forum the day after our Kings Place concert. Occasionally we commission arrangements of these melodramas for our forces, but more often we give them as originally written – for voice and piano. Then of course the genre continued into the 20th century – Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale in the best-known example. We haven't tackled that yet, but we are looking at other possibilities, by Schreker, Max von Schillings (a wonderful piece called Hexenlied) and an immensely powerful work by Viktor Ullmann, Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (The Song of Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke), one of the last works he wrote in the camp at Theresienstadt before being murdered'.

John CaskenBeing a renowned composer of music drama, I was also keen to get John Casken's views on the issue of a modern melodrama.

'It seems to me that with melodrama, there is an interesting tension between creating a new context for the text through music and the dramatic presentation itself. There was never any thought that the text would be acted out or presented "dramatically", and yet without a dramatic world being created, then it would fail. And yet, since melodrama is a narrated text with music, the presentation is somehow statuesque, unnatural, untheatrical, and this is where the skills of the actor/narrator come into their own to compensate. The nuances of the voice, the facial expression, the use of the eyes, all these are especially important if the work is not to become a mere reading with music. Equally, the music cannot be mere accompaniment, for then it surely would fall into the cliché of the Victorian era. No, the music sets the tone, creates a sense of place, and has to be a fluid continuum between mirroring the content (in some way), anticipating it, or recalling it from earlier episodes. The voice can only move forward through the text: the music moves forwards and backwards in response.

'I can't really relate this in general to the field of contemporary music drama, except to say that it is common in contemporary opera (see the final scene of my Golem for example) for narration to occur. But here, it's more heightened speech, which can become sprechstimme (for want of a better word), but in melodrama, it's important that the text is spoken with a relatively natural delivery. It's also crucial that all the words are heard, unlike with a sung text'.

Having composed two very interesting and well-received operas, I was interested in Casken’s opinion on how the field of music theatre currently lies, and what his thoughts are on initiatives such as the so-called 'thought operas' of Liza Lim (The Navigator) and Brian Ferneyhough (Dreamtime), the semi-narrative operas of Nono, Glass, and Feldman, and the highly modern subject matters of David Sawer, Jonathan Dove, Nico Muhly, and John Adams?

'That's a huge question. I'm not sure I can answer that one, except to say that it is a perennial problem to find a subject that will both release the right kind of music for the composer, but also connect with a contemporary audience. 'Thought operas' may allow the composer to focus on areas of experience that embrace a more metaphysical or spiritual world, but for me it has been crucial to choose a subject that bears direct comparison with our everyday experience, which, of course, can also include the metaphysical. So, Golem is about creating assurances for ourselves, and about our responsibility for the things we create, among other things. God's Liar is about how we cope when things go wrong in our lives and about how we deal with outsiders. In both, and it's an essential element for me in all musico-dramatic works, there is the sense that we are drawn to sympathise with the dilemmas of the main characters - sympathise in the sense of recognising as being part of the human condition. So, very modern subject matter such as that used by David Sawer in Skin Deep is fascinating, though I'm not sure the libretto allows the characters to go much deeper than the title. Semi-narrative operas probably take from both genres and allow for a more abstract portrayal without losing touch with the everyday'.

As mentioned, Counterpoise commissioned Casken's Deadly Pleasures last year, the piece that forms the centrepiece of the King's Place concert. I asked Calland to explain something of the work.

'The King's Place concert marks the London premiere of Deadly Pleasures, and we devised a programme around that. Deadly Pleasures is based on a story by Pushkin, as translated and completed by the novelist D.M. Thomas. It's set at the court of Cleopatra and tells the story of her promise to offer herself for a night to any man willing to give up his life the next day. Two candidates, an old soldier and a poet-musician, present themselves and after their night of passion are handed over to the executioner Mardian the following day. The third candidate turns out to be Cleopatra's son by her incestuous marriage to her brother Ptolemy. She keeps her side of the bargain, however, though the boy has other ideas...

'John's piece tells the story clearly and wittily and is brilliantly written for our forces. We've had great fun playing it around the country and I'm sure it will become a repertoire piece'.

I was of course eager to hear of Casken’s reactions to the commission. I was interested, particularly, in how the composer felt about the unusual instrumental array available to him, and the required form of spoken text and music?

Deborah Calland'The suggestion from Barry Millington that I consider writing a work for narrator and small ensemble was intriguing. It would certainly be a new departure for me, having written much music for the singing voice, including two operas, and I wasn't sure that the speaking voice with music would be capable of conjuring the magic that I find so special about the singing voice. But, I decided that it would have to be a very different kind of work, and even long before I had the text, I knew that the voice had to play a dramatic role and had to be largely free of any metrical constraints that might be imposed by the music itself. So, that was one rather general feeling I had. The other major concern was the instrumental ensemble. At first, it struck me as rather unbalanced, with two potentially loud instruments (trumpet and saxophone), a rather less forceful instrument (violin), and the piano that would cement everything together. It's interesting that it is in essence a mini-orchestra, with wind, brass, string, and percussion (of a sort), but I knew that the piano writing would be crucial in giving a sense of harmonic foundation and determining the overall texture, as well as being the only instrument that could provide a real bass. It was without doubt a challenge to write for the ensemble, but the more I got into it, the more interested I was by its limitations and by the problems of balance. In the end I enjoyed trying to solve these problems'.

Literature has held considerable importance in Casken's career; how did the composer feel about the use of a section of D.M Thomas' Ararat (via Pushkin) for use in Deadly Pleasures?

'This is the first work I've ever written where the text was suggested to me. I was very happy that Barry Millington should offer DM Thomas's text as a possibility for a programme he was devising on the theme of Egyptian nights. Having read the text I saw that it had distinct possibilities for music, and the three characters could be characterised in some way by the three solo instruments in the ensemble: trumpet for Flavius the old warrior; violin for Kriton the sensitive and poetic youth; and saxophone for the athletic, un-named young man who turns out to be Cleopatra's son.

The eroticised, somewhat licentious content of the text is richly evocative of both Cleopatra's court and of Thomas' own poetic sensibility, and I wondered how the style of the text influenced Casken in composing music to underly it? Moreover, I asked, how do music and text interact in the work; do they shift between fore and background roles as appropriate, or does the language of one lead that of the other throughout?

'The erotic content was a little difficult to deal with. One the one hand it's corny, on the other it's rather startling and unsettling. It also portrays Cleopatra as a devious and powerful woman who gets her way but in the end is punished. The men on the whole are portrayed as careless, weak and manipulative. Either way, neither sex comes out of it very well. Human weakness and human folly rolled into one. What's not in doubt is the way it shows what happens when power is put to bad uses. How did this affect the music? Well, it's important to try to capture the atmosphere and also to respect the various layers of energy at work, whether it's physical or psychological, action or dreaming, seductive or barbaric. The music leads the way, as I've said, sets the tone, and by allowing the narrator for the most part (there are only two episodes where she has to narrate in rhythm with the ensemble) freedom to narrate controlled only by the starting points, the two layers of voice and music co-exist in a different way from vocal settings in the more usual sense. If I set a text for soprano, for example, I know exactly where every syllable will occur in relation to the music. Here I don't, and that sets up all sorts of interesting new ways of how we listen to the sounds: our perception is that the speaking voice is in one dimension while the music is in another. In a sung vocal setting, the voice and instrument(s) occupy the same musical space, even if they're doing completely different things'.

Thomas makes characteristic use in Ararat of improvisatory themes and forms, in particular recursive, sometimes destabilising framing devices and intertextualities; did these strategies inform the compositional style in any way? Is the music shadowed by any other works, and does it make use of hidden or explicit quotation? Does the music, moreover, use formal conceits to in any way reflect the formal nature of Thomas' style?

'The structure of Deadly Pleasures (my title, by the way, that seemed to encapsulate the essence of the whole thing) very much follows the thread woven by DM Thomas. But, as I've said, the music will go back over things and form a fluid line that plays with the episodic nature of the original text. Like the text, the music has to find ways of moving forward and of standing still, of creating parentheses while not losing sight of the overall trajectory. I don't think the music is shadowed by any other works, certainly not deliberately, but as with the experience of composing Golem and God's Liar, a musico-dramatic situation can and does encourage me to include incongruities, or even 'impurities' - things I would find more difficult allowing into an instrumental work unless there were good reason for it. For example, the sweetly romantic music of Flavius' scene with Cleopatra is in direct contradiction to the idea of an old soldier have the last fling of his life'.

The concert at King's Place features two world premieres alongside Deadly Pleasures. I asked Calland about the theme of the concert, the choice of the other commissioned composers and their pieces, and the selection of Noda and Kagel works to fill out what promises to be a fascinating programme.

'The works by Ross Lorraine and Jean Hasse are both based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe, whose Gothic style relates closely to the melodramas we explore elsewhere. Ross's piece, Not More Lovely, is a setting of a curious story about an artist who is so obsessed with his art and with the beauty of his wife, whose portrait he is painting, that he fails to notice that she is wilting in front of his eyes. As he puts the finishing touches to his portrait, she dies. Like Deadly Pleasures, Not More Lovely is a genuine melodrama, in the sense that it's for narrator and ensemble. For the other piece, we asked Jean Hasse to write a new score for a classic silent short of The Fall of the House of Usher. It's a fascinating experimental film of 1928, full of weird camera angles, superimpositions and the like. It's not always clear from the film alone what is happening, so we've decided to preface it with a short narrative based on the Poe story to be read aloud.

Counterpoise'All three of these pieces deal with different aspects of fatal obsession, hence our title Loved to Death. The remaining two works, by Kagel and Noda, also deal with extremes of experience. Kagel's MM51/Nosferatu began life as ''a piece of film music for piano''. Subsequently he produced two further versions, for film only, that flesh out the imagined scenario, one of them incorporating a sequence of scenes from F.W. Murnau's silent film Nosferatu. The original element of a live piano performance was, however, lost in the process. Kagel's score is a characteristically sharp piece of musical theatre in which the pianist pits himself against an impossible metronome marking (MM51 doesn't of course exist on the old-fashioned wind-up models) and our performance endeavours to recapture the element of live drama. MM51/Nosferatu is typical Kagel: both amusing and rather sinister. Mai is a saxophone piece based on a tale about a Samurai warrior, obsessed with ideals of duty, who gives up his life to save his army, without thinking that he is abandoning his wife in the process. It's a fearsomely difficult piece, but our saxophonist, Kyle Horch, is one of the best in the country and I'm sure he'll make something very exciting our of it.

Much has been written recently about the need to engage audiences in classical and contemporary music through the use of creative means. Greg Sandow, for instance, praises innovative advertising initiatives and the use of introductions and video backdrops to attempt to involve audiences used to mixed-media shows and accessible, programmatic presentations in other forms of culture. Gabriel Prokofiev's 'nonclassical' club nights and concerts spring to mind as prominent and popular examples of such in Britain. King's Place, too, has proven eager in this regard, recently staging Transition Projects productions of Dowland and Sravinsky concerts for example. I asked Calland how important she feels this idea of engaging audiences in Counterpoise's development of a modern melodrama (if it can be described as such) is? What, in this respect, underlies the decision to use video alongside text and spoken word in the concert?

'As you say, there is a definite trend these days towards mixed-media shows. Some of them are more successful than others, we feel, but by commissioning and sometimes arranging works for ourselves, we are able to exercise quality control. We're certainly interested in appealing to new audiences – we did a lunchtime concert at the Turner Sims in Southampton a couple for weeks ago, for example, and there were 250 people there, mostly students. We're also keen to do workshops and similar projects, by the way, which help to capture the imagination of younger people – the audiences of the future. Video is obviously an important part of this. As I said earlier, we find the creative potential of juxtaposing different media rather exciting. In the two or three years we've been going, we've already built up a small body of work that's hugely varied and innovative. We've been very encouraged by the response and have had indispensable support from the Arts Council and the PRS for Music Foundation, as they're now called. So provided that sort of support continues, we hope to carry on producing works and programmes that you don't find elsewhere'.

Casken had this to say on the same issue:

'I may be wrong, but I think it's about trying two things: firstly to bring new life to a genre that largely seems to have been abandoned, and secondly it offers a new way to present concerts with a visual element that is not opera or music theatre, that is perhaps more to do with theatre itself, in spite of what I said above'.

I finish up by asking Calland about the future direction of Counterpoise. Having already developed a potentially significant repertoire of new music, do the ensemble plan to build on their foundations with new commissions and innovative activity such as they will offer at King's Place?

'We're hoping to persuade Edward Rushton and Dagny Gioulami to write another mixed-media piece for us and we're also talking to another outstanding composer of the younger generation: Helen Grime. This year's commission is from David Matthews and it's a setting of Ovid's tale of Diana and Actaeon in a wonderful translation by Ted Hughes. This is the first time David, who happens to be a neighbour and good friend of ours, has written for narrator and ensemble. He's just finished the piece and says he enjoyed the challenge. We're much looking forward to giving the world premiere at the Brighton Festival on 4 May. That month we're also performing at Woodhouse Copse, a beautiful venue in Surrey, at Kingston University (21 May) and at the University of Hertfordshire, where we're making a DVD recording of our first commission, Rushton's On the Edge. We're also setting up a nationwide tour for Actaeon, so we have quite a lot on for the foreseeable future'.

The concert promises much - two world premieres, performances of exciting work from important composers both foreign and home-grown, visuals, narration, and poetry, all wrapped up in the exhilarating theme of fatal obsession. Miss it at your peril.

For more information on Counterpoise and John Casken, visit their respective websites here and here

By Stephen Graham

Photos: Counterpoise and Deborah Calland by Nicky Colton-Milne, John Casken by Tom Bangbala


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