Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Composer Series - Paul Patterson

Our fifth interview in our composer series is with the well-known composer Paul Patterson. Paul has been a great friend to the harp world over the years and has contributed a number of major works to the harpist's repertoire. His music is great fun and highly evocative, with programmatic detail in abundence. As an ensemble, we have much enjoyed performing his 'Avian Arabesques' in our concert programmes, and audiences reaffirm this with their rapt attention during our playing and amused laughter at the end of the third movement where we get to 'stroke' the bottom string in a way that creates a squeaky kind of whisper!

You are well-known in the harp world. What has been your favourite commission for harp so far?

Image result for paul pattersonThis is a difficult one to answer because when one spends so much time composing a new piece, they all have the same level of compositional engagement and achievement. “Spiders” is very significant because it is the piece which has become very well known to harpists. Writing for one harp is very challenging but writing for 4 harps is a real challenge and a half, so my “Avian Arabesques” is the one which has become my favourite.

Avian Arabesques was not commissioned by 4G4H. What made you decide to write a piece for four harps?
It was commissioned by the RAM harp department (Skaila Kanga) who had created a harp ensemble and wanted to create new repertoire and they asked me specifically to write for 4 harps.

What was the inspiration behind Avian Arabesques?
Having already written works for harp with an insect connection i.e. “Spiders” and “Bugs” I thought that I should write a harp quartet that also had a flying connection. Having given it some considerable thought, I decided to go a different route and be influenced this time by birds! Having chosen the 3 birds it helped me with the choice of 3 titles to define the nature and style of each movement.

You have written for solo harp as well as harp quartet. Do you have a preference for either option? How did the challenges differ when writing for one harp and multiple harps?
I really liked writing for 4 harps and I am looking forward to rewriting my Mosquito Massacre from “Bugs” soon for the 4G4H’s birthday celebrations! When writing for 4 harps one has to consider the overall sound as it can be very cloudy if there are lots of notes, so thinner individual lines are important for clarity. On a more exciting level, the harmony changes can be more abrupt and adventurous, and as in the last movement of Avian Arabesques, there are chromatic scales which are impossible on the single harp!

What composers have inspired you over the years and have any shaped your musical style?
I have had many influences; the most important in my younger days was the music of Penderecki and Polish music. Bartok also has had a big influence harmonically and rhythmically

You have written quite a lot of music for children. How important do you think it is for young people to have access to classical music and what would be your piece of choice for a child to listen to?
For the future of classical music it is crucial that children should be exposed to classical music. I have written a number of pieces aimed at young children, my “Little Red Riding Hood” with words by Roald Dahl communicates with children because of the story-line which usually they already know. The music is part of the plot and often introduces them for the first time to listening to the classical music idiom (and hopefully then they will want to play one of the instruments they have heard).

We (4G4H) are very excited that you will be one of the judges for our new harp chamber music competition in June next year. Do you think it is possible for anyone to judge how well a person plays or do you think it requires a specialist skill set?
I believe that having some specialist skills is helpful when making important decisions when judging a competition.

You were heavily involved in the Dutch Harp Festival in 2014 where your ‘Fantasia’ concerto was performed by the three finalists. How did it feel having it played by three different people on the same day? Did the different performances highlight anything in the music for you that you hadn’t heard before?
It was fascinating to hear 3 different interpretations of my music on the same day and it was satisfying to know that my ideas worked from different view points.

What is your favourite instrument (or combination of instruments) to compose for?
Definitely the Harp!
What three things would you take with you to a desert island?
I would like to extend it by one to four, and take 4Girls 4Harps!!

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Composer Series - Edward Cowie

In 2008, we put on a concert at the Warehouse, Waterloo. It was a celebration of all of the pieces the group had commissioned since we first started playing together in 2000. Around the same time, we were approached by Edward Cowie about premiering a piece that he had written for harp quartet. This seemed like perfect timing and our Warehouse concert became the venue for Nymphaeas' World Premiere. It was a very interesting piece to play, and very different to any of our other contemparary works. There is a lot of stillness in the piece - something which is extremely challenging when playing with four instruments where the way the player moves does not automatically correspond with the way their fingers play. We really enjoyed getting our teeth into it however and it was refreshing to perform something so different from our usual repertoire.

Nymphaeas’ was not actually commissioned by 4G4H. Did you have anyone specific in mind when you wrote the music? 
I wrote the work without a commission because I’m not one of those composers who sit around waiting for one! I simply wanted to test ideas for FOUR harps because I like the sound of the harp. So in a way, you could best describe the piece as a kind of sonic laboratory experiment

You spend much of your time in France. Do you find that musical inspiration comes more easily there than in the UK? If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
 France is a lot less densely populated than the UK and I need peace and quiet in wild countryside to work. However, I should stress that my UK home in Yorkshire offers perhaps even more ‘natural inspiration’ and that in any case, I travel as much worldwide as I can to explore the living world for new pieces of music

You are an artist as well as a composer. How do you find the two disciplines complement each other?
 Is there ever a battle as to which you would prefer to be doing?! It’s well known that I paint and draw as part of the composing process. Having been trained in the sciences as well as arts, I know for sure that FORMS and actions of forms cross-relate from science to art and vice versa. However, whilst such a fusion between art and science produces music that musicians seem to like to play, there is still a general resistance in some places to the kind of music I write. This is because musicians tend to think of music as an impenetrable and specialised language, which it really isn’t. And whilst I have often been inspired by other composers and their music, I find the natural world to be far more potent and fertile for new musical ideas. No, I NEVER find a conflict between one for of self-expression and another!

You have written for solo harp as well as harp quartet. Do you have a preference for either option? How did the challenges differ when writing for one harp and multiple harps?
 There ought to be a simple answer to this question but there isn’t. A solo instrument like the harp (and I tend to write the music rather as I would for piano-left-hand), is already loaded with sonic potential. The addition of three more harps offers 4 times the potential in colour-mixes and densities of musical materials. It’s rather like the difference between painting with only primary colours and painting with an infinite freedom to mix and blend colours more…

What composers have inspired you over the years and shaped your musical style?
I hope NO composer has shaped my musical style except myself, but it’s worth confessing that the following composers stand high in my regard for sonic invention and brilliant forms of thinking and feeling: Haydn, Berlioz, Brahms, Debussy and Ravel, Janacek, Berg, Sibelius, Messiaen and perhaps surprisingly- Boulez

You have also spent a lot of time in Australia. How have you found the classical musical scene over there differs from the UK?
I don’t think Oz musicians are less gifted than those elsewhere, but it’s true that in some special fields such as the string quartet and vocal music, the scene is rather ‘thin’. There are certainly a few very good harpists in Australia and I do feel that Australia is less inhibited in its encouragement of new music than in Europe, where caution and conservatism has become rather more than it should be!

As an expert in the fields of music, art and the sciences, you are something of a polymath. At first glance, science and music might seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. In reality, music owes a huge amount to scientific and engineering developments. Do you feel that science is similarly complemented by music?
I am still worried that so-called collaborations between artists and scientists are cosmetic rather than truly interdisciplinary. Many scientists feel that artists predate on scientific thinking without fully understanding the methods and issues that science confronts. This is actually a ‘language problem’ where mathematics for example, is based on symbols alien to music and vice-versa. Unless FORM and the dynamics of form are represented (and understood) by some kind of mediated ‘meta-language’ this divide will continue and creative arts and science will continue to obscure or avoid the formal and interconnecting facts-of-life and matter

Are there any young composers that you think are ‘ones to watch’?
I try from time to time, to listen to performances of works by young composers (by which I assume younger than 30), and can honestly say that nothing I have heard stimulates me very much

What is your favourite instrument (or combination of instruments) to compose for?
The orchestra for its enormous ‘palette of sound’, but even more the human voice including chamber choir. Other than these, the string quartet remains an absolute favourite of mine

What three things would you take with you to a desert island?
Heather my wife and best friend, 10000 sheets of manuscript paper and pencils, and a large supply of blank sketchbooks.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Composer Series - Edward Longstaff

We start 2015 off with the third in our series of interviews with the composers who have written music for us. Edward Longstaff is hugely respected in the Uk as a composer, writing for many diverse ensembles and combinations of instruments. As one of the teachers at the Purcell School of Music he is well-known to many musicians performing in the UK today, including our very own Elizabeth Scorah!

We commissioned 'Saraswati' in 2002 - a fantastically challenging piece of music, with wonderfully contrapuntal, interweaving melodic lines that flow between the harps. It is quite minimalist in style and the extra tension that the final resolution of harmonies and extremely 'funky' rhythms provide towards the end of the piece make this a truly exciting piece to perform. It has to be one of the most requested pieces on our CDs at the end of our concerts so the audience certainly share our enjoyment of it! You can listen to Saraswati here

One of 4G4Hs members – Elizabeth Scorah – was a pupil of yours at the Purcell School. Have you ever had any commissions from past students of the school?
Yes, the days when the BBC Young Musician Of the Year required a piece written by a living composer were a heyday for me!

Do you find working in a school like the Purcell School an inspiring place to compose, or is the noise from all the students, both in daily life and when practising, rather a distraction?
I don’t get much composition done at school - I’m too busy!  But I’m continually inspired by being surrounded by such talented young musicians.  I’m always reminded that nearly anything is possible.

What musical styles are you most inspired by – is there any particular composer that you identify with?
My tastes are eclectic and, like Stravinsky, I tend to be something of a magpie, stealing little bits of stuff from all sorts of composers from Bach to Birtwistle.

What was it that you liked about the idea of writing for four harps? Had you ever heard the harp being played in this way before?
A harp quartet was something new to me but I was intrigued by the possibilities.  The idea of a single instrument ensemble immediately put me in mind of Steve Reich who has written many pieces for a limited timbral palette.  I relished the challenge!

Were there any challenges in writing for the combination, and what did you enjoy most about the compositional process? Did the finished piece sound the way you had envisaged in performance?
The main challenge was control of voicing and making sure that everything was as clear as possible.  When you’ve got 8 hands playing reams of semiquavers… well, that’s a lot of notes to look after.  I was very pleased with the sound of the finished piece in that I’d deliberately avoided a lot of traditional harp techniques in favour of very rhythmic writing, and it worked.

What was the inspiration behind your piece for the group: ‘Saraswati?
Saraswati is a Hindu goddess who has four arms and plays a veena.  She seemed perfect for a female quartet of harpists and, once I’d found her, everything flowed from that.

Making a living as a composer is not an easy thing to do in our rather cash-strapped times. What do you think of the opportunities available to young composers today?
I think ‘good luck to them’ because it is a very hard way to make a living.  Money is difficult for all musicians but (and I may be accused of special pleading here) it is often the composer who ends up doing things for reduced fees or even no fee.  Thank goodness for groups like 4G4H who commission things properly!

Are there any young and up-and-coming composers you think are ‘ones to watch? What advice would you give to a composer starting out today?
I see too many hopeful young composers coming through the Purcell School to feel comfortable singling any one of them out.  I would advise them to work very hard through their twenties to build up their careers.  It only gets harder the later you leave it.

George Bush once famously announced to the world that he did not like broccoli. What two foods are your idea of heaven and hell?
Heaven - roast lamb.  Hell - avocado.

What three things would you take with you to a desert island?
In this digital age this is much easier than it used to be.  My iPod, my kindle and a solar powered charger.

Friday, 12 December 2014

We'd like to present our brand spanking new Harp Chamber Music Competition!

We are super excited to announce the inaugural British Harp Chamber Music Competition, taking place in 2015!

For some time we have dreamed of putting something back into the harp world and encouraging the next generation of harpists to champion chamber music in the way that we have tried to. It hasn't been easy competing against the established and accepted (more traditional) string quartets and piano trios. We have always had to battle against the (incorrect) perception that a harp quartet won't sell and won't be able to provide the musical quality that the promoter needs to bring to their audience. We like to think that our staying power over the last 15 years proves this to be otherwise, and the sold out concerts and standing ovations definitively show that audiences like, and more importantly, enjoy what we do.


We want to continue to bring the harp to the forefront of British chamber music, and this competition is our way of doing so. There are two separate competitions: one for Young Professionals, and one for under-18s. Each competition is then split into two categories: multiple harps, and harps with other instruments. The final of the competition is on Sunday, 14 June 2015 at Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre, Surrey. Whilst the prizes of course include some cash, we have focussed our attention on providing recital opportunities for the winning ensembles. As an up-and-coming group, the most useful thing we were given was the chance to perform in public: not only is it invaluable concert platform experience and a chance to hone musical (and performing) skills, it is also a chance to showcase to other concert promoters and meet valuable industry contacts.


We hope to see a real variety of entries and look forward to discovering some new and unusual pieces. We are also working on a resource providing information on sourcing original pieces for varying combinations of instruments, with a focus on British works.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Composer Series - Eleanor Turner

Another month has flown by and Christmas is hot on our heels. We are delighted to reveal the next person in our series of composer interviews is the ensemble's very own Eleanor Turner!

Eleanor has been involved in writing and arranging for us pretty much since we first started playing together. An internationally recognised harpist as well as composer, Eleanor has written two pieces for us to play as well as countless other arrangements. The first piece, 'The Island' was written in 2002 whilst she was pregnant with her son, and even features the sound of a baby's heartbeat in the womb! The second piece, 'Rambla!' was composed a few years later, in 2008, and depicts the flashfloods that can happen in Spain - full of fiery spanish rhythms and panache, it is great fun to play! You can listen to 'Rambla!' here

As a performing member of 4G4H what do you like most about writing for the group?
I love writing for an instrument I know so well and have at hand to try things out on. I try to imagine a certain sound, especially a particular texture I could only get from using four harps and then use a combination of compositional techniques and trickery (such as recording and layering parts on my laptop, or using a loop pedal) to get the best idea of how the effect will sound across four of the same instrument. It can take a long time to work out how to achieve a certain sound for the first time, but then it is in your repertoire as a technique that you can draw on in future compositions.

Have you always composed alongside your harp playing and do you ever feel tempted to go into composing on a more full time basis?
My first piece for the harp was called “A Sad Farewell” – the harp can be such a melancholic instrument and even pieces written in major keys can sound so longing and sad on the harp! I love playing all my emotions into the harp and find playing it and writing for it deeply therapeutic. I worry that if I composed concert music full time I would go into a darker place, in my mind, more often than would be good for me. However, my main ambition is to study composition further, in particular to attend some courses for song-writing and also writing music for films. (There is a Faber Music course I would love to go on when my children are older.)  I can definitely imagine writing music for nature documentaries and would love to do this; this would mostly be happy music, which I have plenty of inside me as well

What musical styles are you most inspired by – is there any particular composer or piece that you identify with?
I love so many different styles but as a constant, I have always been passionately into Shostakovich and his music. As a teenager, I used to keenly spend my birthday money on a subscription to the DSCH journal (the twice-yearly printed magazine, dedicated to the life and works of Dmitri Shostakovich). There were two peaks of happiness in my year, therefore, when this journal would drop onto the doorstep, and the memory of that excitement still makes me shiver! I also had a hamster that I named Dmitri, in honour of the great man.

Are there any challenges in writing for four harps – what do you find most frustrating?
The only frustrating thing for me is finding the best way to notate harp effects and complex passages of writing. Sometimes you are looking at a mass of confusing arcs all over the music: tied notes, phrasing arcs, notes to ‘let vibrate’ without damping and maybe one or two special harp effects going on all at the same time – perhaps colour-coded scores will be my next venture!

 You have composed two pieces for 4G4H; ‘The Island’ in 2002 and ‘Rambla!’ in 2008. What – if anything – has changed in your compositional style between the two pieces? Did you change anything in your approach to writing with the second piece?
Almost everything about the two pieces is different. The first time, writing for the group, I spent a lot of time imagining and conceiving grand ideas and wonderful twangings and clangings of all 4 harps, either playing all together or having solo moments. By the time I wrote ‘Rambla’, I had six more years of experience with the harp quartet and it was rather a luxury to be able to learn from other composers’, and arrangers’, mistakes, as well as my own. Rambla emerged much more naturally, usually sitting at the harp to compose it, engaging many of my favourite effects (I love the ‘whispering’ tremolo effect called bisbigliando) and freely moving between using one, two, three or all four harps at any moment.

Do you compose for anything other than harp (or harp with other instruments)?
Yes I do, but not really at the moment. I am also terrified of writing for brass which I would love to get over at some point. I am currently writing songs with a Dutch singer-songwriter called Angela Moyra, who occasionally asks me to send her over sound files of ‘mystical harp goodness’ – well, it’s a hard life, but if I must…

As a harpist, is there anything that annoys you about how today’s composers write for the instrument?
I sometimes feel it can be a little soulless and relying too heavily on the beauty of the harp’s sound. That may be why I commissioned my dear friend Thomas Hewitt-Jones to write me a solo piece, about five years ago now. The result was ‘Spirits of the Night’ which I re-named, for myself, Shades of Grief, as the first time I played through it I found myself playing through tears that just kept coming the more I played.

What about your life most inspires you to compose? On a similar note, what do you do if you get writer’s block?!
I have never been very good with words – getting a poem or an essay out of me at school was like getting blood out of a stone. I am very slow at writing anything, in fact. I wouldn’t say that was writer’s block, in particular, although I do have memories of donning a coat on top of my nightie and pacing angrily around the block, trying to make an idea come to the fore. In general, music flows more easily for me than words do and I love improvising. Composition for me is a combination of learned skills, structure, improvising, and always wearing my heart on my sleeve

What Hollywood actress would you choose to play you in a film?
Going back in time for this one I’m afraid, it could only be Lucille Ball.

What three things would you take with you to a desert island?
My two kids and a harp of course! (The harp could double up as a raft….)

Friday, 7 November 2014

Composer Series - Edward Watson

2015 will be our 15th anniversary. We feel very proud that we have been working as a group for such a long time, however, a lot of our success is down to the music that we perform. We are indebted to the many great composers of the past whose music we have 'borrowed', but also to the composers alive today who have written us some fantastically varied, challenging and inventive pieces of music. We would therefore like to honour them over the next few months by running a series of interviews with each composer who has created an original work for us. We hope that this will give you the chance to find out a bit more about the people behind the music that has been our constant companion for so many years.

Edward Watson The first composer to write for us was Edward ('Ted') Watson, who we commissioned in 2002 to write 'A Celtic Springtime'. We recorded Ted's piece on our first ever CD when we still went by the name 'Barkham Harp Quartet'. We were very young and still had lots to learn about pretty much everything from how to play for a recording to how to get the best out of playing with four harps. Ted's composition is a spritely piece of music with lots of interweaving parts threading through the harps. It really makes you think of the eagerness behind the change in season from Winter to Spring, and all the abundent life that is about to leap forth! You can listen to 'A Celtic Springtime' here.

You have written for the harp many times before – what is it that has drawn you to this instrument?
I used the harp in light music arrangements for the BBC. Somewhat simplistically! ‘A Celtic Springtime’ was my first venture into a serious concert piece. The harp is a magical instrument that conjures up antiquity.

What musical styles are you most inspired by – is there any particular composer that you identify with?
I adore Mozart! I particularly am drawn to the Classical, Romantic and Impressionistic. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Mahler, Ravel and Debussy.

What was it that you liked about the idea of writing for four harps? Had you ever heard the harp being played in this way before?
I had never heard four harps before. Once the idea had been put forward (I was asked to write the piece), the mind begins to ‘tick over’.

Were there any challenges in writing for the combination, and what did you enjoy most about the compositional process?
One harp is a challenge. HELP I had FOUR!!! Once I have an overall idea of what the piece is going to say, I enjoy seeing it develop. I often write the ending before the beginning.

What was the inspiration behind your piece for the group ‘A Celtic Springtime’?
Like most English composers, I went through a ‘Celtic’ phase. The bardic influence, Merlin etc. I still visit Glastonbury (The Isle of Avalon) frequently to pick up the vibes.

You have a new Christmas work for harp with mezzo-soprano and choir being performed later this year, with our very own Eleanor Turner as the harpist. How have you used the harp in this piece and is it based on any specific carols or texts?
This work contrasts the first Christmas (Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus in the stable) with the hustle and bustle of preparations for a modern day Christmas. The harp accompanies throughout and has an opening solo Prelude and a solo Interlude. The carols are based on Breton Folk Tunes and the words are by Gabrielle Byam Grounds.

Are there any young and up-and-coming composers you think are ones to watch?
Can’t answer this! Everyone seems to compose these days. Time will do the sifting!

What would you like your composing legacy to be?
I’ll be happy if any of my pieces are played and enjoyed.

What do you enjoy doing in your down time?
Practising, composing and gardening.

What three things would you take with you to a desert island?
My clarinet, a box of reeds and a penknife.