Musical horizons, near and far
As the annual Horizons series begins, we asked the four featured composers four questions each about the music that inspires them, writes MICHAEL DERVAN
What piece of music has most influenced your work?The opening of Bach’s St John Passion. The emotional impact of this piece – full of suspensions that take an age to resolve – has definitely seeped in to how I think about music and my own composing. I remember hearing this as an undergraduate music student and being thrilled and moved by the interweaving lines.
What is the greatest piece of music of the 20th century?I would have to say Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna for choir. He creates an ethereal otherworldly atmosphere through the dense layering of voices that is incredibly haunting. Ligeti often spoke about composing as the interaction between head and heart, technique and instinct, which is also very important for me.
If you were to recommend one living composer, who would it be?The work of the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is perhaps not heard here very often. There is such imaginative merging of the instrumental and electronic, and the creation of a Nordic inspired sound world, conjuring up images of icy landscapes and the Northern Lights.
Which of your own works are you most proud of?Perhaps Chiyo for orchestra, there’s something understated yet enveloping about this piece – it was such a memorable experience hearing it performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London earlier this year. It is inspired by the quiet beauty of Japanese haiku poetry.
The piece that most influenced you? I’ve studied with two wonderful composers who opened my eyes and ears to the world of contemporary music, Donnacha Dennehy and Kevin Volans. Time spent talking about and listening to music with them are some of my fondest memories. I owe them a great deal.
It’s to Kevin Volans that I turn in relation to a piece of music that I feel has most influenced my own, and that piece is Cicada (1994) for two pianos. If I had to choose only a handful of pieces to listen to from here to eternity this would be one of them. To hear the piece it seems quite simple as it ebbs and flows and gently unfurls over its 26-minute duration but to look at it on paper it is a very complex piece, with constant subtle shifts of tempo and shadings of timbre.
The greatest 20th century piece?Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontakte from 1958, a piece for piano, percussion and four-channel tape. Stockhausen’s music is not to everyone’s taste but he was a true pioneer, particularly in the field of electronic music, and for me, Kontakte is one of his masterpieces, merging the acoustic sounds of the instruments with that of electronically produced sounds spatialised around the audience in four loudspeakers.
In an age where we consume most of our music privately via headphones or in the privacy of our homes, to hear this piece live in a concert hall with the electronic sounds swirling around your head, and to see the sheer concentration and stamina required of the performers, is a thrilling experience.