Ric Graebner Interview

Leading up to the performance of his ‘Impromptus’ by Claudia Racovicean in NMB’s first concert of 2016, composer Ric Graebner indulges us with a bit of Q&A…


impromptus p11 – Can you tell us a little bit about ‘Impromptu No. 2 & 3?

These are the middle movements of 4 Impromptus I wrote as a set in 2012. Their starting point is one or other of the 8 Schubert Impromptus (D899&935). I was interested in the mixed impression these gave of improvisation while at the same time referring usefully to familiar traditional forms for overall coherence. When I started writing my own impromptus I did not , as it happens, have the Schubert scores at hand so I was remembering or misremembering bits I found salient or interesting and elaborating them my own way, usually changing the character of the original beyond recognition. The first impromptu based on D899 No.4 (Ab minor) retains some of the spirit and rippling virtuosity of the original.

#2 is mainly based on D935 No.2 – you hear fragments of it in the left hand at the beginning against a faster figure in the right hand obscurely reminiscent of D899 No.1 (C minor), which is incidentally my favorite – rather Mahleresque, and Schubert’s most orchestral. This comes as a contrast to the virtuosity, and sometimes density, of (my) #1. It is essentially a slowish movement but with mercurial speed and character changes from time to time. These mood switches, as opposed to the thematic material, are mostly inspired by Schubert’s D899 No2 in Eb major which starts off as a rather complacent salon number, but breaks unexpectedly into an angry outburst.

#3 breaks away entirely from the spirit of its model (D899 No3 in Gb major), a lyrical rather Liebestraumy affair, loved by pianists because it reminds them of Chopin or Liszt and gives them scope to be ‘expressive’. My own version removes the mellifluous accompaniment figure, leaving the bare bones of Schubert’s melodic outline and has a rather sinister character, more of a Liebesnightmare, with discontinuous textures, disruptions and interruptions. It is essentially an even slower movement than #2 but as the interior detail develops there is a seething sense of repressed activity behind the façade. That said, my own take is probably closer to Schubert’s sense of his piece than most people recall. One remembers the nice opening tune but not the disturbing middle section with its unpredictable modulations and growling bass trills.

2 – When was it written, and what were the major challenges, if any, in writing the piece?

2012. For me, the major challenge writing solo piano pieces is making them playable. This may seem an odd remark, since the piano is my own first instrument (I have also played oboe and percussion in the past, and other keyboards) but during the basic composing stage I don’t want what I know is feasible to get in the way of the ideas I want to express. So my method now is to just start off by writing what I think I want, then sort out the practicalities afterwards – mainly by playing my pieces through repeatedly until satisfied I could perform them myself, with the necessary practice. There is always a way, often with only having to make minor adjustments. The other basic challenge with the piano is that dynamic control of notes is limited to the initial attack (as with harp, guitar or pitched percussion) so that sustaining a sound, which comes naturally on winds and strings, has to be avoided, or faked with arpeggiation, trills or other forms of ongoing movement. An alternative is to acknowledge the piano as basically a percussive instrument (which is the case with my finale, Impromptu #4) but over a long period that can be very limiting and monotonous. So the overall creative challenge, arising from all the points made above, is to achieve a variety of texture, without sounding like a piano reduction of an orchestral score (i.e. a piano piece that really wants to be something else) or falling into the various piano-writing clichés that have accumulated in the repertoire because of the constraints imposed by the instrument.

3 – How/why/when did you develop an interest in composition?

I think it was Thea Musgrave who remarked tartly to some up-and-coming young thing “Well if you are a composer, bloody well compose”. Her point was there is too much posture and attitude, and not enough of the activity. My first written down piece was ‘Walz’ [sic] when I was 4 and interested in the act of writing as such, so music notation (I had just started piano lessons) seemed as natural as writing letters of the alphabet. It’s only later that you realise society considers it a rather bizarre and specialized practice and there are these arty people called ‘composers’. After an early start, precocious but scarcely prodigious – I was no Korngold or Mendelssohn – I developed very slowly. Unfortunately I never had the benefit of a formal composition teacher who could, as I have subsequently realised, have provided a useful entrée to the professional compositional world, and, in passing, have hinted at some short-cuts to certain things I only discovered much later on my own, by constantly studying scores of earlier composers. Also while I was trying to find my own voice, there was a range of opposing fashions – serialism, minimalism, what you might call texturism, crossover multiculturalism, etc.. You had to belong to one camp or another to have credibility, perhaps more among other composers or critics than the public at large. Even electronic music which should simply be a means to an end had the aura of a stylistic genre for many, as though it was only respectable to generate certain kinds of sound or a certain type of music using that medium. Probably similar pressures exist for young composers today. The advantage of being an old composer is that you can forget fashion and get on with what you want to do.

4 – Who are your most important musical influences?

Pretty much every significant composer from J.S.Bach onward. Often the influence is some abstract quality such as flexible part-writing or springing a surprise in a Haydn quartet. Less commonly, it might be some actual musical idea which I have an appetite to transform or incorporate in some way (as in the Impromptus). Paradoxically, the composers who influence me most are the ones my musical surfaces resemble least, perhaps because I am too familiar with them to let references slip in carelessly.

5 – How long have you been a member of NMB?

Since 2000

6 – Do you have any other upcoming events that you’d like us to know about?

Musicians of All Saints 2015-16 Concert series – Concert 4
Saturday February 27th 2016 7.45pm
All Saints Centre
Friars Walk

Musicians of All Saints
Steve Dummer – clarinet

Honegger Pastorale d’été
Mozart Violin Concerto No.2
Ric Graebner Clarinet Concerto
clarinet and Strings FIRST PERFORMANCE
Haydn Symphony No.24 in D major

ricAbout Ric Graebner…

Ric Graebner’s recent compositions include many for electronic and mixed media, variously incorporating dance, images and film. A review said of the Venus in Landscape CD “Brilliant, and really musical works for electronics, composed and realised by Ric Graebner. No trace here of random meaningless noise so often associated with electronic music.” He has been internationally broadcast and performed by ensembles such as Lontano, the Arditti Quartet, Quatuor Elysée, etc He also performs as pianist and conductor. www.ricgraebner.co.uk


Claudia Racovicean’s Top 5

In anticipation of NMB’s first concert of 2016, Riot Ensemble pianist Claudia Racovicean indulges us with her Top 5 piano-related Youtube treasures…

1. Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
This is one of my favourite pieces in all the repertoire, and Stephen Hough is one of my favourite pianists, from his wonderfully inviting introductions to his deep and exciting interpretations.  What more could you want?
2. Hugo Wolf Begegnung
One of the first times I collaborated with my husband was on these arrangements.  They are virtuosic and fun reimaginings of Wolf’s songs for solo pianist in the vein of Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert.
3. Djuro Zivkovic I Shall Contemplate
I love working with composers on their pieces, and this was exactly the case when we gave the UK premiere of Djuro’s I Shall Contemplate in Oxford in 2014.  Djuro came over and we spent a number of hours working on the exact atmosphere, detailed pedaling and precise control of dynamics to achieve just the effect he wanted.  We just gave the London premiere of this piece at the Spitalfields Festival in December 2015!
4. Claude Debussy F’eux d’Artifce
This is one of my favourite of Debussy’s wonderful preludes.  My own recording will appear on my first album (April 2015, Coviello Classics) but I’ve been a fan of Marc-André Hamelin’s bold and colourful interpretations, and this one is no different!
5. Aaron Holloway-Nahum Remember Me? – Part IV for two toy pianos
As is often the case with my husband’s music, this piece (performed by the absolutely fantastic piano duo HOCKET in Los Angeles) manages to be fun without ever being flippant.  I really love the variety of sounds Aaron asks for, and the player’s total bravery and commitment in getting them out.  Perhaps one to perform with Adam Swayne someday!

Claudia Racovicean

Chris Brannick’s Top 10

In the run-up to NMB’s final gig of the year, we asked ensemblebash percussionist Chris Brannick to give us his Top 10 percussion tracks! Here’s how it rolls…

1. Michael Jackson – Smooth Criminal (featuring Chris Brannick)
First, two videos featuring me. First with the amazing Steve Bingham, a cover version of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal that’s both funny and shows off a fair range of small percussion.
2. Stewart Copeland/Orchestralli – The Equalizer
One of the highlights of my musical career has been to work with Stewart Copeland, ex-drummer for The Police, now a film composer. He never switched off, always 100% in every rehearsal from downbeat to packing up – and he’s a really nice guy, too. This is from a tour of Italy, playing the title music to The Equalizer. When he hits a drum, it damn well stays hit.
3. Teddy Brown
Everyone should listen to the legendary Teddy Brown at some point in your life. I have no idea how he gets to play so fast and so accurately. Get any percussionist to watch the section at 2′ to the end – simply unbelievable!
4. Iannis Xenakis – Psappha
Difficult one this; I wanted a recording of Iannis Xenakis’ Psappha. Steve Schick does a brilliant job of playing it, but I’m not keen on his instrument choices, which all seem a bit small. I think the piece needs more drama. Still, a great performance.
5. Steve Reich – Drumming Part 1.
If only Nexus had made a video… that’s the classic performance. This is pretty good, though, and the opening is spectacularly tight.
6. Steve Reich – Sextet
I know I probably shouldn’t put two pieces by the same composer in, but Steve Reich’s Sextet is one of my favourite pieces to play. Very, very satisfying. I managed to play it to him as part of an ensemblebash concert some time ago… an amazing experience.
7. Ron Powell – Pandeiro Solo
It would be a real shame to miss out on one of my favourite percussion areas – frame drumming. Here’s a rather lovely pandeiro solo by Ron Powell. Worth it just for the first 10 seconds…
8.Edgard Varèse – Ionisation
The piece that probably started it all… Ionisation by Edgard Varèse, performed here by an expanded Amadinda – who are a fabulous group, but a bit serious.
9. John Cage – Third Construction
Another of my favourites that I couldn’t find in a version that ticks all the boxes… here’s Amadinda again. I find this performance all a bit fast and frenetic. but it’s very accurate indeed. And technically stunning.
10. Stephen Hiscock & Chris Brannick – Junkyard Samba
And lastly, I hope no-one minds a third one with me in it, but… ensemblebash playing Junkyard Samba, written by Stephen Hiscock and myself. Originally written for a TV programme called ‘What’s That Noise’, this piece still doing the round in various forms, playing whatever we happen to have to hand.

Chris Brannick

The Riot Ensemble Sat 31st Oct 5pm

Death of Light Light of Death

Date: Saturday 31st October; 5.00pm
Venue: St. Nicholas Church, Brighton
Jonathan Harvey’s “Death of Light, Light of Death” was inspired by Grünewald’s ‘Crucifixion’ in the Issenheim Altarpiece.  Harvey wrote that the “unflinching sense of catastrophe that hangs over this picture has given it a special appeal to the sensibilities of our own time.”  The Riot Ensemble returns to Brighton for the third consecutive year, to perform a concert centred around this beautiful and haunting music.  Other music will include composers from the New Music Brighton composers collective, Helen Grime’s Oboe Quartet, and NMB Composers Patrick Harrex, J.C. Clark, Peter Copley & Phil Baker.

Peter Copley In memoriam
Phil Baker Sequentia III
Patrick Harrex … dreams, shadows, and smoke
Jonathan Clark Fragment for a Violin Concerto 

Tickets will be £10 on the door.

Download poster PDF Death of Light Light of Death (5.2mb)

Patrons: Michael Finnissy & Sally Beamish OBE