Pierre BoulezThis latest (Un)easy Listening post looks at Dérive 1 by Pierre Boulez, ahead of our performance at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 5 December. Philip Cashian, composer and Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, explains the “mini masterpiece of musical invention”.

Pierre Boulez Dérive 1
composed in 1984 l for flute, clarinet, vibraphone, piano, violin and cello l duration c. 6 mins


Dérive 1 is a mini masterpiece of musical invention that in just under 6 minutes conjures up a tightly focused and fastidiously controlled musical world from one six note chord. This virtuosic display of technical mastery, and the instantly captivating wave of musical ideas Boulez presents, is enthralling from first note to last.

Boulez spells out the surname of Paul Sacher  in notes to make the opening piano chord (Eb, A, C, B, E, D) and then, through putting these pitches through a hall of mirrors by rotating the intervals around (like shuffling a pack of cards one step at a time), he creates five more chords which become the musical spine of the work.


I hear the piece falling into three clearly audible sections and here are some moments to listen out for along the way:

Section 1 (00:0002:39)

The music in the first half of Dérive 1 is full of pent up energy: constant bursts of rapid grace notes from different combinations of instruments, along with trills and tremolos, create a richly sustained, resonant and multi-coloured musical surface for the underlying harmony.

  • Opening 00:05 The Sacher chord in the piano part.
  • 00:3400:44 Short, gentle ticking chords in the piano punctuate flourishes of grace notes in the other instruments.
  • 00:4501:27 Frequent crescendos and diminuendos constantly draw the listener’s ear to different combinations of instruments, articulating and punctuating the flow of the music.
  • 02:1802:38  After a climactic moment Boulez settles on the same chord for 20 seconds.

Section 2 (02:3904:57)

In contrast to the first few minutes this section starts very quietly and slowly builds in dynamic and intensity over the next couple of minutes.

  • 02:39 The piano and pizzicato cello have a crotchet pulse (the piano briefly has the quality of a walking bass). This sense of pulse runs through the whole section in different ways.
  • 03:01 The clarinet emerges and (03:1903:53) has a duet with the piano.
  • 03:19 A moment of focus as clarinet, vibraphone, violin and cello all play Eb. The vibraphone trills between Eb and E and at 03:3003:36 crescendos into another moment of focus as the whole ensemble arrives on a unison D. Also listen out for imitation between the cello and vibraphone here.
  • 03:53 All instruments (except flute) arrive on a unison A. The vibraphone stays on this A until 04:10 when, in a very subtle change in the musical fabric, it plays fast, dry staccato notes.
  • 04:26 Flute takes on a solo role as the clarinet drops out.
  • 04:37 The music becomes extremely layered as each instrument is playing independently.

Section 3 (04:57end)

Flute, clarinet, violin, cello and vibraphone hold the notes of the Sacher chord. The piano is in the foreground with ringing sustained notes and short bursts of dry, brittle grace notes above.

The final gesture (05:43) that closes the piece is, for me, the perfect ending.


Pierre Boulez Sur Incise
Luciano Berio O King
Tristan Murail Feuilles à travers les cloches
George Benjamin Three Inventions
Kaija Saariaho Solar


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Back in September, three storeys beneath Islington Green, London Sinfonietta took to the stage at Red Bull’s Future Underground gig.

Invited by curator and DJ Hudson Mowhawke, we were thrilled to give a new audience the opportunity to experience Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, Nagoya Marimbas and New York Counterpoint plus Knee Play by Philip Glass. “It’s here that you get an idea what HudMo might see in this music: with its pretty, insistent melodies and complex rhythms, it’s not a great leap to speculate how the influence of this stuff has found its way into his own productions”; for the full account of “Wednesday at #FutureUnderground – as it happened” click here.

Red Bull captured some fantastic images of the event, which we just had to share.

This is Laurence Crane

Laurence Crane takes on our quickfire questions ahead of Saturday 10 October, when we premiere his London Sinfonietta commission Chamber Symphony No.2 ‘The Australian’.

© Katalin Farkas

© Katalin Farkas

What do you regard as your greatest artistic achievement?

I’m not sure…I’m very cautious about publicly highlighting a single work as my best. Perhaps I could say that my greatest achievement is to be still composing 40 years after I started? Although I suspect that some people would not regard that as an achievement.

What do you fear?

Too many things! To single one out would be to tempt fate.

Which piece of music has had the biggest effect on you as a composer?

Again there are many, from many different genres and types of music. I am going to restrict myself to what is broadly termed ‘contemporary classical’ and acknowledge my debt to Howard Skempton and, particularly, his early piano music. I’ll pick out his Piano Piece 1969. I would also like to mention the Swiss composer Juerg Frey’s Second String Quartet, a completely extraordinary work.

What’s the most unusual performance you’ve been a part of?

In April 1991 I was the singer in a band that performed at 7am in a large marquee, which had been erected in the middle of Marble Arch in London for an event marking the start of a London to Paris vintage car rally. Our set was made up entirely of songs with the word ‘morning’ in the title. Joanna Lumley was there.

What’s currently on your coffee table at home?

September issue of Cycle Sport magazine…on the cover ‘How Froome won the Tour’.

What was the first recording you ever bought?

Diamond Dogs by David Bowie, vinyl LP purchased from W H Smith’s in Oxford in the summer of 1974.

Describe your compositional style in three words.

Sculpted. Frugal. Stubborn.

If you could have any other profession, what would it be?

A warden on a bird reserve.

Who has been the biggest influence in your life?

My family.

Tell us your best musical joke.



© Barbara Monk-Feldman

Our latest (Un)easy Listening post uncovers the music of Morton Feldman, ahead of our in-the-round performance at St John’s Smith Square on Saturday 10 October. Philip Cashian, composer and Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, reveals some of the devices and techniques Feldman uses in this inspirational music.

Morton Feldman For Samuel Beckett
composed in 1987 l for 23 players l duration c. 55 mins


Iconic American composer Morton Feldman was 61 when he wrote For Samuel Beckett. It was the last piece he wrote and was commissioned by the Holland Festival for the Schoenberg Ensemble.

Feldman was a close friend of fellow New Yorker John Cage and in the 1950s and 60s, under his influence and that of visual artists such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston, experimented with graphic notation to write music that avoided the conventions of Western classical music.

In 1970 he wrote Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety, a beautiful, hypnotic elegy for his childhood piano teacher. This short chamber piece marked a shift to more conventionally notated, and therefore precise, music. In this later period Feldman was fascinated with creating very slow, moving harmonic worlds that explore musical resonance, space and repetition with an incredibly concise and unique attention to orchestration. He also started to write extremely long works, in order to lift the audience out of conventional expectations when listening to a piece of music: his String Quartet No.2 (1979) is 100 minutes long and For Philip Guston (1984) is four hours long.

For me Feldman’s music sounds like nothing else, in the way it physically inhabits a musical space like a three dimensional object. It constantly sounds just out of reach, ungraspable and blurred but in the most exquisite way.

For Samuel Beckett is harmonically very static as it obsessively re-presents the same musical idea, but what is so fascinating is that it’s constantly shifting and moving, like a musical carousel. Different groups of instruments have different roles and co-exist, mirroring and echoing each other. The wind and brass have constantly overlapping chords, which shift and change in relation to each other. Harp, piano and vibraphone have constantly pulsing bell-like figures and the strings (mostly playing harmonics) briefly capture chords to create a resonance.

The only dynamic marking is ‘ppp’. Feldman liked quiet dynamics. He once said:

“…when it’s loud, you can’t hear the sound. You hear its attack. Then you don’t hear the sound, only in its decay”.


Concentrated listening is required to fully appreciate a piece of Feldman as it washes over you and I think it’s important to climb aboard as soon as the piece starts, to really notice the subtle changes. This recording comes in two parts, here are a few things to listen out for in the musical landscape:

  • High Ab and Bb (a seventh lower) passing between clarinet, oboe and flute in the opening 1:00.

  • Brass chords echoed in the strings and woodwind: 1:16 – 1:59.

  • Ab/Bb ostinato in the piano, vibraphone and harp from 0:58 all the way to 13:36.

  • At times the music freezes and loops around: 5:19 – 6:07 (listen out for the high G note in the flute at 5:31) and 6:48 – 7:40 (with the high flute note again).

  • The entry of the tuba at 1:14 with a low D at the bottom of a brass chord is the lowest note so far in the piece. When it moves in other places it has a huge effect on the harmony: a tone up to E at 11:47, down to C at 12:49 and to a low B at track 2, 2:15.

  • At 14:10 the music briefly coalesces then at 14:25 focuses on a gently pulsing piano and vibraphone chord.<

  • Two oboes and string harmonics are briefly exposed at 16:03 – 16:10, two flutes at 15:56, trumpets at 18:03 – 18:21 then a chord consisting of only string harmonics at track 2, 0:00 – 0:13.

  • Track 2, 21:01 this is an extremely important moment because it marks the beginning of the end, as a harp harmonic is left on it’s own to resonate. Moments of silence (with resonance) get more frequent from here on, until the piece ends.


At this point in the blog I’d normally include a list of composers influenced by Feldman. But on this occasion it’s impossible: almost every composer I’ve ever spoken to admires and is influenced by his music.


Morton Feldman wrote many pieces of music inspired by the avant-garde novelist, playwright and poet Samuel Beckett. On Saturday 10 October, the soaring 300-year-old arches of St John’s Smith Square will be backdrop to the London Sinfonietta’s performance of his intimate 1987 portrait For Samuel Beckett, a piece much admired and rarely performed. For more information or to book tickets head to londonsinfonietta.org.uk/feldman-for-samuel-beckett.

Below Art Lange explores the intricate connections between Beckett’s writing and Feldman’s music:

Feldman and Beckett

Morton Feldman © Barbara Monk-Feldman / Samuel Beckett © Jane Bown / The Observer

“The quality of language is more important than any system of ethics or esthetics… Form is the coalescence of content, the revelation of a world.”

Substitute ‘music’ for ‘language’, and one might think that this is a quote from Morton Feldman, but it’s Samuel Beckett, from an early essay on the prose of Marcel Proust. To his mind, ‘form’ – the revelation of a (note, not our) world – is the most pressing and personal question any of us must face, and it’s one of the constants in Beckett’s writing; that is, the difficulty (yet necessity) of forming a life out of the conditions we find ourselves in. It’s not a matter of acceptance, but self-awareness. Ultimately, confirmation arrives through the arduous task of coming to an agreement with existence, when it’s impossible to tell what’s real and what is not.

To do so, Beckett created a series of situations in which characters were dispossessed, disenfranchised, powerless, bearing the burden of pain, alienation or incomprehension. The degree to which this was a response to specific incidences of his own metaphysical dilemma is open to interpretation. But it’s true that, whatever his motivation or state of mind, he chose to create Art to counteract the Void. This, along with his outsider status and his willingness to embrace ambiguity in the face of fascism and chaos, could be why Feldman felt an affinity to him, and so titled this music.

Beckett’s Art, like all great Art regardless of rhetoric, is a confrontation with existence, perception and understanding. In rejecting everything artificial he divorced his characters from our devices of Time, for example, and other comfortable aspects of realism such as convention, recognisable images or common behaviour. His work sought to be “neither life nor art, but something in between” (as Feldman once wrote of Robert Rauschenberg). In Beckett’s own words, he wanted it to be both “perfectly intelligible” and “perfectly inexplicable” at the same time. This required both unorthodox structures, unfamiliar events, passages of unusual (bordering on incoherent) insight, and a persistence of activity for the survival of an identity.

And so it is with Feldman. For Samuel Beckett is one of his later works, rich in detail and lush in sound but troubling, obsessed, claustrophobic in spite of its scope. Given their shared attraction to shadow (Feldman’s music uses chiaroscuro in the same way Beckett meticulously exploited light, dark and all those moods in between on stage and on the page), it’s perhaps surprising that Feldman didn’t opt to involve the stark textures of solo piano – an individual surrounded by… nothing. In any case, this is not dazzling, but muted, orchestration for 23 players; instrumental timbres and tonal colours emerge as if by chance and quickly disappear.

In the beginning, there is no warning. We are just in the music, a self-contained environment (whether real or a state of mine we don’t yet know). It forces us to find our position within what seems to be an eternal present. The sounds proceed with a deceptive monotony – deceptive in their simplicity and lack of development, since what is seductive might eventually become oppressive. The repetition seems a Beckett-like punishment, but shouldn’t be heard literally, as the details differ even as the effect remains the same.

With no beginning, middle or end, no goals, no obvious intent, it could be one of Beckett’s static dramas; since continuity, unasked for, is inevitable, there’s no need to invent anything. Everything simply is; and continues to be. Our role has to do with the nature of perception: we experience a music that seems not to change, but is constantly changing; we don’t know what it means, but it is insistent in its message. Though the Art of Feldman and Beckett incorporates aspects of silence, in its ultimate condition silence equals Death. What comes after doesn’t matter. The music continues, until it stops.

© Art Lange, 1992. Reprinted with the kind permission of Universal Edition.


The soaring 300-year-old arches of St John’s Smith Square are backdrop to our 2015/16 season opener on Saturday 10 October, featuring Morton Feldman’s For Samuel Beckett, much admired and rarely performed.

Feldman’s music paints an intimate portrait of the iconic novelist, playwright and poet. As Art Lange describes:

“Beckett created a series of situations in which characters were dispossessed, disenfranchised, powerless, bearing the burden of pain, alienation or incomprehension. The degree to which this was a response to specific incidences of his own metaphysical dilemma is open to interpretation. But it’s true that, whatever his motivation or state of mind, he chose to create Art to counteract the Void. This, along with his outsider status and his willingness to embrace ambiguity in the face of fascism and chaos, could be why Feldman felt an affinity to him, and so titled this music.”

We decided to put the internet to good use, and look back through history at other composers who have created portraits with their music:

Chuck Close

Chuck Close Self-Portrait (Yellow Raincoat) 2013 Photo credit Donald Farnswoth, Magnolia Editions and David Adamson, Adamson Editions

Philip Glass A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close

“Composed as a diptych in two harmonically related but distinctly different movements, this work is a spiritual reflection of Chuck Close, and a tribute to the friendship between two of the most influential artists of their generation. Close and Glass first became friends in the late 1960s when both worked as assistants to the sculptor Richard Serra. Close was then taking photographs and painting images of his friends. He specifically did not want to paint ‘famous’ people although many of his subjects, including Glass, Serra, Roy Lichtenstein, Alex Katz and Robert Rauschenberg, did ironically become famous in their own right. Close called his portraits ‘heads’ to emphasize they were exercises in ‘form not biography’. Unlike traditional portraits, they gave every aspect of an image equal value and importance.” Source

Fryderyk Chopin D flat Waltz

“Chopin used to amuse gatherings of his friends by improvising musical portraits of them, but there is only one recorded instance of a finished composition springing from these spontaneous creations. Curiously, the subject is not a human but one of George Sand’s dogs, which chases its tail in the famous D flat Waltz (Op. 64, No. 1).” Source

Francis Poulenc Les soirées de Nazelles

“Poulenc would often stay at a friend’s country house in the town of Nazelles, near Tours. It was here that he played aux portraits (charades) around the piano. Like Chopin before him, he would capture each of the guests in an improvisation and a guessing game would follow to identify who was being depicted. He later published eight of the portraits as a cycle, Les soirées de Nazelles. They are framed by a Preambule and Final, which was later identified by the composer as a self-portrait.” Source

Edward Elgar Enigma Variationsvze36b0fd40ef04ae8b660ab6944e69fe9“This work, commenced in a spirit of humour and continued in deep seriousness, contains sketches of Elgar’s friends. It may be understood that these personages comment or reflect on the original theme and each one attempts a solution of the ‘enigma’ theme. The sketches are not ‘portraits’ but each variation contains a distinct idea founded on some particular personality or perhaps on some incident known only to two people.” Elgar’s programme note for a performance of the Variations in Turin, October 1911

Claude Debussy Hommage à S. Pickwick

“The ninth prelude of Debussy’s second book of preludes takes as its source of inspiration the lovable and kind-hearted protagonist of Charles Dickens’s novel The Pickwick Papers (published in 1836), Samuel Pickwick. It begins in a purported serious tone with the first strain of God Save the Queen given in thunderous tones in the lowest register of the piano and accompanied by full-voiced chords above it. This grave rendition of the English national anthem, however, is soon dropped as the tempo quickens and the music begins to reflect the comic nature of Pickwick’s adventures. A lively dotted-rhythm becomes the principal motif of the prelude accompanied at periodic intervals by a rising scale figure that sounds something like a whistle. Just as in Dickens’s novel, moments of grandeur and even sentimentality appear in Debussy’s prelude, yet in their proper place as part of the overall comedy.” Joseph DuBose

For more information about our season opener Feldman: For Samuel Beckett or to book tickets click here.


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