Guest Blogger 2: Lloyd Coleman on In Portrait: Beat Furrer

Lloyd Coleman, our second guest blogger from the Royal Academy of Music, explores the music of Beat Furrer…


I had not heard a single note of Beat Furrer’s music before this week’s In Portrait concert, which made me very curious indeed about hearing it for the first time. As a young composer, I am naturally drawn to music which is unfamiliar, mostly because I realise that developing my own compositional voice very much depends on learning from the people at the top of their game. Last week, before London Sinfonietta rehearsals began, Beat visited the Royal Academy of Music to give a seminar on his music as well as lessons with individuals students. He was very encouraging when he looked at my compositions, whilst also giving plenty of sound advice and food for thought, for which I am very grateful.


Once the lessons were over and done with, the percussionists at the Academy treated us to a performance of some of Furrer’s work in a short concert which proved to be a good preview or ‘appetiser’ to what would follow in the larger-scale works of the Sinfonietta concert. Music for Mallets (1985) and Quartet for Percussion (1995) both display what I think is most interesting about his music generally – timbre and rhythm. With the former, I admired the way in which he would carefully manage and converge individual sounds in such a way that my ears never felt overloaded; in both pieces, each and every musical event seemed to be given the time required for it to interest and resonate with the listener. With the latter, I enjoyed the ways in which the composer appeared to layer rhythmic patterns that in themselves are relatively simple, but when put together they appear to form a more complex structure.


This idea of layering rhythms and textures also appeared to be a key idea in Nuun, the large piece written in 1995 (the same year, incidentally, as the Quartet for Percussion). Scored for large ensemble and 2 solo pianos placed either side of the stage, it begins with music so chaotically complex and full to the brim with different motifs that I found it very hard to perceive any one instrument or line in the massive wall of sound. One comes to realise soon enough, however, that this striking use of the full ensemble is part of a larger picture, in which the individual layers are gradually peeled away like the skin of an onion, only the energy of each layer remains ready to re-erupt at various points as the piece descends onto a lower level of overall intensity. I have heard this work three times in total now (once on the internet, once at the rehearsal and then the concert itself) and the thing I loved most about it is that it is the kind of piece where the listener can choose to focus on different points of the music each time it is played. In fact, I think one could listen to Nuun perhaps a hundred times, and each time there would always be many new features in the musical ‘undergrowth’ that they didn’t notice before.
Xenos, a work for a slightly smaller ensemble minus the two pianos, was written in 2008 and interestingly enough I think it shows a completely different side to the composer’s style of writing. A lot of the raw energy from Nuun is still there, but it is presented in a highly contrasting way: the opening of the more recent work features a long, largely homophonic chordal-like procession, with the winds screaming deliriously at the top of their range – all rather removed from the complex ‘mash-up’ of highly individual lines.


Presto, the short piece for flute and piano which opened the concert, was again different in its nature to the other works in the programme. The incessantly repetitive stab chords in the piano provided a bare and stark backdrop to the whisperings of the flute in the foreground, which sort of grew out of itself into a sound world less removed from what might be called ‘normality’.


The fourth and final work on the programme was not by Furrer, but by home-grown talent Naomi Pinnock, whose new piece for baritone solo and ensemble was called Words. I was listening to Naomi’s interview about this piece elsewhere on the website, and found what she had to say about the way she has developed as a composer particularly interesting. She explains that as time has gone on, her search for her voice has led her to strip away anything she deems unnecessary from her music, to leave the bare essentials of what she wants to express. I find the result in sound is startling and rather beautiful, and it’s made me consider that perhaps less really is more.


All in all, the concert was very enjoyable and I now feel that I have not only heard the work of Beat Furrer, but that I have gone some way in understanding different aspects of his wonderfully varied music. For this, a large amount of credit should go not only to the composer and conductor himself, but the amazing musicians of the orchestra too.


I look forward to the next composer in the series!


Lloyd Coleman

Click here to visit Lloyd’s regular blog.

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