Writing the Future showcases today’s best emerging talent as young composers are selected to create new works for small ensemble and solo players. We will be giving the world premieres of the four new chamber works and the five new solo works at the New Music Show on Sunday 8 December at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room. Hidden also returns, as the solo commissions written on the Writing the Future scheme are performed in secret spaces around the site, each curated by students from Central St Martins College of Arts and Design.
We caught up with composer Aaron Holloway-Nahum as he prepares for the world premiere performance of his new work in December.
Your new piece is written for solo alto trombone. What are the main challenges you face when composing for a solo instrument?
This is a very interesting way to phrase the question! I do think there are many limitations to writing for a solo instrument. This varies from instrument to instrument, but for a solo alto trombone you have immediate things such as only having the availability of one pitch at a time (so, how do you create a sense of harmony?), the fact that the player must be given time to breathe, and the restricted available range of the instrument.
As a composer, though, I find that limitations are actually a great help to creativity. Solving each of these problems causes you to make choices which help move the piece along. More than that – my own work is deeply connected to and inspired by the physical aspect of playing an instrument. One example of that in this piece, are the passages where the player is required to play pitches in a specific slide-position. The player is then asked to change the pitch in that same position (which they do using the muscles in their lips, known as an embouchure), or to deliver the exact same pitch from a different slide position.
This is obviously an extremely virtuosic demand on the player and, to add to this, the player is asked to repeat this process again and again at a very fast speed. Here’s what it looks like in the score:
A less technical example might be another idea in the score, where the player is asked to play a certain number of pitches within the duration of a single breath. This intimately connects the speed of the piece not just to the instrument, but directly to the breath of that individual performer.
Your piece will be performed as part of Hidden at the New Music Show in December, in a secret space backstage at the Southbank Centre. How did this performance concept help shape the work?
I really love the concept of Hidden. The audience will be taken on a sort of tour of the Southbank Centre, some areas they might know, but others are really unusual or otherwise closed to the public. So there’s already this unusual sense of discovery at play. Then, in some of these places they’ll visit, there’s not just a piece written by a young composer but an entire installation of a solo work involving a team of design students from Central St. Martins College of Art and Design.
I think the most difficult thing about writing a piece for a venue outside of a concert hall is that you still really want the music to be clearly heard. This can be really hard in – for example – a crowded foyer, or even in a smaller space like a stairwell, if there isn’t room for many people to get close to the performer.
I didn’t know the exact space that would surround the music I was writing, so I actually really just aimed to write the best piece I could. Choosing an alto trombone sort of solved the worry about having the music heard, because it’s an instrument that can go from being really extraordinarily soft to just incredibly piercing and loud. So, while the piece does conventionally use dynamics to indicate volume, the player and I can flexibly collaborate later in the process to determine what the softest and loudest dynamics should be.
Without giving too much away, could you give us a few clues as to what we can expect from the work of the Central St Martins students?
The designers from Central St Martins have blown all of us away with their creativity, imagination and passion for what they do. For this particular piece, we actually met the collaborators when the piece was already relatively far along in the compositional process. So it really is as you describe it: bringing this music to the design team as a sort of inspirational object, from which they then create an imaginative response to the piece.
It’s a funny situation to be in because the role is an unusual one for the composer. Normally the composer is imagining all sorts of things, and has to get in a room with a player to find out what is possible and can practically be accomplished in the piece. In a sort of role reversal, when creating an installation, the composer is sort of acting as the practical sieve for ideas. There are just certain things you can’t do (“No, we really can’t paint the trombone purple”) and then there are other things that are just difficult to do (“If the lights all go out at this point in the piece, the player will need to have the music memorised. Is that possible?”)
So it’s these sorts of things, and it’s an incredibly fun process. As a composer you almost never actually get to let go of a piece before it is performed. You’re involved in the rehearsals, and right up to the last minute might be saying ‘why not try this’ or ‘maybe it would be better if you don’t play that bar there’, but this process forces you out of that. The music becomes just a part of this larger thing that you could never have created or even imagined on your own.
Who would you cite as your main musical influences?
I came to composition relatively late for the modern day. I didn’t write my very first piece until I was 17. (This doesn’t sound late, but many of my colleagues had written numerous orchestral pieces by then!) Until then I was primarily a singer, in choirs, doing little art songs, and even musical theatre. The voice has remained really important to me. Firstly, I sing a lot when I write. I want to feel what the notes sound like as a phrase of music on a breath, and the voice is so flexible that it just allows you to find almost anything. (My own voice is also so unpredictable/uncontrollable to me now that I often stumble upon things I like!)
In terms of the composers who have influenced me, I’ve just been ridiculously blessed to have a string of fantastically inspiring and challenging teachers. So I’d begin with them: Julian Anderson, Philip Cashian, Augusta Read Thomas and Amy Williams. I don’t mean, by this, that I try to sound like any of them. It’s much more that they gave me help in clarifying my own ideas about music and helping me to grow for years and years.
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
My favourite composer, just hands down, is Bach. I try to listen to Bach every day. My favourite pieces are the cello sonatas, though I also love the piano music. I’ve been listening recently to Keith Jarrett’s Goldberg Variations, which are just an incredible display of musicianship and technique from a great musician. I also listen a lot to Henri Dutilleux and Elliott Carter, to jazz musicians such as Chris Potter, Keith Jarrett, and Joshua Redman, and to bands like The Weepies and The Civil Wars.
I also do quite a lot of ‘listening research’. I guess this is the same to how a writer would likely gather up a bunch of books/articles/magazines that touch on a topic they are about to do a piece on. Since I was writing this alto trombone piece, I’ve been listening a lot to other contemporary repertoire for the trombone. So you’d find a lot of recent plays of other solo trombone pieces such as Sequenza V (Luciano Berio), Keren (Iannis Xenakis), Atem (Mauricio Kagel), and Aus freier lust (Georg Friedrich Haas).
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Help support Aaron’s new work alongside that of the other emerging composers on our Writing the Future scheme by texting LSF001 followed by your donation amount to 70970. (Donations can be £3, £5 or £10). We’ll send you an exclusive signed copy of the first page of one of the scores as a thank you!