Tag Archives: Jonathan Morton

Principal player focus: Jonathan Morton

The start of the Music Programme 2012/13 sees a new Principal player join the London Sinfonietta.   Jonathan Morton, who is also currently Artistic Director and Leader of the Scottish Ensemble, will be taking up the position of Principal player violin 1.  Jonathan has performed with us for many years and we’re delighted to welcome him to the ensemble. We asked him a few questions to get the inside track…

Violinist Jonathan Morton

Tell us a little about yourself.  What projects have you been involved with recently?\

I recently performed at Orchestra in a Field, an outdoor festival in Glastonbury. I played in the Scrapheap Orchestra, on a violin mostly made with plastic waste pipe, nails, and a fork.  I’ve also been having fun performing Schubert’s Trout Quintet and a new quintet by Alasdair Spratt with the wonderful pianist Alasdair Beatson & the Scottish Ensemble.

What was the first recording you bought?

 Probably some cheesy Belgian pop (I grew up near Brussels).

When did you realise you wanted a career in music?

Very late actually. I’m not very good with career strategies.

Although you’ve just become a London Sinfonietta Principal player you’ve performed with us many times before.  Do you have favourite London Sinfonietta experience to date?

So many to choose from… I’d have to pick one of my first experiences with tthe London Sinfonietta, which was a recording of Oliver Knussen’s two operas Where the Wild Things Are & Higglety Pigglety Pop!. I had recently left music college, and to find myself at Abbey Road studios playing this extraordinary music under the composer’s baton was overwhelming. And I’ll never forget a performance of Louis Andriessen’s medieval metal masterpiece De Snelheid at Lincoln Centre in NYC.  (Co-incidentally, Jonathan’s first performance as Principal violin 1 will be in our upcoming BBC Proms performance, when we’ll be re-visiting De Snelheid).

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve been asked to do in a musical work?

Playing the mandolin in Hans Werner Henze’s  ‘Voices’.

What piece of music brings a smile to your face when you see it on your music stand?

Anything by Mozart.

Who or what inspires you?

The landscapes, sea and skies of Suffolk, where I have recently moved to.

And finally, name your 3 most listened to pieces of music at the moment…

I listen to music mainly in the car, where our two children have complete artistic control over what’s played. The three most requested tracks are Stick Stock by Emily Portman, Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams and In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg.  My latest album purchase is Ground of its own by Sam Lee. You should definitely listen to it.

Jonathan’s next performance with the London Sinfonietta will be on Tuesday 14 August at the Royal Albert Hall when we’ll be performing with the London Sinfonietta as part of the BBC Proms. Click here to find out more.
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Norwegian folk music, polytonality, and lowering the divorce rate: part 2

In the second part of this two-part blog, cellist Zoe Martlew tells us what happens when Norwegian folk fiddler Nils Økland meets the London Sinfonietta in preparation for the first event at Written/Unwritten

Nils learns all his melodies by ear, and found it strange that we preferred to learn by seeing the written notes first. Composer Charlie Piper was present to help bridge the gap, but it made me aware of the tremendous aural memory required of the folk musician. At least two of our group has perfect pitch – Sam Walton, percussionist and Joan Atherton, violinist, and were able to copy melodies straight off. However, as Joan explained, having perfect pitch can sometimes cause problems when it comes to retuning the instrument, customary left hand finger positions producing different sounding pitches with each scordatura and potentially causing confusion. In the end it wasn’t necessary to retune the strings and we all managed to memorise quite a collection of Nils’ pieces in a short space of time: a “Lazy” tune, with polytonal structures and a lilting rhythm amplified by foot beats; a religious melody so lost in antiquity that heated arguments abound in the Norwegian folk music community about the correct way to play it; a lively running theme with foot stomping dance rhythms; a “grey” melody to be played at 4 in the morning at weddings and a piece of Nils’ own called Blond Bleu after a painting by Lars Hertervig. Now considered one of Norway’s greatest artists, Hertervig was so poor in his lifetime he was unable to afford paper and paint, so made his own from crushed tobacco paper and natural pigments.  For me this painting perfectly evokes the beautiful and mysterious melancholy of so much of the Hardanger music we have heard.

Blond Bleu by Lars Hertervig, which inspired Nils’ original composition.
Blond Bleu by Lars Hertervig, which inspired Nils’ original composition.

The modes Nils used were not all familiar to me. One appeared to be a Dorian scale with the first five notes of an E major scale stuck on top, for example, another a mix of two completely different modes. However, I did find myself playing a drone D and A fifth for a fair amount of our improvised sessions and wondered yet again at how often this happens in so many folk traditions: middle eastern, central European, Celtic and by extension in modern film scores where a D bass drone seems de rigour (I speak from hard won film session experience). Perhaps the ancient idea of modes being associated with “the humours” is not so far off. D associated with tragedy, and so on. Nils said that several of his melodies had been influenced by Middle Eastern traditions (would be fascinating to know where, how and when) that can be heard in certain microtonal ornamental inflections.

In order to avoid the danger of us becoming a mere backing band for the distinctive Norwegian colour world, and me going crazy with Dorian mode pedal notes, Sam Walton our percussionist suggested we experiment further with harmonic modulation within the improvisations. John Constable began to add more jagged thematic gestures on the piano, and in the strings we started to use more of the extended techniques discussed earlier and move away from a purely modal tonality. Nils himself is no stranger to other ways of playing, improvising regularly with jazz musicians, free improvisers and once in a punk band, as have I (a band called “Liebeskind” which was unbelievably loud, bad, entirely made up on the spot and unsurprisingly lasted for only 3 gigs. Our first album cover was to have featured our Belgian lead singer carrying the placenta of her newly born daughter. Mercifully, the idea and the band sunk without trace). At one point Sam and I did a high octane piano cello improv moving far away from folk genre, and in much more familiar musical territory for us. Interestingly, Nils said that he finds free improv much harder to do than folk or jazz. Such differences are what makes the collaboration compelling, and spark off new possibilities in making music for us all.

After coffee and cake from the nearby fabulous Konditor and Cook, we discussed the outline of our concert in June and how to balance improvised and written music. We came up with a programme including Stravinsky’s wonderful Three Pieces for String Quartet; two Aphex Twin pieces for piano; the ever popular Fratres by Arvo Pärt, and some music by young Norwegian composers plus the new works created from our group ensemble improvisations at the two day workshop.

We round off our two days of collaboration with a foot stomping wedding tune. The Hardanger folk fiddler traditionally sits down to play. In the past Norwegian weddings would have lasted for at least a week, many people travelling for days on foot over the mountains to reach the party. Once ecsonced, the musician would be playing for hours, hence the need to sit down and presence of “four o’clock in the morning ‘grey’ tunes” previously mentioned. There is a belief that the divorce rate is now much higher in Norway because weddings are now far shorter and don’t allow people the chance to get to know each other as well. It’s nice to think that such hauntingly beautiful music not only can keep trolls at bay but also maintain marital stability. Couples are welcome to put the theory to the test at Kings Place in June.

Don’t miss the results of this unique collaboration at Written/Unwritten on 2 June 2011.

Click here to find out more about London Sinfonietta’s Written/Unwritten festival at Kings Place, and to view for more photos from this first collaborative workshop.

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Norwegian folk music, polytonality, and lowering the divorce rate – part 1

Cellist Zoe Martlew tells us what happens when Norwegian Hardanger folk fiddler Nils Økland meets the London Sinfonietta in preparation for the first event at Written/Unwritten

Written/Unwritten with Nils Okland

(anticlockwise from left) Zoe Martlew, Sam Walton, Eniko Magyar, Nils Økland, Jonathan Morten and John Constable meet for the first time to collaborate for Written/Unwritten. Image © Briony Campbell

The words “Norwegian folk fiddler” for me immediately conjure up images of craggy old men with flowing white beards leading solitary lives in lonely log cabins by fjords, casting spells on mountain trolls and mist-bound elves with melodies of impossible sadness and antiquity. Cheerfully smashing this picture to smithereens, the youthful Hardanger fiddler Nils Økland burst into our rehearsal space at The Warehouse, full of twinkly humour, an immediately engaging and lively presence, delighted to share the art of his music with us assembled London Sinfonietta players.

He was carrying two Hardanger fiddles with him, custom made modern instruments with exquisitely wrought inlaid mother of pearl fingerboards, embellished wood carving on the body of the fiddle, 4 main strings with 4 sympathetic resonating strings underneath and enlarged f holes (compared to modern violins). He explained that each of the strings is made differently to produce a different timbre: one is wound gut, for example, another straight gut, and so on.  The reason for this became apparent as soon as he started playing.

Nils Okland introducing himself at the Written/Unwritten workshop

Nils and the Hardanger fiddle. Image © Briony Campbell


Each melody is played on the higher of two strings, the lower played simultaneously as a drone, with the sympathetic strings creating a haunting halo of resonance. The multi modal melodies are freely embellished and mostly un-tempered. By shifting to a new melody and drone on another two strings, the tonality and mood changes with the new string timbre. The result of these shifting melodies is a lilting polytonality accompanied by a regular left-right foot stomp “heart beat” that often seems to go against the melody. The polyrhythms and harmonic colour reminded me strongly of Stravinsky’s music, L’Histoire du Soldat in particular.

The fiddle has a specific tuning for each melody and Nils explained that there are many different scordatura (retunings) used – as many as 50 in some traditions. It’s relatively easy to retune the Hardanger fiddle as the tension on the strings is considerably less than that of the modern violin. Still it was impressive how often and how quickly he was able to retune for each piece, never once needing to refer to a central pitch or tuning fork, revealing the extraordinary aural skills that the Hardanger art demands.

Nils told us that the folk fiddle tradition had almost died out in Norway but is currently enjoying a revival. He has travelled around the country gathering old tunes from the old men in log cabins that do turn out to exist after all. So pure is this aural tradition, says Nils, that he came across one father and son duo arguing about 17th century ornamental performance practice as passed down by their great, great grandfathers. Eat your heart out Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Some of the tunes Nils plays he has learnt the modern way, over the phone, to avoid the more traditional method of travelling for miles on foot across the mountains to gather music. From all this material, Nils has also composed his own melodies, which have the same seductively mournful quality.

Our task is to collaborate with Nils to come up with an evening’s music both of our written repertoire, his improvised music, and something completely new combining both traditions. We string players immediately face the issue of whether to imitate the delicate sound of the Hardanger fiddle or stick with our own more sharply defined articulation and tone. We all try out his bows and marvel at their lightness and springiness. The one I tried felt as though it barely weighed a gram and certainly made imitating Nils’ style much easier. We have all had some experience playing baroque music, especially violinist Jonathan Morton who owns his own baroque bows and was rapidly able to improvise with the light bow strokes of the Hardanger style. After considerable discussion on the best approach to the overall string sound we decided that a blend of modern and ancient string technique would be more interesting, allowing room for variation between the two. Fuelling further discussion, Nils played us a delicate piece of his called Moths which was full of what we would call “extended techniques”: bow flutterings on the fingerboard, whispered sul pont murmurs, left hand glissandi, tremolos, and so on.  Suddenly we were more in Helmut Lachenmann than baroque performance territory. Our violist, Eniko Magyar, suggested she perform a movement of Ligeti’s solo viola sonata in the concert that uses many of the same sounds and nicely integrates our collective stylistic possibilities.

Another collaborative question to be tackled was that of equal temperament. Interestingly, many of the young Norwegian folk musicians have stopped using the microtones that to my ears make their music uniquely coloured. I remember being struck by the haunting beauty and virtuosity of un-tempered modal Norwegian singing in a bar in Bergen some years back. Even though our ensemble includes the tempered piano, the microtonal embellishments Nils uses in some melodies still seemed to work well alongside John Constable’s carefully chosen chord sequences on the piano. These issues are all part of our process of finding where contemporary music performance practice and folk music can happily meet and inform the other.

Keep an eye on the London Sinfonietta blog over the next few days, when we’ll post the second part of this two-part blog.

Click here to find out more about London Sinfonietta’s Written/Unwritten festival at Kings Place, and to view for more photos from this first collaborative workshop.

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