HOCKET Interviews Composers, round 1: Aaron Holloway-Nahum

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On November 21HOCKET will be presenting a FREE concert of new commissions at the Brand Library & Art Center in Glendale, CA (concert information available at www.HOCKET.org). Leading up to the performance, HOCKET will be interviewing the four commissioned composers of this concert and discussing their newly written works. Here is HOCKET’s interview with London based composer Aaron Holloway-Nahum where they discuss his piece Remember Me?.

Tell us about Remember Me? 

Remember Me? is a forty-minute extravaganza for two pianists, one piano, two toy pianos and an array of other toys and props.  It’s a set of variations on Dido’s Lamentbroken up into four parts that can each be played individually, or together in one sweep as half of a concert.  The first part takes place entirely on the keys of the piano, ending with the slamming of the piano lid.  The second part is played on and in the piano, but the pianists never touch the keys.  The third part is a kind of mirror set of variations to the first part, but here its distorted because the music is played on one piano and one toy piano.  The fourth part (which was the first to be performed, as is the part you can currently hear on HOCKET’s Soundcloud page) is for two toy pianos.

What lead you towards Dido’s Lament from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas as the source material for this large-scale variations?

There are some technical things about the piece that make it very good source material (the passacaglia, the familiarity, the rich variety within the already repetitive structure, etc…) but it’s hard to say exactly what drew me to this music because I wasn’t really thinking about those things at the time.  I think I just found I’d often get the music stuck in my head and had found myself daydreaming variations on it in the past.

The history of the large-scale variations for piano is such a strong tradition – – Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Op. 120 Diabelli Variations, Rzewski’s The People United Will never Be Defeated!, etc. How does this affect your process while composing?

I’ve heard from a lot of composers that when they’re composing a certain kind of work (like a string quartet, say) they avoid listening to any other pieces like that because it makes it impossible for them to work.  I’m exactly the opposite of this.  It’s more like a writer who, when writing an essay on a particular topic will read loads of other things on that topic, looking for interesting tidbits, seeing what people have said already, etc…

I include score study in my daily routine of composing and I literally had all three of the scores you mention here (along with many others) on my desk while I was writing Remember Me?  Another book that lives (always) on my composing desk is Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist.  One of my favourite quotes in it is this:

“If you have one person you’re influenced by, everyone will say you’re the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone say you’re so original!” (Attributed to cartoonist Gary Panter)

So all this score study is about soaking in the sum-total of what’s been made and said in this genre so far.  Sometimes this leads to something like a direct homage (there is one in Remember Me? to Rzewski, and one to Beethoven) but more often I’m trying to steal loads and loads of little things that I stack up in new ways that are interesting to me.

Part II of Remember Me? doesn’t touch a note of the piano and is an incredible exploration of extended techniques. How did you go about discovering and creating the sound world for this section of the piece?

So part of this is wrapped up in the previous question.  I listened to a lot of music that used a lot of really varied extended techniques.  When I heard things I liked, I would find a score and make a note in my notebook of how the composer had done this.  Many of these sounds, though, are now found in contemporary piano music so often that they really sound like cliches to my ears.  So I’d try layering up two or three ideas together, or to reimagine how I could get a similar sound in a different way.  I think the most unusual thing to know about the second movement – for me as a composer anyway – is that I wrote it without ever actually going to a piano and trying to make these sounds myself.  I wanted to be led by my imagination rather than what I could physically accomplish on the instrument.

Part III and Part IV or your piece feature the toy pianos and push these instruments to previously unexplored areas. What drew you to the toy piano?

To be honest it was your passion for the instruments that did this.  All of my music is really inspired by and about specific musicians whom I respect and adore, and many of my pieces just begin as conversations where I’m asking “what do you like to play?” and “what do you wish composers would do more often?”  We were putting on a sort of “extra-curricular” concert at the Aspen Music Festival where we played Rzewski’s Coming Together and Thomas brought along a toy piano (and a melodica, which also makes an appearance in Remember Me?)  And I saw the instrument there through his eyes and the possibilities were so wonderful I just felt I would be foolish to leave it out.

We have worked very closely with you on putting this piece together, can you talk about the process of collaboration with us.

Well, what I’d really say is that working with the two of you has firstly been a lot of fun: you’ve been so open to any idea, and so helpful in thinking about how to accomplish something.  Let me give you a really specific example: I had been in NYC working with ICE Ensemble and seen them perform with Pauline Oliveros, and there was this great concert filled with great music but there was this one thing that totally blew me away: at one point as she was improvising she let all the music die down and was just running her hands over the keys of the accordion.  And I thought: that is a sound I have to put into the piece.  But I had no idea how to write it down, or even how to describe it.  So I wrote something approximate and then ended up sending Thomas a video and literally just said this is the sort of sound I want, what is the best way to make it on the Toy Piano?

And there’s loads of things like that in this piece.  From working out the best place to make a sound, or how long the resonance of the toy piano lasts, or whatever.  The collaboration has been totally built on this joy we all share in making music and the piece is so much stronger for that.

Anything else you would like to add?

Well I’d just like to say thank you to both of you for the countless hours of practice you’ve put in on the piece.  I’m so, so sorry I won’t be there for these premieres because I just know how wonderfully you play every single bar of it and I can’t wait to get together and work on the recording in June.  All power to your fingers, HOCKET!

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