BY JOSEPH ASQUITH, LEAD WRITER (EDUCATION)
As artists, we often question whether our job needs to be prioritised in a world affiliated by global maladies. I always uphold the view that our central purpose is to convey a message and to educate. In this sense, art is absolutely vital.
I chatted to British composer Michael Stimpson about his new album The Angry Garden/Silvered Night, featuring the two works which are rooted in concerns about climate change and war respectively.
The former piece explores themes of environmental degradation, while the latter started as a solo piano work for the centenary of the end of World War One. The release features Michael’s music performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and City of London Choir conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton.
Together we ruminated over his works, their relation to the current state of the world, his life as a legally blind musician, and his value for vinyl versus streaming.
Michael, what prompted the conception of this album projects?
I received a very generous offer of sponsorship for a new recording, and from that point it was a matter of deciding what would work best for a new release. I immediately thought of The Angry Garden. It received its premiere in 2002 in support of the World Wildlife Fund, and seemed particularly appropriate in this time of much increased awareness of climate issues.
I also felt that Silvered Night, written especially for the recording, would provide an interesting contrast since it is from such a different stage of my writing.
I did also like the way, with The Angry Garden concerned with climate change and Silvered Night with its origins in war, that the impact of man — and I do mean specifically man, as opposed to humanity in general — is a background to both pieces.
Climate change is a central theme for The Angry Garden. What role do you think music, specifically composition, plays in encouraging people to take climate change more seriously?
As a general comment, I do like where possible to connect a work to a contemporary issue. I feel that it helps with engaging a newer and perhaps different kind of listener to classical music, which is so reliant on traditional works. For example, my first string quartet Robben Island, for the Allegri Quartet, marked the end of apartheid in South Africa. So The Angry Garden was conceived as a work to introduce the issue of global warming to a listener who, at the time of writing in 2001, might not have come across the increasing problem. With this new recording by such wonderful performers, this might have an effect in 2021 as well, especially if picked up by broadcasters and the wider classical music world.
But while that was its foundation, the most important thing when conceiving a piece linked with a current issue is that it works musically, and so is not absolutely ‘in the moment’ but longer lasting. Almost 20 years on, I still feel that poet and author Simon Rae’s words [to which I composed] capture that perfectly.
You’ve had an illustrious career spanning more than 30 years. You’ve worked with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, City of London Choir, Allegri Quartet, and Roderick Williams and Sioned Williams, to name a few. Given that, what, or who, are some of your main compositional influences?
I find that quite hard to answer, as I have never felt clever enough to consciously take an influence. But as I don’t want to avoid the question, let me say that certainly Sibelius and Shostakovich are amongst my favoured composers. I like works where I sense something beyond the music.
For me, with any new work, I would ask one fundamental question; that is: Would someone want to listen to it again? With the two composers mentioned, as with other monumental ones, that is absolutely the case, and there lies the attraction. Different things are appreciated on further listening, and there is a desire to hear that, and repeat the emotional experience, if there is one. And that is something that I try to produce in my own work.
But really I believe that there are so many different things that influence a work, and these can be from a particular period in one’s life, upbringing, beliefs, character, and goodness knows what else.
As we are emerging from COVID restrictions, after a long and arduous lockdown in the United Kingdom where we both are, what lessons do you hope humanity can learn from this crisis, among the many others we currently face?
I have to confess to not being an optimist on longer-term change following COVID, although I naturally appreciate a wish, and need, to ‘get back to normal’. Unfortunately, many aspects of our lives will, I believe, return to how they were before the pandemic, although I would expect some online/digital effect to remain, greater online learning, fewer face-to-face meetings. […] I would expect that mass tourism and its effect on cities, populations, and the environment will also be ‘back to normal’ this time next year. Sadly, I am not convinced that worldwide governments are very good at learning lessons.
As we touch on the environment, tell us about the environmental considerations that played a role in the design and production of your latest CD and vinyl.
The first priority was of course to provide a product with little or no plastic, and so we decided on a cardboard gatefold design with no plastic for fixing the CD. The CD production company was the best we could find in the UK with an association to environmental production. But for the vinyl, with more time to meet the schedule, we have worked with a vinyl pressing plant in The Netherlands, Deepgrooves, who pay close attention ecological issues in every aspect of their business.
The ability to pay attention to such environmental considerations was one of the reasons for choosing to make this an independent production, along with the ability to retain control over the design, which we also wanted to reflect strongly an environmental message.
During COVID, we had produced an interactive online brochure (for PC/Mac, for tablet/phone) utilising the image of the earth seen from the moon, and given that that image had stood the test of time, we decided to use it for the cover of both the CD and the LP. I liked the idea of looking from a distance, somewhat detached, seeing the earth as an angry garden.
One of the lines in the fifth movement is very important, ’now the ice is wearing thin’, and so the gatefold opens out to a picture of ice, overlaid with another line from the libretto: ’And so the prophecies have come to pass.’
We also found a most evocative image of a silver moon over water, which was perfect for reflecting the title Silvered Night.
So why did you opt for a physical release over streaming?
I have for many years argued that streaming does not financially support the classical music industry, artist, or composer, and I have frankly always been surprised that the main bodies that are there to protect musicians allowed this situation to develop.
In the popular music world, there are at last increasing demands for fair remuneration. Unfortunately, there is still little evidence that classical music is addressing the problem. But now, with independent physical release being entirely technologically feasible — whatever disadvantages it has in the establishment-driven world of classical music — there is no need to simply accept that situation.
We have made short extracts of the work available for streaming, but I don’t think it is too much to ask that if someone really likes the music, they purchase it and thereby make a small contribution to the costs of the project. And of course, as well as CD and the limited edition vinyl release of The Angry Garden (available in September), there is the third option, of download. This is available in different qualities online as well as on iTunes and other platforms.
I feel that all this makes the music widely available to suit everyone’s preferences.
How has your experience of blindness changed the way you now compose?
Many years ago, I had a long and serous illness, which in some respects had a similarity with COVID. The virus Guillain-Barre Syndrome left me in intensive care for four months, unconscious and totally paralysed. When I finally awoke, I had very little eyesight.
There was a long and varied road back. I had been a musician, but I soon realised that my performing level would not return. With the development of computers and speech programs, I moved at first into more text-based work, writing articles and books, but for reasons that I won’t go into here, moved eventually to composing full time.
I work about six inches from a large computer screen with a note head enlarged to be an inch or two. If possible, I get the five lines of the stave on the screen, although it can still be hard to know which space or line I am on. It is a different, and perhaps laborious, way of working but I am very used to it.
Checking a large chord within an orchestral score can take days to get right, as when scrolling up and down I can lose track of where I am, but some use of sound playback helps to tell me. Also, focusing on just the staves that I need to compare helps, but I need to be so careful in, for example, making an error in balance — a very soft instrument accidentally having the same note played by a very loud one.
I tend to check scores for one thing at a time only, and so once a reasonable quality draft has been achieved, a piece will go on to have approximately 15 checks. The last one or two are my favourite stages of composition, as here it is no longer acceptable to let that little thing go, and that final polish is what brings the piece to the level that I am seeking.
Before we go, is there anything else you’d like to add about this music?
It is odd how so many different experiences over such a long period of time have come together to create the recording of The Angry Garden, from a percussionist friend who taught me about ocean drums and other sounds, to a didgeridoo lesson that I once had on a beach in Darwin; from a student interview in the 1970s with a famous environmentalist — my first degree was in Botany and Zoology — to my wife who had faith in the work some 20 years on from its premiere. And that is without considering the warm collaboration with the artists, expert editing, and much more; not to mention the sponsors, without whom the entire project would not have been possible.
What I have found most interesting over the years is that at the end of a long project, it is sometimes hard to see the music as your own: it becomes externalised and somehow more impersonal. But despite that, you still feel something. For me, it is the little things that I respond to most strongly: that scrape of the tam-tam in duo with the wind machine, the choir singing ’prophecies’ so gently, and the solace of the pianist so delicately interacting with the orchestra in Silvered Night. They might not be my own anymore, but I still like them.
For more information on Michael’s work, and to buy The Angry Garden/Silvered Night see www.michaelstimpson.co.uk. The Angry Garden/Silvered Night is also available via amazon, and for download at major digital retailers.
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About the writer
Completing his Bachelor of Music (Honours) in 2015 at the University of Newcastle (Australia), Joseph wrote an acclaimed 78-page dissertation which focused on the interplay between ‘Music and Zeitgeist’ under the supervision of musicologist/harpsichordist Rosalind Halton. He also studies and performs a plethora of genres including baroque, classical, romantic, folk and contemporary as a soloist and ensemble member.
Joseph has received piano tutelage from esteemed Australian pianists including Marilyn Wilson (Newcastle), Andrew Chubb (Newcastle), Clemens Leske (Sydney), and Michael Kieran-Harvey (Hobart). He spent time at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 2016, where he was mentored by celebrated pianist/musicologist Paul Hersh (USA). In 2019 and 2020, he attended the piano music festival Music at Château d’Aix in the South of France, studying closely with pianists Paul Roberts (UK) and Martin Sturfält (Sweden).
Joseph is a passionate teacher, having obtained a Masters of Teaching with Distinction (Secondary) in 2017 from the University of Newcastle. He has taught in an array of schools, as a classroom and peripatetic teacher, in New South Wales and also in England. Joseph currently lives in London, where he is appointed as Head of Music at an OFSTED-Outstanding Secondary Girls School.
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