Psappha

Music | Working with Psappha

Composer David Roche continues his series of blogs for Wales Arts Review exploring the evolution of his new works looking at his upcoming collaboration with the Psappha Ensemble.

My first experience working with Psappha, one of the UK’s leading new music ensembles, was in early 2017 as part of their ‘composing for’ scheme. Fellow Cardiff University person Richard McReynolds Youtubed a video of their performance of his Recur for bass clarinet. The composition itself was impressive but so was the quality of the performance and recording – there was a clear commitment and professionality from everyone involved in the production. I really wanted to be part of this, so I applied to their Composing for Piano scheme and, luckily, I was selected as a participant. I won’t rattle on about the piece that I wrote – titled Ten Acre Riots! – as I wrote an article for Wales Arts Reviewthat covered the whole piece in detail. Suffice to say, the piece has come to be one of the most professionally important pieces of music I have written to date. My first experience working with Psappha shaped a lot of the musical activities I would undertake over the following years and had led to a lot of professional opportunities.

Here’s a video of Psappha performing Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King (incidentally, the composer also wrote a Welsh language opera, The Doctor of Myddfai):

In November last year I was drinking a pint of beer in Huddersfield when I received an e-mail from Tim Williams, Psappha’s Artistic Director, asking if I would be interested in undertaking a commission from Rachel Fenwick and Hear and Now, the forces were toy piano (Benjamin Powell) and percussion (Tim Williams). I jumped at the chance.

As part of this commission each of the selected composers (Me, Will Frampton, Dani Howard, Bethan Williams-Morgan) were asked to respond to a piece of art in the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester. Both Manchester and the Whitworth are gorgeous places and, as will become clearer later, a big part of the process of this composition was getting to know the city. On top of this, Hear and Now explore the relationship between music and wellbeing, it was important for me to try and respect this is as much as possible from the ground up, so I set about having a look and think about the works in the gallery. So, how did I come to select the piece of art that I would respond to?

Travelling to the Whitworth from Cambridge takes a long time on National Express busses (obviously, right? I don’t take them any because, one time, after agreeing to a 6 hour journey that took 8, I found out that the bus was so late that I’d missed the event I’d travelled to participate in – no refund either, rage!). Once I arrived in Manchester I was absolutely starving and I thought I’d pop to the Whitworth, nab a snack, and have a look around before the organised tour. I went to the café, grabbed a sandwich, and sat down. The room the café is based in is long, with windows instead of walls, and a harsh, reverberant sound. I noticed over my shoulder there was an intimidating structure – a tree made of steel, reflecting everything around it. I finished up, took a look around, and went on the tour. As we were walking around and chatting, Wendy Gallagher, the Arts and Health Coordinator of the gallery, mentioned that part of the role of this steel tree was to give something back to the communities nearby, those that use the grounds. This resonated with me and I started thinking about how I have tried to engage with groups of people through music – successfully or otherwise – and what roles art has had in engaging me as a younger musician. This piece of art suddenly became much more significant to me and I decided that I wanted to write my piece of music about it. The work was Untitled 2016 by Anya Gallaccio, informally known as the ‘Ghost Tree’ and the work I produced in response was titled No Steel Leaves.

As far as models for pieces of music that make use of toy piano and percussion go, there aren’t many. There’re lots of excellent pieces of music for toy piano that I really enjoy (Mirabella by Stephen Montague and John Cage’s pieces) but one rarely hears the toy pianist going hell for leather. In No Steel LeavesI really wanted to push the pianist, I wanted a psychotic, swirling, toy piano. The swirling sound was, no doubt, influenced by the following solo piano piece by Carter, shown below.

In terms of percussion, there’s a lot of readily available music. I would strongly, strongly recommend listening to Fitkin’s Chain of Command, which is just brilliant, but for No Steel Leaves it’s more relevant to listen to Alyssa Weinberg’s Table Talk, which is equally fantastic and features a lot of hard percussion and an unusual setup –  this strongly influenced the composition of No Steel Leaves. Muramatsu’s Land is also a lot of fun and influenced my interest in using different types of mallet to balance the notes within different percussion chords. The pitch material and inner construction relates to this hard, reflective aesthetic in a few interesting ways too.

All of the musical materials are based around the process of musical reflection. A group of pitches are reflected around a series of points taken from an initial, prime group of pitches. This generates related but different groups of pitches. These are combined and reflected in different ways to create larger groups of pitches. Out of all of these different groups and collections there is a particular row of pitches that acts as a through line. I used this through line because it had a nice C major melody at its centre, a nice bit of variety for a reasonably chromatic piece, it helps unify the composition. I wanted to create the impression that all of these materials are linked by some barely seen object or force – in the same way the ghost tree is a unified object that reflects the world around it.

An extremely fun part of this composition was writing the much more rhythmic second movement. Both Tim Williams and Benjamin Powell are phenomenal musicians, so I wanted to make sure I made the most of both of their abilities. The second movement is littered with tricky changes of tempo. This made me think of the blending of different components of Gallaccio’s structure, it’s often hard to see the individual sheets of metal that contribute to the whole. Large pulse networks guide the performers in to different sections; music grouped in threes guides an initial change, then groups of fives, then groups of gradually smaller amounts. The whole purpose of these sections is to project the impression of fast, unpredictable change that one feels when experiencing Gallaccio’s work.

No Steel Leavesis going to be premiered this Thursday at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester. I’m really excited, it’s going to be an awesome concert, and I’m really looking forward to it.