Out of the Shadows

Saturday, 10 July 2021

Rhythm pitch and tension: composer Graham Fitkin chats about his 1990 album of multi-piano music 'Flak' which has just been digitally remastered

The original album cover for Graham Fitkin's Flak
Composer Graham Fitkin pictured on the original album cover his 1990 album, Flak

Graham Fitkin
's album Flak was originally released in 1990, his debut disc as composer and performer alongside pianists Eleanor Alberga, Errollyn Wallen and Shelagh Sutherland in what have become some of his classic works for multiple pianos. Popular at the time, the album has continued to be played and now Graham has released a new digitally re-mastered version created by Real World Studios' Tim Oliver. I recently caught up with Graham, from his studio in Cornwall, to talk about Flak, how the music and the album came about and how, 30 years on, he feels about the music.

The impetus for the new, digital release, was partly that the album has never been available online, if you wanted to listen to it you had to buy a CD (or a cassette), and this rather bothered Graham who is still fond of the album. The second reason for the project was to improve the sound quality of the original, to remove some aspects of the sound which he doesn't like (and has never liked). The original recording was made at Southfield Park with two grand pianos on a stage where the backdrop was breeze-block with no curtains. The result was a very live sound, with a distinct ping to the sound of the pianos coming off the concrete blocks. This was improved for the completed recording, but to Graham's ears there was still too much ping to the sound, and now he is pleased that Tim Oliver has been able to do something about it.

Graham Fitkin
Graham Fitkin today

The disc is all music for piano, four pieces for four pianists at two pianos (Sciosophy, Flak, Untitled 11, There Is A Great Weight On My Head Tonight) and six pieces for solo piano (The Cone Gatherers, Piano Piece 90, From Yellow To Yellow, Piano Piece Early 89, Piano Piece Mid 89, Piano Piece Late 89), a reflection of Graham's fascination with the piano at the time. He loves the piano, he plays it and he likes the fact that you can get all the polyphony you want from one mono-timbral instrument; putting two or three pianos together seemed a good idea. The first time he came across multiple pianos was in Steve Reich's 1967 piece Piano Phase, a work that Graham still plays. And after exploring music for multiple pianos, Graham then looked at other instruments such as multiple saxophones and two harpsichords.

Another aspect of the piano that he likes is that you can forget about the registration, there is just the piano, and concentrate on other skills such as rhythm, pitch and tension. This is something that the piano allows and he gives the example of playing the adjacent notes C and D. If you play the two on a piano, then you hear the harmonics, but if you hear them played, say, on a violin and an oboe then you hear the tonal differences between the notes.

When playing Flak and the other multiple piano pieces originally, Graham found it fascinating to come up with works for these combinations by other composers such as Gavin Bryars, Andrew Poppy and Steve Reich. These are programmes that still function, and in 2022 Graham will be performing Flak again in such a programme, the first time he will have played the work for 25 years.

I was interested to find out what the Graham of 2021 thinks of works he wrote back in 1990. He comments that whilst looking at old works is liable to give rise to thoughts such as 'could I have done it a different way?' or 'I wish I hadn't done this', he also remembers back to when he completed the work and lavished so much time and energy on it, so for him to come back 10 years later or more and rewrite the piece is disrespecting the earlier. Also, he points out, that he could come back in another ten years or so and might feel like changing things again; his opinion now is not better than it was then.

Graham has a fondness for the pieces on the Flak album, finding the multiple piano works very vibrant and he enjoyed listening to them again, but he views them also as slightly naive but feels that that was how it was then. And he will be interested to see how he feels when he starts playing the works again.

The music on the disc proved popular, partly because it was so very approachable, though Graham says that he was not trying to be approachable. The first work on the disc he wrote was Sciosophy, his first work in this style and he wrote it in five days. He was in The Hague studying with the composer Louis Andriessen, and at the time Graham was working on complex pieces which he describes as big and heavy. He had been trying to write a piece that he didn't want to write, but Andriessen was away, so Graham decided to write what he wanted instead and if no-one liked it then tough. This was a time before the ubiquitous use of computers, it was important for Graham to have music that was upfront yet did complex things with rhythmic intricacies. He juxtaposed blocks of material in a mathematically way to create tension and resolution. It was important for him that the mathematics was there, though the listener may not be aware of it.

What comes over when listening to the two-piano works on the disc is how catchy the resulting rhythms are, often seeming to owe something to popular music And Graham admits that the music absorbed all sorts of influences. Graham's brother, who is six years older than Graham, drip-fed the young Graham samples of various musics so that at 11 he heard Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, at 12, Thelonius Monk and gradually other jazz saxophonists, Philip Glass, Morton Feldman, Frank Sinatra or David Bowie. So he regards himself as classically trained but influenced by other styles as well. When he was writing Sciosophy he was listening to a lot of Keith Jarrett and Nelson Riddle's arrangements for Frank Sinatra. To these influences, you can add in the player-piano preludes of Cornelius Nancarrow.

Three of the players on the disc, rather intriguingly, are composers, Graham Fitkin, Eleanor Alberga and Errollyn Warren, whilst the fourth pianist, Shelagh Sutherland, is a teacher at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The participation of the other composers was partly accidental, Graham was living in London at the time and asked Errollyn, and it was she who suggested Eleanor who in turn suggested Shelagh. Graham was delighted, he felt the others were all far better than him technically and they enjoyed the music, which made them fun to be with. Working as an ensemble on music of such rhythmic complexity takes some rehearsal, so they needed to get on. And they also played some of Errollyn Wallen and Eleanor Alberga's music at the same time.

The disc effectively splits into two halves, the first all highly rhythmic, vibrant music for four pianists at two pianos, the second quieter music for one pianist, Graham. Though the album was first issued on CD, thanks to vinyl discs Graham rather thought in terms of two halves to a recording (it was also issued on cassette, and vinyl was in fact mooted).

The second 'side' opens with The Cone Gatherers. Originally Graham had written around an hour of music for a play, based on a 1955 novel of that name by Robin Jenkins (1912-2005). [Of the novel, Reverend Richard Coles recently said in The Guardian, 'I cannot understand why the novels of the Scottish writer Robin Jenkins are not better known south of the border. I once resolved to make a studio opera out of The Cone-Gatherers, but the thought of the stage machinery necessary to make it work defeated me.']

In the drama, two brothers work in a forest collecting cones to replant the forest after the war is over. The actors were high up above the stage (on ladders) as the characters were high in the trees, and the music was dark and slow-moving, reflecting the play. Graham thought that there was something in the music, though there were moments of filling for purely theatrical purposes, and he decided to distil it down into a single ten-minute piece. The resulting piano solo is in three sections, the first is the darkest, its soft sustained melancholy moving towards the middle of the section and then away again, getting more discordant. This resolves in the second section, which Graham thinks is akin to light coming through the trees, whilst the third section reflects the pure nostalgia for a different life which is felt by the characters. The resulting piece is, perhaps, rather softer than the original book.

Apart from The Cone Gatherers, the titles of the pieces on the disc are all short and somewhat cryptic. Graham admits that he has a funny relationship with titles, and finds the process of coming up with a title difficult. This reflects different aspects of his character, so on the one hand an untitled piece gives nothing away so that a listener is not drawn to a particular perspective before hearing the work, on the other hand, he also wants to give a flavour of the music. His preference for one syllable, rather punchy title,s he feels, gives a sense of what the music is about and the sound of the word can relate to the music. But he can also decide to give little away so that Piano Piece Early 89 was simply written in early 1989, and he still does that.

Going back to that time in The Hague, Graham explains that it was not so much that he was being pressured by his teachers, but he was imposing expectations on himself to write a certain sort of music. He feels that as a composer it can take time to find your path, you know you want to do something but don't know what. Writing Sciosophy was an example of this, as the piece gave him confidence and a sense of relief that the work was good enough. He sees composition as a knife-edge between confidence, the need to believe that it is worth doing, and questioning. But if you question too much you can end up in a corner in a puddle, whilst having too much confidence means you won't empathise with the work itself. Finding a balance is what is necessary.

Graham sees his musical style as having being facilitated by a succession of people, Nigel Osborne and Peter Nelsson who both taught him at Nottingham University and Louis Andriessen in The Hague. These different teachers gave him different things, at different times in his development, so he feels that if he'd studied with Louis Andriessen when he was just 17 then his music would have been more like Andriessen's. The older composer had very strong beliefs in how he should write music, but with the older Graham, this led in fact to creative discussions and how and why you write music. Peter Nelson gave the younger Graham the confidence to try things, he wasn't honing a particular style but trying out stuff. Nigel Osborne was encouraging, but he wanted Graham to write in a certain way and felt that Graham's music was too tonal, the result was more illuminating discussions. The end result was the Graham would sometimes follow the expected path, and sometimes wouldn't, with three great teachers each giving him something at the right time in his development.

Graham sees the issue of tonality and tonal music in 'serious concert music' as always having been a debate. A lot of his music uses tonal centres, but not all, and whilst some can be described as using tonality, others are about drones and tonal centres. Almost all his music has been diatonic, though he has recently been focussing on glissandi, what happens when you pass from one note to another.

When I ask if he always wanted to be a composer, he responds that 'he still think's he'd like to be one'! At each stage of his career, he felt that he just like to do a bit more of it. So when he finished at Nottingham University, he thought it would be fun to go and study with Louis Andriessen. He was with Andriessen for two and a half years, and it was fun so he wanted more. As a result, he started his own ensemble, then he was asked to write a piece, and so on. He held out against begin published by someone else, which was regarded as unusual then, so his routes to new works came through recordings.

Currently, he is finishing a large-scale work for choir and orchestra for the Three Spires Singers to be premiered in Truro Cathedral in 2021/22, a piece he has been working on for the last six months. It is about the chemist Humphrey Davey who was alive during the Industrial Revolution, and the themes of the expansion of capitalism, the slave trade and chemistry developing as a science and losing its magic all have resonances today. Davey was a self-experimenter, he would inhale different gasses, including Carbon Monoxide, and make detailed notes, and the piece uses these notes so that there is a lot about breathing in it but also the connection between science and the arts.

 

Graham Fitkin's Flak is available through his website (also see the link tree), and you can also buy the score of Flak.




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