Stephen Montague talks to the Jerwood Library of the Performing Arts

photo of stephen montague

On Friday 9th March there will be a celebration of the music of Trinity Laban professor Stephen Montague at St John’s, Smith Square. To commemorate this my colleague James Luff has mounted an exhibition featuring, among other things, photographs lent by the composer documenting his various exploits. To accompany this we wrote to Stephen asking some questions about pieces featured in his birthday concert and for his thoughts on contemporary music in general. Here is our correspondence:

JLPA: Haiku for piano, tape and electronics is to be performed at your birthday concert, and features a live piano with some kind of synthesised processing and pre-recorded material. Could you explain a little about the genesis of the piece, the use it makes of electronics, and some of its influences?

SM: In the summer of 1986 I went to the San Francisco Bay area for the first time, working for a month in Stanford University’s computer studios (CCRMA). While I was there I was struck by the multiplicity of ethnic groups, particularly Asian, now indigenous to the area. It became clear to me for the first time why so many West Coast American composers like Henry Cowell, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Terry Riley and others found so much inspiration in Eastern musics.

While I was in California the British pianist Philip Mead commissioned me to write a new piano work using live electronics & tape. That commission resulted in Haiku (1987). The live electronics flange ‘detunes’ the piano sound and along with a computer generated ‘tape’ drone creates a rather what I’d like to think of as a unique Asian/American ‘mid-Pacific’, sound world. Haiku began as a series of small gestures (haiku) but ultimately expanded to 13 min. work. The premiere was already advertised so the title stuck.

JLPA: Hound Dog Blues
Could you say a little about your interest in influences from outside the classical domain (as it is normally understood)? Obviously blues plays a part: could you explain how, and what element(s) of the blues is it that you wanted to incorporate into the piece?

SM: My teens in the late 1950s and 60s were in the American Deep South in a small town close to the Georgia border. There was always something evocative about listening to a black musician playing the Blues in a dark smokey bar. Unlike the classic music I was studying at university, jazz seemed to somehow magically and effortlessly flow from the performer’s fingers. I always liked that fluid image so from time to time I’ve visited those dusty memories and they’ve inspired a few small jazz works. It’s like a relaxing interlude between my struggles with large classical forms. There are two jazz/blues inspired works premiered on my 9 March Birthday Concert at St. Johns, Smith Square – Hound Dog Blues (2013) and Beguiled (2015). They’re programmed as ‘coloured threads’ in the concert’s sonic tapestry.

JLPA: Concerto for Piano & Orchestra
Could you say something about the musical materials you based this piece on; what your aesthetic aims were, whether you had any particular models in mind?

SM: My Piano Concerto was commissioned by the 1997 BBC Proms and premiered in the Royal Albert Hall by virtuoso Rolf Hind and the Orchestra of St Johns (John Lubbock conductor).

The concerto is for the traditional arrangement of soloist and orchestra, but is not always traditional. Although I’ve lived in Britain since 1974 my musical heroes seem to remain transatlantic:  I admire Charles Ives’s unapologetic juxtaposition of vernacular music and the avant-garde, Henry Cowell’s irreverent use of fist, arm and elbow clusters, the propulsive energy of minimalism and John Cage’s radical dictum that ‘all sound is music’.  The Concerto is a confluence and synthesis of these interests in my American musical roots.

As a child I lived in the Deep South where the scars of the American Civil War (1861-65) never stopped festering and the rich vernacular music of that era continued to stir passions.  Every school child knew folksongs like John Henry and Negro spirituals such as Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?  Some of the more rousing Civil War songs like Dixie required Southerners to stand at fevered attention while further north, The Battle Hymn of the Republic sent a chill down the spine of every Northern patriot.

Charles Ives’ accounts of his childhood in a small New England town at the end of the last century are well known.  They especially resonate for me because of my own similar experiences two generations later.  In the South there were also parades, marching bands, church meetings, hymns, folk and gospel music but set in the heavy air of a sweltering heat.  Those images still burn brightly and often provide material for my compositional work especially in this concerto.

JLPA: What are your thoughts about contemporary classical music, particularly in the UK?

SM: The wonderful thing about living at this point in the 21st century is the wide spectrum of contemporary music(s) available to audiences currently. In the early 1960s when I was studying classical music ‘serious music’ was really only 12 tone music- hard core. Anything else was considered pandering to an audience and that was discouraged in most conservatoires. Thank god times have radically changed since then! That public voted with their feet. Now, anything goes which is wonderful for the composer and even better for the audience. An important caveat however still remains- it must be done extremely well.

The new music scene here in Britain is vibrant and pretty healthy but there is a new government health warning and that comes in the form of worrying financial cuts to the arts. We all must not be complacent in such insidious erosion. We should be duty bound to lobby MPs and reverse this trend immediately. The Arts are vital to the health of the nation and should be protected at all costs!

JLPA: Do you have any thoughts about the materials available to contemporary composers, for example in terms of melody, harmony and rhythm? (From what I’ve seen of your output you don’t have a dogmatic view on, for example, the use of tonal harmonic and melodic materials.)

SM: I think the most valuable thing a composer can do is to listen to lots and lots of music – music from all genres from pop to the most avant-garde. Listening to music is the best teacher you can possibly have but you actually need to stop often, sit down, and listen without distraction. Concentrate! All music is a great textbook with both the questions and  the composers’ answers right there in front of you. For free! Learn from listening and studying and you’ll get better.

Visit Stephen Montague’s website here

photo of stephen montague

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