Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Ailie Robertson and Stuart MacRae

This evening’s Prom is titled ‘Bach Night’, and in addition performing several of JSB’s Orchestral Suites the Dunedin Consort will also be giving the world premières of four new works that take their inspiration from some of the Suite’s movements. As an upbeat to that, here are the answers to my pre-première questions from two of the featured composers, Ailie Robertson and Stuart MacRae. Many thanks to Ailie and Stuart for their responses.

Ailie Robertson

1. For anyone not yet familiar with it, could you give a brief summary of your music, i.e. characteristics, outlook, aesthetic, etc.?

My key personal interest as a composer has always been in finding ways to connect the past and the present to create something new. Having grown up playing traditional music, the stories, songs and poems of Scotland hold great resonance for me, and I am continually using these influences in my work. It’s not always a conscious choice, but inevitably some of those folk influences creep into almost all my music. Alongside that, my music is often very textural, and as concerned with tiny microtonal nuances and inharmonic sounds as with harmony and lyrical material. It tends to be quite descriptive, often evoking a sense of place or time.

2. What led to you becoming a composer? Did/does it feel like a choice?

I actually had a very roundabout route to becoming a composer. Although I wrote music from a young age, after school I studied genetics at Cambridge University, followed by doing a Masters in harp performance over in Ireland. So I didn’t really begin composing in earnest until I was 28. It wasn’t really an active choice, more something that was borne out of a desire to keep being curious about music and how it’s constructed, and a desire to be able to express myself more personally through the music I was making. At this point I had been a touring musician for eight years, spending about six months away from home each year, and composition became a way to express myself during life on the road. It was a way to communicate what I was seeing and feeling, on and off stage, and also a way for me to explore musical ideas that were really different from the music I was performing each night.

3. Where did you study? Who/what have been the most important influences on your work?

As I mentioned my undergraduate degree was at Cambridge, and although I didn’t study music there, I was heavily involved in music-making, playing in the college and university orchestras, choirs and chamber groups. Most recently I have been awarded my Ph.D. from Trinity Laban conservatoire and was very lucky to have had a wonderful supervision team there.

In terms of influences, they come from a huge range of styles and sources – musically, I’ve been massively influenced by the folk music of Scotland, and this has led to a fascination with the music and folklore of other minority cultures around the world. Studying scores by composers such as Berio, Ligeti and Britten has also taught me so much, as well as more contemporary composers such as Kaija Saariaho, James Tenney, Julia Wolfe, Meredith Monk, and David Lang. But poetry, books, art, landscape and personal stories are just as important an influence.

4. How do you go about writing a new piece? To what extent do you start with a ‘blank slate’ and/or use existing methods/materials?

I tend to be a very intuitive composer and don’t often use systems or methods when I write. Generally I will improvise with my voice or at the harp or piano until I start to find material that excites me, and then let it develop from there.

5. How does the piece sit in relation to your previous work? Why did you particularly compose this piece at this time?

Each of the four commissions for tonight’s performance were designed to sit alongside a Bach suite, and were in some way to link to Baroque dance forms. I was assigned the B-minor suite for my piece. As a composer whose background is in both classical and Scottish traditional music, I was interested by the marked influence of folk traditions in these Ouverture suites. Many of the Baroque dances have their origins in folk dance: the Gavotte originated as a French folk dance, the Forlane is an Italian folk dance from the Italian province of Friuli Venezia Giulia, and the Gigue originated from the British jig. Similarly, in the B-minor suite, the Polonaise is a stylisation of the Polish Folk Song “Wezmę ja kontusz”. The modal nature of this piece is thus a reflection on Scottish traditional music. It is based upon the Baroque dance form the Chaconne, a type of musical composition popular in the baroque era when it was much used as a vehicle for variation on a repeated short harmonic progression. As the piece was designed as a prelude to the suite however, this chaconne form is pulled and stretched and elongated to create something that feels very floating and free.

6. If people really like your piece, what other music of yours would you recommend they check out?

I’d recommend they look at my piece Caoineadh which was written for the London Philharmonic Orchestra last year.

7. What’s next?

Next up is the premiere of a new 45-minute piece that I’ve written for the opening concert of Sound Festival in Aberdeen. It’s a piece called Motherhood that is written for three female voices (from Exaudi) and chorus. Built from interviews with people of all ages, Motherhood interweaves the complexities, parallels and paradoxes of this most universal of relationships – manifested through the speaking, sounding, singing human voice.


Stuart MacRae

1. For anyone not yet familiar with it, could you give a brief summary of your music, i.e. characteristics, outlook, aesthetic, etc.?

That’s a moving target! I try not to be too fixed or self-conscious about this these days, so any given piece might be quite different from the last, at least where tonal and harmonic characteristics are concerned. You’re as likely to hear major or minor triads as microtones and dense non-tonal structures, but what I think typifies most pieces is the sense of a journey, a reluctance to linger too long in one place, musically speaking. So I suppose my music has a modernist restlessness combined with an immediacy and clarity in its material.

2. What led to you becoming a composer? Did/does it feel like a choice?

It does not feel like a choice, and never has. I just started doing it, and it was many years before I knew anyone else did it! I used to spend every holiday in Skye with my grandmother, where I would play the harmonium in her living room, and as I didn’t know any pieces to play, I made them up – from the age of about 8 or 9. Now I own that harmonium and my daughters are starting to use it in the same way. I suppose sharing the music, putting it out into the world to be performed, and getting paid to write it are the choices, and they take quite a lot of effort – but even if I didn’t do any of these things I’d still write.

3. Where did you study? Who/what have been the most important influences on your work?

I studied at Durham University (Philip Cashian, Michael Zev Gordon, Sohrab Uduman), Guildhall (Simon Bainbridge), and Edinburgh (Peter Nelson and Nigel Osborne). All of these were influential on me in some way and greatly encouraging and supportive. I don’t know how to answer the second part of the question: there are too many musical and other influences to list.

4. How do you go about writing a new piece? To what extent do you start with a ‘blank slate’ and/or use existing methods/materials?

Always a blank slate, though there are many methods and materials that recur during the process. For vocal music, I start from the text setting. For instrumental music, I look for three things: the right musical material; the potential form; a concept/idea/subject. From these follow whatever method the piece uses.

5. How does the piece sit in relation to your previous work? Why did you particularly compose this piece at this time?

It’s unusual in a couple of senses. Firstly, it’s for the Baroque instruments and specialist players of the Dunedin Consort, so I had to think differently about how to combine them and construct the material in appropriate ways. Also, it’s a short piece, related to Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 3 and the brief specified that it should reference a dance form. I’ve chosen the Courante.

6. If people really like your piece, what other music of yours would you recommend they check out?

I’d recommend watching my opera Anthropocene (available for free on Operavision.eu until mid-November) or my Piano Sonata No. 2 (on YouTube), or earlier pieces like the Violin Concerto or Motus (both recorded by NMC). Lots of other recordings are not publicly available, but people can contact me for scores or other materials whenever they like.

7. What’s next?

On the 19th of September, the premiere of my Prometheus Symphony at the Lammermuir Festival, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Jennifer France (soprano) and Paul Carey Jones (baritone). Look out for it on Radio 3 (date tbc). Also a new production by Agnessa Nefjodov of Anthropocene at the Salzburger Landestheater next May/June. I’m also working on several new opera ideas at the moment…

Courante – programme note

Courante was written as an introductory movement to Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068. The title refers to the 16th-century court dance, though it treats this idea in a modern way. The key characteristics of the Courante that I have explored are: slow triple metre (in this case at a variety of speeds in the course of the work); the use of a constant stream of ‘running’ fast notes, again at a variety of speeds; the tendency to use heavily ‘dotted’, fanfare-like rhythms, which is also a characteristic of the Ouverture to Suite No.3. The overall tone of the piece is celebratory – and little bit mischievous!

—Stuart MacRae

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