Morning after silences


So, I’ve curated my first concert. I’ve contributed something to new music greater than just carping from the sidelines. How does it feel the morning after? A few quick thoughts:

  1. No surprises here, but this stuff is much harder than it looks. Even when you’re going through a professional venue like Kings Place, who handle all the tech, the venue, the front of house and half the marketing, it’s a lot more work than you think. Like putting together a wedding, you find you need to have a definitive view on things that you never thought you would before. (That really sunk in during the production phase, when I had to give a firm number of how many music stands, musicians’ chairs, etc. we would need.)
  2. I haven’t cracked the fundraising conundrum, and I need to if I’m going to do this again.
  3. Am I going to do this again? Two weeks ago, I’d have given you a firm no. Yesterday, a probably yes. Today – not sure.
  4. People came – lovely, lovely people came. A lot of whom I didn’t know, so thank you especially. I hope you enjoyed your afternoon.
  5. How a programme works in your head is really different from how it works on stage. I think my programme showed up a few interesting things, but they weren’t necessarily the interesting things I had in mind at first. Relative proportions are way more important than I’d realised, for example.
  6. Mathias Spahlinger’s 128 erfüllte augenblicke is a great piece that should be performed 100x more often than it is. There was some talk yesterday that this may have been its London premiere. I must admit I didn’t check, given that the piece is 37 years old, but it’s possible. Anyone know?
  7. Working with people is awesome – nothing you can do as a writer quite compares. Especially people as talented as were involved yesterday. Huge thanks to everyone for their skills and hard work: Anton Lukoszevieze, Tom Jackson, Lore Lixenberg, Philip Thomas, Greg Emfietzis, Ben Isaacs and Charlie Sdraulig.
  8. Oh yeah, and work out in advance how you’re going to get a bow in at the end. Otherwise it won’t happen … 🙂

Pic: Philip, Tom and Anton rehearsing Ben Isaacs’ allone.


Close to the edge: Ben Isaacs

Ben Isaacs studied composition at Huddersfield with Aaron Cassidy and Bryn Harrison. His current work includes a new piece for flautist Richard Craig and a three-glockenspiel piece for the line upon line ensemble.

As Ben says below, silence doesn’t actually feature in his music much at all – but allone gets the nod for this concert because it sits right on the edge of inaudibility and, what’s more, crams that tiny band with a whole lot of activity. It’s a sort of nearly-imperceptible virtuosity that might carry Beckett-like connotations of futility and waste if it weren’t so damned beautiful in its own right.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Ben Isaacs: One of the things that most appeals to me about composing (in the sense of producing musical notation for musicians to interpret) is the particular way it combines individual creation (each score I produce is very much ‘mine’ and no-one else’s) and collaboration (I am completely reliant on others in order to actually hear the music). To me this specific balance is significantly (albeit not entirely) distinct from other forms of music making, and I imagine that this distinction is part of the reason it endures as an art form, and won’t seem too anachronistic any time soon (even if the question does occasionally get asked!).

TR-J: What role does silence play in your music?

BI: Almost no role at all! Or at least it’s not really an aspect I explicitly consider whilst composing. However, over the last five years I have focused on writing extremely quiet and fragile music, so for an audience it does quite possibly draw attention to the act of listening in a similar way to music which does deal with silence (however the word is understood) more overtly. For me, this is a wholly welcome outcome of the work as I’m very much attracted to the sense of ‘live-ness’ musical performance can engender, though I tend to avoid pauses of any substantial length in order to maintain a continual fragility of sound. I often write in my performance instructions that the sound should be ‘barely there’, with the implication that it is ‘there’ nonetheless.

TR-J: A lot of compositional work concerns ways of proceeding, of extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

BI: Aside from their volume, my pieces typically work within a number of other constraints. Most commonly, this involves severely restricting both the range of pitches used, and the physical gestures with which the performers produce sound. Once these have been established, it becomes a question of emphasising the volatility inherent in the combining of the constraints (for example, various trills and tremolos swelling from niente to pppp and back again using only the top seven notes of the piano). Often these gestures will be repeated, with their various constraints ensuring different results each time, or the range of pitches will gradually expand and contract, affecting the variety of available gestures. In any case, the focus is on the minute. I aim to create dynamic and intricate music that presents a constantly shifting surface whilst remaining extremely constricted.

I have also begun to work with longer durations. In February Kate Ledger performed an hour-long version of my piano piece too expanding and I recently finished a glockenspiel trio for line upon line percussion that can last up to two hours. The combination of concert-length durations and extremely constricted music is one I’m very intrigued by.


TR-J: Finally, here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

BI: Firstly I imagine I’d transpose it up a couple of octaves, or maybe even three or four. I’m drawn to both the instability inherent in playing winds and strings at low volumes in the upper register, and the thinness of sound and short decay at the top end of a piano or pitched percussion instrument. I’m also keen on homogenous ensembles so perhaps I’d have a string trio drawing their bows too slowly to produce clear pitches, playing very small glissandi towards the top of their highest string, and with an occasional trill in there too. Probably there’d be a number of repeating patterns, with the fragility of the bow strokes cracking into different rhythms with each repetition. I wouldn’t need to add much to that.

This post is published as part of a series of composer interviews leading up to a concert of silent and nearly-silent music I am curating at Kings Place, London, on Sunday 22nd September. Full details and booking are here.

Here is the previous post on Gregory Emfietzis; coming up: Charlie Sdraulig.

If you have enjoyed what you have read here, or elsewhere on the blog, and would like to make a small contribution towards the costs of this concert your interest would be very welcome. Please send your donation (of whatever size) via PayPal to:

I don’t usually ask for money on this blog, but here’s some information on why I am on this occasion.

If you’d like to read some more interviews like this with young composers, why not check out my 10 for ’10 series, on which this post is based.

I’m curating a show (and shaking a tin)

Exciting times here at Rambler Towers. As well as putting together plans for my first full book, I’m also curating a show at Kings Place in September as part of their autumn OutHear series. I’m thrilled that the amazing Apartment House will be playing.

The concert will be on Sunday 22nd September, starting at 4pm – a very civilised late afternoon sort of time. More details, ticket information and all that jazz to come, but in the mean time please check out the Facebook page.

I’ve called the show ‘Some Recent Silences’, a title borrowed from the Cage tribute article I wrote for NewMusicBox last year. The article itself was an inspiration, but the concert follows some angles of its own:

G. Douglas Barrett – A Few Silence
Gregory Emfietzis – DIY 1
Mathias Spahlinger – 128 erfüllte augenblicke


Ben Isaacs – allone
György Kurtág – Dumb Show
Charlie Sdraulig – Close
Michael Pisaro – Fade

There are some nods to the post-Cage/conceptual work discussed in the NMBx article, particularly in Barrett’s A Few Silence, which begins the concert with five minutes of silence, followed by a five-minute transcription of that silence played by the four musicians. Pisaro’s Fade for solo piano takes us slowly back to silence through a series of long, slow decays.

In between, however, I’ve shifted the emphasis slightly towards more music-theatrical uses of silence. The Isaacs and Sdraulig pieces thematise, in quite different ways, the production of sound at the edge of silence. In Sdraulig’s Close this often leads to ‘sonically redundant’ gestures that are composed, and have a musical content of a sort, but that don’t result in the production of an audible sound (bowing slightly above the string, for example). Isaacs’ allone is more effortful and activity-filled, but drawing on a similar repertoire of performer/instrument interactions. Kurtág’s very short Dumb Show, from Book 1 of his Játékok series, takes this a step further into the absurd, notating a complete piano miniature, including dynamics and articulation markings, but with the instruction to touch the keys only very gently, without depressing any of them. In another piece for piano (or pianist?), Greg Emfietzis uses an on-stage lamp as a silent partner in the music, contributing to and interfering with its development.

And at the heart of the concert is Spahlinger’s 128 erfüllte augenblicke, among other things a study in the relationship between silence and sound at the extremes of musical fragmentation. With the wonderful Lore Lixenberg singing, this will surely acquire a certain dramatic aspect too.

Over the coming months I will be posting quite a lot of material related to this concert; there will be some 10 for ’10-style composer profiles of the four younger composers in the concert, as well as some new entries to the Contemporary Notation Project. Probably one or two other surprises along the way.

Of course, putting something like this together costs money, and in the UK at least funding for one-off concert projects – particularly ones that are devised around an idea, rather than to showcase brand new commissions – is hard to come by. After some consideration, I am taking the step of asking you, my readers, for your help. I’ve always resisted on principle the idea of monetising the Rambler: I write here for the love, I get a lot out of doing it, and I don’t feel obliged to any standard of professionalism, which frees me up to write stuff that would be difficult to place elsewhere.

That principle hasn’t changed, and isn’t going to. However, if you do enjoy what you read here, and particularly if you come to enjoy the various posts I’ve got lined up in relation to the Some Recent Silences concert, then it would be a massive help if you would consider a small donation towards the costs of putting this show on.

Any money raised will be exclusively reserved for the players; none of it will end up as profit for me. In the event that I actually raise more money than the players are asking for (you never know …), it will still go to the players; they’ll just get a bonus. In the interests of transparency, I will of course make the accounts available to anyone who asks to see them.

If you would like to make a donation, of whatever size, please send it to the dedicated PayPal account at:

If you would like or are happy to have your name included on a list of donors, please make a note of this with your payment.

Thank you.