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[…] and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. […]

— T.S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’, Four Quartets

Composer Portrait: Nina Whiteman

With recent premieres by Dutch accordion duo TOEAC, Colinton Amateur Orchestral Society, Manchester Camerata and period instrument trio Spirituoso, 29-year-old composer Nina Whiteman has had a busy year, not mentioning performances as a vocalist with her flute, voice and cello group, Trio Atem, whose most recent performance was the premiere of graphic scores by artist Michael Mayhew at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery and who make their London debut in April at Kings Place.

You can currently see and hear Nina’s recent Manchester Camerata commission, Windows on the Neva, over on medici.tv [link expired]. Scored for a single-stringed chamber orchestra, the work is an 8-minute reflection on the river Neva’s inexorable path through the city of St. Petersburg whose lucid textures and well-controlled pacing reveal a composer with a keen ear for both sound and drama. In the first of what will hopefully become an occasional series of encounters with musicians, Nina has kindly answered some questions about her music, practice and future plans, so read on to find out what makes her tick.


Chris Swithinbank: I realise that this is not a question that you probably consider every day, but let’s start at the beginning. What drew you to write music? Is it a vocation and if so, why?

Nina Whiteman: I think I was always inclined to being creative with sound. I remember starting piano lessons aged 5 or 6 and wanting to make my own music to play – these ‘compositions’ consisted of a series of note names (A E D C and so on) because I didn’t have any manuscript paper. I also wrote pieces for recorder, and my brilliant music teacher at middle school would invent a piano accompaniment for them. So, composing seemed to sit naturally alongside performing really.

Is it a vocation? I was always inclined towards creative activities, and felt from quite a young age that I would like a career in the arts where I could use my imagination. By my late teens/early twenties I’d composed quite a lot of pieces and knew deep down that composing was something vital to me.

CS: How much do extra-musical elements play a part in your composition process and how much could your works be said to have abstract origins?

NW: Natural phenomena, poetry, paintings, and places have all formed the basis of ideas for pieces in recent years. I like to look outside my art form for inspiration, and hopefully bring something innovative and interesting to my music and the audiences that hear it. My cycle of pieces for bass flute and various ensembles (The invention of clouds, The modifications of clouds, Night Shining) was inspired by scientific research into clouds that ranged in date from 1804 to the present. I really enjoyed working on this project because I learned a lot about the world in which I live and the sky I look at every day through my research processes.

As well as being a way of generating some initial ideas and binding everything together, these extra-musical elements may draw something out of me that I would not have thought of if I was working with abstract ideas alone. Some more abstract ideas come into play, but I’d say that the origins of my pieces are almost always from an external source of inspiration.

Gavin Osborn

Gavin Osborn performing from Michael Mayhew’s The Alchemy Collection

CS: With Trio Atem you recently worked with artist Michael Mayhew in realising a three-part performance of his visual work. This semi-improvised work presumably required a form of collaborative composition with flautist Gavin Osborn and cellist Alice Purton. How do you go about working in this way?

NW: Rehearsing for our performances of The Alchemy Collection was an interesting process, and as you suggest we spent a lot of time as a trio figuring out how to respond to Michael’s ideas and interpret his images. Each of the graphic scores had some written notes that either explained the sources of the shapes/lines in the images, or suggested principles for interpretation, or both. We worked closely with Michael in the initial stages of rehearsal, so a dialogue was set up between him and the trio and certain shapes began to mean particular sound characters to all four of us. For one of the pieces we worked out a series of structural signposts in order to travel to points of convergence as a trio that we felt were necessitated by the score. Listening to each other and being imaginative were probably the most important factors in a successful performance.

CS: To what extent does this type of collaborative work feedback on your ‘solo’ composition?

NW: It’s a kind of laboratory really: discovering the potential of instruments, and finding interesting textures, sound characters, and modes of interaction between sounding bodies can all feed into my own music.

CS: You wrote The modifications of clouds for your own group, Trio Atem. How important is this kind of direct collaboration with performers to you? Equally how does your own role as performer influence your work?

NW: The modifications of clouds is based on a piece that I wrote for Gavin Osborn called The invention of clouds, which I developed with the help of some experimentation sessions with Gavin: I would take him some music, he would play it, I’d make changes, we’d talk about how it could go further/be more interesting. So when I came to write The modifications of clouds, I had some clear ideas of where to take the flute writing. The ‘cello part for this piece wasn’t subject to as much collaborative work, but knowing Alice’s capabilities and approach to performing certainly helped me to write it, and I didn’t need to worry about it being unplayable! As for the voice part in that piece (which was written for me), I was able to sing to myself whilst writing it, and of course knew the voice I was writing for pretty well.

Being a performer as well as a composer is really exciting. I know how it feels to perform music, which I think informs my notation in particular, and I’ve learned to play a number of instruments, so have a great sense of the physical demands I’m placing on the performer.

CS: How do you conceive of sound in your work?

NW: This relates to the extra-musical origins of my ideas discussed earlier. Most recently I’ve been drawing on a lot of visual stimuli to generate sound materials: in my piece for Manchester Camerata Windows on the Neva I took a number of old maps of St. Petersburg and traced the line of the river onto a grid of notes/pitches. I was then able to manipulate these raw materials to draw out particular sound characters by making choices about orchestration, pitch centres, and tempo, for example. As well as making all these graphs and plotting sequences of notes, I responded to imagery in poems describing the city by Anna Akhmatova, where I was relying more directly on my sonic imagination – hearing a timbral quality in my mind and finding a way to create it with the instruments available.

CS: Composition can be a solitary activity. How and where do you spend your writing time? Do you have specific rituals, habits or spaces that stimulate the creative process?

NW: Attics. I compose most of my music in two spaces: the attic in my house, and the roof space in the studio I share with my partner. It’s a complete coincidence that they’re both in the roof, but I rather like the proximity to the sky and the strange angles, and feel both spaces enable me to imagine freely.

And I drink lots of tea (especially when stuck).

And I like to draw plans on huge pieces of paper, and then scribble things on them.

Nina Whiteman

Nina Whiteman (Photo © Nik Morris & Late Music)

CS: What projects are in the pipeline for you?

NW: I’m composing a piece for viola and ‘cello for Quatuor Danel, who are string quartet in residence at The University of Manchester. My provisional title is Waggle Dances and I’m researching the activity of honey bees (specifically the dances performed by bees to lead others in the hive towards good food sources). The premiere will take place alongside Lachenmann’s second String Quartet on 17 February as part of the university’s free lunchtime concert series.

CS: What excites you about being an artist today?

NW: The standard of music making in the UK is very high, and I think there are lots of performers and composers of exceptional ability, so there’s a buzz about my profession and a lot of people with real enthusiasm instigating musical events and happenings.

I feel both fortunate and daunted to live in a world where technology is such an essential part of our lives: I’ve worked with electronics for a number of pieces and can also see that technology could play more of a role in my compositional processes, so I feel the 21st century is an exciting place to be in that sense.

I’m also really enjoying working in the community and in education on one-off projects or through regular teaching. It’s so important to stay connected with people around you, particularly as composers spend a lot of time on their own!

Points of Contact: MANTIS Fall Festival 2010

The biannual MANTIS Festival at the University of Manchester presents fixed media works and works with live electronics, performing these over a large sound diffusion system that comprises around 40 loudspeakers. The concerts over the Halloween weekend showcased the work of students at the university, that of invited guest composers and included the first collaboration between MANTIS and the university’s newly appointed Contemporary Ensemble in Residence Psappha.

MANTIS sound diffusion system

As often at these festivals, it was student works that stood out. The droning, carelessly assembled ambience of Dominique Bassal’s festival-opening portrait concert on Friday night was quickly overshadowed by the work of students at the NOVARS Research Centre that displayed varied but consistently crafted approaches. It is not often that people laugh at the wit of electroacoustic music, but Donal Sarsfield’s Of Noise Alone achieves this with a little gentle subversion. The work takes the sound of applause and clapping as its source material and, as the audience put their hands together, the piece seemed to reignite acoustically, briefly illuminating something faintly ridiculous about the ritual of performance and applause.

Irma Catalina Álvarez’s Windslley Street achieves a remarkable steadiness and long-breathed form as numerous, seemingly autonomous little mechanisms each follow their own gradual development. In stark contrast to the tendency for a ‘whizz bang’, causal language, this work’s quietude and repetition manages to never seem repetitious while never breaking from a sense of steady progression.

The latest and longest work by Sam Salem, Dead Poets, further explores his interest in using a specific city or place as the acoustic ‘subject’ of a work with a 20-minute, 4-part reflection on New York. Perhaps Morton Feldman’s title ‘The viola in my life’ — much loved by Helmut Lachenmann — should be adapted to this kind of work. Far from being a portrait or documentary of New York this work is perhaps ‘New York in my life’. Again wit was in evidence as the story of a tramp unfolds to end with his sorry protagonist being told to ‘Go fuck yourself’. Some remarkable, ominous sounds taken of the wind howling through the shuttered and derelict fairground rides of Coney Island complemented more familiar sounds like subway trains in what seemed an altogether darker work than its excellent predecessor Public Bodies.

As well as other student works by Oliver Carman, Mark Pilkington, Josh Kopeček and Richard Scott, we were given the chance to hear El Espejo de Alicia by 47-year-old Chilean composer Federico Schumacher. Subject of a — by all accounts excellent — portrait concert at this year’s Festival Acousmatique International in Brussels, Schumacher is not someone I had come across before, but this work was crisp, delicate and tender, exhibiting both the technical precision we’ve come to expect of this music and — more unusually — an ear for affecting and musical ideas. A lot of his music, including El Espejo de Alicia, is available for free as mp3s here. I’d recommend a listen.

Live Wires: Psappha & MadLab

Psappha Logo

The Sunday gave us a chance to hear MANTIS’s large rig of loudspeakers pitted against the live instruments of Psappha’s Tim Williams and Richard Casey in three works for percussion and piano with electronics. Manuella Blackburn’s Cajon and Joao Pedro Oliveira’s Maelstrom are both accomplished works — the former for the eponymous cajon and the latter for cimbalom — but they were hugely (and perhaps unsurprisingly) overshadowed by Stockhausen’s Kontakte. I heard Kontakte performed by Nicolas Hodges and Colin Currie at the Proms in 2008 and found myself rather irritated by it — unlike my reaction to Gruppen, which was exhilarating — but on Sunday the work’s incredible, ineffable logic and scope really drove home how short-sighted or simplistic much music for instruments and electronics is. There is at no point a straightforward concept of interaction to grasp hold of. Rather, the three parts — piano, percussion and electronics — are allowed to circle each other, finding points of contact and drifting apart in a shower of sounds. This is no soundworld piece, it embraces countless sounds — with the pianist equipped with a percussion set-up almost as large as that of the percussionist — and all the sounds coexist unsegregated. It is hard to specify how this work holds together. There is something still very contemporary about the construction of meta-instruments out of collections of percussion so that a single gesture can begin on a guero and end in wind chimes, giving those sounds an organic, physical logic that somehow transmits to the acoustic. Casey and Williams’s performance was gripping to the last and it was exciting to hear so clearly how important this music is.

MadLab logo

Sunday evening brought the usual relaxed finale to the festival, this time relocated from Nexus Art Café to Manchester Digital Laboratory (MadLab). After a series of fixed media and audiovisual works, we moved onto live performances with the circuit-bending of Rodrigo Constanzo and Mauricio Pauly, followed by the synth and video efforts of Mark Pilkington and Thomas Bjelkeborn. Reflecting MadLab’s remit of promoting community discussion and sharing technical expertise, the evening ended with a preview screening of a rough cut of Ricardo Climent’s documentary film VIP Lounges Are For ALL about S.LOW Projekt, which he ran in Berlin this summer and I wrote about here. A simultaneously humorous and serious look at the paradox of working in both academic ‘centres of excellence’ and ‘low’ arenas in Berlin’s can-do arts scene, the film poses questions about the quality of artwork and what constitutes value as well as giving an insight as to how this somewhat ad hoc, improvised festival that involved around 40 different artists ran. Here’s an excerpt to finish off with:

I’ve been adopted!

Logos of organisations involved with Adopt a Composer: Sound and Music, PRS for Music Foundation, Making Music and King Edward Musical Society.

I’m very excited to be able to announce that this year I will be taking part in the Adopt a Composer scheme, funded by the PRS for Music Foundation and run by Sound and Music, in association with Making Music. The scheme pairs up composers with amateur ensembles to collaborate on new music and I am delighted that I will be working with the orchestra of King Edward Musical Society in Macclesfield.

In the coming months I will be getting to know the orchestra and working with conductor Tony Houghton and my composition mentor for the project, David Horne. This collaborative process will result in a performance on Saturday 18 June 2011 at St Michael and All Angels Church, part of the Macclesfield Barnaby Festival and the celebration of the 750th anniversary of the town’s royal charter. It will be my first work for orchestra, an exciting learning process — quite possibly for the orchestra as much as for me — and I’m looking forward to it immensely.

Macclesfield Barnaby Festival

Gaza Cantos @ Hexham Abbey Festival

Hexham Abbey Festival of Music & Arts Logo

Fantastic violist Emma Richards will be performing my short piece Gaza Cantos at a lunchtime concert on Thursday 30 September as part of Hexham Abbey Festival of Music & Arts. The programme also includes Robert Schumann’s Märchenbilder, Johannes Brahms’s F minor Sonata and movements from a transcription of the first Bach cello suite.

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