Martin Suckling’s Visiones (after Goya) premieres this weekend at the 2015 Aldeburgh Festival, performed by the stellar line up of Mark Simpson, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Tamara Stefanovich. Ahead of the premiere we caught up with Martin to find out more.
FF: Your trio takes its name from an extraordinary drawing by Goya. What in particular drew you to Visiones and was this image the catalyst for your creative processes or did you come across it later?
MS: I think ‘catalyst’ is actually just the right word in this situation: the Goya drawing was neither a starting point or convenient post-hoc label but instead something from the outside that breathed life into my music. I had a whole bunch of ideas and half-ideas and fragments of sounds for the trio, but I wasn’t really making any progress. Then I saw Visiones in a review of the recent exhibition of Goya’s Witches and Old Women album at the Courtauld Institute and suddenly everything crystallised. Or at least I found I had a fix on what I wanted to do. It’s hard to explain: it’s not that I was trying to make a musical version of the image but rather that the image became a lens that brought everything into focus for me. So in a way I was hearing my material through Goya’s drawing.
All the images in the album are extraordinary; many are mysterious; others gruesome. This one particularly appealed because it seemed to reveal a great many of the features I wanted to explore in my piece but hadn’t quite managed to articulate. Three persons, bound together while maintaining utterly distinct attitudes. Dance. The threat of violence. Tenderness. Unease. Weightlessness. There’s certainly no one-to-one relationship between the characters in the drawing and the instruments in my trio, so perhaps it’s an unhelpful – or at least misleading – title; but the image unlocked the piece for me, allowed me to write it: a catalyst.
FF: Can you say something about your working methods? How do you go about hearing the spectral harmonies you are working with in a piece like this?
MS: There’s not actually a great deal of harmonic material in this piece: it was conceived very linearly – as melody, essentially – particularly the outer sections. The fun in writing those passages was the challenge of creating strands of material imbued with sufficient clarity and individuality that they would retain their identity when overlayed. That’s why the bass register is avoided for a long time: low notes tend to bind things together, whereas I wanted the lines to remain independent, at least until the end of the section. Bass notes ground the music, but the joy of the Goya image is the impossible floating dance…
But to answer your question directly, and I guess you’re referring to the microtones, it’s relatively straightforward and prosaic – I played them. I’m neither a cellist or clarinettist, or even really a pianist (though I will often borrow my wife’s piano) but you can get a long way with violins and violas and singing and synthesisers and dear old Sibelius lends a hand from time to time. I prefer to play myself if possible; sometimes I’ll multi-track a passage just to make sure it works. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the microtones that were problematic on this occasion but rather the piano toccatas. None of the games that I’ll sometimes use to get things moving helped me to find the right notes for this music, and I tried them all, and invented a few new ones along the way. I found a way, eventually, but I needed to play it to know.
FF: Exploring the resonance of the piano seems to be an ongoing (growing?) concern for you. To See the Dark Between is built from snapshots of what could be imagined as progressively higher magnifications of the initial piano stroke, whilst the more recent Songs from a Bright September makes much use of third piano resonance. This new trio takes these techniques even further… Can you say anything about your general approach to writing for the piano, particularly as we look ahead to your Piano Concerto for the SCO and Tom Poster?
MS: Actually, the approach to resonance in this piece is quite opposed to that of To See the Dark Between and Songs from a Bright September. In those pieces, as you say, the music emerges out of the resonance of an initial piano impulse. Visiones reverses this idea: the resonance is a result of the music, and often a destructive result at that.
I realise that sounds utterly trivial: of course resonance is a result of the music! And perhaps it is utterly trivial, but I hope in a surprisingly powerful way. As the pianist hammers away in the topmost register of the instrument, the whole piano vibrates such that a wash of ‘white noise’ is created. Unlike many resonance effects, it’s not delicate in the slightest, and while it’s not especially loud it does grow and overwhelm the much gentler cello and clarinet lines.
This white noise also allows a secondary effect: if keys are depressed as the pedal is released, these notes ring on gently. In this way, a piano bass note can be introduced without it actually being struck. To my mind, such an appearance – low from high, pitch from noise – is nothing short of magical.
I’m not sure I have a particular approach to writing for the piano, but I do like the music to come from the instrument, and I look to the instruments and their relationships to find suggestions for different musical materials or situations. For example in Visiones the overall ‘problem’ of the piece is that the cello and clarinet can play microtones while the piano cannot (at least not directly); the three sections of the piece tackle this issue in different ways. The piano concerto – called And This Was How It Started after a poem in the wonderful collection Moontide by Niall Campbell – is, unsurprisingly, concerned with the relationship of soloist to ensemble. Here, the piano generates (almost) all of the material, but the orchestra takes it to unexpected places. It’s a similar situation to one I’m exploring in Psalm, a piece for harp and spatialised ensemble that I’m writing in response to the pottery and writing of Edmund de Waal, but the energies and dynamics of the two pieces are entirely different.
FF: What possibilities has this combination particular of instruments opened up for you, and have you been influenced by any existing piece in the repertoire?
MS: It’s a tricky combination! Lachenmann’s Allegro Sostenuto is of course a touchstone, and I am very fond indeed of Nørgård’s Spell. One cannot escape Brahms and Beethoven with this line up; I’m not sure my piece has too much to do with them, though there are some structural concerns that are perhaps shared with music of that time.
Full information about the 2015 Aldeburgh Festival can be found here