Brian Inglis’ Piano Trio (2017) will be premiered by the Aquinas Piano Trio at Kings Place, London N1 9AG on 28 January 2018 (6.30 pm) as part of the London Chamber Music Society concert series. Here he talks with Edward Bhesania about the creation of the work and it’s relations with a host of influences ranging from the Pet Shop Boys to Robert Schumann
Q. You’ve previously written a trio for piano, clarinet and viola [Japanese Pictures, 1994], but this is your first work for the standard piano trio grouping of violin, cello and piano. And so far you have circumvented the string quartet too. Have you been avoiding these traditional ensemble formations and why have you come to the piano trio now?
The simple answer to the last question is that in late 2014, the director of the London Chamber Music Society, Peter Fribbins, asked me to write a chamber piece for their concert series at Kings Place. Peter offered me a string quartet (a genre which I have indeed largely circumvented!) or a piano trio. Both combinations, but the string quartet particularly, are much more weighted with history and tradition than those I’ve tended to work with. I’ve never felt particularly drawn to, or inclined to creatively engage with, the string quartet as a discrete concert genre and repertoire. Since an early age I’ve been fascinated by the piano, though, whether on its own or in combination with other forces, so I felt the piano trio was an ensemble I could fruitfully explore.
Q. Your new Piano Trio incorporates effects borrowed from sound- and video-editing techniques (quick cuts, cross-fades, etc). Why did this kind of treatment attract you?
It took me a while to work out how I’d approach this genre, for the reasons just mentioned. Having researched some of the trio repertoire, last summer it suddenly clicked that I might look outside that context entirely for an approach that would interest me. So I turned my research in a different direction and started looking at 80s music videos on YouTube to find an alternative way of structuring instrumental music. In particular I focussed on the videos for Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’, the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘King’s Cross’, and New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’. All three have some connection to the commission. Vienna is a city associated with the Classical school which birthed the piano trio. King’s Cross is the location of the work’s premiere. And ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ has been specifically linked with postmodernism, an aesthetic identifiable in this new piece (and in my music generally).
I also rooted through a few compilation CDs I’ve had since the late 90s featuring electronic dance musicians like Fatboy Slim, which of course also feature that ‘cut & splice’ collage approach to structuring. And I recalled the comparable literary techniques of cut-up and fold-in associated with William Burroughs, so I read a couple of his novels incorporating those, which provided a related formal model. I found the idea of combining such techniques with a really traditional medium very appealing. I’ve long been interested in musical metaphor, so the idea of ‘translating’ visual and literary effects into sound (as well as incorporating different ‘types’ of music) works well for me.
Q. How did you go about writing these effects — now achieved in a few keystrokes when editing music or video — into the fabric of the music? Did you have to refine the process of recreating these effects in ‘long hand’?
That’s a very good question! Certain of these effects are evoked through the ‘expressive’ aspects of the musicians’ playing, largely dynamics and articulation. For instance, fades and zooms in/out are emulated through carefully-graded crescendi and diminuendi. Collages and overlays are achieved compositionally, through deploying different styles and types of music. This is something I’ve been interested in for a long time, inspired by the use of pastiche, polystylism and quotation in the early works of Arvo Pärt, and the music of Alfred Schnittke and Michael Finnissy. (Schnittke’s own use of polystylism was definitely influenced by film technique by the way, as is some of the quotation and manipulation in Finnissy.) So references to Baroque and Romantic styles and composers — including the ‘Palm Court’ repertoire — are all part of the mix. Alongside these are rougher and more mechanical sounds inspired by folk and electronic dance music, some slightly extended techniques, and quotations. (Charles Ives’ under-recognised Piano Trio was another inspiration here.) Sometimes passages of music in a specific style are interrupted or superimposed with ‘fold-ins’ of different soundworlds. The quick ‘cuts’ are a mixture of rapidly contrasting musical material, and specifically abrupt articulations.
Q. What are the challenges for/demands of the performers?
Well one obvious challenge is that of precisely grading the crescendi and diminuendi, some of which extend over long stretches, and start from or fade to extremely quiet dynamic levels.
A related challenge is that of balancing the different instrumental layers (between and within instrumental parts) so they are stratified as intended. The rapidity and abruptness of some of the ‘cutting’ makes certain logistical demands in terms of hands being in the right place at the right time. On occasion I’ve used ‘irrational’ time signatures to enhance the sense of abrupt cutting (‘jump cuts’), and that demands very careful timing. And for the pianist, there are clusters of different types, and in one section, glissandi directly on the strings while certain notes are held on the keyboard.
Q. To what extent, while composing, were you influenced by the first audience that will hear this work (a commission from the London Chamber Music Society)? And did the King’s Cross setting in one of the music videos you mentioned above play a role?
I’ve been to quite a few events at Kings Place, so I know the venue and the LCMS series in particular pretty well. The context of the premiere (a series featuring lots of standard repertoire) perhaps encouraged me to address the historical repertoires of the instruments head-on, through the use of stylistic reference, pastiche and quotation. Many of the musical sounds and gestures will be familiar, but their deployment is unpredictable. And I also incorporated techniques less common in the trio repertoire. Which makes the piece a bit of a rollercoaster ride!
As for the King’s Cross location: I’d say this led me to that particular Pet Shop Boys video yes, although I’ve known the song and Derek Jarman’s visualisation of it for quite a while. I wouldn’t say there was a particular musical reference here. It was more the beautiful long, slow cross-fades and dissolves — featuring a hangdog Chris Lowe trudging disconsolately through the station — which inspired me when viewing it as part of the trio’s composition process (in fact I tried viewing it without the music, and the experience was intriguing — like reading an opera libretto divorced from the music).
Q. Your Concerto for Solo Piano [2013-14; released on Sargasso Records in 2017] is a homage to the composer and piano virtuoso Charles-Valentin Alkan, and in your new Piano Trio you’ve quoted from Alkan as well as from Robert and Clara Schumann and Cécile Chaminade. Do these quotations represent expressions of admiration or are they more akin to pithy material (‘samples’) ripe for manipulation?
Both. And by the way, I think sampling is often a sign of admiration within electronic music genres (not always, of course). Although I don’t manipulate the material that much — it’s more a case of re-contextualisation and overlaying. The exception is with a short motivic quote from Dvořák’s Stabat Mater (the ‘Quis est homo’ second movement), which is used to generate a more extended pastiche-like passage. The quotes from Alkan’s Trois grandes études op. 76 and Robert Schumann’s Études symphoniques are there largely for musical reasons, and balance each other by being placed in parts 1 and 2 of the trio respectively. (Fortuitously, Robert Schumann’s first piano trio is being performed in the same concert as the premiere.) That said, I have a longstanding interest in marginalised repertoires. It’s certainly important to me that in this piece I’m bringing together composers — both within and outside the canon — from different parts of Europe, and including those of different genders.
Has the Piano Trio been informed by any of your research interests, or teaching activity at Middlesex University?
In terms of my teaching, I include Ultravox’s wonderfully atmospheric and richly intertextual ‘Vienna’ video in my audiovisual analysis classes, so that’s a direct and obvious link. More broadly, my teaching and research encompasses topics such as copyright, sampling and postmodernism. In reading around these areas I’ve been struck by the debates swirling through recent decades around the nature of creativity and how it’s manifested and disseminated — and how both are affected by technological and attendant conceptual change. The new piece, with its use of quotation (an acoustic form of sampling) and superimposition (mash-up) could be seen as a way of exploring such ideas; through artistic practice rather than discursive writing. I’ve circumvented any potential copyright licensing issues — I should say! — by quoting only public domain material. This, additionally, emphasises that the piece is a dialogue between the present and the past.
Piano Trio will be available soon at composersedition.com