Dan Goren talks with Aaron Holloway-Nahum about the dynamic ensembles’ present and upcoming projects, performing at some of Europe’s most prestigious festivals and a new work by Philip Cashian
Dan Goren: You’ve always operated with a wonderfully positive energy. Even in these dark days for live music, you’re forging ahead with your trademark zest for commissioining. Tell me about your Zeitgeist Commissions project.
Aaron Holloway-Nahum: We received 437 applications for just 2 commissions in our Call for Scores this year, and it’s always a depressing day when I send out over 400 rejection e-mails. When the pandemic and lockdown hit, it was amazing to see all the free work, live streams, etc popping up, but we we wanted to find a way to keep our artists working and to give composers real work. So we hit on this idea of solo commissions that we could record, bundle together with field-recordings/interviews and disseminate as a sort of ‘picture’ of our time. The composers who applied to our call came from 49 countries, so we purposefully looked over the composers we had shortlisted and tried to draw from a worldwide cross-section. We have composers from Italy (Leonardo Marino), Spain (Angela Gomez Vidal), New York (Alexandra du Bois), China (Xue Han) and so forth. We then started reading out to partners and some of these – including the PRS and Southampton groups, along with a fourth set of commissions we’ll be announcing soon – took on a more local/UK focus. In the end, we have twenty-eight commissions (so far) which we’ve already started releasing. Do head over to our YouTube channel to check out the work, which is at a really high and wonderful level so far.
DG: That’s a huge response. What a responsibility. Great to see the videos via Youtube – showcasing some wonderful performances! It must feel strange not to be able to play together as an ensemble and you must be itching to get back to it. Looking forward, what plans have you got?
AHN: Yes – and it’s kind of a doubly difficult time because you look ahead in the diary and you don’t know what will remain and what else might get ‘lost’ (or pushed back further). Considering the current situation, the Autumn is busy in a kind of hard-to-imagine way. In November we’re performing in Croatia, Salzburg, then premiering new works by Chaya Czernowin and Clara Iannotta at Wien Modern and HCMFUK//. In 2021 the Ensemble is already booked to play in Belgium and to make our debut at the Darmstadt Summer Festival. On top of this we’ve got our series at Kings Place which had just kicked off when COVID19 brought everything to a standstill. Right now it looks like we will have some sort of concert there in September and we’ve got a commission with Philip Cashian on the docket for early 2021. These things will happen, it’s just a matter of when as we wait to see what the Autumn looks like in lieu of scientific advances and waves…
DG: The Riot Ensemble has an ongoing relationship with the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Darmstadt, Wien, Huddersfield – these are what one might consider “hard core” new music festivals and yet you’ve always presented as something rather more open and playful than one might expect in such settings. How do you view the Ensemble’s place in the world?
AHN: Ha – yeah, I guess these might have that reputation here in England. I actually attended Darmstadt’s last two festivals in full – as I serve on the sound team there – and I was really amazed at the breadth of work that was on show. For example, in the last festival you have Ensemble Nikel premiering work by Klaus Lang, the Arditti Quartet performing Julius Eastman, and then you have massive new orchestral pieces from Sarah Nemstov and Bára Gísladóttir. The sheer eclecticism of what composers are making is probably the defining characteristic of our time, and that is really fundamental to how I view Riot Ensemble. Riot Ensemble is not my vision of new music (would be so boring) or any other single person’s idea. We have 21 Artists who act as curators, programmers, collaborators. The Call for Scores is adjudicated by everyone on the Artistic Board. This flexibility and dexterity is also reflected in how we put on concerts: one day we are a soloist in a hospital, the next day we are 15 players on the stage of Kings Place. And we try to reflect this in our programming, too. We are not an “ISMs” ensemble. You will not hear us do our “minimalism” concert, or our “spectralism” or “modernism” concerts. We just feel a concert that (for example) puts Elliott Carter next to Molly Joyce next to Pierce Gradone is so much more interesting – for us, anyway – than a concert of Reich followed by Glass followed by Reich followed by Glass. This is really not a comment on Reich or Glass – both are composers with utterly fantastic works, but we just don’t see how we can hold such a concert programme alongside our values of diversity and open-mindedness in 2020.
DG: And The Riot Ensemble will be premiering Philip Cashian’s septet A House of Rumour at Kings Place. You studied with Philip at the Royal Academy of Music.
AHN: Yes. I learned (and continue to learn) a huge amount from Philip, and I’ve been a fan of his music for many years. As it turns out, so are a number of my other Riot Ensemble colleagues and when Philip brought us the original kernals of A House of Rumour – which involves spatialized ensembles, virtuosity and a thoroughly exciting dramatic arc – we all felt really strongly that it belonged on our mainstage series at Kings Place. Obviously everything feels mightily up in the air right now, but it’s projects like this – and the opportunity to keep helping bring work into the world from such exciting composers – that really has kept me going through these months of lockdown.
DG: I think the difference some composers such as Philip make through their teaching is sometimes overlooked, especially given the eclecticism you’ve highlighted. A challenge perhaps also to defining The Riot Ensemble. For those who’ve not yet enjoyed a programme of the ensemble’s work, how would you describe the experience?
AHN: Yes – well, I don’t know about the industry as a whole, but I have been hugely and deeply affected by each of my teachers, and Philip is no exception. I still rely on things I learned with him in all the work I do.
Riot Ensemble concerts are as varied as the ensemble itself. We appear in all shapes and sizes, and in venues that range from concert halls to hallways, but what brings all our performances together is the top-top-TOP level of our musicians, and our firm belief that the music is relevant to the times we live in. We often highlight this by doing informal introductions to the pieces we play, but also through highly crafted programme-notes, digital contexts given to our audiences before or after the concerts and extensive discussions over drinks after the concerts!
Something else that’s really important to us is the idea that we play. We mean this in the sense that we perform, of course, but also in our approach the music as great fun and a joy to share. This is really precious to me now, more than ever. I deeply, deeply miss spending time with my colleagues and that’s a lot to do with the music, but it’s equally down to what wonderful, inspiring citizens of our world they are. I really love them, each one of them, and I am sure you’d have a great time if you came to join us for a concert or two!
Philip Cashian’s House of Rumour will be published with Composers Edition is due course.