Saxophonist Simon Haram and London Sinfonietta premiere Sapiens – a brand new commission from Mark Bowden in London, 7th December. Composers Edition’s Dan Goren caught up with Simon, Mark and Yuval Noah Harari who’s writing inspired the work to find out more.
DG: Mark and Simon, your musical relationship goes back a while. How did it begin and what draws you to working with each other?
MB: We first worked together back in 2012 when the London Sinfonietta commissioned me to write a short work for unaccompanied saxophone for the New Music Show at the Southbank Centre. The project resulted in a string of solo performances taking place in secret backstage spaces, each transformed into an art installation by students from Central Saint Martins. Following that project, Simon and I worked together on a new score for a dance work by choreographer Eleesha Drennan as part of her Sky Arts Award. I wrote a duo for saxophone and percussion, which we took on a mini tour.
SH: I’ve always enjoyed working with Mark because he has a clear understanding of the way the saxophone works. Although he’s not afraid of its more aggressive nature, Mark manages to bring out the melodic and vocal nature of the instrument with his intricate writing. There are always plenty of hoops to jump through too which can be challenging. From our first meeting to talk over ideas for the St Martins project, it was clear that Mark is inspired by many different styles of music, often wildly distant from his own sound world. I feel somewhat the same, especially playing an instrument which has so many recognisable but completely different styles. I always find mixing genres and ideas to create something new an interesting and fruitful way of making music.
DG: What has been the process of bringing this piece to be?
MB: Following on from the New Music Show I had several conversations with the London Sinfonietta about creating a larger scale work for saxophone and ensemble. Prior to one of the early meetings I was reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens and it struck a chord with me. I told Simon about the book, he read it and really enjoyed it and so it grew from there. The London Sinfonietta were interested in the idea of creating a piece of music in response to the book and so the commission came about quite organically. Throughout the writing process there’s been a bit of back and forth between me and Simon, sharing material and ideas. I’m actually meeting Simon later today to play through the finished work – I’m very excited!
DG: Which ideas of Yuval Noah Harari have you drawn on?
MB: In Sapiens Harari takes the reader on a 200,000 year journey as he makes sense of how our foraging ancestors came together to create cities and kingdoms, gods, nations and human rights. Sapiens is a bold, wide-ranging and provocative text which challenges everything we thought we knew about what it means to be human. The book inspired in me a palette of shapes and material which I’ve used to create a musical response. It is a programmatic piece of sorts, but it moves beyond a simple description of the books – my piece is a response to five specific stories Harari describes in the book, whilst also having its own musical tales to tell.
DG: Yuval, How does it feel to have your writing inspire a musical work?
YNH: I am very glad to hear that my writing has inspired the creativity of other people. Every person, every book, and every genre can capture only a small part of the truth. Others must provide additional pieces of the puzzle.
DG: You’re a saxophonist yourself Mark – how has that informed your writing for the instrument?
MB: It’s useful having a more intimate working knowledge of the instrument you’re writing for. Having said that I’ve also had to make adjustments to the piece along the way! But it has informed my writing as I’ve tried to imagine what it would be like to play the piece.
DG: Simon, The saxophone “concerto” seems to have attracted relatively few composers. What do you put that down to?
SH: I wouldn’t totally agree with the statement to be honest. There are lots of concertos, though few are by well known composers or heard regularly. John Harle once said to me that part of the problem was that there isn’t a masterpiece by one of the old masters that attracts new composers to have a go themselves. That seems like a reasonable theory to me. The last 20 years or so have produced some really powerful works though so the momentum feels like it’s building and Mark’s piece can only add to that.
DG: What advice would you give a composer thinking about composing one?
SH: Remember that the sax has a chameleon like nature and will sound radically different from one player to the next. That’s actually what attracted me to the instrument in the first place. In some ways, anything goes as there is a less defined idea of what a sax sounds like as compared to say a flute or clarinet. Anyone writing for the instrument needs to bear that in mind. Allowing some freedom and room for manoeuvre in the piece is a good idea. On a practical level though, as the instrument works in a similar way mechanically to the oboe, if you can imagine something sounds good on a souped up oboe, you’re probably heading in the right direction.
MB: Ha! I love the idea of the saxophone being a souped up oboe! My advice would be to just go for it. As Simon says, there is a less defined idea of what the saxophone sounds like and so there is a greater sense of freedom in approaching writing for the instrument for a composer. The saxophone has a hugely expressive, vocal quality whilst also being incredibly powerful and agile. It’s the perfect solo instrument to set against an orchestra!
DG: Yuval, From all your research what has most struck you about the place of music in human life?
YNH: That it is very universal yet very local. Music plays a central role in all human cultures. Yet the same music can be extremely moving and meaningful for one group – and utterly meaningless for another group. Just think of the emotional impact of national anthems or religious hymns. I guess that’s why it is often very difficult to appreciate a musical piece the first time you hear it. The meaning is in our memories, not in the piece itself – and the first time we hear it, there are no memories.
DG: In which case we look forward to there being many future performances of Sapiens! Thank you all.
Friday 7 December, 7:45pm
Southbank Centre, London