Stolen Rhythm: Works By Cheryl Frances-Hoad
RPS Award-winning British composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad's fourth disc with Champs Hill Records, this is a compilation of chamber orchestral, chamber and solo piano works inspired by composers from the past.
Cheryl Frances-Hoad explains the meaning behind the disc: “Throughout my composing life I have found myself continually looking to composers from the past in order to create something new. This disc … is united by the theme of ‘homage’: each piece, although I hope clearly recognisable as my own, involved immersing myself in the language of another composer in order to write it.”
- Sleeve Notes
Admired for her originality and fluency, Cheryl Frances-Hoad has been composing to commission since she was fifteen. Classical tradition (she trained as a cellist and pianist at the Yehudi Menuhin School before going up to Cambridge, gaining a Double First, and then King's College, London), along with contemporary influences including literature, painting and dance, have contributed to a creative presence provocatively her own. 'Intricate in argument, sometimes impassioned, sometimes mercurial, always compelling in its authority' (Robin Holloway, The Spectator), weaving 'an astonishing tapestry of vocal and emotional colours' drenched 'in dramatic expression of the most ravishing intensity' (Matthew Wright, The Arts Desk), her output - widely premiered, broadcast and commercially recorded, reaching audiences from the Proms to school workshops - addresses all genres from opera, ballet and concerto to song, chamber and solo music.
She's a composer who cheerfully crosses all styles. 'Everything from the great classical works to jazz, pop and electronic music, anything from Bach to Ligeti, inspires me, and I feel very lucky not to have to worry about whether I’m in or out of fashion musically. I find it really exciting to collaborate with all manner of different artists, as well as people beyond the arts'. In its rhythmic twists, its 'felt' more than calculated durations, its brittle attacks, lush harmonies and sudden oases of dawn wilderness, its mischievous denial of the expected, much of her work suggests a self-portrait – the music is the person. 'When I compose, I really really go for it: I sing my guts out and get ridiculously emotional - something nobody ever sees or hears. It’s a rather Stanislavskian approach! Thought and planning aside, composition for me is largely about distilling feeling to the nth degree. In some ways my music is a massively more confident, heart-on-sleeve version of the real me, everything magnified and sent over the edge.'
Cambridge consolidated many of her principles. 'Metre matters'. 'Tonality is knowing where home is.' Her year reading ethnomusicology, she says, taught her about 'freedom, liberation, other world values and experiences.' 'Things clarify when I sleep, even during the daytime.' She thinks (but doesn't see) keys in colour. C: white. C#: pale yellow. D major: 'pale warm blue'. D minor: blue. E flat minor: purple. 'Crushed' D minor/E flat minor: black. E major: light green. E minor: deep green. F: 'earthy amber ale'. F#: orange yellow. G major: bright red. G minor: deep red. A: bright yellow. Occasionally she will 'turn off the colour' (Homages IV, VII). Or, mirroring her initials, Frances-Hoad (F-B in German nomenclature), will look to tritones, rootlessly surfing 'a cosmos of quasars and quarks, snowflakes and fireflies' (Carl Sagan).
With her sharp judgement, perfect pitch and deadline efficiency, CF-H is the ice-cool pro. But she's a companionable down-to-earth Essex trouper, too, enjoying nothing better than afternoon tea or going down to the pub for a quick post-concert libation – propping up an 1890s bar with Satie in Montmarte is a recurrent fantasy. Never lonesome so long as there's a piano around.
Katharsis for Cello and Ensemble (2013) 'This was inspired variously by the cello suites of Bach and Britten, my relationship generally with the cello, the “life of a classical musician in modern times” (where “stars” can be born overnight with the help of stylists and Saturday night telly), and my time as Composer-in-Residence with the Rambert Dance Company in London [third Music Fellow, 2012-13].
'I was thrilled when David Cohen commissioned me: having known him since he was a teenager (we both went to the Menuhin, in the days when I was sure that upon graduating I would immediately and effortlessly embark on a career as an International Concert Cellist), I feel particularly privileged to have witnessed the development of his playing over the years: this was at the forefront of my mind during the writing the work.
'The premiere of my Concertino for Cello [Piano, Percussion] and Orchestra, played by Peter Dixon and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra during the 1996 BBC Young Composer Competition [the winning work that year], ignited my determination to be a composer. The completion of Katharsis some seventeen years later is accordingly the more replete with musical and personal significance for me.'
The title is taken from the Greek κάθαρσις, a complex word of multifarious nuances and interpretations – 'purification', 'cleansing', 'purgation', 'intellectual clarification'. Divided by a break between the Minuet and Sarabande, the six movements form an otherwise continuous whole. Scored for wind quintet and strings, the first performance was given in Shoreditch Church, London (St Leonard's) by David Cohen and the Rambert Orchestra under Paul Hoskins as part of the 2013 Spitalfields Festival.
The Forgiveness Machine for Piano Trio (2011) 'Commissioned by the Phoenix Piano Trio as part of their 2011 UK Beyond Beethoven project, The Forgiveness Machine is modelled on the andante cantabile third movement of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio Op 97. A set of loosely structured variations, many are motivically close to Beethoven's [likewise their “D major” orbit, and, temporally, the changing rhythmic values leading to the climax – quickening triplets and demisemiquavers, retarding sextuplets, offering a readily audible parallel].
'I dedicated the piece to the memory of my grandmother, Christina Hoad. During the last months of her life, I would often sit in the room listening to the Archduke on my headphones while she rested. Beethoven’s music to me at that time had an almost transcendental quality to it, temporarily permitting an escape from the reality and inevitability of my Nan’s illness. It was this quality of serenity, beauty and dignity that I wanted to infuse into my work.
'The title is taken from an art construction by Karen Green: her 'forgiveness machine', made after the suicide of her husband, the novelist David Foster Wallace [12 September 2008], encourages members of the public to write down on a piece of paper what they want to forgive/be forgiven for before feeding it to the machine, some seven foot long, which sucks up the paper and shreds it. Whilst in my case there is nothing to forgive, it was the feeling of catharsis that many people reported after interaction with this artwork that struck a chord with me and proved of major expressive relevance.'
Quark Dances for Large Ensemble (2014) Theorised and discovered in the 1960s, quarks – so-named after James Joyce's nonsense 'Three quarks for Muster Mark' (Finnegan's Wake, 1939) - are subatomic elementary particles representing the smallest units of matter. A key constituent within the make-up of hadrons (baryons, mesons) but otherwise impossible to observe directly or isolate singularly, they come in six 'flavours' (which determine property but cannot be 'tasted') - up, down, strange, charm, bottom, top – divided into three 'generations' and three arbitrary 'colour charges' (which cannot be 'seen') – blue, green, red. 'We are all agglomerations of quarks and electrons': 'all you need to make a human – and all you need to make a rock' (Brian Cox).
The five Quark Dances make up the final third of Mark Baldwin’s ballet on the origins of the cosmos, The Strange Charm of Mother Nature, inspired by a visit to the Large Hadron Collider (CERN, Geneva) and premiered by the Rambert Dance Company at Sadler's Wells, 18 November 2014. 'In brightly coloured catsuits, Rambert’s dancers represent different “flavours” of quark […] and dance more or less energetically according to the habits of that “flavour” – signalled by the changing position and [Scriabinesque] colour of the bright line projected on the backcloth' (Hanna Weibye, The Arts Desk). To a degree the Dances pay homage to the two (related) companion pieces comprising Baldwin's original triptych – Stravinsky's neoclassical Dumbarton Oaks Concerto and Bach's Third Brandenburg: most obviously in the G 'tonality' and division of violins, violas and cellos into three each (Bach), and the addition of flute, clarinet, bassoon and paired horns (Stravinsky). A baroque-resonant harpsichord takes on a concertante rôle in the toccata-like figurations of the second movement, and a more plectile conversazione one in the fourth (where the bassoon has a Dumbarton quote, balancing the Bach one of the first movement). The central dance evokes an inferno of tones and torn-apart temperaments vacillating in a chromosphere between biblical Chaos and current Big Bang, the lode-star of a horn call thrice sounded conjuring what one might will – Godhead, Creator, the Force. Lisztian metamorphosis and cyclic recollection link the outer movements.
Homages for Piano (2009-15) These seven pieces essay the Romantico-Impressionist hommage legacy through a variety of harmonic and expressive approaches from Schubertian moment musical and Schumannesque cameo through Debussy prélude to modern bagatelle and parody. The sources, the 'signatures', of each are readily identifiable. But not the directions they take, typically journeying a maze of hidden paths with twists and rhythmic displacements that blossom, tease and refreshen in ways that bring a smile, justifying the considerable technical challenges placed before the performer. Pasticheurs habitually copy their subjects - skilful tricksters taking plagiarism as a point of departure. F-H, contrastingly, does so only very rarely – preferring instead to pencil-sketch, homing in on moods and foibles, perfections and warts, distilling character, more concerned to clarify than flatter. Her neo-portraiture is lean and unelaborated.
I Contemplation: Lyric Piece in homage to Grieg (4-5 May 2013). 'This is a meditation on bars 17-20 from the second movement of Grieg's Op 7 Sonata. I was very taken by this passage, which to me seemed typically “Griegian”, the E minor C# added [Dorian] chord and dominant minors in particular. The piece was composed in a matter of hours - I simply elaborated upon Grieg's harmonies [and figurations], feeling my way around the piano as I wrote.' Written for the Serbian-born pianist Ivana Gavrić, a close university friend from Cambridge days, CF-H's creative response is revealing. She modifies Grieg's Andante molto/un poco più vivo tempo to Adagietto/Poco poco più mosso. And in 34 bars dispenses with his 12/8 metre (paying lip-service only in the 6/8 reference of bars 4, 6, 10-19). For much of the piece she deals in liberated, irregular time-signatures, with a tendency to shorten or lengthen phrase endings, favouring contour before exactness or harmonic/rhythmic context. Given a style of mid-range keyboard writing where pitches can function interchangeably, serving both chordal and melodic ends, she advises, tellingly, that 'only the illusion of sustain is necessary' (our italics). Such parameters, along with the distinctive grammar of the music's pulse, breathing, rests, silences and fermatas, the concordance and dissonance of its overtones and tensions, now alkaline, now acid, finally maggiore, its improvisatory rumination - all ways arguably to catch, notate even, the passage of dreams, the transience of apparition, the flow and caesura of feeling, fleeting, fleeing thoughts – make for a haunting locket.
II In the Dew: a homage to Janáček (August 2013). 'This was inspired by the third movement of Janáček's In the Mists and his Sonata 1. X. 1905. Much of the harmonic material comes from the former while some of the melodic motives derive from the latter [most audibly in the moderato middle section: the 'Death' cry of the second movement]. The piece was written to be performed after the Sonata - I wanted something that would be contrasting in mood as well as a palette cleanser following the sombre ending of that work. The title is partly tongue-in-cheek but reflects the fact that when I played through the piece myself the image of twinkling dew came to mind. The title also acknowledge the work's “miniature” nature.' Lines from Janáček's 1897 cantata Amarus, to a poem by Jaroslav Vrchlický, pose a (subliminal) tertiary possibility. 'Onward he wandered, till on a grave that hardly could be distinguished, hidden beneath a pile of lilac blossom, the happy ones were sitting. On her breast his head was resting, and on her jet-black hair the lilac had scattered dew be-dampened blossoms. From afar the birds were carolling, sweet the lilac scent,the happy ones were sitting.'
III Lullaby (August 2014) 'Ivana wanted my Schubert homage to be based on his A major Sonata, D 664: I was delighted about this since as a child I spent a long time learning the second movement: the last bar of my piece is a clear [6-5 appoggiatura/resolution] homage to its first one [likewise the whole identifies consciously with Schubert's D major polarity and 3/4 beat]. With its quiet, contained, dreamlike feeling, perhaps as if heard from far away, the music aims to invoke a Schubertian serenity.' 'Restful blue.'
IV Un Canard hors de l'eau (A duck out of water, February-March 2015) 'This unashamedly virtuoso piece was inspired by Ravel's Une barque sur l'océan and Alborada del gracioso from Miroirs. I've burglarised many of Ravel's chords and rhythms but juxtapose them in ways I hope sound new and old at the same time.'
V Song without Words (16-20 February 2009) 'This adagio was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 to mark the bicentenary of Mendelssohn's birth. I modelled it closely on Mendelssohn's posthumously published Op 102 No 2: having spent hours playing through all his Lieder ohne Worte, it was the lines and phrasing of this particularly number that really struck me. Wanting to emulate Mendelssohn's ability to stretch a musical line into a single phrase spanning an entire canvas was never far from my mind.' 'Tenderly sighing,' says the score – but the music is darker in mood than Mendelssohn's, and the repeated semiquaver monotones (predominantly D, side-stepping briefly to D#) put one in mind of Chopin's Raindrop Prelude, more distantly Purcell's One-Note Fantasia. Melodically, the opening five upper-voice notes and the 'still' left-hand whole-tone dactyls at bar 8 et al – are sourced/paraphrased directly from Mendelssohn (the latter down to exact bar and tessitura). Andrew Zolinsky gave the BBC broadcast premiere in May 2009.
VI Stolen Rhythm (2009) 'When I'm asked to write something inspired by other composers, it always makes me realise how little of their music I actually know. With this piece for Matthew Schellhorn, commemorating the 200th anniversary of Haydn's death, I embarked on an immensely enjoyable Haydn sonata-playing marathon. Wanting to write something fast and jolly, contrasting my Mendelssohn tribute, I became obsessed with the allegro di molto finale of Haydn's early Sonata [Divertimento] in E flat major, Hoboken XVI:45/Landon 29: the way it moves forward with such boundless energy and wit still thrills me. Thinking about the best way forward, it occurred to me that since it was the rhythmic content of the movement that gave it its properties, I might as well steal this facet hook line and sinker ... simply adding my own notes to the scheme. Save for four 11/8 bars (where I've removed one semiquaver from the general run of 3/4 bars [generating a 4+4+3 / 3+4+4 x 2 circuitry]), the rhythmic profile of my piece is virtually Haydn's, running from beginning to end almost exactly as his sonata movement does. I then played with various transmutations of the notes B-A-D-D-G (generating a variety of different pitch-sets through inversion and transposition) to get the harmonic and melodic content.' The scherzando head-motif B-A-D-D-G, heard in the first bar, spells out Haydn's name in the coded form familiarised by Ravel (Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn) – but whereas Ravel thinks of the acronym in G major, F-H places it in a jestingly Haydnesque E flat terrain. The rapid note repetitions acknowledge Haydn, the keyboard compass the 88-note concert grand.
VII Bar(tik)tok (2013) A rustic snapshot - dealing in Balkan rhythms and modes, finely detailed articulation (every slur, dot, tenuto and accent essential to the imagery), terraced dynamics, and vibrant contrasts of pesante and leggiero touch. What the speech rhythms of this music might be, if any, go unsaid, but rests and breaths are keenly placed, neither too short nor too long. The re-transition, deftly turned, slips in at the Golden Section point.
A Refusal to Mourn for Oboe and String Orchestra (September 2000, rev summer 2015) 'One of my first professional commissions, written for the Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra in homage to Bach on the 250th anniversary of his death, with funds from the RVW Trust, this work, played without a break, uses Lutheran chorales for its inspiration. In the Recitative first movement, adagio, the notes from Ich lass dich nicht (I Shall Not Leave Thee) are conglomerated to create a chord sequence in the string orchestra which accompanies a rhapsodic oboe melody that is a freer interpretation of the chorale. The Fugato second movement, allegro molto, based on a motivic cell drawing on the pitches of Christus, der ist mein Leben (Christ is my life), is a moto perpetuo ranging in mood from the barbaric to the indulgently lyrical (the sustained romantic melody for oboe, solo violin and solo cello, molto cantabile e tenero, being a retrograde/retrograde inversion of the originating cell). The third movement, Chorale, largo cantabile, uses the melody of Christus, der is mein Leben in almost unaltered form. It functions as a kind of reconciliatory coda, oboe and strings united in contrast to the opening Recitative where the oboe had largely been a solitary figure offset against a homogenous group of violins, violas, cellos and basses.'
The title is from Dylan Thomas's elegy A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London, published in 1946 in his collection Deaths and Entrances. 'Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter, Robed in the long friends, The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother, Secret by the unmourning water Of the riding Thames. After the first death, there is no other.'
The precocious, intricate fruit of a young composer on the cusp of twenty, the Lutheran underpinning of the music is unmissable. But among several surprises along the way – for one the virility of the Fugato with its snarling oboe entry, feroce e pesante – the idée fixe ghostings of the outer movements prompt interesting comparison with the lamenting Peter Grimes allusions allocated to flute at the end of the quasi-serial sarabande in Katharsis.
Emma Fielding premiered A Refusal to Mourn at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, in November 2000, conducted by Nicholas Daniel. The score was (lightly) revised in 2015, specifically for the present recording – unusually since CF-H isn't a composer naturally inclined to re-visit or rethink her works once finished.
© Ateş Orga 2017
- Press Reviews
"...one of the most distinctive voices in the well-stocked, thirty-something generation of British composers"
"Frances-Hood's implicit trust in the expressive power of her melodic invention and harmonic thinking is paramount."
"Nothing in Frances-Hoad's music ever sounds secondhand. Its ability to speak clearly and directly in an utterly fresh way is demonstrated just as powerfully ... which sums up perfectly ... the originality of her music."
Andrew Clements, The Guardian
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