Jonathan Little and the Importance of Ecstasy Print E-mail
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Monday, 23 July 2012

Jonathan Little and the Importance of Ecstasy

A new CD from the New Hampshire label Navona brings orchestral, chamber, and choral music from the British-based Australian composer Jonathan Little. His name was new to me, but it’s obviously one that will make its mark: Little plainly knows what he is doing and does it well. I asked the composer in a conversation via Skype for some background. “I grew up in Melbourne, Australia,” he said, “and I studied the piano, as most musicians do, but I also played timpani and percussion—and I found that by playing all the different percussion instruments, I was exposed to, and immersed in, the music of many kinds of ensemble: orchestras, of course, as well as symphonic, concert, wind and brass bands, folk and rock bands, percussion ensembles, and much more. I played with the Australian Youth Orchestra and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and before that I sang with the National Boys’ Choir of Australia. We regularly performed arrangements of folk and pop songs from around the world, but a good deal of a cappella church music, too, from the very early Renaissance onwards. Choral training is a tremendously important part of music education early on. And percussion gives you an opportunity to get to know all sorts of music from the inside, and I’m very grateful for that. I applied to Melbourne University as a percussionist. These days percussionists are quite well known and accepted, but in those days—and we’re only talking about 25 years ago—to come with your main instrument as percussion to what was a relatively conservative conservatory was an unusual thing. I also passed an audition to play casually with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, so I was studying at university and had the tremendous good fortune to be able to play professionally at the same time. At that stage I thought I would really love to be an orchestral player, since I had been in the Australian Youth Orchestra and played overseas for the Bicentenary [1988]. Playing in an orchestra is a thrill, a high that rock musicians might get when they play to huge audiences. It’s something you never forget; it’s almost addictive, like a drug. And there’s something about youth orchestras that are playing music for the first time—even if there are a few wrong notes, the excitement comes through. That gives you a lifelong wish to be involved with that music, I think.

“After university, although I wanted to become an orchestral player, I had so many interests I had to do more research. I was fascinated by orchestration—by the mechanics of how composers do things. And so in the end I went to Monash University, which is well known for ethnomusicology; it’s the second university in Victoria. What I came up with as a doctoral dissertation subject area was exploring how composers in the 19th and early 20th centuries became really interested in what they perceived as oriental lands. I realized it was those composers who tended to experiment with the orchestra to the greatest extent, who came up with innovative textures and timbres—people like Rimsky-Korsakov, [and] the whole of the French school. Spain was thought of as oriental in the 19th century, oddly enough, because it had that Arabic influence that was so strong. So Frenchmen just had to cross the Pyrenees and they felt they were in an exotic land. Chabrier was famously inspired by the heel-beats of Spanish dancers and incorporated all those rhythms and colors into his music. Exploring all those musics—of French, Russian, and some British, German, and other composers; even American composers to some extent—put me at the cutting edge of orchestration at that time. To understand how they dealt with those textures using very big orchestras gave me a reasonable grounding for developing my own interests and style. But you almost have to forget everything you’ve learned when you are in the process of composing yourself, because it becomes too obvious, or you over-analyze what you are doing.

“Composers like Honegger, Janáček, Respighi, too, may not be at the very forefront of being well known today, in terms of all the works they wrote, but their orchestration is second to none, and they are the composers I wanted to concentrate on. So my research has been into composers who were innovative in their approach to the orchestra, ending in about 1930 with some of the things Respighi was doing. Really, it’s been a matter since then, as I haven’t studied it in so much depth, to pick up the more innovative composers of the next 70 years or so. I want to do something that is complex in terms of texture, but I don’t want to lose the quality of accessibility, which is becoming increasingly important.”

Little started composing just before university: “Op. 1 is the Sacred Prelude [for string quintet; it’s on the new disc], which was written at the age of 17. Composing has been a constant thread through my life, although it’s not something I’ve been encouraged to do. I was intending to be a performer, and I saw that as my strength, but ultimately I am creative. It was only some years later that my music began to be published, initially by Wirripang in Australia, which has now emerged as a small but very important national Australian publisher. I moved to Britain in 1995 and brought all my scores with me. It was at that stage that I began to be published and when I opened the scores, I rediscovered them after about 10 or 15 years. So I needed to make a decision—was this something that people might want to hear? Should it be published and recorded? Is it of a quality that people might appreciate? So there was almost a hiatus in my career. I would have liked to have been composing more constantly, and to have got a little bit ahead of where I am now in terms of development, and to have had more things published and recorded.” In the meantime, he has been feeding himself “mainly as composers have always done, by teaching and lecturing, those sorts of activities; I also did a little bit of radio broadcasting at one stage. I have a university position right now at the University of Chichester in the U.K.”

Fanfare readers may have encountered Little’s music before the new CD. “I’ve had some pieces recorded before on compilations, mainly by American labels—American companies have been very good to me in terms of recording my material thus far,” he said. “The only other CD entirely with my music on it came out from a U.K. independent, Dilute, and that was reviewed in Fanfare in 2008.” In fact, in her 2008 Want List (32:2) Lynn René Bayley described Little as “a major new, original, and quite brilliant classical voice”; in her review ( Fanfare 31:5) she wrote that “once you’re about halfway through the title work [ Terpsichore ], you won’t be able to take it off.” Added Little, “So 2008 was the first time my music really became available, and listeners could get a sense of the types of genres that I can write for.” Some of the recordings on that Dilute release have been recycled on the new one. “ Terpsichore was the big orchestra showpiece,” he said. “It was written in the same spirit as Chabrier wrote España , and to show off what I could do with the orchestra, to some extent, and so it goes through all sorts of moods and colors and shapes. Perhaps because of that it can be difficult to grasp what the overall form is.” It does seem to contain a number of different perspectives. “A variety of influences—too many crowding in! But I think it does have its integrity and it does have a form one could describe as simple, overall—there are parts that recur—and it does have sufficient development to keep it interesting, I hope.” And despite the eclecticism, it’s also what the French call bien dans sa peau —it’s not apologetic, and it’s good fun.

If I were to characterize Little’s music for someone who didn’t know it, I might describe it as ecstatic Minimalism. Little paused while he took the idea in. “Yes, I think that is fair,” he said. “I’m increasingly finding the word ‘mystical’ coming into what I am doing, but yes, there needs to be a brightness and an interest there, so perhaps ‘ecstatic’ is a more appropriate word ultimately.” I might almost go as far as to say it’s Vaughan Williams-meets-Steve Reich. Little laughed. “My first influences were very much that English pastoral school. I do remember, when I was very young, waking up on a Sunday morning and hearing the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis , and I found that an extraordinarily atmospheric piece. Since then I’ve tried to capture that side of things, but I’ve also loved exploring Russian and French coloristic orchestral music. And the more I did that, the more I wanted to overlay this British pastoral and antique choral tradition with the brightness and color of the music I’ve been so fascinated with, which does end up being that French and Russian school from the end of the 19th and early 20th century. But then I’ve got to develop, and I probably don’t realize how much I owe to American music and the Minimalist school in terms of decoration. Perhaps it’s only at this stage that I am beginning to find my own, true style—and, yes, it is an eclectic mix of all sorts of things. But that was always going to happen these days, because, perhaps for the first time in history, we are exposed to all sorts of sounds, to all sorts of periods, and to the music of all sorts of geographic locations as well. To make sense of all that, to produce a style and to make it something an audience will react well to, is something a composer has to grapple with today.”

I pointed out that the comfortable eclecticism and up-front honesty of Little’s music bring to mind another Australian, Percy Grainger—not stylistically but because so many disparate elements co-exist in it without any feeling of compromise. “I’m glad you used the word ‘honesty’ because it’s sometimes difficult for a composer, or a writer or a painter, to see their own style as it emerges,” he said. “I hadn’t thought of things like that in the way that someone from the outside looking in will. People have heard bits of Aaron Copland in my music when I didn’t think I owed much to him, but yes, I probably do. You’re probably right: There is a, well, I wouldn’t say superficial quality, because that implies the music can’t be deep, but there should be a brightness, an eclecticism that’s appropriate to the era we’re living in now.” It has a freshness that, to my European ears, sounds typically Australian. Little approved of that observation. “You always wonder if there are influences from where you grow up, and I’m not conscious of it, but, yes, there’s a directness, an up-frontness, a feeling of the wide-open spaces that perhaps you don’t get in European music. You get it in Australian and American music—it’s less constrained, less inhibited.” Some of the string writing in Polyhymnia reminds me of Peter Sculthorpe, in fact. “I will have absorbed these influences,” Little admitted, “but after a while I consciously tried to forget all the training, all the influences, and just write what I need to write at any particular time. Polyhymnia is a bit different from what I’ve done before—it has a certain depth; it does, almost in a Wagnerian sense, develop relatively few ideas over quite a long period of time.”

The Sacred Prelude is unusual in two senses. First, it’s not every composer who is prepared to give an opus number to his first composition. And composers are notorious for talking down their early efforts—and yet here is the Sacred Prelude sharing the new CD with more recent works. “When you look back, you think that some of your early pieces are very simple—but, again, it has a directness,” he said. “It’s not terribly adventurous harmonically but, yes, it was worth preserving and people reacted well to it. There have been only one or two pieces that I’ve not been happy with. I’ve not been prolific so far; I take a long time to write something and am very careful to craft it. So even if it is simple, it is a document of that time. People have said it’s quite moving, and so it deserves to be preserved and heard on those terms—that it is an early work but has something to say, I hope.”

One constant thread through Little’s music seems to be a fondness for modality. He already mentioned Respighi, whose best works—the Concerto gregoriano for violin and orchestra and the set of orchestral variations called Metamorphoseon —are profoundly modal. “Underneath everything there is in my music this profound interest in ancient music,” he said. “There is certainly a sense of trying to recapture some sort of continuity with the past—not least since we’ve had a century or more of quite violent revolutions and the fracturing of past musical traditions. In fact, the Italian review magazine Kathodik recently picked up on this fact and characterized my music as representing the ‘antique future’! They said that the influence of the ‘ancient’ in my music was its basic sonic foundation, upon which are then built very contemporary and personal touches, so projecting the past into the future. Several American reviewers have also picked up on something of the same quality; they seem to understand that, for me, although music must definitely innovate if it is going to appeal to today’s listeners (and so give music life into the future), a sense of heritage, or at least ‘deep-rootedness,’ is immensely important, too. I go back before the Renaissance, even—to some of the composers of the Eton Choirbook and the 14th and 15th centuries. Those early sounds and textures influenced me profoundly, and I think they stay with you. Those basic structures remain with you from your early years and, as you develop, you overlay them with more complex ideas. But they’re always there. Because they’re profoundly moving, they also give you a deep sense of continuity with the past, which I’m really concerned to find: My music should be part of a tradition that’s gone on and grown. The 20th century has been very much an era of experimentation, which is great on one side of things, but on the other side it creates problems: We lose audiences who don’t know quite what to expect. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the early 21st century, people started to compose in a way that rediscovers tradition to some extent. The music of Eric Whitacre, for example—the kind of harmonies he’s using are a way of reconnecting with the past but still being innovative. He’s using harmonies that have always existed, but in different combinations and clusters, and in different juxtapositions. I think we’ll be rediscovering past continuities and traditions while still innovating in the early 21st century.”

I mentioned “ecstatic Minimalism” and then Little mentioned the Eton Choirbook composers, and if there’s one predominant characteristic of that music, it is its constant ecstasy—if you set it against the music of the 17th and 18th centuries, you can see it has an intensity that wasn’t recaptured until late Beethoven. “That’s something I want to concentrate on more and more,” Little said. “I hope that doesn’t make the music too static, because that’s something one reviewer commented on—that Polyhymnia had a quality that was near stasis and yet that it kept on advancing and developing. You never want music just to sit there and do nothing—it needs to move and develop—but you can slow it down, you can develop and maintain that sense of ecstasy. That’s something that people perhaps haven’t articulated so much before, but it’s tremendously important to me, this sense of ecstasy, because that’s what music is all about, ultimately—whether it’s choral, instrumental, orchestral, or whatever it is.”

The new CD, which includes recordings from some existing releases and for a variety of forces, is obviously intended as a visiting card. “That might make it difficult for certain review magazines—they won’t know whether to stick it in the orchestral, choral or chamber category,” Little admitted. “But I needed a CD that says, look, I can write for different forces, and here’s the sort of thing that I do.”

What now? “Probably more so than other composers, I am trying to direct my own career by the inspiration that I have. One of the things I’ve latched onto is to try to find a series of descriptive pieces that would serve as inspiration. So I’ve chosen the Nine Muses. This will take a number of years to complete but I want to give every piece a character of its own; each will probably be scored for different forces. But in the same way as Holst found The Planets suite to be so inspiring because it gave him an opportunity to show off in seven pieces of different types, I want to do the equivalent with the Nine Muses. But at most, I only produce one of these large scores a year.” Polyhymnia is No. 6 of nine, and Terpsichore is No. 7. “I’ve not been doing them in order,” he said. “There is a recognized order of the Nine Muses, and so I’m trying to pick one at a time that I find inspiring. So I’m next going to write about Erato. I think I’ll write that for relatively small instrumental forces—very delicate sounds, including bell-like sounds. There may be a lot of percussion. Every time one of these pieces comes out, the orchestration will be completely different—and dazzling and ecstatic in that way, I hope.” Given the difference in scoring, and given also the fact that Polyhymnia and Terpsichore take up half an hour between them, Little’s Nine Muses is not intended for consumption at a single sitting. “This next one may be much shorter,” he said. “The whole thing may end up being about two hours long. It may be sufficiently short to be played in one concert, in one evening—that’s my hope. I will try to use all the resources of the large orchestra, plus a little bit, so that you wouldn’t have to augment the orchestra significantly; it could all come from one large ensemble. But for a particular piece it might be just a few players playing at any one time.” The one thing he’ll need for that kind of presentation (as, indeed, The Planets makes plain) is contrast: “Maximum contrast, in mood, particularly; each one of the Muses should be as they are, so Terpsichore , the Muse of Dance, is very vibrant and rhythmic, for example.” Terpsichore is gloriously violent; it has a real knock-about energy in the percussion writing especially: “I have a theory that in the 20th century the orchestra democratized itself. So the percussion, which was a relatively small section in the 19th century, is now equal to all the forces of the orchestra in the early 21st century. And the strings, which tended to play all of the time in 19th-century music, or a lot of the time, their role might shrink a little. The orchestra needs to continue to change and develop, so that you don’t have a static layout based on past centuries.”

LITTLE Polyhymnia. 1 Terpsichore. 2 Fanfare. Sacred Prelude. Missa Temporis Perditi: Kyrie 5 1 Petr Vronský, 2,3,4 Robert Ian Winstin, 5 Philip Simms, cond; 1 Moravian PO; 2,3 Kiev PO; 4 Czech PO; Thomas Tallis CC NAVONA NV5867 (52:04)

It’s obvious from the emphatic, resonant bass chord that opens Polyhymnia and the deeply felt modal harmonies of the intense string writing that follows—where the solid foundations in cellos and basses are decorated by twirling figuration in the upper registers—that Jonathan Little issues from a similar school of sensibility to that of the “holy mystics” of Eastern Europe, composers like Arvo Pärt and Pēteris Vasks. (One important difference, underlined by his choice of Greek mythology as a point of departure, is that there seems to be no religious impulse behind his composition.) After around 10 minutes the music seems to have run its natural course, courting the danger of stasis about which one reviewer warned the composer, as he told me, and it drifts on in the decorated bass lines after its emotional charge has lessened. Eventually the textures thin, and solo lines and a brief pause allow the material to regather purpose and it eddies to its eventual close, 21 minutes in. That loss of impetus weakens the effect of the piece as a whole, and I wonder whether it might not improve from the exercise of autotomy, the process whereby a lizard loses its tail in self-defense: Polyhymnia would be a sleeker beast without that extended coda.

Little does provide a programmatic explanation for the sectional construction of Terpsichore (it’s in nine dance scenes, lasting just over 14 minutes), but I preferred to listen to it as music and see if it hung together on its own terms—which, aside from some double declutching, it generally does. The piece launches into immediate action, with harp, brass, percussion, and woodwind all throwing in their lot over the opening string ostinati , gradually building up an exuberant orchestral essay somewhere between Respighi’s evocations of ancient Rome and Villa-Lobos’s representation of the Brazilian jungle; Little is especially generous in his writing for the percussion, imbuing the piece with an at times near-primal energy. Suddenly, it all evaporates and something rather like the evocation of a lute song emerges, so hesitantly that it can’t stay the course, and soon the string ostinato reintroduces the raucous enthusiasms of the opening passage, the percussion now even more insistent before they give way to a short-breathed rhythmic shape that owes a good deal to American Minimalism and thus doesn’t do much else. Eventually, it in turn stutters to a stop in harp and strings and an oboe (or is it a cor anglais?) introduces a beguiling melody over Respighian string harmonics; birdcalls reinforce the reminiscences of Respighi. A bridge passage in the strings introduces a section where the string principals exchange solos which then lose themselves in what at first seems to be the start of a hymn from the body of the strings—but the roistering of the opening again returns and the percussionists power their way to an emphatic close.

Little’s Fanfare is scored for four trumpets, four horns, three trombones, tuba, two sets of timpani, and further percussion, spatially deployed, and bids fair to make a tremendous impact. But it’s over in 47 seconds, before you’ve really managed to get your ear around what kind of statement it’s going to make. He might usefully give the material a chance by extending it and working it out more thoroughly—shame to waste all that manpower.

The 11-minute Sacred Prelude is scored for violin, two violas, and two cellos, giving it an unusually dark quality. Although it’s the earliest work here, it is to my mind the most successful because it’s the most thoroughly integrated, with an opening “Plainsong” leading to a central “Anthem” and, after a reprise of the “Plainsong,” a closing “Fantasia.” The modal writing and the tendency for the thematic material to unravel in narrative without the dramatic contrasts of sonata form remind me strongly of the music of Arnold Rosner (in fact, I see from Rosner’s worklist that in 2007 he wrote a work called Unraveling Dances , which puts his cards on the table). The Sacred Prelude is dignified and sober, moving without being emotional, and Little could do much worse than prepare a version for string orchestra; it would work very well indeed.

The closing Kyrie, from his Missa Temporis Perdutis , is in eight principal parts, further divided into a double SSAATTBB choral grouping, topped off with solo voices, not least two high sopranos, the music laying down the text in overlapping waves of sound. A note in the booklet reveals that 60 voices were used in the making of this recording, in the resonant acoustic of the Church of St. Alfege, Greenwich, in southeast London—and it’s appropriate that the Kyrie should be sung by the Thomas Tallis Chamber Choir, since Tallis was buried under the chancel. If the rest of the Missa Temporis Perdutis is as good as these four and a half minutes, it would be good to be able to welcome it onto CD soon.

None of the works on the CD are dated in the accompanying material, nor even in the PR material I was sent for our interview. The years of composition would have been useful in pacing Little’s stylistic evolution. Navona might consider remedying the shortcoming if they make another CD of his music.

The performances are enthusiastic rather than refined, which is the right way around: One imagines that there wasn’t as much rehearsal time for the orchestral sessions as might have been desirable, and some of the percussion playing in Terpsichore is more lusty than accurate—but it doesn’t matter, since the imprecision contributes to the sense of lusty excess. Likewise, the occasional hint of asperity in the strings suggests musicians putting their heart in it rather than hanging back in the face of the unfamiliar. Little tells me in his interview that his compositional path is mapped for some years ahead, but he might also think of getting himself some film work, since it is clear from this CD that his fine command of atmosphere and orchestral color ought to command a decent fee in Hollywood. Some rather obvious changes of gear notwithstanding, it certainly hits the mark here. Martin Anderson


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