Essay: More Than Eight Songs for a Mad Max

When I was studying for my BMus at the University of Aberdeen, I wrote this essay on Peter Maxwell Davies’s music. I quite like it; I hope you do as well.

Introduction

The compositions of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies have been very influenced by his feelings towards the musical establishment of the time. At university he went out of his way to learn about music that was not taught in lectures and as a younger composer he used modernism and the avant-garde to rail against the snobbery of the musical elite. As he got older and gained more renown as a composer, his musical style shifted into more universally accessible territory and from 1970 onwards he was greatly influenced by the culture of Orkney and the music of Sibelius.

Combining Medieval/Renaissance Music with Modernism/Serialism

Peter Maxwell Davies read music at Manchester University from 1952 to 1957[1], and while he was there he developed an interest in music that was not on the syllabus.[2] In his own time, he studied renaissance and medieval polyphony, for which he had a particular fascination,[3] and he also shared an enthusiasm for the new music of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg with some his university classmates,[4] though many of his peers and lecturers were more dismissive of the new forms.[5] He wrote several pieces during his time at university that utilised his understanding of new music. The Sonata for Trumpet and Piano, Op. 1, followed the classical serial forms more closely than anything that Davies would write after it;[6] and the set of Five Pieces for Piano, Op. 2, contains polyphonic passages that indicate influence from the sonatas of Schoenberg and Boulez,[7] and its distinct rhythmic cells draw inspiration from Messiaen and Indian music.[8] Much of Davies’s familiarity with serial music, however, comes from his studies in mainland Europe and the influence of the compositions of Luigi Nono and, less directly, Berg and Mahler.[9]

Alma Redemptoris Mater, also written while Davies was at university, was the first of his published compositions to integrate material from a medieval source.[10] Paul Griffiths and other musicologists have conjectured that the work is based on a motet written by John Dunstable,[11] and David Roberts, although he regards that interpretation as too derivative,[12] has demonstrated how the oboe section from the third movement comes from the Sarum plainchant antiphon Alma Redemptoris Mater.[13] The notes of the oboe line are a quotation of the pitch classes used for the word ‘Alma’ in the Sarum antiphon, with the first three pitch classes of the antiphon being restated at the end of the oboe line, as can be seen in Figures 1 and 2.[14]

Peter Maxwell Davies - Book copy 1 - 'Alma Redemptoris'

Figure 1. The opening of the Sarum plainchant ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater’.[15]

Peter Maxwell Davies - Book copy 1 - Oboe part (third movement)

Figure 2. The oboe line in the third movement of Davies’s ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater’.[16]

Although Roberts would disagree, Griffiths also cites the structure of Davies’s Alma Redemptoris Mater as following that of Dunstable’s motet 40 and argues that the form of the cantus firmus in Davies’s presto mirrors the duo in the motet.[17] But regardless of whether Alma Redemptoris Mater was based on Dunstable, the medieval influences are indisputably very much present in the work,[18] and in this regard it can be viewed as the precursor of other more substantial works of Davies’s early career, [19] such as the opera Taverner and the ‘motet for orchestra’ Worldes Blis, which is an avant-garde work based on an English song from the thirteenth century.[20] Davies continued to nurture his love of old and new music and a great deal of his compositional technique brings together and combines medieval chant-like melodies with post-tonal expressionism.[21]

The avant-garde (up to 1970)

Peter Maxwell Davies was from a northern working-class background and as a young man he was appalled by the backwards snobbery of the British music scene.[22] His avant-garde compositions of the 1960s were often used to ridicule the music establishment of the time.[23]

Eight Songs for a Mad King

The titular mad king in Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King is based on George III, who experienced raving fits in the years after the American Revolution.[24] It was said that George III would spend days on end at his organ teaching his birds to sing. In a parody of the ‘mad scene’ staple of opera, Eight Songs for a Mad King features the singer who plays the king running frenetically between the players – a flautist, clarinettist, violinist and cellist – who are performing from inside big plastic birdcages.[25] It is an uncomfortable work, placing the audience in the role of voyeurs and forcing them to confront their macabre fascination with the grotesque portrayal of the mentally ill.[26]

In Eight Songs for a Mad King, Davies used quotation, directly borrowing and reworking the music of other highly regarded composers,[27] in order to deride the primarily middle- and upper-class audiences.[28] The seventh song in the work, ‘Country Dance’, places Handel’s Messiah as the butt of the joke. The opening tenor recitative of Handel’s composition ‘Comfort Ye, My People’ has become a farce, with the lyrics being set against discordant musical lines.[29] There is even a direction in the midst of the opening passage that instructs the music to be sung ‘like a horse’.[30]

Peter Maxwell Davies - Book copy 2 - 'Like a Horse'

Figure 3. Excerpt from Eight Songs for a Mad King, Song Seven ‘Country Dance’, with the musical direction ‘like a horse’.[31]

This work was written for The Pierrot Players, a group of virtuoso performers that Davies had set up with his university friend, Harrison Birtwistle.[32] Being more familiar with the abilities of this small group of talented musicians allowed Davies to write music that was more challenging than would generally be expected. The vocal requirement for the King is particularly demanding, with complex gibbering and a range extending to over five octaves.[33] The percussionist, not placed in a cage, has a wide variety of instruments to play, including some unconventional ones: a digeridoo, an anvil, a scrubbing board, a football rattle and toys that make bird noises.[34]

Vesalii Icones

Another avant-garde work written for The Pierrot Players was Vesalii Icones.[35] This group of fourteen dances, each named after one of the fourteen stages of Jesus Christ on the Cross,[36] was composed in 1969, the same year as Eight Songs for a Mad King,[37] and like Mad King it uses parody and quotation to mock the musical styles of the elite.[38] But, more significantly, it also targets the insincere, sanctimonious religious practices of the Christian Church. This is clear from the offset, as the work features a naked dancer and a cellist dressed as a choirboy as the soloists.[39]

Davies has stated that he views the Victorian practice of sanitising hymns, and religious material in general, “almost the ultimate blasphemy,”[40] so Vesalli Icones contains irreverent imitations of the offending musical style. In the sixth dance of the work, entitled ‘The Mocking of Christ’, a mangled nineteenth-century hymn is played on an out-of-tune piano by the naked dancer,[41] and it contains clumsy doubling of harmonies and clunky, heavy fingering[42] that mimics an amateur player fudging the accompaniment. Meanwhile, the second number, ‘The Betrayal of Christ’, includes a “sickly sweet”, sycophantic melody of feigned adoration.[43]

This subject of the betrayal of Christ runs throughout the work, and Davies borrows from some of his earlier compositions that deal with this theme: Missa Super l’Homme Armé and Ecce Manus Tardentis.[44] The former of these pieces was based on a fifteenth-century mass,[45] which, in turn had derived from the medieval song, l’Homme Armé.[46] This indicates that even Davies’s most experimental compositions were affected by his interest in early music. Portions of the earlier compositions occur in various forms throughout Vesalli Icones, and both can be heard in the eighth number, ‘St. Veronica Wipes His Face’.[47] The l’Homme Armé is played by the live instruments while a tape recording of Ecce Manus Tardentis is collaged over the top of it.[48] It seems likely that this crackly tape, which ends up taking over from the live performers, represents the fact that bad recordings cheapen the sublimity of religious music.

The final number of Vesalli Icones changes the original ending of the Passion story. In Davies’s version, it is not Christ who rises from the tomb, but an indistinguishable copy: the Antichrist.[49] Both the Antichrist figure and the foxtrot that he dances were typical features in Davies’s compositions around that time.[50] Playing with the foxtrot style gave Davies the opportunity to expose the “fake nostalgia” for the declining music genre, and he used it to symbolise hedonistic corruption in several of his other compositions, including a pair of arrangements of music by Purcell, and his popular modernist piece St. Thomas Wake.[51] The figure of the Antichrist occurs again in a few of his later operas, Resurrection and, the next work that will be discussed here, Taverner. [52]

Taverner

The opera Taverner is based on Edward Fellowes’s inaccurate account of Taverner’s life[53] in which the renaissance composer converts to Protestantism and becomes a religious zealot, denouncing all of his previous musical creations.[54] It was completed in 1970, having taken 14 years to write.[55]

Davies incorporates material from some of his earlier compositions into Taverner. The opening three-note motif of his trumpet sonata, op. 1, is employed as the first idea in Act 1 of the opera[56] and Davies even went so far as to compose two fantasias on Taverner, and a later chamber work named Seven In Nomine, which allowed him to ruminate on and experiment with the musical material that would be moulded for the full opera.[57]  These three compositions hold up as works in their own right, despite containing a lot of the same material as the opera.[58] For example, the precursor works all feature a chord with the notes D – F# – E – G#, which went on to be used in the leitmotif for the court jester who appears as a symbol of death in Taverner.[59] Perhaps unsurprisingly, the chord became known as the Death Chord.[60]

In Taverner, Davies uses the full orchestra to resemble the titular character’s thought patterns,[61] perhaps implying that in renouncing all music Taverner is fighting against his own nature. Indeed, the difference between the orchestral writing in the two acts is striking. Where the orchestra was smooth and melodic in the opening of Act I, when Taverner is still a Catholic composer, the same musical material is sped up, simplified and more percussive for the start of Act II, which takes place after Taverner’s conversion to Protestantism.[62] The process of Taverner’s transition begins in the final scene of Act I, and the orchestra is used again to reflect the intensity of Taverner’s different thoughts. In particular, the orchestral accompaniment becomes very sparse in sections when Taverner doubts himself,[63] as if to show that his doubts are less fierce than his convictions.

The connection between the orchestra and Taverner’s inner thought pattern is emphasised in Act I, Scene 3. Taverner is not present so the orchestra falls silent leaving only a few viols and a lute to accompany the singers.[64] The use of period instruments here is just one of the ways Davies links his music to the era that the opera is set in. The music for this scene, which takes place at the Royal Court, combines Davies’s own harmonies with elements from dances that would have been common amongst the upper classes at the time, the pavane and the galliard.[65] Much of the music in the opera comes from reworking music written by Taverner himself. The renaissance composer’s In Nomine appears in various forms, building up to be revealed in a recognisable format at the end of the opera.[66] Even the libretto, written by Davies himself, primarily consists of spliced together quotations from diaries, sermons, biographies, court records of heresy trials, and other documents from Taverner’s time.[67]

The more classical composer (from 1970 onwards)

The year Taverner was completed, 1970, was a pivotal year for Davies with regards to his compositional process. Richard Taruskin has argued that the lukewarm reception of audiences towards his more outlandish pieces prompted Davies to turn away from the avant-garde in favour of a more classical music style,[68] positing that Davies completely cut himself off from the modernist movement in frustration because his compositions failed to shock audiences the way he intended.[69] While there is undoubtedly a general trend towards Davies becoming a more traditional composer, Taruskin’s narrative seems like an oversimplification. Both Vesalii Icones and Eight Songs for a Mad King had received mixed receptions, and while half of the audience were appalled, the other half was ecstatic.[70] Likewise, although Worldes Blis had been met with angry reviews,[71] St. Thomas Wake, which included several pastiches of foxtrots that made the work more accessible, was one of Davies’s most popular compositions at the time.[72]

What’s more, Davies did actually write some modernist music after 1970, and the trend towards a classical style seems to have been a gradual one. 1975 saw the completion of Ave Maris Stella, a considerably less pioneering piece than some of the works mentioned previously,[73] but which used a serial-like technique to ascribe each of the notes of a plainsong hymn to a number in a ‘magic square,’ which Davies then transformed into a nine-pitch series that was expanded into nine movements for this piece.[74] Similarly, his short avant-garde opera, Resurrection, was completed significantly later in 1987.[75] It features a child (played by a dummy) with an exploding head,[76] a cat that transforms into a dragon with rock music accompaniment,[77] the onstage removal of the child-mannequin’s brain, heart and genitals,[78] a staged shooting of members of the audience,[79] and the non-sequitur appearance of the Antichrist, who rises dramatically from a tomb at the close of the opera amidst a flashing disco light show.[80] This is hardly the type of production that would be expected from a man who had completely turned his back on modernism seventeen years previously. However, Warnaby suggests that Resurrection was, in fact, the point in Davies’s compositional progression where “the fractured manner of the 1960s had been exorcized.”[81]

Orkney Inspiration

1970 was also the year when Davies left his secluded cottage in Dorset and moved to an even more secluded home on the isle of Hoy in Orkney.[82] The rustic landscape and local legends and literature had a profound effect on his compositions.[83] He wrote several lyrical piano works inspired by places in and around Orkney, including Stevie’s Ferry to Hoy, Farewell to Stromness and Yesnaby Ground;[84] his Orkney Saga, based on a series of tapestries in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, utilises the twelfth-century Hymn to St Magnus;[85] and the narrative orchestral work Reel of Seven Fishermen was inspired by a George Mackay Brown poem about the dangers of the sea.[86] As well as being inspired by the Orcadian geography and culture, Davies became very involved in the local community. He was part of the group that formed the St Magnus Festival,[87] and wrote music, which often included local references, for school children and choirs to perform.[88]

This was also the point where his music really entered the public’s favour[89] and Davies received an increased number of commissions for his compositions.[90] This meant that he was being paid to write music that would appeal to a wide audience.

From Berg to Sibelius

Davies’s compositional style has been affected by his writing for specific performers. Having worked with Mary Thomas, her virtuosic vocals shine through in many of Davies’s compositions for solo soprano[91] and Alan Hacker’s primal sharpness on the clarinet can be heard in pieces like Hymnos (1967).[92] In the later portion of his career, the similarities between Davies’s and Berg’s compositions dwindled, but in its place Davies’s work grew to be closer in style to that of Sibelius, who Davies has acknowledged was an influence on his writing.[93]

The Symphonies

The influence of Sibelius can be seen in how Davies’s approach to classical structures in his symphonies has developed over time.[94] His earlier symphonies are much closer in form to classical symphonies than some of his later ones.[95] They contain distinct, if ghostly, movements.[96] The movements of the more recent symphonies blend together, one movement moving into the next, and the overall macrostructure of the work takes a larger role.[97] Placing a greater emphasis on the overall shape of the work allowed Davies to discretely introduce the material of the upcoming movement early on, and the piece is always preparing for the arrival of the next part before the previous part has properly departed.[98] This creates a ‘smudging’ effect as the movements flow into each other.[99]

This idea of the architecture of a piece was nothing new for Davies. The importance he placed on the overall form of a work can be traced back to his university days and the early piano works that he wrote during that time,[100] however his symphonies naturally demonstrate a more mature approach, and the blending technique was developed through the increased exposure to Sibelius.

Conclusion

Peter Maxwell Davies’s compositional style has always been affected by the attitudes of the contemporary music scene, whether that be to work with them or fight against them. In his early career he was a bit of a rebel, writing parodies and quotations that poked fun at the highbrow elitism prevalent in the music scene at the time. At university he had studied medieval polyphony and serial modernism of his own accord, even although the formal opinion of the time was that these styles were not important enough to be taught in detail. His interest in these genres has had a huge impact on his compositions throughout his musical career and he used his modernist, avant-garde compositional style to confront and explore the social, religious and ethical issues that he found important. As he matured as a composer he gained more of a public backing and his compositions gradually moved towards a more classical, lyrically pleasing style. The influence of composers like Sibelius became more apparent and after his move to Orkney his involvement with the local Orcadian culture was reflected in his compositional output.

Davies is a much more complex composer than might be ascertained if his most recent output were to be viewed in isolation; he has gone through the hot-headed rebellion stage and come out of it with a greater appreciation for the more classic aspects of music. Some of his earliest ideas about musical form, such as the importance of the overall architecture of a piece, have remained with him throughout his career while other compositional techniques, like using lewdness and sensationalism to provoke an audience into giving a reaction, have been left behind. That is not meant to undermine the music he produced as a younger man, much of which was extremely thoughtful and worthwhile, rather to define the transition from young revolutionary to respected classicist. The latter could not have existed without the former, and in both stages, Davies created interesting, important and aesthetically pleasing music.
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Vikingdom Coming

Last weekend my parents and I attended Largs’s annual Viking Festival. The weather was fantastically sunny, the best they’d had all week, and I want to tell you about this really fun day.

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Arkansas Ramblers

We woke unreasonably early, about half past nine in the morning (the horror!), and drove for an hour and a half to arrive in time to see my mother’s friends from work performing on the music stage. These friends were members of the recently established, Glasgow-based band the Arkansas Ramblers, a group of ten musicians who perform Old Time Americana, Country and Bluegrass music. I really enjoyed the performance; there was a nice mixture of older music, such as the pro-unionist, Civil-War tune ‘Kingdom Coming’ to more recent compositions like ‘Ashokan Farewell’, which was written in 1982 but still fit the overall tone with its mellow traditional sound.

The stand-out section for me was the fantastic duet, ‘Tennessee Waltz’, between Bernadette Collier and Sandy Semeonoff. The harmonies during the chorus are spine-tinglingly rustic, with Collier taking the tune while Semeonoff offers a simple tenor accompaniment that hangs very close to the melody and makes heavy use of third and sixth intervals. The sound is very characteristic of the genre and the voices blend together splendidly. It was fantastic.

It wasn’t even entirely out of place to have traditional American music playing at a Viking festival. After all, the Vikings reached the Americas centuries before Christopher Columbus was born – and towards the end Bill Macaulay, the founder of the group, had even donned a knitted Viking helmet!

After the performance was over, I explored the rest of the festival. There were myriad stalls selling a variety of crafts, lotions, foods, and souvenirs. There were also several fairground attractions, but more fun, for me, was the Viking Village.

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Doctor’s manual (made from vellum). Also plastic amputations, because medicine was horrible back then.

The Viking Village was like an outdoor museum, with wicker huts, old-fashioned stalls, and experts dressed in old Norse outfits who were eager to tell you about their specific roles in the village. There was a fletcher making arrows, a doctor who told us about ancient Norse medicine, a couple of metal workers using traditional Norse tools to shape souvenir coins, and a variety of traders selling furs, bracelets, candles and (harmless) weapons. The candle seller talked about how the keepers of bees were particularly well regarded in old Norse society – they would make mead from the honey, which pleased the locals, and the leftover beeswax would be donated to the churches and made into candles. Meanwhile, the book crafter was showing some children the animal-skin vellum that was used for paper and the children took turns trying (and failing) to rip the tough material.

I got my runes read by a very nice rune reader. She had a bag of tokens and I picked one blind. I drew the “prosperity” token, which looked like a wonky F. Although somewhat fitting given I start my new job tomorrow, I imagine all of the other tokens would have been equally vaguely relevant, too. It was still fun and interesting to experience the ancient Norse superstition, although at the same time it did feel a little uncomfortably New Age-y. That said, I did receive a pretty card and got to keep the token, which was a nice souvenir.

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My favourite hut was the one with the Norse musical instruments. It was really great to see so many ancient instruments; there was an ancient Norse lyre, some ancient panpipes, a type of drum called a bodhrán (which is technically Irish, but oh well), and a bukkehorn made from an animal horn. The man in the hut was playing a tiny harp called a clarsach, which is mainly associated with Celtic origins, but was also played by the Norse people. It was a pretty tune – I didn’t recognise it, but it was soft and atmospheric. I liked it.
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After the Viking Village, my parents and I went to an ice-cream parlour on the beach and had gigantic sundaes. I could only eat about a quarter of my Marshmallow Heaven – vanilla and raspberry ice-cream, with a mountain of cream, and marshmallows, and several wafers, and marshmallow sauce! It was amazing, but it was also huge.

Later that evening, we also got a traditional fish and chip supper (although mine was a smoked sausage, because fish in batter is gross). We were staying out late in order to attend the Festival of Fire, but the restaurant was so understaffed, it took forty minutes for the food to come. It was a bit nerve-wracking – I was worried we’d miss the parade! Luckily, crisis was averted and we arrived just as the parade was starting.

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There were all sorts of characters wandering around, but by far the best costume goes to this guy, who had a clockpunk metal dragon draped around his neck!

The Festival of Fire, was pretty rad; the parade gave everyone who had dressed up the opportunity to show off their amazing costumes. I particularly enjoyed the burly man who, trying to get past a huge crowd of bystanders, called out, “I have an axe, and I’m not afraid to use it!”

I was sceptical that it would get dark in time for the fire in the Festival of Fire to really make an impact, but pleasingly I was proved wrong. As we followed the burning torches through the stalls, and anachronistically through the funfair, the evening light dimmed into nighttime darkness.

We reached the sea, where a Viking longboat was set aflame. It was spectacular, but there were so many people it was difficult to get a good view. Even harder to see, though, was the short re-enactment battle. I didn’t especially mind; there were a lot of children, and it made sense to let them get the better view. My parents and I (along with a lot of other people) were up on a nearby hill where it was a bit dark to see the fighting, but the fantastic fire dancer who followed was very visible. He spun the flames around him in loops and juggled burning torches to the accompanying theatrical Norse music.

The evening ended with a pretty impressive fireworks display. I’ve never been so close to fireworks – it was like they were exploding directly above me! It was very loud, and I had to cover my ears for most of it, but the cost/benefit of the proximity still ultimately landed on the good side!

All in all, it was a very enjoyable day, and driving home listening to the CD of Icelandic singer, Hafdís Huld, was an appropriate end to a lovely Nordic-inspired experience.

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Burn, boaty, burn (Viking Inferno!)

Feature: Echo Chamber

Imagine sitting on a couch next to a stranger, surrounded by arcade games and Nintendo wall decorations, staring into the face of a paper mâché mounted smilodon head, while a string quartet plays a mashup of medieval chant and Jimi Hendrix. This was the unique musical experience that the Mancunian string quartet Echo Chamber offered four nights ago (Monday 6th) at the MegaBYTE cafe in Glasgow.

An arcade cafe might, on the surface, seem an odd choice of venue for a classical music concert. Similarly, Jimi Hendrix and Kanye West are not necessarily the most intuitive musical companions to Franz Schubert, Arvo Pärt, or Pérotin. But Echo Chamber, although still very new on the music scene, is eager to challenge some of the social mores that have sprouted up around classical music.

The choice of venue was a result of the quartet’s association with the company Groupmuse, an organisation that provides a platform for people to set up classical music concerts in small, unlikely venues. Quite often, that even involves a member of the public arranging a concert in their own living room! The idea, which has already taken off in the States, is to build a community of like-minded people who really enjoy classical music and listening to it in unexpected places. As violinist Stephen Bradshaw put it when we talked after the concert:

Chamber music is very much a tradition of friends coming together to play music. It is often described as being like a conversation. As soon as you take that out of a small room and put it in a big concert hall, some of the more salient elements of that are lost.

This is very true. Although a concert hall’s acoustics may be better, this particular experience really invokes the salons of, say, Haydn and Mozart, friends who occasionally met to play string quartets together, or the 19th-century Viennese parlours that Franz Schubert gathered in with his circle. Although, perhaps an even more fitting analogue there would be the Schubertiads, established after Schubert’s death, which often involved fans of Schubert coming together in drawing rooms to celebrate the music they loved in an informal setting in the company of others who shared their passion. This practice fell out of fashion eventually; even as early as 1946, the music critic Alec Robertson was bemoaning the loss of these cosy gatherings. But perhaps Groupmuse’s house concerts will inspire a resurgence.

If such a renewal is to take place, Echo Chamber’s unique style is perfect for the situation. Their repetoire, inspired by listening to songs on shuffle in Spotify and the Radio 3 show Late Junction, is vibrantly innovative. As Bradshaw pointed out, there’s no rule that says you can’t pair 13th-century music with Kanye West, so if it sounds good together, why not go for it? The unconventional musical juxtapositions are interesting and engaging and during each performance there’s a sense of a shared joke between the players and the audience, which is enhanced by how close everyone is gathered. The cello was less than an arm’s length away from where I was sitting.

This was an unforeseen addition to this particular evening’s arrangement (even for the players!). After the first piece, the quartet’s artistic director, Leo Mercer, suggested we all moved to sit around one table with each member of the quartet situated at one of the four corners. Personally, my initial reaction was intrigued bemusement, but I was pleasantly surprised by how relaxed the rest of the concert turned out to be, given its intimate nature.

I think also, this was a really positive inclusion for a concert of this style, where the individuality and variation from concert to concert is a big attraction. The quartet also includes improvisation for the musical transitions, and these are completely different each performance. For example, Monday night’s transition between Pérotin’s Viderunt Omnes and Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze featured a lot of powerful, dramatic tremolo that was fantastic, and all the more impressive for having been made up on the spot. During the interval, when the performers came and chatted with the audience, Sophia Dignam (viola) was laughing about how she started the tremolo, unsure whether it would work out well, and the others followed her lead and they just went for it – and I have to say, it worked brilliantly! Mercer, the artistic director, even mentioned that he thought it was their best transition to date! It was lovely that all of the group were so open and willing to talk about the performance; they were all really friendly and it enhanced the whole atmosphere.

It’s a somewhat unusual setup for a string quartet to have an artistic director, most quartets operate as a purely democratic unit, but here Mercer is very much an asset to the group, always coming up with new ideas to encourage both the audience and the players to experience and think about the music in new ways. Bradshaw described to me the group’s rehearsal process. Generally they will spend about forty-five minutes rehearsing the music, then Mercer will come in and “do his artistic directing thing”, for example:

He might get us to think about different lines of music as different characters in a play, or get us to move around the room, sit in different parts of the room, try and experience the music in a different way in order to get us to play in more kind of fresh and exciting ways. […] He has a very unique style of artistic direction, and he’s constantly trying to take us out of our comfort zone, which is a really good thing. Classical musicians have the worst comfort zones, and we’re just used to doing a very specific thing within a certain set of confined rules. And Leo’s all about taking us out of those comfort zones, taking us out of those “echo chambers” and getting us to try out new stuff all the time.

Echo Chamber’s house concerts are not Mercer’s only out-of-the-box production. He’s written an opera called The Marriage of Kim K, based on Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Again combining classical and contemporary, the opera will feature reality-TV style aspects alongside music from Figaro as well as newly composed material. Echo Chamber will actually be providing the music for the production at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. It’s an intriguing idea, and judging by the surprises of Monday’s concert, I’m not sure what to expect, but I imagine it will be distinctively special.

Bradshaw told me about what the quartet hoped to achieve with their concerts:

We really want people to experience classical music in a non-pretentious way, and that’s probably one of the biggest features that we do as a quartet. Making classical music less about turning up, smartly dressed, and not clapping between movements and more about just coming and enjoying the music you like, with a drink in hand, with friends. That’s what we want people to take away from this. Yes, a sense of community, a sense of – not necessarily classical music being cool – but making it something accessible, something you enjoy going to listen to. Have fun, have fun going to a house party but one where you listen to your friends playing classical music! Simple as that really!

I think they have accomplished that goal. Everything about Monday’s concert was crafted to make the experience as unique, friendly and hospitable as possible. It was a relaxed and enjoyable evening, with very talented, thoughtful musicians and their beautiful music in a small retro cafe. And although the word is frightfully overused, I’d go as far as to say the evening was “hygge”.

Echo Chamber Quartet

From the left: Chris Terepin (cello), Stephen Bradshaw (violin), Sophia Dignam (viola) & Rebekah Reid (violin).


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