interview: with Matt London of Tenor Saxophone Index by Nathan James Dearden

Gilly Blair, Nathan Mertens, João Pedro Silva and Luis Ribeiro will premiere 'johannes: canons and transitions' as part of the Tenor Saxophone Collective's extended WSC recital. (Saturday 14 July 2018 | 14:00 Theatre & TD Big Hall Zagreb World Saxophone Congress).

Ahead of this, here is an interview with composer, performer and Artistic Director of the Tenor Saxophone Collective, Matt London:

[ML] Nathan thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Shall we start by talking a bit about your work and career so far? You studied voice and composition at Cardiff University under a number of people including composer Arlene Sierra and Robert Fokkens before moving on to Royal Holloway, University of London to focus on composition as a researcher. Tell us more about what you do, and what you’re trying to achieve overall as an artist.

[NJD] As you mention, I am currently based primarily at Royal Holloway and have totally jumped on-board with all the opportunities thrown my way alongside my research. Working as the College’s Performance Manager, curating their concert series and coordinating all the practical music-making activities, to teaching bit of undergraduate composition and conducting all the new music ensembles (New Voices Consort and New Music Collective). I love the huge breadth of activity you can be part of as a musician and ultimately bringing people together to create good music.

I see all of this perhaps more practical music-making as part-and-parcel of my work as a composer. It’s all linked for me. Especially as I am obsessed with how music can bring seemingly disparate groups of people together in the aim of a mutually beneficial outcome. Perhaps as a composer I see myself as a facilitator. I create the framework (the notes on the page) in which people can step into (the performer/listener). If the margins that I have created are correct or the best fit possible, then hopefully the outcome will be mutually beneficial, and people begin to get on-board with what the music is trying to say.

[ML] Your piece ‘johannes: canons and transitions’ for four tenor saxophones will be one of the chamber works we look forward to premiering in Zagreb on July 14th! What can you tell us about the piece in terms of influences, concept, the inception of the piece etc?

[NJD] I was thinking of this after finishing the work (in that usual ‘post-mortem’ stage that we have as composers) and actually there are lots of interests and even ‘subtext’ hidden within this short chamber work.

johannes stemmed from an older work of mine, dort in den weiden steht ein haus, written for four bassoons (I get a kick from groupings of similar or the same instruments). This takes short fragments from Brahms’ lied of the same title (WoO 33, No. 31) as a sort of reimagining rather than devout homage. This sort of ‘transitional’, scalic passages found in this particular Brahms (arguably in much of the music of the nineteenth century) fascinated me - for better or for worse. johannes allowed me to really exploit this overtly romanticized obsession with scalic transitions, as a sort of idée fixe of my own. johannes perhaps takes this concept ‘ad nauseum’ as a way of building a tension and need for any such resolution.

[ML] Now am I right in thinking that you played saxophone in a former life? Has this had any effect on the way you approached writing for saxophone today? I am curious as a lot of the repertoire is often written by player composers within the classical saxophone community which often follow a set traditions and conventions with the repertoire almost an idiom of its own. As a musician outside the saxophone community I wonder how you see it?

[NJD] Oo, this is a really interesting question.

I did play classical alto saxophone in a ‘former life’ which resulted in me working towards my diploma, but then I turned 18… Unsure what that has to do with anything, but I remember my commitments as a singer picking up. The guilt alone makes me want to pick up my sax again (!)

I think my writing for this line-up and my existing knowledge of the saxophone would surely have some subconscious implications, but then in hindsight much of the music stems from the Brahms’ piano writing so perhaps less so than when I wrote its partner work for four bassoons (which at the time I had no idea of the capabilities or nuances of the bassoon). I like this element of it though. Despite primarily being a singer, I often do not feel comfortable writing vocal music. There is an element of knowing too much or having a clearer understanding of the baggage of existing repertoire. I know many established composer-pianists who hate writing for piano, as they feel they’ll be judged just as much as a performer if their works pans. The unknown can sometimes be refreshing and create some interesting results. Not always of course, but there might always be that occasion where you hit on something special.

[ML] Personally what I like about your music it’s natural lyricism and subtle development akin to choral / liturgical music, so I am really excited to bring your music to the classical saxophone community at the congress in July!

[NJD] Aw, that’s really sweet of you! I am super stoked for hear it.

[ML] Before we finish up, is there anything you’d like to plug?

[NJD] This is my last premiere before setting off on a bunch of new projects, so nothing iminent to plug. Need to get a shuffle-on with a new song cycle collaboration with composer-pianist, Michael Finnissy, who I have become quite close to over the past 4 years or so. We are looking at diary entries and poems written specifically by queer authors from the First World War, and hope to take our findings and musical offerings on tour before the year is out. I suppose just watch this space.

interview: Meet The Artist with the cross-eyed pianist / meet Nathan James dearden by Nathan James Dearden

Composer Nathan James Dearden featured composer in Meet The Artist Blog Series with pianist, writer, concert reviewer, blogger and music lover, Frances Wilson.

Established in 2010, The Cross-Eyed Pianist has become “an important voice in the piano world” (Peter Donohoe, international concert pianist) and enjoys a wide global readership with over 20,000 visitors to the site per month. Regularly updated with varied content and the popular Meet the Artist interview series, The Cross-Eyed Pianist is one of the UK’s leading blogs on classical music.

“It is the convivial nature of music which excites me. People coming together for one common cause: to create music.” - njd.

Please CLICK HERE or on the title to view full interview with Fran Wilson of The Cross-Eyed Pianist.

interview: LPO Debut Sounds | Meet the Composers | Nathan James Dearden by Nathan James Dearden

interview: New Music Series / nathan james dearden with Shirley Radcliffe by Nathan James Dearden

This is the featured article and interview extracts with Shirley Ratcliffe (Choir & Organ magazine). This was published in Choir & Organ's May/June 2017 edition prior to a premiere of the bright morning star.

The realisation that music has the power to make a positive change had a profound effect on the young Nathan James Dearden. ‘As soon as you become subsumed into the “music bubble” – the one you often find yourself in at school – you soon realise that music will play a large role in your life,’ he says. Being in a choir encouraged him to write his first short work which then led onto practical examinations. ‘The ball starts rolling often without you noticing, a pattern starts to unfold and you’re developing into a career musician.’

Dearden didn’t start to compose seriously until his undergraduate days. ‘Like many it has not been an easy transition to make (from the schoolboy to the professional musician), navigating your way through the countless call-for-scores, summer schools and workshop days, yet trying to reassure yourself that you can compose and that you have something meaningful to say whilst being rejected for much you apply for. These opportunities are undoubtedly imperative for any success as a composer, but we have bred a bizarre culture of the career composer having to say or even write the “correct” thing to get by.’

Dearden found becoming a student at Cardiff University a very freeing experience. ‘I was able to curate my own events, conduct the music I wanted to, write music for ensembles, make the successes and perhaps most importantly the mistakes that I needed to and listen to music-making of the highest quality. I remember attending David Poutney’s 2013 production of Berg’s Lulu with Welsh National Opera and thinking “this could not get any better”. For me, The School of Music at Cardiff University is unsurpassed and the people I met there really did change things for me.’

Dearden tells me that throughout his life his influences have come from his teachers. ‘[They] pushed me in directions that allowed me to develop as a singer and instrumentalist sitting me down to listen to Glenn Gould playing the mono recording of the Goldberg Variations, taking me to concerts and schlepping across the country for me to take part in workshops.

After joining his first school choir Dearden has always been associated with choirs. ‘It has always been an important part of my musical education,’ he says, ‘such as touring with the National Youth Choir of Wales, touring with the Pendyrus Male Voice Choir in Lorient or singing at the Proms with the BBC National Chorus of Wales. Singing has always been core to my understanding of musical performance and my development as a musician, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.’

When did he start to change direction as a composer? ‘It’s difficult to say. I see composing music as building blocks, trying to get the clay bricks into the right order, removing or adding one at a time without the whole thing collapsing around you. My vocal work both as a singer and a composer has undoubtedly influenced my purely instrumental work (and vice versa) and I do not separate my work as a curator or conductor from my composing, it’s all one package.’

An important learning curve was his very first residency. As Young Composer-in-Residence for the National Youth Orchestra of Wales he was asked to write an 8 to 10 minute work for 13 instruments in five days. ‘What a fantastically immersive jump into the deep-end it was,’ he says. ‘Sleep was at a minimum and anxiety in abundance. Learning to manage my time efficiently and being ruthless with my material was so essential to producing a piece that I was happy with within this time frame.’ It was here that he got to know the dynamic young composer Mark Bowden. ‘At the time I was just dipping my toe into compositional processes that Mark really embraced (Krenek-Stravinskian rotational matrixes and harmonic organisational systems like this).’

Mark Bowden is Reader in Composition at Royal Holloway and the two discussed Dearden apply for doctorate studies at the college. Achieving this he explains his research there: ‘I am obsessed with the everyday. What motivates us to do the things we do? The reasoning or non-reasoning behind the small decisions we continually make. Where does music fit into this? Music or, more broadly speaking, art has always been used to reflect our everyday right back at us allowing us to see objects and issues from different angles. Music has the transcendental power to do this and has done for centuries. How do we use music as a form of social-commentary? There is plenty of music to be written if we react to the world around us today.’ Alongside this research Dearden currently curates and manages the concert series at the college, inviting international artists to the university, providing a platform for young musicians and programming events. ‘I love the multifaceted nature of music, and how my work as a composer, curator, conductor, teacher and performer all come together under one roof.’

We talk about his choice of texts for his C&O commission. ‘I wanted to set Milton’s The Bright Morning-Star as I have known it for some years and felt it apt for the May/June issue of C&O. The stripping of winter and entering into the early sunlight of spring, looks towards something far more positive than what has come before. I also like pairing texts together therefore I wanted another text that dealt with light and was utterly transformative. Recalling the Lux eternal luceat eis, Domine (May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord), I thought this would be a perfect sister for the Milton. I usually only use text architecturally. Here I have overlapped the two different texts, interweaving them so they become one and obscuring any such definitive stanzas.’

Michael Finnissy has become what Dearden describes as ‘a true friend and mentor in this crazy world we find ourselves in. We met a few years ago at the Benslow Music Trust in

Hitchin, Hertfordshire, and have since worked together quite a bit. He is one of the most generous of human beings. I have written him my largest solo piano work and in 2018 there will be a collaboration with him and a few singers setting the text of several little-known gay poet/soldiers from the First World War to commemorate the centenary of the end of WWI.’

Dearden describes becoming a LPO Leverhulme Arts Scholar as a ‘real pinch me moment that made me want to scream from the rooftop! Essentially it is the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Young Composer-in-Residence programme, in which five composers are selected to work on a new work with the orchestra and its young professional musicians programme. We are also provided with sessions in career development, opportunities with the orchestra’s education projects and we are even able to curate our own event at London’s Southbank Centre. The new work composed for the orchestra and Magnus Lindberg will be premiered in July 2017 at St John’s Smith Square. What a year I have had with them!’

Thinking about his future he says, ‘All that I know is I will keep writing music provided I still have something I need to say, people to perform it and/or people still want to listen to it.’

Nathan James Dearden commissioned and featured by Choir & Organ magazine by Nathan James Dearden

Rhinegold's Choir and Organ magazine annouce Nathan James Dearden as their featured composer for their May/June edition.

In collaboration with Rupert Gough and the Choir of Royal Holloway, Nathan has been commissioned to write a new work for online publication and a world premiere during the magazine's May/June edition. Nathan will also be interviewed on his work as a musician and the new work specifically.

For more information, please CLICK HERE.

What is Choir & Organ's New Music Series?

New Music is a series of specially commissioned pieces for choir or organ written by some of the most talented young composers around.

In every issue of Choir & Organ magazine, you’ll find a profile of the composer providing an insight into the new work. Here on the New Music web page you’ll find the score in PDF format ready to download to your printer.

Scores are licensed for six months’ free use – you can print as many copies as you want – before the copyright reverts to the composer. After that date, copies must be ordered from the composer.

New Music brings cutting-edge yet approachable scores direct to your desktop. We hope that you’ll be inspired to perform them as widely as possible. Why not download the latest score now?

For 2017, we are pleased to join forces with Royal Holloway, University of London, as our New Music partners. All the premieres of the four choral works and two organ pieces will be given at times and venues to be announced.

Maggie Hamilton Editor, Choir & Organ

interview: spotlight on nathan james dearden with Paulina Nalivaikaitė by Nathan James Dearden

this is a transcription of an interview given on 17 march 2016 with paulina nalivaikaitė. This was published prior to a trip to Lithuania for a premiere of o Crux ave, spes unica. To see the original publication (in Lithuanian; trans. Matas Geležauskas) please CLICK HERE.

How did you get interest in the project? In your opinion, what makes (or does not make) it attractive and valuable?

"There is such a strong choral tradition within Lithuania, one that I can relate to in my home country of Wales (UK). I feel the pure music making that is bred in Lithuania is incomparable and to work with such musicians is a dream for a composer. Another reason also being Juta Pranulyte. At our fist meeting in York (England, UK) I was totally taken by her music. There is such honesty that radiates from her music. Allowing the listener to seek all realms of peace and harmony that you often miss in new music. This is why this my work is dedicated to her. Without her, this opportunity would not have been presented to me."

You compose music for different groups of instruments, however it seems that music for choir is not accidental in your portfolio - it is rather one of your directions in composition. What is so appealing in writing the choral music?

"A very practical reason for writing so much repertoire for voice is down to the fact that I am a singer myself. Choral singing has been a significant part of my life since the age of 10, and over the years I have built very strong personal and professional relationships with singers of all sorts. My experiences singing in choral ensembles also proved a useful tool for me as a composer in discovering the nuances and basic nature of writing for voice from within the ranks. There is such a joy writing for the human voice - particularly when in a collective. There is such a sincerity and immediacy with vocal music. If you have message for the world, what better way than to communicate it directly through the voice?"

Could you, please, tell us about situation of choral music in the UK? What tendencies do dominate in this kind of contemporary music there? May you tell who are the most distinctive composers in this field?

"This is such a HUGE question - I would (quite gladly) be here for days talking about this. Ever since the early twentieth century when music began to splinter into all directions and avenues of exploration, the UK particularly jumped into overdrive after its (unwelcome) reputation as a land without music - Das Land ohne Musik. The 'hangover' from this intense period of music making has naturally brought a familiar canon of choral music to the forefront, a canon that singers enjoy performing and audiences enjoy listening to. From the popularist works of Paul Mealor or John Rutter, to the works of Giles Swayne or Judith Weir bred from close professional ties with ensembles such as the BBC singers in the 1980s, the often deeply spiritual pieces of John Tavener, Jonathan Dove or James Macmillan, or even the often potentially experimental and conceptual works of Anna Meredith, Julian Anderson or Janice Kerbel. All this music (and much more) is continuously being explored, pushed, developed and most importantly, performed in the UK as choral music is built into the very fabric of music making in the country."

Please tell us about your composition for the concert o crux Ave, spes unica. What are artistic, philosophical and technical ideas of the work?

"This is work that uses three very distinct colours and textural cells that work with, but often, against one another. There is such remorse and penitence in the text I have selected - You who have suffered for us, have mercy upon us [...] Our only hope. - so this text needed to be conveyed as if a collective cried this from the rooftop, or as if individuals yell in a protest or silently mutter a communal prayer; as individuals or as a unit. This relationship between freedom (often through aleatoricism) and collective exclamations (strict rhythmic cells) is something I am increasingly interested in."

In your opinion, what factor is the key to gaining sympathy of the audience? Or maybe you do not seek to please the audience, maybe the self-expression is uncompromising to you?

"Music would not be music without human interaction or engagement on some level. We need to communicate to our audiences, otherwise who are we writing for? We need to communicate to our performers also, otherwise WHO are we writing for?"

What is your aesthetic attitude towards composing? (Maybe you do have some extra-musical inspirations like other kinds of art, social environment, philosophy etc.?)

"I continuously strive for honesty. I still do not know what that even means as a composer, but I always look for music that has no mask. This is probably why much of music begins with a cell - a 'motif' perhaps - and then this is displayed for all to see. Bare. Legs akimbo. In every position. Before it being exploited and transformed (or sometimes left alone completely). If we leave something alone for long enough, the image that we thought we would begin to get bored of develops. Time changes our perception of one fixed object and I find that fascinating. I constantly strive for that in my music. I am far from the complete but I have learnt to live with the journey that has be taken to achieve 'Eureka' moment. Perhaps we will never reach this moment of assuredness. I suspect we never will."