Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Composer Series - Edward Cowie

In 2008, we put on a concert at the Warehouse, Waterloo. It was a celebration of all of the pieces the group had commissioned since we first started playing together in 2000. Around the same time, we were approached by Edward Cowie about premiering a piece that he had written for harp quartet. This seemed like perfect timing and our Warehouse concert became the venue for Nymphaeas' World Premiere. It was a very interesting piece to play, and very different to any of our other contemparary works. There is a lot of stillness in the piece - something which is extremely challenging when playing with four instruments where the way the player moves does not automatically correspond with the way their fingers play. We really enjoyed getting our teeth into it however and it was refreshing to perform something so different from our usual repertoire.

Nymphaeas’ was not actually commissioned by 4G4H. Did you have anyone specific in mind when you wrote the music? 
I wrote the work without a commission because I’m not one of those composers who sit around waiting for one! I simply wanted to test ideas for FOUR harps because I like the sound of the harp. So in a way, you could best describe the piece as a kind of sonic laboratory experiment

You spend much of your time in France. Do you find that musical inspiration comes more easily there than in the UK? If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
 France is a lot less densely populated than the UK and I need peace and quiet in wild countryside to work. However, I should stress that my UK home in Yorkshire offers perhaps even more ‘natural inspiration’ and that in any case, I travel as much worldwide as I can to explore the living world for new pieces of music

You are an artist as well as a composer. How do you find the two disciplines complement each other?
 Is there ever a battle as to which you would prefer to be doing?! It’s well known that I paint and draw as part of the composing process. Having been trained in the sciences as well as arts, I know for sure that FORMS and actions of forms cross-relate from science to art and vice versa. However, whilst such a fusion between art and science produces music that musicians seem to like to play, there is still a general resistance in some places to the kind of music I write. This is because musicians tend to think of music as an impenetrable and specialised language, which it really isn’t. And whilst I have often been inspired by other composers and their music, I find the natural world to be far more potent and fertile for new musical ideas. No, I NEVER find a conflict between one for of self-expression and another!

You have written for solo harp as well as harp quartet. Do you have a preference for either option? How did the challenges differ when writing for one harp and multiple harps?
 There ought to be a simple answer to this question but there isn’t. A solo instrument like the harp (and I tend to write the music rather as I would for piano-left-hand), is already loaded with sonic potential. The addition of three more harps offers 4 times the potential in colour-mixes and densities of musical materials. It’s rather like the difference between painting with only primary colours and painting with an infinite freedom to mix and blend colours more…

What composers have inspired you over the years and shaped your musical style?
I hope NO composer has shaped my musical style except myself, but it’s worth confessing that the following composers stand high in my regard for sonic invention and brilliant forms of thinking and feeling: Haydn, Berlioz, Brahms, Debussy and Ravel, Janacek, Berg, Sibelius, Messiaen and perhaps surprisingly- Boulez

You have also spent a lot of time in Australia. How have you found the classical musical scene over there differs from the UK?
I don’t think Oz musicians are less gifted than those elsewhere, but it’s true that in some special fields such as the string quartet and vocal music, the scene is rather ‘thin’. There are certainly a few very good harpists in Australia and I do feel that Australia is less inhibited in its encouragement of new music than in Europe, where caution and conservatism has become rather more than it should be!

As an expert in the fields of music, art and the sciences, you are something of a polymath. At first glance, science and music might seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. In reality, music owes a huge amount to scientific and engineering developments. Do you feel that science is similarly complemented by music?
I am still worried that so-called collaborations between artists and scientists are cosmetic rather than truly interdisciplinary. Many scientists feel that artists predate on scientific thinking without fully understanding the methods and issues that science confronts. This is actually a ‘language problem’ where mathematics for example, is based on symbols alien to music and vice-versa. Unless FORM and the dynamics of form are represented (and understood) by some kind of mediated ‘meta-language’ this divide will continue and creative arts and science will continue to obscure or avoid the formal and interconnecting facts-of-life and matter

Are there any young composers that you think are ‘ones to watch’?
I try from time to time, to listen to performances of works by young composers (by which I assume younger than 30), and can honestly say that nothing I have heard stimulates me very much

What is your favourite instrument (or combination of instruments) to compose for?
The orchestra for its enormous ‘palette of sound’, but even more the human voice including chamber choir. Other than these, the string quartet remains an absolute favourite of mine

What three things would you take with you to a desert island?
Heather my wife and best friend, 10000 sheets of manuscript paper and pencils, and a large supply of blank sketchbooks.

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