Birmingham Contemporary Music Group preview


by Christopher Morley

It's not very often that a composer admits to having long booze-fuelled evenings, but Korean composer Donghoon Shin tells all as he describes the structure of his new work about to be premiered by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

This is his Concerto for Sheng and Large Ensemble, featuring an instrument best described as an ancient Chinese mouth-organ, and is a piece cast in three movements, as Donghoon tells me.

"The first movement, 'We Are All Nocturnal Creatures', is a nocturne as the title implies. Around dawn, on my way back home after guzzling booze, the shaking scenery of the city seen through the window of the bus used to send me into a delusional state in which the city became me, and I became the city. The movement begins with a Sheng solo and while being developed the boundary between the instrument and the ensemble becomes vague gradually. Finally, they become a large Sheng altogether.
"The second movement, 'Neon Nights', refers to the glittering neon signs in the city. The movement is a colourful capriccio and long cadenza for Sheng and ensemble.
"The last movement, 'The Lost Song', derives from the ancestral ritual music in Korea which was written and performed for souls that have passed away. The movement is nostalgia and farewell for my twenties.
" When I received the commission from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group for a concerto for Sheng and Large Ensemble, the first thing that emerged in my mind was the scenery of Seoul, my home town. The image of the sole Asian traditional instrument surrounded by Western instruments brought back my memory of the city which has been developed and westernised rapidly since the 1970s, yet still hides old palaces and traditional houses in the forest of skyscrapers."

Donghoon goes on to tell me how the sound of this fascinating instrument blends with those of western classical instruments.

"The sheng has a very particular timbre, but it mixes very well with almost every western instrument, such as French horn, clarinet and also harmonics sounds of strings. One of my goals was to make the whole ensemble sound like a huge sheng."

Donghoon Shin has just completed a residency as Apprentice Composer-in-Residence with BCMG. "Over the past two years, I have been privileged to work with the BCMG which is one of the most important new music ensembles in the music scene.
"Of course, I've learnt many things from them, especially the workshop which I had with the ensemble and the sheng virtuoso Wu Wei, soloist here, a month ago was crucial for my writing and gave me much food for thought."

2019 is proving a busy year for Donghoon Shin in terms of premieres. "Apart from the BCMG concert, on March 24 at the Barbican, my new orchestral piece Kafka's Dream, which was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, will be premiered under the baton of François-Xavier Roth. Also, the Karajan Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Peter Eötvös will premiere my new chamber orchestra piece on December 8 at the Philharmonie in Berlin."

And domiciled in Berlin is the English composer Rebecca Saunders, whose composition 'Murmurs' gives the title to this forthcoming BCMG concert. She describes the piece as a "musical collage of seven parts", and it is a fine example of her fascination for the sculptural and spatial properties of organised sound.

She is also fascinated by the physicality of musical experience, "the intimate play between the musician and their instrument — this extraordinary physical relationship," as she describes it. "It´s a wonderful dynamic, pure drama.
" I often explore the physical nature of the listening experience in my music. Some of my pieces are for a mobile audience, in which I explore nearness and distance to the performer. The listener can either remove themselves and observe the music from a gallery or get very close to the performer and literally feel the music all around them."
Murmurs concludes this BCMG concert, which opens with another Saunders work, CRIMSON -- Molly Bloom's Song 1, which is a musical meditation on Molly's monologue in the virtuoso closing pages of James Joyce's Ulysses.

Does the fact that Rebecca is based in Berlin imply anything about the state of music in the UK?
"Being a composer is something you have to want with an uncompromising passion and a sense of necessity." she says, "and when I came to Germany for the first time in the early 90s it was an extremely positive environment for a young artist.
"Studying and living abroad can be a wonderfully liberating opportunity for a composer: to get outside of one's culture, to see everything from a radically new perspective, to reassess and question one´s thinking and creativity. These formative years were very important — this sense of freedom, I just soaked it up.
"I have always felt intensely European and have been incredibly fortunate to have lived the European dream of my generation. Strangely, I never felt I actually left the UK, it is more that my life became all the richer for embracing other European cultures, becoming part of a bigger, more complex cultural environment and exchange. "
Already the recipient of many prestigious prizes and awards, Rebecca has recently been names as the recipient of the Ernst von Siemens 2019 International Music Prize -- a small matter of 250,000 Euros. I ask the loaded question: is there a danger that such a wonderful financial cushion makes composers complacent, and no longer concerned about how the listening public feels about their music?
"No, I disagree. Yes, I feel very honoured, and it means a lot to me, but essentially it changes nothing about how I work and what I do. Such an award enables me to concentrate purely on composing and is absolutely invaluable. When I was young, scholarships and prizes gave me some stability and the freedom to do what I had to.
" The myth of the suffering artist is a little out-dated: we need to eat, as do my children. When I am in the composing zone, everything else is superfluous and irrelevant, and there would be no point in composing if each new project were not a unique exciting challenge, requiring everything from me as if for the very first time. It is always new, terrifying and exhilarating, and I hope it remains so."
*Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's Murmurs concert is given at the CBSO Centre on March 21 (7.30pm, with a pre-concert discussion between Rebecca Saunders and Donghoon Shin at 6.30pm).

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