Interview With Chris Marshall
By Tim Reynish
|U Trau||Awaiting publication||2004|
Four years ago when adjudicating in New Zealand, I heard a competition on New Zealand Radio with five young New Zealand composers, each writing an orchestral work of about ten minutes. I was immediately struck by Hikurangi Sunrise by Christopher Marshall, and when I got home I looked at his website vaia'ata and emailed him that I would love to discuss the possibility of his writing a wind work and wished him luck in the final voting. He emailed back within a couple of hours to say that he had won the audience prize, would love to write a work, and so he wrote the first WASBE consortium school band work, Aue.
Tim Reynish: Let's start by talking in general terms about your three works for wind ensemble.
Chris Marshall: Four, you are not counting U Trau for wind ensemble and choir
TR: Tell me about that
CM: That was commissioned by Dick and Georgia Bassett for Amos, it was to be performed in Holland, and they wanted something for large choir and wind ensemble. I decided that the balance situation would be improved if I split them into half and also I could utilise the acoustics of the big church. U Trau is in a new language called newspeak which I invented as I wrote the text which I invented as I wrote the music. Its an Indo-European pidgin, Latin German and everything, all the words end in a vowel, there are never more than two consonants together.
TR: When was this written?
CM: That was in 2004, premiered in March in Leiden. Its just been done in Michigan...
TR: ...conducted by Jerry Luckhardt
CM: Yes, and Jerry will do it in April in Minnesota, and they are considering it for publication at present.
TR: How big the ensemble?
CM: Two wind bands of about 45, and you need a big choir; it was originally for 180 voices, but they did it with 40 voices in Michigan, they amplified them slightly, but they were very good voices.
TR: So the first work was Aue, which I commissioned as a result of the competition in New Zealand, I so loved the Hikurangi Sunrise.
CM: I would be interested to know what you think of the new recording of that.
TR: How many performances did that have?
CM: I think it had about 4 or 5 up and down the country only by the New Zealand symphony orchestra, Mark Heron is thinking of doing it, but it is quite hard.
TR: And L'Homme Armé must have already had over fifty. Aue is of course a very special work, needing experienced players to control the dynamics and catch the nuances of the Ivesian mix of melodies. I remember after the American premiere in Boston the composer Bernard Rands exclaiming that it was a "real" piece of music. Tell me about the work which was played at WASBE in Singapore in one of Jim Cochran's splendid repertoire sessions, Okaoka; what did you learn from Aue which you didn't perpetrate in this one?
CAN OF CORNED BEEF, TO CHOP SUEY WITH TOMATO AND BEANS AND SWEET BISCUITS FROM FIJI
CM: Its an entirely different thing, basically a much lighter work, I wasn't trying to get so much across I guess, its basic regular metre getting faster and faster all the way through so it doubles in speed, and then it slows right down to the beginning speed.
TR: That's interesting - when I commissioned Dances from Crete from Adam Gorb, I mentioned that dance form which we saw and heard in the villages in Crete; a dance might last for 15 minutes formally doing just that, with constant long accelerandi to a double tempo, then back to the tempo primo.
CM: The song comes out as if its being dreamed I guess, and just builds up from there until it cuts out and goes back to the original idea, though somewhat differently. I was quite pleased with the form - the original song starts slow and just gets faster and faster until everyone falls about and collapses in a heap which you can't really do with a wind ensemble.
TR: It's a Samoan song, what's it about?
CM: Its actually about a fellow comparing his sweetheart to a can of corned beef, to chop suey with tomato and beans and sweet biscuits from Fiji, all the sort of imported goods of the turn of the 20th century, it's a really lovely song, I saw it danced to begin with so I tried to capture the visual element, there s a lot of shouting and clowning around, people coming and leaving, the whole village involved, it's a fairly chaotic, its carefully controlled chaos.
BEWARE THE ARMED MAN
TR: Let's talk about L'Homme Armé because that and Adam's Dances from Crete are perhaps my two most obviously successful commissions in this series in memory of William to date. How many performances has it had so far?
CM: Including the ones given recently in the conducting course in Switzerland, it would be pretty nearly 50 now.
TR: Yes, we played it over there with the Danish Concert Band, they were at first a little scared of the difficulty, but they played it marvellously. Had you been involved with the theme before?
CM: Yes, I had heard it at school, and I was fascinated with the idea of it being used by so many other composers, and I already wanted to do something with it. Even then I loved the idea of canons, there were no sketches or anything, it was just in the back of my mind and was an opportunity I had been waiting for for ages. Earlier I don't think I would have had the skills to bring it off. Getting back to what I said about Okaoka with the visual elements, different things going on, I tried to get that across without really consciously realising what I was doing. For instance in the march there are saxophones screaming at the same time as the march is going on, I visualise two quite different events, maybe the triumphant march while in the cells underground there are all sorts of other things going on, I was trying to present two sides of the same coin, something like that and also in the last passage with the percussion, there's the great chorale and at the same time people are trying to beat down the door, I know it sounds crass if you put it that way, but while I was writing it, those are the sort of images that came to mind... strange really, because it is certainly not programmatic music. In that coda section, the percussion is on the one hand breaking it down and at the same time holding it together, it's the only link between the two time signatures. And I think the louder it is the better.
TR: Our colleague the Swiss composer Oliver Waespi said that he heard it at Interlaken and he liked the piece except for the ending, he was a bit bored by it and I was wondering why.
CM: I can see how this could be with that thing going on and on and reaching a sort of loud stasis; the only thing that could save it is the idea that it could all fall to bits at any minute, a sort of tightrope thing. It did fall to bits slightly in the premiere, it should be like that, always on the edge.
TR: There was a point made in the critique of the CD in the WASBE newsletter suggesting that the elements were too disparate; now I love that, my only slightest problem is the very sugary rather sentimental variation.
CM: You mean the Ländler.
TR: No I love that - what did you have in mind for that movement? I like to do it in one, so its never quite together, I love it with time and freedom. Everyone I have seen recently has conducted very strictly in 3, for me not quite schmaltzy enough. However, that works very well with moving into the 12/16, the direct speed relationships are clearer than in one. You were thinking of a Mahlerian or...
CM: The image I had was of a courtly dance, some minuet, but when you said Ländler it is actually much closer to that, I was thinking of those Brahms minuets which are more like Ländler anyway Which one were you saying you have doubts about?
TR: I don't have doubts; I do find that the last variation before the finale is very sweet and sugary, but then when I originally contacted you, I wanted something romantic. What I loved about Sunrise is it is so romantic, yet contemporary.
CM: You actually mentioned Dvorak and in the back of my mind that stayed there, especially theSymphonic Variations. I don't feel ashamed of the sweet and sugary.
TR: It's a wonderful antidote to the canons which follow, it does work very well. Do you play jazz - I am not a jazzer so I can't do the jazz stuff idiomatically.
CM: I loathe jazz actually but its all around and I am absorbing it all the time... and rock too, you know we will rock you, rock you, that's where that comes from. It's a kind of very aggressive macho thing sung at football matches, so that's where it comes from, not deliberately
TR: Well. you are like Adam assimilating these different popular influences because they are there. I have a feeling that you would like my performances to be a little rougher and tougher.
CM: You were talking about the disparate elements, the only thing is that I was aware of that from the start I wanted crotchet (quarter) equals 120 as a sort of glue, a further glue in addition to the theme. What I like about your performance is in the canonic variations, I can actually hear the canons so clearly, and that's important for me.
TR: We worked very hard on phrasing the canons; if you play it straight it just becomes a noise.
CM: An exercise, yes,
TR: That's so important, the lines have to live otherwise there is no point. Someone was asking about the Eb trumpet part, and saying that many bands would find it difficult. Could it be played on Eb clarinet?
CM: What Mark Heron did was to have an alternative part for a tiny Bb piccolo trumpet which I did not really know existed.
TR: I find balance problems with the double reeds. The best performance of that mediaeval material I have done was in Louisville where the oboist was a clarinettist from the marching band, and had an embouchure like steel, a really rough mediaeval shawm sound.
CM: I want it torn out
TR: In Louisville, Frederick Speck was worried about the balance in the 12/16 against the triple time...
CM: .. but you don't need to hear everything that is going on, you want to hear not confusion but everything going on at once, a few shrieks from Eb clarinet or piccolo trumpet. For the recording by John Boyd, they had problems with that section, not enough rehearsal, so in the event they used two conductors and it was fine.
TR: I was thinking of the oboe writing in the middle of the Haka. I never get it to sound.
CM: It's a cry coming out, but it does not have to be strong. With John's recording I really get a sense of the unity of the piece, he really sticks to the metronome marks, but in the contrapuntal variations I miss the independence, the variation with trumpet and horn really sounds mushy. I miss the clarity, but overall that 120 thing really ties the piece together.
TR: The Haka itself is the song that the All Blacks sing before they play rugby and thrash the English, Welsh and Scottish. Lets not talk about that.
TR: I find the second little jazz thing I always take too fast.
CM: Sometimes the variations do sound better faster, but for instance the Fauré one with the windchimes, the sentimental one. That variation is actually very short, and if you take it too fast, it destroys the continuity... and also the arpeggios are very hard for the marimba.
TR: Chris, finally a big thankyou for getting so involved in the world of wind music. I am looking forward enormously to the new piece, Resonance, to be premiered in Ithaca College on April 27th.