Composer to composer: Jack Sheen and James Weeks discuss ‘Saenredam’


On Saturday 30 September 2017, LSO composer Jack Sheen will direct contemporary music group An Assembly in the first BBC Radio 3 Open Ear concert at LSO St Luke’s. Ahead of the concert, Jack sat down with James Weeks, one of the featured composers, to discuss ‘Saenredam’ from his work Schilderkonst.

‘In Saenredam I was thinking of these light-filled, empty stone spaces and wanted to achieve something similar’

Jack Sheen:
Saenredam forms part of a larger work, Schilderkonst. Firstly, what do these titles mean and how do they relate to the music?

James Weeks:
I wrote Schilderkonst between 2003 and 2004 when I was just beginning to find myself as a composer. I went on a few trips to the Netherlands and Belgium around that time and I remember one particular visit to the Royal Museum of Fine Art in Brussels: I walked into the first room and was completely overwhelmed by the display of Flemish Renaissance paintings, their astonishing materiality, clarity and grace. I remember thinking at that moment, ‘Yes, this is what I aspire to as an artist.’

It took a while to find a way to achieve anything like those qualities in my music, but eventually Schilderkonst was the result. It's actually based on Dutch art of the Golden Age rather than Flemish, but the concerns are the same: an intense feeling for material reality, minutely observed (the incredible detail of van Eyck or Vermeer), an interest in everyday settings, for what is visibly and experientially present, and also a kind of serenity, a spiritual quality that stems directly from this focused act of observing, contemplating and situating oneself within the world. These kinds of ideas of course link to the work of Cage, who has always been a huge influence on me (though not so much in Saenredam); I was also listening to a lot of Aldo Clementi, and the second piece of the trilogy, Low Country, is written in homage to him, though I was clearly thinking of his music in Saenredam as well.

As for titles, Schilderkonst is the title of Vermeer's grandest and perhaps most enigmatic work, 'Art of Painting' - the idea being that the whole triptych explores art's relation to the 'real' in a similar way to how Vermeer plays with notions of representation, metaphor and allegory in this picture. The entire triptych is based on one fragment of Ockeghem, the In nomine Domini section of the Missa Prolationum, so in that sense you can hear the distance between the found musical 'object' and my depiction of it throughout the piece.

Pieter Janszoon Saenredam Interior of the Church of St Bavo in HaarlemPieter Jansz. Saenredam 006

Saenredam is named after the great painter of church interiors, Pieter Saenredam, whose pictures are totally astonishing - if you walk into a room in a gallery where there is one hanging it seems to mesmerise you and draw you towards it, even if it's in a corner and you are only aware of it in peripheral vision. Then when you get there it turns out to be this empty church, a few bare white columns rendered in unnervingly realistic perspective, and light flooding the whole space. It's both very real and utterly alien and unearthly at the same time - what a thing to pull off!

Saenredam is in one continuous 17-minute movement and forms the first part of a trilogy of pieces which last almost an entire hour. As a composer, how do you deal with such expansive time frames? How do you imagine a listener might navigate them?

In Saenredam I was thinking of these light-filled, empty stone spaces and wanted to achieve something similar, so in order to achieve an analogy of space I created a texture which was essentially static and therefore made listeners aware of time passing, of being inside the time-space of the work. Crucial to this is the organ part, which provides a modal cluster throughout, changing so slowly (it's a canon, everything's a canon here) that one is scarcely aware of it, like very subtle, imperceptible shifts of light intensity or quality. The other instruments have faster-moving parts whose speed is stretched or compressed continually - I suppose like something flickering, or like light refracted through the leaves of a tree as a breeze passes, and then becoming still again.

This is one of my first attempts to make a piece that requires 'active' listening, i.e. that the listener is relatively free to 'walk around' this structure, but even so the piece isn't entirely static in terms of surface activity so there are textural changes to notice on the way, instruments coming in and dropping out and so on. The piece is actually split into three 'panels' of about five minutes each, like a Renaissance altar triptych, but the sense of the music is continuous across the gaps.

The instrumentation of Saenredam is pretty unique, as is the way the ensemble is split into two groups who play independent of one another. Can you tell us how you came to these decisions regarding the ensemble?

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I wasn't writing for any occasion or commission, so I was able to write for whatever I wanted – there's no compromise in the instrumentation as you sometimes get when you have no control over the line-up. The slow-moving, almost static organ part was an idea from Clementi, who often underpins his canonic weaves with a held cluster - it also refers to the church setting, I suppose - so that became the background layer. I was also listening to my teacher Michael Finnissy's piece Traum des Sängers at the time, which has this beautiful 'angel's music' of clarinet, vibraphone and guitar, an effect I wanted to replicate.

As a devotee of Renaissance and early baroque music (as well as painting) I liked the idea of the voice-plus-lute image, so that became the two principal soloists, oboe d'amore and guitar. With this duo in the foreground and the organ (plus splashes of vibraphone) in the background, I then added a 'choir' of two alto flutes and two clarinets into the middleground, which obviously refers back to the Ockeghem mass and the idea of vocal church music.

The use of oboe d’amore and guitar certainly alludes to the sound worlds of early, pre-Baroque music. How does the music of the past - and particularly of this kind of period - relate to your work on the whole?

I have always been very involved with early music of various sorts, both as a performer and a listener, and it permeates my sense of compositional identity. Like many a 20th and 21st century composer before me, I find its otherness alluring, and also that sense of theoretical speculation and of discovering things for the first time - harmony, rhythm, texture - that you get particularly in some medieval repertoires. It's also a question of sound (the wondrously subtle sound of early baroque instruments, for example) and style (questioning or discarding conventions of Romantic and early 20th century performance practice), that chimes with my sensibility. I think I was formed as a musician during my time as a cathedral chorister, singing in the midst of Renaissance polyphonic textures in those amazing, soaring buildings. I don't go near church music-making nowadays and seldom perform sacred music, but I'm sure an aura or resonance of that time is imprinted on my memory deep down.

You’ve already mentioned how Saenredam derives its musical material from Johannes Ockeghem. What was it about this composer’s work which inspired you to take it as a starting point, and how does your final piece relate to this original material?

First of all it relates back to the Flemish painting that first inspired the piece, dating as it does from roughly the same time as van Eyck. Secondly, Ockeghem is a very interesting and rather strange composer: he doesn't use points of imitation so his music often just flows on and on without rhetorical punctuation - at the risk of anachronism, you could describe it as having a purist or abstract quality, a concern for the materiality of sound and the intensity of line above all else. And Missa Prolationum is a particularly extraordinary piece, a series of prolation canons at widening intervals - I was interested in that constructivist mentality, of taking material and doing things to it. I chose to use the one section of the mass where the canon is not sounded simultaneously but consecutively, which allows Ockeghem freedom to go off on a pretty crazy flight of melodic fantasy - it was a perfect piece of material to work with for me.

In terms of what I did with it, I always used it to make canonic textures - that's the overall premise of the work - but as the triptych of Schilderkonst goes on the idea of canon gets more and more stretched, and I take a lot of liberties with pulling voices in and out of the texture at will. Canon becomes a higher principle of Identity rather than being stuck in its most familiar musical manifestations. I think one could live an entire musical life through canon.

Alongside your composition practice you’re known for conducting and directing the vocal ensemble EXAUDI. How does this activity inform your compositions?

Mostly by taking up valuable composition time! More seriously, not directly unless I'm writing for EXAUDI, which I do from time to time, but performing experience is invaluable as a composer on many levels - different facets of the same basic creative urge. Often in quite concrete ways my experience of performing a composer's work shapes what I do when I return to the desk, but it's not necessarily that overt.

Years ago (probably around the same time I wrote Saenredam) I was talking to Howard Skempton on the phone about the difficulties of finding time to write. He said, 'James, the thing is, for a composer, no time is wasted. You're always composing, whatever you're doing.'

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Jack Sheen and contemporary music group An Assembly perform Saenredam at LSO St Luke’s on Saturday 30 September. They are joined by experimental percussionist Serge Vuille and avant-folk artist You are Wolf (aka Kerry Andrew). Click here to find out more and buy tickets.