Composer to composer: Jack Sheen discusses 'Sarabande' with Linda Catlin Smith

LSO composer Jack Sheen interviews composer Linda Catlin Smith ahead of his forthcoming performance of Sarabande at BBC Radio 3 Open Ear on Saturday 30 September.

‘I think most things go by too quickly. I would rather linger, wrapping myself in that sound for a while.’

Jack Sheen:
Sarabande was written for Continuum, a contemporary music ensemble based in Toronto. Can you tell us a little bit about this group and your relationship with them and Arraymusic, for whom you’ve written a lot of chamber/small ensemble works? How do they fit in with the larger contemporary music scene in Canada?

Linda Catlin Smith:
Continuum is a chamber ensemble dedicated to contemporary music. Like Arraymusic, they were founded by composers, so they initially were composer-driven. Continuum commissioned a programme of works based on Baroque dance forms, and I chose the Sarabande.

Arraymusic is a group I have a long relationship with. I was Artistic Director of the ensemble for five years, and I have written a number of pieces for them since that time. The instrumentation (clarinet, trumpet, 2 percussion, piano, violin and double bass) came from the idea of having representation from all of the orchestral families. I think having 2 percussionists in the ensemble really gives it a tremendous versatility. It's a challenging ensemble to write for.

Both of these ensembles are dedicated to the interpretation of new works. They are excellent musicians and I love writing for them.

With the possible exception of Vivier, there is very little Canadian music programmed in the mainstream new music scene here in the UK. What differences and similarities do you see between the music written in Canada compared to the UK? How ‘Canadian’ do you feel aesthetically as a composer?

I feel very connected to some composers in the UK. I have come to know the music of Laurence Crane, Bryn Harrison, Tim Parkinson, James Saunders and many others, partly through recordings, and partly through Tim's excellent video series. I met Bryn Harrison at a festival in Florida and immediately felt him to be a comrade because of his music. Michael Finnissy and I worked together in Montreal with some young composers, and I felt connected to him from the first moment. So there is something between us that I think draws us together.

It might be a certain experimental point of view, but maybe also a certain aesthetic position that's not interested in high drama nor self-expression, but maybe more of a deep investment in material, in process, and in that thing that Morton Feldman talks about when he speaks of Abstract Emotion.


Another Timbre artwork 2

As Sarabande unfolds, the musical material appears to repeat in a variety of ways rather than ‘develop’ in a clear goal-orientated way that one might be more accustomed to in, say, Classical or Romantic music. Firstly, would you agree this this observation? And secondly, how typical is this in your music? How and why does this interest you?

I do agree that I am not working in a developmentally goal-oriented way. I think of variation almost as a kind of spiral – going through material again and again, as some things change or are left behind… heading deeper into material rather than moving epically through a story. I like to feel that I can dwell with material for a while – I like to surround myself with certain harmonic worlds - and variation allows me to stay there.

I think most things go by too quickly. I would rather linger, wrapping myself in that sound for a while.

One obvious trait of the piece is its use of harpsichord, which has obvious associations with baroque music. I know you’ve recently worked with a period-string orchestra and I was wondering how this piece – or perhaps your compositional practice in general – relates to music of this period?

I love Baroque music for its lightness, its transparency of sound, and maybe its slight detachment – the emotional component is a bit more subtle than music of the nineteenth century, say. I especially love the slow movements with their sonorous dissonances.

I studied harpsichord at university; I had built a harpsichord from a kit (Zuckermann III) when I was a teenager (I worked on it for two years with my mother, on weekends, but in the end I hired someone to finish it as the stringing and painting were too much for me.) I love the sound of Baroque instruments, and the reserved approach to vibrato in both instrumental and vocal performance of that period.

How does this pieces relate to the original notion of a ‘sarabande’? At times, there seems to be a dichotomy between clear rhythm and more amorphous sounds.

In the sarabande of the Baroque period there is usually a stress on the second beat. I studied Baroque dance when I was at university and this was a feature of the dance too. So the harpsichord part is like a vestige of that. The other instruments, though, are floating away from that more determined rhythm, like the flowing garments worn by the dancers.

Jack Sheen
Jack Sheen

Your music has recently enjoyed a lot of interest in the UK, with numerous recordings on the Another Timbre record label and orchestral, chamber and solo performances at Tectonics Festival and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, amongst others. How does it feel returning to older pieces, particularly in these fresh contexts with new performers?

In new music there is so much emphasis on new work all the time. We are always concerned with the next new work, and often, if I've composed a work for an unusual combination of instruments, I am quite certain it will never be performed again. So these recordings and performances of my works are actually a surprise for me. And what is more important, these are not just performances, they are new interpretations, and that brings so much to light about each work. Every musician brings out something slightly different. I love this aspect of music. Every work is always new.

Jack Sheen and contemporary music group An Assembly perform Linda Catlin Smith’s Sarabande 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.

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