Samuel Cottell turns the tables and interviews composer and music journalist Andrew Ford
In the room there is a deep rumbling sounds as the contrabassoon and the bass clarinet warm up. The tinkling of the piano in its upper resisters diverts my attention to the other side of the room and then I am suddenly struck by some fast scale passages being played on the piccolo. In the middle of all this are strings tuning and a french horn playing long notes.This was the start of Omega Ensemble’s Friday rehearsal as they prepare for their upcoming performance “Four Last Songs” on 20 April. Today they were rehearsing Andrew Ford’s brand new work Contradance . As Omega Ensemble began rehearsing the piece all of the parts that I had heard being rehearsed in bits and pieces started to unfold together and they began to make themselves known in the piece as a whole. Shortly Andrew Ford entered the room carrying his music score and seated himself at the front of the ensemble. After rehearsing the difficult sections once more Andrew Ford gave Omega some guidance and ideas for the work and again the passages began to unfold. By the end of the rehearsal the piece had all come together and the exciting landscape of the work had unfolded. I caught up with Andrew Ford to talk about his new work, how it came to be written and what it is like to hear a new work performed for the first time.
Samuel Cottell: How would you describe your new piece, Contradance?
Andrew Ford: It’s actually one of a sequence, or an occasional sequence, but this is not the first time I have done something like this, which is to put different dance patterns on top of each other, essentially. So there are pieces from the past, such as Dance Maze which does similar sorts of things and piece called Pastoral before that (which is a string octet). I like the idea of an almost invented folk music or several sorts of invented folk music layered on top of each other and one hand it’s quite complex rhythmically and in other ways but its also a rather physical music its not terribly polite. So, there is a sort of tension between the pastoral elements and the somewhat more sophisticated approach to rhythm and the structure of the piece.
Could you tell me a bit about the title of the work and the play on words you have used?
Andrew: The word contradance actually comes from the French, but the French word contradance is in fact in a corruption of the English country dance. We are used to words coming into the English language from French and being corrupted, but this is a word that got corrupted coming in the opposite direction. A contradance, which you find in Jane Austen’s day, is couples dancing in lines opposite each other. Some people argue that it is the origin of the tango and that the Spanish version of the dance went from Cuba and then from Cuba to Argentina; I don’t know if that is true or not, so there is that, but really in the first instance I used it because of these different dance patterns playing contra (against) each other. I didn't even consciously think about it until I was working on the piece, in that there was an awful lot of contrabassoon and a lot of contra bass and bass clarinet, (not contra-bass clarinet; if I had thought about the idea in advance I perhaps would have added a contra bass clarinet). Anyway it’s a very bottom heavy piece in places, but it’s also top heavy, as there’s a lot of piccolo as well.
How did the work come about and could you give me a bit of background to this?
Andrew: Well, Steven Alward, who at the time was working at radio national, walked into my office one Friday when I was at the ABC preparing the Music Show and he said that he would like to commission a piece for his partner Mark for his 60th birthday. I said when is the birthday and he said it’s not for three years and I thought oh bless you, because, very often when you get a private commission for a piece the person wants the next month. The fact that Steven was approaching me three years before the piece was needed was fantastic as it enabled me to schedule it along with other pieces that I was committed to writing and give it a proper amount of time as a piece like this took me about three months to write.
You’ve mentioned the idea of dances and dancing. Was part of the commission to include aspects of dance?
Andrew: Steven said that Mark had recently enjoyed a performance of the West Side Story Symphonic Dances and maybe that is where the contradance idea (the Latin American aspect, in a very distant way; not that my music sounds anything like Bernstein) maybe sowed that seed for the dance idea. Then he said he would like some solos in the work indicating that he would like to hear a prominent clarinet and a cello solo, so that’s how they got in there. There is a very story as well. On the day I finished it Mark sent me a text saying he had just been to an Omega Ensemble concert and said he really enjoyed the French horn playing and it was not an instrument he had ever thought much about before or considered that he liked it but now he thought it was his favourite instrument and I wanted to say “I’ve just written a big french horn solo at the end of your piece but I couldn't tell him as he didn’t know I was writing the piece, it was a complete coincidence. So, I sent a message to Steven to tell him because I felt I should share this coincide with somebody.
What’s it like to work with Omega Ensemble and have them bring your music to life ? What happens when you hear your piece performed live for the first time and does your idea of the work change from the moment you composed to when you hear it?
Andrew: It’s very good as they are fantastic players. If you had asked me the question before I came into the room I would have given you a somewhat different answer in that it is slightly hair raising going to a first rehearsal . Hearing the piece performed the first time is like meeting someone who you have only seen in a photograph before. I know this piece better than anyone, I made it up, but I only know it in my head and being confronted with the physical reality of the sound is something which is quite different and it’s not that one is surprised by the sound, but there is a sort of physical jolt when you hear the music, such as when you hear how loud it is or how quiet it is or how things don’t balance properly or how. You hear things you had forgotten you put there. I finished this piece nine months ago and I’ve written other pieces since, including a big electric guitar concerto so there is a bit of distance between the person who is standing here at the rehearsal and the person who wrote the piece. In fact, when I finished the guitar concerto the first job I had to do was to proofread the typeset score of Contradance (as I didn’t do the typesetting as I think I’m one of the last composers to still use a pencil and paper). Having sent the intervening six months writing an orchestral work I sat down with this and I barely recognised it. I then spent a couple of days carefully proof-reading it and by the end of it I liked this piece and thought ‘it’s quite a good piece’, but equally I thought ‘this could be by somebody else.’ In the last few weeks I have been thinking about it quite a lot as the performance is coming up and I have had the score out and studying it so I could could add something to the rehearsal process.You do let go of a piece when you finish it, you have to, you can’t keep all of the pieces in your heard or would just keep writing the same music. So sometimes when you come back to a piece you don’t quite recognise yourself as the composer, but I do now, it’s all come flooding back.