Reblog- KW interview with Sophie Hern for Metro

Too many notes to learn this week to keep up the blogging pace, but have been meaning to re-blog this interview I did for Metro with their culture writer Sophie Hern before my Contemporary Music Ensemble of Wales concert in March since it ran, as it was never published on their website, just in the paper. I’m hoping we can manage a podcast of highlights of that concert for those who couldn’t catch the broadcast on Radio 3. Watch this space.

Sophie Hern: What is your history with the Contemporary Music Ensemble of Wales?

Kenneth Woods; I’ve worked with CMEW since 2004. Not long after I moved here, I met CMEW’s Artistic Director, Gordon Downie, who is a masterful composer and has an unmatched knowledge of modernist music. Having looked at his scores and learned about CMEW’s track record, I was delighted when he invited me to conduct my first Radio 3 project with them.

Sophie Hern:  Why was the concert postponed from September?

Kenneth Woods: CMEW shares a number of excellent musicians with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The September date was scheduled to coincide with BBC NOW’s return from a tour to Prague. In the end, customs issues meant that although all of the musicians would be back in Cardiff for the September date, their instruments would still be in the Czech Republic. There are some good pieces for no instruments- Cage’s “Living Room Music” or Reich’s “Clapping Music,” but we decided to wait until everyone had their axes back.

Sophie Hern: What can audiences expect from the world premiere of Gordon Downie’s Forms 7? And how did the commission come about?

Kenneth Woods: Gordon’s music is very much in the tradition of the great modernist composers of the 50s and 60s, but it is music of and for our time- he’s acutely aware of the historical moment and his music speaks to the concerns of modern living. “forms 7” is intense, complex, demanding but deeply rewarding for the musicians and the audiences. This piece explores the paradox of negation as a creative element- ideas emerge and begin to develop only to be negated by the intervention of events that seem to have no pattern. Eventually, we figure out that the pattern, the unifying idea _is_ the negation and that instead of being a destructive force, it is creative.  His language may be new to some listeners, but the music communicates very directly, in shapes and gestures any listener can understand in spite of their complexity.

The piece was commissioned by the Arts Council of Wales at my suggestion after discussing the idea of a new CMEW piece with Gordon- it is a huge honor for me to be conducting the first performance.

Sophie Hern: Can you tell me a little about the other works on the programme?

Kenneth Woods: The Xenakis is a piece for 8 brass and 8 woodwind instruments- the title, “Akrata” means pure. It is very simple music, very direct- all in one tempo, all in one meter. In fact, the musicians never play melodic lines- they only play one pitch at a time when they enter, sometimes as sustained pitches, sometimes as fast repeated notes, sometimes as flutter-tounguing, a sort of buzzing sound.The power of the music is in the interaction of all these little explosions of rhythm and energy- Xenakis called the effect “light guns.”  The piece has some of the most exciting and outrageous musical colors I’ve ever heard- you haven’t lived until you’ve heard the sound of 2 contrabassoons, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet and tuba all growling away on the lowest notes you’ve every heard in a classical piece.

Earle Brown’s “Novara” is a study in improvisation- it is spontaneous composition, like jazz but structured in a completely different way. It’s great fun for the conductor- I get to decide the form of the piece and even the orchestration on the spot within the parameters he laid down for me.

Mefano’s “Interferences” also has elements of choice and improvisation, and a unique concept of what he called “fields of flexible time.” Basically, he fixes some musical ideas in time and gives me and the performers a great deal of flexibility to create little tone galaxies that can float in time between the determined events. It’s very, very difficult to pull off because we all have to be extremely aware of what everyone else is doing, but the effect of hearing it or playing it is, for lack of a better word, very cool.

Sophie Hern: How does a rock n roll guitarist become a classical music conductor? Are there parallels? Also, can you tell me a little about your band?

Kenneth Woods: Well, although my emphasis may have shifted between cello, conducting and guitar since my early teens, I’ve always been interested in all three. What I loved about rock ‘n’ roll, besides the screaming girls and the huge crowds, was the creative aspect- writing and recording songs or developing a creative voice. My last band was a funk band called the Watchmen. I think we sounded pretty accessible on first hearing, but we worked hard to incorporate pretty advanced musical ideas like bi-tonality, improvisational techniques of 60’s era jazz like John Coltrane and Miles Davis and so one with a very funky sound drawn from the world of George Clinton’s P-Funk work in the 70’s and James Brown. Working with contemporary music brings me back to the sense of immediate creativity I loved in my rock days.

Sophie Hern: Your repertoire is very diverse. Can being so eclectic sometimes hinder your career rather than help it?

Kenneth Woods: I wish I knew the answer to that! I always thought of specialization as a luxury that only the rich, lazy or established could afford. Each composer or genre has a vocabulary that one has to learn, but the basic tools of good musicianship, listening and study are pretty universal. Also, classical music is like a great web of idea because good composers learn from studying the works of their peers and predecessors- working on Beethoven will make me a better Sibelius conductor, and working on Sibelius will make me a better Mefano conductor. It works backwards too- I can find something in Sibelius or Xenakis that reflects an insight they had about Beethoven or Wagner that I hadn’t found yet. I’m really lucky- you can look down the list of all the pieces I’ve conducted in the last few years on my website, and I can honestly say that I passionately love 99% of them, and hopefully no one who came to the concerts can tell which pieces are part of that other 1%….

Sophie Hern: Why did you decide to start a blog? And did you expect such critical success from it?

Kenneth Woods: It was suggested by the harpist of my orchestra in America, who had read several essays I’d written for the local paper there. Getting noticed by music writers I admire and  music publications like Gramophone has been a wonderful and complete surprise, but the most rewarding result of the blog has been the many fascinating conversations those posts have led to between me and my colleagues in the orchestras I conduct. I’ve learned so much from their responses, and I think they understand my goals for the orchestra much better too. Rehearsals are not a good environment for dialogue- there’s too much work to get done- so conductors and players don’t always get to understand each other as well as we should. The blog has been a great way to start discussions and to enhance our mutual understanding outside of the time pressures of work.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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