“When we go on stage, the vulnerability of playing as a performer is exactly the same [as] when a composer goes into that process to write a piece. They’re then exposing themselves in that writing process, that’s the creative process.”Darragh Morgan
The Fidelio Trio are an ensemble that need no introduction. Consisting of Darragh Morgan (violin), Tim Gill (cello), and Mary Dullea (piano), the group are one of today’s most versatile piano trios, having worked with composers including Anna Clyne, Robert Saxton, Charles Wuorinen, Michael Nyman, Gerald Barry, Donnacha Dennehy, Joe Cutler, Ann Cleare, Judith Weir, and David Fennessy – among many others – with regular performances at venues across the world such as London’s Southbank Centre, Wigmore Hall, and Kings Place, and concert halls in Singapore, Bangkok, Porto, Paris, Venice, Florence, Johannesburg, Harare, New York City, and more.
Crucial to the trio’s practice is working with composers – both established and emerging. The trio regularly give composer workshops and performances at universities and conservatoires, and are the performing ensemble of this year’s Clements Prize for Composers.
We sat down with the Fidelio Trio in their rehearsal space in North London, and asked them to give their insights into contemporary music landscapes of the past and the present, and the direction of today’s new music communities, and impart advice for emerging composers on both writing for piano trio, and building one’s career as a composer post-education…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Would you mind telling me a bit about how you started out playing contemporary music, and what the environment was like for you when you started out?
Tim Gill: I suppose at university. I was at Cambridge University, and got to meet quite a few different composers; not so much in my year, but going back, there was a real Cambridge connection. Zoë Martlew was there just after me — I knew her pretty well — and Thomas Adés. It was a fertile ground, being somewhere like that. I think university’s great for that; it’s a really loose arrangement, you can make good connections, everyone’s up for playing new pieces. Later, at the [Royal] Academy, I also met quite a few composers, and worked with the Manson Ensemble.
I got to know Christopher van Kampen very well, quite early on — he was a cellist of London Sinfonietta. I got exposure to loads of different composers there, which was great — I’m still there! After at least 30 years. -laughs-
Mary Dullea: It’s funny, thinking about conservatoire way back then, in comparison to university. I don’t know that there was quite the same appetite for pianists working with composers — there would be a handful, but it wasn’t everybody, because they were so busy in their practice rooms doing millions of notes for six hours a day. I think I realised by about my second year that I realised this; I remember playing a piece by Dutilleux, [and] that was a real groundbreaking experience with learning a score, understanding it, and the sound worlds. Really intelligent, beautifully crafted music.
I was one of [this] small handful of people that was really happy to help out, and play with other people. That also did turn into a bit of experience with composers, playing for workshops, and things like that. There is a very good contemporary music ensemble in [Royal] College, but that was a very separate group. Edwin Roxburgh used to conduct it, actually. It’s always interesting to go back and see how much more new music there is. You see contemporary music competitions, or you see students playing in their recitals and asking their friends to write a piece for them. That wouldn’t have happened so much all those decades ago.
For a long time, I was the pianist in a group called Lontano, which was really great. Lots of music from different parts of the world — South American composers and women composers, particularly, and then Irish composers as time went by. And also, taking the initiative to put things on yourself: after leaving college as a composer, what happens next? You actually have to create a lot of your own opportunities — which means, finding a venue, finding some fund that you can get £300 from so you can get the piano tuned and create a little flyer. You could be playing to 100 people, it could be 20 — that’s not the point. You’re doing it constantly, and meeting these composers, and playing their works that wouldn’t be heard if you weren’t working together to make this happen. We’re still doing that, to an extent. -laughs-
Darragh Morgan: I started working with composers when I was about 15, in Belfast, and got to know the composers around Queens University. They had a Composer-in-Residence each year — people like Kevin Volans, James Clarke, and Piers Hellawell — they were all composers in association I met at Queens. At Guildhall, I quickly devoured new music; I got involved with the Guildhall New Music Ensemble [now the Guildhall New Music Society] in [my] first year. Last year, we had to premiere a new trio by Robert Saxton, and Robert was reminding me of him playing viola in the New Music Ensemble. -laughs- I met some friends from Guildhall. Morgan Hayes became a very close friend; on our first album for NMC, many years ago, it’s called Opera, and the title piece was by Morgan Hayes.
I did a final recital where I played Elliott Carter — in 1996, playing Elliott Carter was pretty unheard of, still. But I’d already gotten involved with the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme; there was myself, Anton Lukoszevieze — who runs Apartment House — Joseph Phibbs, Richard Causton, Scott Dickinson… Huw Watkins was a very young 17-year-old on it.
Oliver Knussen was really influential. When I started playing with Ensemble Modern in 2001, he came [over] to Frankfurt the same week as me. We did a programme of Julian Anderson and Olly — the Germans weren’t used to playing that kind of new music! I played with them, and then I stopped playing with them. -laughs- And then I joined a quartet called the Smith Quartet, who were really big advocates of new music. And we had the trio going already! So [I] started very young — and I’m still meeting lots of composers every day.
Mary: Those courses were really important for a lot of people — they still are — but that contemporary music course at Britten-Pears, for composers and performers together…
Darragh: That one, particularly, because now everybody has academies. Everybody’s now got “Young Composers-in-Association”, whether it’s Sinfonietta, BCMG, even year-long courses at universities. But back then, playing Elliott Carter was a really unheard thing. Nowadays, it’s unheard as well, but that’s for different reasons… -laughs-
Some composers are very in-vogue, and very quickly trend. Now we’ve been a wee bit longer in this game, we’ve noticed what’s either fashionable, or “in”, changing; or what the common interests are in the new music community. It’s a really wide diaspora, these days; you’re not sure what the “scene” is anymore. It’s interesting.
Zyggy: How have you seen the landscape of new music shift between the environment you grew up in and where you are now — and how have yourselves, the composers you’ve worked with, and our music organisations navigated the changing landscape?
Tim: My feeling is that contemporary music has become much more diverse. When I started out, there was a general “move” towards impenetrableness. You’ve got composers like Stockhausen, the whole Darmstadt school, where everything was hyper-hyper-difficult — to play, to understand, to listen to. I’ve noticed in my many years doing this, [that] this has loosened up hugely. There’s so many different styles now; many styles that are “easier on the ear”, I guess; there’s a move towards that, I think. I feel that music got down a bit of a blind alley, in a way — there was a dissociation with the audience — that I think was difficult for everybody. It was almost created by certain key figures, I think. So for that to shift was very important; now, people can write in all sorts of different ways, and not feel so self-conscious about it. That, for me, has been a big change, and a welcome one.
Darragh: When we started to tour in America, that’s when my eyes were opened much more to this broad church of styles. To give an example: there was always a scene called uptown and downtown in New York. We were once in Charles Wuorinen’s house — he was a really well-known uptown composer — working with him on his trio. But then he was saying “we can’t come out with you afterwards, we’ve got to go for dinner with David del Tredici” — who’d been an ultra-modernist, [but] by then become this neo-romanticist. In America, New Romanticism was not just fashionable, it was taken as accepted as a course of composition — as much as the hard-edged complexity that we were all still playing in London and Paris. The influences [in London] were two big publishing houses, and in Paris, Boulez was a huge influence; almost dictating those schools, for 35-40 years, of a very complex, intellectually-driven house style.
That said: sometimes, I feel like it’s very hard to know both where music is going, and what is good — who are the interesting composers of younger generations out there? Because not only [does] there seem to be so many more voices, there’s also so many more performers, groups of composers, groups of experimental artists who don’t want to be defined within “new music”. You need three lifetimes to try to just understand how much good new music is out there.
Sometimes, I do crave for a bit of modernism… -laughs- But at the same time, we were playing a lot of minimalist music when it was not cool here — particularly, my quartet had been working with Steve Reich and Philip Glass for many years, long before they became [cool]. There was a time, fifteen or twenty years ago, you would have thought “what? The London Sinfonietta playing Steve Reich?” — now they play it all the time.
Mary: I don’t know enough about other countries to say, definitively, that it is the same elsewhere — but looking here, where we live, and in Ireland, there are a lot more communities of composers, and they appear to be supportive of one another. This support can then give confidence, and validity, to what you’re doing; and any impostor syndrome is hopefully dampened down. There might be ensembles, or individual performers, who are associated with a few of these communities — and then there are other people who play music by [others]. That scene’s always been there, but it seems to be much more prevalent in how emerging composers get their music played, and sung, and heard.
There’s other angles to this, as well. To create work, you need time, and that equates to money. We need to create our performances through work, and practice. There’s inevitably going to be this way of looking at what funding is available — which is less, definitely, in the traditional sense — but where else is there the possibility of creating work, and creatively finding avenues to make that happen? It’s being ever-inventive. Just [because] there’s a lot going on, it doesn’t mean it is reaching more than 20 people in a live setting on a Sunday afternoon — but it can lead another life elsewhere. And when you talk about bigger organisations, and venues, the concept of programming, and the term “curation” — I know they’re discussed a lot nowadays. And the role of publishers, historically, was massively influential in these venues’ and these organisations’ programmes.
Darragh: I mean we, as a group, could describe ourselves as curators, and programmers, because we programme everything we do — but it’s always with discussions with promoters, agents, venues, or artistic directors. There’s always a pull and tug; we don’t necessarily have complete control in the end, but it doesn’t mean we’re not programmers and curators, because we’ve commissioned, premiered, and recorded hundreds of pieces. We’ve got that repertoire available to us. But generally, the new music scene is less snobby than [it was] years ago.
Zyggy: From my perspective — maybe that move away from snobbishness comes from both more people being involved, but also that it’s harder to get and retain audiences.
Darragh: Yeah. I think it’s harder because a) there’s no funding; and b) even though London is a big, brilliant, multicultural, cosmopolitan, massive populated city, music — classical music, and the fringes of that — is still a smaller field of peoples’ interest. London has always been difficult to get audiences from a lot of things, apart from the big [sellers]. Even selling out big halls like Queen Elizabeth Hall, or [the] Barbican, traditionally that’s been a struggle. But New York is exactly the same; these two very, very cool cities have got so much to offer, so much going on in new music, that the audience is still spread quite thin.
But on the other hand, it’s great. We played the [London] Sinfonietta’s ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ concert about four years ago; we packed out Royal Festival Hall, it was like a rock concert that night. Then we did it in Birmingham the next night — live on [BBC] Radio 3 — audience [took a] massive dip. Next night, Cardiff: voom! Dip again… -laughs- But I had the same experience playing Steve Reich in Copenhagen, where [we had] a big audience, and you get to Aarhus and you’re playing Steve Reich to forty people, and it’s like experimental theatre music. So everywhere, it’s still [about] building audiences.
Zyggy: Of course. And I guess there’s also the impact that covid has had on both getting live audiences back, and the importance of documentation…
Darragh: Definitely. Post-pandemic — or whatever this place we’re in now [is] — the actual, getting back to playing live. But live on our terms — because I think “live on our terms” is only really very recently, if it even is yet the case. For so long, post-covid, we’ve been trying to play catch-up, and get collaborators and old gig cancellations happening. I think it’s taken a long time for us all to process, even now — what are we doing, as artists, [and] why?
Mary: I think a big part of that is not being able to see what everything coming out of this is going to look like in five years time. What are you preparing for, what are you programming for, who will you be working with, where will the performances actually be? Will there be any — will the government fund the arts any more?
Darragh: But there really is a big difference, as musicians, recording a piece of work for video. It seems to be, at the minute, that people want to look at things [on] video, rather than aurally. But we would — religiously, I’d say — take even more care over our audio recordings. That’s where this whole industry came from, for us. For so long, [it was] the CD and vinyl industry, and that was where [we] recorded our art. And now [we] record our art visibly, as well, and that’s important, but for us, the sound is still the centre of it. Getting a good recording quality on video is great, but going into the studio to get the best possible takes of your piece, and putting that all together, would still be our primary place of care about a piece of art. Because that exists forever for other people to come and see.
That’s a big part of what we’re about, recording music: we get to work with a composer, and we can leave this blueprint after us of “this is what we wanted to do”, or “this is what the composer wanted.” We’re in a beautiful place for that. But there is very little money to be made out of the recording product in contemporary classical music. You’re doing it more because this is part of your artistic makeup. Composers leave works behind; we leave performances.
Tim: There’s a huge amount more going on now, though, in terms of playing, than there was when I first started. All the orchestras either have their own contemporary music series, or do a lot of contemporary music. When I started out, the Sinfonietta was probably the only group that really specialised in all of that; but now, everybody does it. You’ve got Britten Sinfonia, you’ve got BCMG, all sorts of different groups. There’s a huge amount more exposure. It’s strange, in a way, [that] in one sense it’s really flourishing — but the funding isn’t there, I suppose.
Darragh: Mary and I recently went to adjudicate the contemporary performance competition at the Royal College. When we were at College, that didn’t even exist at any music conservatoire! There [were] many, many entries. I noticed wherever I coach — I’ve done [so] for many years at conservatoire — there is now a huge number of young people playing new music, which is brilliant. The challenge is to give those players the vehicles, the opportunities, and the support network for them — when they’re in their late twenties, thirties, forties — to still do it professionally, at a very high level.
So yes, right now, but how that carries through — and what music will lead from that from composers and performers? In twenty years time, that will be an interesting thing to see; will there be a big drop-off of the amount of young composers there are? There’s many more composers than there were twenty-five, thirty years ago — same with performers — [and] they don’t take reading new music as this specialist, strange skillset anymore.
“There is now a huge number of young people playing new music, which is brilliant. The challenge is to give those players the vehicles, the opportunities, and the support network for them to still do it professionally, at a very high level.”Tweet
Mary: Maybe this whole question goes together, because contemporary music doesn’t have to be this “black page” that takes many, many months to get on top of. Maybe their exposure to, and confidence in, the fact that there is more than one type of contemporary music is helping. They’re less intimidated by it.
Darragh: I do think on one final point about your question: I think programmatically, the scene here, and the scene in America, have got some similarities. Both places are questioning themes of identity — gender, race, colour, creed. I don’t see that same focus in mainland Europe; there is much more awareness, thank god, but I see they are still more interested in “this is a concert of hardcore new music, and we are going to really do it” — whereas here, there’s another layer of agenda. Important agendas — people say agenda [as if] it means something bad — but as much to do with an art agenda as part of it here, and in America, more than [I’ve seen] in Asia or mainland Europe.
But in another way, I quite like the awareness — me being aware there are different approaches or trajectory — because it reminds me [that] there’s a lot of ways to think about how this all exists. And can exist, as a cohort of all these different new musics together.
Zyggy: Let’s talk about the recent work you’ve done with young, emerging, and student composers, particularly in conservatoires and universities. On both a more personal level, and a professional level: what makes compositions stand out to you, and what have you been drawn to with regards to performing works by emerging composers?
Darragh: From my perspective: pieces that stand out for me, that I’m attracted to, that have something just a bit unique about them going on. That doesn’t mean the piece is a “finished piece”: if composer x writes a lot of gobbledigook in a piece, but there’s a couple of bits of material that you just go “yeah! I really want to listen to more of this…” — that’s what I think’s gonna be a good piece, or a good composer.
I play in this very unusual ensemble, which is very classically-driven, called a piano trio. -laughs- It is very unusual — two strings and a piano is such a different world to a string quartet, or a wind ensemble, a mixed group, or a sinfonietta. Anybody who does who does something colouristically, timbre-wise, a bit different with these three instruments. Not just gimmicky extended techniques. I’m still waiting for that one unbelievable piece by a young composer which covers all of the imagination of what is going on inside, and outside, and around the piano and our instruments; using them traditionally, and in less traditional ways.
A lot of the time, these pieces are five or six minutes long, and they’ve gotta be done for their final portfolio in a certain time. But in those six minutes, when I come across those wee nuggets in younger composers’ pieces that I want to listen to again and again — and play again, because it’s enjoyable to play — that’s where I would be at.
Tim: I have a special interest, in that my son is a composer. I think it’s fair to say that’s shaped my attitude to young composers a little bit. -laughs- Perhaps [I’m] a little bit more sympathetic — and admiring, moreso, of how much courage it takes to set your thoughts down through the medium of music. Just to get to that point is an amazing thing. I suppose what is important to me, with a composer, is that they’re really hearing what they’re writing. I know that’s an obvious thing to say, but if it’s not there, you get this dissociation; you need, somehow, that connection. That someone can really hear a sound — and then you reproduce it, and you say “yes, that’s what it should be.” It’s strange that that is not as common as you might think — you get a composer who really, really hears the music that they’ve written.
Mary: I think I would have said something very similar to Tim. It’s one thing to have this germ of an idea, or a motif, an attack, gesture, noise, whatever it is that is your starting point. But with these three instruments, and the thousands of permutations that there are — with that idea, [it’s about] how to best place it. It could be something as basic as swapping around the string parts, or putting them two octaves apart rather than one… Or, what is the role of the piano in all of this? It doesn’t have to be the rhythm section — it can do other things as well. And I know that takes a lot of thought, and consideration, and experimentation.
So from what Tim has said: it’s really feeling when you are reading this piece for the first time. And the first time might well be in the first workshop with the composers, as well. There is that collaboration, where you can try things out, suggest things, demonstrate things, or question — “why wasn’t it done like this?” — but that there has been period of exploration which takes time. And always encouraging composers to try things themselves: you do not have to be good at the piano to feel what this is like, or to experiment with pedaling, or [whether] the violin and cello can actually do [those notes].
It is a huge achievement to score and write down three minutes of music, and I completely respect that — but you can also define whether it’s “oh, I’ve done my job”, or having spent the time with it yourself. Like, [when] we’ve gone to masterclasses as performers — [as] we have done — it’s always been a far better, fruitful, lifelong experience [to go] with a piece that’s still work-in-progress. You get so many kids going to masterclasses who tear out the same repertoire they’ve been playing for years — you’re showing off you’re really good, but what can the person you’re working with give you [if] you’ve come with a finished product? Those are the things that make a difference for me.
Darragh: I suppose to segue on, you shouldn’t write for piano trio which is something you’ve just orchestrated. I get it — not everyone wants to go away and say “I’ve written my first piano trio!” — but it’s such a unique instrumental lineup, because it is so contrasting between the piano and strings. I think that should be the initial excitement point. When I’m talking timbrally, I’m talking about that level of visceral excitement. When you get pieces that are conforming — you know it’s been arranged — that’s a little bit disappointing. When there are pieces that come in which are outside of that zone — they might not work, we might not even be able to play them — [but] I’m always like “yes!”
When we go on stage, the vulnerability of playing as a performer is exactly the same [as] when a composer goes into that process to write a piece. They’re then exposing themselves in that writing process, that’s the creative process. It’s taken me a long time to appreciate [that] that’s the tormental time. When we get on stage — the pressures of live performances are what composers are going through in the room.
Zyggy: I’ve definitely noticed that you’re expected to rock up with a finished piece to a lot of masterclasses — and I’ve often felt like it’s not resulted in my best work. -laughs-
Darragh: Where’s the laboratory? You must have a lab, as part of music, that gives us the chance to dissect, be scientific, and really experiment. That’s what a workshop should be — that time to take something apart, and then grow it.
Mary: That’s what great about more recent projects that we have done in conservatoires, and that’s something we would advocate for again. Ideally, you would have three sessions. Having one session where you can show all the weird and wonderful things that are possible. We very often talk about sonority, about timbre, voicings, registers — which seems to be valuable information from performers actually talking about [it], and demonstrating the nuances. The differences that articulation marks make. Then your second section is working on sketches, and the third session is the final product. But those stages seem to have been — for everybody concerned — a really good model.
Darragh: We’re learning from the composer. Often, it takes us a while to feel comfortable in the room or the space, whether it’s a younger composer or a more [established] composer. It shouldn’t be “rock up, here’s the piece.” Kevin Volans’ last trio he wrote for us, he spent a good two days here, hanging out, listening to the rehearsal. We really prepared before he got here — [but] then, you’re living in that space with the composer, living with the piece, and with you. The piece is evolving, unraveling itself in front of you, in a good way.
I’m not gonna say anybody’s names, but many of the most well-known composers all over the world that we’ve worked with, I’ve heard the same sentiment heard [from] time and time again: “What the hell was I thinking? What the hell was I trying to do there?” We’ve had that from the biggest names, all the time in workshop rehearsals. And that’s part of the greatness of art — it can change, it can evolve, go backwards. -laughs-
Zyggy: In terms of how you’ve developed relationships with composers throughout your career — what kind of advice would you impart on emerging artists looking to cultivate similar composer-performer relationships?
Darragh: Well, I can turn the question back on itself — a bit of advice I was given by one of the members of the Arditti Quartet; they said “get friendly with lots of composers, become friendly with lots of composers, because a lot of your work is gonna come from them.” That’s like saying to a composer, “get friendly with lots of performers.” We’re lucky to have a really wide range of composers we work with — younger, older — from here, from America in particular, [and] from Ireland, of course. Finding people around you who you like as people really helps.
Like your old head of department [at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire], Joe Cutler; not only is he a godfather to our daughter and one of our best friends, but he’s somebody whose music we just appreciate. We like his aesthetic. I remember sitting [with] Joe at 4 in the morning listening to music… finding those friendships becomes a lifetime thing, and you wanna work together, you know?
Mary: And from that comes the necessity to work together to find opportunities. It’s not as straightforward. We’ve had these conversations recently with composers; we are definitely committed to playing things more than once, but to get even one performance is really challenging. To persuade promoters to put that on… It can take a lot of work, and a lot of negotiation that doesn’t necessarily happen. To be able to work together to find the commissioning funds, to find the first performance — which also helps with the raising of the commission fee — it is often a joint effort.
Darragh: It needs to be. It is so difficult to find performances of new music — even for established chamber groups. Once you have a roll, a piece gets its own life; but performances 1, 2, and 3 can be very difficult to place.
Mary: And it can be a couple of years down the line.
Darragh: Yeah. But you bring it back every five years, or longer, and the piece is not just something on the shelf.
Tim: I was just thinking back to a group that I was in when I was younger, called the New Oxford Players; which was created by Phil Cashian. That was quite a good idea, in that he started his own group — not only to play his own music, but people he was interested in, or liked. He actually had a concert series in Oxford, [at] the Holywell Music Rooms, and various different places. I thought that was a really good way of building that connection with other players; creating opportunities, I think. If you catch players at the right point in their career, they’re really keen to be involved in something like that.
Darragh: Not composer-led, not composer-driven, but composer-involved groups. I played [in] and founded loads of different types of collectives, with composers who are not creating the artistic programme, but very much behind the steering ship — the captain in the background. Those kinds of groups have gone on to do really successful things because of the composer in the background, rather than the composer saying “this is about me and my music.” But suddenly, their music flourishes, because they’ve shown their generosity and openness to other composers, and other performers. That collective idea is a really important thing.
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