Welcome to The Sampler Audiozine.
The Sampler goes out and into the world bringing you close to the people who make it and the latest in new and experimental music.
For our first audiozine episode, we chat to Aaron Holloway-Nahum, composer and artistic director of Riot Ensemble about new music today — from the challenges of programming a concert to what it means to have one’s work recognised and what Aaron hopes for the future.
The music you’re hearing in this episode is “The Geometry of Clouds”, a composition by Aaron Holloway-Nahum. This was recorded in a rehearsal by Adam Swayne (piano), Marie Schreer (violin), Stephen Upshaw (viola) and Louise McMonagle (cello) at Wigmore Hall in February 2021 in preparation for their debut concert there, which you can view in its entirety here.
Photo by Aaron Holloway-Nahum (2021)
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
Aaron Holloway-Nahum 0:02
I mean, a return to local is one of the things that probably will result from this long term. So — and it’s not entirely a bad thing, of course, although it’s easier to be an artist in some places then and others in England isn’t the best, not the worst. So..
Laonikos Psimikakis Chalkokondylis 0:36
This is Aaron Holloway-Nahum, artistic director of Riot Ensemble. I spoke to Aaron about new music today, and I’ve come out to Wigmore Hall to hear members of Riot Ensemble rehearse for their debut concert here. My name is Laonikos and this is the Sampler Audiozine.
It’s a really challenging time for the arts at the moment in the UK with COVID and Brexit. But what do you think are some of the broader challenges for new music?
There are two extremely pressing long term challenges in our industry. And they’re also not necessarily independent. They’re not necessarily 100% related to each other, but they’re not independent. Diversity and funding. Those, those are the two big challenges that the sector has.
In terms of diversity, I think in new music we are very lucky – in the sense that for Riot Ensemble to programme 50% of its music by women, it’s just not hard. There are many, many female composers working in the world today and many top top top composers — Rebecca Saunders, Clara Iannotta, Augusta Read Thomas, Chaya Czernowin, you know, these names, they just come, Nina Young, Amy Beth Kirsten, and it’s not that you know, and we’re just really just like here on the, at the very, very tip of the iceberg. But if we then look for non-white composers, suddenly the list—or at least the list of people that I myself am knowledgeable about and certainly the list of composers that I encounter on the international scene, or that I run into, you know, the music I run into in the concert hall—is suddenly much shorter.
All of these things feed into one another. Because you encounter this music less regularly at the places that you go, it naturally means that you don’t have these names at your fingertips. Programming is often — I mean, we it seems like programming is something that’s done in such a careful, considered, strategic way. In reality programming is often chaotic. Programming is often — you’re having a conversation with a festival director, they say, “we’d really like you to do this piece. What else have you got for that instrumentation?” And it’s really in that moment, the composers and the pieces you have at your fingertips that bubble to the surface, and that become part of the conversation. That doesn’t mean you can’t go away and do research. But it’s difficult in that moment to say, “Well, let me go away and do some research.”
And how do you address that?
So one of the things that we’re just trying to do is, and one of the things that we’ve been doing during this pandemic—for all of our artists and I myself—we’ve been trying to familiarise ourselves with a lot of music that we didn’t know. We’ve been trying to take the time when we weren’t performing concerts, to actively seek out composers from underrepresented backgrounds, minorities, all of these things, so that we can make them a much more central part of our programming going forward. Just by making them a more central part of our listening and musical life, you know, experience.
I think that that’s going to be absolutely vital to groups post-Brexit and and post-COVID. Both of them are going to push England towards isolationism. And worldwide, they’re going to push things more towards local for a while. It’s going to push us towards the people that are already near us, towards the circles we already move in. And so we’re gonna have to make, you know, double the effort to ensure that our eyes don’t go down, that we don’t lose the horizon, that we keep looking really, really over the curvature of what we can see from where we stand.
And what about funding? How does that fit into all of this?
Funding is just going to be very difficult for the next couple of years. It’s going to be very hard for the next five, maybe 10 years, who knows? I mean, it depends also how long this thing goes on for, and we may have less opportunities to work internationally. I think that these things are about balance, right? Because there are challenges, it’s very hard to get them right, and it’s very hard in a situation that’s moving and so uncertain to keep serving the community and being active and I’m great at these things. So everyone’s going to be figuring it out a little bit as we go along.
And speaking of funding, Riot Ensemble won one of the Ernst von Siemens awards last year. What does that mean for Riot?
Yeah, I mean, it was a massive honour for us that Riot won one of the debut Ernst von Siemens Music Foundations Ensemble prizes. Look, I mean, we’re talking about the finances, and the finances really matter, but at the same time, you know, I’m personally a deep fanboy of every single person on their trustees list, you know! There’s Carolin Widmann, and Enno Poppe, and on and on and on, it just goes like this. And you just think, Wow, those people, you know, looked at what we were doing and said “Hey, that’s not bad.”
And that was — that is really important, because something that has been broken in this last year is the feedback loop that performers have of, we’re making things and people saying we care about those things. It’s just not the same to be putting things out digitally and get likes on Twitter or views on YouTube. Okay, these things are great — I think that there’s something unique about the concentration and connection and perspective that you have when you’re together in a room. And you’re able to, over a drink after the concert, say “what do you think of that? What do you make of that?” You know, “What did you think of this thing? What did you think of how we played that? What do you think…” you know, those conversations, they’re vital to us. And so to have this kind of massive rocket fuel injection of feedback during the pandemic was really important to us. And we recognise a lot of people have been going without even that. And and so we were really grateful.
Aaron is right, there is something irreplaceable about the quality of being in the same space as the musicians and the music. When I was recording this at Wigmore Hall It was the first time I’d heard live music and months, and it actually was quite an emotional experience.
We’re now reaching the end of this audiozine episode. So I’d like to know what are some of the things you’re hopeful about right now?
The first thing I’d want to say is I’m optimistic. We’re still going to be here making things a friend of mine, Thomas Kotcheff who’s a pianist and lives in LA and who’s whose family are involved in in film a lot, was telling me about Werner Herzog. and told me that I should buy and read a book of of his writings, “Werner Herzog on Werner Herzog.” And I did and and the thing that has just stuck with me is the way that he is like, “I don’t care, I’m gonna make films. If I have $5 and a pinhole camera, I’m gonna like steal a car, drive to Egypt and make a film.” And that that’s like that that is the way that he’s built. And that’s the way we’re built. Because, if you look back at the things that we’ve made, it’s very easy once you’ve made something to think it was inevitable that it would get made.
But everything that exists in new music right now is against all odds! So when I look at what Riot has managed to do, and I don’t mean in terms of accolades, although again, we were so grateful for the awards that we have been given, but I mean, being able to perform music by Liza Lim just being able to do it, not even actually giving the concert, and 250 people turning up at Kings place and all that. But just actually getting to the point where we’re good enough musicians, all of us together, we all know each other, we’ve organised everything, we’ve made everything happen, we know how to rehearse it, because — we’re basically figuring this out as we go along. And we’re just making stuff, we’re just figuring it out by doing it. And that’s not going to stop. Like you can lock us all in our houses for another five years — at the end of that time, we are going to be making things.
Then on the other side of your question — one thing that I’m hopeful about is that people are a lot more disciplined and productive than me, because a lot of people I talk to are saying, well, “at least I have time now, at least I have time.” And I really think I mean even if you even if every composer has only written one or two pieces during the lockdown, and even if each musician has only come up with one or two projects that they that they would really like to sink their teeth into. So you know thought well when things open back up, I want to do that. Then when things open up, it’s going to be like a dam breaking. There’s going to be so much work to get through, there’s going to be so much stuff to hear, we’re going to have so much music and art to see to listen.
You know, it’s not going to be—well, hopefully—it’s not going to be just like, isolated. We’re going to have this hunger and thirst for, like, what were they making in — like, what were the poets in Russia doing during this time? And what were the sculptors in, you know, Chile making during this lockdown? I want to see it, I want to, you know, I want to come into contact with it, and I want to be out, I don’t want to be on one — I mean, I don’t mean any offence that we’re here recording this over zoom, but I don’t want to be on one more zoom meeting, you know! I just don’t care anymore what anyone has to say. I want to go listen, and be with people, and be around art and responding.
And I think I’m not alone, I think that there is going to be a huge amount of work — it’s a real thing that our generation has to confront, and has to come to terms with in some way. And that isn’t going to happen in six months, it’s going to take 10, 15 years, and artists are going to be responding to it, and we’re going to be figuring out new things about who we are as human beings because of this. And I’m hopeful about that. I’m hopeful that in a more diverse, more connected, and yet equally, you know, more locally connected community as well, that new music has something to say about that, about who we are.
I’m interested to see what people are making what people are doing. You know, it’s hard right now to be consuming things I can’t — you know, I shouldn’t say this because Riot’s about to release two online concerts over the next couple of weeks, but like, I can’t watch one more online concert, I just can’t do it! Part of that’s because I’m spending so much time editing them and making them, but at the same time again, like I just I’m really excited to be back in a room where I don’t have my computer, no one can email me in the middle of a concert, no one can call me, no one can text me, phones off, lights are out — show me what you got.