Friday, 10 October 2014

#37 Sarah Sarhandi: Composer, Solo Violist & Pianist

“I loved piano, I played since I was a small child; I had one tune that I made up when I was really young. I ended up going to the Royal Academy of Music where piano was my second study but Ive always played and it’s a huge source of inspiration to me to work at the piano.

I was probably four when I first touched a piano. My first memory is that we had some friends in the country who we used to visit. There was a piano in the corner, my friend and I used to make up plays and we used the piano to enhance our stories, we’d make our own music that way. She was my age and interestingly her father was Ghanaian and her mother English whereas my father was Pakistani and my mother English so we had a strange cross culture adventure as tiny children and this cross cultural element has gone on to become a major theme in my music making. My friend, Adjoa Andoh, went on to become an actress and I became a musician!

After those little plays I was desperate for piano lessons. First I learned recorder, then piano and then, somehow, I became drawn to the viola. There was something about the singular voice that attracted me to the it and it grabbed me and became my first instrument.

I began to study viola seriously when I was 11 and almost right away began winning competitions which was astonishing for me, so I just went with it. I wanted to become a solo violist, I didn’t want to play in an orchestra.

When I was 21 I was at sea for many reasons and tried to give up music. I didn’t know what to do. I played with musicians who improvised including Don Cherry. I started to work with the pianist Mark Springer and began to improvise and write with him. I realised there'd been a missing link. I hadn't been making my own music. I wrote a song on the piano for Bjork to sing which she's recorded. Eventually I split from Mark in order to really find my own voice as a composer.

Curiously enough my piano playing began to emerge again as I was no longer working with a pianist. I was always writing, writing, I’d often go to the piano first.

I played in orchestras from the age of 8 and I realise that when you sit at the piano alone, you can make a panorama of sound that goes all around you just like when you are sitting in an orchestra, but just with your with ten fingers. The sonic range of the piano is enormous. All these elements conspired in me. I never really thought of going along in one musical line - electronica and sound are also a very important part of my work.

I’ve been composing at the keyboard recently. At Kings Place last December I performed 'Found' an event of my work and collaborations with other artists, dancers, singers and musicians which included video - some of which I shot recently in Karachi. Piano that I’d recorded myself ran through quite a few pieces. 'Music To Swim To' was a film with music based on a swimming race I'd won as a child and a collaboration with the artist Sophie Molins. The music included a sample of Ravel's 2nd piano concerto and tabla by Talvin Singh. I decided I’d play live piano on stage too, for the first time in public.

At the moment I’m working on an ongoing project which is an exploration and reflection of the worlds I and many others like me inhabit - a teeming, sometimes confusing, challenging but rich kaleidoscope of both intertwined and oppositional worlds - perhaps it simply is the world now. I have been discussing musical forms and creating some exciting work with the Pakistani guitarist and composer Aamir Zaki and I have a collaboration with Vincent Katz the poet and translator. We're writing an opera based on his translation of 'The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius' (National American Translation Award 2005). Vincent is in New York, Sextus Propertius was an Ancient Roman Poet so that’s a cross cultural/time travel project too!” (Sarah Sarhandi)

Short Bio
Sarah makes new sounds whilst drawing on her classical inheritance. Her music is characterised by a layering of strong themes and rhythms, sounds that are both acoustic and programmed, vocals and the geometric shapes of her viola. The complexity of the composition offers a different experience each time they are heard, so that the listener explores new moods and emotions, different areas of time and space.' - Anthea Eno. 

Sarah studied viola at the Royal Academy of Music in London and is known for her work as composer, performer, film director, and visual artist. In 2002 Sarah Sarhandi received the 'Time Out Award For Outstanding Collaboration for Sheer with Russell Malpihant, which was performed at the London Coliseum in 2009 by Thomas Edur and Agnes Oakes. Her show 'FOUND' featuring recent collaborations premiered as part of the Out Hear series at Kings Place, London in December 2013.

She has recorded and performed worldwide. Previous collaborators include Bjork, Jean Charles de Castelbajac, Ivor Guest, Damien Hirst, Michael Nyman, recently and currently Paul Benney, Gina Birch, Jamie Irrepressible, Vincent Katz, Lore Lixenburg, Sophie Molins, Jemima Burrill and Aamir Zaki.

Friday, 3 October 2014

#36 Dr Valerie Capers, Composer and Pianist (with contribution from John Robinson, Bassist and Colleague)

                        Valerie Capers                                                                         Left to Right: Lola Perrin, Andy Rowan,
                                                                                                                           John Robinson, Valerie Capers, NYC July 2014

Valerie Capers "Until my works are published they only exist in John’s handwriting.

I wrote ‘Portraits in Jazz’ a long time ago. The first time ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) selected my work for their piano grade syllabus they picked “Billie’s Song” from the collection. I was very inspired by Billie Holiday, I would say it took me around two weeks to have that melody composed and written down.

Generally, when I dictate a piano piece to John, it might take a week or two depending on how busy he is. I love to compose music but it’s very difficult for me. Now in this 21st Century they have a lot of computer programmes and things that are particularly created for the blind and the visually impaired. They are not as sophisticated as they should be at this point and there are many, many things, if we're going to talk about writing large compositions, orchestral compositions, oral compositions, they are much more difficult to deal with than people would expect. And I've had people say well Stevie Wonder can do all this; well Stevie Wonder has millions and millions of dollars, and can come up with an idea for this or that or whatever, and I don't know if Stevie Wonder himself would be able to write let's say an orchestral piece. It's just very, very, very, very complicated.

To get it into print - and unfortunately I'm not Mozart- what I do is I come up with the ideas and then I write them down in Braille music which is very cumbersome, extremely cumbersome. And then, after talking to John because he has a beautiful hand, he works and writes for me and we talk about how we can communicate, so I don't have John sitting around while I write the music down and then give it to him, I will take time if I'm working on something ….. I'll get up in the morning, work on the piece of music, write it all in braille and then I dictate the music on the cassette so that John can come in his own time, pick up the cassette and sit down and start writing.

He gave me some pointers to help him when he's writing, for example, in Braille music the keyboard Middle C is called fourth octave C because it's the fourth C on the keyboard and so any note from Middle C (which is below the lowest line on the treble clef) up to the B (the third line of the treble clef), they call it fourth octave C- that's how you can get tones in Braille music, a register which is different from being able to know how high or how low a note is when you see it on a particular line space.

So John changed that a little bit to make it easier for him to pick up right away. He said “you know, we have the keyboard divided into certain sections like “Small”, (C Small, for example, is the second space of the bass clef and anything from the C to the B just below the middle C is called the Small area). Then you have the Grade section of the piano (so C grade would be from the second C on the piano up to the B which is the second line of the bass stave). Down at the bottom it's called Contra (that's the C from the low C at the very bottom up to the B below the C Grade which is below the two ledger lines below the bass).

Now that sounds awfully complicated and it is!

And John says we’ve got to find a way to make this easier. So when I'm talking to John and dictating to him I refer to the notes in the third octave range as C Small. For example if I want the clarinet to play a G below Middle C I wouldn't say third octave G which, I'm comfortable with being a blind musician, I would say a “G Small”.

Every instrument has to be written individually. If I'm doing a piece for woodwinds, let's say an alto saxophone, a tenor saxophone and a clarinet, let's say together, this is what I have to do. I take the lower one first, I take the tenor, I say “here are the notes …., its first note is F Small” so I give John the notes maybe for the first phrase and I say, ”now I go back” and I give him the first note for the alto sax.

Then I give him notes for the clarinet, and remember you cannot see them all at once, you never can see a chord, you see that you go back and you have to remember...

When we were doing the “Ruby” for example, it was only us, measure by measure, because, in one an area there's 64 bars of music that's in the New Orleans polyphonic street band style. I said John " This is going to be very tedious but let's take it phrase by phrase … " and I said “now, at the end of this 4 bar phrase, there were 3 instruments, a clarinet a trombone and a trumpet I said there are 2 instruments that have the same rhythm, let me know” … so he looks and says “yes the trombone has the same rhythm as the clarinet so I said “play the trombone part”.

He's sitting there and I play it, and then I play more...

And then I make the decision as to which instrument I'm going to rhythmically change so because we had to maintain the polyphony, it was hard. You have to understand that anything that I dictate has to be dictated note by note by note."

John Robinson "Well somebody saw my writing and he asked what computer I used and I said a straight ruler and a Pentel rolling writer! We have a mutual friend who's a wonderful sight-reader and she plays through the material after I write it on the page so we can check it all." (Valerie Capers with John Robinson 2014)

VALERIE CAPERS SHORT BIO - click here for full bio 

Dr. Valerie Capers was born in the Bronx and received her early schooling at the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind. She went on to obtain both her bachelor's and master's degrees from The Juilliard School of Music. She served on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, and from 1987 to 1995 was chair of the Department of Music and Art at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY), where she is now professor emeritus.

Her outstanding work as an educator has been lauded throughout the USA as being both innovative and impressive. Susquehanna University awarded her the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts in 1996, and Doane College (Crete, Nebraska) and Bloomfield (New Jersey) College (along with Wynton Marsalis) both awarded her honorary doctorates in 2004. Recent teaching and workshop venues include Doane College, Stanford University, the Cleveland (Ohio) public school system, St. Thomas (United States Virgin Islands) high schools, Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah) and the Mozarteum conservatory, Salzburg, Austria.

Among the awards and commissions she has received are the National Endowment for the Arts, including a special-projects grant to present a jazz series at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Meet the Composer, the CUNY Research Foundation, the Smithsonian, and The Fund for Artists of Arts International.

Dr. Capers has appeared with her trio and ensemble at colleges, universities, jazz festivals, clubs and concert halls throughout the country, including a series at Weill Recital Hall and the 2001 Rendez-vous de l'Erdre in Nantes, France. Her trio's performances at the International Grande Parade du Jazz Festival in Nice, France, the Martin Luther King Festival in Ottawa, Ontario, and the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague received rave reviews. The group has also participated in the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Mellon Jazz Festival (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), and New York's Kool, JVC and Downtown jazz festival.

Connect with Valerie Capers
See videos at the African American Composer Initiative website