The West Yorkshire-raised composer on
painting with sound and “finding the beginning”.
Richard Uttley’s concert on Saturday 21 November includes the world premiere of her new work, a set of piano miniatures called Lines and Spaces that are inspired in part by the delicate minimalism and transcendent qualities of the paintings of Agnes Martin. Having lived in Germany for nearly a decade, Pinnock is currently based in Paris on a six-month residency at the Cité internationale des Arts.
hcmf//: You’ve become something of a familiar face at hcmf// in recent years. How do you feel that your music has evolved over this time?
Naomi Pinnock: I’m really happy to have the opportunity to keep coming back to hcmf// to present my music. And there is no doubt that my music is evolving, but in reality I continue to be obsessed with the same kinds of gestures, a similar harmonic palette or I keep coming back to similar forms. It’s just that they are investigated from a slightly shifted perspective.
Tell us about Lines and Spaces and in particular the inspiration of Agnes Martin – what attracts you to her art, and how is this reflected in the piece?
I was introduced to the works of Agnes Martin by my friend and colleague Andrew Hamilton. I have always been attracted to minimalism in art (though Martin preferred to call herself an abstract expressionist) but her paintings really hit a nerve.
They resonate with me in a way that Piet Mondrian or Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings do not and I think it has to do with the quietness of Martin’s work, the delicate transparency of some of the colours and I never feel like she’s shouting to get my attention. And I suppose it is this last sentiment that is particularly relevant to Lines and Spaces, and indeed a lot of my music.
The form of Lines and Spaces is a reflection of the structure of some of Martin’s paintings. Of the six movements, there are three that are based on a shimmering line, a tremolo on a middle C, and three that are much more expansive in their spatial exploration. They are also unequivocally expressive – whilst my work, like Martin’s, can have an austere kind of detachment, there is always an intrinsic connection to its emotive capacity.
In a 2010 interview you talked about the process of ‘getting rid of notes’ to find the exact one that you need. Does this still characterise your approach? How do you decide when you have (little) enough in your music?
It’s such an interesting question! I still go through a process of removing and whittling down material. But the decision when to stop… I’m not sure. It has become more about removing sections, and allowing more breadth and time for repetitions and silences than it has about reducing the number of notes.
I think my approach has something akin to the practice of a visual artist, in that I will work on different sections, or different parts of a work if not concurrently then closely following each other; I don’t start at the beginning and compose chronologically. Having said that, finding the beginning is one of the most important aspects of the process; without it, it is almost impossible to work on subsequent sections.
What other questions or approaches do you currently find yourself returning to in your work?
There are themes that thread their way through my practice. I keep coming back to ideas of memory, which are incorporated most explicitly when I use text, but are also explored in purely instrumental pieces too, through the disintegration of material.
I am also fascinated by etymology and always have a dictionary to hand. I want to get as close as possible to a fundamental core of words and meaning, which in turn continually informs my decisions about what can stay and what needs to be stripped back.
Your work frequently incorporates text, often in a fragmentary way. What are the similarities and differences between the ways that words and instrumental sounds exist in your music, and how do they interact?
Yes it’s true that this fragmentary manipulation of text is very similar to my approach to instrumental writing. I’m interested in the spaces in-between, shadows or seemingly insubstantial vowel glides and what happens when they become the focus.
The instrumental equivalents of this stretching out of word segments – slow glissandi or moving from closed to open sounds for example – become most apparent in works that use text but not exclusively. Both Susan are you ready? (written for the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme) and RE-volvere (for bass flute, clarinet, percussion and double bass) explore a melodic line in this way.
What do you like best about Berlin, and have you observed any significant changes in the creative scene during the time you’ve been living there?
Berlin, where I’ve been based for the last six years, is such a creative city to live in. The pace of life is much slower than in London or Paris, and the quality of life is higher. The creative scene continues to expand: Berlin attracts artists from all over the world and the scene grows accordingly. I love all the DIY concerts and performances that are put on in people’s living rooms, or in unexpected spaces.
Tell us about your experiences with the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme…
Taking part in the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme was such an enriching experience. I collaborated with Nic Green (writer/director) and Harry Whitham (designer) on our final opera scene. In Susan are you ready? we combined recollections of a tragedy – taken from testimonies of those living in Lockerbie at the time of the 1988 disaster – with three people coming together for a birthday tea celebration. We became focussed on exploring the juxtaposition of grief and loss with trivial mundanities. These actions – bringing over a bag of shopping to a friend, or boiling a kettle – had, in this context, an incredibly charged agency.
One of the most important lessons I learnt whilst on the course was about creating a space for the audience to become an active participant in the performance. I still think there should be a clear articulation of idea and intention, but not to the point where it becomes weighed down with information and leaves no room for imagination.
What plans do you have for 2016 (and beyond)?
There’s a project planned with the fantastic Ensemble Adapter, a German/Icelandic ensemble based in Berlin. Whilst in Paris I’m going to be writing a new work for orchestra – something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Plus I will be collaborating with Nic Green again. A lot to look forward to!