Composers Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade and Shruthi Rajasekar both recently completed their studies at Princeton University before moving to the United Kingdom. A composer and cellist originally from London, Ninfea recently returned to the UK to be based in Edinburgh where she is completing her dissertation for her PhD in composition. An Indian-American composer and vocalist from Minnesota, Shruthi is currently studying in the United Kingdom as a Marshall Scholar after graduating summa cum laude from Princeton.
Ninfea and Shruthi are fellows of the 2018-19 Psappha “Composing For” programme, which aims to support and develop emerging composers with intensive workshops and by making high-quality video and audio recordings. Formed in 1991 by percussionist Tim Williams, the UK’s Psappha ensemble specialises in performing contemporary works by living composers. The ensemble is the only professional stand-alone contemporary classical music group in northern England.
How does the new music scene in the UK compare to the US northeast right now?
Shruthi: Truly, I’m still getting my toes wet in both places! When I was living in the northeast, it seemed like there was a lot of musical diversity within the contemporary music scene. Many of the composers have non-traditional backgrounds and consequently draw from all sorts of musical sources. By contrast, I think the UK’s “avant-garde” scene has historically been rooted in an essentially (Western) classical idiom. That might be because the classical institutions provide a really strong foundation–for example, boy choirs (and girl choirs that have comparable resources) and junior academies at conservatoires. That being said, my impression is that this is changing quite a lot–I know of several composers who come from outside of this typical pathway!
To me, the important dialogue in both places right now is about representation. There are rich conversations about gender here in the UK, which I love! I think the discussion on race in music is different from the US, which can probably be attested to how the UK navigates its colonial legacy–one component of that is the country’s strong emphasis on “multiculturalism,” a term that I’ve only now begun to really understand.
Ninfea: I’m not sure that there is a singular “new music scene” in either country/region. I think the internet has created porous, ever-shifting new music communities by making a wide range of material accessible to people everywhere, regardless of their social and cultural backgrounds or geographical location. Perhaps people in the UK have been a little slower to share work through these online platforms than in the US. And while the East Coast seems to celebrate its plurality of music scenes, I think the UK suffers from the popular belief that London is the only important cultural centre for artists. One of the main strengths of Psappha’s “Composing For” scheme is the ensemble’s commitment to using video documentation to bring projects from the North West to wider audiences.
What has it been like working with Psappha to create a new work?
Ninfea: When I applied to Psappha’s “Composing For” piano and percussion duo scheme, I had already been fortunate enough to work with several percussion groups in Princeton, so I was ready to try something different on the instrumentation front. I hit upon the idea of piano and flower pots, but I wasn’t sure how this would be received. The use of flower pots as a percussion instrument is less common in the UK than in the US. However, the artistic director/percussionist Tim Williams, pianist Benjamin Powell, and development manager Katy Boulton were all very supportive and gave me the green light.
I assembled nine flower pots at home, filmed myself playing them for Tim, and travelled to Manchester with the pots in a suitcase for the sessions. Quite often, the composer sits there cross-legged with the score while the performers play, but Tim and Ben were refreshingly open to watching me demonstrate bits and pieces, and were invested, right from the start, in bringing my slightly strange and quirky material to life.
Shruthi: The “Composing For” scheme with Psappha has been a valuable learning experience. We’ve created our 5-minute works over a six-month period, which, to be honest, is longer than I usually spend–and I think that time and care shows! The best part of the scheme is the opportunity to work one-on-one with the performer(s) in multiple sessions. Psappha specifically sets up the space in this way so that the composer can ask questions freely. I appreciated this, as I had little prior knowledge of clarinets. Throughout the scheme, we give the performer a scheduled series of drafts–it’s rare and special to have such regular feedback on a developing piece. You learn how to not only write for specific instruments and tailor pieces for performers, but also some healthy ways of structuring your time–the last is helpful for early career composers.
What sounds and ideas have you explored with the particular instrumentation you’ve used?
Ninfea: My three études for piano and flower pots are concerned with changing the listener’s perception of familiar sound worlds. The timbre of the piano and the repertoire of piano études more generally are both defamiliarised here through the unusual addition of an everyday object played as a percussion instrument. Each étude is very economical in design, and the harmonic language is often quite bitonal. The studies don’t seek to hide the musical limitations of the flower pots, but rather to present them positively and in the most elegant manner possible.
Shruthi: I was part of the “Composing For” new Eastern European folk instrument scheme. Dov Goldberg, Psappha’s brilliant clarinetist, can play ~20+ wind instruments from the region. I chose to write for the Greek Clarinet (Klarino) as I was attracted to its timbre at a soft dynamic. This piece also has some electronic tambura (Indian drone). I have only just begun to learn about this particular idiom–at first, I questioned my “fitness” for the project, because I spend a lot of my time thinking about issues of appropriation and cultural respect (coming from a non-Western tradition myself). Accepting that I was no expert was how the philosophy behind my piece “Ost” emerged, however. The piece explores my own shifting questions on “Easternness” and representing the “Other” when, in present times, these ideologically-separated identities are more complicated than ever. Take me: an American of Indian heritage now living in the modern-day form of the empire that once ruled her ancestors… what can anyone even label me?!
You both have parents who are performers, and you are both incredibly talented performers in your own right. How does your own background in performance inform your writing?
Shruthi: Thank you for this question! As you note, not only did I grow up in a household of music, but I was reared in a musical tradition (Carnatic music, i.e. South Indian classical music) that treats composing and performing as extensions of each other; my mom is the perfect embodiment of that. Now, during my current ethnomusicology graduate studies, I have drifted back towards this way of thinking. I always used my own voice to compose (read: lots of low-quality audio mock-ups!), but I’m currently very interested in involving the performer as a co-auteur of sorts. The design of the Psappha scheme has been a perfect fit because the performer is our composition mentor, too.
Ninfea: My parents were puppeteers working in various forms of puppetry ranging from traditional marionettes to black light puppet shows. They embraced puppetry in all its shades–from its history as a serious art form to its brashness and bawdiness as a form of popular entertainment. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of being taken to see the Moscow State Circus on tour in the UK and watching their star tightrope walker climb diagonally all the way to the top of the gigantic tent without a safety net, high above a petrified, shrieking audience. The idea of risk-taking in art has always been a theme in my upbringing and also in my training as a cellist specialising in contemporary music. But I’ve come to feel that risk-taking in new music is not so much about shocking audiences with loud blasts of sudden noise and passages of rampant dissonance, but rather about putting oneself at risk–by creating music that teeters on the edge of sounding terrible and has the potential to fall flat on its face.
How do programmes like Psappha’s “Composing For” project fit into the development and sustainability of your professional career?
Ninfea: Returning to the UK last summer, I was eager to work on a variety of composition projects with musicians across the country. The Psappha ensemble is an impressive cultural institution, and I greatly admire the breadth of their work in the field of contemporary music. The “Composing For” opportunity was unique in that it allowed me to deliver a piece that might otherwise have been rejected from a traditional concert program on account of its unusual set-up.
Shruthi: “Composing For” has also been special because it was my first one here. I learned about it from Ninfea right before I moved to the UK, and through it, I instantly connected with many other early career composers here (not to mention, getting the chance to work with one of the most respected new music ensembles here, and one I’ve greatly admired for a while). For me, then, this was my entry into a completely new scene.
In addition, opportunities like this truly allow for growth. One-off competitions and calls for scores are excellent, and certainly provide a specific function, but the Psappha scheme nurtures you throughout the six months, while still allowing you space and time to reflect and write. I only wish for the scheme to continue and inspire more such programs!