‘The Bad-Tempered Electronic Keyboard’ by Burgess, and a new piece by Ailís Ní Ríain
Ailís Ní Ríain is a composer and playwright who is particularly interested in cross-disciplinary collaboration, new writing for performance, concert music, sound installation, opera, music-theatre and presenting contemporary music in diverse spaces. Her music has been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 ‘The Verb’ & ‘Hear and Now’, BBC 4′s The Today Programme and Woman’s Hour, RTÉ Lyric FM and RTÉ One in addition to a documentary for Channel 4′s Big Art project. She received her Purcell Room, Southbank debut in 2007 and her Carnegie Hall debut in 2008. Here is an article by her on her recent work with Anthony Burgess’s keyboard suite The Bad Tempered Electronic Keyboard, and a new piece she composed in response.
chainstitchembroidered, by Ailís Ní Ríain
In 2011 I was approached by the American flautist Linda Chatterton and pianist Matthew McCright who were interested in my work as a composer and writer. They commissioned me to compose a new work for them to premiere at their key recital as part of the 2012 International British Flute Convention in Manchester.
In 2010 I had composed a chamber trio for the Danish ensemble TTAATTOO based on seven of the preludes and fugues from JS Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, a collection of pieces for solo keyboard comprising two sets of preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys. During the composition process I enjoyed playing with cells of Bach’s material, putting a twist on them, sometimes humorous, sometimes exploring a stillness and poignancy; always exploring a terrain of my own with Bach looking over my shoulder.
I am also particularly drawn to the work of Anthony Burgess, to his use of language and his musicality; and like Burgess, I write words and music. In 2011 I discovered that Anthony Burgess had written The Bad Tempered Electronic Keyboard (1986), also a collection of 24 preludes and fugues for piano. The International Anthony Burgess Foundation very kindly gave me access to Burgess’s original score – and a chance to view the instrument the work was composed on – and I began to familiarise myself with the preludes and fugues, playing and listening to them closely. I decided to compose my new work for the Linda and Matt based on seven of Burgess’ preludes.
Here is an extract from the UK premiere of a selection of preludes from The Badly Tempered Electronic Keyboard performed by Matthew McCright from Minnesota on 21 August at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.
While immersing myself in Burgess’s score I read his novel The Pianoplayers (1986) as I was keen to know what Burgess was writing at the time of composing the keyboard suite – given the dates, he may well have written The Pianoplayers at the time of composing The Bad Tempered Electronic Keyboard. In the novel, Burgess draws heavily on his memories of his father, a pub piano-player. I was struck by Burgess’ deep love and expert understanding of the piano particularly in relation to how it can be used as a ‘sound effects’ box to accompany the moving image – which he brilliantly describes in the novel.
Here is part of chainstitchembroidered, a 10 minute duo for flute and piano commissioned by Linda Chatterton, a USA based Yamaha endorsed performing artist and financially supported by The PRS Foundation for Music, Minnesota Arts Board and Arts Council England.
While composing my new piece chainstitchembroidered, I was reading Burgess’ epic Earthly Powers which delighted me: it is such a satisfying, seductive read! The title of my piece is taken from Earthly Powers when Burgess refers to ‘an animated woman in a chainstitchembroidered dress of very fine black pure silk chiffon’: a sumptuously expressed sentence. The compositional links, connections and interpretive details that I hoped to contain in my piece are possibly rather too involved to recount here, but suffice to say that as I worked on my composition I began to understand JS Bach’s preludes to be the ‘chain’, Burgess’ preludes as the ‘stitching’ and my preludes as the ‘embroidery’ – a long and linear tapestry of music, totalling 21 preludes (7 x 7 x 7); a chain-stitch, embroidered.
Ailís Ní Ríain