How do you make your work into a phenomenon?

Clare Simmonds
March 9, 2018

"It's every composer's dream to sit at his/her desk and wait for the phone to ring." Stephen Montague talks to Clare Simmonds about his music, and about the surprising 'life' of his work Mirabella: Tarantella for Toy Piano, which will be performed by Kate Ryder in a recital for toy piano and piano at Borough New Music on 20 March 2018.

CS: Tell us about Mirabella.

SM: Mirabella: Tarantella for Toy Piano was commissioned in 1995 by Margaret Leng Tan, a pianist of Singaporean origin who lives in New York City, and who is famous for her toy-piano playing. It was interesting because it was one of those situations where I was thinking, "I can't believe it has sunk to this level... toy piano?!" But Margaret said she'd play it a lot, and she's a wonderful pianist, so I reluctantly accepted the commission. As I had to write it in a hurry, I decided to base it on my piano piece 'Mira' (1995), which I wrote for the ABRSM Spectrum Series. But as I started, I realised it was going a separate way, so I called it 'Mirabella'. Margaret suggested it was a 'Mirabella: Tarantella for Toy Piano', and I thought that title had charm! She played it in New York, and then in three or four other places, and I thought it was amazing it was getting played at all. Then several other pianists with toy pianos also asked to play it, and I began to think, "This is quite a phenomenon!" John Cage wrote a toy piano piece in 1948 that, as far as I knew, only a handful of people ever played (including myself when I was at Ohio State University in the 1970s), so a toy piano in 1995 was a pretty obscure instrument. Anyway, Margaret and I worked together on a number of occasions, and a few months back, she told me she had reached something like the 600th performance of Mirabella! [Listen to a performance of Mirabella by Margaret Leng Tan on Youtube] And an Austrian pianist, Isabel Ettenauer, has also played it a lot, maybe 40 times. In fact in total, I think it has been done maybe between 800 and 900 times in the last 20 years. So the lesson to composers is, you never know where something is going to go, as obscure as it might seem in the first instance.

CS: How do you find your performers?

SM: Unlike everything else I've ever done, they seem to find me! It's every composer's dream to sit at his/her desk and wait for the phone to ring. With orchestral works, it's usually my agent, my publisher, or other people who finally squeeze a performance out. But it's amazing how Mirabella has simply taken off by itself - I have never knowingly promoted it. It has been played often by at least 15 different performers, as well as choreographed by a puppet theatre company in Chicago (who did 120 performances). I didn't even realise that Kate Ryder played it (thought I've known her for ages) till she mentioned it. It's one of those happy life stories that you write something that is a one-off, and actually it has its own legs and runs! It is published by United Music Publishing and sells.

CS: How does it feel to listen to your music being performed?

SM: It's funny... I've spent much of my life playing the piano as a performer, and I've done a lot of conducting over the years, and yet it is probably the most uncomfortable I feel when I'm listening to my own music. I think mainly because it's completely out of my control. You know, when you're playing, you may have a good or bad night; when you're conducting, the orchestra was perhaps good or bad, you did what you could and it was maybe fantastic or not; but when you're actually the composer, you're sitting on your hands just hoping it is going to work well. It’s completely out of your control, and that’s uncomfortable. It can be a bit of a shock when you hear your piece without being at a rehearsal. It's often very pleasurable when it's over, but somehow wonderfully uncomfortable in the excitement of the moment!

CS: Do you think about the listeners? How do you think the listeners hear your music?

SM: I grew up in a generation in the United States in the 1960s which was very much a part of the 'Who cares if they listen?' school. That was an early philosophy in which the musical fulfillment seemed to be writing acerbic music that would completely empty a hall over the course of an performance. It didn't take me long to figure out that this probably wasn't the best course of action if you wanted your music heard! Call me old-fashioned, but I quickly realised it was much more satisfying to write something an audience actually enjoyed ,and perhaps provoked (in the best possible way) to want to come back for more. Playing to an empty hall is not my idea an artistic goal or a remotely rewarding experience. So, for me (and without 'selling out'), I really enjoy engaging an audience, ideally taking them from somewhere they know to somewhere they maybe don't know so well. That cliche of a ‘musical journey’ is actually a pretty good idea. I want to hold their attention, engage and surprise them and of course entice them to come back for more.

CS: What were the challenges of writing Mirabella?

The toy piano has a charming and unusual sound. The piece, based on the piano work 'Mira', uses only the white notes on the piano, so the original challenge for me was to write something based only on only the white notes of the keyboard. I don't think the audience particularly needs to know that, but the audience needs to be at best charmed by the velocity and the choice of notes. I always hope my works are not too long and Mirabella is much shorter than Mira! For me it works best in a concert where not all the pieces are for toy piano. But even when it is, I’ve been conscientious to try and make it stand out against other potential pieces in a programme by its being a little different.

CS: How do you get your music heard?

SM: The best thing that can happen to a composer is word of mouth. My aim in recent years is to engage the younger generation of performers who are finding their way up through the ranks. I like the idea of encouraging them to do a piece of mine might add a little 'spice and pepper' to a programme of more conventional works. Music to the ears of any composer is the phrase: "This will be great for the end of the first half.” Engaging the interest and attention of good musicians is the secret but of course the obvious answer. Your personality is the first essential ingredient in this courtship. I have rarely worked twice with someone I didn't like. Personality gets your foot in the door or not. The product you are selling then needs to be your very best. As far as publishing music these days, no composer I know says "my publisher is doing too much promotion for me and I just can't bear this flood of commissions.” Published music is no longer the only way forward, but social media certainly seems to be an active route.

CS:What's your dream line-up of instruments and ideal performance space?

SM: I'm naturally drawn to the orchestra. That sounds old-fashioned, but for me the orchestra has all the colours that I wish to employ, enjoy and exploit. I like chamber works, too. The string quartet of course is a great medium, and my String Quartet No. 1 in memoriam Barry Anderson & Tomasz Sikorski is one of the pieces I like best in my catalogue. But preferably, if I had the dream commission, it would be full orchestra and chorus - I like thinking big. I recently did an orchestral piece for the Birmingham Royal Ballet, The King Dances, which I liked very much. That was exciting working with a big orchestra, and a fantastic team of choreographer, David Bintley, lighting designer, Peter Mumford and costume/set designer, Katrina Lindsay. I also loved directing a John Cage Musicircus at English National Opera in 2012 with 190 performers, so basically my interest is in large ensembles and events.

CS: Do you have plans for the future?

SM: My 75th Birthday Concert on Friday 9 March 2018, which lasts all day and all night long at St John's, Smith Square, is going to be interesting for me, as I'll hear the 30 or so pieces I've written for keyboard all lined up together. There is a growth from experimental to the more traditional, to the avant-garde to works with electronics. I feel like, even at my age, I'm still exploring things and still growing, and am still influenced by good things that come along. The Royal College of Art students are doing some visuals for the St John's, Smith Square concert, and it has already triggered some exciting ideas. So I still feel that even though I'm almost 75, I'm just getting started in this and there are many avenues I'd like to explore – further work with visuals, with dance, more experimental things, string/piano quintets. I'm still very enthusiastic about what I do, always open for learning new tricks!

Stephen Montague at 75: 24 hours of continuous music starts at 1pm on Friday 9th March, 2018 at St Johns Smith Square, London, and includes concerts at 1pm, 2.30pm, 4pm, 5.30pm, 7.45pm and 9pm.

Montague's Mirabella: Tarantella for Toy Piano forms part of Kate Ryder's programme for toy piano and piano at St George the Martyr Church, SE1 1JA on Tuesday 20 March 2018, 1pm, as part of Borough New Music Series 6. Admission is free and light refreshments are served afterwards. The full programme is:

John Cage - Suite for Toy PianoStace Constantinou (b. 1971) - Cactus Prelude 6 for Toy Piano and Fixed MediaChristian Banasik (b. 1963) - TRIMER for Toy Piano and Fixed MediaJulia Wolfe (b. 1958) - Ear ring; East Broadway for Toy Piano and BoomBoxBrian Inglis - Four Pieces for Toy Piano (World Premiere)Yumi Hara - Farouche Katharine Norman - Fuga Interna (begin)Meredith Monk - Rail Road (travel song) for Solo Piano; St Petersburg WaltzStephen Montague (b. 1943) - Mirabella for Toy Piano