What's it like being a Guest Artistic Director?

Hollie Harding and Clare Simmonds
November 16, 2017

Duties of an artistic director vary widely between concert series. Unusually, for Series 3 in Borough New Music, the guest artistic directors were also the performers. To give us a flavour of what was involved, the soprano Patricia Auchterlonie talks about her role in forming Series 3 alongside co-guest artistic director Ben Smith. Interview by Hollie Harding and Clare Simmonds.

HH: How do you find and select repertoire, particularly as much of it in Series 3 was ‘unheard’ and ‘underperformed’?

PA: Good question! For our opening concert, we found the Sciarrino score [Due melodie per soprano e pianoforte (1978)] in a pile of music in Chimes Music Shop. The score was just lying around, nobody knew why it wasthere! As I work in that shop, one of my colleagues said, “Well, you should obviously have that”. And that was how we started choosing the music… once I suggested the Sciarrino, Ben had a bunch of ideas, including Sciarrino's Ultime rose (from Vanitas) (1981). The Kate Soper [Only the words themselves mean what they say (2010-11)], on the other hand, I’ve known for a long time, because I really admire her as a composer. I think a lot of it came together because Ben and I are knowledgeable about really different types of music, so we came up with quite a diverse programme.

For the second concert, Jane Manning recommended Simon Emmerson‘s piece to me [Time Past IV (1985)], and Ben had always wanted to play the Georg Friedrich Haas [Ein Schattenspiel (2004)]. But quite a lot of our programming came about because Ben and I had an intense discussion about how female composers should be included more often, and that’s how we came to put in the Soper, the Saariaho [Lonh (1996)] and Eva-Maria Houben [Haikus for four (I, V, VIII, IX) (2003-04)]. We included the Houben because her work doesn’t get performed enough. I hadn’t actually heard of Houben before, it was Ben’s idea. I didn’t know anything about Wandelweiser composers! Ben had discovered that Houben’s entire score library was available for free on her Web site, so we went digging throughit. Her Haikus are cool because they’re for flexible performing forces, so we could use the players we had already booked.

For Ben’s concert, he chose the Nancarrow [Three Canons for Ursula (1988)] because of their reputation for being unplayable, and Ben thought that would be quite fun. Robert Reid Allan is a friend of his, and his piece is really beautiful [The Palace of Light (2016)]. And then Ben had already played the Julian Anderson [Sensation (2015-16)] for a recent ‘Anderson at 50’ event – this was a chance to give it another outing.

HH: Much of the music you perform requires extended vocal techniques, and works with characterisation and theatricality. How do you prepare, rehearse and perform the music?

PA: Well, Kate Soper’s piece is really extraordinary, because Soper is herself a singer. When I first looked at the score, I said to myself, “How on earth has she done it?!” There’s an entire page where the only time you breathe is when you inhale and sing at the same time, which I didn’t even know one could do before I learnt the piece! Basically it’s just loads of trial and error, to be honest. I like doing works that require extended vocal techniques because they teach you a lot about your voice. I’ve learnt about the limitations, but also the special colours in my voice that I only really access when doing extended techniques. I found that the Soper was so vocal, the way she wrote it was so clever and so natural, that once I got into the soundworld she was looking for, it was easy to produce the sounds. The secret is not to worry about hurting your voice. In fact for a lot of extended techniques, including yelling and screaming, if you support well, you activate your singing in a way that is more intense and energetic than what is required for the standard repertoire.

The Emmerson is quite challenging because it’s unrelenting, particularly the opening section with its repeated notes. I hadn’t really thought about it having extended vocal techniques, though it does, quite a bit! I had some coaching on that piece, but for Kate Soper’s, I just listened to a recording.

HH: How did you meet your collaborators for these concerts?

PA: Ben and I were assigned to do a piece together for a Guildhall School of Music and Drama project called Wigmore Voiceworks. I sang some Claude Vivier in a class Ben attended, so he realised I liked wacky music, and then I heard a piece he wrote which I found very emotional and visceral. He composed a piece for me – that was how we ended up working together. Our cellist for that project was Yoanna Prodanova. I already knew her and recommended her to Ben: she’s really keen on new music. Toni Berg (flute) I met doing Hans Eisler’s Palmström with the GSMD Ubu Ensemble. Since our Borough New Music concert, I think she and I are going to start a duo, because we had so much fun working together on the Soper!

HH: What’s your current favourite piece of repertoire and why?

PA: I’m obssessed with Per Nørgård. He has an amazing piece for soprano and super weird ensemble called Sea Drift, with text by Walt Whitman. The most amazing piece of music. It’s such a strange ensemble – including harpsichord, flute/recorder, cello/viola da gamba, violin/baroque violin and a big percussion section.

CS: What are the best and worst bits about being a guest artistic director?

PA: The best bit is choosing all the music yourself and getting to do what you want. The worst bit… remembering to submit everything by the deadline. But I know it’s important to have deadlines otherwise nothing will happen! It is a good experience for performers to know how it feels to organise concerts and to know what it takes to plan something that works. It’s not just about getting up there and performing, it’s all the other stuff that happens beforehand too!

CS: What have you learnt, and what did you already know about being a guest artistic director?

PA: I’ve learnt a lot about the business side of managing concerts. A lot more goes into it than you normally see when you perform. That’s very useful. I already knew about programming, and I think what we programmed for Series 3 has come together really beautifully. That’s quite nice to see – you don’t often to get to programme all new music. Usually you’re trying to present a contrasting programme of music from different centuries, and make it all work together.

CS: Do you see any separation between being an artistic director and being a performer?

PA: Yes and no. I’d like to be the kind of performer who does artistic direction, chooses her own repertoire and organises her own stuff. I’m not great at being told what to do, as a human being! I love the autonomy and independence of it. As a performer, it’s really rewarding to choose my own project and have it come out the way I want it to. I like that level of control over my own outcome. For some performers, the level of responsibility and organisation is quite intimidating, but I find it very satisfying.

CS: What would you do differently, and what would you keep the same, if you were to be a guest artistic director again?

PA: From a performing perspective, next time I would spread out the concerts in which I have to sing difficult music. From a directing point of view, it would have been nice to have more people involved, but because of the budget we could only have four players. However, we had a great group  – we all got on well. The music-making was very satisfying and reciprocal, and everyone in the group really enoyed it. Actually I think that we’re all going to do another concert together next year – of all the Sciarrino songs!

The Guest Artistic Directors for Borough New Music Series 3 are Patricia Auchterlonie and Ben Smith. All concerts take place at 1pm, at St George the Martyr Church, opposite Borough tube. Free admission with light refreshments afterwards. For more information, visit www.boroughnewmusic.co.uk.