Retorica Interview

Photo: Retorica

Christian Morris talks to Harriet Mackenzie and Philippa Mo, who have just released their debut-disk ‘English Violin Duos’ on NMC.

Tell us a little about your background before you met each other.

Philippa: I started playing when I was 5. I had lessons and decided early on that I wanted to pursue the violin seriously and so that led me to the Royal Academy. I had a really good time there – I really enjoyed mixing with everybody and I think the best part of it was the chamber relationships that I built up. Probably one of the highlights was the fact that we were encouraged to study abroad for a year, so I spent my third year in China. That was a really wonderful experience. Then I returned to complete a masters course. 

But presumably you’d met by the time of the trip to China?

Harriet: Yes, actually I think was slightly after then.

Philippa: We did coincide, but I’m a couple of years older than Harriet, so we started at different times at the Academy. I think on the music degree course everything is much more structured in the first two years, so you’re quite entrenched in your year group. It was only when I was a postgrad that I was mixing with students of different year groups. That was probably when we really got to know each other.

And you Harriet?

Harriet: I also started the violin at about 5 with the teacher Sheila Nelson, who’s been an enormous influence on me. From the age of 3 I was harassing my parents because I was just desperate to play the violin. My sister Kate was playing and I used to hear her practising and there was just something about the timbre of the violin that I found just totally intriguing. I adored it. I was obsessed. Eventually I asked the teacher myself if I could learn. I studied with her until I was 18 and went to the Royal Academy and had a great time there. I also spent one year in the States. 

Were you also more towards the chamber side of things as well? Did you take part in youth orchestras?

Harriet: I would say chamber and solo. I didn’t do youth orchestras. I think it’s probably because my school was fantastic for music and art. I went to Camden School for Girls and we had an orchestra that used to tour Europe during the summer. I also went to Junior Academy on Saturdays. And Sheila, my teacher, had her own chamber music and string orchestra, so I was already steeped through that. 

So how did you become friends at the Academy?

Philippa: We were working on a contemporary music project and recording it. So Harriet and I were sharing a desk together and I really liked her energy and her attention to detail. I think a lot of players are still slightly wary of new music as the writing is challenging with graphic notation and extreme techniques. I really loved the way she was tackling everything, playing really brilliantly. We had lunch after that and got to know each other. We then tried some duo repertoire together – that went really well – and we’re still getting on!

Harriet: I think we have a similar work ethic and a similar love of certain repertoire and also we just get on really, really well. That’s the Holy Grail, really.

Philippa: One of the things that’s really important to both of us is that we drive each other on to playing better all time. 

H: That’s very true.

P: When we’re revisiting pieces, the music becomes more comfortable and familiar than the first time through, but we’re never sitting on our laurels. You can’t afford to do that anyway with the two-violin repertoire, because it’s so exposed.

H: Yes, it’s like having the hardest parts of playing something totally solo, like unaccompanied Bach, but with the hardest things of playing in an ensemble like a quartet. It’s great, though, because it is so challenging and has pushed our playing.

And did the interest in contemporary music come from one or other of you? Or were you both always interested in it?

P: Before I went to the Academy I was studying with the Chinese violinist Xue Wei, who had one won the Carl Flesch competition and had been appointed as a professor at the RAM. I’d been going to him for lessons from about the age of 15. He’d come from a very Russian School of training and so he’d really concentrated on the central canon of music and particularly the concerto repertoire. So contemporary music wasn’t a thing I studied with him until he performed the Headington Concerto at the Festival Hall. I remember going to hear that and absolutely loving it. I think that was probably one of the first relatively modern pieces I had heard. Then during my time at the Academy I remember a moment when a student composer came to me to say that he had finished a quartet but that he had been told by a professor that it was unplayable – so I took it on and found the whole process, from deciphering his score to persuading my quartet to agree to the terrifying first performance, an enormously important moment. The excitement of something entirely new. I also used to love trawling through the solo repertoire in the library looking for something new and discovered next to that on the shelf the two-violin pieces. 

And was the process similar for you Harriet?

H: I think I was a bit different from Philippa. I feel for me that it was much more integral to my life as I was growing up. I remember – I don’t know if it’s an apocryphal story – my mother saying that she took me to concerts that included contemporary music when I was a babe in arms. She loathed them and she wanted to leave, but I used to scream if she tried to get out of the room! Also I think that it was the thing of studying with Sheila Nelson, who’s written her own system for learning violin. Because she was writing pieces herself and she was encouraging us all to improvise as well, it was almost as if that was a given right from the earliest age. So it just felt very natural. 

The sounds were never unusual?

H: Exactly. I think she had a lot of composers’ and conductors’ children studying with her and so it was quite normal to be also looking at their pieces.

P: And, something to add is that, of course, when we were at the academy, we were surrounded by composition students as well.

H: And were friends with a lot of them.

P: Yes, and so we were meeting them and hearing about all of their trials and tribulations with trying to produce work. And also one of the most enjoyable things I did there: we had a very short period, I think we were given maybe one hour to learn a work and the composers were given one hour to write something. I remember being so thrilled with that because I was given a score that had been ripped and scored across so heavily that you could barely read it. I wasn’t able to talk to the composer, because we were isolated when having to learn it, but it was just that moment of having to come up with an interpretation of something. Obviously most of our preparation is much more in-depth, but that was a really live experience and it felt wonderful to be part of that creative process.

Fairly terrifying as well?

P: Yes, it was terrifying too! Terror is an informative and fairly frequent element of performing. 

I was also interested about what you said about growing up with music, because children don’t come to things with preconceptions.

H: Exactly. I think you haven’t even had your harmonic sense formed and so your ears are really open. The idea that everything is based around V-I and even the way scales work hasn’t been defined. It’s almost that you have to relearn that. There are rules and constraints though every type of classical music, and then composers start breaking them.

P: I have a son and he’s very used to hearing Harriet and I rehearse and to coming to our concerts. That was something I was keen to do with him, to involve him in my work from learning to performance. As a result he’s as comfortable with listening to new music as with anything else.

And Philippa, you have done a lot of outreach work with children. Did contemporary music form a part of that?

P: It did. That was a year-long project. At one of the first concerts, I invited Harriet to come and play and so we did a lot of our British new music.

H: We played Robert Fokkens’ piece as well. He’s one of our long-term collaborators.

P: I think we had established that the concerts were an enjoyable time to hear music so with that very relaxed atmosphere it’s incredibly easy to programme anything. I think the audience is much more up for listening to new music in that context. I also take it for granted that new music is something that we programme together with everything else.

H: It’s integral

That’s the way it should be isn’t it? It’s reassuring almost to hear it described casually.

P: I think it would be great if more people were able to think like that – if it was just a more accepted part of concert going – the gamble we all take when we try something new. 

H: We took British works on our tour of China and that was really fascinating, because almost in the way that we were talking about how young children’s ears haven’t got used to the constraints of classical music, classical music in China hasn’t been part of the cultural heritage for hundreds of years as it has been in the West. It was totally different playing it there. For some members of the audience, Mozart for two violins was just as exotic and different and new as Spielend by John McCabe or David Matthews’ Eight Duos.

P: And talking to the audience afterwards – the English repertoire got a fantastic response.

You’ve just released your debut disk ‘English Violin Duos’ on NMC to great acclaim. What was it that drew you specifically to the English repertoire?

H: I think it started that we really wanted to record the John McCabe and the David Mathews, because they’d been written for our duo and we’d worked with the composers and passionately believed they deserved to be recorded. Then we thought it would make sense to have Rawsthorne on the disk as well, since it such a great work and because there’s a connection with John McCabe. We also knew the Moeran Sonata, which hadn’t been recorded commercially. We realised it was a fantastic work, considered, by biographers, to be one of his best. Again we thought that this needed to be recorded. Added to this we thought it would be great to commission a new work, which we did: the Jim Aitchison. 

Which was played in an art gallery, which is very much his thing?

H: We had a really wonderful project with an anthropologist, Dr Anna Portisch, who was exhibiting at the Brunei Gallery, part of SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies. She’d put a textile exhibition together and talked to us about the possibility of arranging some concerts to add to the experience of the visitors to the exhibition. We talked to Jim about it and he saw some of the artefacts she had: some Kazakh textiles, carpets and embroidered wall hangings for the inside of Kazakh yurts in Mongolia. He was really excited about it and so the piece grew out of that. He has built up a number of beautiful responses to works of art and wrote another duo for a concert we gave un Odessa after a Riley work Aurulum. Syruw is a very exotic piece when compared with the Moeran, at the same time it seemed to fit and add further sound colours to our programme.

Returning to John McCabe, you’ve also recorded his double concerto, Les Martinets Noirs recently.

P: The first piece I ever played of his was a solo work called Maze Dances. In it he creates wonderful irregular patterns that repeat within regular times so the aural emphasis is always changing. We saw that a lot in Les Martinets Noirs. He was somebody who really encouraged us with the violin duo because he was very excited by the repertoire. We played the Rawsthorne Theme and Variations, one of the pieces on the disk, and John was so involved with Rawsthorne himself that I think he gave us a lot of encouragement. We already knew that there was a lot of music that was really worth hearing, but it was nice to have a composer’s perspective: that he really judged these works to be very fine. His own music is always a joy to learn. Les Martinets Noirs means The Swifts – the two violin lines show all the aerobatic fun of the birds themselves. 

H: A joy to learn and a joy to listen to.

It’s music that doesn’t play to the gallery but really is possible for the average music lover to follow.

H: Yes, it all makes sense. He’s very masterful with structure. He does seem to love large spans of pieces. Both Spielend, the two violin work, and Les Martinets Noirs with the orchestra, both of those are continuous pieces, whereas a lot of duo compositions follow the Bartok model with collections of miniatures. 

What do you like about a piece of new music, what keeps you interested?

P: Aitchison’s music, for example, is so challenging to learn, every note is worth it. It’s almost impossible, but not impossible, so there’s no getting away with anything. He writes with an incredibly clear idea of sound and rhythmic relationship and dialogue between the instruments or lines when he writes for a solo violin for example.

H: I think that’s amazingly satisfying for us. It’s like a challenge. When we’re making sense of a new piece and it starts emerging, as if from the mist, and you see the full picture and understand what the composer wants and you feel that you’re producing what they want, then it’s an amazing feeling.

So, can I ask you the opposite: what might turn you off a new work?

P: I was going to say actually the printouts that people use from Sibelius! It’s just that they can all look the same. We have this copy of the Rawsthorne Theme and Variations: it’s got an illustration on the front, a sketch of a violin, it’s got a beautiful blue cover and I can find it on my shelf of a million Sibelius printouts really easily. I love to see the manuscript – and if anybody does write by hand anymore – I love that.

H: Yes! It’s like getting a handwritten letter as opposed to an email. Although it is really convenient to be able to see clearly… The other turn-off is that if you’re struggling against something that is not well written; putting so much effort in and you’re not convinced it’s worth it.

P: We played a piece a few years ago that seemed to leave no room for expression. I found that very difficult to perform with conviction. I didn’t really believe in it, and I didn’t believe that the composer had believed in it. That was a hard situation to be in. But really we’ve been very lucky…

H: Amazingly lucky!

P: …that most of the pieces we get to play have just been stunning.

What struck me when listening to the disk was just how full these work feel, though written for just two instruments. It’s not at all limited as a repertoire.

H: Yes that’s it. It’s what we believe.

P: Yes, for me if I were listening, that’s exactly what I’d want to think: that you forget the instrumentation and you’re just concentrating on the music.

And, a cheeky question that all composers ponder: do you ever read through unsolicited scores?

H&P: Yes we do!

P: Yes, we’ve just had a couple arrive last week, so we’ll be looking at those very soon. That’s a wonderful thing too. We’ve had scores sent to us from as far afield as China

H: Though we can’t programme everything we do try to look at everything and give it a chance.

What are your plans for the future?

P: Specifically for Retorica, we’re about to embark on a Presteigne Festival City Tour starting Friday 19th October. We’re going to play some of the pieces in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff and Oxford. We’re also joined by the fabulous viola player Sarah Jane Bradley for two works: the Rhapsodic Trio by Bridge…

H: Actually it’s three!

P: Of course! We’ve got the Bridge, the Dvorak Terzetto and a stunning new piece by Cecilia McDowall called Rousseau’s Execution. That’s the immediate next few weeks.

H: We have a long-term project as well. We’re going to be doing another CD. It will be four concertos, including a new commission by James Francis Brown. Also it will have Paul Patterson, Malcolm Arnold and Holst’s Double Violin Concertos.
Any other things together we can look forward to?

P: We’re going to be having a tour of Japan at some point in the Autumn of next year – dates are just being talked about – which will be very exciting.

H: And we’ve just been working on a couple of short music videos. We’ve recorded a movement of Prokofiev and some Bach Inventions. Those will be out quite soon.
And individually?

H: I play with other another group, Kosmos, that concentrates on both world and contemporary music. We have a new CD, called Pomegranate, coming out soon. I am also working on a new CD with a pianist Christina Lawrie. I’ve also got a few concertos lined up, including one by Graham Coatman, who will also be writing one for us both as Retorica.

P: And I’m going to be organising a concert with the wonderful pianist Joel Sachs, who’s professor on the Julliard Faculty and who has just completed a fascinating book on Henry Cowell. We’re going to be doing an American programme and also some piano trio concerts in the Spring. I’ll also be putting on some performances with the wonderful artist Anita Chowdry.

For more information about Retorica, please visit:

Retorica Website
NMC English Violin Duos page
Les Martinets Noirs
Harriet’s Mackenzie’s Website
Kosmos Website
Review of English Violin Duos on Composition Today
Prestiegne Festival

Composers’ Websites

John McCabe
David Matthews
Jim Aitchison
Robert Fokkens
Cecilia McDowall

Originally posted at Composition:Today ©Red Balloon Technology