In this NMC Archive blog, Helen, flautist from the Marsyas Trio, tells us about their album, In the Theatre of Air, which was released in October 2018.
In the summer of 2015 we had the pleasure of meeting Welsh-born composer Hilary Tann. We were planning our next commission and invited her to lunch. At that time the Marsyas Trio had been performing Hilary’s Gardens of Anna Maria Luisa de Medici. I love her style, which seems to fuse a French aesthetic with an obvious passion for the Japanese Shakuhachi flute. As we gradually overcame the shyness one feels when meeting a composer for the first time, we bounced ideas back and forth. We had recently witnessed the awe-inspiring spectacle of the murmuration of starlings off the Brighton pier. Hilary loved it. Her music is full of musical visualisations. This was the beginning of a journey which has culminated in the release of this album, aptly named In the Theatre of Air. We can only thank the NMC team for their endless support and hard work.
Breathing life into a new piece takes multiple performances, numerous sessions with the composer, and deep-diving into the composer’s other work, to fully appreciate what’s been written on the page. And then a recording to ensure the piece lives on and is played by others.
Since its beginnings almost a decade ago, the Marsyas Trio has championed music by women composers. Our repertoire is full of hidden gems. It seemed only natural to celebrate the Suffrage Centenary with an album by living British women composers. In the early days of the Trio, we put forward programme after programme to concert promoters…“The Great Gender Divide”, “Why No Women Mozarts”… It’s really exciting that so many people are now as enthused about women composers as we are.
100 years ago this album would never have been possible. Now the sky is the limit. Which composers could we include that would represent how far we have come in the last 100 years? How could we represent multiple generations and the vast diversity in musical styles that we have today – with a balance between breaking new ground and touching the soul?
It’s an immense privilege for the Marsyas Trio to have been able to include the awesome line-up on this album. Judith Weir, the first woman to become Master of the Queen’s Music, a prolific composer whose music is inspirational and multi-dimensional. Our scoop came one Friday evening when I was at home trawling the internet. Judith’s Several Concertos had never been recorded! Or had it? I wrote to her. Indeed there existed no commercial recording. I couldn’t believe it. Here was our opportunity to share something striking and new. Recording is still hugely relevant. And powerful. We now have the ability to reach a global audience via the internet.
We then discovered the short, poetic piece, Canta, Canta!, by Thea Musgrave and wrote to ask her permission to make a version for alto flute. I love the alto flute. It has the depth of sonority of the bigger wind instruments whilst retaining the lyricism and expression of the voice. This piece translated beautifully from the original for clarinet. In 2018 Thea celebrated her 90th birthday and was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Music. We had to laugh when we saw Judith Weir had photo-bombed the image of Thea with the Queen, accepting her award! (see the image here)
Alongside these icons of British music, we wanted to represent voices of our own generation. Georgia Rodgers is undoubtedly a unique figure in today’s composing scene. A scientist and acoustician, she has a feel for finding unconventional beauty in sound via a scientific approach. We premiered her piece York Minster at our album launch concert, a piece that explores the acoustic properties of that building, designed with deliberately ‘out of tune’ notes that create a mesmerising experience in colour.
Finally, Laura Bowler’s work Salutem completes the British line-up. We had commissioned this as a theatre work in 2014. It is a nod to George Crumb’s ground-breaking work Vox Balaenae, and extends on his language and concept to bring us into the Modern Age. Laura is a fearless composer who stretches the boundaries beyond anything I could have imagined. This piece was the biggest challenge for us in the recording studio, demanding that our engineers pull out all the stops in order to realise the ambitious, transformational quality of this work. We performed this with its original Shadow Puppetry at the launch with the fantastic Smoking Apples company.
To round off the album, we agreed with Eleanor Wilson, NMC’s General Manager, to include a bonus track of a gorgeous short piece by Amy Beach, written a year after American women got the right to vote. Beach was an incredible talent who fought to break social and cultural norms in order to pursue her career. One can’t help but reflect on the juxtaposition of her life and struggle with that of her modern British female counterparts on this album.
There is no other ensemble in the UK doing what we are doing – flute, cello and piano trio is not your standard Piano Trio. This ensemble dates back to Clementi and Haydn, yet in the early days we would side-step exclamations of “A Piano Trio with FLUTE??” In our own way, we are trying to break moulds. The Trio’s name reflects the heroic stand of Marsyas against the higher deity Apollo.