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In conversation with: Piers Tattersall

Piers Tattersall was born in Salisbury, and his composition teachers have included Malcolm Singer, Gary Carpenter, and Joseph Horovitz. After completing his studies at the Royal College of Music (generously supported by scholarships from the Countess of Munster Musical Trust and the Royal College of Music) he took up a residency at La Ville Matte in Sardinia working with violinist Valentino Corvino, and pianist Peter Waters. Piers is, along with pianist Christopher Guild, a founding member of The Edison Ensemble and is currently a PhD student at the university of Brunel studying with Professor Peter Wiegold. Much of his recent music utilises the radio.
Why the radio?
The first thing for me is that I see musical material and musical form as very closely aligned with each other and in many ways dependent on each other. For example, I see the quality of a starting musical idea as having a direct impact on the overall duration of a piece and to the extent that I evaluate my ideas in terms of how long I think they are interesting for.
Between 2007 and 2012 I found my ideas for pieces shared a lot of the same harmonic implications, involving dyads and semitone voice-leading. I liked this harmonic language a lot. It was both quite acerbic but also elegiac. However, the consistency of my ideas meant that a lot of my pieces had the same kind of formal features and they began to feel stale. I both loved the pieces I was writing but also felt they were not everything I wanted to say as a composer. I wanted to keep the flexibility and sophistication of my harmony but I also wanted it to be capable of a broader expressive range.
At around the same time I was also interested in the way music was distributed and consumed (Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is very good on this) and this lead to me having a great interest in electronic music. Given the prominence of electronics in so many other areas of life, their absence in my music felt artificial or at least required some explanation. One explanation I gave myself was that electronic music lacked the intimacy of purely acoustic performance and mostly I still stand by this. However, I was clueless as to how to actually incorporate electronics or electronic sounds into my pieces.
I wanted to find some kind of electronic music that had the same kind of intimacy and familiarity as live performance. The radio was my way into classical music in the first place and so it kind of fitted with what I wanted to do. My plan was to hold onto my ideas about harmony, but subject them to some disruption from the radio.
The radio also meant that I could include a kind of electronic sound that could be very diverse with minimal processing, and yet would force my ideas to change. I’ve got one piece for flute and radio that has a semi-improvised passage of flute music over a live broadcast. In different performances we’ve had news reports about bombing Libya and a discussion about cello design in the 18th century. I hope the radio parts in my pieces are disruptive, but in a way that still has the intimacy that is part and parcel of performing on an acoustic instrument.
A number of your titles contain the names of people e.g. Kreisler, l’entre deux guerres, René’s Empire of Light and others – is there a reason for this?
The first piece of music I heard with a person’s name in it was Cassandra’s Dream Song by Brian Ferneyhough. I like the idea of linking a piece to a person or character as it makes the music more personal. I find a lot of the ritual of art music can make it seem impersonal, but this helps to balance that out, rather like hearing “Jesu Christe” in the middle of an ornate liturgy. It reminds me (and I hope other listeners too) that persons are profoundly important both in life and in high art.
Have you had a favourite ‘moment’ as a composer; a significant career achievement, or some other event that’s been inspirational?
I don’t think it could ever be just one moment, but the following moments have been significant. Hearing Ravel’s Piano Trio in the Salisbury Festival had me in tears. The premiere of my trio We Shall Not Meet Between was the best premiere I’ve ever had. There was a time 2 years ago when I realised that I will always be a composer because I will always find myself composing, however busy I get with family and teaching.
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Can you tell me about We Shall Not Meet Between – what is the piece, and what made it such a successful premiere?
The performers worked really, really hard, absolutely nailed the premiere and performed it in my favourite concert hall (Cadogan Hall). The piece is based on 2 ideas appearing to be very closely related to each other but nevertheless remain irreconcilable. In this case it was the irreconcilable nature of dyads and monody (although arguably this tension is resolved with the use of octaves in the piano in the coda).
Most people reading this are musicians just beginning their composition journey – is there any advice you’d give to those just starting out?
1. Don’t expect composing to be easy (mostly it isn’t and if it is easy you may be doing it wrong)
2. Don’t expect that you will have arrived with a fully fledged musical language by the end of a 3- or 4-year degree.
3. Take all the criticism you can cope with. Some of the best advice I ever had was from a friend who said (he almost shouted!) the following to me in the most uncompromising terms “get some ideas [and] get some events”
Image Credit: Emma-Ruth and Piers talking about their inspiration with Matt Downes – newdots

Posted by author: Ben Gaunt
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  • Apologies for the swearing that was at the end of this piece and any offence it may have caused, it has now been removed.

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