In our next concert of Musikfabrik in WDR tomorrow we will play amongst other pieces Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' "Eight Songs for a Mad King". Carl Rosman writes about how he came across this extraordinary pieces.
I can remember reasonably precisely the moment when I first became aware of Eight Songs for a Mad King: I was in the Victorian College of the Arts library in Melbourne, perusing an edition of Frederick Thurston's 'Clarinet Technique' which featured a chapter on "The Clarinet in 20th-Century Music" by Alan Hacker. (For what it’s worth, the twentieth century itself still had a decade to run.) Hacker singled out the clarinet part of Eight Songs for a Mad King for special mention, for its use of multiphonics. I dutifully sat myself down with the score and the library LP (it was that long ago...) - and indeed the clarinet writing was immensely inspiring, as was Hacker’s playing. (If I had to single out one clarinettist on record as Single Most Inspiring, it would be Hacker, not only for his recordings themselves but for the example of a player taking the widest possible view of the clarinet as a resource, refusing either to domesticate his sounds unnecessarily or to limit his view of the instrument to one particular moment in the clarinet’s history.) But the vocal writing grabbed my attention just as strongly and the thought of making such noises myself at some point on stage never quite went away.
I took part in many vocal projects over the following years - not only choral and small ensemble concerts but vocal and theatrical projects by various contemporaries (including a certain Liza Lim). I also performed a few solo clarinet pieces making use of the player’s voice: Richard David Hames’s Zurna was an early party piece, as was Vinko Globokar’s Voix Instrumentalisée, where the bass clarinet’s mouthpiece remains in the dressing room and the performer’s voice, directed through the instrument, is deployed over a wide range from guttural growls to screaming falsetto. I also played the clarinet part of Eight Songs for a Mad King on various occasions - one particularly happy such occasion being at the Adelaide Fringe Festival where the players were presented with bottles of Eight Songs Shiraz, named after the piece by winemaker Peter Lehmann after performances at his vineyard.
Eventually pieces started to be written for me where my own voice was brought into play, of which Richard Barrett’s interference quickly became, and is likely to remain, the most spectacular example. Richard was working on a piece for solo contrabass clarinet when he dreamt an opening passage in which I sang Latin in high falsetto while accompanying myself on a pedal bass drum. Discussions of the specifics of my vocal capabilities ensued; the fact that an inhaled vocal fry allows the lowest note of the contrabass clarinet to be produced as a more or less recognisable pitch was put to good use, as was a random laugh oscillating between vocal registers in a rehearsal for an improvised project with the ELISION ensemble.
Within a few years things began to move in a very interesting circle. interference began to appear in Musikfabrik concerts, bringing my voice to the ears of people who were eventually in need of someone to undertake this sort of vocal gymnastics. In 2010, expecting to play clarinet in Samir Odeh-Tamimi’s opera Leila und Madschnun for the Ruhrtriennale, I suddenly found myself covering one of the principal parts. We had made a preliminary recording of the first few scenes so that the production staff could hear what the instrumental texture would sound like - this is more or less standard practice in contemporary opera, but as a bonus we prepared a version with me singing the vocal line and one thing led to another. Peter Rundel, the conductor of Leila und Madschnun, then asked me to sing the vocal solos in the 2011 Wiener Festwochen/La Fura dels Baus of Xenakis’s Oresteïa. And not long afterwards, Anne-May Krüger (to whom, it should hardly need saying, I am eternally grateful) asked me if I might be interested in singing Eight Songs for a Mad King itself, as the other half of a double bill with her own performance of Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot.
I had managed my recent vocal outings without having had anything in the way of vocal tuition for some years, but Eight Songs for a Mad King seemed in a different league from anything I had recently undertaken. (Even though Oresteïa involves not much less actual singing time, the voice is not required to do so many different things - and although Kassandra is fairly strenuous stuff there is not a single pitch specified, which up to a point permits the singer to work around whatever state the voice might be in at any given moment.) Anne-May had wisely given me a substantial lead time before the first planned performance, so I had time to consider my options. Not long afterwards, we had the first vocal rehearsals for Ensemble Musikfabrik’s performances of Harry Partch’s Delusion of the Fury, and our vocal coach, Martin Lindsay, was able to take me on for individual lessons. It transpired that he himself had been for many years the singer of choice for Ensemble Recherche’s performances of the Eight Songs - even though at that stage I was looking for help towards a basic classical technique rather than specific tips for the piece, I took this as an auspicious coincidence.
Max (as he insisted from the beginning we should call him) was in attendance at rehearsals - I can’t pretend that that made my first performance of the piece any less stressful, but of course if I had waited any longer to meet him I would not have met him at all. He was in extremely good form and spirits for someone who had been in a literally life-threatening state not so long before - constantly encouraging and offering endless insights into the piece, some of which flatly contradicted his own score. I asked him at one point if he had any tips on violin smashing. His response: “do it with love!”. (The general rehearsal was my first chance to smash a violin - not an experience I had been anticipating happily and still not something I could conceivably do outside the piece. I gave Max the soundpost (called the ‘soul’ in both French and Italian), which he carefully stored away in his wallet - of course I then sent him the ‘souls’ of the victims of subsequent performances while he was still alive.) I was also able to ask Max if he was aware of Eight Songs Shiraz - indeed he was, having been flown to the launch thereof and being the regular recipient of a specially dispatched case. As I had brought a bottle of Eight Songs with me, I was also able to share it with him and the players after the performance - my first of eight so far - and to take a cherished photograph of Max brandishing the bottle, with an appropriately cheerful look in his famously piercing blue eyes.