In Mary Bellamy’s transference, on the ELISION CD by the same name, cellist Séverine Ballon always seems to be at play with both the surface and the underside of the sound. The sounds themselves have real beauty, and an indescribable coherence from one to the next. Bellamy wrote about exploring, with Ballon, “the subtle ways material can be altered depending on the combination of playing techniques used.” There is constant variation of timbre and effect. The sounds seem incredibly delicate, and yet they travel into unexpectedly bold and even fierce territory, and I find it impossible to trace how they got there. It’s not a simple transition, but it’s as if the power of each sound is hidden within the knife-edge of its earliest appearance.
We spoke last year about her experience with and around the piece.
You had a quote on BMIC [now SAM] where you talked about placing material in a space. [“When I am writing a piece I find I am most concerned with its shape and that, although there is a lot of detail within the musical material, the architecture of the piece takes precedence. I work with an imaginary sense of the space the piece will occupy and composing it becomes a process of placing material into that space.”] It seemed like your approach, based on that quote, starts from the outside and works in, but the approach towards transference was very much related to Séverine’s playing and worked from the inside out. Was that a conscious change, or was it dictated by the circumstances?
I’ve done a few collaborative projects, and I think that has changed the way I work a little bit since what I wrote in the BMIC website. So it wasn’t really a conscious choice. I suppose it was just a result of starting the project from a collaborative angle that changed the way that I worked there. But I do much prefer to work in that way rather than starting from outside.
Oh really, so is that a change generally in your working method?
Yeah. I’ve been trying to find opportunities to collaborate, ideally.
So that’s really a preferred starting point, with the player and with the circumstance.
Yeah. I’m still happy to write pieces where I don’t get to work with the performer, but I just find it a much more worthwhile and enjoyable way to compose, to have contact with the instrument and the actual player.
I do as well, actually. You started to address this, I think, in the [CeReNeM] blog posts. Was there some idea of the space that you wanted to occupy in this piece, of what the overall shape was, or was there something sort of going in before the meetings?
Not at all actually, no. I did have a few sketches, but I don’t think we ended up really looking at them in the first meeting. Really it was just, Séverine was showing me a lot of different sorts of sounds that she could get, multiphonics, some prepared cello sounds, and different bowings. So it was really just trying to find sounds that I might want to develop into a piece. So although I had taken some sketches along, it didn’t feel like the right time to start looking at those in the first meeting.
And once you had some sketches, after meeting for the first time, were there some things that you had from the beginning that stayed intact?
Yeah, there was the opening of the piece which has stayed the same throughout, probably since our second meeting. I wrote quite a long stretch of the opening material, and that sound has basically stayed as the opening. But everything else has really changed a lot. I’ve reworked the material a lot, and changed the structure. It’s been a really different way of working, I think, hearing things back in real time and being able to go away and restructure them.
Beyond the very specific techniques, what was the impact of Séverine’s playing on the piece? Was there something broad-scale that you wanted to bring to it from what you knew of her playing?
I think it’s very hard to pin-point what that is. I think her playing has had a big impact on the piece, and the way I thought about the cello when I was writing it. I’ve never heard her improvising, but she does do a lot of work as an improviser. But I purposely didn’t want her to improvise in our sessions anyway, because I didn’t want that to influence…
Oh, so you didn’t want that direct influence, so it was more looking at, what about this and this sort of sound?
Yeah. But I think in her improvisation she tends to focus on quite quiet sounds, subtle sorts of sounds, multiphonics and things like that, different sorts of bowings which bring out different distortions. And generally my pieces are quite subtle, and do focus on quite quiet material. So I think there was a sort of connection there anyway.
Yeah, there was a good meeting point. Are there other things you wanted to talk about in relation to the piece or how it happened, where it went, surprises in that whole process?
Well I think it did make the compositional process quite different for me, because I had the opportunity to try out so many things. So often if I don’t have the opportunity to keep meeting up with the performer, I might focus on one very specific type of material. But this, I think, has given me more scope to try a variety of different ideas, although I think it’s quite unified in the end.
But it took that process to get there, and to be able to say, what if you took this in this direction? How would it work?
Exactly, yeah. I rewrote the piece about four times, I think, with different materials that haven’t actually made it into the final one. But I’ll probably use those in other cello pieces, because I have quite a lot of further ideas that I didn’t think would belong in this work, but could belong in another work.
Was there anything that you were just completely surprised by, for example that just had no idea that the instrument could go there, or that you would go there?
I’m not sure about that, actually. I think I was always really daunted about writing a cello piece, about the idea of writing a cello piece, because there are so many great, iconic works for solo cello. I wasn’t sure if the sorts of sounds that I generally work with would suit that instrument, but I think that’s maybe what surprised me is how, working with Séverine, I’ve been able to find the sorts of sounds that I didn’t really think I would be able to work with on the cello. There’s another thing that I found really interesting about the whole process. We’ve worked so closely together on the material, and Séverine has been playing through bits of it, so she kind of knows all the content, virtually. But when I gave her the finished score and she went away for a month to work on it and then came back, it was just really astonishing the way that she’d shaped the piece, and that she’d brought so much more, or she communicated so much more through the material than even in the sessions when we’d been working.
So you kept on discovering the piece…
Absolutely, yeah. It’s amazing though, the way performers have that ability to communicate a piece, to shape it.
transference is available on the CD by the same title, through amazon.co.uk and the University of Huddersfield online store. A portrait concert at this November’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival will include three pieces by Bellamy: new work for solo cello, Séverine Ballon, new work for solo bass flute, Richard Craig, and new work for contrabass recorder and cello, Genevieve Lacey and Séverine Ballon. The solo cello and solo flute works have been written in collaboration with the performers.