Interview: An intimate correspondence from composer Martin Suckling

The Scottish Ensemble. Picture: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
The Scottish Ensemble. Picture: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
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Composer Martin Suckling has created a series of ‘postcard’ compositions for the Scottish Ensemble that display a welcome sense of spontaneity and brevity

POSTCARDS may no longer be the popular snapshot greeting they once were. Mobile phones and every other technological gizmo we carry around with us today, even on holiday, have taken care of that.

But Glasgow-born composer Martin Suckling and the all-string Scottish Ensemble (SE) have found a way of reinventing the art of postcard writing – or rather, they have rethought its aphoristic principles in musical terms to create an unfolding series of “musical postcards” that the composer – who is based in Manchester and lectures at York University – is “posting” one by one to the Glasgow-based Ensemble who will premiere each postcard as it arrives.

It’s a lovely idea, and one that brings with it the rather refreshing prospect of absolute brevity and spontaneity, even down to Suckling expressing in these ultra-short pieces the musical equivalent of a pithy “wish you were here”.

“One of the initial thoughts I had when presented with this idea was to write a series of love letters to the string orchestra,” he says. “The ‘postcard’ is a way of doing that.”

Next week’s tour of concerts by the SE will include the second and latest of Suckling’s postcards, the first – In Memoriam EMS - having already been aired by the Ensemble in its opening set of concerts last month, and which, according to The Scotsman’s reviewer, “packed a punch, combining ear-tweaking micro-tonality with intense lyricism”.

Followers of Suckling’s recent emergence as a composer to be watched will not be surprised by that particular description of his music. Microtonality – a system using musical intervals that fall between the semitone framework of traditional diatonic music – is something that particularly interests him, and can be found working potently in such major compositions as storm,rose,tiger, a highly impressive orchestral work that the Scottish Chamber Orchestra commissioned and premiered a year ago.

“I’ve been preoccupied with microtonal techniques for the past couple of years,” says Suckling. “I’m not trying to get away from normal diatonic stuff, but actually trying to integrate with it. You can have a typical seven-note scale, but by having two of these notes shifted minutely by a microtone you can transform the scale and create something that makes the music glow in a rather unique and radiant way.”

It was certainly at work in his first postcard, a piece that finally clicked into place for him as he exited his grandmother’s funeral.

“It was one of those pieces that started with a clear idea of where it was going, but in the end turned out to be something completely different. I just couldn’t make what I initially wanted to do work. But the moment I walked out into the beautiful, still, clear-moving air after my gran’s memorial service, I was hit by a cluster of emotions and sensations that stayed with me as I wrote the piece.”

Suckling describes the latest musical postcard – Mr Jonathan Morton: His Ground – as “a negative photo image” of In Memoriam EMS, in which the microtonal elements function in reverse. “While the first piece opens with a very static microtonal chord, becoming more melodic and energetic as it goes, this second piece is clearly diatonic to begin with, growing out from the middle register, finally reaching a microtonal chord at the end.”

As for the title of the newest piece, it’s a reference to Suckling’s intention of giving each of the musical postcards a context within its respective programme.

“This programme has two major sets of variations – Bach’s Goldberg Variations [orchestrated by Dmitry Sitkovetsky] and Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge – so I felt I had to write some form of variations in response to that.”

Suckling opted for the time-honoured “ground bass” formula, mainly because “the ground bass itself [a repeated theme over which variations unfold] doesn’t have to be too long”, but also because of the rich, polyphonic music that results, and which Suckling felt was something that would “make sense in the lovely church and cathedral acoustics we’ll be performing it in”. The title’s mention of Jonathan Morton refers to the Ensemble’s leader and artistic director.

Looking ahead to February, and an SE programme predominantly featuring concertos, Suckling intends to counter the two Baroque concerti grossi with what he is calling a “concerto piccolo”, describing it as “a temporal study in which three different movement types will happen at the same time”. Sounds more like concertina piccolo.

But just how does Suckling see this project in relation to his wider professional life? Is this world of miniatures small fry in comparison the longer pieces he generally writes, such as one he is currently writing for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, to be premiered next May at a new music festival directed by conductor Ilan Volkov?

“You face the same basic challenges, whether a piece is five minutes or ten minutes,” he says. “Whatever length it is, you have to find the language for that piece. That’s when it becomes fluent, and that’s when you know you’ll get it written in time. No matter what, there’s a deadline to meet.”

But just like writing a postcard – or these days a text – the musical mindset is fundamentally different from composing, say, an extended letter or essay. “Longer pieces evolve a great deal during the compositional process. You follow avenues that so often end up very different from the initial idea. With these short pieces, you only have time to set out the idea itself. But the effort is every bit as exhaustive.”

All of which sounds like Anton Webern reborn; or, as Suckling prefers, invites comparison with Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments, ultra-concise settings of Kafka’s pithy diary entries, and music one critic recently described as being “like peering at the ocean through a keyhole”.

At the end of the project – there are two postcards still to come – Suckling envisages combining them as a collection that could be performed as a longer suite.

“I like to think they might fit together as a booklet, a bit like Bach’s Notebooks for Anna Magdalena,” he says.

Meanwhile, let’s just enjoy them as they drop through the door. After all, don’t the best things come in small packages?

• The Scottish Ensemble premiere Martin Suckling’s latest “musical postcard” at the Caird Hall, Dundee on 3 December; Oran Mor, Glasgow, 4 December; Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, 5 December; St John’s Kirt, Perth, 6 December; Queen’s Cross Church, Aberdeen, 7 December; and Inverness Cathedral, 8 December, see