Aaron Holloway-Nahum, composer & conductor

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music? 

My ‘instrument’ was voice (I was a tenor up until I entered my undergraduate work at Northwestern), and it was something that was encouraged by a number of hugely important teachers in my middle (Diana Leeland) and high school years (David Henderson, Jerry Elsbernd).  I never really seriously considered doing anything other than music, but I didn’t start composing until I was about 17 – when I was looking to arrange some music for my a cappella group.  My teacher must have had other ideas because he arranged for me to get a copy of Walter Piston’s Orchestration book.  I was immediately hooked on this idea of writing for orchestral instruments and began writing music for many hours each day all the way through until today!

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

This is such a huge question it’s hard to even know where to begin to answer, because anytime you start an answer you’re leaving out so many other vital things.  I was totally blessed with a series of utterly amazing teachers (Amy Williams, Augusta Read Thomas, Philip Cashian and Julian Anderson) who each gave me things that I still think about every day.  More recently, my work with my colleagues at Riot Ensemble is just utterly formative and transformative.  Being – as it were – in the trenches, and making new music in practical, exciting and fun ways in more than 30 concerts a year has played a huge role in helping me find my own way forward over the past years.  Most recently, probably, I should mention Peter Eötvös, who invited me onto his mentorship programme for 2018-2019.  The sheer generosity with which he’s always treated all of us, and the joy that he has in all his music making have been real models for me as I think about what I want things to look like over the next 5, 10 and 15 years of my musical life.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

I think keeping going has been – and continues to be – the hardest thing. At every stage there are things that push against you.  The early rejection letters and struggle to ‘get on the ladder’ as it were.  Later on the slowness of things, or perhaps one or two difficult performances that make you really question your abilities.  And now, having a young family and trying to find some semblance of security and stability in life, these are all really hard as a freelance musician and (I think) particularly for composers who don’t really have any stable ways to earn income outside of teaching.  I love teaching and have been really lucky to have a few great posts, but I also really value the other aspects of my career (recording, conducting). So it’s hard to exactly ’see the way forward’ over the coming years.  It’s certainly always interesting though!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

The latest ones! Right now that includes Riot Ensemble’s recent performance at Spitalfields Festival – a massive undertaking where we performed UK premiere’s by Nicole Lizee and Christopher Mayo, and a world premiere with Richard Reed Parry. We’re also about to release a CD on HCR with premiere recordings by Liza Lim, Rebecca Saunders, Chaya Czernowin and Mirela Ivicevic (a piece we commissioned) – and a piece by Anna Thorvalsdottir.  I think it’s a really awesome record and I’m proud of everything from the fundraising we had to do to make it happen, to the intensity of the recording sessions and post-production process, to the CD itself.  I think it’s really great and can’t wait to share it.

As a composer, well, I still really love my piano quartet The Geometry of Clouds, which I wrote for the Aspen Music Festival and then revised for Tanglewood.  I also think my most recent Wind Quintet – Ezra’s Nursery – a set of five nursery song’s for my young son are very much what I hope my music can be: playful, surprising and moving.  I’m now finishing up a new piece for Ensemble Plural and about to start a Bass Clarinet Concerto for Horia Dumitrache, so these are all really exciting projects for me, too.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

I think Riot Ensemble performs best when we’re playing contrasting pieces next to one another at top speed.  I’ve loved our programmes such as the Elliott Carter Double Concerto, which also included Molly Joyce and Pierce Gradone.  Total extremes of ’style’ which showcase the music in a way that I think is really modern and relevant to 2019.  I think Riot has also started to develop a real affinity with some composers such as Ann Cleare, Patricia Alessandrini, Lee Hyla, Clara Iannotta, Donghoon Shin and Chaya Czernowin.  Sometimes we haven’t even played a lot of these composers’ music yet, but you really hear how the players in the ensemble ‘get’ the composers deeply.

I also think that Solstices – the new work we’re premiering this month by Georg Friedrich Haas – showcases what the ensemble is about.  It’s a mammoth (c. 90 minute) piece entirely in darkness that blends notation, improvisation, tuning, listening and extremes of performance.  It’s taken a huge number of rehearsals – spread across many months – to really get the piece into our bodies and it’s something I think that’s quite unique about how seriously Riot approaches performing this music.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

The most revealing thing to say, I think, is that our repertoire isn’t chosen in a ’top-down’ fashion.  There’s as much variety as to how music is programmed in Riot’s concerts as there is in the repertoire itself.  Sometimes we’re collaborating with a festival, and they’ve got some piece they would like us to build a programme around.  Sometimes we’re totally self-presenting, and this music is chosen or suggested by members of the Artistic Board during our regular meetings.  We also have an annual call for scores (about to open!) in which two (or more) pieces are commissioned every year, and that normally involves every single one of our players in listening to hundreds of pieces that come our way.

Perhaps the one other thing I’d like to point out, though, is how practical this gets very quickly.  We might have a ‘wish-list’ piece (such as the Carter Double Concerto) but then the programming becomes very pragmatic as well.  What instruments do we have available in that piece?  What sort of budget we devote to this programme?  What is the venue, and what do we want the audience to experience?  These questions come up really fast (especially instrumentation!) and so I’m constantly saying to composers: your works lists must include instrumentation and duration, otherwise they’re basically useless to us…!

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

Actually very much not.  As much as I like the variety of music we perform, I love taking that music into many different venues.  Of course it’s wonderful to perform at a venue like LSO St. Luke’s, but we’re just equally at home at a place like Trinity Buoy Wharf and we’ve even given performances at places like MeWe360, which can have an intimacy and excitement that it’s just really hard to replicate in a concert hall.

As a composer, how would you describe your compositional style/musical language?

Inconsistent!  I think one of the things that’s actually quite tricky about my work as a composer is that it doesn’t do the same thing – or make the same sounds, or worry about being in the same ’style’ or ‘genre’ in one piece after another.  Still, there are things that come up again and again: melodic unisons, a blend of harmony and extended technique, a sort of ‘ripping open’ of the narrative with little ideas that peak into the piece and then disappear.  

I would also say that my music is very much for the performer.  I really deeply love musicians, and I want my music to be rewarding for them.  Sometimes it’s really extremely hard, but I want them to get to the end of it and really feel like they’ve had a musical experience, and been able to communicate something of their own joy/life/music/art to the audience with me.

As a composer, how do you work?

Who are your favourite musicians? 

I’m so lucky – because many of my absolute favourite musicians are right there on the Artistic Board of The Riot Ensemble.  You can just look at that list, and you have a real idea of the players I deeply, deeply love.  I could talk to you about each and every one of them at such length (but I won’t for now…!)

Within new music, I just couldn’t even begin to compile a list. It would go on for many, many pages.  I’ve been blessed to work with players such as Horia Dumitrache, HOCKET, Ensemble Nikel, Third Coast Percussion – to record groups like Ensemble Recherche and Ensemble Intercontemporain – and being in close quarters with performers like that…there’s nothing I love more.

I’m also a big fan of musicals, so Sondheim is a massive favourite of mine.  And I listen to a lot of jazz at home.  Recently groups like Myriad3, Tigran Hamasyan, Cécile McLorin Salvant.

And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my wife, Claudia Maria Racovicean….I just love everything about the way she plays and I’ve lost many hours of composing to instead listening to her practice Debussy or Enescu etc…

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

The first one that comes to mind is our performance at the Olive Oil factory during the Musica en Segura Festival.  We shared the evening with flamenco performers Rocío Bazán and Andrés Cansino, performed Rzewski’s Coming Together with Ignatius Farray and then joined with Rocío to perform Falla’s El Amor Brujo.  There was a huge audience in this town (350+) and it was outside and incredibly windy.  We all had the music fastened to our music stands, I conducted with one hand the whole concert (the other hand keeping the music on the stand) and it was just wild.  Rocío kicked a bottle of water off the stage at one point and everyone was just smiling and so happy to be there.  We came off stage and laughed and it was all just so joyful.  I loved it.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?  

Being able to keep going, to make the next piece, to put on the next concert.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Recently I keep coming back to this: music’s relevance to our time is directly tied to the way it honestly and authentically reflects the diversity of our time.  There’s so much music being made in so many different ways by people all over the earth.  No one idea or type of music has a monopoly on its Truth.  So stay open and listen all the time to anything you can.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?  

Writing the next piece and planning the next concert!

‘Solstices’, a 70-minute piece from Georg Friedrich Haas, which takes place entirely in darkness, receives its world premiere in Iceland on 26 January and its UK premiere at the Royal Academy of Music on 29 January, conducted by Aaron Holloway-Nahum. Further information here

Aaron Holloway-Nahum (b. 1983) is one of his generation’s leading composers, conductors and recording engineers.   

He writes music characterised by detailed timbres, bold melodic unisons and experimental narrative structures.  He is one of two composers on the 2018/19 Peter Eötvös Foundation mentoring programme, held the Elliott Carter fellowship at the 2015 Tanglewood Music Center, the 2014 Polonsky Fellowship at the Aspen Music Festival, and spent 5 weeks living and working in the home of Aaron Copland as a 2014 Copland House Residency Award Winner.

His pieces have been commissioned and performed across the world by ensembles such as the BBC Symphony OrchestraLondon Symphony Orchestra, HOCKETthe London SinfoniettaThird Coast PercussionEnsemble Chartreuseduo Harperc and the Atea Wind Quintet in concerts and festivals including the Aldeburgh Music FestivalMass MOCA Bang on a Can, Cheltenham, Carlsbad, EtchingshighSCOREDartington and Bowdoin Music Festivals. 

Aaron is a founding member, principal conductor and the Artistic Director of The Riot Ensemble, with whom he has programmed more than two-hundred World and UK premieres, conducting more than sixty of them.  This upcoming season includes further conducting work with the ensemble CAPUT (Iceland) and Norbotten NEO (Sweden).

Aaron is also a recording and editing engineer, and a managing director of Coviello Music Productions. He has recorded and produced ensembles such as the Arditti Quartet, Ensemble Recherche, Ensemble Signal, Trio Rafale and Ensemble Intercontemporain. 

Aaron’s writings about music regularly appear in blogs such as I Care if You Listen and New Music Box, and in journals such as Tempo.


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