Peter Sheppard Skærved: Music for the Cast Courts
We’re here in the Cast Courts at the V&A, which were opened in the early 1870s and contained the most marvellous collection of plaster casts and electrotypes of objects from all over Europe, Spain, Italy, Germany and Britain. And people could come here and see these marvellous copies of great monuments, which they might otherwise not have been able to see, especially in the 19th century. And these courts have been popular ever since and have created all sorts of responses and a sense of drama and theatre.
Peter Sheppard Skærved
In the music we have chosen to play this evening in this amazing space, we’ve chosen to play pieces which take a view on some of those dialogues; of course the north, south fight as a battle in many ways is reflected in the fact that we’re playing Bach and we’re playing as close as an Austrian composer gets to writing Italian music, that’s Biber; we have music which is inspired by some of the Nordic art around us, a horn piece. But perhaps most excitingly in the fact that everything about a violin like this one – this Italian violin here – is truly classical and a brass instrument by its nature comes from the other end of the world, is a northern instrument. So I wanted to play that game, of having everything about the northern sounding brass competing or dialoguing with this very, very classical thing I’m holding here. So we’re playing with the idea in this space.
I have, as my colleagues like pointing out, almost no taste at all in music. I love what I’m listening to or playing or I love whatever painting I’m looking at. For me, music, like art is this thing we do every day. Like a religious office it’s something we simply repeat. I’m not really terribly interested in monumentality. I’m very interested in smallness, in the human scale of things, alongside a large building, a great cathedral, the gates of Hildesheim behind us, Trajan’s column in Rome.
What’s fantastic for me about being a violinist is that it reminds us that we are small alongside nature’s creations and when you walk around, say, the ambulatorium of a great cathedral, you’re taken through a space in a very human way. Of course, we’ve got a horn here. Horn does something very different. A horn makes splendour fall on castle walls and really is a monumental solo instrument, something I can’t possibly compete with, so I’m not going to try to.
We’re going to play with the idea of navigation, more in the idea of where the sound comes from. Rather than run the audience all over the place, I’m going to play with it in two ways, one by using the two arches behind us, another by having the piece by Michael Alec Rose coming from literally in a kind of, in alta solitudine. But also, with playing with an idea of space, so for instance, I’m playing a piece by Biber which is based on the idea of going through life as a pilgrimage, but with a guardian angel leading you. And for some reason inside me, I feel this something close to walking among the graves of the kings at the other end of the space. I don’t know quite why. One of the best things about being an artist is we can do things for really irrational reasons and the more I know about all these things around me now, and I’ve been in love with many of these objects since I was a teenager, the more I want to play with the artistic freedom not to reflect them in a factually true way but to, literally, to play with them as we do on stage.
I think when we’ve travelled round the world the most exciting thing is finding different cultures and finding ways that that culture can perhaps seep into a new piece of music. So different pieces that we’ve worked on, Pernambuco, which has a Brazilian feel and has the feel of ethnic Brazilian instruments as we’re seeping into the world of the violin to another work though it wasn’t written for use specifically, the Lindisfarne stone based on the monks’ carvings on the island of Lindisfarne, depicting the sacking of the Vikings. Trying to bring these different atmospheres into the music, I think is certainly a way of helping the music breathe and have identity and I think the piece that you’re playing this evening, Loulan, has a Chinese relationship. We heard a Chinese wedding party, the music of the festivities, and found ways of letting that musical culture seep into the world of the violin. And I think, for me, that is much better than writing sonata number 1. And in many ways, because of the culture that it comes from, it’s not looking at music being performed in a sanitised, specifically made concert hall and for me that means music can be alive.
There are three pieces that I’m performing this evening. All of them are ‘calls’ the first one is a call that was written to be performed in the monument of the Great Fire of London and then we’ve got a Viking call and then we’ve go an inter-stellar ‘call’. So, they’re very projected, they’re very different to the sound of the violin and I really wanted to make the most of the space, and how I could really make a dichotomy between the two instruments.
So, walking into the space, I really thought that the sound would be cathedral-like, that it would be quite boomy, that it would echo in a very different way to how it did. When I first started playing, I found that the colours of the harmonics that come out of the French horn, each one is really pronounced and lingers in the building and makes a really smeary sound which really interests me especially in the Messiaen piece that I’ll be performing last. That’s really the kind of sound I’m looking for, so this room is very interesting to play in first of all.
All my piece for Sutton Hoo attempts to do is to iron out some of those historical processes and to replicate and even exaggerate the out of tune notes that are heard on the early Hunting horn. And by doing so in a way that is very similar to the plaster cast process that this room is all about, I’m trying to evoke the past, I’m trying to evoke something that we might have lost and in this case it is a hunting call for Vikings and Anglo Saxon settlements in East Anglia.
Peter Sheppard Skærved
If you look at the arch above me, it’s covered, it’s an orchestra up there. There are psalteries, there are harps, there are citoles, there are citterns, there are violins before the bow came back along the Silk Road, plucked things. Just as much as my pleasure of Trajan’s column is reading it in the same way that you read a cartoon book, you walk round and you see the guys doing that, the testudo being held there and then you move on to the next picture. And what I’ve really enjoyed is the fact that I hadn’t realised until I walked in here that Trajan’s column is right next to the Christian equivalent, clearly made by an artisan, had either been told about it, maybe had seen it, I don’t know. So I like pieces which play with storytelling, maybe in a big frame in the way that Biber’s Chaconne is a huge 10-minute frame but it’s a moment to moment experience like the fact with the sculpture, you have to walk around it to see it, you can’t take it in, in one go.
On the 14 September 2012, violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved brought two composers, Nigel Clarke and David Gorton, with a virtuoso horn-player, Carly Lake, to the Cast Courts. They set music old and new, from North and South, in the dramatic context of this wonderful space and its unmatched collection.
Music by Clarke, Gorton, Michael Alec Rose, Bach, Biber, Messiaen and Jolivet. Interviews with Peter Sheppard Skærved, Marjorie Trusted (Senior Curator of Sculpture at the V&A), Carly Lake, David Gorton and Nigel Clarke.