Composer Julian Cochran has two phrases in his publicity blurb which leap out of the page. One, tender and intimate, gives a clue to the man:
Having taken up piano lessons at the age of 11 at the encouragement of his mother who sadly died not long after, Julian's gift to her was the ability at this tender age to create compositions on the piano, setting a path for a lifelong passion for composing. “I can still remember playing a piano composition to my grandmother shortly after my mother's death – so composing wasn't something that was a professional choice or something I decided to do, but rather a way of thinking or a manner of looking at life.”
The other, which gave rise to this article, asks:
How does a Cambridge born formally trained pure mathematician find his classical music compositions performed on the world stage at Carnegie Hall?
Indeed! The relationship between mathematics and music is no secret. The 17th century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz wrote:
Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.
Just open a score of Bach fugues to see how mathematical structures lie at the very heart of music. So how does Cochran connect maths and music?
Mathematics is beautiful, any clear thought actually is beautiful. No-one thinks about the basis of sound, I think, when composing in the sense that a tennis player doesn't think about the wind friction over the ball. When I wrote computer games some of the mathematics involved was sophisticated. The way mathematics is used in even my most abstract music is utterly trivial in comparison. The relationship between composing and mathematics is that of temperament rather than intellect. You are thinking abstractly and applying logic, you are constructing something that in both cases really doesn't apply to the real world, you know, you can't observe it with a microscope, and that perhaps requires a certain kind of temperament, perhaps a love of the most direct and elegant solutions of logic, common to both mathematics and composition. You certainly must be able to think clearly to be a composer because a lot of modelling of ideas have to be held within the mind at once.
Thinking clearly is something Cochran evidently does well: many of his piano works are extremely complex and intricate. But he is no computer churning out music to mathematical formulae; having a mind that is suited to maths means that he is also quick to find order and beauty out of the chaos of musical inspiration.
I think the public often misunderstand composers as writing the music upon a page while conceiving – generally the notation is done in a rush as the last step after the work is already conceived. The important thing is that the music is conceived completely without the limiting characteristic of moving to notation too early. It is very easy to compose something that appears to be wonderful by just manipulating symbols on the page and this could even have at lot of ingenuity – but is completely ineffective in what is actually communicated, and inspiring to no-one. It is in this way that music is very different to other activities more focussed on syntax such as mathematics or computer programming. In fact the very best mathematicians often avoid syntax and conceive objects and relationships without syntax almost to completion before moving to the arduous task of representing the ideas with syntax.
In fact, mathematics touches on philosophy as much as science: thoughts and ideas, not just precise equations. Images of Einstein with his violin put paid to ideas of soulless scientists. In fact, Cochran keeps away from structures that might force him to fix his ideas too quickly. The pen, piano and pc are kept at arm's length for most of the compositional process.
The larger amount of time away from the piano is where the important work is done. This includes repeating the composition, singing it to yourself within the mind, not exactly, but with enough sense that the structure can be critiqued, the dynamics increased, and when returning to the piano later suddenly the music ideas are so much clearer… I have learned by trial and error that the most fruitful approach is to leave notation to as late in the process as you can bear. The music should be highly refined within the mind, you should be deeply in love and desperate to start the notation before a single note is written.
American novelist John Barth wrote, “My feeling about technique in art is that it has about the same value as technique in lovemaking. Heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill; but what you want is passionate virtuosity.” Many of Cochran's pieces are technically challenging; but what does he feel when virtuosity and passion come together in performance?
I know that much of the audience can be spellbound by the pianist's technique but I do not think in this way while composing nor listening to a performance. The strongest effect upon the listener is from the musical ideas themselves. Passion can be thought of as tastefully exaggerated or clarified expression of the musical subject. Virtuosity is just the necessary task to play the subject clearly. So these two things are still just in service to the music.
The English-born Australian composer, still in his thirties, is doggedly climbing the precarious ladder which leads to the small and very crowded niche of classical composers who enjoy renown for their work. Cochran received a standing ovation when pianist Gil Sullivan performed some of his pieces at New York's Carnegie Hall. As a fine pianist himself, Cochran is known for his improvisations in front of an audience.
I can give a one and a half-hour concert that is one hundred percent a string of improvisations. Provided my concentration remain strong – and perhaps the help of a sports drink – they will sound to the audience as completed compositions… To convince the audience that the subject is really being created in front of them, I would need to give 20 hour concerts over a series of days. This is still not out of the question.
Cochran's music is influenced by the great piano composers – Liszt, Ravel – but also by folk music of Eastern Europe. This began when he fell in love with the sounds of the Russian language, and his passion for folk music of the region followed.
Folk music is appealing by definition. It is nothing other than popular music of the past that has survived by virtue of being appealing – the great time filter. Much of the popular music played today will not be heard in 100 years but some of it will and that will be what we call folk music in 2100.
I can remember when I learned to play various scales aged about 11 and which was my favourite scale. It was the harmonic minor. I liked the end of the scale, the semi-tone, tone-and-a-half, semi-tone. This occurred to me just recently – but this is the basis of the Romanian Scale which is in most of my Mazurkas and some of the Romanian Dances. Despite this I only actually heard a lot of 18th and 19th Century Eastern European folk music in my 20s and was greatly influenced by it.
Writing classical music from the perspective of folk music places greater emphasis on melody, less emphasis on ideas that are not entirely clear to the audience.
I see my music as having a strong semblance with dance and ideally would like to accept commissions to write ballets. This could involve new works or orchestrating my Mazurkas for example.
Listening to his Mazurkas and Romanian Dances, each three or four-minutes in length, it is easy to imagine them being used in a collage of ballet scenes, rather like Roland Petit's Gymnopédies or Maurice Béjart's Isadora dances. This could be rich territory for Cochran, and choreography is often maths: the 1-2-3-1-2-3 of the counting, the complex arrangements of the corps on the stage, and Rudolf Laban's notation system for dance resembles somewhat mathematical equations.
But then the whole world is mathematics, from bar codes in the supermarket to the criss-cross of cars on the motorway. Mathematicians see the patterns that the rest of us observe as life continuing around us. Musicians see patterns in sound that the rest of us experience as waves of emotion washing over us.
Russian-born Igor Stravinsky, whose passion for ballet was long-lasting and strong, said:
The musician should find in mathematics a study as useful to him as the learning of another language is to a poet. Mathematics swims seductively just below the surface.
Read the full interview here: Julian Cochran's interview for Gramilano, 27 September 2012
Pianist Gil Sullivan will be performing all five of Julian Cochran's Mazurkas during his upcoming concert series:
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.