Dr Alexander Hills

BMus, MMus, PGDip, DMA

Academic Studies - Academic
Research Programmes -  

Composer, pianist and lecturer in theory and analysis

Alex is a composer and lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music, where he co-ordinates the  Techniques and Analysis component of the BMus degree and runs a postgraduate pathway on Analysis and Aesthetics. His music has been played by many leading European and American contemporary music groups, recently including EXAUDI and Ensemble +-, and the first portrait CD of his music was released on Carrier Records in 2013. He is particularly interested in developing long-term collaborations with performers, and his piece for Plus-Minus was the result of a project on spectral and resonance aspects of the piano with Roderick Chadwick. He has also given papers on the application of Russian formalist literary theory (specifically Shklovsky’s notion of Ostranenie or Enstrangment) to both compositional creativity and music analysis. He studied at the Academy with Michael Finnissy and completed a doctorate at Stanford University supervised by Brian Ferneyhough.

‘A composer of interesting and considerable gifts’ — Tim Rutherford-Johnson, reviewing ‘The Music of Making Strange’, in Tempo, January 2014.

Research Statement

The core of Alex’s research interest is composition, and in particular finding ways to write music in which expectation can be both generated and undermined, especially through an engagement with notions of narrative and genre that is often deliberately problematic. He has had a long-term fascination with the work of the early 20th-century Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky, and his notion of ‘enstrangement’. This suggests that art works on us by taking something familiar and, by making it transfiguring it into unfamiliar to us, forces us to see/feel/hear that thing anew — he says ‘to make the stone feel stoney’. Alex’s largest work to date (the hour-long Everything in Life Can be Montaged) is an exploration of Shklovsky’s ideas, and ends with a setting of fragments of the seminal paragraph where enstrangement is first described. The ‘everything’ being montaged in the work includes musics that coexist uncomfortably – Lachenmann and South American shamanic chant, Bjork and Gerard Grisey.

His current compositional projects involve both this destabilising approach, especially in relation to genres which are uncomfortable in what he considers a broadly modernist aesthetic, and an exploration of various approaches to the overtone series. Spectral approaches provide both a contrary, expectation generating, home, and another level of contradiction. His recent String Quartet puts into conflict an overtone series based on C, and pseudo-Beethovenian (and rather hubristic) counterpoint in C minor. A just completed quintet, ‘1958–1961’, takes a loose ‘hearing’ of Ornette Coleman’s seminal albums of that period and transforms the rhythm section into spectrally derived string harmonies. More recent compositional projects include a work for piano, ensemble and electronics, collaborating with Roderick Chadwick and Ensemble Plus-Minus. This will explore the extent to which the piano’s equal tempered harmonic space can be modified and enhanced by just-intonation resonance. This project will also produce musicological work on precedents for spectral approaches to the piano, from Chopin and Liszt through to Messiaen and Grisey. A further musicological project underway is an article exploring my interest in narrative readings of form, with a particular emphasis on digression as a means of enstrangement.

Output

Recent Works/Performances:

String Quartet (with Ruysdael Quartet), 2011–12 season

1958–1961 (with Ensemble Earplay, San Francisco), 2011–12 season

New work for Piano and Ensemble (with Ensemble +-), 2012
Knight’s Move — Either/Or Spring Festival, Tenri Institute, New York (with Alex Waterman and David Shively), March 2010

Some States Can be Resolved Rhythmically — ICA Calling Out of Context Festival, London (with Lucy Railton and Aisha Orazbayeva), November 2009

Knight’s Move (from Everything in Life), London — Kammer Klang at Café Oto (with Lucy Railton and Sarah Cresswell), September 2009

Everything in Life Can be Montaged — Royal Academy of Music, London (with Ensemble Ostraniene), June 2009

Line Study — Herbst Theatre, San Francisco (with Ensemble Earplay)

Website

www.alexhills.com

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