If memory serves [and, increasingly, I fear, it doesn’t quite] I first came across the music of Graham Fitkin, like so much other interesting and occasionally testing music, on BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction; this back in the days when I could stay awake late enough to listen. I can’t recall the particular piece that was played, but it might well have been Flak, written for and performed on two pianos, or one of the composer’s more reflective piano pieces, titled simply Piano Piece followed by the date. Whichever it was, the name stuck and it wouldn’t have been much later, browsing the CD racks in the classical department of the late and lamented (by me, anyway) Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus, that I came across the album Flak, released by Manchester’s Factory Records in 1990, and featuring ten compositions, arranged, as the sleeve note disarmingly states, into two groups: “Numbers 1 – 4 are written for two pianos/eight hands and are generally fast. Numbers 5 – 10 are for solo piano and are generally slow.”
Although those are Laurence Crane’s words and not those of Fitkin himself, they serve to indicate the straightforwardness of Graham Fitkin’s approach to both the music and its audience: okay, this is contemporary classical music and while it may sometimes be intricate and difficult to play it is not difficult to listen to and enjoy. One thing that immediately becomes clear when you see Fitkin in concert is his concern for communicating with his audience. Shock, horror, he even talks to us; and talks in an engaging, sell-deprecating, slightly bumbling manner that has the desired effect of breaking down any imagined barriers. Not only that, he has been known to cook for us too! Meringues at a recent band gig in Kings Place’s smaller hall and last night, in the main auditorium, dish after dish of small and richly delicious chocolate truffles.
Fitkin was born in West Cornwall – the Penwith Peninsula – where he lives with his partner and frequent collaborator, the harpist Ruth Wall, and studied first with Nigel Osborne and Peter Nicholson at the University of Nottingham [Penwith & Nottingham, perhaps the perfect combination!] and later with Louis Andriessen in Holland. Andriessen aside, his style owes much to the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and, although that is never really left behind, there is a restlessness that pushes the music into exciting and sometimes surprising areas – the audio-enhanced duets with Ruth Wall; the as-close-to-jazz-as-damn-it gigs by the Graham Fitkin Band; and, memorably, the 2016 London Jazz Festival evening at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, which quite thrillingly merged minimalism with disco and featured two counter tenors singing girl group back-up.
Last night’s concert at Kings Place was arranged around the launch of a new album on which the Sacconi Quartet, who have been collaborating with Fitkin for some ten years, play all six of his existing pieces for string quartet. Nicely programmed, the evening featured three of those compositions – concluding with Servant, my personal favourite and, I would guess, also theirs – four pieces of solo piano, including Running & Breathing and two beautifully reflective Piano Pieces, 00 & 95; these interspersed with Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 2 and Arvo Part’s Summa [irrevocably linked in my mind with my radio dramatisation of A. S. Byatt’s Frederica Quartet, for which it was the theme music.] All in all, a warm, engaging, enthralling evening of music … and chocolate truffles.
You can find out more about Graham Fitkin and listen to some of music on his web site.