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Summer School, Summer Cold, Summer Riots…

Sitting here coughing and sneezing over my computer… ridiculous summer cold, no idea where that came from, but it’s very annoying!

A couple of weeks ago I went as a ‘runner’ to the Sound and Music Summer School which was brilliant. I spent the week shadowing the excellent David Horne as he taught composition to 16 14-18 year olds. It was pretty awesome – some of the young people were amazingly talented and it was brilliant to be helping further their ideas. Some of these guys will go on to do great stuff! The summer school is a great opportunity to explore composing, and the young people were so so dedicated to the task, with many of them skipping their free time to continue composing! I had to force some of them to take tea-breaks…

In other, more sobering news, riots this past week have affected so many of us in this country, whether directly or indirectly. It saddens me  to hear the politicians harp on about tougher policing but not seeming to address the root causes of these problems – social injustice, poverty, hopelessness… Being tough on crime is not a long term solution and it would be nice to hear some politicians stand up and say as much!

Anyway, back to music… a few things to be working on at the moment – I’m writing an aria for Music Theatre Wales, Welsh National Opera and BCMG‘s Make an Aria project. Also writing some music to be performed with futuresonic at Birmingham’s Artsfest on 10th and 11th September. And trying to finish off my piece for children’s theatre and dance with Springs Dance Company premiering at Epsom Playhouse on 17th September. So busy busy busy!!!

Dancing with Girls by the Cemetery – Recording

Here we go!

This is my latest piece, performed by Thumb Contemporary Music Ensemble in concert at Birmingham Conservatoire, conducted by Dan Watson.

It was inspired by an American solider’s snapshot photo album from the Korean war, which I saw when I was working for military history book publishers Helion & Co:

Juxtaposition...

What interested me about it was the juxtaposition of really fun party times with the girls dancing / singing, placed next to a photo of a war cemetery where, presumably, lots of the solider’s friends had headstones. It just shocked me that the soldier was able to reconcile these images in his photo album – death and suffering juxtaposed with fun and relaxation. It raises all sorts of questions about escapism, denial, coping mechanisms etc etc…

In this piece I have simply taken the idea of juxtaposition and have taken solemn moments and juxtaposed them with reinvented versions American hit songs from the 1950s.

Hope you enjoy it!

Aldeburgh Festival

I went down to the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk yesterday, to the the CBSO & BCMG concert conducted by Oliver Knussen. First time I’d been to that part of the world and I have to say it was really nice!!! Always love being by the sea, but there’s something very calming about the landscape in Suffolk, so  that I enjoyed that. Fish and chips on Aldeburgh beach followed by a great concert at Snape Maltings Concert Hall. Was nice to hear Charlotte Bray‘s violin concerto Caught in Treetops again, played even better this time by Alex Wood. And Elliot Carter’s new piece Conversations was ace, with a real sense of humour. Great piano and percussion soloists really brought the piece vividly to life and the audience loved it – and loved it even more when Knussen played it again straight afterwards. And of course there was some fantastic Stravinsky.

Then a great meal followed at the Lighthouse restaurant…never had rock eel before, but now I can recommend it!

Good times were had by all, until the pesky seagulls woke us up ridiculously early this morning. Winner.

My premiere tonight by Thumb Contemporary Music Ensemble

It’s been a while since I posted anything, mainly because I have been busy composing my latest piece for Thumb Contemporary Music Ensemble – being performed tonight – 7.30pm – 23rd May at the Recital Hall at Birmingham Conservatoire in an hour-long concert entitled MERGE. Should be fun!

Aside from that, I’ve been filling my time with fun stuff like BCMG’s Nostalgie cabaret and the Music Maze workshop we did alongside that. Also went down to London for my first creative meeting with Springs Dance Company for my new collaborative commission The Selfish Giant, based on Oscar Wilde’s story of the same name.

Also way back on 29th April (yes, royal wedding day!) futuresonic hosted their second event at We Are Birmingham which was an interactive laptop performance from BiLE (Birmingham Laptop Ensemble) which was intriguing!!!

Oo and I have another new nephew who is called Jonas! Winner!

Anaïs Nin UK premiere @ Southbank Centre – Louis Andriessen

Last Thursday I attended the UK premiere of Louis Andriessen’s latest work – Anaïs Nin – a monodrama for soprano and chamber ensemble. Enough fuss has been made about the subject matter so I won’t bother with that here. What I found interesting about the work was the interaction between ensemble, soloist as singer, soloist as actress, and prerecorded video. Andriessen has (successfully in my view) managed to combine these different elements on stage without a feeling of disjointedness – no mean feat – and in fact uses the video as another means of forwarding the narrative (as well as giving soprano Zavalloni a breather. At times Zavalloni was required to ‘conduct’ the ensemble, drawing in the ensemble into the drama so that they could not remain a mere backing.

One fascinating aspect of the piece was the juxtaposition in the text of intense emotion alongside everyday comments (“strange days, weather bad…”) which manages to bring home the humanity of Anaïs Nin whilst at the same time highlighting her complicated multiplicity of fragmented identities.

The music worked well alongside the text, not necessarily following the vocal part but often contrasting with it, at times sparse and light, at times dark and grungy. Recurring themes in the instrumental lines backed up the themes in the text and the changing textures generally enhanced what was being sung. Andriessen managed to avoid falling into cliché at the climax of the piece and doesn’t go over the top, but restrains the music from being too brash, in a way highlighting any misgivings Anaïs Nin had about her relationship with her father…

Decibel at Birmingham Conservatoire

Last Thursday I went along to the Decibel concert at Birmingham Conservatoire. Having not heard them play before, I was unsure what to expect, but it turned out to be a rather good concert full of premieres!

Here are my thoughts on a few of them: Michael Wolters latest piece Deutsche Volksweisen was a zany take on some German Folk Tunes. At the start I was a bit dubious with the eccentric pastiche feel, but the theatrical element of the recorder player entering in full folk regalia and dancing to keep time changed the appeal of the piece and became a thread which brought the folk/12-tone/musical theatre elements together.

Fumiko Miyachi‘s CR24 was billed as a power ballad, and I got that, but it just didn’t seem to sit right with me. It became ‘powerful’ but somehow seemed a little strained towards the end, like its battery was dying. Other people did seem to enjoy it, however, so maybe it was just me!

My favourite piece of the night had to be James Tenney’s Never Having Written a Note for Percussion which was mind blowing, played by the whole ensemble. The one thing that grated with me was that the clarinet didn’t quite blend towards the final quarter of the piece, but this is understandable in such a quiet texture.

Ed Bennett‘s Magnetic was a beautiful piece for bass clarinet and piano, executed well by both players. The bass clarinet was a good choice for the part as although it could probably have been played on a Bb clarinet, the breathiness and timbre of the bass clarinet in that register really worked well. Bennett’s Stop-Motion Music did exactly what it said in the refreshingly unpretentious programme note ‘This piece should make you want to punch the air’. Yes.

Overall the concert had a brilliant atmosphere and some quality playing from Decibel and was concluded with a wacky birthday tribute to Laurence Crane, which sent everyone home in a jolly mood!

Musical Games

Spent yesterday afternoon thinking up musical games for BCMG’s Music Maze on Sunday…

We were using those paper ‘chatterbox’ thingys that girls make when they are young:

Underneath the flaps there are musical instructions of what to play. On Sunday we’re gonna get the young people to make their own and then in live performance use them to make choices about what to play – I think its a great idea!

Maybe I need to incorporate more fun into my music…

Feel the Buzz with BCMG

This Sunday was the second part of a two-day composing workshop I was doing with BCMG called Feel the Buzz. Its a workshop for 14-18 year olds and the format is a kind of collaborative composing/improvising together approach. Jackie Walduck was leading with BCMG musicians and she used a kind of 1-page score technique which the young people fleshed out collaboratively. All based around the nOSTalgie Cabaret BCMG are doing in May.

We were drawing parallels between the past and present, so one piece we did was based on Mack the Knife (the words in that songs are really quite horrific – check them out!) and another was on 21st Century Pirates! Nice!

There was a final performance of all the music produced on Sunday evening and it was great! It was really nice to see young people all working creatively together and having input into the final pieces. And whatever Birmingham City Council think about BCMG, this project engaged an incredibly diverse group of young people from many different backgrounds.

Unfortunately due to cuts, Birmingham Music Service (who have generously funded this project for the last 10 years!) are unable to continue funding it next year, although they really want to! So it means BCMG are going to have to find to some money from somewhere to keep it going. Really hope it doesn’t stop because I think it is a brilliant project.

Music Play with Early Years conference plus BCMG at Ninestiles

Last Thursday I had a pretty busy day!

Went to Music Play with Early Years conference run by Music Leader. Felt a little like I stuck out like a sore thumb… it appears men are vastly under-represented in the world of Early Years music… ie only 3 men in the entire conference… And I know no harm was meant by the speakers at the conference but I’m not sure highlighting my presence as a token male was the best way to approach this…

It did raise the question of why there aren’t more males working in early years? (answers on a postcard) I think it is (unfortunately) quite a taboo direction for men to go in. Even in this day and age I think people raise an eyebrow at the thought of a male early years worker. (This is also true of male nurses, according to my nurse friend – although they are loved by hospitals, society in general has a bit of  thing about it!)

Anyway, the conference brought two things to my attention – the first was brought up by Dr Susan Young about the need for child-led, adult-led and child-and-adult-led forms of activity for the best outcome. The last of these is the activity which is lacking in music play settings- this I think is partly because it is the hardest form of activity to successfully achieve.

The other thing was the very interesting teaching methods of Sandra Barefoot & Sarah Moody from Visible Thinking. Their creative use of art, drama and music for early years play seemed like a great idea – particularly the use of what essentially turn into graphic scores as you demonstrate. Its about using marking so that the sounds made on instruments are represented on paper. This seemed to engage children on a different level, and seemed like a great way to provide another gateway by which children can access the music.

In the evening I did a pre-concert workshop at Ninestiles School in Yardley with BCMG before their first Urban Tour concert. The concert turned out really well. The three percussionists – Simon Limbrick, Julian Warburton and Scott Wilson did a great job. I particularly enjoyed Tag by Philip Cashian which has real character to it despite the chance techniques employed during the reading of the score. And of course, Okho by Xenakis is a fantastic piece – always a winner for me!

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