A River Through History – CBSO Performance

A River Through History Title Page

Yesterday I attended both of the CBSO’s schools concerts involving the final performance for the Birmingham History Project I have been involved with. The full orchestra performed in Symphony Hall with audiences of 2000 children in each concert.

The reason for my excitement was that I had arranged a piece written by secondary school pupils from Shenley Academy for the full orchestra to perform. Earlier in May the young people performed the piece themselves at the CBSO Centre, then I went away and arranged it for the orchestra. My main concern whilst arranging the music was that I needed to balance needing to make the piece sound ‘orchestral’ and giving it a ‘professional’ edge, without losing the sense of the original material composed by the young people.

The ideas from the students were really good and fortunately I was able to work really well with the material they had composed without adding to it very much at all. I felt like I was able to be true to their original intentions. Fortunately I was able to go into the school and do a session with them to explain to them exactly what I had done with their piece, so that they could understand why they might not hear ‘their bit’ played by the same instrument or in the same way. I think this was a really valuable session.

From talking to them after the concert, they seemed really pleased that they could hear ‘their music’ in the piece even though I hadn’t just taken their piece note by note and orchestrated it.

It has taken a lot of work, but I’m really pleased with the way it turned out. I’m hoping to get a recording online soon.

A River Through History - Page 1

A River Through History double pageA River Through History section

Prizewinning new piece – For Amber for voice and piano

Here’s a recording of the most recent performance of my work. This is For Amber which won a prize in the Association of English Singers and Speakers Composition Competition 2012.

It was performed in May at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama by the fantastic soprano Sarah Leonard.

The lovely chap who beat me to first place (grrrr) is the talented Mr Michael Betteridge who wrote a great piece called Charity which you can hear on his soundcloud.

Science & Music

Notes spilling onto page
Notes spilling onto page – if only it were this easy!

Over the past few weeks I have been working with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group on a project called Resolution. The project brings together science and musical composition and as part of it I am writing a piece for a group of young secondary school students to play, which is based on research into Sjogren’s Syndrome. It’s all very intriguing.

The scientist I have been working with is looking into specific theories of how Sjogren’s Syndrome might develop, as it isn’t really known. It’s amazing both how much and how little scientists know! So the piece I’m writing uses extra-musical information such as the ideas of bacteria, antigens, antibodies etc and I am trying to convey this information without it being too much of a story-telling exercise. Which is fascinating. And difficult. But fun. And challenging.

The trouble is that the information given to me by the scientist is very complex and abstract and although myriad different ideas are sparked off by the research, actually honing those ideas down to be more communicative of the science is quite tricky. It should be interesting to see how this pans out! It begs the question – can concrete scientific ideas ever be communicated successfully by a non-verbal medium?

Samples and Samples
Samples and Samples
A fake science experiment
A fake science experiment or an intriguing appetiser?

Disabled by Wilfred Owen & The Torn Fields by Mark-Anthony Turnage

Last night I went to a performance by Thumb Contemporary Music Ensemble of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Torn Fields.

The piece is based on a number of war poems, one of which is Disabled by Wilfred Owen. This heart-wrenching poem is beautifully set  in the fourth movement of Turnage’s piece. Turnage has been careful not to detract from the poem but to enhance it. The poem was written during the first world war, but has disturbing resonances with today as conflict continues across the globe.

Have a listen here:

And here is the text:

Disabled – Wilfred Owen

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,
— In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.

There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race,
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
One time he liked a bloodsmear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why . . .
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.

That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie; aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of; and no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
To-night he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

That Terrible Silence – my latest piece

Here’s a recording of my latest piece which was premiered at The Forge in Camden in October. It was performed by Thumb Contemporary Music Ensemble conducted by Dan Watson.

The piece is roughly based on the frustration of not being able to write anything. I’d already written half a piece for the ensemble but it was terrible so I got rid of it and was really frustrated with it all – then this popped into my head and I just went for it!

Y Gollyngdod: Mezzo-soprano aria with piano reduction

Finally got around to uploading this recording from October 2011. I posted about the project at the time which you can read here.

Anyway, hope you enjoy this!

A Compromising Composer?

A couple of weeks ago I was hanging around at work when I happened to get into a brief conversation with one of the players. He was rehearsing for BCMG‘s concert that evening and was playing in Gérard Grisey’s Quatre Chants pour franchir le seuilI asked him how things were going and he said something along these lines (I paraphrase) – I know it’s a very important piece, but it is an effort for me to practice it. It’s difficult to play, and doesn’t sound nice. Nevertheless, he implied that he was glad to be performing the piece.

Now if you have heard the Grisey, you can well imagine that the sole player practising in their own time, would have trouble motivating themselves to repeatedly practice what could possibly sound pretty horrendous. However, as an ensemble, the piece sounds fantastic.

The thing is, I know that this particular player had in fact practised and is dedicated enough to the music to put the effort in to perform things correctly because he sees the vision and can consider the bigger picture of the whole piece. But what happens if you have performers who aren’t that dedicated? The Grisey performance could have been a disaster. (It wasn’t – it was fantastic!)

So: should composers consider what performers want to play? Should composers think about what the performer will have to go through to practice the piece? What if the performer doesn’t see the bigger picture of the whole ensemble performance? Should the composer write music assuming that all players will be dedicated enough?

Should the composer just push through with his overall vision for the piece without considering the needs of the individual performer?

Does the composer need to compromise on his music in order to get the best out of the performers?

Grisey certainly didn’t… but should he have?

Review: ‘Projections’ at The Old Joint Stock Theatre, 24 Nov

This was a brief encounter with a variety of contemporary music for flute (and additional ensemble in places) which took place at the Old Joint Stock Theatre in the centre of Birmingham – an intimate theatre venue, with an un-resonant cardboard-box-like acoustic.

Organised by Kirsty Devaney, the concert featured music from established composers such as Morton Feldman and Toru Takemitsu to student composers such as Daniel-Lewis Fardon. Interestingly, Kirsty herself was featured as a performer (flute) rather than a composer.

One interesting piece was Border Towns of Central Europe by Joe Cutler, scored for Alto Flute and Bass Clarinet. The performance of this under-stated yet striking piece, well-executed by Kate Birtles (fl.) and Jack McNeil (cl.), finished with a beautiful duet in inversion.

Honami by Wil Offermans was also an attention-grabbing piece, an instance of extended techniques being integral to the aesthetic of the piece rather than a peripheral add-on for the sake of ‘being contemporary’. In fact, there was a beautiful, breathy melodic line which flowed through the piece.

On the down-side, the performance of Projections II by Morton Feldman did not manage to convey the delicate balance of the music but seemed dogged by worried ‘I’m-not-sure-where-I-am’ glances, which remained unreassured by the resolute-yet-unispired time-keeping of the conductor. Ah well, you win some you lose some!

All in all, a pretty decent concert, and it’s great to have some contemporary music happening in the city centre on a Tuesday evening! Shame we weren’t allowed to take drinks in to the theatre though!

New piece: A Little Character – for Trumpet and Piano

Here’s a new track which I recorded with Ed Carpenter earlier this autumn.
It’s very delicate to begin with, and I have parts where I am playing inside the piano. I also use the trumpet to set off resonances inside the piano, which are very quiet on the recording, but just about make it out!

Towards the end there’s a great bit of squealing by Ed on the trumpet, along with some singing… look out for that!

Hope you enjoy it.

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