Brontë Antiphons that I composed in the spring of 2020 is to receive its world premiere by the Elysian Singers at York Late Music in November 2021.
Brontë Antiphons that I composed in the spring of 2020 is to receive its world premiere by the Elysian Singers at York Late Music in November 2021. This is one of very few pieces for choir I have composed but the commission arrived as I was planning a new undergraduate module on medieval music so I found myself steeped in the sound of the human voice for a good part of 2019. This proved an ideal way in to the new piece that actually consists of very few notes of my own, based as it is on two sources used very directly: a selection of antiphons for the start of Pentecost and music from David Power‘s setting of Emily Brontë’s No coward soul is mine. In fact, it was a condition of the commission that the new piece act as a companion to David’s and I have taken this one step further by enfolding his music into my own. The original performance was stymied by the coronavirus pandemic, as was so much live music, and I am incredibly grateful to the Elysian Singers and York Late Music for re-arranging the premiere, thus finally allowing my piece to see the light of day.
Summer 2021: mine and Madeleine Shapiro’s piece The Gramophone Played for cello, spoken word and fixed media electronics was selected for NYCEMF (the New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival) this spring and will be performed online during the summer.
Summer 2021: mine and Madeleine Shapiro‘s piece The Gramophone Played for cello, spoken word and fixed media electronics was selected for NYCEMF (the New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival) this spring and will be performed online during the summer. You can read about the origins of the piece here and here’s the programme note:
The Gramophone Played for cello, spoken word and fixed media electronics was inspired by the works of the British poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917) and by the writings about him in Robert Macfarlane’s book ‘The Old Ways’, in particular a fictionalised account of his final months at the Western Front where Thomas, serving as an artillery officer, was killed during the battle of Arras. Macfarlane writes of the gramophone records heard in the officers’ billets and we have woven some of these, alongside two of Thomas’ poems, into the fabric of the piece. The cello part is improvised in response to them using melodic skeletons from the songs. The recordings and the singers who perform on them – ‘Wait Till I’m As Old As Father’ (Billy Williams), ‘D’Ye Ken John Peel’ (Peter Dawson), ‘On The Banks of Allan Water’ (Adelina Patti) – are auditory windows onto a time long distant; these and Madeleine’s improvised responses lend our piece something of the character of a threnody so if our piece has a message it is a decidedly anti-war one – a threnody for Edward Thomas himself and for the victims of all wars, both military and civilian.
I’ve undertaken many collaborations over the years but this one with Madeleine has proved particularly satisfying. Like any collaboration it has had its slow moments, its moments of forward momentum and its disagreements but the painstaking work we have put in has really paid off, incrementally improving our initial ideas all the time. Both Madeleine and I have learned new skills along the way, primarily around technology, and all this without having met in person since 2012!
April 2021. Myself and Ed Hughes hosted a half-day research event at the University of Surrey about composers’ use of historical materials.
April 2021: myself and Ed Hughes hosted a half-day research event at the University of Surrey about composers’ use of historical materials. The event followed on from ‘Composing the Historical‘ at the University of Sussex in 2020, organised by Ed Hughes, Evelyn Ficarra and Mimi Haddon in response to issues arising out of Ed’s Sinfonia, his homage to English medieval and renaissance composers who he felt fed his compositional technique. You can read more about the aims of the day, the speakers and some of the proposed themes here. The speakers were all composers and the event showed the positive side of the artistic research imperative that has gradually been established in UK academia. All the speakers went beyond technical matters and tried to engage with wider ideas, whether that was Christopher Williams talking about the role of amateurism in his work, me attempting to situate my work in relation to classic postmodern and more recent borrowing practices, or Steve Goss offering the idea of ‘historically mediated interpretation’ to describe the somewhat malign influence of Segovia’s interpretations on younger generations of guitarists. This is not to say that there was any lack of technical insight as Ed Hughes’ description of Jonathan Harvey‘s disarmingly straightforward paraphrasing of plainchant or Tom Hall‘s ‘enjambement’ of hymn tunes and folksongs in his settings of Gerald Murnane attested.
The day also demonstrated the potential of online hosting of such events. Attendees hovered around the high 40s for much of the day and covered a wide geographical area; had we held the event physically in Guildford it is unlikely to have attracted such a large or diverse non-University of Surrey audience. We were able to host an online video concert using YouTube ‘premiere’ – highly recommended. This, again, brought together a great variety of practices from Ed Hughes’ abrasively layered Sinfonia (2nd movement) to Evelyn Ficarra’s whimsical and beautiful score to Mary Armentrout Dance Theater‘s rooftop choreography.
Ed and myself are hoping to run Composing the Historical 3 perhaps on consecutive days at the campuses of Surrey and Sussex Universities respectively in spring 2022. We may try to make this more about performance. We may also try to engage more with what the historical actually is and about the politics of such borrowing. Watch this space in any case!
February 2021: Two Curves from Shadow Variations have just been posted on YouTube by the Muir Albini Ukulele Duo (MAUD).
February 2021: Two Curves from Shadow Variations have just been posted on YouTube by the Muir Albini Ukulele Duo (MAUD). The duo (Samantha Muir and Giovanni Albini) are newly-formed and seeking to champion contemporary music for ukulele that challenges perceived notions of the instrument. I love their performances of these two pieces – they have a complete understanding of the exploratory freedom that I was trying to build into the score and they play with such commitment and intensity. There are plans for a CD and concerts (Covid-permitting) in the future which are all very exciting. Curve 1 here and Curve 2 here.
January 2021: I delivered a paper to performance and composition research students at the Royal Academy of Music this month.
January 2021: I delivered a paper to performance and composition research students at the Royal Academy of Music this month. I was asked to use some of the material from my paper ‘Picking up the Pieces‘ on autoethnography that I delivered in Glasgow last year as well as talking about my compositional process in various recent works. As I was putting the abstract together it occurred to me that I’ve been working as a practitioner-researcher in a university for just over a decade now and so I decided to take a bit of a sweep through that decade, from my early thoughts on collaboration in Capriccio and Morning Music to my use of filtering and erasure techniques in JPR, Distant Beauties and Tänze. Getting to grips with being a composer in a university has had its ups and downs but looking back on my experience so far was nevertheless heartening and exhilarating – my music has changed in ways I couldn’t have foreseen and, more often than not, for the better. So I tried to convey a largely positive assessment of the experience to the students without, I hope, giving the impression it had all been plain sailing.
December 2020: on the 5-6 December the Nottingham Forum for Artistic Research (NottFAR) are hosting a symposium in which I’m giving a paper on Dance Maze.
December 2020: on the 5-6 December the Nottingham Forum for Artistic Research (NottFAR) are hosting a symposium in which I’m giving a paper on Dance Maze. I’ll talk about the role Tom Johnson‘s book Self-Similar Melodies (and his music) played in helping me re-work the piece from a piano solo to a duo for trumpet and piano. It’s great to see these kinds of symposia proliferating in the UK and beyond with music practitioners bandying together to share ideas and advocate for the research value of their work. Practice as research in music is a contested topic with its proponents and detractors, but for artists working in (UK) universities understanding and gaining confidence in talking about their work in research-friendly terms is essential. Most importantly, though, such an approach can help catalyse new ideas and personal paths for exploration.
November 2020: on the 25th I am taking part in the launch of Composing the Historical. This is a collection of interviews with myself, Judith Weir (CBE), Shirley Thompson (OBE), Roxanna Panufnik, Ed Hughes, Evelyn Ficarra, Rowland Sutherland, Kerry Andrew and Martin Butler
November 2020: on the 25th I am taking part in the launch of Composing the Historical. This is a collection of interviews with myself, Judith Weir (CBE), Shirley Thompson (OBE), Roxanna Panufnik, Ed Hughes, Evelyn Ficarra, Rowland Sutherland, Kerry Andrew and Martin Butler that explores composers’ experience of writing through the past – using models from history not to evoke nostalgia (or not only that) but to circle back to the present. The interviews (that include scores and audio recordings) will be published online in REFRAME, the University of Sussex’s journal for research into media, film and music. The project was instigated by Ed Hughes, Professor of Music at the University of Sussex, and someone I have known for many, many years (in fact we had the same piano teacher when we were kids in Southampton in the 80s!). I enjoyed being interviewed by musicologist Mimi Haddon back in the summer of 2019 and talking about the borrowing practices that have come to play such a large part in my recent music. Mimi and I discussed JPR, Tänze and Distant Beauties as well as Christian Wolff, Webern, nostalgia and ruins.
November 2020: I’m six weeks into a sabbatical from the University of Surrey
November 2020: I’m six weeks into a sabbatical from the University of Surrey. I’ve now got the time I need to complete my project with cellist, Madeleine Shapiro, and to get underway with (who knows, even complete) a piece for guitarist, Katalin Koltai, which is going to be based on Bartok’s folksong transcriptions. I’ve also been virtually resident in the Hugh Hodgson School of Music at the University of Georgia courtesy of Professor of viola, Maggie Snyder and composition lecturer Dr. Emily Koh. Despite the limitations of Zoom I’ve enjoyed talking to faculty and students about collaboration, revision/reworking and borrowing. My final session is on 6th November, three days after the US Presidential Election…! Finally, pandemic permitting, I’ll be presenting a paper at the inaugural Midlands New Music Symposium in December that explains how I’ve used the techniques and music of Tom Johnson to rework my piano piece, Dance Maze.
July 2020: my chapter ‘Collaboration and the Practitioner-Researcher: A Composer’s Perspective’ has just been published in Artistic Research in Performance Through Collaboration edited by Martin Blain and Helen Minors and published by Palgrave Macmillan.
July 2020: my chapter ‘Collaboration and the Practitioner-Researcher: A Composer’s Perspective’ has just been published in Artistic Research in Performance Through Collaboration edited by Martin Blain and Helen Minors and published by Palgrave Macmillan. The chapter details my collaboration with trumpeter Simon Desbruslais on Albumleaves for trumpet and string quartet during 2013. I use methods borrowed from autoethnography (recalling key moments, epiphanies, from life or work situations and situating these within a particular culture) to look back over the collaboration and draw out the ways in which my actions may be understood as part of my coming to terms with the demands of the academic research culture in the U.K. For anyone interested in pursuing artistic research in a university or any artists currently working in university departments I hope the chapter proves to be both honest and helpful. I also discuss the music of Albumleaves, in particular the way I employ indeterminacy. I would like to thank Martin and Helen for their assiduous editing and, particularly, Simon for commissioning the piece and being such a willing collaborator and research subject.
June 2020: the Virtual Ukulele Ensemble’s first three videos of movements from Shadow Variations are now on YouTube.
June 2020: the Virtual Ukulele Ensemble‘s first three videos of movements from Shadow Variations are now on YouTube. Theme in the Form of Chorale and A Simple Quartet can be found here, Curve 1 here and Curve 2 here. Huge thanks go to Samantha Muir for coaching the players and editing the videos as well as the players themselves for their time and enthusiasm. One thing that has become very obvious during the Covid-19 lockdown is the huge amount of time and effort behind the scenes to make online performances work. This means it is not easy to churn them out – we still have seven pieces to record but hope to have more available soon.