100 Second Songs at York Late Music

March 2022: after being postponed at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, York Late Music finally presented the complete 100 Second Songs project performed by Anna Snow (soprano) and Kate Ledger (piano).

March 2022: after being postponed at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, York Late Music finally presented the complete 100 Second Songs project performed by Anna Snow (soprano) and Kate Ledger (piano). Developed by Dot Dash Music (Hayley Jenkins, David Lancaster and David Power) 100 Second Songs commissioned composers from around the world resulting in 35 miniature songs. The kaleidoscopic programme is designed to provide a resource for other performers to draw on and it comprises a fascinating set of responses to a wide range of texts from self-penned or self-compiled, to specially commissioned, to poetic classics. My own contribution, Berceuse 1917, sets words by Robert Macfarlane writing about the First World War poet, Edward Thomas. 100 seconds is only one possible length for my own piece and I have also heard it in a version lasting six times that, i.e. ten minutes.

The full list of composers and their songs (as programmed by Anna and Kate on 5th March 2022) is:

Emily Doolittle Nicely (Erik Satie); Roger Marsh Non So (Gaia Blandina); David Lancaster Court (John Goodby); Nick Williams BFILLSU EIMST (Sandra Alland); David Power Song for Louis Wain (Stephen Meek); Peter Moran Busted (Christian Bök); Anthony Adams The Grasses of the Garden; Lara Poe Winter Seclusion (Kobayashi Issa); Steve Crowther Die Maske des Bösen (Brecht); Rob Fokkens Numbers; Piers Hellawell Wind Bag; Morag Galloway Manifold; William Rhys Meek The Kingfisher (Stephen Meek); Chris Warner Closer then Ever; Sadie Harrison I am in love with every star in all the galaxies (Shaykh Muslih Al-din Sa’di); Alison Williams I Shall Go Back Again (Edna St. Vincent Millay); Judith Hayes Buried Love (Sara Teasdale); James Else My River (Emily Dickinson); Mark Slater Against the Land (Iris Murdoch); James Cave Downgrade from Triple-A/Hopeful (Caleb Klaces); Tom Armstrong Berceuse 1917 (Robert Macfarlane); Angela Elizabeth Slater Space Between; Heyley Jenkins To My Cyst (Carole Bromley); René Mayoral To clean your head; Flora Geißelbrecht Karotten (Mascha Kaléko); Kerry Andrew Blackberry (George Bowering); Emily Levy born hyphen deceased (Rose Drew); Erik Branch The Bleeding Hand (Robert Herrick); Martín Loyato Bugia Più Efficiente; Thomas Crawley The Poppy (Jane Taylor); James Williamson Cradle Song; Anna Disley-Simpson Mother Moon; Benjamin Tassie Salvage (Jacqueline Saphra); Tarik O’Regan When I Go Away from You (Amy Lowell).

Here is the 100 second talk (!) I gave at the concert: Berceuse 1917 is based on the work of Edward Thomas (1878-1917), a British rambler, writer, poet and soldier. I don’t set any of Thomas’ words, instead I use text from Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways which includes a fictionalised account of the last months of Thomas’ life on the Western front. Both piano and voice are derived from Chopin’s Berceuse, the former taking slices from each bar and the latter using the opening few notes of the tune. To give you a flavour of Thomas’ work, here are two miniature poems that seem sadly appropriate to the moment [the Russian invasion of Ukraine began just over a week prior to the concert].

The Cherry Trees

The cherry trees bend over and are shedding
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.

In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

York Minster rose window by ©lablaika/123RF.COM

First Airing for New Guitar Piece

January 2022: I took part in a festival of research with the guitarist Katalin Koltai mounted by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Surrey.

January 2022: I took part in a festival of research with the guitarist Katalin Koltai mounted by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Surrey. It was the first outing for music from a piece provisionally entitled Bartókiana (after Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana) that presents a series of transcriptions, pastiches and other responses to folk arrangements by Béla Bartók. The piece is being written specially for Katalin and a new guitar that she has designed and had built as part of her PhD with the International Guitar Research Centre (IGRC) at Surrey. The instrument has metal strips built into the fretboard that allow magnetic capos (also developed by Katalin) to be placed on each string thus easily altering their pitches and, in effect, creating an entirely new tuning. Reconfiguring what the late guitarist Roland Dyens called the ‘lungs’ of the guitar brings a new flexibility for guitarists and composers interested in transcription. Bartók never wrote for the guitar and his musical language is not naturally ‘guitaristic’ but the new instrument and capo system Katalin has developed now bridges the gap between the guitar and Bartók’s chromatic, dissonant idiom. In the presentation Katalin discussed the capo system, how it works and how it facilitates realising Bartók on the instrument; I talked a little about my compositional process so far, the challenges I was facing and my attitude to musical borrowing (tending towards homage rather than parody or distancing).

Fretwork and Desbruslais

December 2021: an interesting exploratory day with viola da gamba consort, Fretwork, and trumpeter Simon Desbruslais working on ideas for a new project.

December 2021: an interesting exploratory day with viola da gamba consort, Fretwork, and trumpeter Simon Desbruslais working on ideas for a new project. I’m going to be a little noncommittal about what it really involves but we were experimenting with ways of combining my existing piece Albumleaves (for trumpet and string quartet) with Fretwork’s existing 17th and 18th century repertoire. The day involved finding ways of intervening in the music to allow old and new music to fit together seamlessly. Suffice to say some attempts were successful and others not! More to follow I hope…

Meet the Composer – University of West London

December 2021: I gave a talk to an audience of composition students studying music for film, the stage and the concert hall at the University of West London.

December 2021: I gave a talk to an audience of composition students studying music for film, the stage and the concert hall at the University of West London. This was something of a trip down ‘memory lane’ because UWL (or Thames Valley University as it used to be known) was where I first started my teaching career, first in adult education, then A Level, then finally as a part-time lecturer working with undergraduates and masters students.

Given the title of the talk and the fact that I am hardly a household name, I decided to take a broad approach that introduced me and my music as well as giving some sense of the context in which I compose. So, I started with my background at York, played some early(ish) pieces and then went on to discuss my music of the last decade or so alongside the pleasures and pressures of working in a university. I finished by discussing some of my ideas around musical borrowing in recent projects, namely The Gramophone Played and Brontë Antiphons.

I had a thoroughly enjoyable ninety minutes; I have to confess this is partly because I like talking about my music but it was as much to do with the attentiveness and engagement of the students who asked me a good number of questions and appeared un-phased by the range of music I played them. Huge thanks to Simone Spagnolo for inviting me and Litha Efthymiou for hosting me so hospitably, i.e. taking me to the pub afterwards!

You can view a 45 minute extract of the talk here.

Composer of the Month

October-November 2021: I’m ‘Composer of the Month’ on the York Late Music blog. Expect some insights into the compositional process and desert island discery!

I was asked by Steve Crowther a few weeks ago to respond to some questions for the York Late Music blog. In my responses I set down some insights into how I compose and the way my music has changed over the last decade. The theme of borrowing that I touch upon is becoming a major concern of mine and all my current as well as future projects use it in some way. This is no less the case in Brontë Antiphons which is the piece that is premiering soon – on November 6th with the Elysian Singers. I’m very intrigued, and not a little nervous, to hear how this piece turns out; it’s very austere in structure with the opening stanzas presented in alternating settings that borrow from David Power’s version (part of the commission was to pair with an existing work) and Whit Sunday antiphons respectively. I hope this dual setting creates a suitable sense of ritual rather than sounding over-extended – I guess I’ll find out soon enough!

PS: the concert came off very well indeed and all the composers were excellently served by the Elysians and their conductor Sam Laughton. What’s more the whole programme was sensitively reviewed by Martin Dreyer, available here.

Late Music Live!

Autumn and Spring 2021-2: at last some real live performances in front of actual audiences!

Autumn and Spring 2021-2: at last some real live performances in front of actual audiences! The Late Music concert series based in York have been supporters of music by me and many others for years so it is great to see them bouncing back after the pandemic. Their 21-22 season includes lots of new music performers from the well known to the newly established. I’m represented on 6 November (Elysian Singers) and 5 March (Anna Snow and Kate Ledger).

NYCEMF Programme Available

June 2021: the Programme for the 2021 New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival is now available here. The Gramophone Played, co-composed with Madeleine Shapiro features in concert 7

June 2021: the Programme for the 2021 New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival is now available here. The Gramophone Played, co-composed with Madeleine Shapiro features in concert 7 (link on p. 19 of the programme booklet). Despite the dates given (June 21-27) the links in the booklet are already live and the organisers have undertaken to keep them so for as long as possible.

Brontë Antiphons at York Late Music

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.

The Gramophone Played at NYCEMF 2021

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!

Composing the Historical 2

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!