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!

Author: Tom Armstrong

Senior Lecturer in Music, University of Surrey, Guildford UK. Freelance composer.

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