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Welcome to the website of Colchester New Music

We are a cooperative of composers based in East Anglia. We aim to develop artistically and professionally through coming together to share knowledge, support, and to run workshops and events to benefit ourselves, other composers, and the greater artistic community.

Please follow the links above to find out more about us, to listen to music from some of our events, or see information about current and former projects, or perhaps have a look at our current calls for scores. Below you can see our latest news posts.

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Composing for two harpsichords: some tips from the workshop

Several useful points for composers to consider came out of our recent workshop of new music for two harpsichords:

  1. Who wants it?

There is no significant professional market for new music for historical instruments. No-one (currently) makes a living from principally performing new pieces full time.

In the professional context, a new work usually appears as an added extra – perhaps as a commission inserted into an otherwise baroque programme. This immediately reduces the ongoing scope for any new work requiring a special set-up, tuning or equipment beyond that available for a baroque recital.

Very little new music for two harpsichords has made it into the repertoire, and even the solo contemporary repertoire (more than ten thousand pieces) contains few that are well known by players (the three virtuoso works by Ligeti are a good example, on grounds of their outstanding quality).

  1. First impressions count

Avoid putting the performer off by a work’s presentation before they’ve had a chance to form an opinion on the actual music.

  • Scores should normally be in portrait orientation. Landscape scores cause problems in filing and binding, especially if performers are playing from print-outs in a ring-binder (which they often are).
  • Use 6mm minimum staff size, and be aware of page turning issues.
  • Enharmonics: accidentals must be expressed in the most straightforwardly understandable way possible. Unnecessary barriers to understanding may put performers off. Don’t only rely upon the Sibelius plug-in to make the most appropriate enharmonic choices.
  • A score must give the right instructions for a human performer to achieve the desired result – avoid littering it with markings which appear solely to facilitate Sibelius playback.
  • Clarity is critical. If a performer has to spend too much time deciphering unnecessary obscurity on a first reading, they may not want to bother with a second reading. See also Dylan Christopher’s useful article on this topic.
  1. Consider the performer

Bear in mind the comfort zone of harpsichordists. The harpsichord is not the piano, and someone who has chosen to play it has by definition not set out to reproduce pianistic effects and techniques. One particular bugbear is left-hand octaves – common on the modern piano, but less comfortable (although sometimes quite effective) for a harpsichordist.

It’s worth remembering that the usual baroque repertoire of harpsichordists tends to a limited range of key signatures. Anything beyond three-four sharps/flats will be rather less familiar for a harpsichordist than, for example, a pianist or organist.

  1. Consider the instrument

Perhaps fewer than a quarter of existing harpsichords are double manual, and those instruments tend to live in institutions, concert venues, or are owned by baroque professionals. Composing a piece specifically for two-manual instruments therefore cuts out most of the amateur market.

For compositional purposes it is best to assume a single manual, GG-d3 compass (see wikipedia article for info on ranges) with two 8′ stops and buff. These are widely available, and access to a full-size professional five-octave double manual harpsichord should be regarded as a bonus not a norm.

Real instruments vary so much that it is usually best not to specify particular stops. Give instead a dynamic marking, or a mood or tone colour which the performer can then implement appropriately with what is available, given the voicing, tone, acoustics etc.

  1. Consider the context

Why two instruments – what is added that can’t be done with one? Is it a dialogue between two voices, a soloist-accompanist scenario, or perhaps a competition between the two players? Does it allow for a particular expanded formal structure or certain types of repetition-dialogue?

Also, what is the piece for? Is it a virtuoso set-piece to sit within a public Bach recital, or a ‘social’ piece for harpsichord-owning friends to play in private? Is is an encore utilising the somewhat-neglected humorous aspect of the harpsichord, or an experimental ‘paper piece’ designed for coursework submission?

These all feed into rehearsal time constraints. If, for example, a complex piece will take as long to learn as several simpler works, it’s unlikely to be feasible for a recital involving a lot of new material. It would be far more likely to appear as a single new item in a programme of known repertoire.

 

Writing for everyone

This article is the second of two from Dylan Christopher, Colchester based pianist and composer who is running the Piano Project 2018 project in association with Colchester New Music.

Read Dylan’s first article – Playing the new stuff! – here.
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When music is written for virtuoso performers, there are generally no limits.  Anything can be written and performed, so long as there is a message to be shared, an idiomatic practical application, and a legible score from which to read.  However, it is not until we are limited that we are truly tested as composers.

Limitations inspire adaptation, growth and discovery.  If a composer is limited to three note chords rather than six notes, they will make sure to use all three notes to get the best possible sound with what they have available.  If a composer is limited to a score with very little ‘clutter’ they will make every word, dynamic, articulation or general marking count to best illustrate meaning and intention.

These limitations foster efficiencies in engraving and orchestration, making the composer ask questions of themselves.  The key question here, always, is how can we write the same thing in the simplest of terms to achieve the same, if not similar result?  As composers, we are architects, planning each component of a composition for performers to interpret and then relay to our listening audience.

We must also consider that a large portion of musicians who will actively perform music on any given instrument are not professional, but amateur or hobbyist.  Unless existing in extremely fortunate circles, many composers will need to find performers to play their work; for the most part, it is likely to be music societies in one of the many churches or universities in the area.  If written for solo performance, many pieces are primarily performed in people’s homes, and not on the concert stage.

A composer looking for their music to be performed would be hard-pressed to find a seasoned virtuoso musician in this group, but what are found, are people who are genuinely interested in performing music as best they can, having a good time while doing it; that is providing the music and musicians are the focus of effort when writing it.

One of the many hurdles we encounter when writing for amateur performers (or for that matter, any performer) is simplicity.  Simplicity can mean many things, ranging from the level of detail we give via instruction all the way to how we convey pulse and metre throughout a piece of music.  The main consideration here is always: am I being clear enough?  If a performer has any questions about what they need to do with the music we provide, then we have not been clear enough.

Clear does not mean more instruction. Sometimes this can be illustrated by a well-placed slur, or an expression such as ‘Sempre legato’, ‘Forza’, or ‘Agitato’.  To put this into perspective, I have five editions of Beethoven’s Complete Piano Sonatas.  Despite this quintessential work being a transcendent staple in the canon of solo piano repertory, there are discrepancies between all versions.  The same piece of music is written five different ways, which vastly affects what the interpretation of that edition will mean.

Incidentally, I prefer the Henle Urtext, which has very little in terms of anything – articulation or cautionary dynamics – but is what Beethoven would have sent to his publisher after a once-over from a copyist.  It is worth considering that all of these editions have been thoroughly edited over the past two hundred years. The score seen today in the twenty-first century is the final result of refinement and reprinting; even then, there are still blemishes and some questions.

A problem that is faced when receiving contemporary music for performance is that it has often not been thoroughly edited to be considered and concise.  Many pieces suffer from what I consider ‘over-composition’, mainly due to music notation software being the performer during the composition process in place of a living, intelligent performer.  The result is often statements that do not need to be stated, inserted to facilitate an accurate ‘midi’ performance.

For a human performer, stating ‘Cantabile’, will mean to make the melody loud and smooth, while keeping the accompaniment quiet.  For music notation software, one would need to put separate dynamic markings for the melody and accompaniment, alongside excessive slurring.  If the programming of midi velocities is understood, this might not be the case.

If we can agree on the understanding that every piece of music written for performance by a living musician is read from the score in a first sitting, it changes how we write our ideas down.  From the performer’s perspective, rehearsal is not the first priority; that is secondary once we have understood what we need to do.  More often than not, a performer will give the score a once-over with the intent to understand what is expected of them; they then rehearse to make the ideas permanent and confident in performance.

From a composer’s perspective, thinking that a performer will simply practise it to ‘get it’ makes us lazy.  Even the best of performers, virtuosos, will be left confused by a score that has not been sufficiently refined to facilitate understanding.  A composer’s true mastery is being able to express musical ideas concisely, with consideration of their simplest form to facilitate understanding.  This understanding sets the trajectory for what is performed and later heard by our audience.

Playing the new stuff!

This article is the first of two from Dylan Christopher, Colchester based pianist and composer who is running the Piano Project 2018 project in association with Colchester New Music.

My love of music was fostered from a young age.  I do not come from a musical family; I was, and remain today the only musician in my immediate, and extended family circle.  However, this did not stop me being inspired by the giants that helped shape music.

When people talk about the past, there is a detachment.  We forget that we are talking about events that happened on this planet; albeit a long time ago, but on our planet nevertheless.  While studying, a mentor once said to me “There are some pieces of music that you feel as though you can reach your hand out and touch, and some you cannot”.  The music we cannot reach out and touch, so to speak, is where this detachment lies, past or present.

A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of visiting the Handel Museum in Mayfair; Jimmy Hendrix lived next door.  There is something amusing about picturing Jimmy Hendrix living next door to George Frideric Handel, as though it was pulled from a BBC primetime sitcom.

Obviously, Handel was an early eighteenth-century composer, and Hendrix was a twentieth-century popular musician, so they did not live next door to one another at the same time, but this image conjures up all sorts of tomfoolery and shenanigans.

Just being in the rooms where they stood, looking out of the windows they looked out of, and seeing the view they might have seen, brought them to life; for me at least.  Speaking with my performer’s hat on, we spend a lot of time and effort trying to understand the mind of the composer whose music we are performing.  Why did they write it like this? What do they mean us to play?  Is this what they wanted it to sound like?

Both Handel and Hendrix are no longer alive, so these questions are labours one might have when playing their music.  Not forgetting that the world we live in has moved on certainly since the time of Handel, and somewhat since the time of Hendrix in the late seventies.

Today everything we do is, to a point, sanitised and detached; behind a speaker, or a screen.  We see musicians and the sounds they make, but for the most part, we forget that these are events, that are unfolding or have unfolded, before our eyes, on this planet. In some instances, they are so finely polished that the suspension of disbelief would not for a moment permit the thought that they are part of our world.

The first time I met a real composer was an enlightening experience.  They were not a superstar who lived in the parallel star-studded universe of show-business.  They were also not the larger-than-life- itself icon asking for worship and sycophantism.  They were a human being, living, feeling and thinking like you or I; most importantly, living in the same space and planet.

Of most importance to this person was the music they had written and the connections and insight it would inspire in others.  They said, their role was to write it, and mine was to sing it; which I tried my hardest to.  I was so worried about ‘getting it right’ I almost forgot why we were singing it; as the composer reminded me, it was for our audience to enjoy and be moved by.

The piece was written for a choral competition, in which I sang tenor, and incidentally, we would later win.  I am by no means a vocalist, but I could contribute, which the composer saw and was enough to convince him to let me join the cause.  At the time, I felt like I was part of something larger, which I was.  Forever my name will be on the programme, as performer – tenor –  for the first performance of something new; never heard before that moment.

It would be almost ten years later while talking with a colleague, Alex Blustin, on this very issue of performing contemporary music, on which he would say:

“If you give the first performance of a new piece, it’s ‘yours’ forever in a way that ‘Für Elise’ will never be.”

This so beautifully and eloquently puts into words the very meaning of reaching out and touching music.  By playing it, we make it our own, which is why after so many years of making music, we still play, practice, perform, record, then re-record music.  Being the first to make that connection makes it special, for you, the composer, and the audience.

Honorary Doctorate for Julia Usher

Julia Usher

Julia Usher at University Centre Colchester graduation ceremony, Colchester Town Hall, 7 Oct 2017

We are delighted to announce that CNM’s Project Director Julia Usher has been awarded an Honorary PhD by the University of Essex, in recognition of her services to music in the county and beyond.

Below is the full text of the oration given at the ceremony by Phil Toms (Head of Schools: Digital Media, Music & Performing Arts, University Centre Colchester).

“It is a great honour for me to introduce Julia Usher, a Colchester-based composer

and musician, who is being awarded an honorary doctorate today. Julia has been nominated for her extensive contribution to music, both locally and nationally.

During her time as a student, Julia studied at the University of York and at Cambridge with Richard Orton and Robert Sherlaw Johnson, and later qualified as a practicing Music Therapist at the prestigious Nordoff–Robbins Centre in London. In 1980, Julia set up her own music publishing company ‘Primavera Music UK’ with her colleague Enid Luff, for which they have just celebrated 34 years of publishing.

As a founding member of the ‘Women in Music’ organisation, set up in 1987, Julia displayed her passion for furthering equality and opportunities for women at a time when equality issues were significantly more prominent and women were underrepresented as composers and in music generally.

Julia settled in Colchester in 1999 and it is fair to say that she has had a most significant influence on the musical life of the town.

She has been a Composer in Residence on three occasions, first in 2002 for the Colchester Youth Chamber Orchestra, in 2004 for the George Watts Museum in Compton for its centenary celebrations and in 2012 where she collaborated with a number of departments at the University of Central Lancashire.

Julia has collaborated with scientists and visual artists on many occasions and several of her compositions have included electronic elements, often incorporating natural and other environmental sounds.

In 2015, Julia was commissioned to compose a piece of music to mark the restoration of the Moot Hall Organ, behind me. “The Art and Industry of Pipework” combined the renewed organ with electronic sounds recorded in the Man Diesel UK Factory in Colchester. She has also written a number of Musical Theatre pieces and in 2003, Metier Records released a CD of five of her compositions.

Julia has been tireless in her support of many community and arts projects in Colchester and further afield in East Anglia. During the past 17 years, she has encouraged composers and performers to experiment with adventurous approaches to music, often working through improvisation.

She has worked closely with the College to run composition and improvisation projects with Colchester Institute students and has taken part in a number of local community arts projects including promoting concerts of new music in both Colchester and elsewhere. For many years, Julia has been actively involved in the ‘Colchester New Music’ organisation.

But it doesn’t stop there, as Musical Director of ‘CoMA EAST’ and ‘Firewire’, a local experimental and improvisation ensemble, Julia takes her time to meet fortnightly and lead the group with exciting modern music. Julia brings huge vision, energy and enthusiasm to all her endeavours. The selfless devotion of her time and her encouragement of others throughout the world of music, over a period of many years, make her a very worthy recipient of this award.

 

 

 

 

Jenni Pinnock appointed mentor for Making Music’s Adopt a Composer scheme

CNM member Jenni Pinnock has been appointed as a composer mentor for Making Music’s Adopt a Composer scheme, which pairs composers with amateur ensembles around the UK. Jenni has previously been a participant in Adopt a Composer, producing a commission for Dorset’s Quangle Wangle choir. Jenni says:

Jenni Pinnock

Jenni Pinnock

Being part of Adopt a Composer in 2013-14 was a wonderful experience, and a turning point for my career. A few years on, it’s a privilege to be able to give something back to a scheme I’m so passionate about.

See Making Music for the full announcement.