We are sad to announce the death on 1 September 2021 of CNM’s co-founder, Alan G. Parsons, at the age of 90. Alan’s decades of work as a composition teacher, and promoter of new music in East Anglia, leaves a legacy of generations of younger composers who have forged their own musical paths. We take this opportunity to look back over Alan’s career, in his own words and those of others.
The life and music of Alan G. Parsons
Alan Parsons was born in 1931 in Watford, Hertfordshire, but lived most of his life in Essex. He grew up in Brentwood, moved to Walton-on-the-Naze in 1967 and to Colchester in 1979. After school and National Service in the RAF he took a bachelor’s degree in music at Durham University and a post-graduate diploma in Education at Goldsmiths’ College, London. After teaching in various secondary schools Alan returned to Durham in the early 1970s to take a Master’s degree, working with David Lumsdaine, specialising in twentieth century Composition and Analysis.
Having done some part-time lecturing for the Extra-Mural Department of London University Alan became a freelance teacher and musician on moving to Colchester. He continued to lecture on the Diploma course when the Extra-Mural Department was taken over by Birkbeck College. For a time Alan taught composition at Woodbridge School in Suffolk as well as teaching privately. A highlight of his week at this time was the four hours spent every Saturday morning at the Junior Music School at Colchester Institute where he remained for seventeen years. On retiring in 1996 Alan became a governor at Kendall School.
Composition was a major interest since Alan was a teenager, and among his teachers, apart from David Lumsdaine, were Anthony Milner, Iain Hamilton and Justin Connolly. During the 1980s he made a detailed study of Stockhausen’s music, registering as a PhD student at Goldsmith’s College, London and working mainly with Hugh Davis.
In 1984, together with fellow composer Eric Hudes, Alan set up the composers’ co-operative Colchester New Music. CNM gave regular concerts of mainly new music in collaboration with Essex University, Colchester Sixth Form College and Long Melford Music Society. The most lasting collaboration was with Colchester Institute. Their annual New Music Days featured such internationally well known groups as Gemini, the Composers’ Ensemble and New Noise. In the 1990s CNM formed its own performing group. After Eric’s death in 2007 Alan co-operated with locally based composers Alan Bullard, Julia Usher and Stuart Russell. Stuart took over as Director of CNM when Alan stepped down in 2013 and has since been superseded by Julia Usher.
Most of Alan’s music of recent decades consists of chamber works, some with voice, composed for ensembles performing at CNM concerts, but he also wrote music for students and amateurs. His large-scale works include 4 Symphonies and 2 Violin Concertos, the first of which has been performed, in a version for violin and piano, by Beth Spendlove and Timothy Carey. There is also a 3-act chamber opera based on the biblical character Hosea.Alan G. Parsons, biographical note [edited AJB, 090921]
Tributes from Alan’s colleagues
Your father was a special man, who visited me regularly in London for a number of years to teach me composition. His dedication was beyond the call of duty and I often remember his snippets of advice, and there were many of them, all practical and to the point. I remember visiting him on one occasion to learn about the organ in an old Colchester church. The church might have been haunted, as there were echoing footsteps while we were at the organ. This was of no concern to your father, who remained focused throughout on the music. We exchanged cards just a few months ago. I know he was a man of faith, and may music help him on his journey.Laurence Glazier to Clive Parsons, 1 September 2021
Rod and I moved to Colchester in 1991, from London. I had already been composing for many years, for live performance, and some BBC broadcasts.
I had already heard about music groups in Colchester before we moved. When we did arrive, I enquired about Colchester New Music; and remember so well that Alan Parsons was a distinguished composer, who encouraged and welcomed me into the group. This meant a great deal to me, and inspired my wish to be involved and to embrace all that Colchester could offer.
Time passes, but I do not forget Alan and all he achieved and supported. I send my sincere condolences to his family – and to all the Colchester composers and musicians he inspired.Julia Usher, September 2021
I first met Alan Parsons at an event in Colchester, probably in the early 1980s. On first meeting he was quiet and self-effacing, but when we got onto the subject of Schoenberg he became animated and knowledgeable, and, although he didn’t talk much about his own life he was clearly an intelligent and well-read musician, who, I discovered afterwards, had studied with Anthony Milner and David Lumsdaine. Later, when I visited his small flat in Military Road, climbing over the model railway to get through the door, I realised that railways were another passion! The simple life that he led – few possessions, no car, lots of walking – were perhaps related, too, to his Christian faith – he was a lay reader at his local church for many years – and for his constant desire to encourage and help others.
As a composer, his music was uncompromising but imaginative and well crafted, though rather out-of-fashion at a time when many composers were breaking away from the influence of pre-war atonality, and it was probably partly as a result of wishing to promote performances of them that he was a founder member, of (I think) the East Anglian Composers’ Alliance, of Mercia Music (alongside composer Eric Hudes), and later of Colchester New Music. And as time went on, his organisational skills and dedication, and his ability to secure funding from various sources, was of immense benefit to a range of composers living and working in East Anglia and wider afield.
I’ve been looking through my old concert programmes, and the earliest one that I can find for which Alan Parsons was responsible was one simply entitled ‘Composers’ Concert’, in November 1982. It took place at the then newly opened Colchester Arts Centre (formerly St Mary-at-the-Walls church) and the music was entirely by Colchester composers – Alan Parsons, Roy Teed, Nigel Hildreth, and myself, and the performers were Norman Tattersall, Valerie and Ronald James, Beth Spendlove and Timothy Carey.
The next one I can find was at Woodbridge School in June 1984. This was promoted by Mercia Music and featured the ‘Colchester New Music Ensemble’ directed by Alan Parsons, with a programme of music by Hindemith, Alan Parsons, Timothy Torry, Eric Hudes, and myself. Various concerts followed, all of which were promoted by Alan Parsons and included many works by East Anglian composers, but it wasn’t until March 1986 that the header ‘Colchester New Music’ was seen on a programme. This programme, containing works by most of the above composers, took place at the British Music Information Centre in Central London – a popular new classical music venue for many years before it was finally closed, and one in which Colchester New Music (CNM) did several concerts, sometimes under the heading ‘Mercia New Music Concerts presented by Colchester New Music’, with a repeat performance at Woodbridge School.
As CNM developed it widened its remit into education, which soon enabled it, with increased funding, to make use of a wider range of professional musicians to run student workshops as well as to give concerts. The first example I can find of this is a concert in Colchester Sixth Form College in 1987 with a group of postgraduates from the Royal Academy of Music and music, again, by Nigel Hildreth, Roy Teed, Eric Hudes, Alan Parsons, and myself. And by the 1990s there was a regular yearly CNM ‘Composers Day’ taking place at Colchester Institute, which then had a thriving music department, involving a lunchtime concert (sometimes at the Sixth Form College, at Essex University, or at the Headgate Theatre), an afternoon workshop with student composers, and an evening concert in the Swinburne Hall. In many ways these were the highlights of CNM – the link with the Institute enabled greater funding, and enabled the performance of members’ music by ensembles and performers such as Lindsay Gowers, Lesley Larkum, Philip Cashian, Ensemble E2K (dir.Robin Newton), Gemini (dir. Ian Mitchell), Ixion (dir. Michael Finnissy), Huw Watkins, Christian Forshaw, Big Noise (dir. Simon Speare), Kingfisher Ensemble (dir. Beth Spendlove) etc. For many East Anglian students and composers, including myself, these visits enabled performances of their works of a quality that they would otherwise have only dreamed of, and for Alan Parsons it brought together his love for new music and for education.
Had it not been for the drive and enthusiasm of Alan Parsons, these events would not have taken place, and the musical life of East Anglia would have been much the poorer. RIP Alan – you have a place in many musician’s hearts.Alan Bullard, September 2021
Explore the music of Alan G. Parsons
BMIC profile with partial list of works.
Some digital renditions of Alan’s music on SoundCloud. He had a collection of live recordings of his own works and those of East Anglian contemporaries; we plan to make these available online in future.
Articles and concert reviews by or about Alan G. Parsons on the CNM website.