Category Archives: Articles

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.

 

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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.

Two harpsichords concert and CNM workshop at Fitzwilliam Auditorium, 15 October 2017

On Sunday 15 Oct, Francis Knights and Dan Tidhar are presenting a workshop of new works and works in progress for two harpsichords, at 4pm in Fitzwilliam College Auditorium, Storey’s Way, Cambridge. The session will include music by Mark Bellis, Colin Blundell, Philip Joy, Jenni Pinnock, Stephen Watkins, Ian Wilson and others.

Prior to this, at 2pm in the same venue, there will be a recital of contemporary American music for two harpsichords by composers including Robert Baksa, Earle Brown, Mark Janello and Edwin McLean. Entry to both workshop and concert is free.

New Structures in Composition 16/09/17: photos and programme

Thanks to everyone who made our recent New Structures in Composition concert such a success; composers, performers and not least the audience of 60 who were crammed into Fitzwilliam College Chapel on a very wet Saturday in September. Some photos from the event are below, and a pdf of the programme can be downloaded here.

In rehearsal… the composers arrive…

The concert… we spy a Vulcan!