Category Archives: Concert reviews

Piano Project 2018: An afternoon of new music

Piano Project 2018 is the third Piano Project event run by Dylan Christopher and Colchester New Music. For each event, composers have been invited to submit scores for aspirant pianists – between the levels of grade 1 and grade 5, and no longer than 5 minutes in length – to be considered for the project.

This year Colchester New Music teamed up with EPTA Essex with the help of Sharon Goodey. After the submitted scores were analysed and discussed by a panel of three, they were distributed to EPTA Essex piano teachers, who let their students choose a piece (or pieces!) they would like to present at the concert.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in June, students, families, teachers and composers descended upon Christchurch United Reform Church in Chelmsford. Sharon Goodey opened the event, inviting students to come up and sit near the performance space when they were ready to perform, creating a lovely relaxed atmosphere for the music to unfold in. Students were invited to say a few words about their pieces before they performed them – what they liked, or how they felt about the piece – which gave the audience a wonderful insight into the pieces, and it was fantastic from a composer’s point of view to hear how the performers had interpreted their work. Some students chose to perform more than one piece, and some of the composers’ works were performed multiple times (see below).

What was brilliantly unique about the event was not only was it a concert featuring purely new music, but that it was all performed by student pianists – of all ages. Not professionals, but students having that rare yet amazing opportunity to be among the first to perform a new piece of music.

During the all essential tea and biscuits an audience vote was taken as to the most popular piece. For Ellie by Dylan Christopher was the most popular with 41 votes, followed by New Boots by Theresa Chapman (34 votes) and In Autumn by Melanie Green (32 votes). Andrew Higgins from Alfred Publishing was also present at the event, with his favourite performances of the day being of Peter Thorne’s Little Boat and Dylan Christopher’s For Ellie.

Many thanks must go to Dylan Christopher, the brainchild of the Piano Project 2018 for all his work on Piano Project (2018 and in the past!), to Alex Blustin for all his organisational work on the CNM side, and to Sharon Goodey for all her organisation on the EPTA Essex side of things.

Pieces performed [number of times in square brackets]

New Boots by Theresa Chapman [3]
In Autumn by Melanie Green [3]
Sad Tale by Theresa Chapman [2]
Taking Turns by Mel McIntyre [2]
Largo by Mel Mcintyre [2]
Allegretto by Jenni Pinnock [2]
A Scots Saddhu by Tim Torry [2]
Ancestors Footsteps by Ian Wilson [2]
Sleepwalking by Anna Appleby [1]
Just Before Dawn by Paul Burnell [1]
Five Pulse Pieces by Paul Burnell [1]
Can my heart escape this sadness? by Theresa Chapman [1]
Rabbits by Theresa Chapman [1]
Elegy by Dylan Christopher [1]
For Ellie by Dylan Christopher [1]
Prelude by Dylan Christopher [1]
Simplicity by Dylan Christopher [1]
Waltz by Dylan Christopher [1]
Little Boat by Peter Thorne [1]

 

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Notes on the performances by Bespoke Brass at the Headgate Theatre on Saturday 13th July 2013

Alan Parsons, August 2013

This was billed as ‘Cutting Edge Brass’. Unfortunately many of the pieces included in the programme were anything but ‘cutting edge’ being rather on the conventional side of brass writing. However, the programme did contain a number of original and imaginative pieces for the medium, mostly from existing CNM members. The members of Bespoke Brass played excellently throughout.

Tim Torry’s Salutation from his Brass Suite made a suitable opening to the programme. Tim describes it as ‘exuberant and sometimes jazzy’, and it had a well handled cumulative effect.

Jenni Pinnock’s Brass and Bronze began with some delicate and imaginative sounds. It made use of rhythmic and melodic patterns derived from both bugle calls and bell ringing. Samples of bell sounds were effectively integrated with the brass instruments.

Wes Stephens’ Tango from his Dance Suite was nicely written for the medium, but routine in its expression.

Bernard Hughes’ Noble Music for a Ceremonial Occasion made a traditional use of the medium, introducing some interesting harmonic twists.

Alan Bullard’s Archbishop Harsnett meets Doctor Gilberd was perhaps the most original and imaginative piece in the programme. It was an eloquently dramatic musical representation of an imaginary conversation between two Colchester worthies from the sixteenth century. Scored for trumpet and horn it was beautifully played by Steve Drury and Eddie Morgan.

Stuart Russell’s From Brass and Bells was based on sampled brass and bell sounds. It was a purposeful, imaginative and very effective use of the electronic medium. This piece really goes somewhere and has a real sense of drama, avoiding the tendency of much electronic music to remain static and simply indulge in beautiful sounds. It contained some delicate as well as expressive sounds.

Greg Bartholomew’s Quand j’étais Chez mon Père was a simple melodic and harmonic setting of traditional Canadian songs.

Tim Cook’s Entrade was very much in the tradition of English music of the interwar years, both in its melodic and harmonic aspects. Within this tradition it was competently written.

Gordon Saville’s Jigsaw was likewise well written and was evidently by someone who was very familiar with the medium, containing certain virtuoso elements, but again it was very conventional in both content and expression.

Julia Usher’s Rumours of Cuts was concerned with trees and their preservation, and by extension with the present economic plight. Her approach was primarily dramatic, giving rise to sounds that were fascinating and imaginative and increasingly disturbing, even threatening. The sounds of the brass instruments were effectively enhanced by electronic diffusion.

Laurence Glazier’s A Colchester Rag was an amusing parody, reminiscent of the work of Eric Satie.

Jean-Pierre Vial’s Vingt Deux Septiemes ou Presque was a study in nostalgia, being an arrangement of a piano composition written when the composer was seventeen. The expression was very traditional with cloying harmonies.

Andrea Montalbano’s Regal Minimalism attempted to be up to date by using minimalist techniques and the whole-tone scale, but the result was rather static and seemed to get nowhere.

My own Friday Woods is part of a Colchester Suite originating as an improvisation for the Colchester based group Firewire. It was meant to evoke the feeling of calmness and quiet one gets on entering woodland.

Elspeth Manders’ Siamese Cats was written when she was only seventeen. It shows a mature, if somewhat cautious, use of the medium, and is full of promise.

Robin Benton’s Rhythmic Rondo was a lively, if conventional and rather repetitive piece which made a pleasant ending to the programme.

Alan Parsons  August 2013

Composers, Performers and Machines- An essay by Alan Parsons.

COMPOSERS, PERFORMERS AND MACHINES

 

During the over sixty years that I have been writing music one of the most important areas of change has been in the technical means available to composers as aids or additions to their art. For nearly fifty of those years, like most of my contemporaries, I simply used a pencil and a rubber for sketches and a pen for fair copies on sheets of manuscript paper. For the past ten or twelve years computers and music programmes, notably Sibelius, have been generally available. Without any doubt I can say that, while I hope the style and composition techniques have remained unaffected, the way I compose has certainly changed. With the aid of a music programme one can mechanically access such devices as inversion and retrograde, intervals can be added to a whole chain of chords with a single click, whole sections can be removed or inserted. Just have a look at what is available in the ‘composing tools’ section of your music programme. The ease with which these devices are available brings with it obvious pitfalls. Accidentals need to be checked, and the use of mechanical devices can take over the compositional structure of the piece. It has now become quite frequent for performers to complain, should a piece of music prove to be difficult or demanding, “Your computer may be able to play this, but I can’t!”

 

Similarly, mechanical aids are now available to performers. Although certain electronic devices were available earlier, it can safely be said that electronic, or more precisely electrophonic, music began in the 1950s with Stockhausen and his associates. Listening to today’s electrophonic music one can still hear the influence of such Stockhausen pieces as Kontakte and Mixtür. It was not incidental that Stockhausen studied phonetics with Meyer-Eppler, and many of the electronic timbres used today can be heard as deriving from phonetic sounds.

 

The two concerts in this year’s New Music Day amply illustrated many of these points. Lola Perrin’s Her Sister’s Notebook used multi-track recordings of a bass clarinet together with a live performer. The first section uses imitative ostinatos, the second has mainly chordal textures, the third is more rhythmically lively in the (recorded) accompaniment to the (live) bass clarinet, the fourth has a more easy-going swing to it, again with ostinato rhythmic patterns, the fifth is again mainly homophonic with some appealing close harmonies, the sixth consists of an extended solo from the live player. In the final sections we are back to lively rhythms and largely homophonic textures. This is a captivating piece with some beautiful textures, but one must ask: could it not have been performed by a live bass clarinet choir? Are the electronics in this case merely a substitute for live performers?

The evening concert began with Music for Bass Clarinet and Piano by Theo Loevendie. Here there is no electrophonic input, but instead extended instrumental techniques are used such a playing directly onto the strings of the piano and the use of hand and arm clusters on the keyboard. The bass clarinet uses its full range as well as multiphonics and the more traditional flutter-tonguing. This is an exciting and purposefully constructed piece holding the attention with a powerful dramatic sense of direction, the result, evidently, of a fine collaboration between composer and performers.

Jenni Pinnock’s Ori was again the result of close collaboration between the composer and performer, making good use of the techniques possible with Chrissie Caulfield’s electric violin and its accompanying electronic gadgetry. This includes the ability to record the live performer and then play back the result to create ostinati as a background to the live performance, a technique pioneered by Stockhausen in the 1960s with Spiral. The composition relied heavily on minimalist repetitions, both in the live part and inevitably in the tape-loop-like effects of the recorded music. Jenni combined all of this in a controlled structure.

Chrissie’s own composition, Afternoon Nightmare, used her electric violin against a background of fascinating electrophonic ostinati. The phonetic origin of many of the electronic sounds was very much in evidence here. The mood is serious, not to say a little scary! But it is, afterall, a nightmare! There was a dramatic, climactic build-up of textures before the effective quiet ending with beautiful textural transformation in the final seconds. This is a very personal and moving piece.

Stuart Russell’s Exit Strategy combines electronics, including musique concrète effects such as the sounds of railway trains with the wheel flanges screaming against the rails. There are also references to computer games and the music of Ligeti. Such eclectic sources can only be justified if the result hangs together as a genuine musical composition, and here Stuart certainly produced a satisfying and meaningful composition with plenty of dramatic challenges.

The programmes also contained a good deal of music not using electronics. Laurence Glazier’s Trio for 5-string violin, bass clarinet and piano (first movement) uses relentless motor rhythmic counterpoint reminiscent of Stravinsky’s neoclassical style of the 1920s but without Stravinsky’s harmonic stringency and rhythmic interest. Colin Blundell’s A Pickle Sandwich and Tim Torry’s Pale Enchantment were, each in its own way, pleasant enough undemanding pieces using a fairly traditional musical language. Colin introduced a fully written out quasi-improvisatory element.

I thought there was an interesting and complete contrast between my Three Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, written in 1953 and inspired by the condensed expressionistic style of early Schönberg, Berg and Webern and Alan Bullard’s Etudes for Piano, an ongoing work from which we heard five pieces. Here the style was expansive and relatively ‘easy going’ in the manner of much interwar English piano music, although, in the tradition of Piano Etudes, demands were made on the performer. Nevertheless, again in the Piano Etude tradition, each piece made and developed one musical statement or idea. As always with Alan’s music, the pieces are beautifully written for the medium.

Mark Bellis’s Music for Bass Clarinet and Piano was another early piece, written in 1978 during one of Peter Maxwell Davies’ composition classes atDarlington. Like my clarinet and piano pieces its style was condensed and expressionistic, effectively using the full range of both instruments, and techniques ultimately deriving from the instrumental experimentation of Schönberg, Berg and Webern at the beginning of the twentieth century.

 

One thing most of the pieces performed demonstrated was that, inevitably, for much of the time, the medium is the message. This was as true of Alan Bullard’s Piano Etudes as of Chrissie Caulfield’s Nightmare.  All composers are and always have been influenced in their compositional methods by the medium they are writing for. The best composers and the best musical compositions are those where the medium and the message are perfectly balanced. This was certainly true where, in the case of J.S.Bach and W.A.Mozart, the composer was often the original performer. But great performers don’t always make great composers. And what about transcriptions and arrangements? Bach’s D minor Toccata and Fugue may well have begun life as a very effective violin piece. Whether or not it was J.S.Bach who transcribed it, it has certainly been turned into a very effective organ piece.

There is always the temptation to allow the medium to take over. Paganini may have added much to the techniques of violin playing through his compositions, but by no stretch of the imagination could he be called a ‘great’ composer. To assume that simply to put together a collection of sounds, because they may be original, startling or merely ‘difficult’, whether the sounds are generated by a traditional musical instrument or by electronic means, one has a valid musical composition is to kid oneself. Conversely, simply to assume that in ‘writing well’ for an instrument without stretching the performer and the audience one is adequately fulfilling one’s role as a composer is equally unjustified. I think it can be counted as a tribute to say that, in the vast majority of cases, the composers represented at this year’s New Music Day wrote good and convincing pieces of music in a way which fully exploited their chosen medium.

 

Alan Parsons June 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some Thoughts On The Colchester New Music Day 2011

 

 

It never ceases to amaze me how a diverse group of composers, such as members of CNM, working in relative isolation, come up each year with such interesting programmes and how certain themes seem to emerge. Two things struck me this year: the contemplative atmosphere that informed much of the music, and the sense of historical development which composers seemed to evoke. Alan Parsons’ Three Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, written as something of a student exercise in 1953, hark back to the expressionistic brevity of the early works of Schonberg, Berg and Webern. Laurence Glazier’s Sonata for Bass Clarinet and Piano was a delightful and entertaining evocation of the neoclassical, jazz influenced music of the 1920s and 30s. Colin Blundell’s Five Mathoms – Hobbit speak betrayed his love of English music of the same period, while Alan Bullard’s Bede for Soprano and Bass Clarinet and Tim Torry’s sensitive settings of Charlotte Mews’ moving First World War poems The Face of Grief, although moving beyond it in both rhythmic and harmonic language, had their roots very much in the same tradition, most prominently in the careful and effective setting of the English language. Alan P’s Three Songs from ‘Chamber Music’ by James Joyce had a similar nostalgia for the neo-Romanticism of the pre-second world war British music, although using composition techniques that owed much to the war time and post-ww2 music of Messaien and early Stockhausen. Like Tim’s songs, they were dedicated to Lindsay Gowers in recognition of the wonderful work she has done for CNM over the years (since 1994 to be exact), giving many first performances of works by CNM composers. Mark Bellis’s Benedicite Omnia Opera belonged, again at several removes, to another great British musical tradition, that of cathedral choral music. This was a highly personal and original setting of a text well-known in Anglican circles. Tim Torry’s One Intent for Solo Piano continued the transcendental and contemplative mood, this time with a Buddhist inspiration.

 

Another theme to emerge was that of extended instrumental technique. This was an important part of the compositional philosophy of the early 20th century expressionist composers. Indeed it goes back farther than them. As Michael Finnissy remarked when he was with us a few years ago, even the ordinary orchestral string writing of Brahms, who, in spite of his ‘progressive’ side, could hardly be thought of as an ‘experimental’ composer, would have been considered impossible a couple of generations earlier. While Beethoven’s late Piano Sonatas and String Quartets took  instrumental techniques to new levels; and Bach’s writing pushed to the limits the instrumental and vocal techniques of his day. The tendency to push instrumental techniques to new limits came to the fore not only in the electronically enhanced pieces, but also in the advanced bass clarinet techniques used by Sarah Watts in Anthony Clare’s Scawfell, a seminal piece for this duo. Stuart Russell made evocative use of electronics in his Thames Estuary Nocturne. Julia Usher’s setting of, or rather commentary on, extracts from Jamie McKendrick’s thought-provoking Dark Matter: Poems of Space, was described by the composer as being for Bass Clarinet, Multitrack Sound Canvas and Projection. Julia certainly used this multimedia apparatus to great dramatic, indeed theatrical, effect.

           

Also in the programme were Piers Hallawell’s Minnesang and songs by Samuel Barber. The Hallawell was an impressive piece. From the opening flourishes and arabesques to the final arresting and brooding instrumental interchanges, the confident musical language was projected with colour and authority by Sarah Watts and Anthony Clare, who premiered the work at Edinburgh earlier in the year. The Barber songs were lucidly communicated by Lindsay and Anthony, serving to remind us of the parallels and contrasts between the English and American lyrical traditions, and the concern for the text by both.

 

May we express the composers’ eternal gratitude to Lindsay Gowers, Sarah Watts and Anthony Clare for their splendid and dedicated performances.

 

A P and AB May 2011