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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.

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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.

Beaks and Quills re-invented: a new repertoire for recorder quartet with harpsichord

This article by Alexander Blustin first appeared in the Newsletter of the National Early Music Association (NEMA), Volume i/1 (January 2017) – reproduced by kind permission of the Editor.

Do you ever have the feeling that you always play the same eight pieces? Have you explored the entire extant historical repertoire of your instrument … twice? Curious about whether there is anything new out there, but uncertain whether you’d like it, or even be able to play it?

Early music performers are often aware that music is still being written for their instruments. They might not, however, know that they can influence the process to obtain the repertoire they really want. In 2016 the Colchester New Music (CNM) composers’ co-operative completed a project to generate works for an ‘early instrument ensemble’ with no existing historical repertoire: recorder quartet with harpsichord. What follows is how did we do it, and what we discovered along the way.

CNM’s membership includes NEMA’s Francis Knights, and Stephen Watkins, who directs the Dulcis Venti recorder quartet. Since recorders and harpsichords tend to be found in the same places – concerts, workshops, festivals and so on – we thought that SATB recorder quartet with harpsichord seemed an obvious combination. Intriguingly, though, it appeared to be completely unexplored by composers of the past, thereby offering today’s composers the chance to be the first to write for it.

So this presented an ideal opportunity for a Call for Scores. This is an exercise where a performer or promoter issues a public request for composers to submit works, with the ultimate aim of selecting some for performance. We compiled a Call document inviting composers to write for Dulcis Venti with Francis Knights as harpsichordist. It contained the technical parameters of the instruments, maximum duration for pieces and a submission deadline; we asked for ‘attractive, imaginative, practical and programmable works … feasible for performance by professional players with limited rehearsal time’.

The Call for Scores was posted on CNM’s website, and linked from listings on sites frequented by composers seeking competitions and opportunities: womeninmusic.org.uk, composerssite.com and soundandmusic.org. Adverts also went to some university music departments.

We received 23 entries originating from composers in the UK, Italy, Serbia, USA, Australia, Austria and Germany; ten of these were selected for performance, plus one from a parallel student project with the Colchester Institute. There was also a commissioned work from Ivan Moody and a suite of pieces by Stephen Watkins himself.

Dulcis Venti and Francis Knights at the premieres in Colchester, June 2016 (photo: Alexander Blustin)

Who entered the call? Submitters ranged from students and amateurs to established professional composers. Styles ranged widely. Pastiche baroque, serial, experimental, neo-romantic, soundscape, minimalist and even cartoon soundtracks were all represented. The recorder writing was generally competent, and given the current prevalence of computer typesetting, score presentation was usually good. The keyboard writing was more variable, however, and some of the music was clearly conceived for Sibelius software rather than human performers.

Since the purpose of this project was to generate a practical repertoire which performers would want to use, the players themselves had total control over selection. This can be controversial with composers. Will the musicians just choose the easy pieces? Will they be biased against anything original and challenging? How far will they dare to move outside their comfort zone, stylistically and technically?

The rehearsal process turned out to be a lot more effort than anyone expected, partly due to this latter issue. Dulcis Venti had to work hard to come to terms with aesthetics far removed from normal recorder territory. As well as technical difficulties, there were questions of taste, quality, and how much effort should be made with something totally alien before ruling it out. Are certain works not music at all but ‘sound art’, and therefore beyond the remit of musicians altogether?

The other major source of difficulty was having a complete concert programme of new works for a new ensemble in a new genre, written by composers often new to the instruments. Classical musicians can easily forget that their repertoire has gone through generations of editors. Newly composed works are, by contrast, sometimes in a raw state. Early musicians are well positioned to cope with this, being used to critical engagement with their sources, though there are the extra factors of copyright and opinionated living composers to consider. The ideal approach is for performer and composer to collaborate on editing, as this is the only way to ensure that the composer will do it right next time.

The final concert was held on 4 June 2016 at the Headgate Theatre, Colchester, an intimate space ideal for chamber music. The audience of around 40 included several of the composers, who had come from as far afield as Austria and Germany. A review of the concert appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of Recorder Magazine, with detailed commentary on the individual works. Recordings of many of them are now available on CNM’s website https://colchesternewmusic.com, and enquiries about the sheet music are most welcome; the harpsichord parts are playable on any five-octave instrument.

Across the programme as a whole, the main difficulties for performers were caused by the surprisingly widespread use of 5/8 time signatures, impractically fast tempi, virtuosic, complex writing, and discomfort with serialism. In hindsight, a workshop with the composers would have been ideal for problem-solving and managing expectations. We also learned that there is a safe limit to the amount of new music for chamber ensemble which can sensibly be tackled in a single concert.

Did we discover why nobody has ever composed for recorder quartet with harpsichord? No. Professional recorder quartets and harpsichordists have separate repertoires and therefore no reason to share a stage. But that is simply saying that because there is no repertoire they don’t play together, and because they don’t play together there is no repertoire. The mystery continues.

Overall, though, it was a fascinating project which certainly achieved its aims. There are thousands of contemporary classical composers active around the world today, working in a vast range of styles. They are there to write music for you, the performer, and they would love to hear from you.

Composer, artist and author Alexander Blustin is Administrator of Colchester New Music; calls@colchesternewmusic.com

NB The title of this article pays homage to the titles of two of the selected works: Of Beaks and Quills by Janet Wheeler and Five-Part re-Invention by Ron Hannah.

Results announced for harpsichord and recorder quartet call

We are delighted to announce the selection of pieces from our call for scores for recorder quartet with harpsichord. All submitted works were assessed anonymously for the quality of recorder and harpsichord writing, musical interest and stylistic appropriateness for the ensemble. The list is, alphabetically by composer:

Merry-Go-Round Suite (Sarabande – Haya’s Gavotte – Merry-Go-Round)Ruth Gramann

5-part re-InventionRon Hannah

The lonely princessRon Hannah

Quintet, for four recorders and harpsichord – Jong S. Kim

Waioeka Gorge – Paul Newton-Jackson

AllégresseJenni Pinnock

ElegyToby Roundell

CartoonPeter Thorne

Of Beaks and QuillsJanet Wheeler

The Merry Councellor Suite (Prelude – Gigue – Sarabande)Alison Willis

They will be performed, alongside new works by Stephen Watkins and Ivan Moody, by Dulcis Venti with harpsichordist Francis Knights in a concert at 7:30pm on Saturday 4th June 2016 at the Headgate Theatre Colchester. Tickets (£8/£6) will be available from the Headgate Theatre box office closer to the time.

CNM concerts this week in Colchester

Join us this week for a bonus selection of new music events in Colchester:

Piano Project 2015bg_img_v3_flyer

7:30pm on Wednesday 4th November at the Swinburne Hall, Colchester Institute, Sheepen Rd, Colchester, Essex, CO3 3LL; tickets £5 on the door or via the CMPA Box Office (01206 712 999; creativeartslive@colchester.ac.uk).

An evening of new music for aspirant pianists. Dylan Christopher and colleagues will be presenting a carefully selected programme of attractive and exciting new works for learners of ABRSM Grade 1-5 standard. The concert will be of particular interest to piano teachers, students, those with an interest in music education, and anyone who likes good piano music. Buy tickets here.

Fretless Architecture: Rich Perks and vLookup TrioFretless_architecture_poster_col_310715-web

Doors 7:30pm (starts 8pm), Thursday 5th November 2015, Colchester Arts Centre, Church St. Colchester CO1 1NF. Tickets £7/£6: Box Office 01206 500900 / colchesterartscentre.com.

New constructions for solo fretless electric guitar, plus explorations from avant-garde noise to funk-rock for fretless electic guitar, trumpet, percussion, effects and live electronics. Exploring the frontier between left-field jazz and contemporary art-music with Rich Perks (guitar), Andrew Hall (trumpet) and Tom Atherton (percussion). Buy tickets here.