Tag Archives: Colchester Institute

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.

Notes from workshop on composing for harpsichord and recorder quartet, 20 October 2015

Introduction

Despite the long histories of harpsichords and recorders, there is, strangely, no existing published repertoire for recorder quartet with harpsichord. This is all the more surprising considering that the complementary properties of the instruments lead to a compelling combination: the sweetness and coolness of the recorder, with the bright, clean sound of the harpsichord.

On 20th October 2015, Francis Knights and Stephen Watkins with the Dulcis Venti quartet gave a workshop at Colchester Institute on composing for harpsichord and recorder quartet. They introduced the context and practicalities of the instruments and played a series of pieces which illustrated the exciting possibilities of the ensemble.

Harpsichord

A keyboard instrument in which the strings are plucked, rather than struck as in a piano. The harpsichord came to widespread use during the Renaissance, but popularity declined as the modern piano was developed. Since the early 20th Century, there has been a significant revival of interest from composers; there are over 10,000 modern pieces for solo harpsichord. Francis performed some of these to demonstrate aspects of modern harpsichord writing.

In practice, all harpsichords differ, and it is wise to check the parameters of the instrument for which one is writing, or assume a basic specification that will be widely applicable.

The harpsichord used for this demonstration was a close modern copy of a Flemish Baroque instrument, with two keyboards (‘two-manual’). If these keyboards are coupled together, one makes a slightly louder sound than the other, due to two sets of strings being plucked simultaeously; if uncoupled, the two keyboards produce different tone qualities. The basic sound of the instrument derives from the 8′ strings; on certain instruments a set of 4′ strings can also be coupled in to brighten the sound. In practice, 4′ strings are rarely tuned, so they should not be used for solo lines.

It is important to note that since, unlike the piano, there is no sustain pedal, sustain can only be achieved by the player keeping their fingers down on the relevant notes. The composer must therefore take into account the practicality of hand and finger positions in producing the desired effect.

See also Stephen Watkin’s thoughts on writing for harpsichord in contemporary and non-traditional styles.

Recorders

The treble recorder – larger and lower-pitched than the typical school descant recorder – is the basic instrument. See the range chart below for full details of ranges and problem pitches, but in general if a recorder has a melody line it is best to place this in the strongest part of the range. For accompanying lines, it can conversely be effective to write them where the sound is weaker so they blend into the background. Useful effects can also be achieved by the change from homophonic to polyphonic writing.

Interesting rhythmic effects are achievable through tonguing: double-tonguing, triple-tonging and flutter-tonguing are all possible.

See recorderhomepage.net for a detailed bibliography on composing for the recorder.

Click to expand image

Click to expand image

Moot Hall Organ PIPEWORKS competition winners announced

CNM and the Friends of the Moot Hall Organ are delighted to announce the winners of PIPEWORKS, the Moot Hall Organ composition competition:

First prize (£250): Moot Points by John Furse

Second prize (£150): Graduation Toccata by Mark Bellis

These two pieces will be premiered by organist Tom Bell at a Roman River Festival concert on 27th September.

The runners-up will be performed at recitals and education events over the summer. They are, in alphabetical order:

Tempestuous (also known as Moto Perpetuo) by Jenni Pinnock

Paean by Peter Thorne

Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Oysters, Garglyjock and Bulkybones (after Alderman W Gurney Benham) by Alison Willis

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