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.
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; firstname.lastname@example.org
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.