Thursday 31 October 2013

A Museum, A Composer and Britten Sinfonia Academy

On the 12thand 13th October 2013, the Britten Sinfonia Academy took part in a weekend’s residency at the Fitzwilliam Museum,Cambridge. Working for the first time amongst the museum’s artefacts, we embarked on the very first stages of our creative collaboration with composer Philip Cashian, who will be writing a piece for the Academy to perform in the coming year. Working upstairs in the museum’s twentieth century gallery, amidst works by artists including Picasso, Nicholson, Sutherland, Moore and Hepworth, we spent the weekend composing and improvising musical responses to the artworks around us, with the museum visitors invited to observe our work in progress. 

Philip began by showing us three of the artefacts that had initially inspired him: a Graham Sutherland painting, a Ben Nicholson relief, and an ornate astronomical clock from another of the galleries. Dividing into small ensembles, we each chose one of the three, and began to develop short pieces inspired by the work. Aside from some small visual ‘doodles’ created earlier by Philip, we had a virtually blank canvas, and it was fascinating to see how each ensemble approached the task, with some starting with a chord or texture, and others working from a particular motif or melody. Beginning in this way really helped to broaden our minds to the different ways of linking art to music, and the proof was in the sheer variety of responses that emerged. It was especially interesting comparing the ideas of ensembles that had worked on the same artefact, but had come up with utterly different interpretations: in the case of the clock, for example, there was a definite duality between the florid, feminine aesthetics of the exterior echoed in the melodies of one group, and the more abstract concept of time and machinery that dominated the work of other groups. Using these first pieces of composition, Philip then selected individuals to walk around the gallery and conduct an improvised ‘piece’, bringing groups in as they wished. The conductor had total power over the shape of the piece, experimenting with different layers and combinations, and dictating the dynamics and atmosphere of the piece. At the same time, however, the elements of chance and spontaneity led both to moments of cacophony and glimpses of unexpected magic, as whole new ideas were uncovered with the merging of different compositions. This was great fuel for another day of composition - this time taking inspiration from any painting, sculpture or object in the gallery. It was amazing to see the change that had taken place since the previous day. For some, the combination of art and music had felt more natural, whilst for others it had clearly been a stretch outside of their comfort zone, but by the end of the weekend it felt as though everyone was putting forward their own personal responses to the works and the resulting pieces were a giant step up from the previous day.

Working in the environment of so many incredible artworks was such a wonderful and rare experience, and we all left feeling buoyant and inspired. It was lovely to get to know Philip, and we all look forward to hearing his first ideas in the spring.

Eliza Spindel (violin)
Britten Sinfonia Academy Member

Find out more about Britten Sinfonia Academy here
Deatils of the concerts featuring Britten Sinfonia Academy and Philip Cahsian's new work can be found here

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