Monday 3 March 2014

A perspective on the Composer's Workshop

In February we held our annual University of Cambridge Composer's Workshop. Six composers were selected to work alongside composer Luke Bedford and conductor, Gerry Cornelius in a day-long event which was also open to Britten Sinfonia's audiences to attend. Sinfonia Student, Giverny McAndry went along to discover what the day involved and find out more about the compositional process;

Luke Bedford said at the conclusion of the day that ‘composing is really hard’. As a largely non-composing musician who is often made to conjure new music as part of my studies, I can testify to this fact; to those who compose for pleasure or for a living though, this statement has other ramifications. In a musical world where anything goes, no dominant style rules and compositional custom are not present in the same way they were centuries ago, it is increasingly difficult for young composers and their work to stand out. The Composers’ Workshop, though, showed how despite this, six young composers from the University of Cambridge were not deterred by, but excited by these arguably dim prospects.

The workshop ran as part of a competition for University of Cambridge students, which required them to submit compositions for a mixed ensemble of a maximum of ten players. The coveted prize is a Britten Sinfonia Commission, which would be performed at Wigmore Hall, across Eastern England as part of Britten Sinfonia’s award-winning At Lunch series 2014-15, and recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3.  For the workshop itself, an ensemble made up of Britten Sinfonia musicians and top university instrumentalists was conducted by Gerry Cornelius; the six works shortlisted for workshop were to be rehearsed in the presence of the composers, who were at liberty to discuss and change aspects of their work, with a view of formally submitting a proposal outlining their vision for a commission following the workshop day.

With notation technology becoming ever more popular, the opportunity to hear what compositions sound like in real-time is increasingly valuable. Gerry Cornelius’ description of the day as more of a ‘forum’ than a day of rigorous rehearsal fit the day’s course, as topics of interest ranged from terms of expression, clef preferences, instrument customs, and the most reliable way to tear a newspaper (an often neglected tool of the percussion section). It was evident from the day of workshops that interaction with such experienced musicians was of even greater worth: the questions batted back and forth between observers, composer, conductor and performer alike proved to be mutually fruitful, often resulting in changes being made to the work at hand. The works were dissected eagerly at all tiers of detail – nuances in the score, practical limitations of instruments and broader issues of concept were discussed with equal fervour – with the recorded performance made at the end of the day showcasing the progress made in each piece from their short time in spotlight.

The shortlisted composers (Robert Busiakiewicz, David John Roche, Benjamin L A Picard, Alex Woolf, Ben Comeau and Gregor Forbes) ranged from first year undergraduate students to postgraduates, and each showed impressive individuality and vision to which the ensemble adapted to wonderfully. The success of the workshop was to the credit of all the shortlisted composers and musicians involved in the day – I speak for everyone who attended when I say the variation contained within each session was highly stimulating and inspiring for all involved. Britten Sinfonia’s collaboration with the University of Cambridge is at its peak here; if the prize of a Britten Sinfonia commission was not incentive enough to enter the competition, the workshop stage is surely a fascinating and invaluably useful stage worthy of the application of any budding composer.

Giverny McAndry

Photos (c) Alice Boagey

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