Monday 30 November 2015

OPUS2016 shortlisted composer - Neil Smith

Full Name: Neil Tòmas Smith
(c) Stefan Beyer
Age: 27

Where are you from? Where do you live now? Do you think this is relevant to understanding your music?

I am from Scotland originally but for the last decade I have lived in England and, from 2010-2013 in Stuttgart, Germany. For the last year and a half I have lived in Birmingham, which I think is a wonderful city for the arts. No one place has had a huge influence on my music but I’ve enjoyed moving around and living in different cities and countries as you get to meet different composers and receive various influences.

How will you approach writing your OPUS2016 composition for Britten Sinfonia?

The piano trio is a really established genre with so many great pieces written for the line up. Therefore I’ll start by revisiting some of those great pieces from the past. So much of chamber music is defined by the relationship between instruments of the ensemble – whether the piano is dominant or provides the accompaniment; whether the instruments work together or independently. I will consider this first of all to try and begin to forge my individual response.

Who have you worked with previously? What ensembles / orchestras / organisations?

I have had the pleasure of working with a number of great ensembles and performers on my music: these include the Hebrides Ensemble. Red Note Ensemble, Ensemble 10/10, L’Orchestre de Philharmonique de Radio France, clarinettist Jonathan Sage, the WDR Symphony Orchestra, pianist Joseph Houston, cellist Jennifer Langridge, Ensemble Dark Inventions and percussion quartet Schalgquartett Köln. I am currently working on the Sound and Music and Making Music-supported Adopt a Composer scheme with the Thame Chamber Choir, which will result in a new work next year.

When did you first start to write music?

It was only when I began composing that I realised that music would become my keenest interest. This was at secondary school and down to encouragement from music teachers at the comprehensive I attended in Edinburgh. I will always be grateful for their enthusiasm and support during that vital time.

Describe your growth as a composer to this point. What were the pivotal points?

Probably the most important period for me was after first realising I was interested in composition. I studied at the RSAMD junior academy – taking the train through to Glasgow on a Saturday – and then went to St Mary’s Music School. In both institutions I was taught by Tom David Wilson, who gave me a fantastic start to my composition, and indeed more general, education.

There are perhaps two further key periods that defined my development – the first at the University of York during my undergraduate degree and the second in Germany. York really gives students a lot of freedom to explore and I was involved in so many different musical activities, including analysis, performance (contemporary and Baroque) and of course, composition. This was a fantastic all-round education.

In Germany I was able to attend many of the world’s largest new music festivals and heard a great deal of music of which I would have otherwise been unaware. I was also able to meet and hear some of the leading composers in central Europe – it was a very inspiring time.

How do you start a new work/ what is your composing method? 

For me, my pieces need to have a central theme – whether musical or extra-musical – and some method of exploring it. This can then be the central pillar which will support the rest of the piece. Sometimes I draw a lot of rough diagrams, lines and shapes to try and work out what this central pillar might be; other times I write a lot of words to try and pin down what will make this particular piece unique.

How do you feel about the opportunities that are available to composers?

There a lot of people who want to be composers and opportunities are very competitive. There will only be a chosen few who can make it their full time profession. I am engaged in creating a portfolio career which includes and supports my compositional activity.

What would be your advice to other young composers today?

Study abroad, at least for a time. It can give you a whole new perspective on your practice, and is, in most European countries at least, far cheaper than the UK!

What does the future hold for you? What are your next steps going to be as a composer?

I have a number of premieres lined up for next year, including a choir work for the Thame Chamber Choir and a new piece for cello, horn and clarinet. These will help me expand my practice – writing for (very good) amateurs for example and for new performance contexts.

Other than that the future is uncertain: I finish my PhD next year and must consider my next move while other factors mean I don’t know where I’ll be living in 6 months’ time!

Perhaps most excitingly, my first piece on disc will appear in 2016, in a new solo CD by clarinettist Jonathan Sage. It’s been a joy working with him on it and I think the final product will be fantastic.

You can join Neil and the other OPUS2016 shortlisted composers on 22 & 23 January 2016 for two days of workshops at the Barbican in London, with discussions and performances of the pieces these composers have been working on. Find out more and how to reserve your place here.

Thursday 26 November 2015

OPUS2016 shortlisted composer - Margaret Haley

(c) Kenny Smith
Full Name: Margaret Anne Haley
Age: 61

Where are you from? Where do you live now? Do you think this is relevant to understanding your music?

I was born in Coventry. Yet have lived in West Yorkshire since infancy where there is somewhat a tradition of choral music alongside brass band music. But then the rise of contemporary music in association with the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (HCMF) seemed like a breath of fresh air to me.

How will you approach writing your OPUS2016 composition for Britten Sinfonia?

Using the given instrumentation I am already thinking about the sound-world I want to write. Whilst I consider, in no particular order: texture, rhythm, pitch-class, note gesture, and extended performance techniques, my starting point is a structural plan.

Who have you worked with previously? What ensembles / orchestras / organisations? 

Sounds Positive, Goldberg Ensemble, Firebird Ensemble, Huddersfield University New Music Ensemble / Richard Craig (flautist), Mieko Kanno (violinist), Philip Thomas (pianist) / Sound and Music, SPNM, Adopt-a-composer scheme (Aire Valley Singers), residency in association with Making Music.

What’s your earliest musical memory?

I must have been under the age of 5 and in church with my parents. Hearing rumbling noises
emanating from the bowels of the church organ filled my ears with a sense of wonder.

When did you first start to write music?

I think I started to write music as a young girl, in my head at least. I had piano lessons and could read/write music from the age of 7 or thereabouts. My teacher encouraged a more formal approach to music making, as did my mother. Yet I would secretly draw what I thought was music.

Describe your growth as a composer to this point. What were the pivotal points? 

Studying composition at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels has positively contributed to my development. Through researching the work of contemporary composers, there has been a gradual move away from formal structures to a more abstract style of writing in my music. For example the music of James Dillon prompted a significant change to my way of thinking about the use of traditional instrumentation. I first heard Dillon’s Windows and Canopies (1985), before closely studying not only the global form but also the immense detail in his handwritten score.

Rebecca Saunders is another composer whose music ascribed for traditional instrumentation holds my attention. Saunders’ ethos of working with sound itself is more and more relevant to my thinking today.

Denis Smalley’s paper: ‘Spectromorphology: explain sound-shapes’1, more associated with electroacoustic music, enhanced not only thoughts about shaping sound in my music, but also influenced compositional methodology. I am more and more interested in drawing sound in time, prior to staff notation.

How do you start a new work/what is your composing method?

Always pencil. It really depends on what instrumental forces I am working with. More often than not my starting point is the creation of skeletal framework.

How do you feel about the opportunities that are available to composers?

Whilst there are a growing number of opportunities for composers, geographical location can be an obstacle. If, however, a particular opportunity is right for you it is always worth applying. Some opportunities, i.e. competitions carry age limits. Age is but a number. What is really important is putting your music out there.

What would be your advice to young composers today?

Be willing to learn. Be true to yourself. Write. Find your voice. Enter competitions, but be selective. Even if you are unsuccessful, see the experience from a positive perspective, i.e., the discipline of working to a brief, meeting a deadline, more importantly completing a piece of music.

What does the future hold for you? What are your next steps going to be as a composer? 

Keep on writing. Hone my skills. I would hope to work more and more with performers. I would like to bring my music to a much wider audience.

1Organised Sound 2 (2) (Cambridge University Press, 1997), 107-126.

You can join Margaret and the other OPUS2016 shortlisted composers on 22 & 23 January 2016 for two days of workshops at the Barbican in London, with discussions and performances of the pieces these composers have been working on. Find out more and how to reserve your place here.

Wednesday 25 November 2015

OPUS2016 shortlisted composer - Robert Peate

Full Name: Robert James Peate
Age: 28

Where are you from? Where do you live now? Do you think this is relevant to understanding your music?

I am originally from Dymock in Gloucestershire, and currently live on the Llanover Estate in Monmouthshire. Nature and the countryside has always played an important role in my life and so also in my work, and like with anything knowing more about the music’s inspiration etc can deepen a listeners understanding or appreciation of it. However, I always try to create a sense of abstract unity or identity in a piece, and hope that it stands up on its own without much extra-musical context.

How will you approach writing your OPUS2016 composition for Britten Sinfonia?

Not 100% sure yet.. I have a few ideas but I’ve only just found out that I’ve been shortlisted - I’ll have to think quickly though as sketches are due soon!

Who have you worked with previously? What ensembles/orchestras/organisations?

Various professional student and amateur ensembles including BCMG, The Academy Manson Ensemble, Chroma, Fretwork, Orchestra of the Swan, The Britten-Pears Composers Ensemble, The Solaris and Castalian String Quartets, The Band of the Household Cavalry, The London Bach Society and currently the LPO. Plus soloists including Christopher Redgate, Huw Watkins, Rolf Hind, Elgar Howarth, Clare Hammond, Frank Ollu.

When did you first start to write music?

I started writing little songs on the guitar/piano when I was about 9 or 10, then started trying to write little piano pieces down when I was probably about 11 or 12.

Describe your growth as a composer to this point. What were the pivotal points?

I’ve had a slightly bizarre development as a composer in some ways I suppose – when I started really trying to get to grips with composition around age 14-15 I was obsessed with Bach, counterpoint and the harpsichord on the one hand; writing lots of contrapuntal fragments and harpsichord minuets, and on the other hand I was playing drums in a series of grunge bands. I soon went on to more expressive or romantic character pieces and tried my hand at orchestral writing quite a lot, studying scores and writing ambitious scale tone-poem type pieces (none of which I’ve ever heard – but I managed to gain some technique through writing them), at this time I went on to playing organ, guitar and singing in various folk, jazz and rock bands, and also picked up the cello and double bass in school/college orchestras.

When I went to study composition for the first time at Birmingham Conservatoire I soon realised how little I knew of contemporary music and it took me at least the next 4 years to soak up and somewhat internalise what was at first a shock to the system artistically. I suppose in general I’ve tried my hand at most things except graphic scores and overly conceptual music (I’ve always been a bit of a nuts and bolts composer!), and over the last couple of years have finally started to get the feeling that I’m connecting many of the often contrasting threads that have gone through my musical tastes, and am developing a more personal language. As for pivotal points I can’t remember exactly what made me want to concentrate on composition, though it was probably listening to Bach, but starting at Birmingham, and then at the Royal Academy in London where the standard of playing was so high, were probably pretty pivotal.

How do you start a new work/what is your composing method?

Every time I start a new piece I have the feeling that I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing, and can’t believe I’ve ever managed to write anything before.

I usually start with something small that I’m confident in, and will generally have a detailed and confident idea of this. Then it’s all about working hard and living with the material in order to find context, more and more I realise that context is everything and it is always a challenge to find this in the beginning stages of a work, but once things start to click it’s a great feeling. Each piece has it’s own identity and getting a sense of that always takes a little time (though occasionally things pop out more or less fully formed..). I never use a computer except for copying up at the end, but whether at the piano, the desk, on a walk, a bike ride, cooking dinner, watching tv or lying in bed I am working in one way or another – living with your ideas is important I think.

What living person do you most admire, and why?

Pretty much all the people I admire the most are dead – it’s usually the case with composers!

How do you feel about the opportunities that are available to composers?

They are few and far between.

What would be your advice to other young composers today?

Keep working.

What does the future hold for you? What are your next steps going to be as a composer?

I don’t know, it’s difficult to live more than a few months ahead of myself. I’m into a PhD at the Royal Academy of Music so I hope to continue with that and look for a decent job at the end of it, but all I’m aiming for ultimately are chances to write and develop my work with ensembles and instrumentalists.

You can join Robert and the other OPUS2016 shortlisted composers on 22 & 23 January 2016 for two days of workshops at the Barbican in London, with discussions and performances of the pieces these composers have been working on. Find out more and how to reserve your place here.

Friday 20 November 2015

Making the Link

Back in May we introduced Link Ensemble: a new creative group, led by Duncan Chapman, integrating students with special education needs at Comberton Village College with their GCSE peers through workshops with Britten Sinfonia musicians. As this project draws to a close, with the final performance taking place on Saturday 21 November in a pre-concert event at Saffron Hall, Jen House (Creative Learning Director) and Duncan Chapman (workshop leader) look back on this unique initiative...

Alexia is blind. She makes her slow, careful way to the centre of a haphazard circle of ambient sound; to her left the spidery jangle of an acoustic guitar, a D7 chord with an unexpected jangling G at the piano behind her and a sudden croak of feedback from an electric bass on her right. Taking a deep breath, she brings the microphone close until she feels it’s cool brush on her chin and speaks quietly into the noisy void.

“Can we start with Jack, please? A low E on the bass clarinet.” She hesitates for a moment, “Is that the lowest note you can play?”

The note, rich and deep curls its way through the room and like a heavy fog, obscures the other sounds as the tinkering dies away.

“Sarah” her voice is clearer, more confident as the sound palate clears and like a painter in sound, she pauses, aural brush poised.

“Sarah, a low seventh above … a little less … and articulate in a slow pulse.”

There is an expectant hush, the room is not still, there is a restless energy but wherever the eyes may look or whatever the hands may fidget with, the ears are focused on the unfurling beauty as Alexia, slowly and ever so precisely, reveals her composition.

The name ‘Link Ensemble’ was given to Britten Sinfonia’s integrated music-making initiative in the very early stages of its conception and long before my arrival in Britten Sinfonia’s Creative Learning office. The name may well, in fact, have been the very twinkle in the proverbial eye which, (a very protracted gestation period of three years later) eventually brought this unexpected, unconventional, unapologetic ensemble into being. As the name so aptly suggests, Link Ensemble is about bringing people and creative impulses together; partnership between a visionary school and a ground-breaking orchestra; connections between young people with special educational needs and disabilities and their non-disabled GCSE Music contemporaries and collaboration between professionals and amateurs linked by a common creativity.

With twenty five members including SEND students from Comberton Village College (CVC) Cabin, GCSE Music students from CVC and professional musicians from Britten Sinfonia, Link Ensemble has met for a series of three, intensive, two-day workshop and rehearsal sessions led by composer and sound artist Duncan Chapman. At each stage, the ensemble has explored and created new music to record and perform.

“So, what’s it going to be?” I asked my predecessor in a hand-over session just months before the first phase. “I’ve no idea!” She shrugged, “How can we describe something which hasn’t been done yet?”  

And that, in a nutshell, is it. Forget everything you think you know about music, musical ability, disability. Leave them at the door when you arrive at Saffron Hall tomorrow and prepare yourself for something you didn’t know music could be….

Jen House (Creative Learning Director)

Integration is about leveling the playing field and one way of doing this is to focus not on what we think music is but on what music could be. We explore outside the frame of genre, working with what’s right there in front of us in the moment; using what we hear as a guide rather than an idea of music that is in our heads. What gives Britten Sinfonia it's unique sound is the relationships between the particular musicians, their own particular sounds and the way in which these are nurtured over many hours of playing music together. So what is significant isn't that a piece might have four violins, oboe, horn and double bass but it's the specific violins, oboe, horn and bass with the particular players. In Link Ensemble this focus on the particular characters of the group is where we start from rather than a 'pick and mix' approach to style or genre.

Making music from 'what's in front of us' could be a recipe for chaos and clutter, but with careful thought about how we construct the music we are able to create space for everyone to have a contribution. Starting from the position of treating music-making as a social sonic activity means that the music we make has to belong to us and not be a pastiche of something that other musicians would do better.

Within a conventional musical framework the difference between Adam - GCSE music student, jazz keys player and composer - and Matthew - who has never played an instrument, is registered blind and has difficulties with fine and gross motor skills - is pronounced. Beyond this frame, in the environment of what music could be they are equal, and equally inspired by and inspiring to, each other.

In practical terms, we are separating music-making from technique. Most of us are used to associating skill in music with the ability to rattle off Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto or play complex chord changes. Once you move away from this preoccupation with playing 'difficult' music and focus on understanding something of the context of the music 'in the room', the field is leveled and we are all starting from a point of making something as a social collective and not as a vehicle for individual display. Technique is important - it's important for us to develop skills on our instruments to enable us to play with fluency and conviction - but more important in an ensemble context are the listening and imagination techniques that are often overlooked in a headlong dash for demonstrable and flashy skills. 

My job as a workshop leader is to co-ordinate and guide the creation. Sometimes this is about setting frameworks that are by their nature inclusive and recognise moments of unexpected beauty (“Beauty is underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look” said John Cage). Jak, one of our Link Ensemble players once asked if “cheese can be an instrument?” My challenge is to take this concept and work with it!

The role of the professional musicians from Britten Sinfonia has many facets but whether they are the glue holding a compositional structure together, or providing a spotlight on a particular sound, idea or technique, they are there to ensure that no idea a young musician has ever fails – they make every idea, even musical cheese, fly! We are lucky to have these players who are not only capable of tremendous instrumental skill but able to instantly match this with the needs of the music and the group.

There is a reason we talk about “playing” music as opposed to “working” it. In Link Ensemble we all dare to play: to play with what music is and what music could be.

Duncan Chapman (Leader) 

Come and experience Link Ensemble for yourself, as they perform in the pre-concert event on Saturday 21 November, 6.15pm at Saffron Hall, ahead of the evening concert featuring Britten Sinfonia and Eddie Gomez. Find out more.

Thursday 5 November 2015

A look back on At Lunch - James Calver

James Calver, Concerts Director, shares a fond memory from our April 2011 At Lunch concert...

Marcelo Nisinman (c) Karin van der Meul
One of my fondest Britten Sinfonia At Lunch memories was back in 2011 (in my previous role as Concerts Assistant), when Thomas Gould (violin), Huw Watkins (piano), Caroline Dearnley (cello) and Stephen Williams (double bass) performed a Piazolla-inspired programme with guest artist Marcelo Nisinman (bandoneon).  Marcelo Nisinman is internationally renowned in his field, and much in demand as a soloist playing with orchestras and at festivals around the world. He has performed with, Martha Argerich, Gidon Kremer, Gary Burton, Fernando Suarez Paz, Assad Brothers, and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit, and formed his own world-famous quartet ‘Tango Factory’ in 2009.

Moodily-lit, laced with thigh-slapping rhythms, percussive string techniques, and featuring a newly-written piece by Mexican composer Enrico Chapela, Nanobots, this At Lunch tour had an ‘end of term’ vibe, Britten Sinfonia doing what we do best: exploring music outside what one might normally expect to hear filling Wigmore Hall on a wet Wednesday lunchtime in April...

I turned pages for Huw, and found myself doing so with a certain uncontrollable Argentinian flare. It was that easy to become this immersed in the music and infected by the style and atmosphere, to the extent that I’ve never really felt so much a part of a performance than at this moment, particularly in the closing work of the concert: a dramatic performance of Piazolla’s Curato Estaciones Poteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires), in a version close to the original written and performed by the composer himself and his quintet. It brought the house down.

At Britten Sinfonia, we’ve often adapted and expanded At Lunch programmes into full-length evening performances, this being one of those occasions.  Marking the start of a new series entitled ‘Unbuttoned’ at the newly-built APEX concert hall in Bury St. Edmunds, we gave an intimate ‘in-the-round’ cabaret-style performance of the programme with a couple of additions.  Thom Gould instructed me to “show some chest hair” when I was about to turn for the final piece…the event was Unbuttoned in every sense of the word.  

James Calver, Concerts Director

Find out more about the last ten years of At Lunch on our website, and don't forget to take part in our competition to be in with a chance of winning two tickets to an At Lunch concert this season.

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Edward Nesbit - our OPUS2015 winner's story

I have had the pleasure of working with Britten Sinfonia for almost twelve months.  Back in December, the twelve composers who had been shortlisted for Britten Sinfonia’s OPUS2015 scheme enjoyed a workshop with the horn player Richard Watkins, where we discussed every aspect of the horn, from extended techniques to, if I remember correctly, the treatment of the horn in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.  

Most of us were at that stage in the middle of composing extracts of music for horn trio, all of which were workshopped by Jackie Shave, Huw Watkins and Carys Evans in January this year.  Over the course of an intense weekend, we heard what everyone had produced – which amounted to the best part of an hour of music.  It was a very interesting – and very diverse – selection of pieces, and made for a lively and fascinating couple of days.

I was delighted to be chosen as the winner, and as a result have extended my original three-minute miniature into a full-length piece.  The resulting work, Lifesize Gods, was workshopped again more recently, and following that workshop I have given it a final few tweaks in advance of the premiere.  From here on in it will be the most exciting part of the process, and, for me at least, the easiest: I can now more or less simply sit and listen to the results.

One of the interesting challenges of writing a horn trio is the small number of previously written horn trios which have entered the repertoire.  While I have come across a number of very fine horn trios while writing my own, there are only two works which have firmly entered the repertoire: those by Brahms and Ligeti.  As a composer this situation brings both advantages and disadvantages.  There are fewer models to which I might turn for inspiration – but, on the other hand, there is not the weight of history that one has to deal with when writing, say, a string quartet.

It is interesting, then, that I will be sharing a programme with another new horn trio, by Huw Watkins.  I was, as it happens, at the premiere of Huw’s Horn Trio in 2009, and vividly remember the impression it made on me then; it will be a great pleasure to have the chance to hear it again live – three times, no less!  It really is a fantastic piece, and is an important addition to the repertoire which will doubtless continue to be performed for many years to come.   Huw and I are very different composers, however, which is probably no bad thing, given that we will be appearing in the same programme.  While Huw’s piece is lyrical, contrapuntal and full of contrast, my new work is, for the most part, transparent, almost obsessively single-minded, and extremely quick.

Britten Sinfonia have generously invited me to continue my involvement in the scheme, and next week I will be working with Julian Philips to choose the ten composers who will be shortlisted for OPUS2016.  This is something very new to me, but something that I am looking forward to immensely.  A total of 287 composers have submitted applications.  It’s a daunting number, but is testament to the fantastic nature of the opportunity that Britten Sinfonia are offering – and I’m sure it will be much harder to leave people out than to find people to shortlist.

Another aspect of my involvement with  Britten Sinfonia has been being a part of Musically GiftedMusically Gifted is a scheme which facilitates philanthropic donations to help fund commissions.  People can donate anything from £10 to £1,000, and all donors receive rewards, from thank you cards all the way up to invitations to rehearsals and social events with performers and composer.  The issue of how to fund contemporary music is a complex one, and many composers are unable to earn anything like a living from their composition work.  Musically Gifted is an imaginative and valuable contribution towards improving this difficult situation.

Lifesize Gods is being performed at Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch Series in St. Andrew’s Hall, Norwich, on 27 November; West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, on 1 December; and Wigmore Hall, London, on 2 December.  It promises to be a fantastic concert! 

Edward Nesbit - OPUS2015 winner

Click here for more details and booking for At Lunch One, which features Edward's new work, Lifesize Gods.