Tuesday 29 March 2016

An introduction to new music - as recommended by composers...

At Britten Sinfonia, commissioning and performing new music is a huge part of what we do, but we know that new and contemporary music can be daunting if you haven't had much experience of it before. Our upcoming concerts in April feature two world premieres - Bryce Dessner's El Chan, which will feature in our At Lunch Four programme, and Elena Langer's story of an impossible love, which will be performed in our programme featuring pianist Benjamin Grosvenor.

To get you in the 'new music' mood, take a listen to our Spotify playlist of works by the composers we've commissioned in our 2015-16 season (including Bryce Dessner and Elena Langer). We've also asked the OPUS2016 shortlisted composers for their suggestions of what to start with if you're looking to explore more...

Daniel Kidane:

Don’t be scared to immerse yourself in to something new – you have nothing to lose but so much to gain.

Robert Peate:

Anything and everything – just keep listening and be open to what you hear. Don’t worry about ‘understanding’, just experience it (more than once if you can).

Neil Smith:

There are some great pieces to begin with such as Berio’s Sinfonia or Xenakis’ Rebonds but sometimes the best way in is to listen to more experimental popular music. Anyone who enjoys a bit of Autechre shouldn’t struggle with the best bits of Stockhausen or Boulez. There are also lots of British composers who write music I still consider beautiful in quite a traditional manner: take George Benjamin’s amazing Written on Skin for example.

Andrew Thomas: 

Find a sound/texture you like and follow how it develops during a piece - be open to all the parameters of sound available in contemporary music and embrace what you don’t understand - the music I most admire is the music I don’t understand!

Andrew Baldwin:

My advice would be to start with a composer(s) you know and like, and list what musical ideas you like about them (what is common in their music etc). Then consult with a music friend that knows of other composers that use similar processes/ideas. Suddenly you will notice your listening repertoire growing and discovering some great music. I created a Spotify playlist that my teacher and I came up with of works that I would find interesting, and there hasn’t been one piece that I haven’t taken something away from – as well as discovering some new favourite contemporary composers.

Emma Wilde:

I think people should not be afraid. Most people have been confronted with modern art in some way even without knowing it, they have probably been to an art gallery or exhibition and modern music is no different. My listening recommendations would include anything by Ligeti as I think that was the first contemporary composer I really connected with. Also the German composer and pianist Nils Frahm, his live shows are electric, he has a great connection with the audience and is a really innovative composer and performer, there are many good videos on YouTube.


Margaret Haley:

Tune in to Radio 3 programmes: Late Junction, and Hear and Now. Listen with an open mind. Listen to recordings as much as you can, then listen again. Music festivals can also provide a great way of sampling new music, e.g. HCMF shorts.

Sohrab Uduman:

Start with whatever is to hand and whatever grabs your interest for whatever reason, however seemingly profound or trivial it may appear to be. It is not life-threatening, will not cause you physical damage and will not, probably, change your political allegiance. It is art, a voyage, an adventure; an opportunity, at the very least, to step out of routine and ‘normative behaviour’ and experience something that should prove beautiful, moving, revelatory and subversive.

Gonçalo Gato:

An open mind and receptiveness to the fantastic, as opposed to the ordinary. Also, it is important to look for concerts that feature some sort of introduction carried out by music historians, musicologists, or composers themselves. This will provide context and prepare the listening experience for those who find it more difficult.

James Hoyle:

I don’t believe in starting with something ‘easy’ - I’d suggest to just throw yourself in, listening to as many different types of new music as possible. There’s such a wide variety out there so there is surely something for everyone.

At Lunch Four features Bryce Dessner's El Chan, Schumann's Piano Quartet Op.47 and a selection of Bartok's folksong-inspired Duos - Norwich Fri 8 Apr, Cambridge Tue 12 Apr & London Wed 13 Apr. Find out more.

Benjamin Grosvenor directs features Elena Langer's story of an impossible love, Mozart's Piano Concerto No.27 and a works by Bartok and Strauss - Bradford on Avon Sat 23 Apr, Cambridge Wed 27 Apr, Norwich Fri 29 Apr & London Sun 1 May. Find out more.

Thursday 24 March 2016

The creation of Link Explorer

Back in May 2015, I tumbled out of Shoreditch Overground station for a meeting to discuss the possibility of running a series of ‘relaxed’ concerts making them more accessible to audiences with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND). There was to be no particular therapeutic agenda, rather, we wanted to identify and address some of the barriers to SEND audiences attending a concert just like any other concert-goer. Feeling painfully uncool in the hip East London surroundings, I made my way to Oxford House and the offices of Children and the Arts. Oxford House on Derbyshire Street was established in 1884 as the first “settlement house” where students and graduates from Oxford undertook a period of residential volunteering to learn first-hand about the realities of urban poverty. Today, the trendily restored building (all steel and polished concrete) continues a legacy of social conscience with affordable office space (in addition to Children and the Arts, it is home to community dance and drama organisations, ethical fashion designers, the British Union of Spiritist  Societies, Food Cycle - recycling surplus food for the homeless - and the Phoenix Community Housing Co-Operative – among others), a gallery and performance spaces and regular community learning and engagement activities. It seemed fitting therefore that my meeting about engaging with SEND audiences and participants should take place in a building which, for 150 years has housed efforts to engage with the marginalised, the forgotten, the difficult and, if we’re very honest, the scary.

As human beings, the unknown is always challenging at best and at worst, terrifying. For the privileged young graduates of Oxford’s Keeble College, coming to work in what was the most deprived corner of East London in the late 1800’s must have been an eye opener. Britten Sinfonia, was about to step into similarly unfamiliar and difficult territory; the world of disability and special needs. 

Have I raised your eyebrows? Have I perhaps said something, even at this early stage, which might be offensive? Inappropriate? Or, god forbid, politically incorrect?

No, not yet but it's early days and the question is an example of one of the many challenges we face voyaging into new territory with which we’re relatively unfamiliar, with which the orchestral industry has engaged only in a relatively limited way, and in which we are certainly not expert but in which we’d really like to make a positive contribution.

In a previous incarnation with another orchestral organisation, I recall asking players to be involved with a project for Cooltan Arts, a London-based charity for adults with mental distress (I googled it and ‘mental illness’ is a term they prefer not to use - mental distress better describes, in a less discriminatory fashion, their clientele). I had little success in my recruitment efforts and was surprised and saddened. Here were a reliable group of enthusiastic, warm and caring musicians who greatly valued the projects with which they’d previously been involved. Why were they now reluctant? Incensed, I switched from email to phone (things were clearly getting serious) and called one of them. "It’s not that I don’t want to do it," he explained, "it’s just that I’m not an expert and I wouldn’t want to do something wrong, upset someone, say the wrong thing or make someone have a terrible experience. I don’t know anything about physical or mental disability; I’m not trained in that kind of work!"  

And there it was. Much as the will is there, we worry that because we’re dealing with the less-well-known, we don’t have the way.

Even at my meeting just talking about it, I found myself worrying if I was doing or saying the right thing. It started well, I described the difficult journey amid rush hour commuters as ‘completely mental’ and, having dropped my note-book and its stuffing of loose notes, photocopies and clippings all over the floor, apologised for being ‘a complete spaz’. The more I tried not to be offensive, the more I inadvertently seemed to be so. I don’t ordinarily use these words, honestly, I haven’t used them with any frequency since the school playground in the late 1980s but for some reason, my anxious attempts to be utterly correct resulted in their bubbling irrepressibly to the surface with embarrassing frequency.

For those of us who don’t work every day with engaging SEND, it is worrying to think we might stumble as we take our first, exploratory steps and understandably, we are therefore inclined to step back and let the experts take over. For any person, a negative experience can have long-term effects and for a vulnerable person, it seems fair to assume the effects may be magnified.

The pitfalls are very real but, they’re not unique to SEND work so why, when SEND is involved are we so cowed by the fear of failure? Why do we immediately feel that SEND is something other, beyond our familiar frame of reference?

I wonder if it has something to do with the profile of this work. It’s topical which means that failure is trotted out like a cautionary tale. It’s a hot topic and hot is hard to handle correctly. We fall automatically into the trap of thinking about SEND (them) and the concert (us). SEND audience members (them) and non-disabled audience members (us).

I remember calling a Deaf and Blind…sorry, a hearing and visually impaired … sorry, a deaf blind composer and performer and asking him how we should bill him in the programme. He laughed heartily when, embarrassed, I said that honestly, I really didn’t know what the correct terminology was and that I hoped he wouldn’t be offended by my call. "Everyone’s different," he explained, "everyone identifies in different ways. Some people use the word ‘Deaf’ with a capital ‘d’, others prefer ‘hearing impaired’, some use the pre-fix ‘profoundly’ but for me, that doesn’t accurately describe my personal hearing loss and I don’t really like labels anyway so I’m happy with whatever you like. I am human though, and I might change my mind!"

Well thanks, I thought, that’s not terribly helpful!  But then, as the conversation percolated over the following days, it occurred to me that is was the simplest and wisest piece of advice anyone had ever given me about working with SEND; everyone’s an individual, everyone’s different, everyone will have a different way in which they identify. Suddenly, it seemed simpler. If I stopped thinking about ‘SEND’ as an ‘other’, a collective unknown, a group outside my frame of reference and started to think about individuals, their unique needs, abilities, backgrounds, opinions, means of expression and so on, then I could even the playing field and we would all be on the same page. Rather than trying to find a way to fit SEND into a normalised frame, I could change the parameters; widen the frame to include all of us in all our special individuality.

As this realisation took place some years before my Oxford House meeting, it is clear that it was not a quick fix. We’ll always be a little anxious when we venture out of our zones of familiarity and unfortunately, in my case, this usually results in an episode of slapstick buffoonery. Focusing on individuals and what a person can do, their ability rather than disability levels the playing field. We don’t have to be experts because we’re all in the same boat. We can get involved, try things out, challenge and be challenged by a new frame of reference.

Jen, Creative Learning Director

Find out more about Link Ensemble in this blog

On Saturday 2 April 2016 in Cambridge Britten Sinfonia presents its first 'relaxed' family concert. Find out more about the Link Explorer Family Concert and book tickets here

Wednesday 9 March 2016

Visceral, emotionally charged... thoughts on Seven Last Words

Ahead of our performances of James MacMillan's Seven Last Words our Artistic Planning Director describes why she has a particular 'soft spot' for this emotionally charged piece.

Friends often ask me about the concerts we have coming up here at Britten Sinfonia, and I’m in the enviable position of always being able to wax lyrical about the next thing we’re about to do, since my role allows me to have a hand in planning all our events.  I’m never going to give the green light to anything I don’t want to hear in a concert, so the seasons are always chock full of wonderful works and spectacular artists.  I don’t generally have “favourite" concerts, as each one is so very different, with its own back story and compelling drama.  However, I have to admit to an enormous soft spot for our forthcoming event over Easter, since it features one of my Desert Island Disc pieces (er, should Kirsty ever invite me on the programme):  James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross.

I first met James MacMillan whilst I was working at the Philharmonia Orchestra, where one of my roles was planning the orchestra’s new music series, Music of Today.  I loved managing this series (which is still going strong, incidentally), with its bite-sized concerts offering staggeringly good performances of brand new music, all for free. The real creative brain behind the series at that time was James MacMillan, who held my hand and guided me throughout, shaping the content of the series, introducing me to a whole host of composers from across the globe, always so generously and with great care to offer balance and variety.  Since that time I’ve been lucky enough to have worked on several of Jimmy’s new works over the years, here at Britten Sinfonia, but his Seven Last Words has always remained a really special work for me.

MacMillan’s vocal writing is always incredibly effective, and as a choral scholar, I would’ve dearly loved to have got my teeth into singing this; sadly it wasn’t composed until after I’d left college and had well and truly hung up my vocal chords.  Of course, the subject matter is emotive in itself, but the vocal writing is so visceral, contrasting  with the beautiful string lines so painfully at times that it moved me to tears the first time I heard it; and the heavy silences that occur throughout the work are so emotionally charged that I always find it impossible not to be affected.  In our world of what can seem like ceaseless over-emoting on a daily basis, I am more than grateful for that.

Artistic Planning Director

Performances of Seven Last Words from the Cross take place on Sun 20 Mar at Birmingham Town Hall, Wed 23 Mar at Cambridge's King's College Chapel and Fri 25 Mar at London's Barbican Centre. For full details and to book tickets click here.

Wednesday 2 March 2016

Sinfonia Student review - At Lunch Three

Sinfonia Student Helen shares her experience of our At Lunch Three performance that took place in West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge on Tuesday 23 February...

Having never heard the combination of flute, viola and harp before – as well as being an enthusiastic Debussy fan – I was particularly looking forward to yesterday’s At Lunch concert with Britten Sinfonia. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t disappoint: the programme provided a fascinating and varied exploration of instrumental texture and colour, masterfully performed by Emer McDonough (flute), Clare Finnimore (viola), and Lucy Wakeford (harp). The blending of these three instruments created an extraordinary atmosphere in West Road Concert Hall – the perfect form of escapism in the middle of a busy day.

The concert opened and closed with works by Debussy, which gave an attractive symmetry to the programme. McDonough’s performance of Syrinx immediately drew us into the sound of the flute. Syrinx is a pivotal piece in the flute’s repertoire and one I have heard performed several times, but never quite like this: McDonough combined hauntingly lyrical melodic lines with delicate, acrobatic phrases in an almost hypnotic fashion, featuring moments of extremely soft dynamic which filled the vast space of the concert hall with remarkable ease. It was a breath-taking – if slightly eerie – insight into the range of colours the flute has to offer.

Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason 
(c) Samantha West
The flute was joined by the viola and harp for the next two items. As well as introducing me to a new combination of instruments, this section of the programme also exposed me to the music of Takemitsu and Daníel Bjarnason, two composers I had barely encountered before. In fact, I have discovered something new at each of the Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch concerts this year, which is one of my favourite aspects of the series. Both pieces draw upon mosaic-like processes, resulting in fluid and fragmented textures in which short melodic ideas pass between the three instruments. In the Takemitsu, I particularly enjoyed the occasional moments where these fragmented parts converged onto a more unified triad or melodic line. What really stood out here was the blending of the viola and flute: I was not expecting two such different instruments to combine into such a homogenous timbre. These two instruments often seemed to work as a pair against the harp; Bjarnason particularly exploits this texture in the second section of Parallel, in which the flute and viola, playing sustained chords beneath a prominent moving part in the harp, gradually shift from the background of the texture to the foreground, capturing the listener’s attention as the harp slips away. Such subtle changes in texture always occurred seamlessly and organically, due to the carefully balanced and sensitive playing of the performers.

Next, the programme focused exclusively on the sound of the harp, with a performance of Donatoni’s Marches by Lucy Wakeford. This piece brought yet another new discovery: I had not previously appreciated the versatility of the harp as a solo instrument. Marches was a true showcase of harp technique, displaying a virtuosic range of sounds, colours and dynamic extremes; like Syrinx, the quietest moments of Marches were particularly captivating. I enjoyed the occasional jazzy harmonies emerging from the texture, which was again built from very fragmentary material – a clear preoccupation of this programme.

Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp provided a return to the Syrinx sound-world for the end of the concert. The piece generally featured more homogenous textures than the other works, exploring yet more textural possibilities of this combination of instruments. Indeed, what most struck me about this piece was the fact that there was never a sense of one ‘solo’ instrument being accompanied by the others, as might be expected from a sonata model. The three performers participated equally and, despite their differences, no instrument seemed out of place. The remarkable cohesion of the performance has encouraged me to consider other instrumental combinations that might provide unexpected unity. Like so many Britten Sinfonia concerts, At Lunch Three demonstrated the benefits of thinking outside of the musical box.

Helen McKeown (Sinfonia Student 2015-16)

Don't miss At Lunch Four - featuring Schumann's Piano Quartet and a new work by Bryce Dessner - Norwich 8 April, Cambridge 12 April, London 13 April. More details.