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19 May  

 

Susanna Eastburn has been appointed as new Chief Executive for Sound and Music. Eastburn is currently Director, Music, Arts Council England and has an impressive track record in the arts sector, including five years as Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, a fellowship of the Clore Leadership Programme, Executive Producer of London International Festival of Theatre and Chair of SPNM. She has also worked in music publishing and as a Governor of Leeds College of Music.

 

Given that her appointment comes at a difficult time for SaM, with falling funding and criticism from composers, there will be many watching her progress, especially since, as Chair of SPNM, she played a crucial part in its incorporation into the new organization. It is worth checking out this video from 2010 to hear her rationale for this move. Some may find her arguments unconvincing, especially given that she describes that with SPNM 'there was no immediate urgency to change our position. It was performing very well. It was doing a great range of activity. It had a clear mission and purpose'. The board's rationale, however, was that SPNM 'had reached its capacity...it was at the top of what it could do and could go no further and there was a sense that we wanted to do more for new music.' Many would say that SaM has failed in this mission. Susanna Eastburn's recognition of the good work that SPNM did and a presumed desire to see that its incorporation is a success might, however, mark a turning point for the organization.



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13 May  

 

Now here's a funny thing. Last year the BBC Proms website had an excellent guide to the new music that was to appear during the season. This year we have all manner of categories, including 'Classical for starters', 'For families', 'World music and jazz' and even 'For poets', but nothing to show concerts featuring living composers. Your best bet for finding new music is to take a look at their listing of all composers, following the links to the concert in which their music appears. Alternatively, here's my own quick summary and a few picks.

 

The 2011 season featured a great deal of music by Frenchmen, especially by one of my favourite composers, Henri Dutilleux. Given the theme, however, it was surprising to see no Pierre Boulez on offer, which caused me to half-seriously wonder whether it was because Dutilleux and Boulez have a history of not getting on. This year, quelle surprise, there is plenty of Boulez but no Dutilleux. Four of these concerts - on 20th, 21st, 23rd and 24th July - take place under the baton of Daniel Barenboim with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. The works, Derive 2, Dialogue de l'ombre double, Mémoriale ('...explosante-fixe..' Originel), Messagesquisse and Anthèmes 2 all appear between a complete survey of Beethoven symphonies (except for No. 9, which appears in a separate concert). There is also a chance to hear Boulez conduct members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra on 26th July in his iconic Le marteau sans maître, this time paired with Beethoven's Piano Quintet in E flat major.

 

I've counted a healthy 11 world, 3 UK and 3 London premières this year. Heading the first category is James Macmillan's new work Credo, performed by three Proms-debuting choirs accompanied by BBC Philharmonic under the baton of Juanjo Mena on 7th August. Also a big name, Mark-Anthony Turnage's short Canon Fever receives its world première with the BBCSO on the First Night (13th July). Both these concerts will be broadcast on BBC television. Simon Bainbridge's The Garden of Earthly Delights, receives its first outing in the afternoon of 18th August with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. That concert also features the music of Alexander Goehr and Oliver Knussen. Also standing out for me was the première of Helen Grime's Night Songs, with BBC National Orchestra of Wales, this time with Knussen holding the baton. I interviewed Helen Grime, an up-and-coming composer well worth checking out, for CT a few months ago. Other brand new works this year are: Fung Lam's Endless Forms on 18th July; Julian Philips' Sorowfull Songes on 23rd July; Benedict Mason's meld on 28th July; Elaine Agnew's Dark Hedges on Saturday 4th August; Thea Musgrave's Loch Ness - a Postcard from Scotland on 5th August; Brian Elias's Electra Mourns on 11th August; Gavin Higgins' Der Aufstand  and Gavin Bryars' After the Underworlds on 12th August; and Eric Whitacre's Higher, Faster, Stronger and Imogen Heap's The Listening Chair on 29th August.

 

UK premières are: Michael Finnissy's Piano Concerto and Harrison Birtwistle's Gigue Machine in an afternoon concert on 11th August that also includes Brian Ferneyhough's Prometheus; and Kaija Saariaho's Laterna magica  on 17th July. London premières are: Nico Muhly's Gait on 4th August; James MacMillan's Olympic Fanfare on 5th August; and Maxwell Davies's Symphony No.9 on 23rd August. The Muhly is with the National Youth Orchestra, who will also be playing Varèse's Tuning Up, Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony and Anna Meredith's HandsFree.

 

One purely personal pick to finish. The late-night concert on 14th August contains a clutch of marvellous pieces. Whilst I don't know Xenakis's Phlegra or Andriessen's De snelheid, there is a not-to-be missed chance to hear (preferably to see as well) Ligeti's Poèmes symphonique for 100 metronomes, a work that, in both its elegant simplicity and frightening complexity, rather sums up the composer's thinking at the time. Jonathan Harvey's Mortuous Plango, Vivos Voco is now something of a modern classic. Written for eight track tape and using the sound of Winchester Cathedral's tenor bell and the treble voice of the composer's son (who, at the time, was a chorister there), it is a work of ravishing beauty. Finally, there is the chance to 'hear' Cage's always-provocative piece of non-music (or is it?), 4'33''.

 

 

 



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29 Apr  

 

I've just updated CT's concert listings for May. I haven't, however, included details for three interesting festivals that will be taking place this month, which instead I shall write about here.

 

The Prague Spring International Music Festival (12th May to 3rd June) contains much to interest new music lovers. There is the chance to hear two masterpieces of twentieth-century opera: Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress on 22nd May and Benjamin Britten's Gloriana on 25th May. Several concerts also include world premières. There is Petr Kofron's Imaginári symphonie and Ivan Acher's Iz iz a mam dz I t'ing in a John Cage tribute concert on 14th May; a new Vit Zouhar chamber work on 15th May; Jiri Kaderabek's C (Czech première) on 21st May; and Lukas Sommer's Letter to Father, Concerto for Flute and Chamber Orchestra on 28th May.

 

 

 

 

The Sounds New Contemporary Music Festival in Canterbury (4th - 15th May) is titled 'Theme GB', the emphasis being on contemporary British music. There are a number of significant works on the programme, including John Taverner's Magnificat, Jonathan Harvey's Bhakti, Thomas Adès' Arcadiana and Peter Maxwell Davies' A Mirror of Whitening Light. There is also a chance to hear Peter Maxwell Davies in conversation on 4th May. John Croft's new chamber opera A Fury's Curses also receives its première on 10th May.

 

 

 

 

In Wales, the Vale of Glamorgan Festival (1st May-11th May) has moved from early autumn to this new springtime slot. It marks two significant birthdays - Philip Glass's 75th (concerts including The Mavron Quartet on 6th May and Gilt Ensemble) and Per Norgard's 80th (concerts including Ars Nova Copenhagen) - as well as exploring the music of Gavin Bryars (Gavin Bryars Ensemble), Craig Vear (Open Work Ensemble), Qigang Chen (concerts including BBC National Orchestra of Wales on 4th May and 11th May) and a number of his Chinese contemporaries.

 

 



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20 Apr  

 

KAGEL, M.: Das Konzert/ Phantasiestuck / Pan (M. Faust, Alvares, Ensemble Contrasts, R. HP Platz, Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskyla, P. Gallois). Naxos 8.572635

 

The more I read contemporary music reviews and CD notes, the more I realise that many of them say next to nothing of interest on the topic they are supposed to be illuminating. The classic method of writing about a piece of contemporary music is to start with a long piece of biography that adds nicely to the word count. It is then followed by a flowery description of the general nature of the music, or a bar-by-bar description that actually exhibits little understanding of the actual shape of a piece.

 

Sometimes the poor writer has good reasons for doing this. He or she may be writing about a well-respected grandee of contemporary music and so doesn't want to rock the boat. And the biggest fear one has when writing about contemporary music is displaying one's own ignorance. What do you mean you can't hear that repeating serially transformed motive? Didn't you realise that it wasn't out of tune but written in eighth tones? Rather than try to say anything too firm we resort to generalisations.

 

After some good background notes, including excellent observations that place the music of Kagel in the context of postmodernism, we get the following description of Das Konzert in the sleeve notes to this new disk on Naxos:

 

Over pizzicato rhythms and gentle harmonic clusters, the flute unfolds a capricious yet evocative melodic line that weaves its way in and out of the strings' translucent backdrop. The on-going contribution from the tom-toms and woodblock adds to the variety of the overall texture, while the strings form ghostly ostinato patterns which gradually assume a more openly expressive manner as the soloist has recourse to flutter-tonguing among other playing techniques.

 

And so it goes on. Descriptive writing, that in its lack of even any Toveyesque analytical value tells an interesting story. The fact is that, despite the endlessly fascinating textures and use of extended techniques, the attractive mixture of new and old harmonic and melodic patterning, I, I suspect like the CD note writer, was often left scratching my head as to the wider shape of this often episodic music. Das Konzert, described as 'Kagel's typically oblique response to writing a flute concerto' in particular, feels like a series of highly felicitous but unconnected 'moments'. Phatasiestuck, which is presented twice on this disk, one version for flute and piano, the other with the addition of a string quartet and clarinet, starts with a jaunty rhythmic exchange between soloist and pianist (I write here of the piano/flute version). There follows a little section for flute multiphonics and then a brilliantly witty martial exchange with the flute blowing though the instrument (not producing a note and sounding rather like a snare drum) and the pianist tapping the body of the instrument. There follows sections of folksy music that evoke Petrushka. It is all great fun, but, frustratingly, I couldn't always connect each idea into a wider narrative. Pan, on the other hand, perhaps because of its brevity, made much more purely musical sense to me, its opening major and minor five-note scale on piccolo forming the basis of a continuous variation, with much of the quartet writing making reference to familiar chamber music gestures. Perhaps, with more time, I might have reached a similar conclusion for the other works on this disk but, as I write, and unless you are a Kagel aficionado (in which case don't hesitate), I'd Spotify rather than buy.

 

The rest of the month's releases

 

Other than the Kagel release, on Naxos there are four other recordings of interest this month: Weinberg's Symphony No.6 and Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes with the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande; Khachaturian's Gayane Suite No. 2 and Spartacus Suite no. 2 and Prokofiev's Cinderella Suite No. 1 with the St. Petersburg and Ukranian State Symphony Orchestras; Messiaen's Visions de l'Amen and Debussy's En blanc et noir featuring pianists Ralph van Raat and Austbi Hakon; and a selection of Stravinsky works for Violin and Piano featuring Carolyn Huebl and Mark Wait. Nimbus has released a new disk of twentieth-century works for cello and strings featuring the music of Lutoslawski, Maconchy, Hindemith, Patterson and Kopytman played by cellist Raphael Wallfisch. On Hyperion there is a new recording of Bob Chilcott's Requiem and other works given by Wells Cathedral Choir under Matthew Owens. DG has released two excellent compendiums of what, I presume, are previous recordings by Boulez (unless he's been very busy recently). The first features the music of Messiaen over ten CDs. The second the music of Debussy and Ravel over six. At £35.99 and £26.99 respectively they look to be excellent value. Follow my links for more information. There are, finally, two interesting recording on NMC to check out: Alexander Goehr's Colossos or Panic and other works with Claire Booth, Hilary Summers, BCMG, BBCSO, ASKO and Schönberg  ensembles conducted by Oliver Knussen (currently available for pre-order); and a new disk of chamber music by Rob Keeley featuring nine performers including the composer on piano.

 



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10 Apr  

 

So did anyone sign the open letter to Sound and Music? I received a copy a couple of weeks ago, but in the confusion of moving house forgot about it. The letter, viewable here, must have been uncomfortable reading for SAM, since it effectively shows the organisation to be rejected by the very constituency it is supposed to serve. That view is leant weight by the number (250) and profile of its signatories (including Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Julian Anderson, George Benjamin, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, Martyn Brabbins, Michael Finnissy, Anthony Gilbert, Steven Isserlis, Oliver Knussen, Paul Mealor, Thea Musgrave and Judith Weir). The document went public in the Guardian on 30th March in a blog post by Colin Matthews entitled 'Why Sound and Music is failing today's composers'. That and the responses to his post on the same page are essential reading. 

 

When I received the letter I was unsure what to make of it. I became aware of one of the forerunners of SAM during my student days, with several unsuccessful applications to the SPNM shortlist. Despite my failures, I thought, and still think, that the idea behind the shortlist was brilliant: a panel of highly regarded professional composers reading through a selection of anonymous scores. The composers whose works were considered 'best' were then nurtured over the course of their three years on the SPNM shortlist. A friend of mine got on the list, and was afforded some marvellous opportunities. I paid my SPNM fees each year, and tried to get on the list. Composers need to live in hope.

 

I heard about the amalgamation of SPNM into SAM at an SPNM organised composing with technology day. Apart by being stupefied by the name --  'S&M', what on earth were they thinking of? --  I got the impression that the opportunities offered by SPNM would be automatically incorporated into SAM. I joined SAM specifically to apply to the new 'SAM' shortlist. It never appeared. Now I'm not entirely sure whether I'm still a member. I may be if I left a direct debit running. As such, the elimination of the shortlist was possibly a bad financial as well as artistic decision. Though shortlist application was open to non-members (through an appropriate fee), the competition itself was a great incentive to pay for membership. With last year's huge cut in funding to SAM, I wonder whether there is, indeed, a paying membership shortfall that is much missed.

 

What of the other criticisms in the open letter? I'm not really qualified to comment on the proportion of support offered to sonic art as compared to notated music. The letter rightly points out that the former is worthy of support, but the balance has become skewed unfairly in favour of it. All I can say is that I do receive a lot of bumph from SAM (I'm obviously still on a mailing list) and there seems to be a high proportion of opportunities levelled solely at sonic artists. This is a subjective view, however, so doesn't really constitute evidence. The criticism regarding the elimination of the BMIC seems to be better answered by SAM in their response to the open letter and in the comments section beneath the Guardian article. It points out that the BMIC collection was actually warehoused in 2007 because there were insufficient funds to keep it in London. It is SAM that has secured its future at Huddersfield University. Also on the positive side, I would agree that SAM's Embedded projects are a success. Another friend of mine successfully applied for one of these recently and had a new work played by the BBCSO on Hear and Now. These kinds of opportunities are priceless.

 

I do have one specific criticism of the types of opportunities offered by SAM that was not really covered in the open letter, however. The BBCSO Embedded project was limited to composers of a certain age (35 and under, I seem to remember). Subsequent projects, instead of giving a specific age, stipulated that they were for composers 'at the beginning of their careers'. This would also seem to imply for younger composers. I've got nothing against promoting and nurturing the young, but SAM, like everyone else, appears to be fixated with it. The other projects they list in their response to the open letter are indicative of this: the Sound and Music Summer School for 14-19 year-olds and the minute of listening project in schools. As I approach the grand old age of 40 I can see composing opportunities like those offered by Embedded drifting out of my reach. The great thing about the SPNM shortlist was that it was anonymous and open to all, regardless of age. It was a great leveller. In this youth obsessed age, what would have become of a late-bloomer in the mould of Janacek?



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3 Apr  

A little belatedly, perhaps, I've just updated the CT concert diary for April. As ever, the list is not exhaustive, and members are encouraged to add their own concerts to the list. It's a pretty good way of getting some free advertising, especially since the concert also appears on CTs 'Concert Listings Today and Tomorrow' pane on the website homepage.

 

Three concerts and two events stand out for me in this month's list. Not to be missed is Gerald Barry's already well-received setting of Oscar Wilde's farce masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest, which receives performances on 26th and 28th of this month. Both will be conducted by Thomas Adès, who calls Barry his 'favourite living composer'. Conlon Nancarrow's brilliant piano rolls are the subject of the London Sinfonietta's concert entitled, appropriately, 'Impossible Brilliance' on 21st April. Many of the mechanical pieces will played in arrangements for human musicians, with the whole broken up with pieces by Cage, Tenney and Ligeti. Also of topical interest is a performance of Gavin Bryars' The Sinking of the Titanic, which will take place on 13th April, the centenary weekend of the disaster. Bryars' work originated in a piece in support of art students at Portmouth in 1969 and has evolved ever since, with each performance bringing fresh insights to the material. Two day-long events also attracted my eye. The first is a Colin Matthews study day on 28th April. I've only listed the concerts that take place on the day, but they are also broken up with two interviews with composer. Check out the Wigmore Hall link in the listing for more information. Also of interest is the Arvo Pärt Total Immersion Day at the Barbican, also on 28th April. I think tickets for the event have been in great demand, so it would be wise to check it out quickly.

 



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22 Mar  

 

After a crazy couple of weeks, including a PhD viva and the presentation of a paper at the Sacher Perspectives Conference in Cardiff (same day as the Six Nations final - bravo Wales!), I'm happy to be able to get the keyboard beneath my fingers again and do some blogging.

 

I've always hoped, as an absolute minimum, to write regularly here about new music concerts and CD releases. It keeps me up to date with what is going on and, I hope, provides a useful point of information for visitors to CT. Unfortunately I managed to miss the CD roundup last month, so, completist that I am, I will also include releases from February in this month's roundup.

 

I've two specific CD picks this month, both of which are available on NMC. The first is a recording of Oliver Knussen's Symphonies No. 2 and 3; Trumpets, for soprano and 3 clarinets; Ophelia Dances, Book 1; Coursing, for chamber orchestra; and Cantata, for oboe and string trio. I've always loved the music of Knussen; he is a composer who, in works such as Flourish with Fireworks and the Horn Concerto, manages to produce a bright, attractive musical surface whilst in no way compromising the artistic integrity of a given work. Those who have got to know him via such pieces might, however, be a little surprised by the works on this disc, which come from a time when he was using classical serial techniques (later works were marked by greater octatonicism and rotational serialism). Whilst, perhaps, less immediately appealing, they still contain Knussen's trademark brilliant orchestration, lively textures and a penchant for plenty of variety in a short span. The First and Second Symphonies, for example, are in 3 and 4 movements respectively, but only last around fifteen minutes each. It's often said about the composer that, even when short, his works feel substantial. It is nowhere more true than in the pieces presented on this excellent disk.

 

The other recommendation on NMC is Michael Finnissy's Second and Third String Quartet's played by the Kreutzer Quartet. I once attended a seminar given by Finnissy before a pre-concert talk, which featured his English Country Tunes. The often-acid tone of what he said to us was very much present in that piece, ending as it does with the pianist practically crucified on the piano. It is the same here. The Third Quartet, for example, is Finnissy's 'response to the natural world and man's place in it', but, as in English Country Tunes, even passages of relative serenity feel tinged with bitterness. At the end of the quartet the presence of real birdsong seems only to emphasize the 'unnatural' i.e. contrived music of the quartet. Man, he seems to be saying, is an impostor in the natural world.

 

Quick Roundup

 

Also new on NMC is a disc of music by Morgan Hayes, including his Violin Concerto with Keisuke Okazaki, conducted by Christopher Austin. Naxos have released a number of interesting recordings over the last couple of months including: a complete survey of the orchestral works of Claude Debussy with Jun Märkl conducting the Orchestre National de Lyon; Pederecki's Sinfoniettas, Oboe Capriccio, 3 Pieces in Old Style and Serenade with the Warsaw Chamber Orchestra conducted by Wit; Ross Harris's Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 with the Auckland Philharmonia conducted by Letonja; Maxwell Davies's Symphony No. 1 and Mavis in Las Vegas, with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by the composer; and Tadeas Salva's Cello Concerto, 3 Arias, Slovak Concerto Grosso No. 3 and Preludes with various soloists, the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marián Lejava. Hyperion have released a new recording of Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto and Double Concerto played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov; a disk of Shostakovich music for viola and piano with Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Phillips; and a collection of choral works by Bo Hansson performed by the Royal Holloway Choir under Rupert Gough. On Nonsuch there is a new disk of music by Vladimir Martynov played by the Kronos Quartet; an intriguing sounding disk of music by Penderecki and Jonny Greenwood; and a new recording of Philip Glass's opera Einstein on the Beach with the Philip Glass Ensemble.

 



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26 Feb  

Bregenz Staging of Judith Weir's Miss Fortune

As promised last month, my monthly roundup of concerts has now been moved to CT's own concert diary page. I've just updated the page, which now gives a really good at-a-glance view of what March holds for new music concert-goers. Again, members are encouraged to add their own concerts to this list.

 

My personal picks start with Judith Weir's new opera, Miss Fortune, which receives its British première on March 12th. You can read more about this in the interview I did with the composer last week. On the subject of opera, also not to be missed is John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer, which continues its run at ENO with performances on 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th March. Fans of John Adams also have a world première to look forward to this month with the first outing of his new piece Absolute Jest, to be performed by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco on 15th March along with another world première, Mass Transmission by Mason Bates. Other noteworthy new works include Nico Muhly's Cello Concerto and Owen Pallett's Violin Concerto at the Barbican, London on 16th March; Lyell Cresswell's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Samuel Holloway's Fault, Jack Body's Little Elegies and Liza Lim's Pearl, Ochre, Hair String at City Halls, Glasgow on 17th March; and Harrison Birtwistle's Fantasia on all the notes at the Wigmore Hall on 13th March.

 

My final pick contains a bit of self-advertising: The Sacher Perspetives Concert with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales on 16th March. This is being held in partnership with an academic conference in Cardiff University on 16th and 17th March. The conference papers will all be inspired by research carried out at the Sacher Archive in Basel, the concert will consist of pieces that were commissioned by Paul Sacher. I wrote some time ago about my own visit to the archive with a Mexican colleague, Mauricio Beltrán, to examine the sketch material for Dutilleux's Symphony No. 2. We'll be presenting the quite surprising the results of our research at that conference. Do come along if you're in town!



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19 Feb  

Christian Morris talks to Judith Weir, whose new opera Miss Fortune will receive its UK première on 12th March at the Royal Opera House.
 

Judith Weir

What drew you to composition? Do you remember your first pieces?

My first pieces were at secondary school. What drew me was finding something that would bring my performing friends together. I played music and I saw it as a fun activity rather than high-level art. I knew a very odd combination of performers. There simply didn’t exist the kind of music we needed to play and so I started to devise music that would fit everybody in.

You played oboe in the National Youth Orchestra. Was that something that you considered doing professionally instead of composition?

Difficult to think myself back. If ever I was that way minded I very soon didn’t think so. I played okay and, as you say, for a short time I played in the NYO, but never as a leading player and it was very clear to me, meeting top performers, that I wouldn’t ever be of that standard and anyway – I knew this from my teacher Robin Miller, who was a leading orchestral musician – I could see that it was a hard life as a player.

You had some lessons with John Tavener whilst at school. Was this as formal as, say, the Bridge-Britten arrangement?

I think it was quite the opposite. He was good enough to have me around to his house probably, in total, about five or six times over a couple of years. I lived in the same outer London suburb as he did and the person that introduced us was my teacher at secondary school, who vaguely knew him. So it was very good of him to give me the time because he was a celebrity young composer, not needing financially to do teaching as most young people do. He would look at what I had done and just make general comments which, nevertheless, were very good, because they were right on the button. I also heard about what he was interested in.

 

>> Read the rest of the interview here



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9 Feb  

 

 

'He fiddles with the keyboard, commanding the computer to play an aria for mezzo-soprano and orchestra...In meekly peeping tones, the computer sings a sinuous, long-breathed melody, twisting and turning over lullaby chords.'

 

I was astonished when I first read this description of John Adams playing back part of a work in progress to Alex Ross in his The Rest is Noise. In my experience, computers are viewed with some suspicion in composing circles and, as such, the use of the technology is best shared only with friends, as if one were admitting to snorting cocaine.  Adams, without shame, uses the playback function of his computer to show off a new piece to a journalist!

 

The anti-computer argument tends to go something like this: a computer limits the imagination because staff notation is limited; the balance and the sounds are not the same as the real thing, leading to inaccuracies of orchestration; computers can play things humans cannot, leading to music that is too difficult. Anyway, it is implied, writing a piece of music demands god-like talent. As such, computers facilitate the less talented to write music when really they don't deserve to.

 

I use a computer to compose. I don't see any difference between perfecting a piece of musical material using a piano (like Stravinsky) or a computer (like Adams), except that the computer gives a closer representation of how it might eventually sound. I also think it is perfectly feasible for composers to hear through the sounds their computers make to imagine real instruments playing. The idea that composers write music that is too difficult when using a computer strikes me as bizarre. Errors of range, lack of breathing points etc. are very elementary problems that can be avoided by musically talented schoolchildren. The limitations of Sibelius score playback can, however, be a problem in more advanced contemporary music. Here, a composer has to be honest with himself. If Sibelius is limiting your imagination you have to ditch it. And, as for composers being gods: some are certainly more skilled than others when getting their ideas down on paper, and here natural musical gifts (perfect pitch etc.) count for a lot. Ultimately, however, it is the quality of the final idea that matters.

 

What follows is a description from three composers of the equipment they use when composing, plus some comments on how they use it. For the record, I use an old laptop PC, a Creative soundcard and Sibelius 4. It's not a very advanced set-up, and, like Max Charles Davies and Liz Lane (below) I hanker after a Mac, especially after a week of trying to install Windows 7, to no avail.

 

I would be very interested to hear other people's comments, either on the use of computers in the composition process, or simply on the equipment used.

 

Phillip CookeHe has had works played across the country by many of the country’s top choirs and ensembles.  Founder and former director of the London Contemporary Music Group, he has taught composition at Oxford University for several years and is also Head of Composition at Eton College. 

 

The use of computers by contemporary composers is something of a white elephant - most composers use them in some form, but many are reluctant to discuss it. Many of those that do use Sibelius and the like and are happy to mention it, but would baulk at the idea of regular use of the playback function, even if most do use it regularly and discerningly - a strange 'open secret'. There is definitely still the assumption that 'good' composers use manuscript and 'lesser' composers computers.

 

I use Sibelius, but an archaic version (1.4) that I have used for ten years - many people laugh at me that I don't upgrade, but I'm so used to it, changing would be like trying to write with my left hand. I used to use awful free software before that, but spending the money to buy Sibelius was undeniably a sound decision. I do worry about composers (myself included) writing to the limits of the programme - some things are just so hard to do on Sibelius - doing something as rudimentary as a setting of Preces and Responses took hours of brainpower and struggle.

 

As for hardware, I have a PC laptop which works well for me - I can move it around for my teaching and try to catch some composing time wherever I am. I don't care about soundcards, or making the playback sound as realistic as possible - I'm used to the awful synthesised sounds and am actually quite attached to them. I can make the distinction somewhere in my brain between what a Sibelius clarinet sounds like (rabid cat stuck in a drainpipe) and what a real one does and I've never had a problem. Even with the awful choir sounds as well. I'm happy with a PC, I'm a creature of habit - I can never find the control button on a Mac.

 

Visit Phillip Cooke's Website

 

Max Charles Davies. Former SPNM shortlisted composer. Based in Cardiff, his music has been performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales and at festivals including Cheltenham and Tête à Tête.

 

Currently, I use Sibelius version 4 in conjunction with Kontakt Player Gold because, even though I only use playback as part of the proof-reading process, I can't stand MIDI sounds, and prefer samples. The reason I have not yet upgraded is largely due to cost - not the programme itself, but the new computer I would need to buy in order to be able to run it.  I would dearly love to own a Mac - either an iMac or Macbook Pro, but they are out of my reach financially.  Indeed, not owning a later version of Sibelius has made recent freelance editing work tricky, with 'back saving' being a bothersome extra thing for clients to think about, especially when dealing with large numbers of files.  So, I do need to upgrade both computer and Sibelius version soon!  Sibelius itself is a very intuitive programme, and over the years I've developed an ability to get pieces typeset quickly and to a professional standard.  The 'export audio' function is also useful for those musicians who request a mock-up mp3 of a piece, or for doing a quick backing track for teaching purposes.

 

In addition to Sibelius, I use a Roland R-05 portable recording device to record performances, rehearsals, workshops etc.  It's a wonderful piece of kit, and I believe that there are many such devices floating about.  I often see composers with them.  On my current computer, I use the free programme Audacity to do the most basic bits of editing (mainly cropping and fading in and out).  If I upgrade my computer soon, I may save further and eventually invest in a copy of Sonar, which will also enable me to experiment with some electroacoustic composition - an as yet uncharted territory for me personally.

 

Visit Max Charles Davies's Website

 

Liz Lane. Composer and arranger. Her works have been played by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Carducci Quartet, Andrew Kennedy, Marlene Ford (USA) and others. As an arranger she worked extensively with the late David Fanshawe. 

 

I use Sibelius 6 at the moment and Finale occasionally. I started with Finale in about 1996, swapping in 2004/5. I have a standard mid-range computer, recently bought, though I wish I had an Apple!

 

I used to have a top-of-the-range Soundblaster soundcard, but found I just didn't use the functions, so, with the new system, it didn't warrant the outlay. Soundcards are much improved these days and anyway I prefer to rely upon my imagination. Portability isn't an issue for me since I work from home, though I make printouts of work in progress for use at the piano or when I really have to work somewhere else. My keyboard is a tried and tested old Yamaha I bought from a colleague 15 years ago!

 

I use a HP1015 printer for producing scores, though I will have to replace it soon as Windows 7 doesn't support it. It has good print quality, although creating perfectly aligned pages is often a challenge! I also use a monochrome Samsung ML-1640, a more recent make though the print quality for music isn't so good. I want to buy a new laser monochrome that does duplex well.

 

Visit Liz Lane's Website



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