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Feature

This week on NMC Archive, oboist Melinda Maxwell tells us about her experiences of performer-composer collaborations.

 
Melinda MaxwellTo have a piece of music composed especially for you is a real honour. It implies the composer enjoys your musical sensitivity and values your technical expertise. It also implies a curiosity about the particular nature of the instrument to be written for, in my case the oboe, and how to compose something unique for its voice with influence from you.
 
I continue to sustain collaborative relationships with certain composers because I am fascinated by their musical perceptions and the resultant expressive possibilities on my instrument. I also work with younger composers whom I want to support and encourage. In each case a sharing of a musical aesthetic needs to flourish, that is, discussions of what music needs to be and the ways it is to be communicated. The results of this new music can be profoundly satisfying. I will mention two composers who have become very dear and respected friends and who continue to conjure up new pieces for me.
 
Pulse Sampler for oboe and claves is a piece Sir Harrison Birtwistle wrote for me in 1981. It had been in gestation for quite some time and we discussed it during my working spells with him at the National Theatre in London in the late seventies. There are no extended techniques as such but stamina is of the essence as it is a continuous and very demanding play for about ten minutes. Birtwistle was very much present at early rehearsals and performances and made little changes as we went along. Indeed, when he heard I was performing it recently he asked that I change the claves part to include some dry drum sounds. He was very happy with the result and decided to further develop it by adding a strings accompaniment. The transformation continues. I have performed this piece many times and I love the drama and ritual of it as it involves an element of chance centered round metrical modulations and responses between the oboe and the claves. It became and remains a part of my musical persona and I recorded it for NMC. 
 
Melinda Maxwell NMC D042In 2003 Birtwistle again wrote for me, this time 26 Orpheus Elegies for oboe and harp and he later added counter-tenor to six of them. He wanted to include double harmonic sounds and certain multiphonics where single notes hang over into these “chords”. I demonstrated several to him and wrote down the ones he liked and these he incorporated into the material. The process of this piece was long and took a couple of years of revision and extension. The first performance contained a shorter version and subsequently this extended into a forty-minute piece in 2004. I have performed this many times too and recorded it.
 
Simon Holt has written five pieces for me. His earliest Banshee for oboe and percussion (1994), also recorded for NMC, is a passionate tour de force, both musically and technically. Initially he sent me fragments for approval and throughout the process he would send revisions to hear and further revise them with suggestions from me. His latest piece Disparate for solo oboe and its companion piece Disparate Dos for oboe and ensemble, both of 2005, had the same collaboration. Simon discussed his intention about these pieces and I always trusted his instinct because it was so fascinating to me. 
 
With both Simon and Harry it is important to me never to say “no, that’s not possible” but rather “I’ll try, and let’s see what works”. This enables me not only to push the technical possibilities of my instrument but allows me to give their ideas expression and value. These collaborations remain essential to my musical existence and feed my creative impulse.
 

NMC Archive blogs are all articles written for our Friends Newsletter over the year. If you'd like to receive our quarterly Friends Newsletter, you can become a Friend here (memberships start from £50). If you'd like to support our work with composers as well as our expanding Learning Programme, you can make a donation to our 30th Appeal here. Thank you!

Feature

This week, Ed McKeon tells us what NMC means to him and how he became a Trustee back in 2012.

 

Ed McKeonR.E.S.P.E.C.T. – what NMC means to me

 

Rendering full honour and respect to the late Queen of Soul, NMC means to me ‘respect’. Respect for the work of artists compelled to address time by composing with time. Respect for the resonant gap between the affect in duration and the durability of affection, of changing how we feel whilst feeling how we change. Respect for music that is generous to listening, repeatedly, that offers a certain pleasure in remaining forever incomplete, rewarding each new hearing. NMC is an archive, then, a history of British music, but one whose authority is dependent not on some founding masterpieces but on what is yet to follow: its future listeners and  the composers and musicians that will renew the idea of what contemporary music in Britain could be.

 

Enjoying music came first. Being owned by a sound. Carried away – whether by Aretha or Grand Master Flash, Chopin or Coltrane, Berio or Ustvolskaya. I’d been drawn to new and experimental music because it wasn’t pre-owned; the jury of the ‘judgement of history’ was out (and doesn’t look like returning any time soon). Naturally, my teachers did their best to hide their anxiety at the vertiginous sense that music no longer came ready-wrapped in autobiography, ‘common practice’ tonality, predictable forms, and comfortable durations. In truth, they were a bit scared by it, loathe to dismiss it but lacking the same kind of critical cutlery with which to make it digestible.

 

So I studied music at university, listening to as much new music as I could, yet struck that even there the ‘latest’ music we touched was mostly at least 20-30 years old. It was still interpretive, as if nothing new could be made without mastery of what had gone before. That’s how I came to study music’s theory and ideas. That’s what I still do, only in a wider variety of ways, in particular by producing and commissioning new work, collaborating with musicians, composers and artists, and increasingly through writing.

 

Probably I was lucky. I approached the Society for the Promotion of New Music (which I would later run, briefly) for a placement, and was introduced to a co-tenant, the National Federation of Music Societies – now Making Music – which became my first employer. NMC was also sharing office space, making it easy to discover more new music, including by many composers I’d met and more I’d come to know. I also got to know the team, starting with Jenny Goodwin, then Hannah Vlcek, Anne, Ellie, Rachel, Lucile, and Alex.

 

Eventually, I was invited to become a Trustee, and also joined the Artistic Sub-Committee where we’ve explored ideas for means of expanding NMC’s musical reach and support for the wider community of composers. It’s a privilege to work with such a dedicated team to help, even in a small way, in shaping what a record company might become in this ever-changing digital world. Whilst production remains important – in the sense of finding and recording music we believe should be more widely heard – it seems that distribution has become much more important. With so much music online and more being added all the time, how can we help and encourage people to find their way to the new, lesser known music, that which hasn’t been pre-owned, made popular, knowable, and easily ‘searchable’.

 

Contemporary music is vulnerable in this global information environment, where popularity is measured in the millions of ‘hits’ and algorithms operate a partial and older model of Darwinism, where that which is ‘successful’ is boosted further. But survival depends not only on new variations and heterogeneity; what we’re now learning about brain plasticity is that we’re not only products of our genetic inheritance, our biology, but that we’re constantly remaking ourselves neurologically, bodily and technologically. The same applies to music, of course. NMC, and organisations like it, are essential for our future listening because it enables us constantly to renew what music can be and in the process to affect our understanding of – and how we listen to – music of the past.

 

That’s why it needs support: from the Arts Council, from Trusts and Foundations, and increasingly from individuals, all of us who care deeply about music, who can’t forget that feeling of listening for the first time, of being occupied by sounds previously unheard. Music psychologists emphasise that we like music more when it’s familiar, that repetition feeds our enjoyment. Like most people, I have my favourites, the music I return to over again. But if we want to go beyond this pleasure principle, we need to allow for a listening that is always – at least potentially – different. R.E.S.P.E.C.T. – this is what it means to me.

 

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Feature

This week on NMC Archive, Darragh Morgan tells us about the advantages of working with living composers.

Darragh MorganWhilst rehearsing, musicians often comment ‘wouldn't it be great if we could call up Beethoven and ask him about tempo indication or question him about an unusual expressive marking or articulation we aren't quite sure about’. Of course this isn't possible, but now is our chance to talk and have ongoing dialogue with living composers, often whilst working with them on their new repertoire. I've had so much insight into new music by just listening to what composers have to say, describing their own music and how they see it. My own library of sheet music is full of little inscription quotes from these rehearsal sessions, many of which I forget until I return (often years later) to again perform the same music. These gems of information have a huge impact on my interpretations, direct from the composers’ thoughts - which only add to the initially developing musical perspective of performers.

Personal highlights from these insights into new music include playing Sei Capricci to Salvatore Sciarrino back stage hours before giving the premiere of his opera Macbeth at Festival d'Automne Paris, standing on stage at the National Concert Hall Dublin chatting with Arvo Part after rehearsing his transcendental Tabula Rasa for a performance at the RTE Living Music Festival, or recently viewing some of the 'primordial' commentary from John Tavener to me in the solo violin part, preparing for the premiere of his epic Hymn of Dawn. Every time I meet with a living composer, whose sincere artistic vision is to create something unique and lasting, it is a great opportunity to collaborate and continue to share their musical message – to help convey their musical voice often long after they have left us.

All their illuminating remarks help shape my interpretations of new repertoire, particularly my work as violinist with The Fidelio Trio. We have just completed a run of performances of Mark Bowden's beautiful Airs No Oceans Keep piano trio. It was fantastic to have time to explore in detail this evocative music closely with Mark in rehearsal and performances. All these different concert experiences and Mark’s thoughts (e.g. about a sea shanty underlying one section) helped shape our interpretation that has the seal of approval from the composer.

If you'd like to receive our quarterly Friends Newsletter, you can become a Friend here (memberships start from £50). If you'd like to support our work with composers as well as our expanding Learning Programme, you can make a donation to our 30th Appeal here. Thank you!

 

Find Airs No Oceans Keep on Flux:

Flux

Feature

In this week's blog, Robert Saxton tells the story of his correspondence with Benjamin Britten.


Robert SaxtonWhen I was nine, in response to my apparently endless questions about how to ‘be a composer’, my medical mother suggested that I wrote to Benjamin Britten. We lived in London but, as my Suffolk-born father’s family all lived in Norfolk and we spent all holidays there, my mother knew that Britten lived in Aldeburgh. As nine-year-old fools rush in where angels fear to tread, I followed her advice, promptly receiving a reply from abroad. Britten was about to conduct his fiftieth birthday Prom at the Royal Albert Hall and suggested that I ‘go round and see him afterwards and we can make a plan’. My violin teacher accompanied me and, as directed, took me backstage, where I was ‘deposited’ in front of the great man. ‘My, aren’t we tall’, he said, ‘you’d better come and see me in Aldeburgh’.


For some time after this, whenever I sent him a composition, he would respond with alacrity, making professional comments and corrections. When, aged 12, I wrote an opera Cinderella for my school friends, which we staged for Oxfam, typically, Britten sent the entire cast a ‘good luck’ telegram for the performance. He was invariably as good as his word and, knowing that we were often in Norfolk, he asked me to see him at the Red House, where he gave me a wonderful lesson on my setting of Gray’s Elegy in a country churchyard and accompanied my embarrassingly adolescent violin playing. I recall my mother and sister collecting me, and us all having tea and jam sandwiches in the Red House sitting room.


Throughout my boarding school years, we kept in touch, and Britten unfailingly remembered my birthday with a card each year. It was due, indirectly, to his advice that I went, at the age of 16, to study with Elisabeth Lutyens; although Britten’s musical influence on my life inevitably waned after this, we remained in touch until his death in 1976 and I am eternally grateful for his humanity, time, care and, at all times, one hundred percent professionalism in guiding me at such a formative period of my life. The correspondence from both Britten and Lutyens to me, totalling over 100 items, is now held in the British Library.

 

If you'd like to receive our quarterly Friends Newsletter, you can become a Friend here (memberships start from £50). If you'd like to support our work with composers as well as our expanding Learning Programme, you can make a donation to our 30th Appeal here. Thank you!

Feature

In this week's blog, we're sharing an article written in 2011 by composer Anthony Gilbert on the process of writing scores. It's well worth a read!

Anthony GilbertBy the late 1950s, the gradual process of change that had started with the emergence of two post-war generations of composers, encouraged by the now welcoming attitude of the BBC to new music, was at its peak. This was the point at which I entered music publishing as a copyist and general dogsbody, in due course becoming House Editor for contemporary music at Schotts. Things were changing in this area too - the promotion of performances was much improved; the methods of printing scores for sale, and performance material for hire, were all being modernised too. Scores for sale were now printed by the silk-screen method, which avoided the necessity of engraving onto metal plates. Hire materials were printed by Xerox photocopying if on white manuscript paper, or by the (admittedly smelly) method known as dyelining if written, as they increasingly were, on transparent paper. Perhaps the most obvious change was in appearance. The new printing techniques meant that composers were encouraged to make their scores ready for issue in facsimile, thus taking greater care with layout and legibility. The writing of a score, whether orchestral or instrumental, became an art in itself. Noteheads had to be of a sensible and consistent size, dynamics clear and correctly placed, spacing proportional to rhythm, alignment exact and every system neither too crowded nor too spread out, but filled from margin to margin.

 

The use of architects’ materials, namely the transparent paper and Indian ink loaded into pens with tubular nibs, made the life of a manuscript almost indefinite; it also made layout-planning much easier. After the first rough draft of a work in pencil on normal manuscript paper, by then elegantly designed by composer and bassist Barry Guy, the whole thing would be copied to the final score pages, again in pencil with care for layout, then over-inked. Once Indian ink was fully dry one could easily rub out the pencil; indeed Indian ink itself or even unwanted staves could be erased using half a razor-blade to lightly scrape them from the surface. One then simply restored the surface by polishing with a fingernail. For the copying of parts one used a standard graphic-art nib; players preferred to read the more shapely script that produced.  

 

Peter Maxwell Davies ScoresWhat quickly became apparent in almost all the new works that passed through my hands was the close correspondence between the look and the sound of the music. This had enormous promotional benefit. Even the character of a composer’s manuscript and that of the music seemed to correspond. One could use the same adjective to describe both. This can be seen in a pair of Boosey and Hawkes facsimile scores by Maxwell Davies. The composer’s hand in Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), leaning a little to the right, has a kind of crazy urgency, much as in the music itself, whereas the facsimile score of Revelation and Fall, written out just a year earlier, has by contrast a much crisper, more ‘organised’ appearance, corresponding to the very precisely controlled compositional processes in the work.

 

There is nevertheless great attention to detail in both of these scores, as there is in Alexander Goehr’s manuscripts for Schotts. Goehr, for instance, clearly uses a ruler to keep all stems straight and vertical. In the MS of the Symphony in One Movement, dating from 1969 with revisions in 1971, there’s great poise and delicacy, just as there is in the sound of the orchestral playing. But where the music becomes louder, the noteheads get larger, as do the dynamic markings.

 

It is worth adding that none of the fairly subtle variations I have described affect the recognizability of a composer’s hand. Nevertheless, the handwritten words in the scores usually have a quite different character from the composers’ everyday handwriting. To me this is clear evidence of the extraordinary transformation that takes place in a composer once engaged in creative work.

 

By no means all scores were reproduced in facsimile, of course. Some British composers of the pre-war generation preferred to work in a more traditional way. Elisabeth Lutyens had a most elegant hand, but her manuscript scores were not easy to reproduce due to her writing materials, and there were layout problems. This meant adopting the traditional method of processing from the start: editing and correcting the photocopy manuscript, processing, proofreading by at least three people including the composer herself, then printing.

 

Goehr ScoreMost instrumental and chamber music, in any case, was processed by a quasi-engraver.  At Schotts during these years we mostly used the excellent firms Halstan and Caligraving, printers and lithographers, to process and print all but the most idiosyncratically-notated scores.  For these latter, we employed first-rate hand-copyists using a combination of stencils and carefully-drawn lines to produce exquisitely elegant scores and parts to be printed by the silk-screen method.

 

Michael Tippett’s earlier ink manuscripts were clear and unproblematic, but with success came greater reliance on publisher support. Tippett composed at the piano and then pencilled each passage out on orchestral MS paper, standing at an architect’s raised drawing-board, in a form which was neither short score nor full score (Sir Michael called it a ‘shorthand score’), with gaps where repeats, doublings and duplications occurred. An experienced copyist, effectively an amanuensis, then transformed this into a complete score, subsequently proofread – sometimes by the young Andrew Davis. For a work with voices, a piano reduction was then made by Tippett’s long-time collaborator, Michael Tillett. The pianist and superb sight-reader John Constable was then engaged to play the work through, passage by passage, to enable the composer to determine exact tempo markings. Then all was sent off for processing and final proofreading before the copying of orchestral parts. The involvement of such close colleagues as these became increasingly important as Tippett’s eyesight slowly deteriorated. Special credit should be given to copyist Paul Broom for transforming these later manuscripts into complete scores and parts.

 

Goehr ScoreSir Michael’s, however, was an exceptional case; not many composers needed this degree of practical support. But though some still submit beautifully-written manuscripts, they too are now the exception. When performance royalties fell alarmingly a dozen or so years ago, it became uneconomical for publishers to do much of the work I have described, for all but the most successful. However, by this time user-friendly notation software had become available. So long as we could afford or indeed manage a computer, we composers could now set up our own scores, using Finale, Score or Sibelius. Parts of a variably usable standard could then be quickly extracted. But really it took the publication of such guidebooks as Elaine Gould’s Behind Bars to ensure the production of materials at a truly professional level. Was the personalisation of scores lost? In fact, no, not quite. Each composer adopts an individual approach to layout, choice of software and its related ‘fonts’. Those who know how to manipulate the software can adapt it to create indeterminate or graphic notation, and all sorts of idiosyncrasies. It just requires a whole new range of skills, plus a willingness to do this extra work, usually unpaid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Feature

In this amazing article writen for our Friends Newsletter in 2016, Dai Fujikura tells us about his time working with Boulez.

 

Dai and BoulezThere is no need for me to tell you what Mr. Boulez (that’s what I always called him) did as a composer and conductor. It's also not necessary to remind anyone about how he radically changed the possibilities for music-making for so many composers around the world by his creation, advocacy and continual support for Ensemble Intercontemporain and IRCAM. I don’t think there's been another composer in the history of music who has done so much for other people and other composers.


Today I'd like to talk about my personal encounters with him. The first time I met him was at the Lucerne Festival in 2003. I was one of the finalists for the Lucerne Festival Academy’s composition project, among whom Mr. Boulez was to choose two young composers to write new orchestral works. The prize also included a workshop on the pieces with Mr Boulez a year before he would conduct their World Premieres. I remember how nervous I was at the thought of meeting him alone in an office room. I showed him two of my orchestral works. He was looking at the score of my most recent work at the time and asked:


“Now you have heard this piece of yours, what is your own criticism?


“There are many things to criticise,” I said.


I started listing the many problems I thought I had in that piece, telling him just how bad I thought my piece was. Half-way through my list he looked up from the score:


“It’s not that bad!” he chuckled.


For some reason, I was selected to write a new orchestral work for this project, Stream State. At the general rehearsal of Stream State, there was a moment when I couldn’t hear the piccolo at the climax of the piece. The whole orchestra was playing loudly and the piccolo just disappeared.


I told Mr. Boulez. He immediately looked at the orchestra and said:


“2nd trombone and percussion (1 of the 3) to play softer”


“That’s not what I…” Before I could finish my sentence, he turned to me: "Trust me"


He turned back towards the orchestra as he'd already given the downbeat for that bar. It was as if a fog had lifted. I could hear every note.


He was an extremely fast thinker - I could never finish my sentences when I was talking to him. He'd always answer before I’d finished, on point, and always very clear. On several occasions I'd see him sitting in the auditorium of my premieres, which was always quite scary. This is another thing I won’t forget. He'd come to me after each premiere and would say:


“Can you send me the score, it is not possible to understand complex music by hearing it just once.”


I always think of this statement when I see music critics writing concert reviews.


You might not believe this, but it is absolutely true that, of all the conductors I have worked with, he was one of the easiest people to approach. I could, and did, tell him anything during rehearsals (not every conductor makes me feel this way, I can tell you!) and his response would always be very simple and direct. To my eye, there was no “ego” thing with him, unlike some conductors.


Dai FujikuraMr. Boulez (for me, at least) was always very logical. He served the music. He would remember everything, to the point of having an eidetic memory. I've met him quite often, as often as one can meet a big star. He'd always ask what I was doing, and where I was going next. Then, perhaps three months later, I'd see him after a concert, sometimes backstage, in whatever country, and he would ask how the concert of my music went three months before. I'd always have to try to remember what the concert was (not being blessed with Mr. Boulez's memory!)


I think that the thing I will miss the most about Mr. Boulez is his sense of humour. He always had a rather “cheeky” twinkle in his eyes and a very sharp humour. Indeed the sharpness of his humour verged on the scandalous…


We exchanged several letters during our acquaintance. He'd send hand written letters which I'd need to read using a magnifying glass. I was told he wrote small so that he wouldn’t waste energy. He was always warm and friendly. He'd talk about operatic vibrato. I'd talk about how a piece of mine, which was dedicated to him, nearly killed an audience member. You know, the usual stuff...


It is always surprising to me that, when I read what some musicologist journalists write about him, one gets a sense that he was cold, unhuman, analytical. To me, he was extremely warm with a smile which would always shine when he saw me. He was very easy to talk to, a simple and modest person. Like his music he was lyrical, with long phrases flowing elegantly and modestly underneath the resonant sounds punctuating his work, like a stars in the firmament.

 

If you'd like to receive our quarterly Friends Newsletter, you can become a Friend here (memberships start from £50). If you'd like to support our work with composers as well as our expanding Learning Programme, you can make a donation to our 30th Appeal here. Thank you!

 

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