In this article written for our Friends Newsletter in 2012, composer Jonty Harrison reflects on sounds, what we call them, and how we perceive them.

Jonty Harrison‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’
Thus wrote Magritte in his painting of 1928-29 La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images). ‘Could you stuff my pipe?’ he later asked. ‘No, it’s just a representation, is it not?’ Images are so much a part of our lives that reality and representation blur and we use shorthand (‘that’s a ––’) when discussing images, rather than more correctly reserving the phrase for the actual objects the images represent. The issue appears in music too. ‘That’s a cuckoo’ we say, just before the end of the second movement of Beethoven 6, even though we know it’s not. How much more confusing when, instead of asking a clarinettist to imitate the sound of a cuckoo, a composer in the studio uses a recording of a cuckoo. ‘Ah’ we say, ‘now that is a cuckoo!’ Wrong again! It’s a recording (of the sound (of a cuckoo)); the cuckoo itself is not there at all.
The rich ambiguity released by these layers of meaning is precisely what attracts me to the field of acousmatic electroacoustic composition (‘tape’ music, in old money). But we may need to recapitulate a bit of history here, as Pierre Schaeffer was rather keen on our detaching ourselves (through a process he called écoute réduite – reduced listening) from the cause or physical source of a sound, and focusing purely on the sound as sound. For the purposes of understanding its role in a piece of musique concrète, a sound from, say, a violin, should ideally not be classified by what we might call its ‘violin-ness’, but through more abstracted aspects of the sound itself: colour, grain, (in)stability, spectral variation, intensity, etc. Through these qualitative comparisons we might link a sound to others completely unconnected by source or origin – indeed, the origin may lie completely outside the realm of what we might have previously considered ‘musical’ at all. In his 1948 Étude aux chemins de fer, Schaeffer announced unequivocally that any sound was potential material for composition and, interestingly, whilst we may find it difficult to ‘reduce’ our listening enough to get the image or the notion of railway locomotives out of our minds, a musical listening to the piece soon reveals other, more abstract concerns and constructions which go beyond mere collage or documentary sound, and truly into the domain of music. Moreover, the word ‘image’ implies a specific locomotive, whereas ‘notion’ is more fluid, more open to individual interpretation. It even permits the idea of a locomotive to transcend its physical reality – after all, no actual visual images are involved to pin down or otherwise limit our flights of fancy!
KlangSimilarly, at the start of my work Klang (1982), the listener has little difficulty in recognising the sounds of some kind of crockery being struck and made to resonate (though it is not Le Creuset, as the NMC cover art implies; I had discovered two New Zealand pottery casserole dishes in Denis Smalley’s kitchen while staying in his flat in Norwich in 1981). But Klang is not a piece about pottery or casserole dishes, even less a narrative detailing the adventures of Cassie the casserole dish; it is, I humbly submit, a purely musical discourse, based essentially on the characteristics of the sound materials. If it is ‘about’ anything, it is about sound and sound behaviours or, to be even more pedantic, about these specific sounds and their behaviours. To that extent, despite the inclusion of electronic sounds and without wishing to be presumptuous, it is a piece of ‘pure’ musique concrète.
Of course, the flaw in Schaeffer’s own approach with the Étude aux chemins de fer concerns the very obvious origin of the sounds used, which guarantees that they are already ‘loaded’ with meaning of their own (and thus, according to Boulez, unsuitable for composition). But can we not bring the sounds’ additional ‘baggage’ into compositional play as well? Can we not conceive of a musical situation where structure emerges from the interplay of recognisable, everyday sounds and more abstract ones? Is it impossible that a known, everyday sound, progressively transformed (as in Klang) out of all recognition is part of the musical argument? Conversely, highly transformed sounds suddenly revealing their origin can be very dramatic and powerful, evoking a sense in the listener of somehow having known all along…
Since 1995 my work has been less ‘pure’ (in Schaefferian terms) and more concerned with exploring the musical space at the intersections of reality, unreality and surreality, invoking the listener’s memory of human situations, places, experiences, etc. The fuzzy boundary between recognisability and unknown sounds play an important role, and I revel in setting up apparently ‘real’ scenes, then subverting them by insinuating a plausible element that is, in reality, completely alien. Alternatively, a real-world sound can appear, quite believably, in an abstract environment because of its spectromorphological connections (Smalley) to other sonic elements. In both cases, the alien sound becomes the catalyst, the agent of change – literally, at the speed of sound – from one musical space to another.

NMC Archive blogs are all articles written for our Friends Newsletter over the years. 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!


Graham Elliott recently retired as our longest standing Trustee after 12 years on the NMC Board. He tells us about his relationship to music and his role as an NMC Trustee.


Graham ElliottI first encountered classical music when, as a child, I took over an acoustic gramophone from my mother, together with a stack of 78s. In true British style, it was the noise the music made, rather than the music itself, which attracted me. I picked out the sound of the clarinet from these 1930s/40s recordings, and resolved to take up the instrument.


Happily, the clarinet suited me as a player as well as a listener, and, at length, I obtained places at three music colleges, but decided, instead, to read history at university. The consequence of this decision, that I would only be an amateur, allowed me to indulge my fascination with early 20th century styles of clarinet playing, and to this day I play on instruments that are around a hundred or more years old. Compared to the bassoon and oboe, the clarinet has only developed in subtle ways since then, but the differences are important.


My amateur clarinet career has involved a wide range of activity. In the 80s/90s I belonged to the Royal Yeomanry, a territorial army band. This was not as mundane as it sounds. At one stage, we found ourselves playing for a composing competition restricted to new works for military band and church organ (a format that has not caught on). As it took place in Switzerland, and was supported by Swiss sponsors, the winning piece also featured an interlude for three alphorns.


More recently, since 2000, I have been a regular participant in a brilliant ‘non-professional’ orchestra – Kensington Symphony Orchestra – which plays a great deal of contemporary music. My interest in contemporary music has been engendered by playing it. And via that route, I now also enjoy listening to much of it. The KSO has allowed me to play works as diverse as two horn concertos, by Knussen and by Matthews, John McCabe’s Concerto for Orchestra and 4th Symphony, Phibbs’ Rivers to the Sea, (as examples of the many British contemporary works performed), and Lutoslawski’s 3rd Symphony, and Dutilleux’s Metaboles (my favourite Polish and French pieces, respectively).


It is fairly easy to pinpoint the attractions of playing contemporary music. The sheer rollercoaster ride, through rapidly changing and unfamiliar time signatures, keeps the player on his toes. You cannot sit in the middle lane, playing a piece the way you remember it from a recording. It’s all fresh and extremely demanding, even if not always in a purely technical way. Of course, that is not the same as listening to it, but in that context almost the opposite is true – the more you get used to it, the more enjoyable it is. The thing that makes contemporary music tricky for listeners is its unfamiliarity. The familiar material is in the world of pop. Contemporary ‘classical’ music inhabits a different world which listeners must embrace if they are to enjoy it.


So, when I was asked to join the Board of NMC, it was involvement with another aspect of contemporary music, its creation and preservation, that attracted me. But trustees must always understand that what attracts them to a charity is not usually what attracts a charity to them. The trustee must leave enthusiasm for the cause at the door, because their true function is to exercise their professional skills for the charity, not to luxuriate in a halo of ‘association’.


And that leads me to what I do to earn my crust. I am a niche tax advisor (mainly VAT), in the context of which I encounter a wide range of financial and business issues. This, combined with my MBA qualification, is what I try to bring to the Boardroom of NMC.


You are probably thinking there is no connection between my work and my musical ‘other life’, but the similarities are considerable. VAT, in particular, is a subject that mixes mundane, everyday things, with esoteric legal concepts, creating what one judge described as a ‘fiscal theme park’. It’s a Barnum & Bailey world, just as strange as alphorns in a concerto for organ and military band. If you don’t believe me, just consider whether Jaffa Cakes are cakes, or biscuits. Because that, precisely, is the most well-known, and oft referred to, example in the case law of VAT.


So, I guess my main skill is in dealing with strange and challenging ideas; and that is equally true of playing an instrument, working in tax, or helping NMC. 


And I choose also to help NMC financially, because, by doing so, I assist the creative process at its source. Encouraging composers, by allowing their work to be preserved permanently, in outstanding performances and recordings, is the way to best enable them to continue their creative endeavour. Without that, the music stops, and we would all be the poorer.


If you'd like to support our work, you can do so by donating to our Anniversary appeal here or becoming a Friend here. Every little helps and no contribution is too small! Thank you.


This week on NMC Archive, late Bob Gilmore shares his thoughts about listening, in an article he wrote for our Friends Newsletter in 2014.


Bob Gilmore

It may be a truism to say that each of us listens to music in our own way, but it is inescapably the case. No one starts from a blank slate: we are all conditioned by numerous factors including taste, upbringing, musical education or lack thereof, age, nationality, sexual orientation (discuss), and much more. This is only normal, and as it should be. But until recently the manifold implications of this have received little attention in the critical writing about music.

Music psychologists have long studied the mechanisms of hearing and perception but (with some honourable exceptions) have paid scant regard to genuinely new music. And only very recently has the idea of a “history of listening” become a real subject within musicology. A research project entitled The Listening Experience Database (LED), currently underway as a joint project of the Open University and the Royal College of Music, is attempting to build an expandable database of records of the “private and intimate” listening experience: we wish them well.

I have been reflecting on how I myself listen to music. Within the context described above I can justify this not so much as an exercise in narcissism but as a form of proto- (or, more likely, pseudo-) research. The question is hugely complex: beyond the already knotty problems of perception we must take into account the ever-shifting sands of cognition, of understanding. I “hear” Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony differently now than I did when I first made its acquaintance more than forty years ago, partly as a consequence of the many different interpretations I’ve experienced in the meantime, but also, more crucially, because my sense of what music is has expanded so much since my youth. The encounter with twentieth- and twenty-first century music has long since eroded the sense I once had of the normativity of Beethoven’s language: the present, as always, influences our perception of the past. 

Specifically, though, I am more interested in the basic ways I (and others) listen to music - listening in an intuitive, rather than intellectually mediated, sense. Some people like a tune, some crave rhythm, some enjoy colours, some want “emotions”, and so on. My own primary way of listening, the one that gives me the most satisfaction, has to do with harmony. It is the nature of the harmony that most attracts me to a piece of music, or puts me off it. By that I don’t mean that the harmony need necessarily be complex: sometimes one chord is enough. I also don’t mean that I can’t enjoy music that operates on a wholly different basis - music for untuned percussion, say. It’s simply that, finally, harmony is the aspect of music that most entices me, convinces me, that most fully engages my heart and my brain in the experience of listening.

I wonder if we are “better” listeners now than we were in the nineteenth century. Clearly, we hear far more music today than at any earlier period in history, but that doesn’t mean we listen more, or more intelligently. If anything, we suffer from the problem of overload, of too much choice - from a promiscuity of information, from the proliferation of contemporary sounds, styles and aesthetics. I doubt that this overload has improved matters. I would argue that over the past half-century or more we have witnessed the growth of the opposite phenomenon, a troubling one: a deterioration in our listening skills. To have a vibrant new music culture that evolves in interesting ways we need not merely good playing and composing skills, but also, crucially, composers, performers and musicologists with the ability to hear clearly and accurately. I believe that of all the parameters of music it is harmony that has taken the hardest knocks in this situation.

The deterioration in our listening skills first became a real problem with respect to non-tonal music. Simply put, it is more difficult to hear wrong notes in Schoenberg than in Haydn, both when one is playing and when one is listening. There are numerous reasons for this. One is that Haydn’s music speaks a language that is extremely familiar to us, for all his characteristic development of it, whereas it might be said, exaggerating slightly, that every post-tonal composer is post-tonal in his/her own way. Schoenberg’s music also springs from a general language - diatonicism and tonality-conscious chromaticism - but his departures from it are highly personal. His music has lived on, albeit in relative obscurity, because those departures seem persuasive to us - or at least some of them do. 
In post-tonal music - whether that music is “atonal”, serial, “free”, or based on personal systems of interval relations specific to a particular composer or even a particular piece - it can be hard to judge wrong notes not merely aurally but also, at times, conceptually. More than forty years ago the musicologist Hans Keller argued that, even though “a rich variety of replacements for tonal organisation has been discovered in [the twentieth] century”, nonetheless “harmonically, none makes sense unless it audibly contradicts that which it replaces; and it is, ultimately, in terms of these contradictions that notes are heard as right, however difficult the task may, at times, appear to be”.  Is his argument still valid today?

Thinking of more recent music - some experimental music, say, or free improvisation - we may well ask what counts as a wrong note in an aleatoric situation where sounds collide accidentally without pre-planning, harmonic or otherwise. (Here a “wrong note” means a harmonically and/or melodically inexplicable choice, not the “classical” sense of something different than is written in the score; this kind of music will often not have a score, at least not a conventional one.) In these contexts, is the concept of a wrong note still meaningful? Arguably, no: the distinction between right and wrong notes here becomes irrelevant. This is fine as long as we can then accept the fact that the resulting music is, in this specific sense, incomprehensible - and not just incomprehensible with regard to the laws of modal/tonal music, however broadly defined, but incomprehensible in the sense of deliberately declining to propose any new form of aurally intelligible harmonic logic. We could of course say that, in such music, other parameters have replaced vertical listening as the main dish: rhythm, timbre, texture, “gesture”, and so on, and that we should be content with that - why should harmonic relations be dominant, anyway? Well, perhaps not necessarily “dominant”, but I can suggest one compelling argument in favour of their continued importance, one that the American composer Ben Johnston expressed many decades ago: that harmonic listening is simply “too basic a parameter to be allowed to fall into disuse”.  With a lack of concern for harmony other musical values bite the dust too, such as a careful approach to intonation; one cannot play really in tune if one cannot predict the pitches one is supposed to tune to. (Good intonation presupposes a form of inner pre-hearing of a pitch or pitches immediately ahead in the music, a fascinating but little discussed aspect of good performance practice.)

One example of a new approach to harmony that is very much concerned with aural intelligibility, and with tuning, is to be found in the “spectral music” that originated in the Parisian new music scene of the 1970s. (The term is in scare quotes for the reason that not one of its leading practitioners accepts its validity as a descriptive term for what they do.) This approach has evolved in the music of subsequent decades, and informs the harmonic language of such recent works as Julian Anderson’s Eden (NMC D121) or Donnacha Dennehy’s Bulb (NMC D147). In contrast, it seems to me that quite a lot of new music today exhibits what composer Roberto Gerhard memorably called “pitch fatigue”: “at long last”, he wrote in the late 1960s, “‘atonality’, in the literal meaning of the word, has become a stark fact in our day and age, owing to [this] puzzling phenomenon”.  Of course, few composers will admit that they don’t care about pitch, or are bored of it; and, sometimes, repeated listenings to an apparently impenetrable piece will begin to reveal a form of harmonic logic that was not immediately evident. And there is a lot of music in which what happens on other levels is so compelling that our listening mode shifts accordingly. I greatly enjoy listening to Jonathan Harvey’s Bird Concerto with Pianosong (NMC D177) or to Richard Barrett’s Dark Matter (NMC D183), even though much of the time I draw a blank at what’s going on harmonically (without, it must be said, having studied the score of either piece).

The difficulty of hearing wrong notes in post-tonal music, and the irrelevance of the concept of a wrong note in most forms of aleatoric music or free improvisation, has made some listeners sharpen their listening skills in a different way so they can navigate these new musical contexts with some confidence - contexts in which the presence of a clear harmonic superstructure would be an irrelevance or an anachronism. But I suspect many listeners - perhaps even the majority - experience something closer to what I experience: the harmonic incomprehensibility, or semi-comprehensibility, of some new music, where I can’t fathom the logic of pitch choice even after several attempts, only dulls my perception. Frustrated in the attempt to understand the music harmonically, I slip into more passive, less demanding modes of listening, letting the music do its thing and abandoning the difficult task of really trying to follow it. Is this a problem? Maybe not, if the music is still enjoyable to listen to. But it seems to me that in such circumstances what I experience is a form of mental laziness, akin to giving up the struggle to follow an intricate philosophical text and simply admiring the choice of font or enjoying the smell of the pages in the book. Some people may well be content to listen to music in this way; but they belong to a club that would probably not accept me as a member.


NMC Archive blogs are all articles written for our Friends Newsletter over the years. 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!



This week on our blog, composers Howard Skempton and Geoff Hannan discuss their experiences of writing for film.

Howard SkemptonHoward Skemtpon: Cross-fading in Manhattan
If not twins, music and film are certainly siblings. Both play with time and exercise charm. My own practical involvement in film began when I was thirteen, when I bought a cheap 8mm cine camera. A 50-foot spool of film cost about thirty bob (including processing) and I quickly learnt to “edit in camera”. Making films was never the all-consuming passion that composing became when I was sixteen, yet it remained influential and itself open to innovation. Richard Lester’s Help! (with The Beatles) prompted me to turn the camera on its side, and the preternaturally long shots of Antonioni’s movies encouraged me to follow suit, stretching both my budget and the credulity of my audience (my immediate family). It was about ten years ago, some time after my cameras had been retired (irretrievably on the blink) and celluloid had become an endangered species, that I had an email from mode records in New York asking for my address because a director, Michel Gondry, had been in touch to investigate the possibility of using my music in his latest film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A few days later, a disarmingly handwritten letter arrived from Michel who explained that he had recently been editing the final sequence of his movie, with the radio on, and that my Surface Tension, the title track of my mode disc of short chamber pieces, had been broadcast and had somehow “lifted” the scene. Not knowing anything about what he had heard, he first contacted the radio station and then the record company.
Anyone who knows and admires Michel Gondry’s films will understand why he chose to write a characterful letter rather than send a simple email. In due course, we had a meeting in London where his music videos were being shown at the ICA. He booked me into his hotel so that discussions could be open-ended and even resume over breakfast.  Dressed inappropriately in my best (OK, my only) suit, I must have seemed eccentric, positive and perhaps a little wary. Two months later, I had a call from one of Michel’s American producers, asking if I could spend a week in New York, firstly to view the film and then to work on some musical ideas. No payment was mentioned, but the offer of assistance (a music editor, and any equipment I needed), plus flight and hotel accommodation, was generous. It was a busy time, I was tired, with a big choral piece to write, but this was a golden opportunity.
The evening I arrived at my hotel, Michel rang to welcome me and to arrange a meeting at the Partizan offices just round the corner. Two months after filming, Michel was fully engaged in the editing process, so my music editor and I were left alone to watch the movie in its provisional form. When it finished, I turned round, and there was Michel in the doorway, obviously curious to know my opinion. Even in its unfinished state, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was magical. The filming, script and performances (the all-star cast included Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) were a delight. My only complaint was about some of the music. Two or three tracks from my mode disc had been used and worked beautifully. At other times, the film seemed to be let down by the broodingly minimalistic material that had been substituted for silence. Perhaps this drone-based material (by a relatively well-known composer) was too close, stylistically, for comfort?  Maybe. I realised that music must do more than resonate with a movie: it must somehow enliven it. I think Michel must have been as surprised by my strong reaction as I myself was, but was also amused.
On subsequent days, I spent most of my time in the music editor’s tiny studio, mostly at the computer, looking at scenes from the movie and working with fragments of existing music (for example, some of my piano pieces). I witnessed with wonder the benefits, or otherwise, of Pro-Tools and cross-fading. We would work from early in the day until late evening, taking a break, mid-afternoon, for hamburgers and salad in a local bar. Michel would appear only occasionally (the music editor’s studio was in a different part of Manhattan) to discuss progress; and to remind me that he needed to persuade his producers that I was the right composer for the job. I remember a meeting with the producers. I mentioned that concert music was my bread and butter and one of them was quick to reply, “That’s the trouble, Howard! That’s all it is: just bread and butter!”
Once I was home, a contract was drawn up, but eventually the producers’ misgivings held sway. Michel has since used my music in another film of his, and is excited about using much more in an animated feature (a work in progress).  And, yes, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, spared my involvement, was marvellous!
Geoff HannanGeoff Hannan: The Air We Breathe  
I applied and got into the National Film and Television School in 2009 as a media composer, courtesy of a scholarship from the Alan Hawkshaw Foundation. I’d been working as a musician and concert composer professionally since 1997 and by the time of going there had picked up two international prizes for my work. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the prize money (the amount I had earned from concert music between 1997 and 2009 was about enough for a dozen mobile phone top-ups) you can really only get so far like this and I resolved to put two interests together, composing and film, in an effort to continue doing what I like best (or perhaps, more to the point, what I can only do). Of course, I still compose concert music.
I lost a few supporters on the back of this decision to go to the NFTS: the Marxist-Leninist ones thought I was prostituting myself. However, I gained many others at the NFTS and continue to enjoy their varied perspectives and insights. What distinguishes media composing from concert composing is the fact that it is collaborative. In my concert work I’m accountable to myself only, while in my media work I’m accountable to directors, producers and those involved in preview screenings. Re-writing is an essential part of the process. It’s very unlikely for composers to get the music right first time – usually the third time does it – so when they say they have scored a film, they have generally scored three films. (I like to think of this as the ‘Holy Trinity Principle’.) The ability to write quickly is essential; also, I think, an intuitive, empathic understanding of people.
Acquiring proficiency in media composing was an interesting process. At the beginning of my time at the NFTS I was writing music which worked better without picture, while a little later on my music really only worked with it. I discovered, like many before me, that musical interest for its own sake doesn’t work well on film, and can actually hijack a narrative. (Incidentally, every film composer, including ‘A list’ ones, will have their score rejected at some point, for whatever reason. Perhaps the best known example is Alex North’s score to 2001, which Kubrick rejected in favour of his beloved temp tracks.)
Collaborating with other people is unpredictable. No two collaborations are the same. The best ones are those in which, together, you come up with something better than you could have done on your own. When directors are sure of what they want to say with their films, and allow you the freedom to bring your own ideas to the table, the result is always good. Digital technology encourages some directors to micromanage every aspect of a film, and this can inhibit collaboration. Diffident directors who cannot commit to an approach are perhaps the hardest to work for. Sometimes collaboration can be strained for totally preposterous reasons. I worked on one film at the NFTS which was never officially completed because not only had the director run out of time to shoot the final scene, but he had also been placed under house arrest for doing runners from expensive restaurants, and was therefore unavailable for post-production. The editor, the sound designer and myself did everything we could to salvage the film, but to no avail. This was a pity because the film, as far as it went, was wonderful. Post-NFTS I provided the music for a documentary called The Secret Life of Objects. Here I gave the director four hastily-done pieces of music, inspired by the stills he had shown me, which I thought he would find useful in the cutting room. I never heard from him again until he emailed me to tell me about the première. Of course I asked him whether he had actually used any of my music, and he said he’d used all of it. So in this case I scored a documentary without really scoring a documentary. Collaboration is full of surprises.
The last NFTS-related film I did was an animation called Kahanikar (dir Nandita Jain). It was an enjoyable collaboration – my third with Nandita – and the film has done well on the international film festival circuit, having garnered about ten awards. It didn’t quite make the final Oscar shortlist though. The film is about a little girl, Nirmala, and her grandfather who live by a beach in Kerala, South India. He tells her stories, and when Nirmala realises that grandpa is losing his memory (Alzheimers), she tells them to him to try to make things right again. I worked very closely with Jay Price, the sound designer, and there are several moments in the film when it is difficult to tell sound and music apart. The awards are a testament to the collaboration in which all the elements came together organically. When you think of film-making in this way, it seems almost absurd to single out a particular person’s work for attention.
Going to the NFTS has, without a doubt, influenced my concert work. The range of my writing has broadened considerably, and I don’t get hung up on the sort of aesthetic prerogatives and embargoes which matter to only a very few. I write for a general audience. I think about audiences a great deal, perhaps as much as a stand-up comedian. At this point people sometimes ask ‘Are you trying to make your music accessible?’, and I confess accessibility means very little to me except in a very practical sense. However, I do want to know how an audience responds to my music, which is why I prefer Q&As to pre-concert talks. Since being a composer, especially of concert music, is a rather solitary occupation it is quite easy to think you are working in a vacuum, when actually there is so much breathable air.

NMC Archive blogs are all articles written for our Friends Newsletter over the years. 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!


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!


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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All entries in chronological order
19 September 2019
12 September 2019
5 September 2019
29 August 2019
22 August 2019
16 August 2019
8 August 2019
1 August 2019
25 July 2019
18 July 2019