NMC Archive - Performer-Composer Collaborations
22 August 2019

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!


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All entries in chronological order
19 April 2010
26 March 2010
25 March 2010
11 February 2010
1 January 2010
19 November 2009
15 October 2009
27 April 2000