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Our latest NMC Archive blog is by designer François Hall. François designed most of our booklets and covers until 2017 and in this blog he tells us about his artistic process.

 

BINGHAM STRING QUARTETMy links with NMC began in the early 1990s when I was commissioned to design a CD (and cassette!) for Bingham String Quartet. Back then, I was working at the Southbank Centre designing posters for Messiaen’s 80th anniversary, the 60th anniversary of Stockhausen, and the Schoenberg celebration concerts, which has proved not dissimilar to designing CD covers. Both need to have arresting images that are uncluttered, atmospheric and conceptual – this is what I try to achieve when designing for NMC.


By the time the design for the first NMC sampler was needed, it was clear that the look and sound of NMC’s recordings stood out from the crowd. The ethos of NMC was so different from other record labels and suggested the analogy of the black sheep. Adding NMC blue, turning the stray sheep around and using the Warhol style we created the Pastures New artwork and the distinctive blue sheep logo was born (you can learn more about our blue sheep here).Pastures New


Being presented with such a variety of ideas and concepts each time I’m asked to produce a new cover remains the most enjoyable part of working with NMC. Sometimes I am able to hear the music in advance – this especially helped with Richard Ayres' NONcertos, which is among my favourite NMC recordings, along with Judith Weir, Howard Skempton’s Ben Somewhen and Jonathan Harvey’s Body Mandala. I also enjoy jazz improvisation, which is not a million miles away from the way my mind works when in designer mode. And it always helps if I can listen to my favourite composer Thelonious Monk when I’m working!


To encapsulate these musical ideas and references can be a challenge but also fascinating because it leads me down avenues I would never have ventured if not for the title of a piece or the notion of a composer. Once I have the idea I then need to decide how to creatively represent it. This could be photography through a blue plastic stencil ruler on Portland beach (Lento), borrowing a real human skull from the local museum (Vanity), waiting outside a block of flats from light to dark (Poles Apart), photographing Art Deco wax dolls (The Intelligence Park) or delving into the incredible NASA website to discover mysterious sounds from Saturn (Saturn).
My favourite covers are Divertimento, On Memory, Lento and Prime Cuts.

www.francoishall.com

VANITYPoles Apartintelligence-parkOn Memory

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

We continue our NMC Archive Series with a blog that Richard Steele, long-standing NMC supporter and former SPNM Administrator/Executive Director (1988 - 1994), wrote for our Friends Newsletter last year. He tells us about working at SPNM and the first days of NMC.

 

Richard Steele

When I joined the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM) as its Administrator at the beginning of September 1988, I knew nothing of plans to develop a music label. I had been interviewed twice before being appointed, and Colin Matthews was on the second panel, but it was only on my first day in the basement office of 10 Stratford Place that my colleague Philip Nelson told me of Colin’s plan to set up a new label called ‘New Music Cassettes’ with the financial assistance of the Holst Foundation.  


Phil Nelson, now the founder of First Column Management and a very experienced artist manager, was extremely knowledgeable about the recording industry and a great help to me throughout our year together at SPNM. He told me that Jonathan Harvey’s Bhakti, which had been recorded by Spectrum with Guy Protheroe for the BBC in 1984, was to be the first release on this new label. It had also been suggested that Phil would handle the administrative side of producing the cassette.


It was just as well that Phil warned me, because on my second day in the office Jonathan Harvey rang up and asked what I was going to do about Bhakti! I had not at that stage met Jonathan and he was understandably fairly insistent on the phone. He wanted to know when his recording would be released – it had been made in July 1984 – and hoped that there would be as little delay as possible despite the change in SPNM management from Rosemary Johnson to me. 


I recall ringing Colin shortly after the call to find out exactly what the plans were for this new label and over the next few weeks Phil Nelson with Colin prepared the recording of Bhakti for its release in 1989 as NMC D001.


BhaktiSPNM was a membership organisation and its primary role was to provide opportunities for emerging composers to hear their pieces performed in concerts and workshops and the two, occasionally three, of us in the SPNM office were always extremely busy. In addition, we ran the British Section of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and produced the monthly CCC new music brochure so holidays had to be very carefully planned to fit in with the brochure deadlines. On top of all this, we now had a record label to run. Fortunately Phil Nelson and his successors from September 1989, Jonathan Cooper and Hannah Taylor, had sufficient energy and enthusiasm to take on the extra work required to develop the NMC label.  Over the next two years, the number of NMC releases steadily grew. Recordings by the Bingham String Quartet, Mary Wiegold’s Songbook with The Composers Ensemble, James Dillon’s East 11th Street and a piano recital by Michael Finnissy of his own music and music by Judith Weir, Chris Newman and Howard Skempton were all released over the next 18 months.


However, it was Howard Skempton’s orchestral piece Lento released in April 1992 (NMC D005) that showed the real potential of NMC. Lento had been premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican and then recorded in August 1991. It was the classic slow burn release in that it started selling well and then just continued selling to the extent that it remains the most consistently sold recording in the NMC catalogue.

 

FinnissyWell, it became obvious by 1991 that NMC was too important and too administratively time-consuming to continue to be run from the SPNM office as an “extra” activity. With the agreement of the SPNM Executive Committee, which of course included Colin, I went to see our Arts Council music officer, Kathryn McDowell, now Managing Director of the LSO. I let her know that SPNM would be letting NMC go independent, thereby releasing Hannah Taylor to work for NMC exclusively, and be run from a different office, admittedly initially in the same building. Kathryn was most supportive and understanding, and in effect said that if we hadn’t taken this decision ourselves, the Arts Council would have insisted on it as NMC was taking up too much time and was not part of the portfolio for which SPNM received its annual Arts Council grant.


And so SPNM and NMC separated in the summer of 1991 and my involvement in NMC, which had always been very limited in the sense that I was never directly involved in producing or making any of the recordings, was over although I still have my cassettes of the early releases! I have watched its growth with huge pleasure ever since (around NMC D240 now) and was thrilled to be able to join Colin, Anne, Eleanor and Andrew Ward when Colin received the Special Achievement Award at the 2017 Gramophone Awards – hugely deserved recognition of the extraordinary vision of Colin and Imogen Holst.

 

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

NMC was created 30 years ago this month and to celebrate, our Founder and Executive Producer, Colin Matthews, reflect on the origins of NMC and Imogen Holst's impact on its creation.

 

Colin and Imogen In 2017 NMC reissued an album of chamber music by Imogen Holst. We were all surprised and delighted that, although its previous release had only been 8 years earlier, it received a huge amount of attention. This could hardly have been more appropriate, since if it had not been for Imogen, NMC would very likely never have come into being. When together we set up the Holst Foundation, not long before her death in 1984, she made it clear that its future role should not be to subsidise her father’s music in the way that most other composer trusts function. Instead she hoped that it would be able to support the work of living composers. Amongst other projects, we talked at length about the possibility of funding recordings, and although it took a while to get NMC off the ground – it was not easy to establish a recording company that could be a registered charity – I have always felt that the label was founded with her blessing, and I know that she would have approved wholeheartedly of what has been achieved since 1989.

NMC started with a mission: we were determined to remedy the very poor representation of living British composers in the record catalogues: extraordinary to think that, back then, Harrison Birtwistle had only one major recording available (now reissued on NMC D148), while Jonathan Harvey had reached 50 without a single significant disc (Bhakti was our first release in April 1989). In the case of Peter Maxwell Davies’ opera Taverner it took us over 20 years before the release was possible. Very early on we devised a ‘hit list of music we felt demanded to be released. That original list was gradually worked through, while it simultaneously expanded as new works were written, younger composers came into focus, and we moved into new and innovative areas, including creative digital platforms and our education work, assisting the development of emerging talent and engaging with younger audiences. 

 

I don’t believe that at the outset we would ever have dared to imagine that so much could be accomplished over 30 years. With the Holst Foundation no longer able to be a major funder after the expiry of Holst’s copyrights, we rely on the support of ACE, trusts, foundations and many generous individuals to continue the work we do championing composers at all stages of their careers and inspiring new generations of listeners, artists and composers.   

Colin Matthews (NMC Founder and Executive Producer)

 

 

Further reading: Imogen Holst: memories from Colin Matthews

Imogen, Colin and Oliver Knussen at Aldeburgh
 
 
Feature

For our second blog in our NMC Archive series, we're delving into unsual instruments with a two-part blog. In this first part, Brian Elias and Jonathan Cole tell us about the unsual instruments they used in their music, and Julian Warburton, BCMG Percussionist and Professor of Percussion at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, tells us a bit more about percussion on Britten on Film.

 
Did I just hear a marimba?
 
Over the years, we’ve encountered a number of unusual additions to scoring where composers have either included the sound of a particular object to enhance the narrative in perhaps a quite literal way, or experimented with more unfamiliar instruments to create particular effects. Here’s a selection of composers and artists commenting on the inclusion of more unusual sounds in their work:
 

Brian Elias: Five Songs to Poems by Irina Ratushinskaya

Brian EliasI used large bell plates in my Five Songs to Poems by Irina Ratushinskaya because of the extraordinary depth of their sound. They are made from large rectangular sheets of metal, and are rather heavy; when the work was performed in Barcelona, an especially strong platform had to be built to accommodate the five plates I had specified. Therefore, I would not recommend their use without consulting the orchestral management! The range is from middle C down to low cello C, and the deepness of the sound and its resonance are very beguiling. Damping requires a great deal of effort, especially when several are ringing at the same time, and it is important to take this into account. I used the bell plates at the beginning of the work, when the poet is startled awake, and towards the end of the fourth song - both key moments in the piece that emphasise the darkness of the poet’s situation. The fifth song begins with lighter bells, a contrast made all the more dramatic by the dark tolling of the bell plates.

 

Jonathan Cole: NMC Songbook tss-k-haa

NMC Songbook

In tss-k-haa I wanted to create the impression of a spell being cast so had to find a sound which would work as an occasional counterpoint to the incantationary vocal writing whilst being itself unexpected and strange. When air is released from a balloon, the way the sound is created is very similar to our use of breath when producing vocal sounds, and yet because of the material of the balloon (rubber) and the size of the air hole the tight squeaks which emerge are of a different quality to the voice. The only real problem with writing for such an instrument is that many people presume it is a comic effect when a balloon is actually a very versatile and efficient percussion instrument - it can be used as a drum, its surface can be rubbed, it can be filled with water or small stones etc. I've found that when using balloon in other pieces such as ash relics the percussionist uses a screen to play behind so the audience doesn't start making comic associations with the instrument.
 
 

Julian Warburton: Britten on Film

Britten on Film When I first saw the instrument requirements for the Britten on Film recordings with BCMG, I knew I would have to do some substantial research before we started the project. Most of the instruments for the album were standard but the music for Coalface also required the following: chains; sandpaper; trip-gear; coconut shells, small cart on sandy asbestos; small drill; large drill; cup in bucket; rewinder; notched wood; hooter; metal sheet; and iron wheels.

 
It was clear to me that some of these sounds would have been from a sound effects library and added to Britten’s original recordings. However, I was determined to recreate most if not all the sounds acoustically for the recording. An arrangement was made for me to spend an afternoon in Britten’s study at Aldeburgh watching the original films armed with the scores. This was an unforgettable experience and at times quite eerie as I was watching film from the 1930’s next to the piano where much of the Britten repertoire was conceived.
 
On first hearing I knew the chains, sandpaper, whistle, coconut shells and metal sheet were relatively straight forward, but the ‘small cart on sandy asbestos’ would be a challenge. We couldn’t use asbestos so I spent a morning at the CBSO Centre experimenting with different floor coverings and trolleys. In the end I think Jackie Newbould and I decided on a mixture of fine gravel and pea shingle run over by a heavy metal trolley, which sounded great!
 
We had a large selection of cordless power tools available for the drill sounds but they all sounded too modern. A good sound was achieved by vibrating the head of each drill (without the bit attached) on the metal trolley for the small drill and I think the floor for the large drill. [Jackie says: the drill was my Dad’s – it’s almost an antique!]
The notched wood I made myself by cutting chunks from a piece of two-by-two pine to be played much like a guiro but with a snare drum stick.
 
I hate to say I failed with the trip-gear and rewinder - they were just too industrial and impossible to recreate live so Colin Matthews managed to find a sound effect and dubbed it on to the final edit.
 

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

For our 30th Anniversary, we're taking you behind the scenes and introducing you to the people that help us and guide us in our work, our Board of Trustees. First, we're meeting Jackie Newbould, who joined our board in 2015.

 

JackieMusic has been a central part of my life ever since I was conscious of hearing. It was recordings that brought me to it at a very young age. My parents would worry later on that I should ‘go out to play’ more - I did that too, but would be content to listen for hours to their old record player: all sorts - dance bands, musicals, some classics, and my favourite Peter and the Wolf was the one l learnt the word ‘again’ for. Didn’t understand many other words then, the music told the story. Some years later I found myself lucky enough to own a violin, play it well enough to get into youth orchestras and ensembles, playing my way through all kinds of repertoire opening up worlds for me.

More years later I found myself even luckier to be Executive Producer for one of the best ensembles in the land - Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. During the early years of BCMG, NMC (and its Blue Sheep) was also emerging onto the scene - a very fruitful and happy relationship between the two organisations producing some precious, treasured recordings of the most remarkable music of our times. 

I love NMC’s philosophy: highest recording values, no compromises, dedication to composers of all ages and at all stages, grasping new technologies, tirelessly seeking out ingenious ways to engage as many of us listeners as possible - young and not-so-young - in the huge tapestry that is new music today. And if you fancy looking back a little for some context from the past, they do that too: they never delete so you can be sure to find that thing you’re seeking in their catalogue, and their charitable status gives them artistic freedom. No other recording company is able to achieve for contemporary music what NMC can. It was started by a composer and places composers at its heart: everything emanates from this, with a highly skilled and committed management team sharing that vision. You simply can’t get recordings of this quality and of this variety anywhere else. Their work is unique. And they may be based in London (in a tiny office in the East), but they reach all over the UK and far beyond. 

When asked to become a Trustee it was the greatest honour. My experience at BCMG has given me tools to support them in bringing contemporary music to a wide audience in interesting ways, and through advocacy. Before I joined as a Trustee I was aware their remarkable ventures were borne out of shoestrings. Now I have a closer view I am even more in awe of their achievements and in such tough times for all arts organisations. If I was a millionaire NMC would be tops for me, but I don’t have to be one to give and make a difference. That’s a fine feeling.

 

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.

Feature

For our 30th Anniversary, we are delving into our archives and sharing with you some of our Friends Newsletter articles from the past 30 years. First up, an article written by Tansy Davies, Richard Barrett, Richard Ayres and our former designer Francois Hall on choosing titles.

 

Tansy DaviesTansy Davies:

I always have this idea that thinking up the title is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing a piece, but when it comes down to it, that’s not always the case. For me titles mostly come at the very end of the process - a bit like the icing on a cake. But I like to think that any new title has actually been growing in my subconscious all the while I’ve been composing the piece, and it’s just a matter of digging down deep to find it, after I finish composing the notes.
 
When I do arrive at the point of actively seeking the title, it always feels like a good moment to take a step back from the piece and take time out for reading and research areas that, on some level, I think the piece is about. This always leads to interesting discoveries, even if I don’t find the right title for a few days.
 
It’s very important not to be lazy about choosing the title, after all it’s the face of work - the part that most of the audience will come across before hearing a single sound. I think a title should carry within it some message or essence of what the music’s about; that could mean simply choosing a word just because of the way it sounds - because in the composer’s mind the sound of the word somehow resonates with the sound of the work.
 
Perhaps a title is an introduction that can capture the imagination and set the tone for a listening experience, or an advertisement that doubles as a poem.
 
The title track of my NMC album spine is indirectly named after the segmented way in which ancient fauna Trilobites are known to have grown. Although they were in fact invertebrates, some had sharp vertical spines as a form of protection. Musically the piece was made out of a string of notes that form the harmonic backbone of the piece, but the directness, look, and simplicity of the word itself were my main reasons for naming the work spine
 

Richard BarrettRichard Barrett:

A title lends a certain kind of image, a certain colour, to a composition even before the music is heard. In my case, just as the music is the way it is in order to encourage listeners to find their own pathways through it, perhaps differently on each hearing, and to create their own experience rather than hearing about someone else’s, a title might be thought of as evoking some kind of memorable idea but perhaps a different one for each (potential) listener, rather than telling them unequivocally what the music is ‘about’. 
 
A title can thus be thought of as a very brief poem, forming a connection between the world of language and the world of music. It’s an opportunity to say something about the music, however fleetingly and obliquely, which is one reason why I couldn’t imagine ever using a generic title like ‘symphony’ or ‘string quartet’ although obviously another is that I’m not attached to the forms and traditions implied by titles like that.
 
The choice requires as much sensitivity and depth of thought as musical composition. (This extends to deciding whether a title begins with a capital letter or is all lowercase or perhaps all capitals.) If you’re making a statement about the music it’s good to choose the words carefully, and if the statement consists of only one word that’s even more important. Sometimes it comes into being before any composing has been done, sometimes during the process, and sometimes at its end or later. I think that in the end I always know when the right one has been found, even though on finding it I might not yet know why! Often I change my mind several times during the course of work, and then eventually return to the original one.
 
In the past, my titles have often been literary references, especially to the work of Samuel Beckett and Paul Celan, but in recent years, this has decreasingly been the case as my range of reference has widened. I don’t believe that any music is ‘abstract’, and conversely that nothing is ‘extra-musical’.

 

Richard AyresRichard Ayres:

What’s the title Richard? You will have to call it something. OK, I must call it something, I must call it something, I must call it. Ah! "Something" - I can call it that! That would be a little bit juvenile I suppose, and there is also a chance that the piece might, in reality, deserve the title, "Nothing Much about Anything at All". Best not to tempt fate …

 
I could call it "BANG CRASH ATOM SMASH". That would make it sound exciting, and it would perhaps attract a younger audience. It is bouncy, I use a bass guitar, and both the flutes are amplified, but it isn't exactly death metal. I might also alienate the older audience, there are many more of those, and they are the people with disposable income. 
 
"Fractal Transfiguration 4." No. This piece is in waltz time. Could be ironic, but no. How about, "Elegy for a Dead Child". That would certainly add an aura of profundity and tragedy. The "oompah oompah" section could be subtitled "reminiscence of innocence lost". No. This piece is far too joyful for such a gloomy title. Ah! "Ode to Joy". Richard, concentrate!
 
I just don't understand! Why does every piece have to have a title stuck on to it? When did this start? Mozart? Beethoven? Schumann? I bet it was someone strange like Schumann. I could Google it to make sure, or, I could just spend the time thinking up a title.
 
Pffff … Something about gemstones perhaps? Or colours? Ah! "Vivid Purple". No - this piece is neither vivid, nor purple. 
 
Ah! It is a given that any title will inevitably influence how the audience will listen to the music, so my title could describe every note in great detail, including its pitch, instrumentation, volume, whether or not it is kind to its neighbours, its breakfast preferences, its blood group. Richard, concentrate!!
 
Opus 48? No, too ‘museal’. Well, why not just No.48 then? A bit banal perhaps, but practical. Functional. Yes. No.48, a functional title.
 

Francois HallFrancois Hall:

Just looking through some cover designs I can see that titles are sometimes an important element to my design approach, as they can often lead to an image interpreting the title. A title can also help narrow down the options and focus on just one element from the group of recordings to represent the whole feel of the disc. However, I find it much more interesting and challenging when I am able to read about the works and pull meanings and interpretations from texts by the composer.
 
Richard Ayres' NONcertos as a title didn’t say enough to me but listening to and reading the texts about the music helped to create the visual landscape that I used on the cover. Similarly, the title spine only made sense when reading the notes written by Tansy Davies and listening to the music - then I was able to research ideas. The cover then begins to make sense, as a whole. With Dark Matter, going through Richard Barrett's notes helped to pinpoint the themes given that it is such a large subject. It’s easy to become too engrossed, especially when learning something new and inspiring! (I have a ridiculous library of old books on random subjects that I hope may come in useful one day!) Whoever thought that Saturn emitted a sound, which can be downloaded from NASA? I didn’t! The visual interpretation appears on the cover of Saturn by Edwin Roxburgh. In this case, the title sparked the idea and went somewhere I didn’t expect to go!
 
The title is the signpost, from which you can go directly to your destination, or you could take the scenic route, stopping off and enjoying the scenery - which is my preferred option (especially if there are some nice pubs along the way!) 
 
NoncertosspineDark MatterSaturn
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

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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