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Feature

On this week's blog, composer Joe Cutler tells us about his second album on NMC, Elsewhereness, which was released in October 2018, and his selection process for the pieces which are featured on it. 


Joe CutlerIn this age of streaming and downloads, there might be an argument that the album format has become outdated and obsolete. But for me, it’s a wonderful and highly creative medium. The process of thinking about what to include is perhaps rather like an artist deciding on what work to present in a solo show. How do you curate the space? It’s exciting to see what relationships and narratives emerge when you place various, contrasting pieces alongside one another. The results can be quite self-revelatory. 


I always take a long time over creating a recording. There are pragmatic reasons for this; firstly, release schedules are generally planned well in advance, so labels prefer proposals which build in a reasonable lead-in time. Secondly, my experience of making records is that funding often happens in dribs and drabs. At Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, where I teach, there is a fund I can apply to but the amounts are not vast; certainly not enough for a whole disc. But if you stagger things over three or four years, then gradually something emerges bit by bit. That’s the reason why one of the first recordings on my new album, For Frederic Lagnau, dates from 2014. That was really the start of this whole journey. 


My debut NMC solo album, Bartlebooth, came out in 2008. It was a very important chance for me to bring together a number of key pieces that, up to that point, presented a broad and representative range of my work. Elsewhereness comes ten years later just as I turn 50. In programming this album, I thought carefully about what to include, focussing on works from recent years, including those that might point to future avenues. All the pieces come from more or less the last decade, and what binds them all together is a celebration of creative relationships and friendships. 


BartleboothThe album feels very personal to me. Even the cover is personal; it’s a wonderful photo taken by my brother-in-law Chris Redgrave near where we used to live in Oxfordshire. The image is of a tumble-down-barn set within flat fields which expand outwardly towards a deep, expansive horizon. I feel it captured a sense of ‘elsewhereness’ perfectly. 


The title track, Elsewhereness, was written for Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s Royal Gala Opening of the new concert hall, and was my first large orchestral piece in over a decade. Having worked at the Conservatoire since 2000, the context of writing this piece felt very close to me. Having quite a long time to compose it offered the chance to really reflect on the impermanence of the cities we construct, and simultaneously think about how to personalise my orchestral “sound”. Whilst my relationship with Royal Birmingham Conservatoire goes back a long way, the piece also presented an opportunity to work with the remarkable Lithuanian conductor, Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla.


McNulty for piano trio was a commission from the Fidelio Trio and is also a very recent piece, written in 2016. I’ve known the members of the Fidelio Trio for nearly 20 years, and have worked extensively with the trio collectively and individually. Two members of the group are Irish and I’ve spent quite a lot of time with them in Ireland so I wanted to draw upon that experience. I grew up in a very Irish part of London, have a bit of Irish ancestry, and played fiddle in a band in an Irish pub in Warsaw in the mid-1990s. In McNulty I wanted to create a piece that celebrates a kind of faux-traditional music.


For Frederic Lagnau was a commission for Workers Union Ensemble, and is scored for saxophone, oboe, vibraphone, percussion, piano and double bass. The piece was written in memory of Frederic Lagnau, a French minimalist and complete original. I met Frederic at Darmstadt in 1992. We were both outsiders there, and got on immediately. The piece consists of five short “miniatures” which run continuously from one another, creating a larger whole.


Soprano Sarah Leonard is someone I have worked with regularly since 2002. So much of what I’ve learnt about writing for voice and setting texts has been through her. Akhmatova Fragments is scored for soprano and 11 solo strings, setting short poems by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova that deal with themes of love, regret, sleeplessness and ageing. I was particularly keen to include these pieces on the album as they have been “resting” for the last 10 years. I’m fond of the structure, the way the first four movements are very brief, concise and self-contained, whilst the final movement is much longer, unravelling in a completely different way.


ElsewherenessSikorski B was written for Noszferatu, a collective I co-founded with three close friends in 2000 (Finn Peters on sax, Ivo de Greef on piano and Dave Price on percussion). The group has been of great importance to me, offering a chance to explore the spaces between genres that I’m drawn to. The title is an homage to Tomasz Sikorski, a Polish composer who, in the words of composer Stephen Montague, used minimalism to “bludgeon rather that to entertain”. I encountered his music whilst a student in Warsaw and was drawn to the relationship between uncompromising structures and emotional intensity. My piece is also a slight foray into the incorporation of improvisation within fixed musical structures, something that is developed in the album’s final piece.


Karembeu’s Guide to the Complete Defensive Midfielder was a commission from the 2015 Cheltenham Festival and was written for Trish Clowes’ Emulsion Sinfonietta, an ensemble that was set up to go beyond defined boundaries of genre. The piece builds on my work with Noszferatu, allowing saxophonist Iain Ballamy and percussionist Tim Giles a free space to navigate through tightly constructed musical sections. The title alludes to football formations, where similar relationships between improvisation and structure exist. Working with Trish and her ensemble has certainly led me onto new ground, and I’ll be writing a substantial piece for her and the BBC Concert Orchestra for autumn 2019. Everything is work in progress really! 

 

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!

Feature

In this NMC Archive blog, Helen, flautist from the Marsyas Trio, tells us about their album, In the Theatre of Air, which was released in October 2018. 


Marsyas TrioIn the summer of 2015 we had the pleasure of meeting Welsh-born composer Hilary Tann. We were planning our next commission and invited her to lunch. At that time the Marsyas Trio had been performing Hilary’s Gardens of Anna Maria Luisa de Medici. I love her style, which seems to fuse a French aesthetic with an obvious passion for the Japanese Shakuhachi flute. As we gradually overcame the shyness one feels when meeting a composer for the first time, we bounced ideas back and forth. We had recently witnessed the awe-inspiring spectacle of the murmuration of starlings off the Brighton pier. Hilary loved it. Her music is full of musical visualisations. This was the beginning of a journey which has culminated in the release of this album, aptly named In the Theatre of Air. We can only thank the NMC team for their endless support and hard work. 


Breathing life into a new piece takes multiple performances, numerous sessions with the composer, and deep-diving into the composer’s other work, to fully appreciate what’s been written on the page. And then a recording to ensure the piece lives on and is played by others. 


Since its beginnings almost a decade ago, the Marsyas Trio has championed music by women composers. Our repertoire is full of hidden gems. It seemed only natural to celebrate the Suffrage Centenary with an album by living British women composers. In the early days of the Trio, we put forward programme after programme to concert promoters…“The Great Gender Divide”, “Why No Women Mozarts”… It’s really exciting that so many people are now as enthused about women composers as we are.


100 years ago this album would never have been possible. Now the sky is the limit. Which composers could we include that would represent how far we have come in the last 100 years? How could we represent multiple generations and the vast diversity in musical styles that we have today – with a balance between breaking new ground and touching the soul? 


It’s an immense privilege for the Marsyas Trio to have been able to include the awesome line-up on this album. Judith Weir, the first woman to become Master of the Queen’s Music, a prolific composer whose music is inspirational and multi-dimensional. Our scoop came one Friday evening when I was at home trawling the internet. Judith’s Several Concertos had never been recorded! Or had it? I wrote to her. Indeed there existed no commercial recording. I couldn’t believe it. Here was our opportunity to share something striking and new. Recording is still hugely relevant. And powerful. We now have the ability to reach a global audience via the internet. 


We then discovered the short, poetic piece, Canta, Canta!, by Thea Musgrave and wrote to ask her permission to make a version for alto flute. I love the alto flute. It has the depth of sonority of the bigger wind instruments whilst retaining the lyricism and expression of the voice. This piece translated beautifully from the original for clarinet. In 2018 Thea celebrated her 90th birthday and was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Music. We had to laugh when we saw Judith Weir had photo-bombed the image of Thea with the Queen, accepting her award! (see the image here)


Alongside these icons of British music, we wanted to represent voices of our own generation. Georgia Rodgers is undoubtedly a unique figure in today’s composing scene. A scientist and acoustician, she has a feel for finding unconventional beauty in sound via a scientific approach. We premiered her piece York Minster at our album launch concert, a piece that explores the acoustic properties of that building, designed with deliberately ‘out of tune’ notes that create a mesmerising experience in colour. 


Finally, Laura Bowler’s work Salutem completes the British line-up. We had commissioned this as a theatre work in 2014. It is a nod to George Crumb’s ground-breaking work Vox Balaenae, and extends on his language and concept to bring us into the Modern Age. Laura is a fearless composer who stretches the boundaries beyond anything I could have imagined. This piece was the biggest challenge for us in the recording studio, demanding that our engineers pull out all the stops in order to realise the ambitious, transformational quality of this work. We performed this with its original Shadow Puppetry at the launch with the fantastic Smoking Apples company. 


To round off the album, we agreed with Eleanor Wilson, NMC’s General Manager, to include a bonus track of a gorgeous short piece by Amy Beach, written a year after American women got the right to vote. Beach was an incredible talent who fought to break social and cultural norms in order to pursue her career. One can’t help but reflect on the juxtaposition of her life and struggle with that of her modern British female counterparts on this album. 


In The Theatre of AirThere is no other ensemble in the UK doing what we are doing – flute, cello and piano trio is not your standard Piano Trio. This ensemble dates back to Clementi and Haydn, yet in the early days we would side-step exclamations of “A Piano Trio with FLUTE??” In our own way, we are trying to break moulds. The Trio’s name reflects the heroic stand of Marsyas against the higher deity Apollo.

 

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!

News

In this week's NMC Archive blog composer Colin Riley tells us about his compositional process. His first album on NMC, Shenanigans, was released in 2017. 


Colin RileyWry, Fond, Understated and Slightly Bonkers


The primary drive to create, at least for me, is to put some bit of myself out into the world. This might be into the air of a concert space, into the fingers or breath of a performer, or into the ear and brain of a listener. 


The music that I create therefore partly takes into account these spaces, fingers, breaths, ears and brains during its formation. But my compositional process is also fired by something else. It is cajoled along out of a desire to make something for me; music that is constructed and sounds the way I wish it to be. This is probably what I would describe as the inward (perhaps almost selfish) drive, where your own fascinations are explored.


As a composer it is very important to keep hold of these guiding fascinations (because they are after all, what is pumping the creativity), but we must also listen to the outward (listener-facing) drive at the same time. So, I find myself balancing fundamental technical questions about forming ‘the music I want to hear’ with pragmatic ones; is this passage appropriate for the instrument? Will this particular approach excite or deflate the performer? What will the listener specifically get from this musical moment on a single listen? Does the overall piece create the impact I intend? In the heat of creative battle, when you are pulling together lots of bits of paper, lists of ideas, drawings, audio recordings on the phone, half-remembered ideas in your head, and clumsy fumbles on the piano, keeping the balance is sometimes difficult. 


So a piece of music gets completed. If we’re lucky it gets rehearsed and there is a performance in front of an audience.


All creators are interested in some kind of reaction to their work and this takes many forms. At a performance, the level of applause is obviously a direct indicator. Equally it is always lovely to have feedback from your performers. If you’re fortunate enough to get a review, this takes reaction to an even higher and more dangerous level. Potentially people will read a review and base their assumptions about you not on music they have actually heard, but on what has been filtered by a single person. If it goes badly (and a reviewer has an axe to grind) then your personal feelings can be severely damaged. If it goes well, it creates a slightly unreal sense of hype; something which, after the struggles of composing, seems bizarre and potentially out of place. Either way, as composers we have to take the rough with the smooth and use the good reviews as some kind of official validation of worth, however selective we may be in this. The review that all composers prize most is one that is intelligent, addresses the musical content and understands where you’re coming from. I was lucky enough to receive such a review in the Guardian. Thank you Kate Molleson! 


It’s hard to describe your own music, but I thank Kate for making a very good stab at this on my behalf. The music of my latest release Shenanigans was described as ‘taut’, ‘wonky’ and ‘endearing’ and this is, of course, very complimentary. What I was most warmed by was a clear recognition of the contradictions between seriousness and play (something I value similarly in my favourite comedy) and between the collisions of musical aesthetics in my music. These two things have probably driven my composing more than any other over the last twenty years. 


As well as my thanks to Kate Molleson for understanding me, and to NMC for trusting me, my thanks also goes to all the spaces the music was conceived and recorded in, the fingers and breaths of the wonderful performers on Shenanigans, and to the ears and brains of all those out there who might come across my music.

Colin Riley Shenanigans

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!

 

 

Feature

On this week's Archive Blog, Elaine Gould, NMC Supporter, Senior New Music Editor at Faber Music Ltd, and author of Behind Bars, The Definitive Guide to Music Notation, tells us about all the steps she takes to transform a manuscript into performable scores and parts.

 

A few years back I received a message from an eminent player: 'The composer tells me he's finished his piece today. Could you post me the solo part 1st class so I can have it to practise tomorrow?'

 

The player should have known better. When the composer finishes their piece, that's when the  editor's work begins. We oversee the life of the piece from manuscript to first performance, through any revisions – the composer may have some second thoughts after hearing it – to its final form.

 

I never tire of the thrilling moment I set eyes on a new piece – am I looking at the next masterpiece? The editor is privileged to be often the first pair of fresh eyes to look over what the composer has written.

 

Most pieces now arrive as Sibelius files although some are still hand-written manuscripts. We read the score as if conducting or playing it ourselves for the first time, checking that what's on the page makes sense – most of the time scores are very accurate – and it is what we think the composer intends. A score is a set of instructions and these need to be crystal clear. An editor is looking for what might be missing: will the performers need further instructions? Often it's a case of adding more information.

 

I'm hot on practicalities: is the writing fit for purpose? A piece for an amateur choir, for instance, must be of an appropriate level of difficulty so that there's a realistic chance of a decent rendering: I will sing through each line in my head to check there are not streams of intervals too tricky to pitch.

 

Barry Guy Score

 

In an instrumental piece we check parts don't disappear over a page turn, or lines move instrument mid-phrase. It's worth noticing at this stage if a 2nd harp part suddenly appears on page 98 when not on the commission brief (ensembles will be reluctant to pay for extra players not budgeted for); that pitches are not written inadvertently out of range, or super-human technical difficulties such as impossible stretches left in. Asking percussionists to dash around the platform playing a number of large instruments is very impressive to watch – but no composer wants to have their piece remembered for that reason!

 

We plan what materials the piece needs for performance: A piece with voices or an instrumental soloist may need a piano reduction of the instrumental parts for rehearsal purposes.

 

How will each individual copy look? What size does the music need to be in the conditions it's to be played in? Where is there time to turn a page? On one occasion a composer was surprisingly resistant to my plea 'the violinist is playing non-stop for 14 minutes: please could we add more than one crotchet rest so he can turn the page?'

 

Our job is to ensure the player has any other information he needs to play his part, since he may not have reference to a score. He'll need to know where to enter after rest periods, so entry cues from other players are very important. Choosing the appropriate cue is quite a skill.

 

Once the editor has marked up a hard copy of the score, a music typesetter sets about tidying or reformatting it and then extracting instrumental parts. Publishers tend to have a small team of treasured experts who do this painstaking work. Proofs go back and forth from typesetter to editor until the score and parts are formatted for purpose and looking good.

 

In between times, each instrumental part is checked meticulously against the score by the editor or a proofreader, and any further anticipated problems or discrepancies sort outed. Our duty is to save musicians from wasting their time. Problems not addressed in advance irritate the musicians and take up valuable rehearsal time to sort out. When I talk to organisers about 'workshops of new works' invariable everyone remembers the half an hour sorting out some finer point rather than the qualities of the new piece – which is a great shame.

 

How music looks on the page is terribly important. Sometimes a composer is carried away with the beauty of the score, adding layers of complexity that look frightfully impressive. Are these really necessary? How will they come off the page in performance? Is it realistic for the musician to absorb masses of detail while following the conductor (or other players) and  trying to project the musical line across to the audience? Is there too much distraction in the notation that's likely to stifle his musicianship? Whilst the editor ensures the musician has sufficient notation in the copy, these questions are of equal concern. It's a fine balance.

 

Complexity on the page doesn't necessarily mean a piece sounds complex. A simple idea may require copious instructions, a complex musical structure may look almost bland on the page. A composer needn't feel any pressure to make the page look erudite. Masterpieces come in many forms and we look forward to discovering them!

 

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!

Feature

This week on our blog, meet NMC Trustee Stephen Johns, who's been on our board for seven years.

 

Stephen JohnsI’ve been lucky to have grown up with music – I was a chorister at my local Cathedral in Llandaff, then played the organ and ran a church choir while still at school. I first became fascinated by the technique of making recordings when I was at University, where our Chapel Choir recorded a number of albums. I began my career working at Abbey Road Studios, and have been involved in making records ever since. My first discovery of NMC was when I was asked to produce the recordings of Robert Saxton (A Yardstick to the Stars) and Philip Cashian (Dark Inventions). Having worked full-time for a major record company, who had necessarily to work to commercial imperatives, it was really interesting to become a Trustee of a record company that existed as a charity. The mission to record, and make permanently available, important music that would not otherwise be represented seemed to me to be a vital part of our cultural life. I was always moved by Simon Rattle’s sentiments that if we don’t keep writing new music we have no right to play music only from the past.

 

Being a Trustee is both challenging and highly rewarding. I am constantly having to encounter music that I might otherwise not be exposed to. The variety of what we hear – and sadly we can’t release everything we might like to – is surprising. I find the music not always easy to approach or understand – I think it’s important for us all to admit this! But I find the more I listen, the easier I find it to evaluate the skill and musicality of a composer’s work, even if the idiom is not immediately attractive. 

 

In addition to my continuing freelance work as a record producer, I am Artistic Director at the Royal College of Music. Here we have a vibrant composing faculty, across all idioms, and students keen to play new music. It’s really refreshing to see them engage so enthusiastically with all forms of music, and the NMC catalogue is a part of the rich resources available, encouraging them to enquire and experiment.

 

Being a Trustee forces me to realise all our responsibilities for supporting the creation of new music. I hope we are providing a platform and a voice for composers whose work otherwise might not be heard, or heard only once. Great music demands frequent listening, and recordings enable time for reflection and repeated consideration – not always possible in a concert hall. It is great to share being a Trustee with others from a range of backgrounds and enthusiasms – I think together we try and bring our own specialities to support the wonderful enterprise that is NMC.

 

Outside the RCM and NMC, I enjoy outside activities, including golf (poorly!), cycling and walking. The picture is of recent hiking in the Canadian Rockies, amidst the smoke from the forest fires…

 

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.

News

As we reach the end of our anniversary year, we look to the future. Our pledge is to continue to support new music, build a catalogue that celebrates and fully reflects talent across modern Britain, and develop our education programmes. Find out more below ...

 

 

Inclusivity

Where we are now:

Our complete catalogue   

             In the last 5 years
Men/women        men/women2


Target

Anniversary Target

We pledge to take steps to ensure our future recording programme is more representative across gender and race. Recent analysis highlighted that 90% of proposals we were receiving were from men, so we have taken steps to redress the balance by promoting our opportunities more broadly, and have set a target that at least 50% of new releases from 2020 will feature composers who identify as women. Alongside this we have made a commitment to double the number of BAME composers in the catalogue (currently 19) by 2022.

 

 

 

educationEducation

In 2017, we launched a series of education resources to assist the development of emerging talent and to inspire an interest in, and appreciation of, new music in younger audiences. These resources include: r:strng, our free app featuring Kate Whitley's music and allowing students from KS3 & KS4 to create their own remixes; GCSE Dance, a free teaching resource developed in partnership with Rambert Dance Company and including guidance notes for teachers as well as a free download album; the NMC Music Map, our free interactive tool to explore, see, and hear the connections between composers; and GCSE Composition, which takes works from the NMC catalogue as a starting point for practical lessons and student exercises in Rhinegold Education's innovative Online Music Classroom. 

 

In 2019, we were delighted to partner with London Music Masters, to deliver Many Voices, a set of ten new violin pieces for children for those currently learning at around ABRSM Grades 2 – 5, which was distributed to LMM’s learning programme of over 1,000 children, as part of their 10th anniversary celebrations and NMC’s 30th anniversary. 

In a time where we are seeing cuts to both music education and our relations with other cultures, the creation of Many Voices seems more admirable and important than ever.” – Joanna Lee

 

In March 2019, NMC worked with Chineke! Foundation and Tower Hamlets Arts and Music Education Service to devise and deliver 3 days of creative music-making workshops for 40 pupils aged 11-14 from Swanlea School in Whitechapel. 

The project was linked to a forthcoming album of works by Black and Minority Ethnic composers performed by Chineke! Orchestra on NMC, and we were thrilled to have composer Errollyn Wallen lead the project along with five musicians from the orchestra. The participants were introduced to the working life of an orchestra by Chineke! Learning Manager Ishani O’Connor, as well as learning about what it is like to be a professional musician and what being a composer means.

My favourite part was when everyone was gathering together to put all their pieces together. It made a really shocking and wonderful performance, [it was] very creative for all of us.” – Swanlea School Participant

 

Errollyn at Swanlea SchoolPianist at Swanlea School

 

For our Anniversary year, we pledge to continue to develop our education programme, with projects in partnership with Chineke! Foundation as well as schools across London already in preparation for 2020.

 

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