How can competitions support new music?

Competitions that include new music are not unusual. However, the Trinity Laban John Halford Piano and Composition Competition is unique. In no other UK conservatoire do piano students collaborate with composition students to write them a piece for performance within a 20-minute programme of contemporary works of the pianists’ own choice; prizes are awarded to composers and pianists independently of duos formed. Clare Simmonds talks to this year’s winners alongside the current organisers Douglas Finch (piano) and Dominic Murcott (composition), to discover what makes the event special, ahead of the Prizewinning Recital at Borough New Music on Tuesday 31 October 2017. 

(c) Kevin Dooley
Piano Strings, Credit: Kevin Dooley

DOMINIC MURCOTT – Head of Composition, Trinity Laban

CS: What are the joys of this competition, in your view?

DM: Well, first, anyone who enters gets a performance. For me, the tradition of a lot of classical music competitions (the most heinous being the orchestral competitions) is problematic: you pay £25 and you send in the piece that has taken you two years to write, and then they let you know if you’ve won or not. The world must have a lot of garages containing folders of unplayed pieces! I always think this is a disappointing way of running a competition. The joy of this one is that anyone who enters actually works with the pianist and gets their work played.

The other great thing about it is that it demands a relationship with the pianist. In professional life, especially as you get into orchestral writing, that relationship with a performer disappears, and it all becomes narcissistic, about the composer’s own experience. The nice thing about this is that to do it well, you have to build a relationship with the player. You can’t help but benefit from that. Whether you win or not, it doesn’t matter: you’ve developed this relationship, you’ve had a piece played, and you’ve learnt not only about yourself as a composer but about the performer as well.

CS: Any negative aspects?

DM: Well, you know, writing music is hard. Some people find writing music easy, but I know some very successful composers who find it hard. So for the (generally) young people who enter this competition, it’s challenging! They’re self-critical, they feel under pressure from all quarters, and so there’s just that emotional challenge of creating something and then putting yourself up for critique.

Competitions are weird things – they’re not true. It’s rather like the issue of marking, which is something we’ve been doing a lot of work on at TL recently. You know, marking isn’t ‘true’, it’s a considered opinion that has gone through a process. Maybe if you get enough marking by enough different people, you could approach something that could feel like truth, but a single exam is not truth, and a single competition is absolutely not truth because it’s someone’s opinion. The prize will go to the piece that the adjudicator likes, and that’s fine, as long as people can separate personal sleight from just the fact that someone liked someone else’s music more than yours because it fitted their own model more than yours did.

CS: Is it a challenge to compose for the piano?

DM: We could imagine a time where anyone who studied composition at a conservatoire had to be a fine pianist. Arguably it would be a nice place to go back to. But the truth is, today, our composers are hardly pianists at all. I’m certainly not! Writing for the piano when you’re not a pianist is really hard. It is actually a mystery instrument. So yes, it is a real challenge. If you write for the harp, you know, composers get away with writing great ideas but using terrible technique – it’s almost accepted that hardly any one writes well for the harp! Whereas with the piano, there’s an expectation of doing it well, pianistically. So it’s easy to forget how hard it is to write for the piano.

DOUGLAS FINCH – Professor of Piano and Composition, Trinity Laban

CS: Why is this competition special?

DF: Well, almost every year, the adjudicator comments that it’s fantastic, because it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the UK. It is unique. It has been held every year for at least 15 years, and in that time, we’ve never cancelled one – there has always been enough people to do it! Plus, it’s open to the public to come and listen.

CS: Why do pianists benefit from it?

DF: The most important thing is that pianists learn a new piece that has been written by someone they actually know – which a lot of them haven’t done before.

In some cases, they have very fruitful discussions, in terms of what comes out of that piece. Last year, for instance, a student’s piece went through all sorts of changes, not only with me [as their teacher], but with others… things we thought didn’t work at all, and we got the composer in and discussed it, and tried out all sorts of different things….

I think it’s also a chance for them to think about what other repertoire in 20th and 21st century would work alongside their new piece. You know, in other competitions, the contemporary piece can be a bit of a ‘token’. Often in those situations, everyone has to learn a contemporary piece, but no one has a real relationship with the composer, they just have to fit it in somehow with all their other repertoire. Whereas in this case, the pianist has a commitment to the composer. For instance, one of my students really didn’t like contemporary music, so she found a fairly conventional programme that sort of fitted the bill – what I call ‘easy listening’. And when it came to the piece written for her, we had a real conflict about it! I had to say “you’ve committed to it, so you’ve got to go through with it”. Despite pulling teeth and all that, it came off so well that the piece won the composition prize! My student suddenly realised that actually this wasn’t a bad piece, and it had made an effect. It was a revelation for her.

From the point of view of the composer, I think a lot of them haven’t written a piano piece before, or have never had one performed, and it’s really a chance to encapsulate their imaginative process. It can certainly have more immediacy than an orchestral work that won’t be performed soon or some other complex thing that won’t be fully realised.

CS: As a piano teacher, do you notice that the event makes a difference to your students’ outlook?

DF: Students often come to me saying that their colleagues ask, “Why are you playing all this contemporary music? It’s not going to get you anywhere, and you’ll be penalised in your exam if you play all this weird stuff”. Those myths still exist! The more of them that get involved in this, the more those prejudices disappear. Trinity Laban’s CoLab projects help with this too.

CS: Is it good that it’s a competition not a concert? Why compete?

DF: Like any competition, the competitive element is not the ‘be all and end all’. It allows students to get some feedback [all participants receive written comments from the adjudicator]. The competitive aspect gives them that extra bit of motivation I think. Of course, we try to put on concerts too – we have a contemporary festival every June. It’s just another forum.

JOE HOWSON won the pianists’ prize for a programme that included a new work by Harry Palmer, plus works by Sorabji and Adès.

CS: How did you meet your composer, Harry Palmer? Did you know him beforehand?

JH: Well, I sought him out, because last year he won the [TL] Gold Medal. I was just the first to get in before a million other pianists asked! We were in the same year at TL, so I did know him beforehand.

CS: What happened? How did it work?

JH: I asked him to write me a piece, he came with something, we worked on it together and made a few changes. It was nice and collaborative. We didn’t take it to anyone else!

CS: How did you choose the rest of your programme? Did it have any bearing on the piece written for you?

JH: Yes it did, actually. I wanted to frame it, with a traditional slow piece in the middle – ie fast, slow, fast – classical with a contemporary twist. So my programme included two pieces in very different styles that I really enjoy working on, and I thought that was a nice variety.

CS: How did you feel when you won?

JH: Incredibly surprised! Very happy.

CS: You compose yourself don’t you? Does that make you change your view of composers?

JH: I’ve started trying to compose, but it’s painstakingly slow. Yes, once you have a go for yourself, you understand how intricate the whole process is. More than anything, it makes you feel grateful that someone has taken the time to write a piece for you!

CS: Do you think the process of working with a composer is something you’ll do again?

JH: Yes! In fact, I’m doing it now. I’m currently recording another piece by a student composer at the Royal College of Music. The course that I’m on now is very intertwined with the composition department, so I’m hoping to collaborate a lot more.

MIKE WORBOYS won the composition prize for ‘Bone Memories’ performed by Ieva Dubova. [Hear this on Youtube.]

CS: How did you meet your pianist?

MW: It was through another student who was a friend of Ieva’s, who said that Ieva was looking for a composer to write a piece for the competition, and so I basically said “Yeah I’ll do that, it would be good fun!”.

CS: How did you feel about the collaboration? Was it a new experience?

MW: I always like working with a performer. That to me is the perfect way of composing. I don’t really believe in the idea of the composer going away into another world and coming up with something and then delivering it to the performer, although that does happen, of course. I’d much rather work with the performer to develop something that we’re both happy with. That’s my preferred way of working.

CS: How long did you have between the first meeting and the finished piece?

MW: I did it in drafts. I collaborated with Ieva. I came up with a first draft I think in a matter of two weeks of something. We went through it, and she made some suggestions as to what might make it more effective. She did quite a lot of stuff about pedalling, and then we did another draft. I think we did three drafts altogether, so it really was a collaborative process. (Incidentally, to clarify further the Borough New Music interview about this piece on Resonance FM, I’d like to emphasise that ‘Bone Memories’ isn’t a gloomy piece! It’s just about resonance and sound – that’s it.)

CS: Have you written for piano before?

MW: My instrument is piano. Not that I’m a professional pianist, but I’ve played the piano since I was about nine. When I was in my teens, I wrote quite a bit for the piano, but this was the first piece I’d written in the last ten years for the piano.

CS: Do you think you’d do this again in future?

MW: Definitely. I’ve finished at Trinity Laban and have just started a PhD at Durham. There are already some opportunities here – I’m looking forward to working with a variety of performers.

The adjudicator for 2017’s competition, Ian Pace, awarded Mike Worboys the composition prize, and Joe Howson the pianist prize. This prize is the legacy of distinguished composer and teacher at TL (formerly Trinity College of Music), John Halford. Ian Pace also commended the pianists Marisa Muñoz Lopez, Chen Zhang and Mahsa Salali, and the composer Rotem Sherman.

On Tuesday 31 October 2017 at 1pm, these participants will perform in the 2017 Trinity Laban John Halford Competition Prizewinning Recital at St George the Martyr Church SE1 1JA as part of Borough New Music Series 2 (free admission with light refreshments afterwards). The programme is: 

  • Harry Palmer – Birthday Song for Erwin (2017) played by Joe Howson
  • Kaikhosru Sorabji (1892-1988) – Transcendental Etude 20 ‘con fantasia’ (1944) played by Joe Howson
  • Thomas Adès (b. 1971) – Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face (2009) (movements I & IV) played by Joe Howson
  • Michael Worboys (winning composer) – Bone Memories (2017) played by Ieva Dubova
  • Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938) – Piano Piece IV (1977) played by Mahsa Salali
  • Rotem Sherman (commended composer) – Home (2017) played by Rotem Sherman
  • Toby Ingram – Into the Unknown (2017) played by Marisa Muñoz Lopez
  • Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) – Praludien zu Tristan (2003) played by Neus Peris Ferrer

Footnote: Over the decades in which this competition has been running, a huge range of different works has emerged. If you remember or were involved in one, please comment below. Here are two examples to set the ball rolling…

How can folk music be new music?

“English folk music is where some of the most interesting cross-genre collaborations are happening.” Few musicians like giving music labels, but then again, few associate folk music with cutting-edge avant-garde. The multi-talented folk fiddler Elisabeth Flett talks about making new folk music with Solasta Band, ahead of Solasta’s appearance at Borough New Music on Tuesday 10 October 2017. Interview by Clare Simmonds

Solasta Band: Jamie Leeming (guitar), Essa Flett (fiddle), Hannah Thomas (cello)

CS: Give us a little background about Solasta, and your role as a composer and performer in it.

EF: Solasta means ‘brightly shining’ in Gaelic. We came together because of a fiddle championship at Cecil Sharp House in 2015 that I’d decided to go for. It said that you were allowed to bring along a band, and it occurred to me that I could bring Hannah (whom I’d met at Folkworks in 2014) and Jamie (whom I’d worked with on a couple of projects), to make a fiddle, cello and guitar trio, which is a relatively unusual line-up. And we won, which was great! The prize was to play at the fiddle convention the next year (2016), so we knew we had a gig in a year’s time, and we had a year to make up some repertoire! We decided (a wild guess, but it paid off) that a sure fire way to make ourselves generate more material was to record an EP. So after a couple of weeks of frantic rehearsals and getting to know each other as quickly as possible, we went into the recording studio, and then had enough material to start gigging. By that point we realised that we enjoyed performing with each other, so by the 2016 fiddle convention, we’d actually started gigging together seriously as a band!

CS: Would you say you’re a composer as well as a performer?

EF: Yes. I studied composition and viola at the Junior Conservatoire of the Royal Scottish Conservatoire (RSC) from 2006 to 2010. So I had the opportunity to learn classical composition, and from that I’ve continued to write lots of different kinds of music, but I’d say most of the time now I’m writing folk music.

Solasta is one of many things I compose for. The band is very special in that the way that we work is that we all bring tunes to the table. Every now and then we think, ‘OK, we’ve played these sets for a while, it’s time to generate more material’. At which point, we’ll all go away, and we’ll look for tunes in books, or we’ll compose tunes ourselves, and then when we think we’ve got a good tune, we’ll say, ‘What do you think of this one?’ It could be one that we’ve written, or one that we’ve found, and if we all like it, then we do an arrangement of it. [Hear Solasta’s ‘5/8 Set’ on Youtube.]

What surprises some people is that our arrangements are rarely written down. They’re all in our heads. We’ll do voice recordings or write out ‘cheat sheets’ of what parts we’re doing. Generally, although we offer opinions on each other’s parts, it’s kind of  ‘each to their own’. We focus on our own parts. First of all, we decide who’s going to play the tune. That person just loops the tune around, and the others try out various different things until they find something that sounds good. Once we’ve got that nugget – the tune – we work out what our intro and outro is going to be. For example, if someone’s doing something for two bars in the second half that might work well as an intro, what chords could we put in under that? It’s very natural, the arrangements grow of their own accord.

CS: Folk is often seen as a traditional genre, rooted in customs that have been with us for centuries (even if recently rediscovered). How would you respond to that in what you’re doing with Solasta?

EF: Folk is a continually changing genre. It has never stayed still. Folk music is the music that is being played by the folk. It’s impossible to define. I’ve written a couple of theses on this and have tied myself in knots trying to define folk music. Who are ‘the folk’? Does traditional folk music stop being traditional after a certain date and start being new folk music? It’s a minefield.

But I would say that there are two different categories of new folk music. You can say that folk music is old material that is being reinvented. That’s happening all the time. The moment you put your idea of what a good chord is underneath a tune from the 1700s, it has been reinvented and it’s new. So there’s that way of looking at it. And then there’s the other way of looking at it, which Solasta and I (as a solo performing artist) are very excited and interested in, which is making your own new folk material. There’s a lot of very exciting artists doing this at the moment. Musicians who are definitely folk artists, like Eliza Carthy and Karine Polwart – they’re definitely composing in the folk genre, and I’d say it was folk music, but it’s new.

CS: What would say is new in the music that you play? Can you identify what makes it ‘new’ and ‘folk’?

EF: That’s one of the age-old questions! There are a lot of things that make folk music sound like folk music. The moment you get into Dorian mode, it’s going to sound folky, flat sevenths are a clear indicator … I’m a folk fiddler, so anything I touch, even by accident, sounds folky. I was taught by an Aberdeen fiddler who showed me all the different cuts and ornaments that an Aberdeenshire Scottish folk fiddler would put into music. I learnt all of them, and now it’s as automatic as breathing – if you give me a tune, I’ll put them in. James Scott Skinner famously said, “the music on the page is just a skeleton of the piece”, and that’s very much the way in folk music. So if you give me a tune, I’ll put in all the turns, cuts, and (in classical music language) acciacaturas and appoggiaturas, which I automatically put into anything because of my folky background, and that gives it the folky feel. Ornamentation is a large part of it. [As an example, listen to Solasta’s ‘Cowslip Set’ on Youtube.]

It’s new in that we’re writing the material from scratch, and sound-wise, there aren’t many young bands where the classical, folk and jazz influences are put together. So the mix of genres is quite unusual as well.

CS: How does the performance of folk differ from the performance of contemporary music, and how is it similar? Contemporary music has a fascination with sound and texture, and I wondered if there were any similarities with folk there.

EF: We do try to have lots of different textures. Many up-and-coming young bands have quite a monotextural sound – they’ve tapped into what kind of sound appeals to people, and fair to them, they’re sticking with it, and that makes them very successful. Whereas, possibly because all three of us have degrees in classical music from conservatoires, we’re coming at it from a more multitextural point of view, with the aim of making complex music which verges on art music rather than…. You know, there’s this understanding in non-folk music circles that folk music is primarily to dance to, especially in England (I think we’ve moved away from it a bit in Scotland). So we quite enjoy turning that on its head and saying – ‘Ha! Try dancing to this!’

CS: That was going to be my next question – how does dance influence your music? So you like to challenge the listener…

EF: We do, though we also pride ourselves on being a band where – although there is that artistically complex feel to our music – if you fancy jumping up and having a hoolie at one of our gigs, that’s also very much written into our sound as a group! We try to make our sets as driving and exciting as possible.

CS: Do you think about dance when you’re writing material?

EF: I personally don’t. The nature of folk music quite often means that it’s driving and that it makes you want to dance. As I just mentioned, we quite often have spontaneous dances at our gigs – people come up and have a boogie! But playing for dancing – it’s definitely a separate part of my brain. Tunes that I’d play for a folk gig and tunes that I’d play for a ceilidh are completely different sets of repertoire for me. It does depend on the gig, though – if the band’s function at a gig is to be an exciting alternative to a string quartet, we could tap into the sets that are more experimental, classical. But if we play on a big stage, supporting a huge folk act, and people have come for a dance and a party – you have to tailor your repertoire.

CS: How does improvisation contribute to your work?

EF: It contributes a large amount. My personal process is: when we’ve made up a new set, the first couple of times we’ll have the big structure, and I’ll probably improvise and know that I need to end up, for example, on a B to get into the next section, and it’s mapped out like that. And gradually, I firm up what I’m doing, so by about gig 6 or 7, I settle on something that I’m really happy with, and I’ll pull it around a bit, but I’ll stay with that.

Whereas Jamie (our guitarist), I know for a fact, does something entirely different! It took me along time to get used to it. As a jazz musician, he plays something completely different every single time.

CS: How do you work with that?

EF: It’s tricky! On the EP he plays a run [a scale] as the cue for me, and he did that run once, on the EP. Then we worked on the EP more – editing, producing, listening to the recording for publicity – and now I know that EP inside out. But when we play that set live, there’s a part of me that is always expecting that particular run to bring me in, and yet I know it’s never going to happen again! He only did it once. So I’ve just got to remember to count, and not be lazy and listen for the cue, because it was a one-off.  I’d say that folk musicians do improvise, but we improvise around a structure. There’s a bit of push and pull, but generally, once we’ve settled on something that we like, we do stick with it. Having a pure jazz musician in the group, who doesn’t work like that at all, is very exciting!

CS: Why do you think we can all benefit from listening to folk music?

EF: English folk music is where some of the most interesting cross-genre collaborations are happening at the moment. And if you want proof of that, the album by Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band  called Big Machine (February 2017) is a really good place to start for what English folk music sounds like in the 21st century. [Listen to ‘Fade & Fall’ from this album on Youtube.] People sometimes have old-fashioned views of what folk music sounds like – they think that folk singers still sing in the unaccompanied style of Ewan MacColl, for instance – and, whilst what he did was incredibly important, and a crucial building block to what’s happening now, for the large part it’s not what English folk music sounds like any more. In Eliza Carthy’s album, she’s collaborating with a rapper on one track, there’s a lot of influence from Indian music, funk, rock – a real mix of instruments. I think a fusion of styles is where folk music is going. So if you want to listen to exciting new fusion music, even if you’re not necessarily folk-oriented, I would say English folk music is where it’s at, right now!

Solasta – Elisabeth Flett (fiddle), Hannah Thomas (cello), Jamie Leeming (guitar) – are an outstanding folk trio who are fast building a name for themselves on the back of their inventive arrangements, unique sound and exhilarating live performances. Their dynamic interpretations of Celtic-based material are rooted firmly in tradition, whilst incorporating elements from diverse musical worlds including classical, jazz and early music. Their 2016 EP was branded ‘virtuosic, exciting and full in sound’ by Bright Young Folk.

Solasta perform at Borough New Music Series 2 on Tuesday 10 October 2017 at 1pm, at St George the Martyr Church, opposite Borough tube. Free admission with light refreshments afterwards. For more information, visit