Composer Outlook: Robert Percy

The composer Robert Percy was Guest Artistic Director for Series 4 of Borough New Music in January 2018, in which he had four premieres of his music. He talks to Clare Simmonds about being involved as composer, artistic director and performer.


CS: What were your thoughts behind each of your pieces in Series 4 (Beacons II, Touching the Void, Gravity, Chop and Change)?

RP: Each piece was a response to the different players and instruments I’d invited to perform in Series 4.

Chop and Change [for solo piano] was adapted from an earlier piece of mine called Chopsticks. Matthew Schellhorn had already performed this piece and we decided that the piece could be edited. Matthew had expressed an interest in composer–performer collaboration, so we had a back-and-forth about it, reducing it, keeping the best parts, and eventually Chop and Change emerged. Matthew enlightened me about something. I once said to him, regarding a different work, “I’ve got a piece – it won’t be too demanding, it’s sightreadable and everything”, but he questioned this comment. After I’d said it, I realised why and it was a useful insight for me. I wanted a piece that wouldn’t demand too much rehearsal time, being mindful of Matthew’s time constraints, but he felt that this undermined the pleasure, depth and the connection that a performer gets from working on a piece. He said he’d probably disagree with me anyway, because he’d want to make the most of it. I now see how I was underselling the piece.

Gravity was written for classical accordionist Miloš Milivojević, whom I’ve known for years. It’s a piece that features repetition, variation and permutation and is influenced by Morton Feldman’s music (pieces like Piano and String Quartet and Crippled Symmetry). I’ve been interested recently in making short, repetitive pieces that involve a greater element of change than you’d find in those Feldman pieces. The title comes from the film, so it’s actually more to do with zero gravity. There was something about the physicality of Miloš‘s playing that suggested weight and weightlessness (watch the highlights on Youtube.)

In contrast, Touching the Void was written for Carla Rees and Ian Mitchell, neither of whom I’d met. That made a difference for me: I was simply writing for the flute and clarinet as I knew them. Touching the Void is a site-specific, spatial, processional piece and not, particularly, an exploration of instrumental technique – more to do with theatrical movement around the church, and finding textures and ideas that worked together across the ‘void’ of the space. Beacons II had been performed before as Beacons (watch the video on Youtube), but I adapted it by replacing the viola with a clarinet, using a lot of the same ideas, but reordering. There is a very effective calm section that I felt, after hearing it, would balance the form better if it came later, so I made the adjustment. It made me think of something Harrison Birtwistle once referred to as (as far as I remember ) ‘the still centre of a spiralling  universe’, concerning a certain passage in his own music; there’s a moment in his piece Secret Theatre that fits this image.


CS: Did the improvisation with Simon Allen in your 9 January 2018 concert at Borough New Music change your view of performance and composition?

RP: Yes, definitely. Simon and I discussed how the improvisation would be presented, and eventually we settled on including an activity that defined the timespan: the construction of a piece of furniture within the 45-minute performance. To grab something from everyday life was a pleasing, temporal, structuring approach. To relate that to composition, well, any performance of a score involves some degree of interderminacy, because every performer is different, and part of the performer’s modus operandi is to interpret, not just to be a mechanical agent of the piece. With the issue of structuring and the process of composing, you can plan everything or take a line for a walk, so to speak. I’m fairly certain I’ve heard both Harrison Birtwistle and Judith Weir talk about composing being like “driving in the fog and not knowing where the end is until you get there”. I now tend to combine these approaches, maybe getting an idea for the ending first. At one point, several years ago, I was planning my pieces thoroughly with worded descriptions and graphic scores. When it came to actually writing the piece, I found that (and I’ve heard this from others) you can lose interest in the piece because you haven’t left anything to discover as you write it. So I think a more balanced approach is better. It is practical to have a duration in mind, and I like to have a concept and a pallette of ideas, but something has to be left for the moment of composing. This can be compared with improvisation. I was familiar with Simon’s language, his textures and his sonorities (although he always manages to surprise me). So in a way I was still working with something I knew – I had a vague sense of the kind of piece we were going to make, but no way of predicting the details! (Watch the highlights on Youtube.)

CS: How did the space influence you in Series 4?

RP: A space affects the acoustics. The building is part of your instrument. Just as the body of the guitar is the sounding chamber, so the building is too. When writing each of the pieces, I was thinking how they would come across acoustically.

For the 9 January concert, Simon and I visited the church well before, because it was important for him to hear the church and see what kind of acoustic it had. In the event, some of his devices were very quiet and delicate, which gave the performance a special character. In contrast, the accordion [on 23 January] was surprisingly loud in that environment.

The church interior had inspired me to make a piece in which the players move around that space. This became the flute and clarinet piece Touching the Void [on 16 January], for the ‘Islands’ concert. The title is a reference to the distance between the two players — psychologically, sonically, spatially — and also between the players and audience. Having the players come together and walk side-by-side down the aisle was part of that idea, as was the audience participation. Interestingly, the sonic perception of movement wasn’t as effective as I’d anticipated, largely due to the resonance of the interior. When the players moved to the back, the sound was more perceptible than I had expected despite the distance, because the church carried the sound so well. But visually, it worked because the performers disappeared behind the audience and then reemerged. The effectiveness of the theatrical element was very much down to the performers (Ian Mitchell and Lisa Nelsen). If I did it again, I would consider a larger space, or reduce the dynamics to emphasise the sense of distance.

CS: What were the highlights of being composer, performer and artistic director in Series 4?

RP: As a composer, working with musicians and having them play your piece was a delight.

As artist director, stage management and looking after musicians was a challenge – guest musicians have to feel welcome, and (for example) I hadn’t seen Miloš for years, so it was great to catch up, but it made for quite a demanding concert day. In future, a mentoring scheme for guest artistic directors would be good. But I’d always recommend bringing in people you want to work with – it was a fantastic opportunity to once again work with and write for Miloš, Matthew and Simon – very wonderful for me.

As a performer, the first concert on 9 January was a highlight because I hadn’t done anything like that before and, actually, I think that specific activity was a first. Being a performer in that concert was an experience: I was anxious about hamming it up, but once I’d got into it and realised I need to move quickly, the task at hand took over and any self-consciousness evaporated. In fact, as I became aware that this thing was taking longer than expected and I needed to get a move on (it was important to me that I completed the chest of drawers assembly, because this was the principle structuring element), the resulting tension added a dramatic element which the audience picked up on — it was unplanned, but it worked. I used to perform as a jazz guitarist and now I sing with a ukulele in pubs, but assembling a piece of furniture as part of a improvised event is a very different type of experience!

CS: What do you mean by ‘a different type of experience’?

RP: Well, singing with a ukelele feels a world away from working with Simon and from composing for other musicians. It’s like putting a different hat on. But I don’t see these as conflicting and, in fact, it would be interesting to connect them somehow. Actually Simon mentioned he’d be interested in doing something with me with and ukelele/guitar. I need to think about this: he’s not talking about singing songs, he’s talking about extending the vocabulary of the instrument, and I see the two in different categories. There is a tendency to think composers have to have integrity, win the confidence of their audience, like a ‘brand’ to believe in. If you operate in other fields, it might weaken that integrity. Yet composers like Richard Rodney Bennett, William Walton, Max Richter and Nico Muhly have all written for film music as well as concert music. And I think, why not? I’m not doing quite that, but there are plenty of ‘classical’ composers and musicians around who do pop music or jazz gigs. It can broaden your outlook, and there might be cross-fertilisation that you’re not aware of – can make you unique. Because of the economics of being a musician, we should embrace the multi-faceted approaches that are possible by one person.

Robert Percy was the guest artistic director for four concerts at Borough New Music as follows (*=premiere):

Tuesday 9 January 2018, 1pm – “Open plan”
Simon Allen (percussion)
Robert Percy (furniture maker)

Tuesday 16 January 2018, 1pm – “Islands”
Lisa Nelsen (flutes), Ian Mitchell (clarinets), Clare Simmonds (piano)
Robert Percy (b. 1961) – Touching the Void *
Dan Kessner (b. 1946) – Genera
Kenneth Hesketh (b. 1968) – Gabo’s Opus (2nd movement)
Tom Ingoldsby (b. 1957) – The Cathedral
Robert Percy (b. 1961) – Beacons (version for piano, flute and clarinet)

Tuesday 23 January 2018, 1pm – “Air”
Miloš Milivojević (accordion)
Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) – Milonga del Angel
Franck Angelis (b. 1962) – Interier
Robert Percy (b. 1961) – New work*
Viaceslav Semenov (b. 1946) – Don Rhapsody
Victor Vlasov (b. 1936) – Five views on Country Gulag

Tuesday 30 January 2018, 1pm – “Muscle Memory”
FEATURED PERFORMER: Matthew Schellhorn
Matthew Schellhorn (piano)
Roger Briggs (b. 1952) – Jitterbug
Robert Percy (b. 1961) – Chop and Change*
Edwin Roxburgh (b. 1937) – Prelude and Toccata
Colin Riley (b. 1963) – Joplin Jigsaws
Joseph Horovitz (b. 1926) – Pierrot’s Hornpipe*


Where can musical inspiration come from?

“I first heard Loré Lixenberg doing some of her own birdsongs up a tree in Doncaster … ” Welcome to the wonderful world of Gregory Rose, the Featured Composer of Series 6 in Borough New Music. Before his concert on 27 March 2018, Clare Simmonds talks to him about the influences on his work.

Aphrodite’s Rock, Kythera, Greece

CS: How did you come to write Birdsongs for Loré? What inspired you?

GR: I first heard Loré Lixenberg doing some of her own birdsongs up in a tree in Doncaster at one of the CoMA summer schools and was just totally delighted by it. I thought it was wonderful – zany and bonkers. I’ve also been interested in birdsong for a long time. Most spring/summers we get blackbirds at the back of our house and I have often recorded them, because blackbirds produce the most fantastic song [I think]. When I was working with Loré in 2012, we made the first recording of the Song Books (Solos for Voice 3–92) by John Cage with Robert Warby (I came out of retirement as a singer). During that time Loré said, “You’ve never written anything for me!”, and I said, “It will come, don’t worry!”. Then I was looking at some poetry by the Dadaist artist [called] Kurt Schwitters, whose work always I’ve loved, and I saw a poem called Super-Bird-Song. I immediately thought, “This is it!” It took me about half an hour to write something and I sent it off to Loré, who wrote straight back to say she loved it. Now there are seven songs in this first ‘Volume’ of Birdsongs for Loré, and the texts come from a mixture of different poets I found, including my own poem about doves.

CS: What were the influences on the other pieces in your programme at Borough New Music?

GR: Quelques gouttes d’eau sur une surface began life when I heard water dripping in a bathroom at the AIMS summer school in Eastbourne. I found the sound fascinating – an almost regular rhythm which sometimes changed pitch. I thought “Ah, there’s a piece here”. It sounded just like a marimba. Actually in the piece that idea gradually deteriorates, so by the end there is no connection with the beginning at all!

CS: Did other pieces in this programme start life whilst you were on a summer school?

GR: Two others in this Borough New Music programme did! I went to a Greek island called Kythera, where there was a string orchestra music course set up by Chris Surety. I was a tutor on that for the first few years. During that time, I learnt about the claim that Aphrodite was born on a rock, just off the coast. I read more about Aphrodite, found her completely fascinating, and I’ve written several pieces connected with her. For Aphrodite and Adonis, I wrote the text as well. It’s about her relationship with Adonis, how she fell in love with this little child, and then the fact that he was eventually gored to death by a boar. It was premiered in the States. I’ve written eight or nine song cycles now, and I’m writing another one at the moment.

Kythera is a beautiful island. Unlike other Greek islands which are arid, dry and very hot, Kythera has gentle hills, a lot of trees and green – it’s just lovely. The summer school used to take place at Kapsali, the main port, along the seafront, in an amphitheatre, created by a guy who bought a derelict post office and made it into an arts centre. He dug out the back garden (a huge task) to create a little mini-amphitheatre. At the top of it, he had some land where he used to provide meals (he got a chef in). They used to have very gentle music on at the restaurant. One day I was having a meal, listening to this music, and thought I heard Greek modes (though I didn’t actually!). I did some research anyway, and found that a musician in AD4 completely messed up the order of the modes, and if you go back to the theories of Aristoxenus, you’ll see they’re different. For Music for Kytherian Amphitheatre, I used the original formulation of the modes. The hardest thing was writing a piece entirely for white notes on the piano, and keep it interesting! But because there were lots of directions as to how each mode has its own character, I was able to keep each movement contrasting.

CS: How did you get to know the performers in the Borough New Music programme?

GR: Loré Lixenberg and I first met on CoMA summer school about 10-15 years ago. The first time, I asked her if she had performed any John Cage, and at the second summer school I asked if she’d like to record the John Cage Song Books with me, and she said absolutely. So that’s how I first got to know her. Chris Brannick, I met through CoMA too. I always found him very inventive, and extremely good at reacting to new ideas in percussion, a wonderful player and a great guy to work with – I really like working with him. I met Clare Simmonds at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance where I used to conduct the new music ensemble, and I knew that she was very dedicated to contemporary music and an excellent player, so that was a no-brainer!

CS: How do you compose so prolifically?

GR: It’s a mixture between writing things that people want, and writing things that I want to write. It’s an imbalanced mixture. Every so often I think, “I’ve got to write a piece”. Most of my ideas come from either going to a different country and realising I have to do a piece on something I find there; or from meeting people I want to write for. Just occasionally, someone asks me to write a piece for them. My most recent work was for Trinity College Choir in Cambridge, as I’d known Stephen Layton for years, and he asked me about four months ago if I had a piece that the choir could sing. I sent him some of my pieces, but he said they were quite tricky, so I wrote a new Ave Maria for them. They performed it very beautifully three weeks ago. When people want something and I get the seed of an idea, the piece comes pretty quickly.

CS: What do you enjoy most of all your musical endeavours?

GR: Can’t answer that! I am just so lucky to be doing what I love doing. I went freelance in 1974, so I haven’t done a proper day’s job since then. Each day is different. I’m so lucky – being able to do all that sort of work and be paid for it is just fantastic. My son does house music – he has just come back from being a DJ in Milan – and he asked if I ever get nervous before performances. I don’t really. I remember I used to, when I was a chorister, but from my teenage years onwards, I’ve loved doing concerts so much. I get excited. In the concert hall I’m in my home territory!

CS: What have you got coming up?

GR: It’s a fantastic gift to be a featured composer at Borough New Music – a complete concert of my own music is just a wonderful opportunity. There can’t be many living composers who are invited to do concerts of all their own music.

It’s my 70th year, and on April 18th I’m putting on a concert at St John’s Smith Square.

Also I’ve got a CD coming out, of selected choral works, recorded in Latvia last year. The CDs will be on sale at the concert St John’s.


Gregory Rose is the Featured Composer for Series 6 of Borough New Music, in a FREE concert on Tuesday 27 March 2018 at St George the Martyr Church, SE1 1JA at 1pm. Performers include Loré Lixenberg (mezzo-soprano), Chris Brannick (percussion) and Clare Simmonds.

Wednesday 18 April 2018, 7.30pm: Music by Gregory Rose at St John’s Smith Square, performed by Loré Lixenberg, Peter Skepper Skaeverd, Jupiter Orchestra, Jupiter Singers, conducted by Gregory Rose. Tickets and more info at (box office 020 7222 1061).

The CD Gregory Rose: Choral Compositions and Arrangements (Toccata Classics TOCC0482) with Mikus Baliņs (tubular bells) and the Latvian Radio Choir, conducted by Gregory Rose, will be available at all major record shops from April 1st 2018.


How do you make your work into a phenomenon?

A glimpse at one of the pieces performed by Kate Ryder in a recital for toy piano and piano at Borough New Music on 20 March 2018.

It’s every composer’s dream to sit at his/her desk and wait for the phone to ring.Stephen Montague talks to Clare Simmonds about his music, and about the surprising ‘life’ of his work Mirabella: Tarantella for Toy Piano, which will be performed by Kate Ryder in a recital for toy piano and piano at Borough New Music on 20 March 2018.


CS: Tell us about Mirabella.

SM: Mirabella: Tarantella for Toy Piano was commissioned in 1995 by Margaret Leng Tan, a pianist of Singaporean origin who lives in New York City, and who is famous for her toy-piano playing. It was interesting because it was one of those situations where I was thinking, “I can’t believe it has sunk to this level… toy piano?!” But Margaret said she’d play it a lot, and she’s a wonderful pianist, so I reluctantly accepted the commission. As I had to write it in a hurry, I decided to base it on my piano piece ‘Mira’ (1995), which I wrote for the ABRSM Spectrum Series. But as I started, I realised it was going a separate way, so I called it ‘Mirabella‘. Margaret suggested it was a ‘Mirabella: Tarantella for Toy Piano’, and I thought that title had charm! She played it in New York, and then in three or four other places, and I thought it was amazing it was getting played at all. Then several other pianists with toy pianos also asked to play it, and I began to think, “This is quite a phenomenon!” John Cage wrote a toy piano piece in 1948 that, as far as I knew, only a handful of people ever played (including myself when I was at Ohio State University in the 1970s), so a toy piano in 1995 was a pretty obscure instrument. Anyway, Margaret and I worked together on a number of occasions, and a few months back, she told me she had reached something like the 600th performance of Mirabella! [Listen to a performance of Mirabella by Margaret Leng Tan on Youtube] And an Austrian pianist, Isabel Ettenauer, has also played it a lot, maybe 40 times. In fact in total, I think it has been done maybe between 800 and 900 times in the last 20 years. So the lesson to composers is, you never know where something is going to go, as obscure as it might seem in the first instance.

CS: How do you find your performers?

SM: Unlike everything else I’ve ever done, they seem to find me! It’s every composer’s dream to sit at his/her desk and wait for the phone to ring. With orchestral works, it’s usually my agent, my publisher, or other people who finally squeeze a performance out. But it’s amazing how Mirabella has simply taken off by itself – I have never knowingly promoted it. It has been played often by at least 15 different performers, as well as choreographed by a puppet theatre company in Chicago (who did 120 performances). I didn’t even realise that Kate Ryder played it (thought I’ve known her for ages) till she mentioned it. It’s one of those happy life stories that you write something that is a one-off, and actually it has its own legs and runs! It is published by United Music Publishing and sells.

CS: How does it feel to listen to your music being performed?

SM: It’s funny… I’ve spent much of my life playing the piano as a performer, and I’ve done a lot of conducting over the years, and yet it is probably the most uncomfortable I feel when I’m listening to my own music. I think mainly because it’s completely out of my control. You know, when you’re playing, you may have a good or bad night; when you’re conducting, the orchestra was perhaps good or bad, you did what you could and it was maybe fantastic or not; but when you’re actually the composer, you’re sitting on your hands just hoping it is going to work well. It’s completely out of your control, and that’s uncomfortable. It can be a bit of a shock when you hear your piece without being at a rehearsal. It’s often very pleasurable when it’s over, but somehow wonderfully uncomfortable in the excitement of the moment!

CS: Do you think about the listeners? How do you think the listeners hear your music?

SM: I grew up in a generation in the United States in the 1960s which was very much a part of the ‘Who cares if they listen?’ school. That was an early philosophy in which the musical fulfillment seemed to be writing acerbic music that would completely empty a hall over the course of an performance. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this probably wasn’t the best course of action if you wanted your music heard! Call me old-fashioned, but I quickly realised it was much more satisfying to write something an audience actually enjoyed ,and perhaps provoked (in the best possible way) to want to come back for more. Playing to an empty hall is not my idea an artistic goal or a remotely rewarding experience. So, for me (and without ‘selling out’), I really enjoy engaging an audience, ideally taking them from somewhere they know to somewhere they maybe don’t know so well. That cliche of a ‘musical journey’ is actually a pretty good idea. I want to hold their attention, engage and surprise them and of course entice them to come back for more.

CS: What were the challenges of writing Mirabella?

The toy piano has a charming and unusual sound. The piece, based on the piano work ‘Mira’, uses only the white notes on the piano, so the original challenge for me was to write something based only on only the white notes of the keyboard. I don’t think the audience particularly needs to know that, but the audience needs to be at best charmed by the velocity and the choice of notes. I always hope my works are not too long and Mirabella is much shorter than Mira! For me it works best in a concert where not all the pieces are for toy piano. But even when it is, I’ve been conscientious to try and make it stand out against other potential pieces in a programme by its being a little different.

CS: How do you get your music heard?

SM: The best thing that can happen to a composer is word of mouth. My aim in recent years is to engage the younger generation of performers who are finding their way up through the ranks. I like the idea of encouraging them to do a piece of mine might add a little ‘spice and pepper’ to a programme of more conventional works. Music to the ears of any composer is the phrase: “This will be great for the end of the first half.” Engaging the interest and attention of good musicians is the secret but of course the obvious answer. Your personality is the first essential ingredient in this courtship. I have rarely worked twice with someone I didn’t like. Personality gets your foot in the door or not. The product you are selling then needs to be your very best. As far as publishing music these days, no composer I know says “my publisher is doing too much promotion for me and I just can’t bear this flood of commissions.” Published music is no longer the only way forward, but social media certainly seems to be an active route.

CS:What’s your dream line-up of instruments and ideal performance space?

SM: I’m naturally drawn to the orchestra. That sounds old-fashioned, but for me the orchestra has all the colours that I wish to employ, enjoy and exploit. I like chamber works, too. The string quartet of course is a great medium, and my String Quartet No. 1 in memoriam Barry Anderson & Tomasz Sikorski is one of the pieces I like best in my catalogue. But preferably, if I had the dream commission, it would be full orchestra and chorus – I like thinking big. I recently did an orchestral piece for the Birmingham Royal Ballet, The King Dances, which I liked very much. That was exciting working with a big orchestra, and a fantastic team of choreographer, David Bintley, lighting designer, Peter Mumford and costume/set designer, Katrina Lindsay. I also loved directing a John Cage Musicircus at English National Opera in 2012 with 190 performers, so basically my interest is in large ensembles and events.

CS: Do you have plans for the future?

SM: My 75th Birthday Concert on Friday 9 March 2018, which lasts all day and all night long at St John’s, Smith Square, is going to be interesting for me, as I’ll hear the 30 or so pieces I’ve written for keyboard all lined up together. There is a growth from experimental to the more traditional, to the avant-garde to works with electronics. I feel like, even at my age, I’m still exploring things and still growing, and am still influenced by good things that come along. The Royal College of Art students are doing some visuals for the St John’s, Smith Square concert, and it has already triggered some exciting ideas. So I still feel that even though I’m almost 75, I’m just getting started in this and there are many avenues I’d like to explore – further work with visuals, with dance, more experimental things, string/piano quintets. I’m still very enthusiastic about what I do, always open for learning new tricks!

Stephen Montague at 75: 24 hours of continuous music starts at 1pm on Friday 9th March, 2018 at St Johns Smith Square, London, and includes concerts at 1pm, 2.30pm, 4pm, 5.30pm, 7.45pm and 9pm.

Montague’s Mirabella: Tarantella for Toy Piano forms part of Kate Ryder‘s programme for toy piano and piano at St George the Martyr Church, SE1 1JA on Tuesday 20 March 2018, 1pm, as part of Borough New Music Series 6. Admission is free and light refreshments are served afterwards. The full programme is:

John Cage – Suite for Toy Piano
Stace Constantinou (b. 1971) – Cactus Prelude 6 for Toy Piano and Fixed Media
Christian Banasik (b. 1963) – TRIMER for Toy Piano and Fixed Media
Julia Wolfe (b. 1958) – Ear ring; East Broadway for Toy Piano and BoomBox
Brian Inglis – Four Pieces for Toy Piano (World Premiere)
Yumi Hara – Farouche
Katharine Norman – Fuga Interna (begin)
Meredith Monk – Rail Road (travel song) for Solo Piano; St Petersburg Waltz
Stephen Montague (b. 1943) – Mirabella for Toy Piano


Composer Outlook: Paul Burnell

Paul Burnell talks about his work prior to the performance of his ‘Little Era Ending Songs’ at Borough New Music on Tuesday 6 March 2018.

As a preview to Series 6 of Borough New Music, the composer Paul Burnell talks about his work, which features in the opening recital by Chris Brannick & Sara Stowe on Tuesday 6 March 2018. Interview by Clare Simmonds.


CS: What’s your dream line-up (set of instruments) to write for, and your ideal performance space?

PB: Do you know, I’d like to say someone’s living room! With a small group, some food going on, drink, and playing through some pieces – the social music scene is perfect for me. As far as instruments go, I’d like to keep it flexible – a lot of the time, my music can be played on violin or flute or recorder, or whatever. The ethos of Contemporary Music for All (CoMA) has really had an impact on me – the idea that it doesn’t matter what you come along with, because there will be something you can play.

But then on the other hand, I can think of some bizarre examples: I was teaching on a recorder orchestra course a few years ago. As one of the performances, they got everyone together – 120 recorder players in a school hall – all sorts of instruments, from the soprano to the sub-contrabass recorder (which, if you haven’t seen one, you need to!). The sound they made was almost frightening, but thrilling at the same time. Another example that made a big impact on me was the performance of the music I wrote for the Bath Festival in 2004. In the middle of Bath there was a brass band, a string orchestra, a wind band, a choir and a percussion group – all in a relatively small space. The sound was phenomenal. At two points they were playing together, elsewhere they were playing individually. It was almost terrifying to hear that volume of sound.

But my dream is to have music in intimate surroundings, because music is a social activity. It’s easy to get hung up on the concert hall ideal of musical performance. We tend to forget that some of the most pleasurable things that we do in music are in small groups.

CS: How does it feel to listen to your music being performed?

PB: I try to close my eyes! It’s quite nerve-wracking in a sense – there are so many feelings going on at the same time. Most of the time, it’s fantastic, it’s a great performance, and you get a huge sense of relief at the end of it. I long for those performances where I have a smile on my face throughout! But if I can, I hide at the back of the audience during performances – my wife gets upset with me for that! I’m a bit of a reticent audience member when it comes to my own pieces. But I do like to be there, all the same.

CS: What about the listeners: how do you think the audience hears your music?

PB: I don’t know really! It depends what kind of piece it is. I’m more concerned about the performers than the audience, in a sense. When I write the piece I don’t think about the audience… I’m thinking, if I enjoy the piece, then hopefully the audience will as well. Obviously if it’s a song, there’s text, and you want the text to come across. If it’s a more abstract piece, then it becomes much more difficult to work out what the audience will take away from the performance. You’re reliant on the performers to interpret the music on your behalf. There’s a triumvirate of composer, audience and performers making of the piece what they can. I remember hearing a piece a long time ago where there was not much information in the music – quite a sparse piece conceptually – and the composer said well, you have to take what you get! You get what you deserve. If it’s a very conceptual piece then you throw caution to the wind.

CS: How do you get your music heard?

PB: I write music because I have to – I have an urge to! The number of composers who make their living exclusively from composing are countable on the fingers of one hand – ie not many. So if you want to make money out of it, you have to dedicate a lot of your time to promotion. The best thing to do is to be a great self-promoter, which I’m not! But even if you’re reticent as I am, you can try to make your music available. So I produce my albums and release them digitally on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play or Amazon Music. I try to make the scores available through self-publishing and Internet publishers like Sheet Music Plus and MusicaNeo. I keep track of composer opportunities, and try to make the most of those – sending scores off to BBC Introducing, and so on. I use Soundcloud, have a Web site, etc trying to get myself in the public eye. The other important thing to do is to be incredibly social, go to concerts, make sure you speak to the performers and introduce yourself. It’s such a pleasure to have fantastic performances of your music – you get a real buzz, an uplift! That’s one of the best feelings in the world…

CS: Tell us about your piece at Borough New Music on 6 March 2018.

PB: ‘Little Era Ending Songs’ is a piece is for soprano, voice and vibraphone. It was commissioned by Chris Brannick and Sara Stowe for a concert in Brighton in 2015. It’s a series of seven songs which can be performed independently or together, in any order, on the theme of “our destiny as the human race”. A huge theme! And they’re seven tiny little songs! I wrote the texts for them myself. Some of them are quite jokey (so ‘the end of the world’ is a show tune!) others are softer (a lullaby for the last person left on earth). One is called Petri Dish, and it makes an analogy between the human race living on Planet Earth with limited resources, and the bugs and bacteria who live in a Petri dish, who also have limited horizons – another comment on our precarious position on Earth. I like to write pieces that form a group but you don’t have to do them all – you can take your pick.

CS: How did you find the performers? How do you know Chris Brannick?

PB: I’m eternally grateful to Chris Brannick. He has been a great supporter, I have written things for him in the past, and sometimes he has put me in touch with other people. I first met Chris at the CoMA Summer School 10-15 years ago – he heard one of my pieces there, and asked me to write a piece for him. Also, I was in a percussion quartet called the Brake Drum Assembly. Chris Brannick was our mentor for that group. The group doesn’t perform any more (we stopped as one of our key members moved to Hungary) but for 5-6 years I was a putative percussionist under the direction of Chris Brannick.

CS: What’s coming up next for you?

PB: In July, the Leatherhead Choral Society are performing a piece of mine. It was a competition – my piece won out of 120 entries! Also, over the next six months I’ll be working on an album under a pseudonym. It will be much more pop-music inspired. I did some music for a production company 20 years ago, and found out on the Internet that they’re still talking about it now. But I won’t tell anyone that it’s me – a secret album….

Paul Burnell‘s ‘Little Era Ending Songs’ form part of the programme in the opening concert of Series 6 of Borough New Music at St George the Martyr Church, Borough SE1 1JA at 1pm on Tuesday 6 March 2018, performed by Chris Brannick (percussion) and Sara Stowe (soprano). The full programme is:
Jorge Vidales (b. 1969) – Three Basho Haiku (2008)
Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) – Canto del Capricorno no.8 (1962-72)
Adrian SutcliffeNakers Capers*
Chris Hobbs (b. 1950) – Song for Anna*
Julie Sharpe – Organum Caudices*
Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008) – Recitativarie for singing harpsichordist (1971-72)
Paul Burnell (b. 1960) –  Little Era Ending Songs
John Cage/Erik Satie – Sonnekus 2 (1985) vs Je Te Veux

(* = Premiere)

How do new music and improvisation interact?

The relationship between improvisation and composition is hotly debated. But how do today’s performers perceive both? Do two worlds collide? In the run-up to their performances at Borough New Music Series 4 (9 January and 16 January 2018 respectively), the clarinettist Ian Mitchell and percussionist Simon Allen – two good friends, master improvisers and performers – independently share their experiences of performing improvisation and performing new music with the Artistic Director, Clare Simmonds.


CS: What does improvisation mean to you?

IM: Lots of different things in different contexts, and that answer is not a cop out! It depends on what you’re required to do by those who have booked you, the ensemble or a composer, or a group of people just getting together to make music in their style. There’s a huge range of styles and references, from ornamentation through to walking on stage with a completely blank canvas, not knowing where on earth you’re going to go in the music.

There’s the free improvisational approach, that comes out of John Cage’s ideas of sounds. I used to work with a group called AMM, in which you’d never ever ever talk about what you’re doing. So, we’d go off on tour, and just walk on stage. Somebody in the group would start doing something – exploring sounds on their instrument or whatever – and then you’d walk off 45 minutes later, have a break, come back and do it all again, walk off at the end, and go off for a really good meal and a few drinks – and crucially, not discuss it at all! That’s one extreme.

Another kind of improvisation might be playing above chords. One example is jazz (which I don’t do), and another is folk music – I used to play in an Albanian folk band. The solos in that music are basically improvised. That kind of improvisation (like Indian improvisation) is based on knowledge of what’s gone before. So there are lots of references, not a completely blank canvas.

Then you go along to graphic and text scores, where you’re interpreting in some way what is on the page, but it’s completely up to you as to what you think is appropriate. I remember giving text scores to the first year undergraduates at Exeter University, and somebody said, “Oh, it’s all right to play anything then. Can I play a Mozart sonata?” And I said, “If you genuinely believe that that is appropriate, then yes you can. But if you’re just doing it because I say that I’m not telling you what to do, then no you can’t!”

For improvisation, you’ve got to be absolutely honest with yourself. That’s one of the most important things. You can’t just play any old thing in whatever style, and think, well that’s OK, isn’t it? The best people in all these styles I’ve mentioned really care about what they’re doing, and that goes for them all, from Ravi Shankar to seventeenth century Baroque specialists. So improvisation doesn’t have one specific meaning. There’s an understanding that it is not formalised.

SA: For me it’s all about measuring time. There’s a particular kind of relationship between the players and between yourself and your instrument, which feeds you in a way that is quite different to performing notated music. Working with traditional notation sits in a particular part of my brain, I find. These days I play very little fully notated music. In terms of composition, there’s a lot of wrangling around this subject. Some improvisers howl at the idea that composers use improvisation as a compositional tool, because there’s a danger that something is being watered down, it loses its honesty and spontaneity. But all the different ways of employing improvisation as a way to communicate ideas are equally valid; there isn’t that much to argue about.

CS: What interests you about improvisation? What draws you to it?

SA: Perhaps it’s to do with having a difficulty with authority? And also the fact that when it comes to making music, the things I want to learn through doing that – perhaps there’s a need for them to be quite personal, I’m trying to communicate something from myself to the world… which doesn’t preclude the fun you can have working in other ways, of course! To be improvising with other artists is to explore communication, forge new conversations and try to crack problems open. It’s also an extremely social activity, even if you are an insular character of few words – you’re still involved in complex social communication.

CS: How did you get into improvisation?

IM: My clarinet teacher at the Academy was Alan Hacker, who was very involved in contemporary music, and worked with Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, Sandy Goehr, Boulez, Stockhausen … music in that ‘neck of the woods’. As Alan’s student, I inevitably got involved in it too, because he got me along playing second [clarinet] in the Fires of London Ensemble for example, or playing an independent part, or whatever. I got a reputation for that kind of music. In the mid-70s, I decided to do a degree, so I went to Goldsmiths part-time. There was someone in the year above me doing the part-time course too, and his name was John Tilbury. We’d never met. The professor there was Stan Glasser, who organised a conference (I can’t remember what it was about), and asked me to give a recital at the conference with John. So John and I met up in his tiny flat in Holloway Road. I asked, “What are we going to play then?” He said, “How about this?” – and he climbed on a chair above the piano and got out a piece of music which was just blocks and squares and oblongs on a piece of paper. It was Earle Browne’s December 1952, a seminal piece. I’d never seen – never mind played – anything like that. So we played it, John played some Cardew, I played Cage’s clarinet sonata (all notated formally), I might have done some Birtwistle (Linoi). For the Browne, John said, “When we get to the end I’ll just turn the page upside down and we’ll do it all again!” I thought this was all amazing! Keith Potter, who still teaches at Goldsmiths, was there, and afterwards he said, “That was really interesting. It sounded like you were playing Birtwistle all evening, and John was playing Cage all evening, even when you were playing together!” That made me think about it all, and I found it extraordinarily liberating. In fact, John and I became very close friends and he got me involved in a different area of contemporary music – the Cardew set, graphic scores, text pieces and then the amazing AMM, a revolutionary group. It’s extraordinarily different walking on stage knowing that you don’t have to be counting 5/16 and coming in on the third beat, but also having huge responsibility. John is the most wonderful improviser I’ve ever come across, and his integrity is second to none. I began to learn such an enormous amount from him and his colleagues, and feel I’m still just sampling and learning all the time. That sense of approaching music totally differently was the most important thing for me. It’s interesting that John plays Bach and Mozart wonderfully, and he plays free improvisation, Cardew and Feldman absolutely supremely. So things are not exclusive, and that influenced me a lot and made me feel that it was something worthwhile pursuing in a very serious way.

SA: When I began playing, at a very young age, I played lots of repertoire, and life was dedicated to the pursuit of becoming as ambidextrous as possible – all of those calisthenic concerns, and listening to lots of music. At university, I began playing a lot of contemporary music, and in the 80s, the music being written was getting more and more complex. Two things fascinated me. One was heavy complexity, playing stuff by composers like Richard Barrett, Ian Wilcock and Michael Finnissy. Whilst at the same time, I was involved with several experimental groups. One group that had a big effect on me, called George W Welch – played music written predominantly by Ian Gardiner and Andrew Hugill. Lots of harmony, lots of tuned percussion and pieces by John White and Gavin Bryars, a lot of which stays with me now. But as far as playing heavy complexity went, I recall after one big note-busting phase, feeling I’d had enough. I was in my late 20s and there was a period of six months where I didn’t feel like playing a note! At the end of those six months, I took up the darabuka, and then (as you did in those days), went on a long foray exploring music from other parts of the world. Most of the world’s music not being notation-based, notation became the first thing that started to lose importance for me. In many traditions, the need to extemporise is just something you do – and then from extemporisation, improvisation bubbles up. For a period, I was invited to provide things that essentially weren’t my own – musics from other cultures – things that really didn’t belong to me. It feels uncomfortable in retrospect, yet the activity of exploring them was really useful. I think it enabled me to cut free from my training. In a sense, the greatest respect I could ever pay to all those traditions I delved into, especially Persian music and West African music, is not to play them. They have a profound effect on the way you think about the world, and that’s what’s important. But the crux, was what I learnt alongside the experience of playing these things. Now, though I have moved on, those studies have fed both the physicality and mental processes of what I do today; they are invisibly embedded deep in everything I do, not just in making music.

CS: Do you see a relationship or link between performing new compositions and performing improvisation?

SA: Yes, they’re both equally interesting… but then no, I can’t see a relationship between the two things because they don’t really sit separately in my mind. For example, a recent concert at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival concert I took part in: two new pieces commissioned by Simon Reynell (Another Timbre record label) from Magnus Granberg and Jürg Frey. Magnus’s piece presented the players with the DNA of a work in cellular form, which provides improvisatory seeds to work with. Jürg, on the other hand, notated every single minutiae, and the music is crystalline. As ever, the performers involved in that concert were chosen for their ability to interpret compositional intent – whatever the means employed. One of my favourite playing situations is a band I have with four friends, who are all visual artists. It’s a free improvising band and of course, their training is completely different to mine. They hail from all over the world, artists working with materials, dealing with the same concerns as composers – it’s just that their usual materials are different – they have a different relationship to time and memory. In that situation, it could be said that there is an element of composition, in the form of retrospective discussion that occurs after playing, which is digested – and feeds into the next performance.

IM: Well, yes, one link is taking it all very seriously. That might sound banal and uppity, but it’s true! Not dismissing anything until you’ve explored it and thought about it. We’ve all played pieces that we’ve thought “oh this is a dreadful piece”, but then you think, “well – is it because of the way I’m playing it?” It often is! A little anecdote. I run a bass clarinet course at Benslow. They play in quartets and groups. In one of the sessions, I had given a group Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to play – a famous bit. I walked in to do some coaching, and one of them said, “Oh, this is a dreary piece, isn’t it?”. So I said, “Well, play it to me”. And they played ‘bom… di…di… bom … bom’ [very slowly]. And I said, “Do you know the story of Romeo and Juliet?” “Yes of course I do!” “OK, so there are two families, warring factions, they’re killing each other, they’re arguing, and there’s two lovers, one from each side, and I said, you’re just plodding around as if you don’t care about anything at all, and you’ve not been thinking about all the clues that are on the page. Just the title gets you thinking about the context of it and the music. It’s quite martial, and then in the middle there’s a beautiful with string harmonics and flutes…” I said all this, and then right, “Now play”. And it was a revelation! I thought, job done, that’s good. And afterwards, I thought, it doesn’t matter what kind of music – a text score, a piece by Bach, you’ve always got clues on the page about how to approach it. So whatever the music is, I try (and I don’t succeed all the time by any means) to see what’s there, and draw that out.

CS: How do you imagine listeners appraise improvisation? Do you think they listen with different ears? Do you think about the listener at all when you improvise? For people used to attending concerts as a listener, you often hear comments saying they don’t know how to listen to improvisation or new music.

SA: There are so many different modes of approach and possible outcomes when someone says they’re improvising, I think it’s impossible to say you don’t know how to listen. There will always be something that you can respond to. If we call improvisation a means to an end, and someone says they don’t know how to listen, I wonder if they’re talking about the end, not the means. When I perform, do I think about how people are going to respond? No. Never!

IM: When I’m improvising (it’s mostly free, aleatoric stuff), I don’t think about the audience at all. I have to get involved in the sounds that are around me and that I’m creating. I think that’s got to come across and draw them in. If I was thinking about the audience, I would be playing in a way that is a ‘sop’ to them – thinking, “oh, perhaps they need something loud and fast now” or whatever, and that would influence how I play, but I don’t think it should. It’s difficult not to think about the audience sometimes, but in a sense you have to exclude them. They might walk away not liking it, and if so, I always ask them to find out why (it’s important to make them think!). If you’re an actor, you don’t think, “I’ve got to try to get a laugh here”– or in a death scene, “Am I dying well enough?”! It’s fair enough to say they don’t know how to listen, but I’d ask them, “Well, what do you listen to in a piece by Lady Gaga or Beethoven?” There are all sorts of things that might be interesting – gosh, they can play so loudly, and now it’s quiet, and that’s very dramatic, or wow, how fast it is, or oh, didn’t that come up in the oboe before – even simplistic things can draw you in, no matter the style of music is. You don’t have to ‘understand’ (awful word!) – I don’t understand most of the music I play, my job is to explore it and put across something. When people go to an art gallery, and they stand in front of a picture, sometimes they walk on to the next one in three seconds, and sometimes they stop in front of one and spot things. It’s the same in music. There are things that you might spot that I’d never have thought of. It’s all one continuum.

CS: Tell us about your Borough New Music concert for Series 4, with Guest Artistic Director Robert Percy: how you chose people to work with, your work with composers, and how you chose repertoire.

SA: Rob Percy and I met on a dance course in 1999 – International Dance Course for Professional Choreographers and Composers – a two-week course that I think may have been directed by Nigel Osborne. It was an extraordinary time. There would be 8-9 multi-instrumentalists, 8 composers, 8 choreographers and nearly 30 dancers from all around the world. We’d make new stuff every day. Robert was there as a composer, and I was working as a facilitating musician. He is a lovely guy and we had a great time. Yet actually we’ve never played together, so this Borough New Music concert on 9th January 2018 is a first outing!

IM: For the repertoire in the forthcoming Borough New Music concert on 16 January: I had never heard of Rob Percy, which was fine – someone new! Dan Kessner too, I’d never heard of, Carla Rees suggested his piece. Tom Ingoldsby I suggested because we needed a trio and Carla and I had recorded his piece years ago (though Tom wasn’t there and we hadn’t played it to him). I don’t have any experience of working with any of them. But generally, if I’m organising repertoire for my group Gemini for example, I’m quite selective about composers. I have worked closely with a small number of composers of differing styles – Howard Skempton, Philip Grange, or David Lumsdaine for example. I choose to work with them because I like both the people and their music. Getting to know someone’s music is important – not just one-offs (though I do those too of course). For example, I met David Lumsdaine in 1973 and we just brought out a CD of music in 2017! We’ve played lots of his music and introduced it to all sorts of people. I really enjoy working with people I see as friends. For the bass clarinet CD I’m recording at the moment, most of it is commissioned from composers I know and like. Another example is Cheryl Frances-Hoad, whom I knew as a cellist, as I was playing with her for a dance company. So for this solo CD, I asked Cheryl for a piece. That approach satisfies me more. It’s got to be music that I feel comfortable with.

Find out more about the work of Simon Allen and Ian Mitchell from their Web sites.

On Tuesday 9 January 2018, as the opening performance of Series 4 of Borough New Music, Simon Allen (percussion) performs ‘Open Plan: Self Assembly Event’ with Robert Percy (furniture-maker). On Tuesday 16 January 2018, Ian Mitchell (clarinets) performs with Lisa Nelsen (flutes)* and Clare Simmonds (piano) in a recital of works by the composers Robert Percy, Dan Kessner, Tom Ingoldsby and Ken Hesketh. [*replacing Carla Rees who is indisposed]

All concerts take place at St George the Martyr Church, SE1 1JA (opposite Borough tube) at 1pm. Admission is free and light refreshments are served afterwards.


What’s it like being a Guest Artistic Director?

Duties of an artistic director vary widely between concert series. Unusually, for Series 3 in Borough New Music, the guest artistic directors were also the performers. To give us a flavour of what was involved, the soprano Patricia Auchterlonie talks about her role in forming Series 3 alongside co-guest artistic director Ben Smith. Interview by Hollie Harding and Clare Simmonds.


HH: How do you find and select repertoire, particularly as much of it in Series 3 was ‘unheard’ and ‘underperformed’?

PA: Good question! For our opening concert, we found the Sciarrino score [Due melodie per soprano e pianoforte (1978)] in a pile of music in Chimes Music Shop. The score was just lying around, nobody knew why it was there! As I work in that shop, one of my colleagues said, “Well, you should obviously have that”. And that was how we started choosing the music… once I suggested the Sciarrino, Ben had a bunch of ideas, including Sciarrino’s Ultime rose (from Vanitas) (1981). The Kate Soper [Only the words themselves mean what they say (2010-11)], on the other hand, I’ve known for a long time, because I really admire her as a composer. I think a lot of it came together because Ben and I are knowledgeable about really different types of music, so we came up with quite a diverse programme.

For the second concert, Jane Manning recommended Simon Emmerson‘s piece to me [Time Past IV (1985)], and Ben had always wanted to play the Georg Friedrich Haas [Ein Schattenspiel (2004)]. But quite a lot of our programming came about because Ben and I had an intense discussion about how female composers should be included more often, and that’s how we came to put in the Soper, the Saariaho [Lonh (1996)] and Eva-Maria Houben [Haikus for four (I, V, VIII, IX) (2003-04)]. We included the Houben because her work doesn’t get performed enough. I hadn’t actually heard of Houben before, it was Ben’s idea. I didn’t know anything about Wandelweiser composers! Ben had discovered that Houben’s entire score library was available for free on her Web site, so we went digging through it. Her Haikus are cool because they’re for flexible performing forces, so we could use the players we had already booked.

For Ben’s concert, he chose the Nancarrow [Three Canons for Ursula (1988)] because of their reputation for being unplayable, and Ben thought that would be quite fun. Robert Reid Allan is a friend of his, and his piece is really beautiful [The Palace of Light (2016)]. And then Ben had already played the Julian Anderson [Sensation (2015-16)] for a recent ‘Anderson at 50’ event – this was a chance to give it another outing.

HH: Much of the music you perform requires extended vocal techniques, and works with characterisation and theatricality. How do you prepare, rehearse and perform the music?

PA: Well, Kate Soper’s piece is really extraordinary, because Soper is herself a singer. When I first looked at the score, I said to myself, “How on earth has she done it?!” There’s an entire page where the only time you breathe is when you inhale and sing at the same time, which I didn’t even know one could do before I learnt the piece! Basically it’s just loads of trial and error, to be honest. I like doing works that require extended vocal techniques because they teach you a lot about your voice. I’ve learnt about the limitations, but also the special colours in my voice that I only really access when doing extended techniques. I found that the Soper was so vocal, the way she wrote it was so clever and so natural, that once I got into the soundworld she was looking for, it was easy to produce the sounds. The secret is not to worry about hurting your voice. In fact for a lot of extended techniques, including yelling and screaming, if you support well, you activate your singing in a way that is more intense and energetic than what is required for the standard repertoire.

The Emmerson is quite challenging because it’s unrelenting, particularly the opening section with its repeated notes. I hadn’t really thought about it having extended vocal techniques, though it does, quite a bit! I had some coaching on that piece, but for Kate Soper’s, I just listened to a recording.

HH: How did you meet your collaborators for these concerts?

PA: Ben and I were assigned to do a piece together for a Guildhall School of Music and Drama project called Wigmore Voiceworks. I sang some Claude Vivier in a class Ben attended, so he realised I liked wacky music, and then I heard a piece he wrote which I found very emotional and visceral. He composed a piece for me – that was how we ended up working together. Our cellist for that project was Yoanna Prodanova. I already knew her and recommended her to Ben: she’s really keen on new music. Toni Berg (flute) I met doing Hans Eisler’s Palmström with the GSMD Ubu Ensemble. Since our Borough New Music concert, I think she and I are going to start a duo, because we had so much fun working together on the Soper!

HH: What’s your current favourite piece of repertoire and why?

PA: I’m obssessed with Per Nørgård. He has an amazing piece for soprano and super weird ensemble called Sea Drift, with text by Walt Whitman. The most amazing piece of music. It’s such a strange ensemble – including harpsichord, flute/recorder, cello/viola da gamba, violin/baroque violin and a big percussion section.

CS: What are the best and worst bits about being a guest artistic director?

PA: The best bit is choosing all the music yourself and getting to do what you want. The worst bit… remembering to submit everything by the deadline. But I know it’s important to have deadlines otherwise nothing will happen! It is a good experience for performers to know how it feels to organise concerts and to know what it takes to plan something that works. It’s not just about getting up there and performing, it’s all the other stuff that happens beforehand too!

CS: What have you learnt, and what did you already know about being a guest artistic director?

PA: I’ve learnt a lot about the business side of managing concerts. A lot more goes into it than you normally see when you perform. That’s very useful. I already knew about programming, and I think what we programmed for Series 3 has come together really beautifully. That’s quite nice to see – you don’t often to get to programme all new music. Usually you’re trying to present a contrasting programme of music from different centuries, and make it all work together.

CS: Do you see any separation between being an artistic director and being a performer?

PA: Yes and no. I’d like to be the kind of performer who does artistic direction, chooses her own repertoire and organises her own stuff. I’m not great at being told what to do, as a human being! I love the autonomy and independence of it. As a performer, it’s really rewarding to choose my own project and have it come out the way I want it to. I like that level of control over my own outcome. For some performers, the level of responsibility and organisation is quite intimidating, but I find it very satisfying.

CS: What would you do differently, and what would you keep the same, if you were to be a guest artistic director again?

PA: From a performing perspective, next time I would spread out the concerts in which I have to sing difficult music. From a directing point of view, it would have been nice to have more people involved, but because of the budget we could only have four players. However, we had a great group  – we all got on well. The music-making was very satisfying and reciprocal, and everyone in the group really enoyed it. Actually I think that we’re all going to do another concert together next year – of all the Sciarrino songs!

The Guest Artistic Directors for Borough New Music Series 3 are Patricia Auchterlonie and Ben Smith. They organised the following four concerts:

Tuesday 7 November 2017, 1pm – “Last Words”
Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano), Antonia Berg (flute), Ben Smith (piano), Yoanna Prodanova (cello)

  • Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947) – Due melodie per soprano e pianoforte (1978)
  • Ben Smith (b. 1991) – New Work (World Premiere)
  • Kate Soper (b. 1981) – Only the words themselves mean what they say (2010-11) (UK Premiere)
  • Salvatore Sciarrino – Ultime rose (from Vanitas) (1981)

Tuesday 14 November 2017, 1pm – “Saariaho-Haas-Emerson”
Ben Smith (piano), Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano) and Chris McCormack (electronics)

  • Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952) – Lonh (1996)
  • Simon Emmerson (b. 1950) – Time Past IV (1985)
  • Georg Friedrich Haas (b. 1953) – Ein Schattenspiel (2004)

Tuesday 21 November 2017, 1pm – “Sensations”
Ben Smith (piano)

  • Robert Reid Allan (b. 1991) – The Palace of Light (2016) (London Premiere)
  • Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) – Three Canons for Ursula (1988)
  • Julian Anderson (b. 1967) – Sensation (2015-16)

Tuesday 28 November 2017, 1pm – “Haikus”
Antonia Berg (flute), Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano), Ben Smith (piano), Yoanna Prodanova (cello)

  • Eva-Maria Houben (b. 1955) – Haikus for four (I, V, VIII, IX) (2003-04) (UK Premiere)

All concerts take place at 1pm, at St George the Martyr Church, opposite Borough tube. Free admission with light refreshments afterwards. For more information, visit

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…