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…

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