Tag Archives: British composer

Meet the Artist……Peter Byrom-Smith, composer

qbk-joyqWho or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music? 

As a child there was no real music in our house, or reading materials as such, mainly due to my mum’s mental illness. As a result of this, and of course other problems in the family, I didn’t actually speak or really communicate until about 6 or 7 years of age. However, I had obviously listened to much music, both radio broadcasts and recordings, mainly at schoolfriends’ houses, or at school itself, which I totally soaked up at each opportunity – everything from the Beatles and the Monkeys to Beethoven and Mancini. When I got my first musical instrument, a guitar which was purchased through a shopping catalogue operated by a friend’s mum, and for which I paid by doing potato picking on farms, and  as a newspaper delivery boy, I sort of just started playing back what I’d heard, improvising along the way of course, trying to pin down correct pitch, melody, rhythm, etc. of each song/piece until I’d got it as close as the original. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time of course.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

From above, you can obviously see I didn’t have the possibility of music lessons, so I am completely self-taught in music. However, I studied very hard, seeking the knowledge of this strange craft known as music notation, and how to turn ideas in my head into something I and others might play one day – daydreams, maybe, but a very determined Yorkshire boy/man I became, constantly trying to hear/read more music all the time. Many musicians have been an influence, and still are, on my life really: Elgar, his struggle for recognition as an artist, plus his wonderful musical structures enchanted me early on; Neil Young, his stories of life in both his lyrics and musical arrangements, appealed to a young teenager in the 70’s; Gershwin, with his amazing cohesion of jazz and classical genres were to lead me to  carry on this ‘cross genre/culture’ idea in all my later work! Of course, as a fifteen year old boy I truly had no idea where I was going with this magical thing called music, with its strange terms, dots, lines all over the place, but I read everything from ABRSM theory books to  Antony Hopkins books on music and listening/analysis,etc and from Ferdinando Carulli’s great little book ‘Guitar Method’ to the symphonies of Mozart, etc. too – all an education. After school, I was determined to write music one way or another and now I had found a way of communicating my thoughts and feelings I was on a roll!!

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far? 

When I left school at 15/16 years of age, I wasn’t sure how I would do it, but boy was I gonna try and write music as I thought it should sound, and whatever meant something to me,`i was really hoping that somehow people would understand my thoughts and what I was trying to say. Of course, easier said than done, but I learnt very quickly how to be flexible, playing in theatre pits, busking, pop bands, teaching, as well as giving recitals with my own music, I managed to build a small, very small, reputation on the large music scene in UK. Persevering however, I accepted my first true commission for a soundtrack to a lecture series at a local art school, which I both arranged and and multi tracked on two cassette players – a truly awful result I’m sure, but people liked and used it, so a win win situation, as people say now, eh. Of course, frustrations come as an artist, as you try to get to where you think your journey should take you, but as always in life, you carry on, taking rough with smooth and never regret artistic choices, or directions, as you always learn something from the experience – well I certainly did, and after over 40 years of being a composer I’m still getting a thrill and learn something new every work I produce.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

I work in all genres of music: film, theatre, pop/rock music, animation, concert works,etc, and, or so, because of this cross genre working, I have worked and continue to work and learn from such a variety of musicians and their different backgrounds and approaches to music, its really a truly pleasurable experience and exciting, each time am opportunity occurs for me to share ideas and develop my thoughts into musical sounds form the performers. I am not very computer literate at all, I have no music software, and no idea how it works. When younger, I actually wrote all the parts out by hand, even the large orchestral works, brass band pieces and songs. Luckily, for me, I now have an assistant who I get to turn my stuff into files, which then can be emailed around the world the same day, which I find pretty amazing, although slightly confusing how it does so, at the same time! I am very lucky that I have found a career in something, i.e.; which is truly all I know about, and that people approach regularly for new works – now an animation, then a concerto, now a theatre piece, then an album for a rock band to arrange/produce,etc – all of both equal importance in the musical world and in my life.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras? 

I always approach my work in the same way now, as when I was a young boy. First of all, I try to arrange a meeting, face to face, as I don’t like the impersonal, remote meetings; phone, emails; Skype, etc, however, this can be impossible sometimes; for example, I have a long term project in Japan, and another project coming up in Poland, so will have to talk on Skype, etc, until each visit, but otherwise I’ll jump on a train – my favourite form of transport – and meet to discuss/talk through everything over either a lunchtime meal, or a few pints in the pub, as either way is very constructive to me! Meeting musicians, either in concert hall, or in the studio is always a pleasure and, to be honest, an honour too to me. I am very happy to enjoy what I do and also appreciate that I’m fortunate that I found how to both express my life, thoughts, emotions, etc, through music, whilst at the same time making a living at it too. This is important part of my philosophy, as coming from a working class background and growing up on a large council house estate in the north of England, I’m very proud of my roots, therefore wish to share with others! I’m also very lucky that all the musicians I work with from any of the genres, seem to respect my thoughts and expertise in composition, although of course, when it comes down to specific technical things like fingering, bowing, phrasing etc ,etc I am always totally in their hands – a genuine collaboration I like to think.

Of which works are you most proud? 

I have composed so much stuff over the years, and have been so lucky that nearly everything I’ve written has been either performed, recorded or broadcast at some point. So trying to pick a particular work out is very difficult, as you could imagine, but maybe I can quickly suggest a few that stick in mind. ‘Suffolk Serenade’ (mezzo,horn+strings) was a joint commission with my wife (writer Gillian) to write a ‘complimentary’ piece to Benjamin Britten’s ‘Serenade’ for the Britten centenary. At the interval, the concert was actually down in Suffolk of course, I was approached with a dilemma – the audience would like to hear it again! Yikes, I thought, as did the conductor too, as it lasted over 30mins in total – although, I may add the orchestra and conductor were very keen and seemed to like it thoroughly too. Anyway, that was amazing that an audience and musicians enjoyed my scribblings so much that they were willing to suffer more tonal distress….hee, hee, from me and was great for a premiere of a contemporary piece of music was accepted on first hearing. Another important piece was a work I wrote for the theatre entitled ‘The In Between Space’. I was composer in residence for Converge at the time, which helps provide student lessons in music, drama, dance, creative writing,etc,for people with mental health issues. I wrote the incidental music soundtrack and was invited to attend the two days of performances – truly wonderful they were too.The last one I choose is the most recent too. I am at present working on a joint project with Japanese composer Nobuya Monta; we are having joint concerts and recordings of our music,both in UK and Japan.On Sunday 17th July this year he visited the UK and we launched our first event: Concert and CD launch of ‘Heading for the Hills’ at Blueprint Studios ( where we recorded it) an album of Japanese and British music for string quartet. First the Strata String Quartet played a selection of the tracks from the CD, then, whilst the studio played back the whole album, we toasted a new adventure in Japanese/British musical culture which we hope to develop over the next few years. It took a lot organising, as you can imagine, bringing performers, studio and record label all together and on board for a journey which was developing as we went along – a truly musical adventure,but if you want it to happen, it will.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I suppose my musical language is really a combination of many styles, it crosses many musical boundaries really. To be honest, I’ve never actually paid any attention to trying to write in any style at all, whatever comes out of my head I scribble down, then wait to hear the performance – either live or recorded. As I have worked with so many musicians and on so many projects over the years on numerous variety of commissions, I’ve no doubt been subconsciously influenced on what I’ve heard and learnt from each experience and each project – which is exactly what I did when I started at this composing malarkey I suppose. One thing I’m very certain of of though a lot of my individual voice emanates from Elgarian melody, jazz harmony and rock/folk rhythms – all styles of music I liked when I was a youngster and still enjoy listening/playing now too!

How do you work? 

When I receive a commission, for film, concert hall or studio work, I tend to think a lot about the project and meet with the performers to discuss my ideas. Collaboration is very important to me as a composer,sharing thoughts with the players is pretty inspiring to me,as we bounce around ideas off each other and I get to know them and likewise – this so important,I feel anyway. Then I think a little bit more, often walking around, or on my many train travels, until the piece is completed in my head and I have a clear vision of the finished work. I then sit down to use pen and paper to write the score; it doesn’t matter if it’s for full orchestra or a soundtrack for animation etc, I still like the intimacy and immediacy of ink and stave – transferring thought directly to paper. If I need to get score/parts to the other side of the world, I’ll get someone to turn my manuscript into computer ‘stuff’ and email it to players,otherwise I’ll pop in post, or better still, I’ll revisit them and hand over in person.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

I love concerts and enjoy the ‘buzz’ even the tuning up at the beginning has always made the hairs on the back of neck stand up – although,alas, a few less hairs these days! I enjoy a wide variety of musical genres, but I suppose Elgar, Rodrigo, Michael Nyman, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead are all composers and musicians I enjoy listening to regularly and still get great inspiration from. I enjoy listening either live performances – which I much prefer – although I enjoy broadcasts and recordings too of course.I used to do a lot of teaching, which I really enjoyed and which taught me a lot, I actually think we learnt off one another, they from my knowledge and experience,me from their open minds,new exciting ideas, my students would bring along a selection of stuff they were enjoying,o ften from musicians I’d never heard of, which have become favourites, like Arcade Fire, and Einaudi too. Whilst I do a little teaching now, mainly as a guest lecturer at different universities/colleges, etc, I still find it invigorating to listen, explore and find new sources of musical sounds and ideas – I think this is very important for a composer.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Other than the excitement at my first rock concert aged 12, by prog-rock band Hawkwind, which was scary and amazing, in equal measure, I seem to remember one of the most memorable and truly overwhelming was a performance Elgar’s cello concerto – many years ago, at York University Central Hall. In the final, agitated fast movement, there occurs a refrain from the slow movement, of that delicious, hauntingly beautiful melody, which builds then dies away bit by bit. Well, in this performance as the slow theme dissipates to Elgar’s dynamic instruction, probably a ‘ppp’ the melody did just this and also something else, which I still can’t quite figure out how, but however the cello sings totally solo then ..gets, quieter ….quieter, quieter, slower……….then almost inaudible. At this moment I and I believe everyone else in the audience held their breath………then after what seems like ages the baton beats and were off for the final orchestral flourish and crashing last few bars. But,the few seconds took me to a really musical and totally magical place that I still recall, not all the concert, but that moment, and I wish I had experienced more of these moments in time – although I’ve been at a few others,close but not so sublime!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

I think, just my personal thoughts these of course, that a musician should always strive to be themselves. Yes, learn from others, study the works of others, but please develop your own style. As composers, we feel we have something individual to say, so it’s very important that we develop our own voice to say and express this. Also, to enable this to happen I feel it’s very important to listen to as wide as possible, and practical, as much music from as varied sources and genres as possible. It’s very important to not become stagnant, or complacent in your music, audiences and musicians deserve better than this and more importantly so do you as a composer. I enjoy writing, listening and learning, still, absorbing from anywhere and everywhere; art, theatre, concerts, broadcasts, socialising, travel, all are very important to me to help keep my feet on the ground, except on a plane of course, but also keep my mind, eyes and especially my ears open and help me continue to work in the 21st Century.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

I hope I’ll continue to learn more of the art of composing music from around this small world of ours. It’s a small, but beautiful planet with a wide variety of peoples and cultures and as the technology develops it brings both closer together and hopefully understand one another through art, and particularly in my case music.Sharing our musical ideas across the globe helps composers across the globe develop a new ‘palette’ from which to draw their individual colours to express. I for one, will strive for another ten years to do this. Continuing to have the opportunity to explore new new musical horizons, writing more compositions which cross the boundaries of musical genres.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Sitting in a pub beer garden drinking a nice glass of cold cider and eating a cheese ploughman’s with my wife; I believe the nicest things in life are often the simplest.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My Parker fountain pen, with which I sign all my finished scores.

‘Heading for the Hills’, Peter Byrom-Smith’s new album for string quartet is available now

Peter Byrom-Smith is an internationally renowned composer. Writing for and performing with many musicians from across a wide spectrum of genres, Peter’s musical journey has taken him on many trips around the world. His music has been performed, broadcast and recorded in U.K, Europe, Singapore,  Japan and U.S.A. by numerous musicians. He is as happy to have his music performed in small country churches as he is at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall. 

His music crosses boundaries: a melange of sounds, bringing together elgarian melody, jazz harmonies and rock rhythms. 

In an ever growing portfolio of work, which includes pieces written for full orchestra and chamber musicians. He also regularly works with pop/rock musicians, both in the studio and in live performance, as well as writing sound tracks for film and theatre.  Peter’s work is performed regularly and he receives frequent commissions for new music.  

www.peterbyromsmith.com

 

‘One Before Zero’ – an oratorio for the Battle of the Somme

Benjamin Ellin, the award-winning and critically acclaimed British conductor and composer, has been commissioned to create a classical composition focusing on the concept of peace and this year’s centenary of the Battle of the Somme.  The resulting Oratorio One Before Zero is one movement for orchestra, solo baritone, solo mezzo soprano and boys’ choir.

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(picture source: 1914.org)

This large-scale musical narrative work is inspired by the moment before battle, before zero, zero hour, the time at which hostilities commence.  Benjamin Ellin explains: “It’s the time when all that is known can be turned upside down and where a world of emotions dominates the mind and soul of any soldier”.

The work is in English, French and German and aims to illustrate musically and linguistically how the race to war, the loss of life and the destruction of humanity affected all sides in this devastating war.

Benjamin explains the inspiration behind the new work: “The Imperial War Museum provided a great deal of the research materials that helped inform my understanding of the period and I used the archives of Royds Hall School in Huddersfield which was a military hospital during WW1.  I enlisted the talented writer Ben Maier to help me ensure the work flows as a  continuous and complete line. The work has a personal connection too. My great relative, Private Samuel Vincent Boot (No. 19463) was killed in WW1.  I used his army number to develop a lot of musical material and develop the narrative.”

The performance will take place on 11th November 2016 at the renowned Maison de la Culture in Amiens in Northern France which is located just behind where the front line was established in WW1.  A second performance is scheduled on 12th November 2016 in Beauvais, Maladrerie Saint-Lazare.

benjamin_ellin

In this Meet the Artist interview, Benjamin discusses his musical influences, the challenges of his career as a composer, and the creation of ‘One Before Zero’.

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music? 

I heard a performance of the Nutcracker at the Royal Ballet as a young boy – my mother took each of us (myself and my two older sisters) to see a ballet when we were young by way of a musical intro – and I was hooked. I persuaded her to buy me the tape recording in the shop and listened to it constantly. Whenever I hear a great piece of music, in whatever genre, I just want to write music or do something creative.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer? 

There isn’t one single thing. My initial musical impulse often comes from the environment I am in or the world events of our time. I also love the sounds that are around us generally and how they often turn in to little musical ideas all by themselves. For instance, one of the tracks from the TAFAHUM album ‘Osmosis’ is inspired by the sound of the Victoria Line tube at Highbury and Islington; the piece is called Three Fishes Laughing.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?  

Being pigeonholed really – or people trying to. For me, music is genuinely indivisible and once you try to put people in to boxes you are missing the point. Sadly it seems, at times, this obsession is a by-product of lazy elements of the ‘business’, but I have always believed that the most inspiring characters around do more than one thing and I genuinely just happen to love and feed off different musical arenas.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

The shape of a piece is very important. Once the overall structure is set in your mind, even if it changes slightly in the process of being realised, you can really start to write it out. For ‘One Before Zero’ that really was the main issue; deciding on the form and arch because after that a lot of decisions have been made for you. The challenge is knowing what to not use or not do and structure helps that process of illumination a lot. Pleasures? I love harmony and the juxtaposition of chords and the resonances they have; that and treating the audience to the theatrical elements of music so they are – hopefully – truly gripped and engaged.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras? 

If you have a relationship with a performer or a group then you can try and build the musical material around them in subtle ways; this is a joy. A challenge is to always respect the skill and talent of the musicians. They have to play your music and you hope that they actually want to. I don’t believe music is all about the composer in an egotistical way but always about the collective.

Of which works are you most proud? 

I am proud of my Violin Concerto which was premiered last year with the Philharmonia Orchestra, my Trombone Concerto for Joseph Alessi, my tracks on the TAFAHUM album ‘Osmosis’ and the works I have written in conjunction with Violist Rivka Golani and the people of the Siksika nation in Canada – amongst others…

How would you characterise your compositional language?

That is a difficult question – in fact, all these questions are! In short a mix of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Britten, Vaughan Williams and the jazz world of Miles Davis and Count Basie amongst others. Jazz and blues were major influences growing up in that they were the main style of music that I heard and I still love them. In general, as a composer, I don’t seek to reinvent the wheel but I’ll always express myself as honestly and boldly as I can.

How do you work? 

It largely depends on the piece or the commission. Sometimes a solid idea for a gesture within a piece starts the process and other times I have to work relatively slowly. Waiting for inspiration is all well and good, but sometimes it doesn’t always flow and you have to then rely on your technique – however good it is – when a deadline is there! I also like to sow ideas in my mind and let my subconscious chew them over for a bit; they nearly always find a way of becoming a key part of the process.

Please tell us more about your new work ‘One Before Zero’, to be premiered on Remembrance Day. 

In short it is a large oratorio for orchestra, solo baritone, solo mezzo and SATB male choir to commemorate the Battle of the Somme.

Not so short, well, subconscious played a major part here too. I first worked in Amiens several seasons ago when I wrote two smaller pieces for a new festival there. As soon as I went on a research trip I was hooked on the area, the cathedral and the history of World War 1. I knew I wanted to write something about it and that was a good start for mental gestation! Then I had the chance to work with the orchestra in Picardie as both a composer (I wrote a new work for them) and also as a conductor in several performances. Therefore I got to know the players a little and I also got to work with their Music Director Arie. By the time the commission came I had soaked a lot up about the people, the area and so I could start from a decent place. The desired use of an all male SATB choir provided another set of options for the work as it was clear to me that the choir should be the soldiers and the baritone soloist is one of them whilst the mezzo represents the home front, picking up the pieces and trying to make sense of everything that was going on through the mirage of propaganda and misinformation through media…how things change!

Then, after lots of reading and textual research I decided on the structure of the piece. The soldier (baritone solo), drained, exhausted and battle-hardened from war stands at the front of the stage. Gazing out at the audience he begins to question who are the people across the stretch of no man’s land in front of him who he will shortly be ordered to attack, to kill, or indeed be killed by. Who are they? Are they anything like him? How did he get to this point where a mere order from a higher rank can result in him, a hitherto ordinary man, attacking with such aggression and ferociousness.

This awakening marks the start of the work. The title itself (ONE BEFORE ZERO)  underlines the importance of this moment before battle, before zero, zero hour  – the time at which hostilities commence – when all that is known can be turned upside down and where a world of emotions can surely fly through the mind and soul of any soldier.

The text is also a mixture of source letters, propaganda and diary entries from the time and also a number of commissioned texts by Ben Maier – a writer who I work with regularly. The new texts help knit everything together and I wanted to move away from using war poetry as it had already been done several times. The piece is in three languages, English, French and German as the aim of the piece is to underline the human cost on all sides of this conflict.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Again, there have been many for all sorts of reasons. I think my first concert as a conductor at the Philharmonic in St Petersburg was very special. I studied in St Petersburg and saw a concert there during my studies with the St Petersburg Philharmonic. Amazing. Then, years later when I used to do stage managing I stage managed a concert with the EUYO and Ashkenazy there. A few years after that I made my debut as  conductor and with one of my own pieces, WHITE CRUCIFIXION, so it was a powerful feeling of full cycle!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Be really honest with yourself about what you are trying to do, what you love and what you are doing. Lots of people will try and knock you down, directly or just through ignorance. If you genuinely love what you do, no matter what, then just keep going – however hard it gets. Take what you do seriously, but never take yourself seriously so that it becomes destructive – ego is the ugliest trait in people and especially in music.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?  

Music Director of a Professional Orchestra, writing a small handful of film scores a year, touring and collaborating with Tafahum, guest conducting with a handful of organisations and carving out commissions that I am interested in.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?  

Now, as a father, a good afternoon picnic with my wife and children followed by prating around with them, and possibly some creative work in the garden with my daughter helping.

What is your most treasured possession?  

I would say my family, but they are not a possession, so, therefore, I don’t have one.

What do you enjoy doing most?  

Lots of things and as much as I can. I learn about other things from doing something seemingly different so I love variety in work and in life.

What is your present state of mind? 

A mixture of love, contentment, frustration at the world and hope in the many beautiful things that still manage to exist.

‘One Before Zero’, a new oratorio in one movement commissioned by l’Orchestre de Picardie for the Network ONE® – an Orchestra Network for Europe – to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme will be premiered in France on Remembrance Day, 11th November 2016. Further information and tickets

Award-winning and critically acclaimed British conductor and composer Benjamin Ellin is currently Music Director of Thursford Productions, Founder of the Contemporary Fusion ensemble Tafahum, Principal Conductor of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra, Music Director of Focus Opera and President of Pembroke Academy of Music, London.

His belief in the positive power of music within society is reflected in the wide-ranging projects of which he is currently a major figurehead. From his own ensemble Tafahum, major projects and collaborations at London’s Southbank Centre, his own commissioned works with the First Nation communities of Alberta, Canada to his commitment to outreach and development work as well as appearing on stage with leading ensembles across the globe, Ellin’s belief in a musical world without boundaries is equalled by a tireless commitment as a guest artist and as a Music Director.

www.benjaminellin.com

Meet the Artist……Helen Grime, composer

news-3412Who or what inspired you to take up composing and pursue a career in music?

I was surrounded by music from a young age and went to a music school (city of Edinburgh Music school, then St Mary’s Music School) where everyone was encouraged to compose. It’s difficult to put my finger on what exactly inspired me to pursue composing but I think it was this ethos combined with individuals such as the pianist, Peter Evans and ecat (Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust at the time)taking an interest and performing as well as commissioning me.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

Coming to London and studying with Julian Anderson and Edwin Roxburgh made a real shift. They introduced me to so many composers as well as ideas and techniques, and this really instilled me with a desire to always be ambitious with he music I write. Studying in Tanglewood (2008) and working closely with composers Oliver Knussen, Augusta Read Thomas and others was also a very important time for me, not least because I was immersed in the music of Elliott Carter during their celebration of his centenary.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far? 

Having my son, in 2013, has been a real challenge, although not a frustration. I was used to devoting any or all my time to composing and this had to change, I’m much happier for it though!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

Each commission has its own challenges, this may be linked to a brief. It often feels like you have to learn composing anew for each piece and that’s tough. Another challenge can be the pressure you feel to produce your best work and not to let the commissioner/organiser/individual/performers down, this can be very daunting at the beginning of the composing process.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Working with musicians for the first time, whether soloists, singers or orchestras can be very exciting but also completely nerve racking. I want so much for them to respond well to what I’m doing and also enjoy learning and performing my music. My music (everyone tell me) is pretty difficult and detailed, even when I fell I’m doing something very simple. I know it takes a huge amount of energy and time to embrace a new sound world and am always incredibly grateful when musicians seem to get what I’m doing and really believe in it.

Which works are you most proud of?

It takes me a long time to feel really comfortable with a piece and it might take several years and different performances for me to let go and enjoy it. For this reason it’s a difficult question, also, how I feel about a piece can be linked to other people’s reactions at the time or the performance. I think I’m most proud of some chamber pieces such as Aviary Sketches for string trio and my Three Whistler Miniatures for Piano trio. I am proud of my Violin Concerto just now, but it’s not receiving its premiere until December so I will have to wait and see! Often I’ve had particular compositional challenges in these works but don’t feel I’ve had to compromise on my language or original vision for the piece.

How would you describe your compositional language?

My language is detailed and intricate. I am drawn to rich harmonies, initially influenced by Messiaen, Takemitsu and Boulez, and long expressive musical lines. I love to create different layers in my music and often slow music exists at the same time as fast music. Clarity and focus, as well as a dedication to always get exactly the right notes, are always paramount for me.

How do you work?

I work in a spare bedroom and spend a lot of time sketching on manuscript and using piano. Once I have developed and discarded a lot of material as well as discovered what I want to try to achieve in a piece, I start using Sibelius software alongside, always moving back and forth manuscript to rework and draft passage. This is usually pretty extensive.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Difficult to say, but Ravel, Stravinsky, Janacek, Byrd, Bach,Ligeti, Knussen feature pretty highly- obviously there are many others, living and dead, but these are composers whose music I love in its entirety.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Berg violin concerto with Christian Tetzlaff when I was an usher at the Usher Hall during the the Edinburgh International Festival.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians and composers?

To always keep a core of self belief and never ever give up, even in really tough times. Keep an open mind but always be true to your musical identity and don’t compromise on that.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Snuggled by an open fire with a good glass of red and a good book on a winter day.

Helen Grime is Wigmore Hall’s first female Composer in Residence. Helen will compose three new pieces as part of the residency, beginning with a piano concerto for Huw Watkins and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and will also contribute to the hall’s Community and Education programme. The first event of the residency will take place on October 15 with a day of concerts devoted to the composer’s music and figures that have influenced her work. Further information here

Born in 1981, Helen studied oboe with John Anderson and composition with Julian Anderson and Edwin Roxburgh at the Royal College of Music. In 2003 she won a British Composer Award for her Oboe Concerto, and was awarded the intercollegiate Theodore Holland Composition Prize in 2003 as well as all the major composition prizes in the RCM. In 2008 she was awarded a Leonard Bernstein Fellowship to study at the Tanglewood Music Center where she studied with John Harbison, Michael Gandolfi, Shulamit Ran and Augusta Read Thomas. Grime was a Legal and General Junior Fellow at the Royal College of Music from 2007 to 2009. She became a lecturer in composition at the Department of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London, in January 2010.
 
Helen has had works commissioned by some of the most established performers including London Symphony Orchestra, BCMG, Britten Sinfonia, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Music Center. Conductors who have performed her work include Daniel Harding, Pierre Boulez, Yan Pascal Tortelier and Sir Mark Elder. Her work Night Songs was commissioned by the BBC Proms in 2012 and premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Oliver Knussen. In 2011 she was appointed Associate Composer to the Hallé Orchestra for an initial tenure of three years. Her first commission for them, Near Midnight, was premiered on May 23, 2013 and a recording of her orchestral works performed by the Hallé was released as part of the NMC Debut Disc Series in 2014, which was awarded ‘Editors Choice’ by Gramophone Magazine. 
 

‘It May Have Been’ – the piano works of Paul Burnell

it20may20have20been20album20front20cover201500This new album celebrates the piano music of British composer Paul Burnell, spanning 30 years. Paul had recorded and produced previous albums himself, but in this instance he decided it was time to work with another musician, the pianist, composer and recording engineer James Bacon who runs the Piano Recording Studio. The music was recorded on a Bosendorfer Phoenix Imperial 290, fitted with the Phoenix agraffe system pioneered by Richard Dain at Hurstwood Farm Pianos, which gives the piano greater sustain and clarity of sound, especially in the high registers. This makes it ideal for Burnell’s piano music, much of which explores the timbre and sonic possibilities of the piano rather than melody per se.

“Unembellished, unfussy, unsophisticated…..and short” – Burnell’s own programme note for his Plain Pieces, a triptych dedicated to pianist Natalie Bleicher, could be applied to all the music on this album, though I would hesitate to use the word “unsophisticated”. Short, unfussy these pieces might be, but there is sophistication in the careful placing of notes to create subtle shadings, unexpected harmonies and suspended sounds. “Minimalist” is a description which immediately springs to mind on first hearing Burnell’s music, but this is not the frenetic (sometimes irritatingly so) repetitious minimalism of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman, but rather the more contemplative and spare minimalism of composers such as Lawrence Crane, whom Burnell cites as important influence (It May Have Been, Just Before Dawn). The more up-tempo pieces here (Pacer Nos, 1, 2 and 3) owe more to Howard Skempton (another significant influence) in the use of changing chords and sequences to create energy and climactic episodes. There are also echoes of that other great American minimalist, Steve Reich, in Standing in the Rain. Composed in the mid-1980s, the piece features a persistent rhythmic figure redolent of Reich’s Clapping Music and similar compositions.

Paul was kind enough to send me copies of the scores of the pieces featured on this album and it has been a pleasure to explore the music both through listening and playing. The music is accessible (roughly Grade 3-7) and attractive, but not simplistic (see my earlier comments about sophistication) and it takes a skilled and thoughtful pianist to create the considered sounds which Burnell’s music requires. This music also offers the piano student a good introduction to minimalism and provides a jumping off point for further exploration of this genre.

James Bacon brings the works to life on this recording with clarity, sensitivity and creativity – adding a drone to 2 Ping – combined with his technical expertise in the field of recording and sound engineering, and superb state-of-the-art equipment.

Recommended.

‘It May Have Been’ is available from iTunes, Amazon and other retailers as a download or CD, and can also be streamed on Spotify.

Paul Burnell’s Meet the Artist interview will be published shortly.

 

 

 

 

 

If you listen to one thing this week…….

‘Heading for the Hills’ by Nobuya Monta and Peter Byrom-Smith
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Performed by Strata String Quartet
Violin 1: Oliver Morris
Violin 2: Alexandra Dunn
Viola: Laurie Dempsey / Alice Billen
Cello: Roderick Skipp

Recorded at Blueprint Studios, Salford
Mixed and Mastered by Gaz Hadfield
Cover design by Louis Barabbas

Debt Records, released July 15, 2016

This first classical release by Debt Records celebrates a groundbreaking East-West collaborative partnership between Japanese composer Nobuya Monta and British composer Peter Byrom-Smith. ‘Heading for the Hills’, a suite in 10 movements for string quartet, is the main work on the album, bookended by Sonata Lamentosa and Sinfonia by Monta. Peter Byrom-Smith’s work, which lends its title to the album, is a tribute to the landscape of the Peak District close to where Peter and his wife Gillian, a poet, have made their home in Glossop in Derbyshire.

“The title of the album was taken from a poem written by my wife Gillian Byrom-Smith. The poem was inspired by the frequent rail journeys we have taken across the flat Vale of York towards the beauty of the Pennines.”

The main six movements of the work are musical images of real journeys between the east and west of England, depicting things the composer observed, or thought he had observed during the course of these journeys (Galleons, Swallows, Raindrops, Heading for the Hills Lanterns, Buds). A Prelude and Postlude were added to complete the work – and the journey – so that the suite works as an entire narrative when performed in concert. No. 7, Buds, was composed by Nobuya Monta and Peter Byrom-Smith.

This haunting, expressive and evocative music contains hints of British minimalist composer Michael Nyman, but without the (sometimes tiresome) insistent repetitions. Byrom-Smith seems more intent on using melody, harmony and dialogue between the instruments to create interesting textures and musical interactions. Motifs are stated, restated and developed, for example the dancing figure which opens over a drone in ‘Raindrops’  develops into a playful, twirling dance between the instruments. Here there are more than a few hints of English folksong and dance before the middle section unfolds in a more contemplative manner. Later, the folksy motif returns and an insistent little fanfare is heard in all instruments. 

‘Swallows’ creates a feeling of space, of birds wheeling and circling in the sky, with its contoured melodic lines and delicate fioriture, redolent of the solo violin line in ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Vaughan-Williams. ‘Buds’ unfolds slowly, just as a flower or plant opens to reveal itself. The final work in the suite, Postlude, recalls themes heard previously in the Prelude and introduces new material to bring the narrative and imagery to its conclusion.

Nobuya Monta’s ‘Sonata Lamentosa’ is an emotional response to the tragedies that have occurred all over the world. The textures here are more florid, the mood more urgent with an almost Schubertian melancholy (cf String Quartet No. 14, ‘Death and the Maiden’), though, as in Schubert, there is also a sense of hope. 

The closing work on the album, ‘Sinfonia’, is also by Monta, and once again seems infused with the moods and motifs of late Schubert and the harmonic and rhythmic piquancy of the early twentieth century (Ravel, Debussy). It utilises contrapuntal textures and the second movement is a thrilling fugue.

‘Heading for the Hills’ – CD or download

Composer Peter Byrom-Smith will featured in forthcoming Meet the Artist interview

 

 

 

 

Meet the Artist……Jimmy Lee, composer

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Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I discovered my ability to compose almost by accident. I had always been active and in love with the performing arts, school plays, school and church choir’s amateur dramatics etc…. It all started for me when I began to write poetry, mostly autobiographical of childhood memories, life experiences and so on. Without any formal training, I found that I could create melodies by turning my poems into song; I seem to have a natural gift as a songwriter. The four pieces on the album ‘The Empty Room’ were written on guitar some time ago and although I was not able to transcribe them for symphony orchestra myself at that time, When I was eventually able to hear the music played by the ensemble I founded, I was more than delighted and promised myself that one day I would record and perform all of my music albeit ballads, folk, Americana but most importantly, orchestral.  That time came a few years ago. Since that time I have produced four albums, written over thirty songs poems and produced two musical stage productions from albums.. All have been well received and proven very popular with a variety of audiences. I am ‘at one’ when I am performing!

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

In my childhood and at school I became emotional, reflective and very thoughtful when I heard pleasing melodies and songs. I remember at school performing Schubert’s ‘Trout’, so beautiful and meaningful; also the songs of Stephen C Foster. I was captivated by their meaning and how simple it seemed to be able to tell a story and express emotion and events good or bad. In the early 60’s I was fortunate enough to share a flat in London with very talented musicians, with a wide range of musical interests from folk to orchestral and I attended many performances throughout London and yearned to play my part. I practised hard on guitar/vocals and played my first few gigs at the Troubadour and the Half Moon in Putney.. From then on I was hooked.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

To keep my desire to perform in check. I have dipped in and out of the music scene from the late 70s, performing in the UK, Europe and the USA but my sense of responsibilities’ to provide security for my young family always overruled my personal ambition. I have no regrets in pursuing a career in the commercial world, which was thankfully both enjoyable and successful.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The challenge is to understand what is required and to create something that will last, stand the test of time and be meaningful and pleasing not just to the audience but to yourself. I have no respect for transient music.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I am not the greatest musician in the world and I am always in awe of the standard talent and ability of trained or gifted musicians. Sometimes I feel intimidated and inadequate but I am usually put at ease and enjoy that company enormously.

Which works are you most proud of?

Apart from my orchestral works, which I am enormously proud of, there is a ballad on my ‘Runaway’ album called Hard Man. It was a difficult song to write and sometimes too difficult to sing but the lyrics say it all. It is a song about my Father who suffered terribly in Burma during the WWI and carried the scars for life. It is both a criticism and a tribute to a man who was never able to be the Father that I know he could have been and wanted to be.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

There are many from Chopin, Mozart, Schubert, John Williams, Paul Simon, John Lennon, Adele, Leonard Cohen, Kris Kristofferson and many more!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hearing my orchestral works performed by a full symphony orchestra at the Guards Chapel in Wellington Barracks, London in November 2015

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

For me, all music must tell a story that would be both interesting and in some way moving. The story line/lyrics will often suggest music and the music will often suggest a story line or lyrics. The two are inseparable do not be swayed by what is in vogue follow your instincts your gifts are specific to you… create and never give up!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?…….

Still alive and well.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?….

Contentment.

What is your most treasured possession?…

My health and my guitar.

What do you enjoy doing most?…

Snowboarding, wind-surfing, and performing but not at the same time !!!!

What is your present state of mind?…

Excited, apprehensive, confident and pleased that at this time in my life I still have a lot to look forward to.

From classical music to folk and country, Jimmy Lee has an exotic and diverse compositional style. Disregarding all barriers that stand between genres, Jimmy has pursued his love of music regardless of any rules. His career has taken him across the globe from bars and beer joints in America’s Mid West to London’s Wembley Arena. After taking a break from the music scene, Jimmy Lee founded the Blue Coconut Music Club and decided to take up his calling once again.

Jimmy Lee released his debut classical album for symphony orchestra in Spring 2016. Having caught the attention of the Director Music at The Army Corps of Musicians (CAMUS), Kneller Hall with the power and beauty of his music, Jimmy Lee begun a collaboration with the Military for his next project. The album was recorded by Abbey Road Studios at The Guards Chapel, Wellington Barracks and Birdcage Walk with combined military and civilian musicians.

Read more about Jimmy Lee here

 

 

Meet the Artist…… Jack White, composer, producer & songwriter

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Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

My parents and especially my granddad have always been very supportive and encouraging. My granddad always wanted to be able to play the piano and compose, but he wasn’t offered any opportunities to learn when he was younger. I think that’s what drove him to encourage me: he saw that I enjoyed it, and made sure I took all the opportunities I could.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

It may sound obvious, but my parents. I couldn’t have been offered the opportunities I have been today without their help and support.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

I think it’s important to learn how to fail ‘productively’. As a freelance composer you are never going to get every single opportunity you put yourself forward for. It’s important to try and remain positive. Take criticism on board where you think it’s fair, but remember that your music should ultimately be defined by you. There have been times when I have felt it was right to reject criticism. Knowing when to do this can be tricky to navigate when you’re starting out.

With every performance you get better at communicating the music in your mind’s ear to an audience. This process is a very personal one. It operates on many levels between transcription and translation. No-one can tell you whether it has been successful other than yourself. Do not be too self-critical when you make a mistake, because that’s how you learn.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

It’s great when you can shape a piece around a specific group. I always try to feed off the energy and enthusiasm of an ensemble when I write.

You’ve recently been announced as a London Music Masters Award holder, tell us more about this?

It’s very exciting because it’s the first year that this scheme has been opened up to composers, so I am thrilled to be able to take this opportunity! I am also looking forward to being able to better advocate Contemporary Classical Music, and work with the young people involved in the scheme.

Who will you be composing for as part of your LMM Award?

I’ll be writing a piece for a YCAT (Young Concert Artists Trust) musician through the LMM/YCAT partnership.  I’ve been given a hint as to which musician it may be, and I can already say I’m very excited about it!

Of which works are you most proud?

I love the recording of my BBCSO orchestral piece ‘Digital Dust’. Also, the multi-part choral piece ‘Islands (Ynysoedd)’ I wrote for what became a celebration of Sir John Tavener’s life in Southwark Cathedral, following his death. More recently I wrote a piece for Côr Aduniad called ‘We Have No Right To The Stars’. This is a translation of a poem by Hedd Wyn, and I think it’s one of my favourite choral settings to date.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I like to describe my style as emotional and accessible. When I was first getting inspired by music I used to get the ‘tingle factor’ (when the hairs on the back of your neck used to stand up) when I listened to music I loved. I have tried to find a compositional language which allows others to feel a strong emotional attachment to my work.

How do you work?

I like to write straight into the computer if I am working on a piece. I usually work at a piano to sketch ideas, and when I am happy with them, notate them straight away.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Kaija Saariaho, Jonathan Harvey, Michael Tippett, John Tavener, Benjamin Britten, Tori Amos, Björk.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I can’t remember the exact details but I watched Vaughan Williams’ ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’ when I was very young. I can remember the music having a profound impact upon me.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Learning how to listen is probably the most important part of becoming a musician. It takes time to develop and is fundamental to your success in all areas of the business.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

In a studio which would make Hans Zimmer jealous!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being truly grateful for everything you have.

What is your most treasured possession?

My piano.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Laughing.

What is your present state of mind?

Upbeat.

 

Jack White studied music at Somerville College, Oxford.  His postgraduate studies have been undertaken solely at Cardiff University where he has recently finished his PhD in composition.  His research interests are in electroacoustic composition and the combination of this media with traditional ensembles in ‘live’ performance.  He is also interested in the scoring methods used by electroacoustic composers and the relationship between such methods and a work’s identity.

Jack White is the recent recipient of a London Music Masters award

Jack White’s website

 

Meet the Artist……Kenneth Hesketh, composer

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Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

My musical life began as a chorister at the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool in 1977 when I was nine, but singing had already been a part of my life (winning local music festivals for solo singing), which is the reason I went to audition at the Cathedral. After joining I was given piano lessons and other basic theoretical training. From about the age of ten, I was composing a number of things which further supported my initial forays into composition; primarily the unwavering support of my mother and grandmother who purchased a piano and reams of manuscript paper. Various BBC programmes on music at the time engaged me; my parents mentioned a James Blades programme on percussion that I was enthralled by before I want to the Cathedral and I subsequently took up percussion alongside piano. I also fondly remember the Stravinsky centenary programmes on BBC 2 in 1982. The support of the organist at Liverpool Cathedral, Ian Tracey, a lovely piano teacher, Dorothy Hill, who was also an opera fanatic who would invite me to accompany her to Opera North seasons in Liverpool for a number of years. Singing high quality choral music of the Italian renaissance, English Tudor and even 20th century periods, all of these cemented my need to live in music.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

It dawned on me about 10 years ago that one reason much of my work is saturated by activity against sustained resonances comes from my childhood memories of the acoustical properties of the Cathedral building.  The sort of aural glow that is present in that building (and sometimes, musical confusion!) seeped into my head at an impressionable age and has remained ever since. The reverberation of a large acoustic space also suggests ambiguity, doubt and distance to me. Also, the nature of ritual and text, the rich, reflective nature of space and echo, all left their mark on me.

Music of the Franco-Russian period – orchestral music mostly – was important when I was a very young composer and remains a pleasure for me to this day. I was lucky from the age of 13 to have my orchestral work performed by the Merseyside Youth orchestra and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. From 2007-2009 I was the RPS Composer in the House with the RLPO which felt like a full turn of the wheel and a wonderful homecoming. About the age of 12 I had composition lessons from composer Steven Pratt (I remember that mine would often follow Steve Martland’s lessons) and he challenged my rather safe musical horizons with works by Berg, Messiaen, Boulez, Hugh Wood (his teacher) and other repertoire I would not have come across myself at this time. Three composers followed who have had a profound influence on how I believe a composer should be, Edwin Roxburgh, Oliver Knussen and Henri Dutilleux – fastidious in work, with acute musical ears and generous in spirit and nature.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Maintaining space – both physical and mental – to work, to stay on top of commissions, to teach and be an active and present father to my young son. The musical challenges have been to remain true to the real inner voice and how to express it as clearly as possible, which also has a direct impact on technical issues of notation and performer psychology.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The challenges may come from the terms of the commission,  the constraints of the instrumental forces, the duration, the context which the new piece will find itself in (I’m not a fan of ‘themed’ or anniversary commissions but take them anyhow) and so on. The solving of these problems is also the pleasure of working on a commissioned piece. Solving a self-imposed technical issue (formal, harmonic etc.) and conveying something of the deeper intended affect or mood – without simply priming people in a programme note! –  is also a challenge/pleasure coupling.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

As scores are only the best possible ‘model’ to aspire to in realising a work, one hopes that it can be executed as conceived in the rehearsal time allowed. One also hopes that a collective situation can be arrived at where I feel the piece is well represented and speaks as intended (expresses its nature) and that there has been a transformative journey, for all involved – audience, performers, myself.  Working with technically brilliant and artistically informed musicians is one of the great pleasures of this musical life, as is the celebratory drink after a premiere!

Which works are you most proud of?

The ones which seem the most authentic to my ‘inner voice’ (perhaps even musical conscience) and also the ones where I’ve taken technical and emotional steps beyond my own initial expectations. This, in the happiest of circumstances, can lead to a synthesis of things I was only dimly aware of but which then become a foundation to build on in the following work.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

There are a great deal of established musicians and composers from the past and present who I find exciting, and even close to, that cover different musical genres (art music, medieval music, Moorish music, folk music). But I suppose it is the people that I have established a long-term working relationship with (and usually personal friendship) that are the most interesting and that I favour.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

To be honest I find performances nerve-wracking (perhaps a reason I gave up giving them myself) so I try to put them behind me or at least view them in hindsight.  However, my Prom concerts – be they as a performer (I was in the National Youth Orchestra of GB as a percussionist) or composer – are very special memories. Going onto the stage with an audience at the RAH is a hard experience to beat. But then, when I was 17, accepting the applause of a Liverpool Philharmonic Hall audience after the premiere of my early symphony, and more than two decades later accepting the applause on the same stage for a large work for orchestra, choir and tenor and being greeted with a warm and extended applause once more, these will also remain in memory.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Strive for technical mastery; be honest to your inner creative impulse; be curious and listen, read and experience art in all its forms; challenge yourself regularly if not daily (ask hard questions); make connections and get your name and work out there, however distasteful or difficult you may feel it is. If you wanted an easy profession you took the wrong turn.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Still here.

Pianist Clare Hammond has released a disc of solo piano music by Kenneth Hesketh. Featuring Kenneth’s masterpiece, Horae (pro clara), a series of twelve miniatures written for Clare in 2011/12, this disc features a further three works which illustrate his kaleidoscopic approach to colour and the incisiveness of his imagination: Notte Oscura, Three Japanese Miniatures and Through Magic Casements. The disc is available now on the BIS label.

Described by Tempo magazine as “a composer who both has something to say and the means to say it”, Kenneth Hesketh’s work has met with widespread critical acclaim. He is a composer fluent in multiple genres and has worked with leading ensembles and orchestras in Europe, the USA, and the Far East.

He has received commissions from organisations including the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Göttinger Symphonie Orchester and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group amongst others. Hesketh’s work has featured at the Prague Premieres (Czech Philharmonic orchestra), Tanglewood, Munich Biennial, Beijing Modern Music, ISCM (Korea) and Gaudeamus Festivals. Appointed Royal Philharmonic Society/ PRS Foundation Composer in the House with the RLPO, his works were performed and broadcast as part of European City of Culture events. His music has been recorded on the London Sinfonietta label and has been the subject of a number of portrait discs on the NMC, BIS, Psappha and Prima Facie labels.

Hesketh’s early interest in other artforms, be they classical architecture, medieval iconography, poetry or Bauhaus constructivism, have more recently included a fascination with entropy, mutation and existentialism. His work has been described as “pure music, in possessing – because the notes seem to be creating their own harmonic and rhythmic forces and processes – a great freshness.” (Paul Griffiths).

Hesketh has worked with an array of important conductors including Sir Simon Rattle, Vasilly Sinaisky, Vasily Petrenko, Susanna Malkki, Ludovic Morlot, Pascal Rophé and Oliver Knussen who was an early champion of his work. Christoph-Mathias Mueller and Clark Rundell have also championed Hesketh’s music in Britain and Europe with orchestras including the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, SWR Sinfonie Orchester Baden-Baden and Ensemble 10/10.

His works for chamber and solo forces have been performed by Nicholas Daniel, Hansjorg Schellenberger, Sarah Leonard, Rodney Clarke, Sarah Nichols, Christopher Redgate, Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Clare Hammond. Commissions in this genre include the Endymion Ensemble (in honour of Hans Werner Henze’s 75th birthday), the Festival Présences (Paris), the Munich Biennale, Kissinger Sommer Internationales Musikfestival, ensemble Psappha, the Continuum ensemble, the Michael Vyner Trust for the London Sinfonietta, Ensemble contemporain de Montréal and the ASKO ensemble.

Hesketh’s music for the stage covers subjects as disparate as the Brothers Grimm and DNA. Commissioned by The Opera Group and Phoenix Dance Theatre, his work has toured nationally (including performances at the Royal Opera House in London). He has also composed music for three art films, all sharing an interest in the bizarre and eerie on celluloid.

Kenneth Hesketh is professor of composition and orchestration at the Royal College of Music, honorary professor at Liverpool University and active as a guest lecturer and visiting professor.

“Hesketh’s music is beautiful, complex and restless … His response to musical form is particularly remarkable … The colorful orchestration and palpable verve in the individual gestures and large-scale construction make me want to return to them again and again.” American Record Guide

The Raymond Variations

The ‘Raymond Variations for Piano’ (Set: 1) by S. G. Potts are based on the Andantino themes from the Raymond Overture of 1851 by French composer Ambroise Thomas (1811 – 1896). The work received its world premiere in London on 2nd December 2015 at the 1901 Arts Club, performed by Lorraine Womack-Banning as part of a concert in memory to her late husband Raymond Banning (former professor of pianoforte at Trinity College London)

The Variations are based on the three Andantino themes which form a central part of the Raymond Overture (although the third andantino theme from the overture is in itself a variant of the second theme). There are nine piano variations in total which include a mix of both full and short partial variations (including a very short declamatory two chord introductory variation). The variations are not numbered or set-apart in a conventional manner, rather they form part of a continuous whole, and are separated only by bridge passages and/or cadence points. They have been written for the most part in an easily accessible tonal style (with a passing nod to Messrs. Beethoven and J.S. Bach). A pdf perusal copy of the score can be downloaded from the British Music Collection at: http://britishmusiccollection.org.uk/… And a more in-depth analysis of the variations can be found at: http://open.academia.edu/StephenGPotts

The recording heard here in this ‘virtual performance’ has been produced through Sibelius 7.5, in anticipation of the next live performance(s) due to be filmed and recorded later in the year.  In agreement with the composer, and until September 2016, Lorraine Womack-Banning holds exclusive performance rights to the Raymond Variations, after which time the sheet music will be published and made available for wider performance.

Lorraine Womack-Banning, who premiered the work at the 1901 Arts Club in December 2015, writes about the music:

In April 2015 I received an email from Stephen Potts asking me to consider giving the premiere and making a recording of his new composition.

I agreed to consider this project and Stephen then sent me the MP3 along with a couple of pages of the score to help me make my decision. I was stunned to open the title page ‘Variations for Piano on the Andantino Themes from the Raymond Overture (by Ambroise Thomas 1811-1816)’ as I had just arranged to play a Memorial Recital for my late husband the Pianist and Trinity College of Music Professor Raymond Banning; it seemed as if fate had sent this score especially as it transpired that Stephen had no knowledge whatsoever of Raymond nor my connection to him.

As soon as I listened to the MP3 I absolutely loved Stephen’s composition and it was agreed that I would premiere it at the Memorial Concert for Raymond at the 1901 Arts Club on December 2nd 2015, the 3rd Anniversary of Raymond’s death.

The longer I live with this work the more I love it: the opening Andantino theme is deeply romantic with little indication of turbulence to come later. I love the drive and dark energy of the Variations and the dramatic ending. It is a work of extremes and a great piece to play. I will always feel strongly connected to it.



The composer, Stephen Potts, kindly took part in the Meet the Artist interview series:

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

My first hearing of the Tchaikovsky 1st piano concerto when I was 14 sparked my interest in classical music, this inspired me to study music seriously, and in particular to take up composition.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I feel I have been influenced most by the music of Beethoven and J. S. Bach more than any other composers. I admire the raw passion and strength inherent in Beethoven’s style and the contrapuntal and fugal writing inherent in Bach. On a more personal level, I was helped early in my music career by Layton Ring (former harpsichordist with the Northern Sinfonia) who helped stage my first large orchestral work (Romanza for Violin and Orchestra) and who successfully conducted a number of performances of this piece in the Newcastle Chamber Orchestra’s 1992 season.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

The greatest challenge I usually have is in being satisfied with what I have written. I am by far my own most severe critic, this usually results in compositions taking an extremely long time to complete. Frustrations often include raising sufficient awareness of my music, which then leads to difficulties in finding performers to perform the music. I became so frustrated some 20 or so years ago at being unable to get much of my music performed and published that I gave up writing music completely; I instead concentrated on bringing up my young family and began a career in computing. In fact I have only just returned to composition some 3 or 4 years ago, and now that I am older and wiser, I don’t concern myself nearly as much about performances or publication. I am particularly less concerned with publication as there are so many other opportunities available today, especially with the avenues that have opened up thanks to digital media. It is also nice that publishing houses are not now monopolising (so much) what is delivered to an audience.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

The pleasures of working on a commissioned piece include: dedicated performers; a guarantee of a performance(s); and payment. Although with payments currently being so seriously low for a commissioned piece (on average within the UK only £918, Source: Sound and Music Composer Commissioning Survey Report 2015), I feel commissions are a luxury I can ill afford! However, I am fortunate enough that I do not have to rely upon commissions, this also brings with it the advantage that I can write what I choose, whenever I choose.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

There is the opportunity to write to an individual musician’s strengths, and you are usually ensured of a very committed performance; also the opportunity to learn from individual performers and to receive their feedback during composition can be very valuable to a dedicated composer, particularly in my case, as I am not a performer myself. Therefore I find that not being a performer, I tend to have a very good relationship with musicians performing my music, they tend to trust me to write the music and I trust them to perform it.

Of which works are you most proud? 

I am proud of all the work(s) I write, otherwise I wouldn’t class them as ready for release, (I have actually shelved many more works than I have released) this due to being such a stern critic of my own work. I am very proud of the Raymond Variations for Piano (Set: 1) which I have just recently completed, but also equally as proud of the piece I am currently working on, a mixed choir setting of Longfellow’s Christmas Bells, I am particularly proud of the melody I have written for this piece and I believe it captures the essence of the season in the manner of carols from the Victorian age.

How would you characterise your compositional language? 

Tonal, with occasional elements of advanced 20th and 21st century harmonies where appropriate. Uppermost in my mind when I write music is that it needs to be passionate and that I need to reach out and engage with the audience. I do not write for academics, critics, or academic/critical praise; with me it’s always the listener first and foremost. I like it if an audience can walk out of a concert whistling or humming one of my melodies, to quote Webern, I will know I am accepted as a composer if I ever hear a Postman whistling one of my melodies!

How do you work? 

In many different ways, but the composition process is always very difficult for me, I think long and hard before I ever begin a piece. I have to be fully committed to the idea, and it all stems from an initial melody, motif or text; I won’t begin a piece until these aspects are clear in my mind. Tools I use are a piano for initial improvisation, and (nowadays) Sibelius software to notate and produce the score. The piano improvisation part usually comes first, (although I do often create melodies in my mind away from the piano) then I move onto notating with Sibelius, But once I have devised a theme or motif I am content with, (and this always goes through many changes) I develop that idea thoroughly in my mind and this is where the true composition process takes place. For example, once I decided that I wanted to write some variations on the Raymond overture, my mind couldn’t rest, I developed and mentally wrote the introductory variation in my kitchen while doing some cooking. But even after I have finished a piece, I invariably make changes: days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years later. I also find that if I am unable to sleep at night, that working on a piece as I am lying in bed can be very productive, it enables me to gather my musical thoughts from that day. I especially find the peace and quiet a perfect setting for creating some new snippets of music, and for developing and discarding other music that I might currently be working on.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

Composers: J. S. Bach, Beethoven, and Janacek from the Baroque/Classical/Romantic periods, and Carl Vine the Australian composer, and Jennifer Higdon the American composer, from contemporary music.

Some favourite musicians include, pianists Andras Schiff, and Khatia Buniatishvili, and conductor Mark Elder.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

The premiere of my ‘Romanza for Violin and Orchestra’ in 1992 at the Newcastle Gulbenkian Theatre, this was the first time I had heard one of my full orchestral works publicly performed, it was received quite favourably, and I went home that night very pleased.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?  

This is tricky…I think one thing I would personally raise to composers is: don’t feel pressured into writing atonal music (or ‘modern’ music) simply to try to impress academics, or to develop the cause of composition, or simply to write in an accepted contemporary style. This can be done in many other different ways (in my own personal opinion) which can incorporate tonal harmony and melodic motifs. Having written in both styles, I can personally state that I find it much more difficult to write in a tonal style, but ultimately it is more rewarding. However, this is not to say that I dislike contemporary art music written in the more ‘modern’ style, there are many pieces I could list that I really do like that are written in just this style.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Seated in a nice concert hall awaiting the premiere of my 9th symphony…So I’d better get started on those other 8!

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

That’s easy, spending time in and around Southwold, and on Southwold beach with my partner Emma, then later relaxing and watching the sun go down with a nice pint of beer to hand.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My late father’s watch, it reminds me just how important time really is.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Studying and learning, I particularly enjoy studying and listening to new pieces of music.

Away from music, I love to spend time with my two year old grandson Harry.

What is your present state of mind? 

Hopefully it’s enough to say that I am an optimist.

Stephen G. Potts was born and lives in the North East of England. He has recently  returned to composition following an almost 20 year period of absence from music. He has studied: Traditional and 20th Century Harmony; Orchestration; Advanced Composition, and holds a Master’s degree in music. Works in progress (during 2016/17) include: a mixed choir setting of H. W. Longfellow’s Christmas Bells, and Set 2 of the Raymond Variations for Piano.

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Horae (pro clara) – Kenneth Hesketh

hesketh_coverThe latest release from pianist Clare Hammond is a disc for BIS Records of solo piano music by British composer Kenneth Hesketh –  Horae (pro clara) (2011/12), Notte Oscura (2002), Through Magic Casements (2008) and Three Japanese Miniatures (2002).

Horae (pro clara) was written for Clare Hammond following Kenneth Hesketh’s meeting with Clare at her debut recital at the Southbank Centre in 2010. They have subsequently developed a close artistic collaboration.

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Clare Hammond (photo: Julie Kim)
Clare says of Ken’s music that “it can seem overwhelming at times, yet if one engages with its textural intricacy, the scope of his extra-musical allusions, and volatile virtuosity, rich rewards lie in store”. Clare seems ideally suited to this type of repertoire. Her debut album, Piano Polytych, containing works by Kenneth Hesketh, Julian Anderson, Piers Hellawell, Giles Swayne and Philip Grange, revealed her to be a fine advocate for contemporary piano repertoire, combining flawless technique with a sharp intellect and musical sensitivity to bring such works to life with colour, vibrancy and rhythmic precision, and totally without the self-consciousness or affectation that sometimes accompanies performances of this type of repertoire.

Kenneth Hesketh’s musical language is drawn from a broad range of stimuli, including classical architecture, medieval iconography, poetry, Bauhaus constructivism and existentialism, and these extra-musical references bring texture, structure and a wide range of moods, tempi, colour and piquancy to his music. The works presented on this disc are complex, both technically and musically, with dense textures and abrupt voltes faces between the macabre and grotesque and the delicate and poignant. What Clare Hammond does so well is to bring a sparkling clarity to the tightly-packed textures without comprising her sensitive musicality and her ability to shift seamlessly between the myriad moods and styles of the pieces.

The first work on this disc, Through Magic Casements, takes its title from Keats’ Ode To A Nightingale and much of its soundworld seems to echo the imagery of the poem with its urgent febrile passages which fade to nothing at the end.

The work which occupies most of the disc, Horae (pro clara), was premiered by Clare Hammond at the Cheltenham Festival in July 2013, and consists of twelve miniatures which as a whole form a ‘breviary’ or book of hours. The movements are not titled; instead they have evocative performance directions and some incorporate literary references. Thematic material, such as Hesketh’s fascination with machines and automata, is shared across the set, thus linking the pieces, though they can be performed in any order. Some contain dense thickets of notes and melodic lines, abrupt and plangent bass interruptions, and vibrant rhythms (VII: Capriccioso), while others comprise spare shards and delicate scurrying traceries (VI: Nervoso, ma dolce, for example).

The third work Notte Oscura (2002) is a piano transcription of the first interlude in Hesketh’s opera The Overcoat, after Nikolai Gogol, and in it Hesketh highlights Gogol’s description of St Petersburg’s powerful and all-pervasive cold. The opening bass chords are perfectly judged by Clare Hammond, lending a sense of foreboding before the music moves into a more melodic passage, though the mood of menace and anxiety is never far away. Repeated tremolo notes high in the register suggest shards of ice, while the bass sonorities conjure up the vastness of the Russian landscape.

The suite Three Japanese Miniatures concludes the disc. The works are drawn from fragments and paraphrases of a larger work by Hesketh inspired by Japanese folk tales and each movement portrays a story, from a nocturnal wanderer who finds himself amid the imposing grandeur of a ruined temple to a winter sprite who takes revenge on a broken promise by taking the lives of a man and his children and finally the story of Bumbuku, a daemon who takes the form of a badger and lives in a tea kettle. The works are expressive, haunting and humorous, and, as in the previous works on this disc, Clare highlights their distinctive narratives with precise articulation and a vivid palette of musical colour.

Horae (pro clara) is released on 27 May on the BIS label. Further information and sound clips here

An interview with composer Kenneth Hesketh will appear in the Meet the Artist series on 2 June

Clare Hammond is the recent recipient of a Royal Philharmonic Society young artist award