Thursday, August 22, 2013

We've moved to

We've moved our blog to a new permanent home on our website - Please visit us there

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Composition competitions

Heather Roche and Lauren Redhead have written posts in the last couple of days about composition competitions, with some interesting insights from the point of view of an ensemble and a composer as well as posing a number of thought provoking questions. And it definitely got us thinking.

As an organisation, we’re trying to get new music out to broader audiences and give opportunities to emerging composers and musicians and we organise a small number of events to do that. We find composers to work with by running two calls/competitions a year which are structured around creating concert programmes. Really the calls define the model for what we do so we definitely want to make it attractive to composers (and musicians who we work with too of course).

For each call we’re looking for 6 emerging composers to either write a new piece or support the performance of an existing piece for a set instrumentation and duration to create a concert programme. So far, we’ve asked composers to submit 2 existing pieces, ideally for similar instrumentation that we’re programming, so that a selection panel can chose the “best” 6 composers. Only the successful composers have then been asked to write a new piece by a particular date about 4 months in the future. We don’t charge an entry fee and we currently don’t give a commissioning fee (we hope to be able to do this in the future once we are in a more stable financial position). We don’t ask composers to write about why they want this opportunity or to describe their music or anything like that - the selection is based on the music only so the selection panel only have the scores and recordings/midi files (we ask for recordings because we include an audience member on the panel and they generally can’t read scores). CVs are requested for the admin in the background to check against our eligibility criteria (not published, not an undergraduate student etc). We change the members of the selection panel for each call so that we minimise any biases (towards individuals or a particular aesthetic) as much as we can.

In return, composers receive a performance opportunity in a public concert, a recording, photos and promotion for the months running up to the concert. But what we really want is for it not to be a one off thing. We hold a collaboration work shop where each composer gets time with the ensemble to work on their piece and the other composers are welcome to attend too. We also encourage the composers to attend additional rehearsals, when they can, to start developing a relationship with the ensemble. Aside from a great concert, success is also when a composer and an ensemble click and the ensemble incorporates a piece into their repertoire or chose to work with a composer again in the future. This is a bit tricky for us - we can’t force that to happen, at the moment it feels a bit like we play match-maker and sometimes the chemistry works, often it doesn’t or practicalities get in the way.

Michael Cutting (composer) and Richard Uttley (pianist) in our January collaboration work shop 

So that’s what we do at the moment.

From reading Heather and Lauren’s posts and some responses, I hope our call doesn't make anyone run away screaming but it makes me think about the need for us to do more to make it not just a one-off thing and to be more transparent in the call and when booking musicians about what our ideal outcome is. And we’re always open to suggestions - how could we do this better? what would musicians and composers find most beneficial?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Our first birthday

We’ve just celebrated our first birthday (with a couple of glasses of bubbles of course) and got quite excited about everything we’ve done in our first year. We’ve come from not even having a name last Easter to having worked with 11 emerging composers, 12 emerging musicians and being described by Bachtrack as having “found an effective formula for presenting its new works”.

The 2 concerts have been hugely enjoyable - they’re the culmination of everything we do and what we’re all about - seeing the results of composers and musicians collaborating and also talking to the audience about the inspiration and the challenges behind the pieces. Every piece that we’ve programmed feels special, some were written specifically for us and some were second or third (or tenth) performances. Both things are important - providing a platform for new works to be heard but also to give composers the opportunity to have repeat performances of existing works. Excerpts from the first concert are on soundcloud and the second concert is coming soon. 

Particular highlights for me were Bill Dougherty eloquently describing the effect of light on water that inspired his piece The Aureole Effect and then the audience reaction to it - it seemed to be a marmite piece, some people loved it and some people didn’t quite love it but everyone could hear the effect he had described. Similarly, Piers Tattersall talking about the love triangle in the story behind his piece At a distance of less than a yard… and hearing the different characters in the instruments. Oh, and Josh Batty from the Atea Quintet talking about the technical challenges in Yuko Ohara’s Double Helix, which was right at the edge of what’s possible and then playing amazingly. And and and….. I could go on for some time….

Bill Dougherty talking about his inspiration with Matt Downes and Anna Patalong 

We’ve been lucky to have great audiences at The Forge, they (you!) were attentive and appreciative. Pretty vocal about their thoughts on the music as well, which is great - I love talking to people in the bar afterwards and everyone has a different favourite piece and had different reactions and experiences to the music.

Some of the other highlights for me this year have also been when the musicians have particularly liked one of the pieces or how one of the composers writes and so have performed the piece again or another of their pieces - Elizabeth Rossiter recently performed Ed Nesbit’s A Pretence of Wit again (with soprano Francis Israel) and the Ligeti Quartet performed Steve Hicks’ trumpet quintet last October and plan to perform it again later this year. A part of what we’re trying to do is for composers and musicians to form relationships for the future, so it’s not just a one off thing and it’s exciting that it’s starting to happen already.

None of this would be possible without some fabulous people and while trying to avoid sounding like a Oscar’s speech, there’s a few people that it wouldn’t feel right not to mention. Firstly Steve Cook and Matt Downes, who are the other 2 trustees, who put a huge amount of time and effort in to make this a success. You’ll have seen Matt on stage presenting (slightly irreverently!) at the concerts and the results of Steve’s fabulous creativity in the concert curating and programmes. The estate of Chris Bull and the Fenton Arts Trust have both believed in what we’re doing and offered us financial support, without which nothing would be possible. Lots of lovely people have generously helped us with their skills, time and facilities: Jeremiah Crawley, Brett Cox, Ed Davison, Marc Dooley, Chrissie Ganjou, Anthony Ganjou, Andrew Kurowski, Andrew Mellor, Melissa Mellor, Cathy Pyle, Sinan Savaskan and Robert Saxton

Post our birthday macaroons, we turned our attention to the future. Richard Uttley kindly agreed to join Steve, Matt and me as our fourth trustee and as expected, he’s brilliant! I’m really excited to be working with the Octandre Ensemble for our next concert (14th November at The Forge) and we have a few other thoughts up our sleeves about interesting, maybe slightly quirky things to do in 2014. So after macaroons, things got a bit bouncy (absolutely nothing to do with the bubbles…). We always like to hear ideas so please do tell us if you have a fab idea for what we should be looking to do in the coming months/years

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Audience review - Coaxing interesting sounds from a flute

It’s been a long time since I was asked to pay close attention to a piece of music. Some 20 years, in fact. I was studying for a GCSE in music and we thought our teacher was pretty contemporary when he asked us to discuss pop classic Alone by the big-haired, big-voiced band Heart. This was the late 1980s after all.

But I suspect when it came to our discussions on the more traditional notion of classical music, the closest we got to contemporary was Gabriel Fauré. And he died in 1924.

So, as I listened to four world premieres and one UK premiere at the latest New Dots event at The Forge in Camden, I realised just how little I knew about this area of music. Classical means Mozart, Bach and Wagner, right?

New Dots was founded in June 2012 to dispel exactly this myth. The charity brings together emerging composers and musicians to collaborate on and perform new works. Clearly, there is a thirst for this sort of partnership with 40 submissions for the May concert and 70 already submitted for the next one in November.

In the end the New Dots team had to whittle 40 down to five, selecting a range of international rising stars to compose music for wind and piano. The result was an hour and a half of fascinating work, ranging from Yuko Ohara’s flute solo inspired by human DNA, to Michael Cutting’s piece for piano, flute and clarinet inspired by the E.E. Cummings poem [in Just-], to a full-blown wind quintet about the way we experience spaces in our day-to-day lives by Aaron Holloway-Nahum.

As well as the collaborative part, New Dots is also determined to bring this vibrant contemporary music scene to a broader audience. So, as well as the performances – in this instance courtesy of the Atéa Wind Quintet and Richard Uttley on piano – the composers and musicians shared their inspirations while composing and their experiences of playing this technically demanding music. I’ve never seen anyone coax such interesting sounds from a flute as Joshua Batty; at one point he sounded exactly like a violinist plucking their strings pizzicato-style.

Yuko Ohara and Josh Batty talking about Double Helix for solo flute

Not all of it was to my taste – I preferred the solo pieces to the ensembles – but that’s the beauty of music. My husband detests my passion for 1980s pop. You don’t have to like everything you hear, but you cannot help but admire the work that goes into the composition, along with the skill required to make the instruments themselves – the very way they are played – a crucial part of the music.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Audience review - In need of some Beethoven?

Some years ago whilst at university, I attended a terrific (and rather liquid) dinner party at which the music of Frank Sinatra was played without respite. Eventually, a wonderful Bavarian lady in attendance stood up and declared "That’s it! I must go home. I just cannot listen to any more Frank Sinatra.....I must listen to some Beethoven". Some of those attending the New Dots concert of new classical music, may well have felt they needed to do the same after such angular and often dissonant compositions.

But hang on, I reckon these New Dots folk are onto something....

We heard five new pieces from already accomplished young composers, performed by excellent young musicians at the start of their own careers. Added to this, an audience willing to take the plunge into this often strange sound world (mainstream classical audiences please take note: new music doesn’t bite). 

We started with Piers Tattersall's "At a distance of less than a yard…" performed for horn, clarinet and piano. A feisty tale of marital angst based on a theme of jealousy, with the 'bit on the side' represented musically by the French horn (keep it clean). A long, languid clarinet introduction led to a more frenetic ensemble in which one could picture the fur-flying antics of an arguing couple. As the pieced moved on, the wife (clarinettist Anna Hashimoto) led us back to a calmer section; did the wife have some resilience; some strength underlying the unhappiness? The piece continued through some dissonant pairings between horn and clarinet, eventually leading to a calmer section and finally a move into the major key with a quiet sustained final chord. Arguments over, one suspected. Jealousy remains but maybe each learning to live with it.

Moving from the sad to the positively sombre, the composition "caught on the corner" by Emma-Ruth Richards. This dark tale of an immigrant woman forced into sex work was never going to have a happy ending. Yet the wind quartet taking us through this ordeal began with a Roma-themed folk sound, complete with slurred tonality, pointing to the ethnic origins of the main character. Underlying the piece we had a near-constant pulse which had the effect of moving the story on or possibly simply representing the inexorable path of the poor woman in question. Dissonant fanfare-like moments could have been her cries for help.   Difficult scoring and syncopated rhythms seemed not to phase this excellent quartet of players.

Moving next to a solo piece by flute "double helix" (composer Yuko Ohara), we entered a more scientific phase with the sounds aimed at representing the evolving complexities of DNA. A composer would struggle to do that with a full orchestra, much less with the typically sweet-voiced flute. More sound than music; more experimentation than exposition, never did I think the flute could be classed as a percussion instrument. Yet the accomplished technical skills of Joshua Batty took us on a journey of staccato, breathy and alien sounds combined with shrill attacks right throughout the range. If the audience were left bereft of any sense of musical line or direction from this piece, we were certainly left in no doubt as to how these sounds reflected the chaotic and complex nature of DNA itself.

Next we had “Barkham fantasy” by Mark Simpson, performed by Richard Uttley which offered a more familiar and shapely music line. Less adventurous maybe, but a welcoming and warm sound nonetheless. A slow alberti bass-style accompaniment underpinning a calming rain-like ornamentation in the right hand, provided quite the atmospheric opening. Increased movement and volume provided this short piece a natural arc of sound, before building to a fierce crescendo at the top range of the instrument, and then a return to the original theme. Uttley knew exactly where this music was going and took us with him.

The penultimate piece was “when the world is puddle-wonderful” by Michael Cutting which offered a view into the sense of playfulness encapsulated within the text of In Just by E.E. Cummings. This mischievous theme was captured immediately with pianist Richard Uttley placing an impromptu mute in the form of a scarf no less, over the strings within the piano... almost as if the game of hide and seek was already underway. From then we had interlinked mysterious snippets from piano, flute and clarinet: breathy sounds; sharp jolts and surprise flourishes of sound. Lighter moments did convey a sense of children in their games, whispering and causing merry mayhem. No children’s playtime would be complete without some tantrum or other, and an aggressive crescendo from the trio certainly made their point known. What fun.

Finally, we had the bustling and cosmopolitan melee of “How to avoid huge ships” by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, which began with a neatly conceived, but possibly overpowering, musicology class outlining harmonic and rhythmic intentions. As with wine tasting, sometimes you just want to skip the theory and get stuck into the practical. Yet, once it did start, this piece for wind quintet brilliantly portrayed the pulse of a busy city; people swept along in the same direction yet each with their own voice and intention. The players kept a tight grip on complex and syncopated entries with occasional moments of bassoon and clarinet breaking away as if to re-establish their own place in this busy cityscape. The frenetic soundwaves from this city-scape suddenly gave way to a quiet, almost nonchalant final motif.

Mainstream classical music venues in London are often seen as the heartbeat of the genre. Yet the important work that New Dots and others are doing to champion new music and its next generation of performers is, like those stimulating flute sounds we heard in Double Helix, part of music’s very DNA.

So, did anyone actually rush home after the concert and seek musical solace in Beethoven? Probably. But I bet that many, like me, will be back next time...

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Audience review - From the front row

For our concert on 21st May we asked 3 audience members to write short reviews of the concert for us. We didn't give them any guidance or constraints about what to write - just that we wanted to know what they thought/felt/liked/didn't like. Here's the first of the 3 reviews, the other 2 will follow in the next couple of days.

I wasn't sure at first that my front row seat at Tuesday night's Sounds Of The New event at The Forge in Camden was such a good idea, I had planned on a cosy seat at the back where I could relax, close my eyes and just listen to the music. But I soon realised I had one of the best seats in the house to appreciate all the finer details of the experience; the physicality of the instruments and the challenges of the music. Just inches away from the stage I was fascinated by the pianist's super-fast fingers and transfixed by every button and lever of the flute as both instrument and player were tested to the limit by a seriously complex score. And who knew that much saliva could come out of a french horn?

This was the second New Dots event I have been to and once again their clever formula of combining on-stage conversation between the composers and musicians along with world or UK premieres of their contemporary classical music worked brilliantly and provided much-needed context to the six works. I am possibly the least musical person I know but with help from New Dots I am finding enlightenment. Particular highlights were pieces by Emma-Ruth Richards, Yuko Ohara and Piers Tattersall dealing, respectively, with the tricky subjects of sex-slavery, the double helix structure of DNA and adulterous jealousy.

Emma-Ruth and Piers talking about their inspiration with Matt Downes

As is often the case with contemporary art, this is music which you might not want to have in your living room but which challenges you to think about important subjects in a new way. New Dots provides much-needed performance opportunities for emerging composers and musicians and a fantastic opportunity for everyone to experience the sounds of something very new indeed. Highly recommeded.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

An interview with Richard Uttley

Please tell us a little about who you are and your background
I'm from Yorkshire and I play the piano. I studied at Cambridge then the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and I now live in London. I play lots of different kinds of music - old and new (borrowed and blue too I suppose!) - and a mix of solo stuff and chamber music.

What inspires or motivates you?
Creating amazing experiences with sound. I can remember discovering chord inversions when I was young: I bought the sheet music for World in Union, which we used to sing at school, and I managed to decipher it - at this stage I hadn't started proper lessons, and couldn't really read bass clef - but I was so excited to have unlocked the mystery of this particular bit I loved. I still get that kind of feeling a bit today when a composer does something really special. That's why I prefer playing other people's music to writing my own - I like to be surprised by something I couldn't or wouldn't have done. So I guess I'm inspired by what composers can create and that motivates me to practise and bring the piece to life in performance.

What have been the most exciting performances you've given recently?
The one I most enjoyed recently was a recital in the Sage Gateshead. It was in Hall 2, which is a tall tube shape like a chimney (with seats all the way up) so it's got a great intimate feeling at the stage level but you're also aware of the space above you which gives it this fantastic acoustic. I'd never seen a hall like that before and they've got a gorgeous piano in there too. I had a lot of fun in that concert and particularly remember some fiendish Britten going very well!

Credit: Sage Gateshead

How would you describe your style?
I wouldn't.

What are the challenges with performing newly written pieces?
The main challenge is that the emphasis is on the first performance. When you play traditional repertoire you usually play it a lot - wherever and whenever you can - working towards a big performance, but with a new piece the big attention is on the première  so you don't have the same chance to get comfortable with it. Also, much of the music written today is extremely hard! Composers can be quite evil.

Are there any particular composers that you like performing?
In terms of living composers, I love Mark Simpson's music; I've played the piece he wrote for me (Barkham Fantasy) a lot and am recording it later this year. His music combines sophistication and directness, which is something I really admire. In terms of the dead composers, there are too many greats to choose from but some of my favourite moments onstage have been with Bach and Beethoven.

What does the future hold?
Later this year I'm making my third recording and I'm extremely excited about the pieces going on it - a particular highlight is the first recording of a piano paraphrase on Berg's opera Lulu by Marvin Wolfthal - so that will probably shape a lot of what I do over the next couple of years. I'm also going to be collaborating with a video artist for some concerts in 2014; I don't know exactly what kind of direction that is going to take yet so that's going to be interesting.

What makes you smile?
Larry David.