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21 Nov  

Sound and Music has just published the results of its second Composer Commissioning Survey. This year it aims to give a more international perspective, with the Australian Music Centre also providing data. Not surprisingly, it makes for grim reading. The average commission fee last year was £1392. This year it is £918. Whilst SaM are quick to point out that the two figures are ‘not directly comparable’ the sum is, nevertheless, ‘incredibly low.’


Further analysis also reveals the disparity between what composers actually receive and what they believe is fair. Asking someone how much they should earn may seem a slightly pointless exercise;  you’d think the answer would be ‘as much as possible.’ In the case of composers the opposite seems to be the case. On average, for example, composers suggested that a 60-minute major work should command the fee of £17,532. Such a project might take anything up to a year, so this sum does not seem avaricious. The survey does not, unfortunately, provide a direct comparison with real-world figures, but the range of fees on offer for such projects as a ‘Digital Installation’, ‘Small’, ‘Medium’ and ‘Large scale’ works are all low, ranging from £157 to only £2258. Neither do these figures include the many respondents who were commissioned but received nothing.


Other interesting, but perhaps not surprising, perspectives include: that composers believe that there is not enough time for rehearsals; that commissions seem to be fewer and worse paid over the last three years; and that, if anything, the situation in Australia is even more bleak than in the UK. 


For a complete picture, head over to Sound and Music.

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18 Nov  

I had hoped to bring you some of my thoughts on the MANCA Festival here in Nice, France. I was particularly looking forward to the two Michel Pascal premières (see my interview, below). Sadly, events conspired against this. It is, perhaps, not realised how profound an effect the attacks in Paris have had on the rest of the country. Here in Nice – about as far away from the capital as it is possible to be – three days of national mourning led to the cancellation of three days of festival events. 


It must be stressed, of course, that this happened as a mark of respect, not from fear or security worries. The French people show a spirit of defiance that is remarkable. Tonight I will be attending the first big concert of the foreshortened MANCA Festival. I have no doubt that we will be perfectly safe, but, as concert-going life restarts here in France, we should take a moment to reflect on the significance of Friday’s attacks, Bataclan in particular.


Whilst the choice of this venue may have been incidental – the terrorists were looking for a place where security was poor but many people were present – Daesh (also known as Islamic State), were keen to suggest otherwise. In their statement they referred to ‘precisely chosen targets’, which included ‘the Bataclan theatre for exhibitions, where hundreds of pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice.’ 


If it is debatable how direct an influence Daesh had in the selection of Bataclan, there is no doubt that music has always been one of its central targets, a sign, in their eyes, of the West’s degeneration. In Syria earlier this year musicians were punished with 90 lashes for playing ‘un-Islamic’ instruments, which were also destroyed: 



Soon afterwards, in Libya, Daesh fighters symbolically burnt a number of drums:



In this sense, the choice of Bataclan had extra significance. It was also an attack on a concert venue, an attack on music. 


I don’t expect many musicians or lovers of music see themselves as being on any kind of front line. Most of us probably try to avoid politics, except as a topic of debate or when we are complaining about the latest arts cuts. Now, however, is a good moment to remember how lucky we are to be able to ply our trade in free societies, where our creative impulses are not haunted by the spectre of masked men knocking on our doors. The freedom to express ourselves, and the freedom of others to appreciate this in our concert halls, is a sacred and beautiful thing. It must be cherished and defended.


After setting down these thoughts I came across this shocking article, which seems of particular relevance in this context. I think the video it links to speaks for itself. 

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9 Nov  

Christian Morris talks to French composer Michel Pascal, whose 'Requins' and 'Never Die' are premiering at the 2015 MANCA festival.

Photography © Luc Henri Fage

What was your earliest success as a composer?

The first piece that received a good audience outside the conservatoire area was an acousmatic music composed for a painter named J.M.Sorgue. A series of very large ink drawings called "Falaises et Emergences", on view at the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence in 1980. The funny thing is that the same piece was played in Albi the year after and Jean Etienne Marie heard it there without meeting me. Because he liked it he contacted me and offered me to be his assistant at CIRM in 1982. This is why I'm now in Nice.

Who or what has influenced your style? I’d be very interested to hear about your experiences being taught by and/or working with Amy, Berio, Lutoslawski, Dutilleux, Xenakis and others.

Many people and experiences influence one's style. Some on very large scales, some other only with a few words given at the very right moment. I met the composers that you talk about and many others in very different situations, some in workshops, others in close professional situations, some very briefly, others around classes along a year or more. Even people that have nothing to do with music can influence your style. For example, during a concert with Jean Etienne Marie in Valberg under snow, I was remembering a childhood memory coming from another mountain, waiting that my father will stop speaking with his cousin in a mountain farm stuck under snow. The farm clock was ticking and the conversation was so incredibly slow, very few words, very much silence thinking between them, and time almost cruelly measured with this beautiful ticking... Jean Etienne Marie smiled to me and told: "so you had good composition teacher".

As a student in music, I've been bewitched by the ability to design, transform and precisely set the inner matter of sounds with electroacoustic techniques, even more today with the computer power. So most of the great French electroacoustic composers have influenced me. With a special thought for Bernard Parmegiani who died 2 years ago, and he was a delightful human being. I was also amazed with the Ligeti's pieces of the seventies decade, with the freedom thinking of several composers (including Berio and Dutilleux). It is impossible to tell in a few words about one's influences and give names without forgetting some. More, you may be changed by one piece or even a part of the piece, and do not like the rest of the composer's production forever. It does not matter, I like when contemporary musicians give us to hear things that raise questions. They are part of a movement of fertile human ideas, a picture in sound of their time. From the moment you accept to renew your usual way of listening, open your mind to different point of views, forget hearing (and thinking) on a pre-fabricated level, there will be so many beautiful and interesting things to discover: no end until life itself ends.

>> Click here to read the rest of the interview

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28 Oct  

As well as the Manca Festival here in Nice, there are two other major music European festivals to look forward to in November. The opening concert of Wien Modern (5th–28th November) celebrates the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez with a performance of Pli Selon Pli given by the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien, soprano Marisol Montalvo and conductor Cornelius Meister. New works in the festival will be seen through the prism of popular music, with a series of crossover projects focusing especially on the music of younger composers. The winning entry of the Erst Bank Composition Prize, Substantie by Syrian composer Peter Jakober, will receive its world premiere performance on 13th.


Swiss composer Jürg Frey is composer in residence at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (20th–29th November). There is a sound installation of his work throughout the festival, a public masterclass with PhD students from the University’s Centre for Research in New Music, a ‘Meet the Composer’ session as well as concerts and premieres. There are so many other world and UK premieres it is impossible to list them all here. One that is particularly special, however, is the first performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Plus-Minus (realised by Derek Bailey) on 20th.

Other premieres this month include: at Wigmore Hall on 6th the Arditti Quartet play a new work by Harrison Birtwistle together with the UK premiere of Michael Jarrell’s verästelten Gedanken... (Nachlese VIIb); at the same venue the following day the Nash Ensemble give the first performance of Ring Dance by their Composer in Residence Julian Anderson; at the Royal Opera House, a major new commission, Morgen und Abend by Georg Friedrich Haas, runs from 13th–28th; in Birmingham on 15th November BCMG perform their Sound Investment Commission FRACTURES: Monk Unpacked by Melinda Maxwell; at the Barbican on 18th the Britten Sinfonia perform a new work written in collaboration between Simon Bainbridge and jazz bassist Eddie Gomez. On 26th November, finally, at City Halls, Glasgow, there a number of UK premieres in a BBCSSO concert that includes, most substantially, Rebecca Sounders’ Alba for solo trumpet and symphony orchestra. The concert will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Hear and Now. Lovers of Welsh music would also do well to go to the BBC National Chorus of Wales Concert at BBC Hoddinott Hall on 15th. There are no premieres, but there is the chance to hear some rarely performed works by Grace Williams, Alun Hoddinott, Mervyn Burtch, William Mathias and others.

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24 Oct  

Congratulations to Ludovico Einaudi, whose album Elements debuted at number 12 in the popular music charts this week, the most successful classical composer since Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs in 1992. The Telegraph yesterday sought to present this as a revelation, as if – good Lord – people might actually want to listen to contemporary classical music. It even went so far as to highlight Einaudi’s cutting edge credentials by evoking the name of his teacher, Luciano Berio. But the popularity of the album is not surprising. Five minutes in its company will tell you that his music fits a genre of contemporary music that has often found a wide audience: relaxingly tonal, certainly well-written but maybe a little anodyne. That’s not to criticise; I’m delighted that a living composer is popular, but I would only really consider it news-worthy if it were something a bit more challenging.


If you are looking for something more in this vein, a good place to go is Wergo. They have just released settings of Giacomo Leopardi poetry by composer Klaus Oswald’s sung by WDR Rundfunkchor Koeln. There is also a disk of music by Vito Žuraj entitled Changeover, consisting of five instrumental works, as well as a collection of the complete works for piano duet and two pianos by György Kurtág, all originally published in the eight volume Játékok (‘Games’). 


On Naxos there is a new album of chamber music from Chinese composer Jia Daquan; Penderecki’s song cycle Powiało na mnie morze snów… composed for the Chopin bicentenary celebrations in Warsaw in 2010; orchestral music by composer-pianist Walter Saul; and a programme of wind ensemble music by Steven Bryant, Joel Puckett and John Mackey. 


NMC have just released Echo and Narcissus, an album of Ryan Wigglesworth orchestral works conducted by the composer. Available for preorder on Nonclassical, meanwhile, is The Art of Remix #Ep1. The first track of this, Cortical Songs by John Matthias and Nick Ryan, is available for streaming on both Spotify and Apple Music. 

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21 Oct  

Björk’s Biophilia in 2011 was a watershed moment for me. A cross-disciplinary project that married music, artwork, games, animation and wider environmental themes, it provided a compelling demonstration of how apps might be an ideal medium for new music. It was a shame to revisit it today and to find that it has not been well cared-for in the intervening years. It now crashes like a pig. 


I thought that Biophilia would be followed by a host of similar projects, hoping, indeed, that they might be musically a bit more experimental. It seems such an obvious way of introducing our iPad addicted younger generation to new music, if not in the home then certainly in school music lessons. Sadly, the anticipated avalanche never happened, probably because contemporary classical music is as devoid of cash as it is abundant in imagination.


Given this I was delighted recently to come across Sonorama by composer and artist Claudia Molitor. The app is designed to be listened to on the train from St. Pancras to Margate, with journeys between each station along the way being accompanied by readings, archive recordings and original compositions.


Whilst the app can’t approach the multimedia slickness that was Biophilia, it is, nevertheless, beautifully presented. The opening screen gives the option to learn more about the app, to browse by all content or to explore the musical journey in a map of the train route. The easiest way to navigate is by the latter method, since this gives a better sense of both the musical and physical voyage. Of course, the best way to listen is whilst actually on the train from St. Pancras to Margate (take the Southeastern Highspeed train via Ashford International, if you’re interested). Even without this, however, the material on offer is wonderfully evocative, thought provoking and, in the composed sections, gently – the music rarely insists – compelling. 


As if to emphasise the cross-disciplinary nature of this work, the graphic score, a work of art in itself, is on display at Turner Contemporary until 1st November. It is also viewable in the app. There is also an accompanying book, available here. The app itself is only available on iOS, though other mobile devices can stream it from the web.

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15 Oct  

There was much talk of doom after the close of the UK Sibelius Office in 2012. With hindsight, it now seems that it was justified. The next paid upgrade to the software did not occur until the beginning of 2014 and, even then, it was labelled version 7.5 rather than 8, an acknowledgement, perhaps, that the suite of incremental improvements did not represent a major advance. I was not tempted to upgrade. 


I confess I did not even notice the release of Sibelius 8 until a few days ago. Given that I spend the majority of my working life using the software, that seems incredible. I am certainly on Avid’s mailing list (I’ve just checked) but can see nothing specifically about Sibelius, the only Avid software I use. Could it be because this update is even more lukewarm than 7.5? As far as I can see, the most interesting addition to the software relates to the addition of annotation options for Microsoft’s Surface stylus, a complete irrelevance to Apple Mac users.


Even from a Microsoft PC perspective, however, Avid are not doing enough to keep Sibelius in the game. The recent demonstration of StaffPad on Microsoft’s Surface 4/Surface Book provided compelling evidence that the future of music notation software in touch and stylus, not mouse and pointer.  It is a lesson that Apple would also do well to heed. Whilst their recently announced iPad Pro would theoretically be capable of supporting StaffPad, it is so late to the game that there is no guarantee that it will be ported. Also, Microsoft’s strategy of combining tablet with laptop is now beginning to pay dividends. How many hard up composers would buy both an Apple Mac in order to use legacy software like Sibelius and an iPad Pro to run a next generation program like Staffpad, when Surface will happily run both? 

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12 Oct  

After a wet Pembrokeshire summer I find myself in Nice, capital of the French Riviera. My reasons for being here aren’t entirely (or even partly) musical. So, after a week in the city, trying to discover what the place has to offer is, frankly, a bit after the event. 


France’s fifth-largest conurbation has, happily, much to recommend it. What is especially pleasing is that I seemed to have arrived at the right time, since next month the city plays host to the Manca Festival of Contemporary Music (14th–24th November). Transport links to Nice are excellent (four cheap Easyjet flights a day from Gatwick, for example), so you might consider a short city break to catch some of this. 


Manca takes place under the auspices of CIRM, one of six Centres Nationaux de Création Musicale (National Centres for Musical Creation) in France, the other five being in Bethany (outskirts of Reims), Albi, Marseille, Lyon and Alfortville. CIRM was founded in 1968 by composer Jean-Etienne Marie, its mission being ‘to promote the contemporary music repertoire, focussing its activities mainly along four lines: production, diffusion, training and research.’ The organisation has strong links locally and internationally and has a special interest in the promotion of electronic music, especially by playing host to composers who create works in its three electronic studios. 


Some of these are written especially for the Manca Festival, as is the case in this year's opening concert, which features premières of two CIRM commissions, Tiantian Wang’s The distant murmur and Yikeshan Abudushalamu’s Divine Light, both for chamber orchestra and electronics. The concert also features two premières by Michel Pascal: Never die and Requins for 16 instruments and electronics. 


Highlights from the rest of the festival include, on 18th, Hugues Dufourt’s Burning Bright for six percussionists, an hour-long work inspired by William Blake’s The Tyger with lighting and scenography by Enrico Bagnoli. On 20th there is a live electronic performances given by Gaël Navard. It is inspired by the the discovery of exoplanet Kepler-186f in 2014, the performance wittily billed as a piece of ‘exomusicological’ research conducted through ‘telesonoscopes’, the result being the first performance of ‘Keplerian’ music on their native instrument, the ‘soundplane.’ On 21st is a performance of Phèdre, an opera for solo voice by Marianne Pousseur and Enrico Bagnoli based upon a text by Yannis Ritsos. There are also two concerts of electroacoustic music presented by students at British universities on 19th and, on 24th, an international study day on the theme ‘Geste Musical : Modèles et expériences.’ Three of the papers at this conference are in English, one of which also includes a video projection and live performance. 


Prices for all events are very reasonable: many are free, others mostly being 5 or 10 euros. 

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30 Sep  

As planned, I tuned in for the broadcast première of Max Richter’s Sleep on Saturday. I’d initially thought that the 8 hour work, which is designed to be slept through, was a peculiar idea. Why would a composer want his audience to be unconscious? And if you really wanted to influence a person’s sleep, shouldn’t the music be a little less restful?  I was wrong;  I experienced extremely vivid dreams in which sound was a constant feature, the experience being both fascinating and a little disturbing. It was an interesting experiment, worth checking out.


If you are looking for something less somnolent, check out Objects at an Exhibition, a splendid collaboration between the Science Museum and NMC in which six composers took an exhibit as the starting point for a new work, the whole being a homage to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.


Thea Musgrave’s Power Play takes its inspiration from the steam engines of the Energy Hall, the result being charmingly ‘technical’ work with a good deal of Stravinskian neoclassical wit. The statue of R.J. Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire, is the starting point of Christopher Mayo’s Supermarine, a grungy piece for cello, double bass and sampled aircraft engines. Claudia Molitor's 2TwoLO takes its name from first BBC transmitter. It begins with BBC archive recordings explaining some key facts about early days of radio broadcasting – the surprising fact that music was not initially permitted to be broadcast, an account of an early recording session and an early broadcast schedule – whilst the music, perhaps reflecting its gradual acceptance in the new medium, atmospherically creeps, bumps and scrapes into existence, gradually taking on a more solid form. David Sawer’s exciting Coachman Chronos, flies along with the energy of the historic York Mail Coach, though not without periods of thoughtful repose. Gerald Barry’s melancholic The One-Armed Pianist is inspired by a false limb designed to allow the left arm of an injured pianist to play octaves. In it a simple two note figure is gradually expanded until the octave is reached, and then insisted upon with sad significance. 


Barry Guy’s Mr. Babbage is Coming to Dinner, an improvisatory work full of keenly imagined and felicitous instrumental timbres, completes what is a very satisfying programme – the works are wonderfully varied and one can easily imagine how effective they would be in situ. This project, one must remember, is just one of many – some collaborative, some solo – from NMC over the last few years. These include 20x12, New Music Biennial Project, Music Map, Digital Discoveries and Next Wave. When it comes to supporting and promoting British contemporary music, no other record label comes close.

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24 Sep  

2015 is a Venice Biennale year, the 10 day music programme running from October 2nd–11th. In total there will be 18 concerts presenting 31 new works, the main composers featured being Pierre Boulez, Georges Aperghis, Helmut Lachenman and Giuseppe Sinopoli. 


In his 90th birthday year Pierre Boulez will be the subject of a special tribute with a performance of Messagesquisse prefaced by 10 pieces written in homage to him on 11th. Machinations for 4 female voices voices, electronics and video by Georges Aperghis, winner of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement for 2015, will be performed on 10th. Helmut Lachenmann, 80 years old this year and the winner of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in 2008, will see performances of Grido for String Quartet, Trio Fluido for clarinet, viola and percussion and Streichtrio I for violin, viola, cello. Souvenir à la memoire for 2 sopranos and mezzo-soprano by Giuseppe Sinopoli will be performed on the final night.


Other composers represented are: Milica Djordjevic, Nina Šenk, Pasquale Corrado, Federico Gardella, Silvia Borzelli, Lara Morciano, Dai Fujikura, Marcin Stanczyk, Luca Antignani, Filippo Zapponi, Benoît Chantry, Aureliano Cattaneo, George Benjamin, Fabio Nieder, Vladimir Tarnopolski, Fabio Cifariello Ciardi, Dieter Ammann, Matteo D’Amico.


In the UK the Aberdeenshire Sound Festival runs from 22nd October to 9th November. The programme is extremely wide-ranging. It kicks off with Philip Cooke’s By Reason of Darkness, a setting of sections of Job, verse 37 scored for community choir and bells at 6pm on 22nd. The rest of the first week focuses on cross-art forms, including art and music installations in partnership with Gray’s School of Art; Sandglass with choreography by Lucy Boyes and music by Thomas Butler; and an audiovisual collaboration Requiem for Edward Snowdon by Matthew Collings and Jules Rawlinson. The second week focuses on contemporary music performances with pianist Ian Pace and Ensemble Alternance from France. There will also be works for organ as part of a part of a collaboration with French festival Musiques Démesurées, including a new work by Jean-Luc Guionnet. There’s much more besides, including new operas, a series of new works commissioned to partner each of Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas and new joint commission by six Scottish composers.


On 3rd October at Barbican, London there is a BBCSO Total Immersion Day exploring the music of Henryk Górecki. This begins with an introduction by Polish music expert, Professor Adrian Thomas at 11am, followed by performances of Górecki’s String Quartet No. 1 and 2 at 11, a film documentary at 3pm, a concert of his vocal music given by the BBC Singers at 5.30pm, and a final evening concert of orchestral and vocal music at 7.30pm. 


Outside the two festivals other premieres this month include the BBCSO playing Richard Ayres’ No. 48 at Barbican on 8th; Laurence Crane’s Chamber Symphony No. 2 The Australian and Marisol Jiménez’s XLIII - MEMORIAM VIVIRE at St. John’s, Smith Square on 10th; the UK premiere of John Adams Scheherazade.2 at the Barbican on 29th; and Lotta Wennäkoski’s Verdigris given by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at Queen’s Hall Edinburgh, also on 29th. The Swansea Festival, finally, runs from 2nd—17th. There’s not a whole lot in the way of contemporary music, but a major highlight is the chance to hear the five-star rated ballet Cinderalla with Ballet Cymru and music by Jack White. 

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