This splendid arrangement of We Wish You a Merry Christmas recently appeared in my Facebook feed, with a greeting from its creator, Jim Aitchison. Jim is a composer who cultivates links with the visual arts, both through interaction with figures such as Gerhard Richter, Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor, and in his own explorations of the art form, for example in his visual score work.
Jim has very kindly allowed me repost this arrangement here as a means of wishing all C:T members a happy and peaceful Christmas. Enjoy!
With the loss of a number of musicians, cultural icons such as Peter Shaffer, Umberto Eco, Harper Lee, Elie Wiesel and Alan Rickman, not to mention some seismic political events, many are describing 2016 as a year to forget.
Things did not start auspiciously, the first two weeks of January seeing the deaths of two of the most iconic musicians of our time, Pierre Boulez on 5th and David Bowie on 8th. Bowie’s death, as the 2016 turned from bad to worse, would become responsible for one of the year’s best memes:
In January I dismissed my mate's theory that David Bowie was the glue holding the universe together but I don't know man... I don't know...
22nd January would have been the 100th birthday of that other iconic French composer, Henri Dutilleux. The date marked the start of a year of celebrations in his honour.
February saw the inauguration of the new organ at the Philharmonie de Paris with a performance of Ligeti’s majestic Volumina and, at WNO, the premiere of Elena Langer’s opera Figaro Gets a Divorce, which speculated on events after Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. In terms of opera shenanigans, however, nothing could beat the real-life drama at English National Opera, the parlous situation seeming to be an obvious vindication of Micawber's advice regarding fiscal contentedness.
In March I could scarcely contain my delight at the chance to hear a half-remembered work from my youth, Grace Williams’ Missa Cambrensis. I am still hoping that it might be given a commercial release. That delight was tempered by more depressing news with the death of Peter Maxwell Davies on 15th. Given how ill he had been in 2013, however, we should be grateful for those extra works that flowed from his brief recovery, especially his magnificent Symphony No.10.
Maxwell Davies on his Symphony No. 10
April, indeed, saw evidence of the fecundity of Maxwell Davies’s last years, with the first performance of his Piano Sonata No. 2 on 27th (there would be other posthumous premieres, including his children’s opera The Hogboon in June). On 21st came the death of Prince. His prolific talent, like that of David Bowie, raised him above other pop musicians, justifying his inclusion here. Elsewhere the Dutilleux celebrations continued with a BBC Total Immersion Day at the Barbican and there were festivals of new music in Budapest and Witten, Germany. Meanwhile I was rather struck by a beguiling disk of choral music by Martin Smolka.
Few things in May seemed so bizarre as Valery Gergiev’s concert in Palmyra, so obviously was it a propaganda exercise for President Vladimir Putin. Such a celebration now looks obscenely premature, with Daesh recently retaking the ruins (not to mention the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Aleppo). Putin would become the bogeyman during the rest of the year, with many claiming he interfered with the US election and even the UK’s Brexit vote.
‘Pray for Palmyra’ concert conducted by Valery Gergiev
June started positively enough with a new crowdfunder from Dan Goren to launch Sounds Like Now, a magazine devoted to new music in the UK and Ireland. This ran throughout the month, eventually reaching its funding target in July. The first issue should be on its way in the New Year. There were a number of festivals, including at Aix-en-Provence and Cheltenham, important premieres such as Thomas Adès’s third opera at Salzburg, and a fabulous new Jonathan Harvey CD from St. John’s College, Cambridge. Then came the misery of Brexit on 23rd. I do not mean to be divisive with this description—I think its fair to say that the experience has not been such a lovely one for either Leavers or Remainers, the country feeling so horribly divided in the aftermath.
Given the seismic nature of this political event, in July C:T ran a straw poll of UK composers and also some arts organisations. The reaction to Brexit, not unexpectedly, was overwhelmingly negative, though there was at least one person prepared to give an alternative view. Given the depression of the situation I found solace in music, namely in a disk of trumpet music from Norwegian record label Lawo. Sadly the Norway option didn't seem so popular with politicians…
I made my own arguments in favour of that option in a post that eventually found it’s way to my website rather than on C:T—it felt a little too political to be here. Meanwhile the Proms continued apace, with 11 world premieres in August. It you click on the date links of my original Proms roundup you can go directly to these pieces on the BBC website, where they are still available. At the end of the month the old question of atonality in music reared it’s head, Jacques Attali making the absurd comment that it was akin to musical terrorism.
On 3rd October Steve Reich turned 80, the event being marked in a number of events around the world. Mostly, however, the world seemed transfixed by the US elections and especially the Trump/Clinton televised debates. These were memorably turned into two musical parodies.
In probably the most significant tech news of the year, on 19th Steinberg released Dorico, a scorewriting package designed to compete with industry heavyweights Sibelius and Finale. 25th October saw the announcement of the British Composer Awards Shortlist and, much more seismically, on the same day C:T joined Twitter.
I kicked off November with a first look at Dorico, finding it full of promise but lacking significant features. I hope to share some more thoughts on it soon. Then, on 9th, came another political earthquake with the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Time will tell whether this and Brexit really do signify the collapse of the liberal consensus, though from here in France, where it is probable that Marine Le Pen will make it to the run off for President next year, things are not looking good. On 21st, pioneering French composer Jean-Claude Risset died. He is credited with being one of the first composers to write an original work only using a computer.
On 2nd December we were treated to the ‘world premiere’ of Stravinky’s Funeral Song, an early work that was lost after its first performance. On 7th the British Composer Award winners were announced. I also rounded up some opportunities to hear new Christmas music. These have mostly passed, but there remains the opportunity to hear the first performance of Michael Berkely’s This Endernight, which will be performed by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge in their A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve.
American composer Elliott Schwartz died on Wednseday aged 80. He taught for over 40 years at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine and was performed widely in the US. He held a particular interest in pre-digital electronic music, also co-authoring a listener's guide on the subject.
The winners of the 2016 British Composer Awards were announced last night at a ceremony at BFI Southbank, London. Here’s the complete list, with information about each piece and, in some cases, audio links.
AMATEUR OR YOUNG PERFORMERS The Monster in the Maze by Jonathan Dove
Commissioned by London Symphony Orchestra, Berliner Philharmoniker and Festival d’Aix-en-Provence within a series of children’s operas led by Sir Simon Rattle and Simon Halsey, The Monster in the Maze is an opera designed to celebrate an arts organisation’s relationship with its community. The opera is scored for professional musicians with amateur singers (adults, children and young people) and young pre-professional instrumentalists. The three productions in summer 2015 involved over 700 local participants.
It received its UK premiere on 4 July 2015 at the Barbican performed by the LSO conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and Simon Halsey.
Imagine yourself at the centre of a circle, sixty kilometres in diameter. Starting from the most Northerly point, a disembodied voice names places and topographical features including waterways, streets, farms, wooded areas, and a naturist camp.
The voice makes its way around the circle, until it arrives back where it started. Each utterance prompts a chord or phrase from the musicians, gradually augmenting and diminishing. Like an uninterrupted motorway journey, the landscape changes incrementally, but the hum of the engine remains the same.
Freezywater connects to the ideas of psychogeography and Nick Papadimitriou’s ’deep topography’, wherein drifting from place to place might provoke an intellectual, behavioural or emotional response.
Commissioned by Wigmore Hall with the support of André Hoffmann, President of the Fondation Hoffmann. Freezywater is for ensemble and pre-recorded voices and was premiered by Apartment House at Wigmore Hall, London on 27 February 2016.
CHORAL Ave Verum Corpus Re-Imagined by Roderick Williams
William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus is a piece that I have known since my days as a treble chorister and I grew up in awe of its carefully measured harmony and effortless counterpoint. Like any choral singer, I have my favourite moments within the piece – the scrunching false relations, the question and answer exclamations, the mournful coda – and so I sought to write a piece that would focus specifically on these highlights and expand upon them. Its composition is an act of homage to a masterful composer.
This work was commissioned by ORA and Suzi Digby OBE as a reflection on the Kyrie Eleison from William Byrd’s Mass for Five voices. It received its UK premiere at the ORA Launch Concert at the Tower of London on 9 February 2016.
COMMUNITY OR EDUCATIONAL PROJECT Into the Light by John Webb
Into the Light was commissioned by Aurora Orchestra and Buckinghamshire Learning Trust Music with funds from PRS for Music Foundation.
It received its UK premiere on 29 April 2015, performed by 1800 children from Buckinghamshire (voices and mixed instruments), members of the Aurora Orchestra and conducted by John Webb. Held at Royal Albert Hall.
Into the Light started with some questions – how do we celebrate the world? How do we create a celebratory piece? How can some of the KS2 performers who will sing it feed their ideas (both words and music) into the piece?
After pondering for some time, we decided that it’s easier to celebrate the world if we first pretended that we couldn’t see it, that the world was in darkness. When, finally, light appeared and we saw everything for the first time we would be completely awestruck at the wonder, beauty and diversity of the planet on which we live. And so the bare bones of the piece was born.
CONTEMPORARY JAZZ COMPOSITION Karembeus Guide to the Complete Defensive Midfielder by Joe Cutler
Karembeu’s Guide to the Complete Defensive Midfielder was a commission from the 2015 Cheltenham International Music Festival for Emulsion Sinfonietta/Food.
Although the piece is predominantly fully scored, I treat the additional duo Food (Thomas Stronen and Iain Bellamy) rather like that of the "floating" role in football, where a midfielder is given a free position with a set formation, moving between defensive, midfield and attack.
ORCHESTRAL Alba by Rebecca Saunders
L. fem. of albus “white,” from PIE root *albho- “white”, albe OE.
In painting the most extreme bright and light achromatic colour to the point of absolute luminosity. Devoid of shade and greyness, white is notably ardent, the colour of fury.
Alba is the final work in a series of three concertos – Still, Void and Alba. Each title defines a condition, or state, of absence in relation to sound, to space and to colour, respectively, and each refers to a text of Samuel Beckett.
Taken from the collection Echo’s Bones, Alba is an intensely lyrical poem. Beckett weighs each and every word and it’s shadow, it’s echo. This poem ends looking forward to the short and intense prose texts written at the end of his life – his profoundly reduced, almost skeletal, prose, both mercilessly direct and yet exquisitely fragile.
Commissioned by Bayerischer Rundfunk, Musica Viva and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Alba received its UK premiere on 26 November 2015, performed by Marco Blaauw (trumpet) and BBCSSO, conducted by Ilan Volkov at City Halls, Glasgow.
SMALL CHAMBER A Day at the Spa by Oliver Leith
The title came before the piece that might be obvious. I thought I might try and write a piece akin to those relaxing piped tapes but apparently I couldn’t. I had not been to a spa when I wrote the piece but have since been to one - Rudas baths in Budapest. My piece, as it turns out, is not at all like a spa other than that, at times, it sounds like water.
Commissioned by City Music Foundation, A Day at the Spa received its premiere performance on 7 July 2015. Performed by Kaleidoscope Saxophone Quartet, at St Martins in the Field.
SOLO OR DUO Five Memos by Mark Bowden
I took Italo Calvino’s series of Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, as a starting point to create a five-movement work for violin and piano. My ambition, to create musical responses to the artistic virtues Calvino held up as being of particular importance for writers, and artists, of the future.
In ‘Lightness’ Calvino discusses the concept of balancing an inner rhythm against a frantic spectacle. He contemplates grace, light, veils of particles and the fine balance of the physical forces holding matter together. He contrasts these images with heaviness and savage, brutal horror. In the music, I have sought to find a driving rhythm in the piano, propelling itself ever forward as the violin floats above escaping the tonal force of gravity of the piano’s harmony as though it is a neutrino, wandering free since the beginning of time.
In ‘Quickness’ Calvino describes how seemingly disparate narrative events can be connected through repetition, rhyme and rhythm. He talks of continuity of form, discoursing and the idea of festina lente, or ‘hurrying slowly’. In the music I created contrasting musical gestures for the violin held together by common intervallic materials whilst exploring different perceptions of motion and speed within the piano part.
Calvino contrasts the notion of ‘Exactitude’ against Vago – an Italian adjective meaning ‘attractive’ or ‘wandering’, as well as ‘vague’. He contemplates the idea of night, darkness, obscurity and depth, and talks of the simultaneous evocation of fear and pleasure that true infinity induces in those who contemplate it. In the music, a simple cycle of chords is treated to what could become an infinite process of repetition and change. The violin’s melody, always smooth and simple, undergoes an exact and meticulous unfolding of pitches against a more wandering, or vague, harmonic exploration in the piano music.
In ‘Visibility’ Calvino discusses how a writer can conjure images in the mind of the reader, bringing into focus that which is unfocussed or unseen. He also grapples with the swarming multitudes of possibilities available to the novelist when creating a literary work. In the music, a kaleidoscopic tumult of fantastical material unfolds, each gesture containing the possibility to develop into a work in its own right. But, instead, new material keeps emerging until a cascade of arpeggios in the piano brings us back to somewhere near where we began before finishing with an inconclusive, uncertain coda.
The final chapter of Calvino’s book addresses “Multiplicity’. He considers how even the smallest starting point can spread to encompass ever-vaster horizons. He explores the possibilities implicit in unfinished literary fragments, comparing them to ancient ruins. He points to the networks of relationships in the works of T.S. Eliot and the ‘systems within systems’ buried in the writings of James Joyce. Finally, he reconnects to his first topic – lightness – creating interconnected pathways across his own set of essays. In the music, a tiny generative motif taken from the first movement is the source of all the material of an intricate toccata, interrupted briefly by a slower and more lyrical section, that bustles and ripples along creating networks of relationships between the piano and violin. – Mark Bowden
Commissioned by London Music Masters Five Memos was premiered on 10 May 2015, performed by Hyeyoon Park (violin) and Huw Watkins (piano) at Newbury Spring Festival.
SONIC ART Sonorama by Claudia Molitor
Located on the train journey between London St Pancras and Margate, Sonorama is a major new audio work by composer Claudia Molitor that offers sounds and voices for the otherwise silent view from the train, downloadable as an App for listening with headphones.
Imagining the journey itself as the ’score’ Molitor has composed a cycle of works and collected interviews, readings and original archival material which respond to the social history and present of the route. With each track relating to a different point or area along the train line, the work has been informed through a collaboration with historian David Hendy and the British Library. The tracks imagine topics as diverse as visio-centricity, Roman history and hop-picking with a corresponding variety of contributors such as flautist Jan Hendrickse, poet Lemn Sissay, saxophonist Evan Parker and writer Charlotte Higgins.
The Sketch of the Score for Sonorama, exhibited at Turner Contemporary, is a graphic score of Molitor’s reading of the journey and underpins the thinking behind the compositions and the selection of the other materials that make up Sonorama, acting as a companion piece to experiencing the main work on the train.
In developing the Sonorama I set out to intermingle my perception of the journey with some socio-cultural memories and contemporary concerns, in a way that does not merely present these notions/viewpoints but complicates rather than simplifies the way we might conceive of the journey. Listening to Sonorama whilst looking out of the train window in turn invites the audience to reflect on their own relationship to the journey and their experience of ’being in the world’. – Claudia Molitor
Commissioned by the ENO and the Barbican, London, Between Worlds received its UK premiere on 11 April 2015. Performed by English National Opera conducted by Gerry Cornelius at Barbican Centre, London.
The opera involves five key characters. The JANITOR (baritone) should have left before dawn, his cleaning job done; but today he stays on for the extra pay. So he’s there when four further characters arrive early to view an unoccupied office high in the North Tower, the shining city all before them: an OLDER WOMAN (mezzo), the realtor; an OLDER MAN (bass/baritone) who runs the company; and a YOUNGER WOMAN (soprano) and YOUNGER MAN (tenor) who work for him. Once the plane has hit, these characters quickly realise they’re trapped; their desperate need is to speak to their loved ones, one last time; the OLDER WOMAN wants to speak to her CHILD, the YOUNGER WOMAN to her LOVER, the YOUNGER MAN to his MOTHER, and the OLDER MAN to both his mistress and his wife. In these last words, they try to express their most profound feelings - their fear, their courage, their loss, and above all their profound sense of love.
WIND BAND OR BRASS BAND Just a Vibration by Shri Sriram
This is a project that was about bringing Indian melodies and classical concepts to Brass band. The line-up features brass band, sitar, bass, drums, Indian flute and Indian tabla vocalisation.
This was Sriram’s first time at composing for brass band and they have been lauded for bringing in a very fresh perspective to the UK brass scene, drawing from Indian classical tabla, sitar and drone instruments, jazz, dub-step, club music, ambient and drum’n’bass.
Commissioned by Drum The Bass and developed and recorded with Hammonds Saltaire Brass band with conductor Morgan Griffiths it received its UK premiere on 5 September 2015. Performed by Shri and Skelmanthorpe Brass Band at Freedom Festival in Hull 2015.
To watch part of the work performed at the London Jazz Festival 2015 CLICK HERE
BRITISH COMPOSER AWARD FOR INNOVATION Jennifer Walshe
BRITISH COMPOSER AWARD FOR INSPIRATION Simon Bainbridge
Though it does not cover the composer’s later years, Caroline Potter’s survey of the music of Henry Dutilleux is the standard English language account of his life and works. Though an older book, I mention in now because it was out of print until Routledge recently reissued it for £34.99. I never travel anywhere without my copy.
If you’d rather read about a different French composer, you could buy a more recent book by Caroline Potter: Erik Satie: A Parisian Composer and His World. It has just been awarded Sunday Times Classical Music Book of the Year. And, completing the French theme, is Pierre Boulez Studies, edited by Peter O’Hagan and Edward Campbell. Not for the casual reader, it offers serious academic perspectives on the composer from leading practitioners in the field, including the named editors, Robert Piencikowski, Pascal Decroupet, Werner Strinz and Jonathan Goldmann.
It seems that the whole world is going wireless at the moment. My choice for Apple users was going to be their new Airpods. With a minimalist design, fancy charging power case and deep integration into the Apple ecosystem, they make the perfect present for the Apple gadget lover. The problem is, it is not entirely certain they will be available before Christmas. You could, instead go for Apple’s Beats Solo3 headphones, which use similar technology to integrate with Apple devices, but which classical music lover would want to be seen with a brand of headphones that is associated with a bass heavy sound and a rather flimsy build?
There are, of course, much better audiophile options to chose from. If you want a really good spacious classical sound, go for open-backed. The only disadvantage with them, however, is that they don’t stop sound from your environment intruding on your listening experience. I prefer a compromise, something like Bose’s QuietComfort 35 Wireless Headphones, which are closed back whilst still providing decent sound. They also include class-leading noise cancellation, making them perfect when you are out and about.
Never be caught off-guard when musical inspiration arrives. This handy music pad will fit discreetly in your jacket pocket so you can composer anytime, anywhere…
CD pick:Deo, works for choir and organ by Jonathan Harvey £14.57.
Deo on Signum Classics is an exquisite collection of works by Jonathan Harvey performed by the choir of St. John’s College Cambridge conducted by Andrew Nethsingha. You can find out more in my original review, here. My favourite CD of the year.
Christmas album pick:O Emmanuel J.J. Wright, Notre Dame Children’s Choir, Fifth House Ensemble $14.95; Noël Nouvelet, a selection of new and old Christmas music, Vasari Singers £13.28.
I recommended several collections of contemporary music Christmas settings last year. Those still stand.
In addition to these, however, you may consider the recent O Emmanuel by J.J. Wright, which contains imaginative reworkings of familiar Christmas music. It may be a little on the saccharine side for some, but I enjoyed it a lot.
Alternatively you could try Noël Nouvelet which contains a nice mixture of new and old, including pieces by Bob Chilcott, John Rutter, Judith Weir, Naji Hakim and John Gardner.
The ultimate Christmas present for the technologically-minded composer. I raved last year about the Microsoft Surface running the Staffpad notation program. This year Microsoft has once again stolen a march on Apple with the release of its Surface Studio. It essentially performs the same trick as the smaller Surface, in that it can be operated as a normal computer, where it can run legacy programs such as Sibelius, and as a tablet, where is can use touch and stylus programs like Staffpad. The difference, however, is that the screen provides a gigantic area on which to work. There is also an innovative new input method, the Surface Dial, which can sit on the screen or near it, giving you an additional way of scrolling though menus etc. It really is a compelling device that comes, nevertheless, with two drawbacks: it has a hefty price-tag and, sadly, will not be available till early 2017. If someone wants to put a Studio preorder in my stocking, however, I would be quite happy to wait...
Actually released way back in September, I only came across this today and was attracted by its grungy back-to-basics approach. To see what I mean you can read a very thoughtful review of the disk, here. Or better still, have a listen.
The first recording of the composer’s latest symphony, performed by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. The music is energetic and pretty accessible, especially in the frentic dance-inspired final movement.
A cantata to mark the centenary of the First World War with choral performances from tenor Nicky Spence, the Oxford Bach Choir and Portsmouth Grammar School Chamber Choir. The work is paired with An Airmail Letter from Mozart, directed from the piano by Melvyn Tan.
Subtleties of harmony from a composer who, dissatisfied with equal temperament, has divided the octave into as many as 72 microintervals. There are four pieces: ¿Adónde? Wohin? for violin, soprano and instruments; Oh Bosques|Oh Wälder for soprano, choir and orchestra; ¿Por qué? Warum? for choir in two groups a cappella; and Oh Cristallina… for three groups of vocalists and instruments.
The Tredegar Town Band play a selection of music by Robin Holloway, Lucy Pankhurst, John McCabe, Simon Dobson, Paul McGhee and Gavin Higgins. Britten’s cumulative Fanfare for St Edmundsbury also provides a framework for responses by four of the composers.
France is mourning the loss of composer Jean-Claude Risset, who died on Monday aged 78. He is often mentioned alongside French electronic pioneers Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer and is credited with being one of the first composers to create a piece only using a computer.
Risset’s early training in mathematics and physics led to an interest in synthesised sound. After studying with André Jolivet, in 1964 he travelled to the American research and scientific development company Bell Labs, where he experimented with synthesising real instruments from raw sound. This led to the creation of Music for Little Boy (1968),his first work for computer using the Music V program.
This work and Mutations (1969) formed the basis of a research study Sound Examples, 1969; a compendium of computer sounds that formed the basis for further research and composition.
After Mutations Risset returned to France, accepting academic research posts as well as helping Boulez with the creation of IRCAM. As its head he composed music that extended the domain of computer music to include interactions with live instruments.
Risset continued to experiment throughout the rest of his life, wrote extensively about his work and was frequently invited to speak at institutions throughout the world. In recognition of his contribution, in 1999 he was awarded the Médaille d’or by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.
If, like me, you've entered a few composition competitions in your time, you might be interested in this survey (the link follows the description):
There are few ‘emerging’ composers active today who will have not taken part in a competitive composition opportunity. Masterclasses, residencies, commissions and workshops regularly require a panel to whittle down dozens of applications to just a select few.
It has been assumed that these schemes are necessary parts of a composer’s education – and that they contribute to furthering their career. Yet this assumption has rarely been supported by evidence. Exploring these themes in more detail is the impetus behind the Composition Opportunity Research Project, which will explore the climate of opportunity in new music today.
Composers: we want to know why you apply (or do not apply) for these kinds of opportunities and, more importantly, what makes them fulfilling when you take part. If you have been an ‘emerging’ composer within the last 10 years, we want to hear from you too.
We want to know if any of these schemes have made a difference to your practice, and what others can learn from your positive and/or negative experiences. Have these opportunities expanded your professional networks or encouraged creative ideas?
So, let us learn from your experience! Tell us what would really help you develop as a composer and which opportunities have been wholly unfulfilling. Through your contribution we can better understand, and fight for, the formats that truly encourage creativity.
On December 2nd Valery Gergiev will give the 'world premiere' of Stravinky's Funeral Song. The piece, which was performed just once before being lost, was decribed by the composer as "The best of my works before The Firebird". It was recently rediscovered in the St. Petersburg Conservatoire. The performance will be webcast at medici.tv.
You can also hear Gergiev talking about the performance, here
From the medici.tv website:
A year ago, we learned that a lost work by Stravinsky had been discovered in a pile of dusty scores in the archives of the St. Petersburg Conservatoire. The work turned out to be Funeral Song ("Chant Funèbre"), a 12-minute long musical commemoration of Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky's beloved composition professor. The score disappeared soon after its one and only performance in 1909. The composer wrote in his Memoires in 1935:
Unfortunately, the score of this work disappeared during the revolution... I no longer remember the music, but I recall very well my idea for the work. It was like a procession of all the soli instruments of the orchestra, coming in turns to each leave a melody in the form of a crown on the master's tomb, all the while with a low background of murmuring tremolos, like the vibrations of bass voices singing in a choir.
Specialists have long considered Funeral Song to be a major work by the composer. Numerous searches were organized after the fall of the Soviet Union in hope of finding the score, all without success. But then...
"Natalia, you were looking for a score by Stravinsky, was it called Chant Funèbre?"
Like her professors before her, musicologist Natalia Braginskaya had long held on to the hope of finding the precious document when one day, she received a call from Irina Sidorenko, the librarian of the St. Petersburg Conservatoire. Funeral Song had been found! A year later, Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra perform the miraculously-preserved piece.
December is not traditionally known for its music festivals, which makes the Spitalfields Winter Festival, which this year runs from 4th–11th, a welcome anomaly. There are a number of dance and music events enjoy, but four new music concerts stand out:
A dance and music theatre show inspired by social occasions and life at mealtimes. Choreographed by Luca Silvestrini with music by Orlando Gough.
4. Melvyn Tan (Shoreditch Church, 6th December 7pm)
A concert to mark the pianist’s 60th birthday and the festival’s 40th. It includes music by Judith Weir, Anthony Dove and a host of other composers as part of the compendium piece Variations for Judith.
As well as the new Michael Berkeley carol for Kings (see my previous blog post) there are a number of contemporary music Christmas options to consider in December. On 2nd December the BBC Singers give an Advent concert at St Giles’ Cripplegate that includes music by John Tavener, Judith Weir, Gabriel Jackson, Cecilia McDowall and Owain Park. On the same day at the Barbican there is a chance to hear Neil Brand’s setting of Dickens’ Christmas Carol for spoken voices and orchestra. The work is very family friendly, as can be heard here.
An excellent alternative to Messiah is John Adams’ retelling of the nativity story in El Niño. Adams himself combined the libretto from a number of sources, from ‘pre-Christian prophets to twentieth century Hispanic female writers’ to form a two-hour opera-oratorio. It seems that Adams himself is touring this work around Europe this December; I have found three performances, in London on 4th, Amsterdam on 10th, and Paris on 11th. There may be others.
At St. Davids Hall, Cardiff on 4th December The Sixteen look beyond December to Epiphany with a concert that examines music inspired by the Three Kings. The programme includes music from the renaissance to the present day. At Milton Court Hall, London meanwhile, on 13th the BBC Singers give a concert that includes seasonal music by its conductor Bob Chilcott as well as pieces by Britten, Rutter and James Lord Pierpont.
The composer of this year's commissioned Christmas carol is British composer Michael Berkeley, who has set to music a the traditional 15th century Christmas text This Endernight. The carol will receive its first public performance at A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
Michael Berkeley is a Fellow of the Royal Northern College of Music and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, and in 2012 he was appointed a CBE for services to music in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Michael is also the son of Lennox Berkeley, who was the first composer commissioned by Stephen Cleobury to write for A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in 1983.
About the new carol, Berkeley writes:
The anonymous c1400 text, This Endernight, is unusual for a carol in that it articulates the voice of the infant Jesus in dialogue with his mother. ‘Ender' or ‘Endris' means past or recent. Maternal feelings of tenderness are in abundance but there is also a knowingness about the importance of the event that is unfolding. It is an upbeat lullaby which looks forward to heavenly bliss and so culminates in a radiant cadence.
This Endernight will be performed during the Christmas Eve service which will be broadcast live on BBC Radio and public radio stations around the world. The carol will also become available as a download immediately following the service through the Apple iTunes Store.
And here is another chance to hear last year's carol, The Flight by Richard Causton:
Four visual artists and three composers have just been announced as recipients of the £50,000 Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award. 'Awards for Artists was launched in 1994 and are the largest individual awards made to visual artists and composers in the UK. At £50,000 per award and with no strings attached, they are designed to give artists the time and freedom to develop their creative ideas.'
The three composers are:
Daniel Kidane (born 1986) is a London-based concert composer whose works range from solo pieces to large orchestral works. Often drawing from experiences from his own background and upbringing, Kidane’s compositions explore social narratives, especially multilingual interactions in everyday life. Among Kidane’s most notable compositions are Foreign Tongues (2015), which re-envisaged the setup of the string quartet and Pulsing (2016), which explored the idea of migration through its energetic instrumental passages and vocal interludes. Kidane’s compositions have been premiered by several notable companies including the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. He has also completed commissioned work for the Orgelbüchlein Project, which was premiered at the Tower of London Chapel.
Heather Leigh (born 1976) is a West Virginian, Texas raised composer and singer currently based in Glasgow. She is renowned for her spontaneous composition and for redefining the pedal steel guitar, taking the instrument beyond the bounds of the country and western genre. As a solo artist, she explores themes relating to the representation of women, sexuality and vulnerability. Leigh’s 2015 album I Abused Animal (Ideologic Organ/Editions Mego) received wide international acclaim, showcasing her talent as a composer, songwriter and vocalist, as well as her pedal steel guitar innovations. This album built upon previous successful releases including Nightingale (Golden Lab Records) and Devil if You Can Hear Me (Not Not Fun). She has an extensive catalogue of collaborative work, which in recent years has focused on her duo with German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. She has toured widely in the US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
Ailís Ní Ríain
Ailís Ní Ríain (born 1974) is a Cork born contemporary classical composer and stage writer. Currently based in Yorkshire she is a regular collaborator with artists in other artforms, her artistic interests are diverse and combined with an unwavering desire to push and develop her artistic practice through each new project or commission. Working across several media, including small-scale acoustic music, installations, mini-opera and music-theatre, her work uses a multi-disciplined approach to challenge, provoke and engage. Ní Ríain’s compositions focus on strong visual and narrative ideas and building connections with new and diverse audiences. Among Ní Ríain’s most recent compositions was Skloniŝte (2015), a solo accordion and video homage to the people who survived the Siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996. The Irish Times described the piece as ‘truly evok[ing] a strong response.’ She has also completed notable commissions for the Royal Irish Academy of Music, The Bronte Society and Feelgood Productions with new commissions lined up for Spitalfields Festival, Temenos Ensemble and Manchester Opera Project. Her work has been performed in the US and across Europe. Alongside her work as a composer, Ní Ríainis a published stage writer with plays produced in the UK, Ireland, Germany and Sweden.
I now have a copy of Dorico, the new scorewriting software from Steinberg (see my previous blog post). What I am going to attempt, over several blog posts, is less a review and more my thoughts as I get to know this software. In particular I am keen to see how the program works when I give it real-world tasks.
I am running MacOS Sierra on a late 2013 MacBook Pro with 8GB of RAM. I will make frequent comparisons with Sibelius, though that will be version 7.1.3. This might, of course, be considered unfair, so where the current version of Sibelius would have handled something better, I’ll be glad to have that pointed out to me. My own feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that the improvements since 7.1.3 have not been comprehensive enough to warrant an upgrade.
The kinds of tasks I will ask of the software
I spend most of my time producing arrangements, typesetting and composing. The arrangements and typsets are done against the clock—I work by the hour—and so require me to balance the conflicting requirements of speed vs. a professional end result. In these circumstances, the less time I spend editing the better. They also require decent audio output, since the score is used to generate backing files for a sheet music website. Typesetting work also includes the generation of high quality music examples for publication in journals. This means testing the ability of the package to notate advanced compositional techniques. When I compose, these days I do it straight into the computer. For this reason I look for the flexibility and the ability to change things. Composition, at least for me, is a very organic process, in which I often need to move things around, insert ideas, transpose etc.
Downloading and installing Dorico is a cinch, though if your internet connection is slow, you might want to think about getting the boxed version—the complete download, with its many sound files, is 9GB.
Dorico, as I mentioned in my last post, breaks the process of scorewriting into five stages or modes: Setup, Write, Engrave, Play, Print. You can move back and forth between these freely.
When you open Dorico, the first screen you are presented with looks like this:
This enables you to open a recent project, to create a project from a preexisting template (for example, ‘film orchestra’, ‘concert band’, ‘string quartet’ etc. or to start from a blank score. Bringing up a blank score brings you to the setup phase (i.e. first of the five stages, above):
As you navigate this for the first time Dorico gives you a useful tour of the features (it does the same as you enter each of the subsequent scorewriting modes). I should probably have paid more attention, since at first I was a bit confused by the distinctions Dorico makes between solo player, section player and ensemble. Actually, however, they make total sense. A solo player is just that: one human being. A section is a whole group of human beings i.e. a violin section. ‘Ensemble' sounds like an ‘orchestra’, ’band’ etc. but this isn't the case—it refers to sections within a wider ensemble. In this way, you can add a whole woodwind section at once, but choose single, double or triple wind.
Interestingly Dorico also makes a distinction between a player and the instrument, so you can create an empty-handed player and then give them one or more instruments to play. I am hoping that this approach will make handling players who swap instruments (e.g. flute doubling piccolo etc) more intelligent, since it’s a big pain point in Sibelius.
Once the players are added you don’t create your score, instead you simply click on the Write tab. Of course, you can also add more instruments at any time in Sibelius, but I quite like the way that this is presented as a fluid and connected process. The Write window looks like this:
The tools for entering music are available around the edge of the score. The screen shot shows the note durations tab open, but this can be hidden so that the tools take up a small amount of screen space. It does not seem that they can be undocked, which I imagine could be a problem when working on a larger screen. On a laptop, however, the approach works well. I find the floating keypad in Sibelius infuriating and, what is more, mapping specific functions to the numeric keypad seems like a ridiculous throwback. I wonder how long it will be before these programs start supporting Apple’s new Touch Bar? Now that would be nice…
My initial experience of trying to enter notes into Dorico was frustrating, but I feel that this was more my fault than Dorico’s—one has to really get to grips with new input methods before judging them. I am going, therefore, to leave this for another time. Instead I chose a task that was so simple it did not require any input.
Basic task: transcribing a piece from piano and violin to string quartet
I deliberately chose a simple piece as it is presents a transcription task that, in Sibelius, would take me around an hour, including preparation of parts and extraction of an audio file of the completed score. The original file, for piano and violin, was for Sibelius. Dorico will not read Sibelius files so I had to export this as an mxl file. For comparison I then reopened this mxl file in Sibelius as well as opening it in Dorico. The initial results were interesting indeed. Here is the imported score in Sibelius:
Here is the imported score in Dorico:
Here is the piano part, as generated by Sibelius:
Here is the piano part, as generated by Dorico
At this point it’s worth me reiterating that this is Sibelius 7.1.3. The result, however, is a clear win for Dorico. If one compares the parts, especially, Sibelius is too inconsistent as regards the number of bars per line and it also fails to divide the score in a way that fills the second page. This is consistent with my experience of using Sibelius to prepare parts—one has to intervene constantly to get them to look right. Even worse, Sibelius has somehow also managed to reproduce the title and ‘Trad. Gospel’ marking at the bottom of the page. Also, though its not so obvious from looking at the part (but obvious on the score), the anacrusis in the Sibelius file is actually detached by three beats from the rest of the score. Dorico reads it perfectly. My only preference in terms of the Sibelius file is that it automatically right justifies the final line (i.e. it fills the line). First impressions, then, suggest that Dorico might be a step forward in terms of automated engraving.
Adding a violin, viola and cello to the score was easy—a simple matter of going back to the Setup tab and selecting the instruments. I now needed to copy the material from piano to strings. This is where I bumped into my first limitation. Sibelius offers pretty advanced filtering and copying features. So, for example, I can select a whole stave, copy all of its contents or just filter the top note or one part and then copy that. It’s hugely useful when separating out chords when assigning single notes to melody instruments. Dorico, at this stage, only offers a simple marquee selection (i.e. draw a box shape to select notes) with no filtering. This makes the process very cumbersome.
Also, as I copied notes to viola, the stems did not automatically set to the correct direction:
However, it turns out that Dorico, by default, preserves the stem direction of an imported mxl file, which can be removed by selecting the offending notes and selecting Edit > Stem > Remove Forced Stem. I wonder, however, if it wouldn't be better to make good typesetting the default in these circumstances.
I continued to copy and paste the piano music into the other parts, but it was becoming clear that to filter out the notes was going to take a very long time indeed. Unfortunately I was on a real deadline, with six more of these arrangements and a set of orchestral parts to prepare in eight hours, so at this point I was forced back to Sibelius. Not without regret, however, since I consider that the typesetting elements in Dorico have real promise. Editing, however, needs a great deal of work.
A note on playback:
For a comparison of audio playback I imported the completed file from Sibelius back into Dorico. Dorico accurately imported all of the dynamic and articulation marks from the mxl file. There was one small problem with a repeat mark, which doesn’t otherwise affect the audio playback. In all other respects the two programs were reading the same information. Here is the score (generated in Sibelius):
Here it is in Dorico:
And here it is in Sibelius:
I think in all respects the differences in quality speak for themselves: Sibelius is by far the superior. Not only are the sounds themselves more convincing but Sibelius accurately reproduces articulation marks.
So what are the takeaways from this first session with Dorico? First of all that the setup and general layout of the program is sensible and pleasing to the eye. My initial worries about the program dividing up tasks too much are drifting away—I think the five modes could work together pretty well, though I will need more time to make up my mind completely. The automated engraving shows great promise—I was very impressed with how cleanly Dorico imported an mxl file and then generated parts. This could be a real timesaver. On the downside, however, the editing tools are way below the standard needed for carrying out even quite basic work. The audio, too, is disappointing.
Is this a course for alarm? Not at all, as long as Steinberg continue developing the product, and I think we can be pretty confident that this will be the case.
Here is Daniel Spreadbury answering some of my concerns from this initial post:
Q: Will Dorico be getting more accurate playback soon? For example, it doesn’t recognise articulation marks at the moment.
A: Yes, please see my recent blog post about the things we are working on for the 1.0.10 update, and its ETA:
Q: Can I select one stave in a whole score and copy its contents to another stave?
A: Only by way of a marquee selection, which is obviously not ideal. You'd have to switch to galley view and zoom out to be able to make a suitable selection at the moment.
Q:. Can I isolate the top note or part on a stave and copy this alone?
A: As above – not easily (only if you can do it with a marquee selection at the moment), but improving the tools for selection is a high priority for the 1.0.10 update.
Whether you should buy it or not will depend on you want it to do and, especially, if you can find a use case where the program is plainly superior. On this first outing, I think it’s fair to say that we have a way to go. Still, so far we’ve only scratched the surface. Stay tuned for more thoughts…
On 19th October Steinberg released the first version of its scorewriting software Dorico. This is an event of huge significance, since it promises to give professional composers, engravers and educators a workable alternative to Sibelius and Finale. Of the two, however, my guess is that Avid’s Sibelius has most to fear. Avid purchased the software in 2006, but in 2012 closed the London office where Sibelius was developed, an action that alienated many users. Avid has continued to develop the software, though at a noticeably slower rate than before, the Sibelius 8 update being very thin, especially for Mac users unable to benefit from new touchscreen features. Happily the core of the fired Sibelius London team were hired by Steinberg and given the task of building a new score writing package, which eventually became Dorico.
Dorico’s main difference as compared to Sibelius is that it separates five stages of music engraving into setup, writing, engraving, playing and printing. This is a novel approach that, I can imagine, will have both advantages and disadvantages. There is, of course, a certain amount of separation in Sibelius, especially as regards the setup and printing elements. But the core functionalies—writing, engraving and playing—occur in the same place, an approach that feels pleasingly unified. The danger then is that these elements will become too separated. I think, for example, many composers will want to listen to a score in the same place as where they are writing it, not flip to a graphic representation of it.
Despite this, a level of separation could have advantages. A dedicated playback screen might give much better granular control over how a score sounds, without having to resort to adding cumbersome text commands into the score itself. And, when it comes to parts, better separation without complete disconnection (i.e. extracting parts) is long overdue—it’s too often the case that in Sibelius altering either part or score has a deleterious affect on the other. And apart from the general workflow, there are also things that Dorico can do that are not available in Sibelius. For example, it is possible to enter notes into a score without barlines. Anyone who has tried typesetting more advanced contemporary music, which often requires a good deal of preplanning and the creation and hiding of bizarre time signatures, will be able to appreciate how this might be advantageous.
Steinberg have been at pains to point out that Dorico is a work in progress, whilst saying that its critical mass of useful features means that it is ready for release. Surveying the list of exactly what is missing one wonders whether Steinberg would have done better to have waited a little longer—there are no chord symbols, volta brackets, piano pedalling, cues, fingering and, unbelievably, transposition. This has led some to suggest that Dorico might better be described as beta software. So why buy it?
Well, first of all, if you are a Sibelius or Finale user Steinberg are offering time-limited ‘crossgrades’, that is you can pick up the software for a reduced price. The full version of the software is €559, the cross grade €279, less if you are an educational user. Whilst this sounds like good value, it looks less generous when you consider that Avid offers a non time-limited crossgrade from four different programs for just $199. And that is for a mature piece of software. Steinberg has, however, promised that updates to the software will come swiftly. Here, indeed, lies the most compelling argument for getting on board with Dorico.
In Sibelius’s early days there was a considerable level of interaction between the development team and its user base. Not only was it relatively easy to get support, but one sensed that the team listened to and implemented requests from users for forthcoming releases. The Dorico team, fronted by the extremely affable Daniel Spreadbury, give the impression of being keen to listen to feedback from users, and keen to tackle the problems that lie ahead. In this sense one feels that this has the potential to mature quickly into a compelling piece of software.
Whatever the future of Dorico its mere presence in the market is a positive development. Competition leads to improvement. And with Dorico snapping at the heels of other software packages it will force the competition to keep developing.
I have already posted summaries of two major festivals in November: the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and Wien Modern. Another worth checking is the Cambridge Music Festival in the UK (8th–24th). It includes a Steve Reich at 80 concert on 8th, with the composer in attendance; music for cello by John Metcalfe, Nitin Sawhey and Joby Talbot on 11th; and the keyboard sextet Piano Circus play works by Steve Reich, Julia Wolfe and Graham Fitkin on 18th.
Talking of Reich at 80, there is also a major event dedicated to his birthday celebrations at the Barbican on 5th and 6th. There will be a video installation responding to his work Tehillim (1981), a lecture by Alex Ross, several concerts and an open rehearsal and talks with the LSO. Some of these events are already sold out, so don’t hang about.
Also at the Barbican, London on 27th is a BBC Total Immersion Day dedicated to the music of Richard Rodney Bennett, who died in 2012. The day begins with a film, Murder on the Orient Express, for which Rodney Bennett provided the music, at 10.30; chamber music performed by student from Guildhall School at 1.15; a talk at 3pm; a concert of orchestral music at at 4.30 that will include a world premiere; Jazz in the Foyer at 6pm; and an evening concert featuring vocal music and a performance of his Third Symphony.
Premieres to look forward to this coming month include, at the CBSO Centre on 11th, Kevin Volans’ String Quartet No. 12 and Piano Concerto No. 4 played by the Signum Quartet and Barry Douglas (piano); Philip Moore’s Requiem on 18th at St. Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge with the BBC Singers; Alexander Goehr’s Manere 1, 2, 3 played by Ensemble Modern at Wigmore Hall on 25th; and, also at Wigmore Hall, the following day the Arditti Quartet give the first performance of Hanna Kelunty’s String Quartet No.6. There is also one major European premiere at the Barbican on 28th: a concert performance of Gerald Barry’s opera Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. Barry views this as the ‘next logical step’ following his brilliant The Importance of Being Earnest. It will be performed by the Britten Sinfonia, with Barbara Hannigan as Alice and Thomas Adès conducting.
Congratutations to all the composers shortlisted in this year's British Composer Awards, the full list being available here. And, I hope he doesn't mind me saying, a special mention for CT's very own David Bruce, who is shortlisted in the stage category for his opera Nothing alongside Harrison Birtwistle and Tansy Davies. Bravo!
You can now follow C:T on Twitter! Just follow this link, or search for our Twitter handle: @compCTtoday. We'll be tweeting stories from C:T, other arts news and promoting the work of our members. Be sure to follow us so we can follow you back and help to promote your work!
Can you, by the way, name all the composers in our Twitter profile picture (above)?