For me the easiest way to talk about my work as a composer is to talk about the questions I am working with. The first questions for almost every piece I’ve written so far have been to do with context: what and where I am writing the piece for, and most importantly, who the musicians are. I’m writing this blog during the last few days of Impuls, a new music festival and academy in Graz, Austria, in which working together has been a central part of the compositional experience so perhaps that is skewing my current view, but for me the first challenge of Confluere (my new piano trio for Illuminate’s 2019 Season I), was the huge distance between me as a composer and the Prism Trio in the USA. I can’t wait to work with them when they come to the UK later this year because there is really nothing like being in a room with musicians and working on ideas together. For now I’ll introduce Confluere and explore how it relates to some other examples of my work.
Confluere was the first instrumental piece I wrote following a long period of work on Samara, my largest orchestral work to date. After being immersed in such a large canvas for so long, suddenly having only three instruments felt very exposed. Confluere is in a sense very simple. It focusses on building very intimate relationships between the three performers and exploring how those relationships can change. The word ‘Confluere’ is the Latin root of the English ‘Confluence’ and means the place where two rivers meet and join together. Unusually for me the title came after the work on this occasion. It is descriptive of how the three instruments interact but also of my compositional process which, for this piece, was in a way very fluid. Confluere will be premiered in the US on 8th March (Cambridge, MA) and in the UK on 30th August (Brighton) alongside works by Blair Boyd, Kerensa Briggs, Angela Elizabeth Slater and Sarah Westwood.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of collaboration and notation is my recent piece In Tiled. Building on some smaller scale pieces written during my time in Cardiff last year, In Tiled explores how exactly we communicate (with each other as musicians and audiences, and with the musical material itself), and what happens when the score becomes mobile. Inventing and working with a new kind of scoring for this piece meant confronting questions of form and movement and has resulted in a work which I hope will grow in new directions each time it is performed. In Tiled was premiered in Graz, Austria, by Jacobo Hernández Enriquez (violin) and Yui Sakagoshi (saxophone) to whom I will always be grateful for their enthusiasm for the experiment.
Back in the land of traditional notation, or at least a non-mobile score, Samara is my first full scale orchestral work and was commissioned by Aldworth Philharmonic Orchestra, an amateur orchestra based in Reading, UK. Samara was written to sit in a programme of music concerned with desire and for me that meant working with ideas of partnership, parallel and contrary motion, suspension and, above all, a journey. My harmonic and structural approaches in Confluere are largely drawn from ideas that occurred during my work on Samara. Below you can listen to two excerpts from the premiere given by Aldworth Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Taylor, Reading University Great Hall, UK, 2nd Feb 2019:
The Peacock Tree
An older work than the others I have talked about so far, but one which was a turning point for me, is The Peacock Tree for wind quintet. At the time of writing this piece I was working a lot with issues to do with metaphor, meaning, and the live experience of music; what it means to give sound a title, to what extent music can really communicate, and how much the non-audible aspects of a performance and performance space can become part of a piece. Many of the aspects I began to explore in this little piece have been vital to my more recent works and continue to provide questions worth further exploration. You can listen to an excerpt from the piece here:
Juxtaposing these four pieces, I think I can safely say that my current concerns are: approaches to structure, music as a mode of live communication between audience, performers and composer, and clarity of character in the experience of each piece I make. I am still at the beginning of my journey and who knows where music will lead me next. I am hugely grateful to Angela for the opportunity to work with the Prism Trio and honoured to be a part of Illuminate’s 2019 Season I.
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Much of my music is influenced by reflection. As music can be such a powerful elicitor of reflective thought, I aim to write music which can give expression to existential emotions in a way that is universally accessible. Having grown up in the English Choral Tradition and singing on a regular basis from a young age, my music has been heavily influenced by the transcendence of sacred music and spaces, with it being described as ‘meditative and mellifluous’, with a 'great feel for choral sonority and textures’.
In terms of my compositional approach, I am very much led by my ear. As the composer Herbert Howells once said, ‘I have composed out of sheer love of trying to make nice sounds’.Musical sounds or ideas, like any auditory signal of course, unfold over time. When composing this piano trio, ‘Forget?’, for Prism, I wanted to explore ways in which music can be involved with memory and the processing of emotions, responses and ideas.
I knew from the outset that I wanted the opening section to reappear in different guises, each time incorporating different textural, harmonic, melodic and rhythmic ideas. I wanted the reminiscence of the initial theme to be clear, but for the memory of it to become altered through the processing of the subsequent contrasting sections. These are varied in numerous ways throughout the piece but hark back to ideas from the original theme.
I often find it helpful to refer to traditional structures, and with this idea of musical reminiscence and altered repetitions in mind, I decided early on to use Rondo form as a structural outline (ABA1CA2DA3). Polytonal ascending semiquaver phrases in the piano part juxtapose emotive and more melodic writing found in the string parts in the B and C sections. The D section sees a more contrapuntal interplay between all of the instruments. There are elements of jazz-influenced rhythms and harmonies throughout the piece, particularly at the end of the D section where the strings eventually come together into unison. This then leads us back into the final statement of the original theme, which, although featuring subtle differences and having been influenced by memories of the contrasting sections, has not been forgotten.
You can hear the trio amongst other premieres by Sarah Westwood, Blair Boyd, Angela Elizabeth Slater and Laura Shipsey on the 8th March at the New School of Music Concert Hall in Cambridge, MA; at the Women Composers Festival of Hartford, CT, on the 30th March; at the Music and Wine concert series at St Luke’s, Brighton, on the 30th August; at Late Music at Yorkon the 7th September; St Mary's Church, Stafford on the 14th September, and at Stonevale Concert Serieson Sunday 15th September.
The Choir of St Bride’s Fleet Street on ‘Gloucester Service’ (2018)
Professor Robert Saxton on ‘Ave Regina Caelorum’(2017)
Paul Spicer, Herbert Howells, Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press Ltd (1998)
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Dame Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) described in 2001 as ‘one of the most substantial composers these islands have ever produced.’ Looking at her musical rap sheet alone is impressive, you name it she’s written for it - symphonies, concertos, ballet, opera, chamber music, the lot.
So who was Elizabeth Maconchy?
Elizabeth Maconchy was born in 1907 in a village in Hertfordshire and spent her teenage years in Ireland. She started playing the piano when she was six and at just 16 years old she got accepted to the Royal College of Music to study piano and composition. At RCM she made a lifelong friendship with fellow composer Grace Williams and studied under Vaughan Williams who also became an important mentor and friend.
In 1930 Maconchy caught a big break when Henry Wood premiered her orchestral suite The Land at the Proms. It was the start of an amazing career. She received commissions from everyone from major orchestras including BBC Symphony and CBSO to individual musicians such as clarinettist Gervase de Peyer and singer Janet Craxton. Maconchy went on to become Chairman of the Composers Guild. She also chaired the Executive Committee of the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM) and helped develop the British Music Information Centre (BMIC), now both part of Sound and Music. Maconchy was made a CBE in 1977 and then became a Dame in 1987.
Maconchy was friends with her contemporaries Grace Williams, Ina Boyle and Britten, later on she also inspired and befriended a new generation of composers including Thea Musgrave and Richard Rodney Bennett.
RCM launched her phenomenal talent into the world but like many women Maconchy dealt with her fair share of misogyny and sexism. She was denied the Mendelssohn Prize enabling overseas study by the college director Sir Hugh Allen because she ‘will only get married and never write another note.’
Maybe Maconchy thought she’d be compared unfavourably to other composers because of her gender if she allied herself to a particular school of composition. Whatever the reason Maconchy forged her own path, composing in a unique musical language and not getting bogged down in the various schools and isms going on the rest of the musical landscape of the time. She rejected the English pastoralism of her mentor Vaughan Williams, if anything she was inspired by East European modernism from Bartok and Berg, although her later work moves on from that to create her own distinctive style.
Her fiercely independent voice means Maconchy’s music is more accessible, there’s something for everyone. You have the masterwork of power and strength in her Symphony for Double String Orchestra, delightly cheeky comic opera The Sofa, uplifting jubilation in her song This Day to the patriotic Proud Thames. Maconchy’s body of work explores the whole range of the human experience. Maconchy was continually innovating, constantly challenging herself and doing the unexpected whilst still having a clear sense of her music and style.
So, Maconchy wrote tons of music for different ensembles but she kept coming back to the string quartet. She wrote 13 string quartets over a 50 year period. They act almost as benchmarks to the whole of the mid 20th century, from the 1st in 1932 to the last in 1984.
String quartet no 3 is her shortest quartet but it packs in the drama. Written in 1938 No 3 sees Maconchy really getting into the nitty gritty of complicated family relationships. The piece is a 10 minute psychological thriller, seeing the four instruments engaging in a tense disagreement.
The only recording of this so far breaks the piece into 5 broad sections. The first section is a Lento, slow and full of unspoken tension, expertly paced and drawn out to heighten the drama. This leads into a Presto - frenetic and passionate. There’s a brief respite with a seductive Andante, sweet and manipulative before moving into another anguished Presto. This is succeeded by a calmer Poco Largamente which brings the piece to a close.
The interactions between the strings really seem like a story unfolding, the chords come together but never quite resolve themselves, just bouncing off onto another phrase, another sentence.
The four voices are constantly intertwining, breaking into canons then merging again only to separate completely once more going all the way through until coming to a final uneasy conclusion.
To hear this fascinating work performed come along to Illuminate at RCM on 16th February 2019!
Dame Elizabeth Maconchy is such an inspiration, her musical integrity, individual sound and breadth of composition continue to delight audiences. More recordings of her music are appearing and her work is regularly performed around the world.
Here’s to Dame Elizabeth!
Written by Elizabeth de Brito
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Sculpting and Refining, a cross synthesis in Amphora
1. an ancient Greek jar or vase with a large oval body, narrow cylindrical neck, and two handles that rise almost to the level of the mouth broadly : such a jar or vase used elsewhere in the ancient world
2. a 2-handled vessel shaped like an amphora
For the upcoming Illuminate concert, my piece Amphora for bass clarinet, violin and cello will be performed as part of the RCM Chamber Music Festival 2019.
Amphora are vessels dating back to the Neolithic period and also had been made for Ancient Greek vase painting. They were used for the everyday and rituals, prizes and for funery practices.
I had been working with pottery in previous pieces, including using various size clay pots as resonant speakers- in Cable Veins, for piano and electronics; Chalk.Body.Barrowelectronics for dance, and Rare Earth installation (work in progress). Whilst working physically with pottery, I wanted to focus on their tactile quality; the weighted and earthy and fragile and ancient qualities, to embody these in sound. The idea of writing Amphora began here.
At the same time, my compositions encompass other impetuses, and I am often drawn to dance (which I discussed in my previous post for Illuminate) or poetry, and I blend these with my sketches - sculpting, juxtaposing and refining original designs for the piece.
I’ve used the poetry of Georgie Lorimer as a catalyst for a few pieces, including Amphora and it falls within a triptych of works I am basing on Lorimer’s poetry: The Artist’s Kintsukuroi
1) Into the Blank Expanse of Space for bass flute, piano and electronics
2) Amphora for bass clarinet, violin and cello
3) The Artist’s Kintsukuroi for septet, narrator and conductor
it was autumn when we kissed
that first time after one
last summer storm on the beach
hair plastered against your face
and disfigured with sandwe
were hideous as tempests
battering into the cave
maybe if we’d stayed for more
than that moment we’d have been
trapped forever much later
i danced a fresh edge of sea
until even the soft shush
je t’aime je t’aime je t’aime left
my leaps sinking into sand
After developing these thoughts, a ‘cross-synthesis’happens where phrases, or larger structures, could have started as an embodiment of pottery which are then co-mingled with the poetry ideas, or vice versa. Once I have refined a section, the original meaning and ideas are hidden and transformed. In electronic music, the cross-synthesis occurs when spectral data is applied from one sound to another in order to create a hybrid sound, or a transition from one sound to another. I wanted to use this process in an acoustic setting - and so I imagined the cross synthesis firstly occurring in a short, exclamatory motif.
I then abstracted this motif, supporting it with different pressure, resistance, harmonics, multiphonics and pulsating vibrato and tremolo, always striving to sculpt the poetry and pottery together. I also endeavoured to blend an embodied sense of the pottery and poetry with the spiritual.
Example: [ https://soundcloud.com/sarahewestwood/amphora-extract/s-hTvVh]
Amphora extract, Heather Roche (clarinet), Patrick Dawkins (violin), Valerie Welbanks (cello) Deptford Town Hall, London. May, 2018.
To hear the please in full, come to the concert on 16 Feb!
1) Guillaume Baviere
Creative Commons: Attribution, ShareAlike.
2) Sarah Westwood, personal photo of the ocean
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Dr Helen Thomas