Commissions and Collaborations

Some of my most memorable composition projects in recent years have been collaborative and hugely rewarding. I have recently spoken to an increasing number of composers who share similar sentiments, such as Nigel Clarke, who finds the approach “far more rewarding” than writing for musicians with whom he has had no contact. He mentions that a “lot of people are probably doing this without realising”, and cites personal examples of learning as a composer, such as a Skype conversation with a singer whose comment “instantly improved” what he was writing.

There are varied reasons why these kinds of projects have become more popular in recent years, perhaps due, at least in part, to wide-ranging funding opportunities. Recent research has, for example, delved into the world of Manu Delago, whose track Wandering Around is featured on this month’s playlist; he is described by producer Ben Spencer as being a “serial collaborator, well known for his work with a whole range of artists from Anoushka Shanka to Bugge Wesseltoft to Bjork”.  Manu Delago’s work will be featured at the re-opening of St George’s Bristol next February 24th and 25th, where one of the themes of the weekend will focus on different types of collaboration.

The other two blogs – Beyond traditional brass band boundaries and Building an accessible repertoire – featured in this month’s The Sampler, focus on new music for brass band and a very special orchestra, the South-West Open Youth Orchestra, the UK’s first and only disabled-led regional orchestra for young musicians. Both are doing innovative and collaborative things with new music but in different ways.

Commissioned music for brass band has a long heritage as Kenneth Crookston discusses in Beyond traditional brass band boundaries; there must be few opportunities worldwide for a composer to have their music purchased, played and listened to as much as a brass band test piece. However, the scoring and predominance of treble clef displaced octave transpositions is a whole new world for many composers and I have known several feel it is just not for them.

The majority of brass band players today earn a living from a diverse array of jobs, whilst at top level reaching performance standards matching any of our top professional orchestras.

However, as conductor Martyn Brabbins notes in October’s Brass Band World magazine, there is a “disconnection that appears to exist between brass bands and the wider classical world….”; Christopher Thomas and David Childs discuss this further in Beyond traditional brass band boundaries. Various strategies are evolving to bridge this gap, such as David, who has helped lead the way with the recent world premiere of Paul Mealor’s Euphonium Concerto (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Welsh Proms). Edward Gregson’s Four Études was recently shortlisted for a British Composer Award 2017, written whilst Composer in Residence with Black Dyke Band in 2016 (a sample from Movement 2, Dance, can be heard on this month’s The Sampler soundcloud playlist). His remit during this time was to “mentor a new generation of composers to write for the medium”; this included both 1-1 sessions and seminars at some of the country’s leading conservatoires, resulting in new works and performances. New music for brass band is annually showcased at the RNCM Brass Band Festival; Paul Hindmarsh outlines the history and 2018 festival in Beyond traditional brass band boundaries.

Innovative new projects are being embraced within the brass band genre, such as Gavin HigginsDark Arteries written for Rambert Dance Company and performed by Tredegar Band, featured on this month’s playlist and Iwan Fox’s contribution to Beyond traditional brass band boundaries. Composer/Saxophonist Andy Scott has successfully drawn on an eclectic musical upbringing, one example being A Child Like You, also featured on the playlist; with a powerful backstory, this work for band, soprano and harp also includes members of Foden’s Youth Band who narrate and then take their seats to play with Foden’s Band, and was nominated for a British Composer Awards in 2015. Hammonds Saltaire have joined forces with Shri Sriram, multi-instrumentalist and composer to create Just a Vibration, bringing together brass and traditional Indian instruments, a collective project which has gained momentum and brought new audiences; trumpeter John Wallace’s work with The Wallace Collection alongside Tulis Russell Mills bands produced De Profundis for the East Neuk Festival in a site-specific barn location by a Scottish fishing village and was sold out in advance. I have also been fortunate to work with the enterprising Lydbrook Band, based in a village in the Royal Forest of Dean, on projects including narration, massed bands and choirs and an Indian bhangra band. As the demand for shared band enterprises continues, a new website has recently gone live, offering composers the opportunity to promote their band music for unusual combinations. As John Wallace says in the September edition of Brass Band World, ““we should not be afraid of exploring the exceptional and the extraordinary”.

Composer collaboration with performers – new and re-imagined music – is an integral part of the on-going working process for the South-West Open Youth Orchestra (OpenUp Music) and National Open Youth Orchestra when it is launched in 2018. The current eclectic combination of ensemble includes both acoustic and digital instruments and presents new challenges for the composer, both in concept and approach, as Liam Taylor-West discusses in the blog Building an accessible repertoire. Some of the SWOYO musicians are leading the way with the specially invented Clarion software, creating defter manipulation of ever-developing musical articulation; it is ground-breaking work. OpenUp Music are literally re-inventing the orchestral concept on an exciting scale.

For performers too, the shared process can be equally rewarding. Violinist Madeleine Mitchell describes in her recent The Gramophone blog The Thrill of being the Composer’s Muse (19/10/17) how she enjoys the “collaborative process – composers sending you the first draft, working on it, making a few practical suggestions and the insightful descriptions they offer for character which are not marked in the score”. Interestingly, she also goes on to say that it is “helpful to ask living composers questions you wish you could ask those no longer with us”.

I agree with composer Nigel Clarke when he says that it is “fun to get involved with someone in a project”. Someone recently asked whether a choir I had been writing for (The Open University Choir) was professional or amateur and I had to stop and think – because it genuinely hadn’t crossed my mind that this was even an issue; I simply wrote what I thought would be achievable in the time span and by the personnel involved. Like many other projects, this was a highly rewarding artistic venture and the focus of friends and colleagues created a context from which to frame the compositional approach; an impact of music making from a wealth of diverse backgrounds and experience, all added to the musical melting pot. As Martyn Brabbins stated: “I feel that you should never lose touch with your roots and that there should always be a crossover between professional and non-professional musicians”.