New perspectives post-lockdown 2
Updated: Aug 21, 2021
The third institution that I visited in May was Oxford University. This year we had two full days of workshops rather than the usual one, which is testament to the University having so many young composers signed up. It wasn't until we were sitting down in the hall ready to start that it became clear that these compositions were all by first year students, most of whom had been learning remotely for the entire year. What an extraordinary thought! I know we have all lived through the pandemic, learning and adapting to a life lived with minimal human contact, but the sudden realisation that these students' entire first year had been experienced through a computer was pretty sobering. What was equally remarkable was the imagination and skill displayed in many of the submitted scores. The very first score we played called London by Isaac Adni had motives derived mathematically from the size of each London Borough. The resulting piece was so clever and engaging, demonstrating great skill and sensitive scoring for the instrumentation of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano (the Pierrot Lunaire line-up). Isaac was not the only stand out; Kevin Zhang is another one to watch. His 'Across the Urban' was an immaculately conceived score both musically and physically. Such maturity and clarity of imagination. Everything from the balancing of the instruments to the specific extended techniques in my part that had been thoroughly researched and precisely detailed in the part made for a compelling composition. Here was a young man who knows exactly what he wants to say and has the technique to say it!
One of the things that is so joyous about these composition workshops is how much I learn from my esteemed colleagues. It's fascinating hearing their perspectives on the pieces we are working on, their ideas on how to improve elements of technique or clarify a composers' intentions. This sort of work has always been something I relish. It is also vital for the young artists learning their craft. It is an honour to be able to help and guide them, but how often do I hear stories of eminent ensembles or so-called top rank musical artists being unkind, unhelpful or just plain rude to these impressionable youngsters. There is no excuse for this behaviour in my book. If you believe that there is justification in belittling another artist however inexperienced they may be then this reflects poorly on you and your place in the profession. Ascending the ladder of success is arduous and not for the faint-hearted, but being thoughtless and cruel to another who is sharing their creativity with you is unspeakable. I loathe this kind of entitled self-aggrandising behaviour. I have witnessed it first hand and it stinks. One of the reasons that I invested so much time and effort in forming CHROMA with the ethos it has is in reaction to some of the early professional experiences I had. We are all musicians, we are all still learning, or should be, and we all have a part to play in welcoming the next generation to sit alongside us and share what we have learned. How else to ensure that mistakes are avoided and best practice is freely available to everyone?
This particular workshop was the last to be hosted by the wonderful Robert Saxton who was retiring from his post at the University. How much I have learned listening to him discussing works with students through the years. Chatting with him via zoom in the workshop I was reminded of performing and recording his works with the Brunel Ensemble when I was still a third year student at the GSMD. I remember seeing him and his friend from school days, Simon Bainbridge, an incongruous sight given their differing heights, walking deep in conversation when they were professors at the GSMD. All this as clear as if it were yesterday only now Robert was heading to Simon's funeral days later. Sad times but cherished memories and grateful celebrations in my mind of these luminous personalities who have given so much to foster talent in successive generations of composers.
Most recently I returned to the Yehudi Menuhin School to workshop and record student pieces that had been written for me to perform in a variety of different configurations with the supremely talented young musicians boarding at this celebrated school. Like so many things these sessions had been postponed several times and were at least a year later than originally scheduled. It was with some relief that I finally made it before yet another academic year concluded.
The first session was somewhat fraught as it involved me walking straight into a performance scenario with two senior students to film a first performance of the pianist, Emanuel Samant-Crampton's, Trio 'Impulse'. Of all the scores I had been sent to prepare, this was by far the most advanced and the most challenging. We had originally planned a day of workshops to precede the filming, but owing to a last minute Covid diagnosis in school, this was cancelled and it was not possible to reschedule. I can think of more relaxing conditions to return to such an elite institution after 2 years than these, but there is always a learning opportunity! We managed a few reasonable takes of his piece in the time allotted, but it was decided that we should try again on my next visit.
The most important lesson for Emanuel in this instance was the need for his music to be edited to make it easier to rehearse. We all learn music theory to a degree when studying an instrument. If you are a composer it is essential that your understanding of musical grammar is as rigorous as possible, especially if you are intending to write complex contrapuntal music. 'Impulse' has lots of irregular time signatures within it, and the principle problem in the presented score was different groupings of these irregular time signatures in different parts at the same time. This quickly proved to be the undoing of us when up against it, trying to pull together a performance for a recording. Indeed in preparation for the workshop days I had spent several hours pouring over the score and in many instances rewriting my part to mirror what appeared to be the dominant voice in the score. All of this working on instinct without the composer being present. I was nervous that my alterations might end up making it even harder to bring together as I was going on my gut reaction to what I was seeing. Quite how it was going to sound, I admit, I couldn't fathom with any degree of certainty. Fortunately my homework paid off and my alterations certainly made it easier for me to coach these two young men at the same time as concentrate on the job at hand.
In talking with John Cooney, a long time colleague who had invited me to work with the pupils, we hit upon this idea of perspective again. He had been telling Emanuel that he needed to tidy up the rhythm groupings and spelling of some parts of his pieces for weeks, even going so far as to regroup some of them himself to show how it needed to be presented. Sometimes the voice we hear most often is the one we hold little store in, whereas the newcomer has a degree of novelty on their side. Even though I was reiterating the same lesson that had been outlined many times before it was my new perspective as a performer and professional on my instrument, that would shift the young composer's perspective sufficiently to accept the lesson that was there to be learned. Pity us teachers that are faced with this conundrum: how to inspire and instruct by finding precisely the right pathway for each individual student we come into contact with! That's what makes teaching or mentoring so rewarding: it is never the same for everyone and the onus is on us to bring our creativity to every situation and put ourselves in the shoes of our students to try and see problems from their perspective.
It's what makes good teachers great and I only wish more people, like our politicians and leaders, would consider a shift in their perspective once in a while, especially if faced with their own short-comings.