MAGNUM OPUS 2023: MID-YEAR REFLECTIONS
Our three 2023 Magnum Opus composers had their first Britten Sinfonia commissions for wind quintet premiered in April. Here they share what they have taken from that experience and what their early thoughts are on what they will write for their larger ensemble commission for the early 2024 end-of-year showcase.
David John Roche
Workshops give composers the space to write ambitiously and test the less predictable and stable elements of their work. When you put a piece of music in front of performers, you get a literal, real sense of how it sits on the given instruments and how it breathes as a living piece of music. I – like many composers – spend a lot of time trying to anticipate any issues by working with individual players on parts, writing in a manner that respects a specific instrument’s strengths and weaknesses, and creating music that is likely to lead to a strong performance. Even if you play the instrument you’re writing for, it’s basically impossible to predict whether there will be a problem (however small) – so, so much is dependent on the specific players you’re working with. This is why developing collaborative relationships with performers should be seen as an essential component of composition. We (the Magnus Opus composers) were really lucky to spend a big chunk of time working very closely with Britten Sinfonia, and I’m absolutely certain that this resulted in (for me) a composition that was less conservative, more polished, and more grounded in the reality of an actual performance (Sentimental Espionage Music, here). Musicians need these kinds of spaces to push themselves – it totally, fundamentally changes a person’s practice.
My next composition for Britten Sinfonia is going to be a guitar concerto. I’d like to elaborate on some of my tremolo pieces (here), and fuse them with the energy of some of my recent chamber works (here) – a controlled and practical virtuosity mixed with direct, driven material. Guitar is my instrument, I know what I love about it, I’ve got a lot of personal history with it, and I know what makes it work. It’s tactile and, in comparison to a lot of solo instruments, quite sensitive and quiet. Balancing these practical concerns with my own expressive intensions will be a challenge, but this instrument is home for me – it has to be special, it has to feel right.
My concert opener piece for wind quintet received its first performance in April at St. Andrews Hall in Norwich, followed by a recording day of the work. I really enjoyed composing my piece The Pearly King which was about my Great Grandfather - the Pearly King of Marylebone and Paddington.
We had workshops with Britten Sinfonia and composer mentors Dani Howard and Raymond Yiu, who helped us really shape the works. Of course, the end result sounded wonderful with the immaculate talent of Britten Sinfonia players. Having the recording day was also a fruitful experience, where we were able to experience a different side of music-making, working closely with the sound engineer on the day. Preparing for a live concert and working in a recording environment require different approaches and skill sets. This was really useful for the composers and performers involved.
We are now beginning to compose our next work with Britten Sinfonia, which will be a 10-minute concerto, due to performed in London in January 2024. I have chosen to write a concerto for jazz scat singer. As a singer myself, I really enjoy composing for voice and especially enjoy exploring the ‘instrumental’ side to the voice. This work will not simply be a song, but I will delve into a more percussive and rhythmic approach to vocal writing through scat-style singing with a jazz vocalist. I have always loved jazz culture and the use of rich, extended harmonies, which I look forward to combining with the contemporary world, creating a unique cross-genre blend.
For me, a significant part of what I took from the workshopping and performance of my wind quintet was witnessing how the five musicians worked through the music without a conductor. Moments for leadership were shared among the group whilst the open dialogue between them was constant. And there was good reason for it too. Despite being just a little longer than a pop song, my piece relentlessly explored rhythmically intense ideas that required an attentive approach to notation throughout. I worked elaborately on communicating the rhythmic context within the parts by indicating beat groupings, subdividing rests and incorporating instrumental cues, as well as providing a demo resource.
The impressive Saffron Hall was a pretty remarkable place to hold the first performance of the work in April as part of the ensemble’s touring weekend. I enjoyed meeting supporters of Britten Sinfonia there and the premiere was received well by a warm and approachable audience. Recording the works in June in London was a brief but intensive process in which the detailed pieces could go back to being honed in sections.
Going forward into the next stage of the Magnum Opus programme, I’ll likely be extending my exploration into rhythm and theme. Self-led research into instrumental mechanics, repertoire and soloists has already provided an interesting introduction to concerto writing. But now, expanding a careful knowledge of the instrument I’ll be highlighting will include the unique opportunity for me to learn from the soloist themselves, spurring a collaborative exchange that I hope will continue even beyond the project.