Category Archives: Composer in Focus

Profiling relevant or interesting composers.

Hail and farewell, Sir David Willcocks

Sad to note today the passing of Sir David Willcocks, former Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge and the Royal College of Music, conductor of the Bach Choir, organist, conductor, composer and best-known as editor, along with John Rutter, of the popular anthology, Carols for Choirs.

Carols_for_ChoirsIt’s no understatement to say that Carols for Choirs has become as much a part of tradition at Christmas as the decorated tree and tinsel; for many, Christmas simply isn’t Christmas without that opening solo verse of Once in Royal David’s City lifting clear into the vaulted roof, the wonderful intimacy of his arrangements of Away in a Manger and Silent Night, or robust settings of The Twelve Days of Christmas or I Saw Three Ships. The first volume in the series was published in the 1960s, and the 100 Carols for Choirs  published in 1987 is the go-to carol collection for most choirs. A chorister’s Christmas begins around mid-autumn with that first cracking open of the anthology; the collection ranges from arrangements of popular carols together with lesser-known pieces, and has become the staple of choirs the world over, both amateur and professional. And if you’ve learned a carol descant, chances are it’s one from the book. Arguments about whether, between them, Willcocks and Rutter combined to save the tradition of choral Christmas carol-singing will no doubt continue, but it’s certainly fair to say that they provided an accessible, richly-rewarding and enduringly popular collection that has contributed much to keeping carol-singing alive and in rude health well into the twenty-first century.

WillcocksHail and farewell, Sir David, who leaves behind an enduring legacy at the heart of music-making at Christmas.

In memoriam: Sir John Tavener

A sad loss to the world of contemporary music, the death of Sir John Tavener yesterday at the age of 69.

Sir John Tavener: 1944-2013
Sir John Tavener: 1944-2013

It’s become something of cliché to write Tavener’s music off as a sort of ‘holy minimalism,’ yet this is to glibly dismiss a music that tapped into a unique corner of the British musical landscape, and one in which the composer’s profound religious faith found articulation in a music that combined striking simplicity with chromatic colours and soaring lines. His music touched the heart of millions round the world when his serene Song for Athene was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales; his rhapsodic, ecstatic, spine-tingling The Protecting Veil achieved widespread popularity under the bow of Stephen Isserlis; his musical language – accessible, yet richly colourful – made him that wondrous thing, a contemporary composer who spoke to many, and gainsayed the argument that modern music appeals only to a tiny elite.

Listen to pieces such as The Lamb, or Today The Virgin, and hear the workings of Tavener’s unique language operating beneath the surface colours – proof, if any were needed, that modern music can touch the heart.

He leaves behind a body of work that affirmed his profoud faith, and affords a glimpse, for his willing listeners, into a realm of reflection and takes them perhaps one step closer to God.

Putting the fine in undefinable: the music of Graham Fitkin

Graham Fitkin‘s music first attracted my attention in 1998, when I came across an SPNM sampler disc containing a tantalising segment of Cud and a complete performance of Hook which all but took my head off. That was enough: bam, I was, well…hooked. I think I had those two pieces on the disc on repeat for the best part of a year, a blissful relationship only interrupted by my moving house and losing the disc.

His music defies those neat genre-defining labels that critics and music shop stockists love: classical, minimalist, techno, jazz. Combining repetition, polyphonic rhythmic inventiveness, sampled and electronic sounds and a tonal language glittering with bright colours, it’s a music that refuses to be neatly pigeon-holed.

I love the vibrancy of Hook; the driving rhythmic vitality, brash modern textural writing, and the sheer exuberance in the music that makes it infectious listening.

There’s something rather ‘X Files’-like about ‘Warm Area’ from Still Warm for harp and electronics (although that might just be my response to the tonal colours and the imagery of the accompanying video…!)

There’s exciting news about a new concerto for MIDI harp, premiered at the end of last month, with a sneak preview from BBC Radio 3;

Fervent. for solo piano, has a relentless energy to its ostinato-driven material. Last year, PK was commissioned for, and performed at, the BBC Proms; dealing with the first sending of Morse code signals from Porthcurno in Fitkin’s birthplace of Cornwall, the piece employs Morse code-inspired rhythms, blazing brass and big orchestral gestures occasionally reminiscent of John Adams’ Harmonielehre. Then there’s the contrasting intimacy of Skirting, for solo harp, with its evocative arabesques, or the bustling Vent for four clarinet or saxophone quartet.

Then there’s the minimalist electronica of K2, from Kaplan, that could almost be something by Aphex Twin.

Just listen to the way the music dances and shimmies in the advert for Uniqlo jeans: brief but utterly captivating, like much of Fitkin’s music there’s a wild urgency that cannot be denied, a delight in revelling in bright textures married to bold rhythmic gestures.

It’s compulsive stuff that luxuriates in the sheer joy of music-making. Is it classical ? Is it minimalist ? Or post-minimalist ? Or jazz ? Electronica ? Or all of them, or perhaps none ? Who cares… Keep an ear out: a new piece by Fitkin is always worth waiting for.

(Audio excerpts via LastFM).

Bartok’s Bluebeard: centenary year

2011 sees one hundred years since Bartok first began writing Bluebeard’s Castle, a dark and brooding masterpiece; begun in 1911 when Bartok was thirty, it was first performed in 1918. It’s his only opera, a one-act work in which only two characters appear on-stage: the secretive Duke and the inquisitive Judith, whose desire to discover what lies behind each of the seven locked doors in Bluebeard’s castle will eventually be her doom.

It’s a masterpiece: the visual element is so brilliantly rendered in the orchestral score that it almost makes a staged realisation unnecessary. The glittering yet bloody armoury, the sweeping views of Bluiebeard’s seemingly limitless kingdom, the dazzling treasury where the priceless artefacts are tinged with blood, the lake of tears – the music creates these scenes so well, you almost don’t need to see a stage production’s version: better to leave it to the imagination.

The arguments rage over whether Judith deserves her fate – her curiosity uncovers an ever-deepening nightmare as each door is opened, until the final door is opened to reveal all Bluebeard’s previous wives, whom she is to join – and the psychological or pyschosexual analysis of Bluebeard himself. Does Judith’s nosiness make her fate inevitable ? She knows Bluebeard is a private person, yet she seduces and wiles him into giving her the keys and letting her open each door: does she get what she deserves ?

You can see each act on YouTube: explore the dark and dangerous world of Bartok’s Bluebeard, and decide for yourself.

Another Adams: composer John Luther Adams.

It’s always exciting to discover a new composer whose musical language instantly appeals to you.

I can still recall the exact moment when I first heard a piece by Steve Reich: Vermount Counterpoint. I was immediately hooked.  A pal at school had made a compilation tape of pieces for me, including Eight Lines, Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ, Six Pianos, and a piece by another Minimalist, John Adams, Grand Pianola Music. Now my listening library is dominated by these two composers.

John Luther AdamsI’ve recently discovered another Adams: John Luther Adams, whose hypnotic music occupies a similar niche. The beautiful soundscape of In a Treeless Place, Only Snow  is a delicate gem.

Listen to it for yourself: In a Treeless Place, Only Snow.

And if you like that, try this: The Farthest Place.

Both performances by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, with other pieces streamed from WXQR, the classical radio station in New York’s website here as well.

(And continuing the leap into the Digital Age: you’re now using a media player on this blog as well. Blogs, virtual magazines, video-clips, floating media player: the modernisation continues!)

So, what music struck you like a thunderbolt early on and has stayed with you ever since ?