Category Archives: Notes on Music

The philosophy of music: or the music of philosophy ?

Going digital

It’s been a busy period here in the Music department; on top of the usual online rehearsals and coaching sessions that have been running throughout the term, we’ve recently started filming in order to bring you some online programming during the current lockdown and over the remainder of this term.

Last week, Your Loyal Correspondent was busy recording some weird and wonderful pieces on the stage of the Gulbenkian theatre for an event combining music and landscape photography and a bonkers piece for piano and digital delay unit; it promises to be quite something…

This week, we’ve also been filming for a lockdown presentation of the Cellular Dynamics project, combining high-resolution photography and film from cutting-edge research from the School of Biosciences with live piano music, with Professor Dan Lloyd and a sequence of music by Debussy, Philip Glass, Tarik O’Regan and John Cage.

Today and next week, we’re also filming some of the University Music Performance Scholars and Award Holders performing individually, and we’ve also formed a new department ensemble, the Almas Ensemble, bringing together some of the visiting music staff, to film a performance including seasonal Baroque music by Vivaldi and Corelli.

Thanks to the hard-working technicians, Thomas and Luke; it’s all coming your way over the next month, as we work to provide a programme of digital content to engage and entertain you – stay tuned as the projects unfold…

Small steps as in-person rehearsals bring music to the concert-hall once more

Small steps; slowly but surely, live music-making has been returning to the concert-hall this week, and various ensembles have begun small, socially-distanced rehearsals.

Concert Band sectional rehearsal

For the first time since March, harmonies have been blossoming in the hall; the Chamber Choir on Monday, the Cecilian Choir on Wednesday, four string-players from the String Sinfonia in the afternoon, and on Wednesday night, sectional rehearsals for the Concert Band and Big Band.

The Cecilian Choir in rehearsal

We find ourselves, of course, having to manage rehearsals differently in these strange times, with strict protocols, socially-distanced seating set out on a grid, and rehearsal time limited to one hour. It’s taking some getting used to, but there is a growing sense of joy at being able to make music with others, in person, in real time; from the Renaissance polyphony of Italy to the swirling desert of Arabia and the forests of Finland, and the highly-apposite Who’s That Masked Man concert band piece, music from around the world has filled the concert-hall for the first time after seven months of silence; and it’s been quite an experience to be part of the return of live music.

Players from the String Sinfonia

It’s been a very exciting week; thank you to all the staff and students who’ve been with us as we find our feet once more.

Here in the Music department, of course, we do take our roles very seriou…

Oh well…

Online rehearsals bring music-making to life once more

We’ve reached the end of our first week of music-making – but a different way of making music in these different times. Since Monday, Chorus, Chamber Choir, Concert Band, Big Band and Orchestra have all be taking place online, and it’s been great to see people accessing the resources and taking part.

There’s a great sense that, wherever people are – in their rooms, in their homes around the local area – that we’re able to come together once more, in order to tackle repertoire, keep making music, and be working creatively.

Many thanks to the various tutors who have been leading these online rehearsals, filming their virtual rehearsals and still keeping everyone engaged, as we start to get the musical term underway.

Music Department and Kent and Medway Medical School celebrate inaugural KMMS Music Performance Scholarship

The new Kent and Medway Medical School and the Music department are delighted to celebrate the award of the inaugural KMMS Music Performance Scholarship, which has been awarded to first-year international student, Michael Lam.

First-year KMMS student and Music Performance Scholar, Michael Lam

The first Scholarship of its kind for the new Medical School, the award is given in recognition of outstanding musical abilities which can be supported as part of an extra-curricular aspect of University life. Pianist Michael Lam, who comes from Canada, has been awarded the scholarship, which combines a cash award of £1,000 with a programme of instrumental lessons designed to encourage excellence and to support a student’s musical development alongside their academic studies. The University of Kent has a thriving extra-curricular musical provision, open to all students whatever they are studying, as well as to members of staff, alumni and the local community, with concerts and events throughout the academic year.

Image: Molly Hollman

Head of Music Performance, Dan Harding, is delighted to welcome such an exciting pianist to the University community; “Michael’s audition was extraordinary; he played seven movements from the Anna Magdalena Notebook from memory with skill and craftsmanship, and showed himself to be a remarkable performer. Talking with Michael at interview, it became apparent that he is going to be able to make a very exciting contribution to University music-making, at a very high level of accomplishment, and we are looking forward to seeing him flourish during his time at Kent.”

Here is Michael playing Bach’s March in Eb major BWV Anh. 127, filmed in Colyer-Fergusson Hall.

Find out more about the new Medical School here, or about the extra-curricular Music Performance Scholarships here.

With thanks to KMTV.

Ave atque vale: Sue Wanless retires from the University

After many years devoted to championing extra-curricular music as part of life at the University, Sue has decided to lay down the conductor’s baton.

Image: Molly Hollman

For thirty-two years, Sue has been at the helm of the Music department,  conducting the University Chorus and Symphony Orchestra each year in the epic annual Colyer-Fergusson concert in Canterbury Cathedral, as well as the University Camerata and other chamber groups.

University Chorus and Orchestra
University Chorus and Orchestra in Canterbury Cathedral: Photo: Robert Berry
Image: Molly Hollman

From a humble beginning, rehearsing fifty singers in the Senate Building, through to the cavernous acoustics and logistical challenges of performing in Eliot College dining-hall, and eventually into the landmark Colyer-Fergusson building, music has become a flourishing, vital part of the University’s creative life.

Rehearsing in Eliot dining-hall in 2010.
Digging the first hole
The Honourable Jonathan Monckton and Director of Music, Susan Wanless in May, 2011.Image credit Mick Norman

Over four hundred members of the University community, both students as well as staff, are involved each academic year, as well as members of the local community. Aside from a busy life on campus, Sue has also  been part of the panel of judges for the Canterbury International Festival’s annual music bursary competition for young performers.

Sue in rehearsal with compser, Matthew King, in 2018

Thanks to a wonderful donation from the Colyer-Fergusson Charitable Trust, the Colyer-Fergusson building opened its doors to extra-curricular music in December 2018,  revolutionising the opportunities for rehearsal and performance with its award-winning concert-hall.

The gala opening of Colyer-Fergusson, December 2012. Image: Matt Wilson
Rehearsing in Canterbury Cathedral

Thanks to Sue, each year students leave the University with fond memories of having performed in the Nave of the Cathedral, Colyer-Fergusson Hall, and (last November) across the Channel in the city of Calais. And it’s not just the music; joining in with music leads to the creation of friendships amongst the student community that last a lifetime.

In previous years, Sue conducted fully-staged productions of works as part of the summer opera projects, and created the former annual ArtsFest that transformed into the current Summer Music Week, a vibrant week- (and, in recent years, more than a week!) long musical celebration of the end of the academic year, concluding with the popular Saturday Gala concert complete with popping champagne corks, popular orchestral and choral favourites, and fond (and often tearful) farewells as another generation of University musicians graduates, performing in the concert-hall for the final time.

The annual Summer Gala concert in Colyer-Fergusson Hall. Image: Matt Wilson

And it’s not just about waving your arms; there’s also the programme notes to write, the lunchtime concerts to book, the liaising with other departments and schools across the University, the bills to pay.

So it’s farewell to Sue after many of commitment and dedication to enhancing the lives of countless students (and staff) at the University as she heads to the nineteenth hole. We’re sure the future holds many, many rounds of golf and post-golf refreshments – as Sue heads off the eighteenth green for the final time, we are sure everyone joins us in wishing her all the very best. Thank you for the music…

Sue on the spoons…

Hallowed music in hallowed halls: thinking outside the (musical) box

Music is usually with us most of the time; on streaming platforms whilst we work, on the radio or mp3 player while in the car, running, cycling; it announces the mood of the film we’re about to watch (usually in the cinema: more likely, on Netflix these days…), or draws the programme we’re watching on television to a close. It identifies particular brands or products in adverts; it accompanies times of celebration, of mourning, enhancing public pageants and private moments.

Image: Larisa Birta via Unsplash

In the current climate of various states of lockdown and social distancing, many of us are finding we need music now more than ever; being deprived of the opportunities to either perform or experience live music is affecting musicians and listeners everywhere. The recent resumption of tiny live concerts from the Wigmore Hall – delivered from behind closed doors with only one or two performers and a skeleton technical staff – and performances from the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra have come as a reviving musical burst of oxygen for many.

We’re all looking for solutions at the moment, that will allow us to keep performing and experiencing music during the current pandemic. We look for models, for ways in which others are responding to the challenge in different, creative ways, to see what we might learn from them; what might work, what might offer the possibility of keeping music alive.

Kate Romano: image by Bella West

It’s easy to be afraid; traditional models of classical music, in particular, rely on delivering hallowed music in suitable venues. As musician, producer and creative whirlwind Kate Romano put it recently in an impassioned article by Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian, we cling to “the idea that music of high stature has to be performed in buildings of high stature,” a concept that “closes things down and prevents people from thinking about different ways of people hearing music.”

If we can, for a moment, relinquish the idea that audiences need to experience music in traditional venues (a concept looking increasingly untenable as concert-halls, churches and clubs look to be least suited to allowing live musicians and audiences to occupy the same space), and look instead to other spaces that might allow performers and listeners to come together, in whatever shape or form may be possible, things start to get a little more positive. Think, for instance, of the Proms in the Car Park series that began a few years ago, bringing exciting music to a multi-storey car park in Peckham.

Of course, performances benefit from taking place in ideal, purpose-built venues, in concert-halls and opera houses that have been designed especially to enhance acoustic properties, lines of sight, managing people and instruments and all the trappings of concert-giving. And this is not to undermine their importance, especially when they engage and support their local communities. But these venues rely on packing people together – musicians and audience alike – in order to enhance the electricity that derives from (and is necessary to) live performance – and also to maximise ticket sales, to keep venues operating, and musicians, box office, front of house and technical staff paid. And whilst repertoire benefits from being experienced in exactly the right conditions for the ears and (sometimes) the spirit – sacred polyphony in resonant churches, symphonic repertoire in concert halls, jazz quartets on club stages – the current climate is forcing us to consider the need to move outside of these places, if social distancing requires more space between the players and more seats between the audience.

Rather than trying to realise traditional music in spaces that aren’t designed for it, necessitating amplification or the imposition of ways to improve the configuration to avoid a disappointing experience for the audience, composers would instead write more pieces with non-traditional venues in mind.

Most music is written expressly to be performed in dedicated venues (I recall watching a broadcast of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s About Time in which the sonorous opening brass-call came from the players spaced around the tower of Ely Cathedral, in dialogue with the period-instrument orchestra and modern ensemble below). What happens if organisations started commissioning new works especially for performance in unusual spaces; for car-parks, libraries, art galleries ? Rather than trying to realise traditional music in spaces that aren’t designed for it, necessitating amplification or the imposition of ways to improve the configuration to avoid a disappointing experience for the audience, composers would instead write more pieces with non-traditional venues in mind. Initially, it would be about working on the smaller-scale; using different ensembles, spaced to exploit a venue’s characteristics and draw directly upon them rather than trying to get around them.

I realise of course that this isn’t a short-term solution to the problems we’re facing. And some communities are doing this already. But drawing on this approach particularly at this moment might wed musicians, artists, composers and curators closer to their local communities, encouraging collaboration between artists, the places and the communities in which they live in the way that some festivals already work, resulting in a closer creative dialogue between people and place. The danger, of course, of successfully engaging the local community is that the focus of creative groups and organisations becomes somewhat more inward-looking, or locally focused; but it would be important to keep being aspirational, challenging, and with a view to building towards a return to the concert-hall but wielding a new, imaginatively different approach to programming. Having established a loyal, local audience, what you would then aim to do is to take your community audience with you when the time came that those traditional venues reopen. “You enjoyed listening to us HERE; now listen to us HERE as well!” Building up a faithful, local listenership that then follows you into the concert-hall or opera house might help also reassure those involved that the classical canon in general, and the contemporary scene in particular, isn’t always something of which to be afraid. Those local followers might well be the open-minded, open-eared listeners happy to take the risk, especially if they were engaged enough to have come with you through odd venues, unusual spaces with quirky acoustics and perhaps unusual (or even non-existent) seating…

Now’s the time to think about looking to those imaginative ways of presenting music as models for the future, rather than as Novel But Ultimately Forgettable Sidesteps from the Traditional Ways of Doing Things. There is room for both opportunities: for traditional repertoire in customary spaces, and for traditional and imaginative (and new) repertoire capitalising on the novel possibilities afforded by unorthodox spaces. We need to support and develop organisations prepared to take on the challenge.

And, as Kate dryly tweeted in response: ‘Yes. And channel funding into them.’

Even though a rescue package of £1.57bn towards the arts was announced yesterday (and there are still concerns about how that will be implemented, and whether it will support freelancers and grass-roots venues…), the conversation is still intricate, fascinating – and urgent. We need to keep it going.

Are the performing arts more accessible in lockdown? A reflection on accessing live music in lockdown, shielding and solitude.

As part of our occasional guest series, a reflection on the arts in lockdown by Dr Francesca Bernardi, RSA Fellow and independent researcher into children’s rights, dis/abilities and the arts.


Sometimes people like to use the phrase ‘wearing different hats’ as an expression of versatility, in different contexts or in a single space that requires one to assume different guises to get through the day (at the very least). I suppose that might be a good way to start a brief introduction of my own different hats. I would describe my self as a children’s rights and dis/ability activist, but then feel I am neglecting the very medium of such activism: the arts, visual and performing.

Francesca Bernardi

In this time of crisis I have worn a new guise which has been with me always (unnoticed) and has positioned me in a place of vulnerability and, consequently, I am shielding. Responding to this heightened vulnerable self, has caused me to look at personal ideas, hopes and ambitions in a very different light. I have also been hit financially by the changing shape of academia and my potential role within that space. An added sense of displacement comes from my inability to return to Italy (my home) where I would like to continue my research with communities that are seldom heard, in research, the media and their own social spheres.

Continue reading Are the performing arts more accessible in lockdown? A reflection on accessing live music in lockdown, shielding and solitude.