Category Archives: Notes on Music

The philosophy of music: or the music of philosophy ?

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.

Rewriting the dimensions of the world: the arts in lockdown and a global audience of one

In the current climate of getting your cultural fix online – music, theatre, dance – I’ve found myself, like many, watching pre-recorded and streamed live performances of musicians and actors from around the world. I’ve written elsewhere of witnessing the courage of cellist and composer Anne Müller’s livestreamed Wohnzimmerkonzert (pictured below); I’ve also watched the troubling Frankenstein from the National Theatre, Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III from the Nottingham Playhouse, and last night’s broadcast of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa from Glyndebourne, a compelling blend of Erwartung, Bluebeard’s Castle and the more menacing waltzes of Ravel.

Continue reading Rewriting the dimensions of the world: the arts in lockdown and a global audience of one

Zoom with a View: awards ceremony with a difference to recognise outstanding contributions to University music

Well, we’ve never had a Music Prizes awards ceremony quite like it before – a sign of the times – but it was still lovely to be able to ‘see’ this year’s prize-winning students, and to be able to thank them for their various outstanding contributions to music-making this past, slightly shorter than normal, academic year.

Stars of the small screen…

The Music Prize Committee has the unenviable task of recognising particular students whose involvement in the extra-curricular musical life of the University, from amongst all those who give up their time in order to participate. The deliberations eventually resulted in prizes this year being awarded to:

Canterbury Festival Music Prize: awarded jointly to Sophia Lyons (Drama and Theatre Studies) and Tom Wust (Business and Management)

Colyer-Fergusson Prize: awarded to Owen Kerry (Physics)

University of Kent Music Prize: Megan Daniel (Law)

David Humphreys Prize: awarded jointly to Matthew Cooke (French and Business Administration) and Melody Brooks (Forensic Psychology)

Sophia Lyons in the title role of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ performing in February
Tom Wust and Meg Daniel performing a Lunchtime Concert at the Historic Dockyard in March
Owen Kerry (top left) among the woodwind section of the Orchestra backstage in December
Matthew Cooke in the role of the Hatter in the production of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ back in February
Melody Brooks (right) performing as part of a chamber ensemble in March

The highly unusual award ceremony, expertly and virtually chaired by Professor Dan Lloyd, was a way both to thank them and also to acknowledge their impressive contributions to a curtailed but still nonetheless excellent period of music-making.

Now for a virtual glass of champagne…


The Danger of Working From Home: the Lure of the Biscuit Cupboard

In the current climate, working from home has become the new norm. As part of an ongoing evaluation of new protocols, procedures and working practices, the Deputy Director of Music undertakes a rigorous assessment of one of the perils of working from home: lunchtime and the Lure of the Biscuit Cupboard.

The trouble with working from home is LUNCH.

On a normal working day, about five minutes before I need to leave the house, I’ll usually suddenly remember that I haven’t made my lunch, so I’ll scrabble around at the back of the cupboard for two or three slices of bread that fell down behind everything else some weeks ago, and which, since they aren’t developing sentient life or movable limbs, can still be classified as edible. I then hurl open the fridge door and look for something that can instantly be cast between the bread-slices to form a sandwich – sliced ham, grated cheese, a rack of lamb or something. Mindful of the need to maintain a balanced and healthy diet, I’ll grab a piece of fruit from a bowl on the window-sill, looking for the one in the least state of advanced putrefaction, and wash it under the tap; if it stays more or less in one piece without falling apart, it’s also classified as edible. Off to work.

Image sadly not Author’s Own but from the marvellous Betty

Now, working from home provides a Whole New Minefield. I’m no longer limited to what I’ve brought into work with me, and suddenly the kitchen because a vast, seductive Ocean of Possibilities. So, yesterday, for example, I cast open the cupboard door and found a panini, which I subjected to the usual scrutiny and found it was indeed edible. Throwing wide the fridge door, I could take time actually to peruse the contents of the fridge and to start creating something relatively toothsome. Out came the jar of olives; I unearthed a block of mature Cheddar, rather than the usual child’s play-brick of plastic cheese. And lo – I beheld some paté! And relish! I therefore had time leisurely to construct a positive banquet of sustenance, resulting in a panini of such glorious magnitude that I had to eat it off the back of a lorry that needed to drive backwards into the kitchen – ‘This sandwich is REVERSING.’

And then, as it was still technically lunchtime and therefore mercifully free of any conscience-harrowing connotations of ‘snack,’ I attacked the biscuit cupboard with a feverish voracity that would have shocked anyone had they seen me. I fell foul of that awful moment where you open a packet of biscuits and then can’t fit them into the tin (the need to preserve foodstuffs during lockdown means I’ve become quite adept at finding Tupperware containers and tins to store opened food), and so say to yourself ‘Well, I’ll just have another one, so the packet will be able to fit into the tin,’ which OF COURSE means that any biscuit consumed under such a situation is obviously calorie-free. Imagine my surprise when I found the packet STILL didn’t fit, and I was required to eat MORE biscuits.

Well, Reader, let me tell you – the packet fits now, although admittedly into a much smaller container that I’d originally planned…

Then – coffee.

And afterwards, as I passed the fruit-bowl with its various offerings in differing states of dissolution, I was FAR TOO SATED to need to eat anything else.

Beware, Gentle Reader: lunchtime when working at home is fraught with danger. Resist the beguilement of the biscuit-cupboard: resist…

Scholar’s Spotlight: Jennifer Pang

Continuing the series profiling new Music Performance Scholars and Music Award Holders at the University of Kent. This week, second-year violinist reading Biomedical Science, Jennifer Pang.

When I was seven, my primary school offered all students a choice of 3 instruments; violin, flute, or guitar. I chose the violin by chance, not wanting to choose the guitar like everyone else. Coming from a non-musical family, it was a big surprise to my mum when I kept playing year after year and it became a huge part of my life.

At 7 years old, I took time out of my lunch to have 20 minute group lessons until the end of the year when everyone else had quit and I was getting ready to take my grade 1. The following year there was no one else at the same level in the school, and therefore they did not plan further violin lessons except for beginners. My mum contacted the school to emphasise that it was not a very positive message to a child who had shown commitment and was enjoying music so much. The school compromised, giving me regular 10-15 minute lessons until I left the school 3 years later, having achieved grade 3.

Moving up into secondary school I finally got private lessons, Mrs Rose taught me from 8 years old through to grade 8 at 17 years old. During this time, she had introduced me to the High Wycombe Music Centre (HWMC), where I created music with other young musicians for 10 years. At HWMC I took part in many ensembles, working my way up from the junior string groups to leading the Senior string group and Symphony Orchestra. Here, I found my love for music and ensemble playing; I got involved with as much music as I could, from touring Budapest and Reykjavik with the Buckinghamshire County Orchestra, playing with the English Schools Orchestra and performing wedding gigs with the Cedar String Quartet. I cannot express the gratitude I have for all the teachers and staff who have encouraged and shaped me as a musician and as a person.

When applying for universities I knew that I wanted music to continue to be a big part of my life alongside a Biomedical Science degree. I applied to the University of Kent because I saw that the music department creates music to a very high standard, has its own concert hall and music scholarships! Obtaining a Music Award has allowed me to continue developing as a musician and to produce so much incredible and diverse music. At Kent I am enjoying being part of the Symphony Orchestra and String Sinfonia; and also playing in chamber ensembles to gig at the Law Ball, perform in Calais and play Peter and The Wolf for a children’s concert.

My favourite performance so far, has been playing and broadcasting the atmospheric music of Olafur Arnalds for an empty concert hall in a time of social distancing.