“It’s very much in the spirit of exploration; it feels like the ensemble are as willing and excited to work with your music as you have been to write it.”Xia-Leon Sloane
In early July, I had the privilege of being invited to observe the 2021 Cheltenham Composers Academy as part of Cheltenham Music Festival — watching the development of pieces written by twelve incredibly talented composers from both the UK and continental Europe, workshopped by musicians from the Chineke! Ensemble and The Carice Singers, under the tuition of acclaimed British composer Daniel Kidane. During the incredible week I spent in Cheltenham — including a plethora of amazing concerts by artists such as The 12 Ensemble, Propellor Ensemble, and Jess Gillam, as well as a final Composium at the end of the week spearheaded by Camilla King and Katy Hamilton — I had the chance to chat with each of the composers about the pieces they’d written for Chineke! and the Carice Singers ahead of their premieres at the Composium, as well as some of their upcoming projects and advice they’d give to aspiring composers looking to attend the Academy.
In the first of this two-part special for PRXLUDES, I’ll be publishing the interviews I conducted with each of the fantastic artists that were selected to attend the Cheltenham Composers Academy this year, and give an insight into their creative processes, compositional approaches, and recent/upcoming projects they’ve been working on.
I want to thank Camilla King, Louise Carles, Daniel Kidane, and all of the amazing people I met in Cheltenham — you all made my time at the Festival so amazingly special.
Hey Michele — so lovely to be chatting with you again! Tell me about your piece for Cheltenham this week, ‘A New Center’; what inspired your compositional process?
Hey Zyggy, my pleasure! A new center is a piece about the experience of lockdown, in a way. During the last year, I felt that living closed and in isolation kept my feelings trapped into myself; I understood that they needed an output – before this experience they could be expressed by meeting and interacting with friends or people in general, but in that time real human relations became extremely rare.
So I decided to write a piece of music that could create a space for these emotions to come out and find their ground. Anyway it’s not everything connected with my experience:I wrote most of the lyrics by myself but taking some text from Daniel Dafoe’s book ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’; it’s a book about the year of the plague in London, [in] 1665. I tried to connect the two events, creating a bridge between the different times, different cultures and periods of history… but with very similar experiences. I was looking for that deep and archetypical sense of living in forced isolation that somehow – I believe – has the same emotional root despite far historical times.
Were there any particular composers or artists that influenced ‘A New Center’?
Well, absolutely post-minimalist composers… David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Judd Greenstein. The New York scene has always generally influenced my style, but I think also about film composers like Hans Zimmer and pop artists like Björk – I remember that when I was writing I was listening to Cosmogony performed by The Hamrahlíð Choir, the glissando idea in my piece comes from there! Then I would also say that John Adams is a composer that inspired me; Nixon in China’s choir ‘The people are the heroes now’ has a very similar character, starting in sottovoce, reiterating the same sentence homorhytmically with a big crescendo.
How did you find the process of workshopping the piece with The Carice Singers?
Fantastic! At the beginning, since they’re a traditional choir, I was worried that my piece was too different for their usual style, but they really pulled through! They were extremely interested in discovering the piece deeply and thanks to them the music improved so much. George [Parris] was also very keen in finding the best vocal solutions, giving me space to experiment and try whatever I wanted; finally they definitely understood the intention of the piece, singing it with a powerful emotional energy. Just a great collaboration!
Do you have any projects coming up that PRXLUDES readers should be made aware of?
Actually many! -laughs- I’m going to make a new piece for double bass, voice, and electronics, which will be premiered in early October in Venice, at the Festival in memory of the musicologist Giovanni Morelli. It will be a very experimental piece, using a lot of looped voice, fixed media and synths, and will be performed by the fantastic Nina Baietta and Marco Centasso. After that I’m going to present two new audiovisual works at the festival Teatri del Suono / Paradiso organized by CantiereZero in Trieste: it is a festival dedicated to Dante Alighieri, on the 700th anniversary of his death. I’ll be presenting ‘Rivers’, a short A/V work made in collaboration with my dear friend Claudio Bellini, exploring the theme of purification, related to the two rivers Letè and Eunoè from the Divine Comedy. The second one is a short film that I’ll make using extracts from one of the first movie ever been made about the Divine Comedy: L’Inferno (1911) by Milano Films. I’ll make a new , choosing particular scenes and composing a totally new soundtrack. It will be quite interesting!
There will also be a residency after that; I will be going to Puglia, in the south [of] Italy, and I will be staying at the atelier/house of the director Cosimo Terlizzi. Immersed in the countryside, in a beautiful place… I’ll be writing a new work there. I don’t know yet what kind of work it will be, but will probably generates from the experience of living there, close to the earth in the mediterranean autumn.
Michele Deiana (1992, Cagliari, Italy) is a multidisciplinary composer based in Venice. Having studied in Sardinia, Venice and Birmingham, Michele’s work has been performed at festivals and institutions such as La Biennale di Venezia, EXPO Venice, Montréal International Festival of Films on Art, Mutek San Francisco andThinkTank Birmingham Science Museum.
Read PRXLUDES’ interview with Michele Deiana here.
Hey Aileen! So tell me a bit about the piece you’ve written for the Carice Singers — what was the basis of the piece?
I had the eight-piece choir; I wanted to do something that was folky, but I didn’t want to use text, I didn’t want to use a Scottish poem or whatever. Then I remembered about canntaireachd; I have a lot of friends who teach, learn, and sing canntaireachd — for people who don’t know what it is, it’s a complex aural tradition that stemmed from the Gaelic language, that [is] used to teach bagpipe tunes aurally. Most often, [that’s] the piobaireachd; piobaireachd is essentially like a theme and variations for the bagpipes. They tend to be quite long pieces of music with ornaments [that] get more and more complex. Canntaireachd was basically a way to remember and teach them. It’s basically got different vocables for each note of the scale, and those alter and change depending on what grace notes are being used on the note. Bagpipes have very complex grace note practices.
So I took a piobaireachd which is called ‘The Prince’s Salute’ — if you hear the tune, it’s nothing like my piece, it’s very very slow — but I just took these tiny fragments of it and piled them all together, so I had these rhythmically looped things that I could pile on top of each other. It’s [a] very loose use of canntaireachd; if I showed this to a piper, they’d be like “what have you done…” -laughs- But it was just the starting point. It gives for some cool rhythms and some cool phrases.
How did you find the process of working with those singers in the workshops? Did they manage to grasp the concept of canntaireachd?
Well, the piece has stayed relatively the same, I would say. It was more [that] the singers are very particular [in] their default style, and it was kind of drawing them out of that a little bit. It was [about] getting things very straight, non-vibrato, a bit harsh, and getting them to sing sounds with a bit more nasal [tone], closing up the vowels and stuff. So that was the main thing that we worked on. Obviously, the main thing was getting the speed up, because it’s pretty tricky, so we’ve [been] gradually cranking up the speed over the week, so hopefully tomorrow it’ll be coming straight out the gates. -laughs-
Do you have any exciting projects coming up that PRXLUDES readers should be aware of?
I feel like there is, but I can’t really think of them… -laughs- I don’t think there’s anything really exciting happening. Yesterday I was quite lucky [to] win two awards at The Scottish Awards for New Music; I got an award for a piece I wrote [for the London Philharmonic Orchestra] last year, and then for also for the podcast that I co-host with my partner Ben Eames, called Ear to the Ground Scotland. So I feel quite chuffed, and ate a big Dominos to celebrate. So that’s exciting! And I guess following on from this, I’m in the middle of writing another choral piece for an amateur group which is a completely different kettle of fish.
Is your next choral piece still centring on folk tradition?
No, this one’s really different, actually. I asked [the] amateur choir what they wanted, and they wanted a piece about community, [and] coming together. So what I got them to do was submit their own piece of text or line [that] they wanted in the piece, and I compiled all of them into a collage of all their text and lines and stuff. So completely different. Good fun. -laughs-
What advice would you give to someone who might be thinking about applying to the Cheltenham Composers Academy?
That’s a good question, but a hard question, I guess. -laughs- I guess it’s really obvious advice, but people think it’s as important as it is — the written part of the application is where you can really try and sell yourself. I think some people maybe think [that] the music will speak for itself, or carry itself, but I think the written bit [is important]. You don’t get a lot of words, so you really have to choose your words carefully. The answers are only like 100-200 words… Make sure you’re selling yourself as much as you can in the written part.
Aileen Sweeney (b.1994) is a Scottish composer, accordionist and arranger based in Glasgow. Her music is cross-genre, infused with the ornamentation, energy and colours of the Scottish folk music she grew up playing learning the accordion. Aileen has worked with and been commissioned by many of the UK’s ensembles such as the London Philarmonic Orchestra, The Red Note Ensemble, The Nevis Ensemble, The Michael Cuddigan Trust, The Edinburgh Quartet, The Brodick Quartet, The Hebrides Ensemble, The Carice Singers and The Psappha Ensemble.
Aileen loves a natter and co-hosts the Ear to the Ground podcast with Ben Eames, talking to Scottish/Scottish based composers about the work and promoting their music in partnership with New Music Scotland.
Learn more about Aileen Sweeney here.
Hi Chloe! Tell me about the piece you’ve written for the Chineke! Ensemble — was there anything in particular that inspired it?
I wanted to explore the feeling of being disconnected from the world, and feeling quite vulnerable. I came across [a] term called clouding — which is this term for people feeling like they’ve got brain fog, and they can’t really concentrate, and [like] they don’t really have a sense of time — so I started with that. It’s funny because the clarinetist said it almost reminds him more of clouds moving through the sky, so I think it probably has dual interpretations. But that’s where I started from, wanting to write something that felt quite vulnerable and exposed.
How did those themes develop in terms of your compositional process?
I play clarinet too, and I’m obsessed with the lower register. I think it’s a really beautiful part of the instrument that doesn’t always get featured for a piece. So I suggested [in my application] that I might like to do lower-register clarinet and then string harmonics, and explore the space between the two. That was my starting point for when I was thinking of actually bringing the piece together. Since workshopping it, I’ve done some tweaks, but I think that’s a really nice thing to be able to do in the space — when you’ve got the instrumentalists [in a room], and you can hear what maybe doesn’t need to still stay there. It feels quite vulnerable as a composer sometimes to write something that sounds quite simple — so for me, the workshopping process has been about stripping things back even further, so that the idea of the piece is coming across really clearly. So I’ve enjoyed that.
Of course — having the instrumentalists in the room with you is a completely different dynamic to a Sibelius mockup, or even a Zoom call…
Yeah. And realising that you don’t have to have as much going on as you think. With a piece like this, it’s better if there’s less going on, because it’s more interesting for the audience.
Do you feel like the piece changed significantly working with Dan and the Chineke! Ensemble?
I took out a middle section — so I think that makes quite a difference to the overall structure of the piece — but I’m quite happy with that. I’m glad I took it out, because I think it didn’t need that.
Do you have any recent projects that PRXLUDES readers should be made aware of?
I’ve got an installation coming out towards the end of the month. I got the Developing Your Creative Practice fund earlier in the year, and I’ve been working with a visual artist who’s been making a response to one of my pieces called ‘Ruins’, which is all about women composers and their music being treated as if it’s something to become a ruin. That’s the next thing after this.
What advice would you give to anyone interested in applying to Cheltenham Composers Academy?
I think just do it — but when you’re doing the application, try and think of some really specific ideas to share. I think sometimes it’s easy — when you really want to get onto something — to be quite “oh I can do this, please take me on”; but if you give them a really specific idea that you’re looking at, I think that gives people a sense of what you’re actually gonna do when you’re here. But I think it’s a really lovely thing to do, particularly after the last year. It feels like quite a treat to be in a room full of really creative and talented people.
Chloe Knibbs is a composer and songwriter exploring storytelling, theatricality and sidelined voices with a particular emphasis on feminist perspectives. Chloe’s work includes compositions for opera and music theatre, orchestra, chamber music, art song and choir. She has worked with a range of musicians including the Hebrides Ensemble, EXAUDI, Alauda Quartet, Birmingham Opera Company, Riot Ensemble, Psappha, CoMA, 315 Ensemble, Talkestra and Project Instrumental. Chloe is currently undertaking a Jerwood Arts Bursary on her project “The Female Creative Voice”, exploring the experiences, music and lives and music of French Romantic female composers in collaboration with Daffodil Perspective and Rene Morgensen.
Learn more about Chloe Knibbs here.
Hi Marcus! Tell me about ‘Extrinsic Episodes: Eternal Return’, the piece you wrote for the Chineke! Ensemble — what inspired it?
Extrinsic Episodes is a category — one of three categories — in [which] every piece I write exists. Extrinsic Episodes deals with external experiences; so this idea of eternal return is a philosophical concept of events happening over and over again. This idea of a tide coming in and out, reality being recycled… In terms of how it relates to my piece, there’s a beginning melodic line in the cello, and all [of] the material is recycled throughout the piece by the different instruments. It’s cut up and elaborated on.
What drew you to write for the Chineke! ensemble — you wrote for a trio, right?
Initially, there was a selection of the horn, violin, cello, and clarinet. I [chose to] cut the horn out — as I didn’t know how it would blend with the other instruments, [as] I wanted the piece to be a melodic conversation between [the] instruments — I couldn’t see how I could include the horn being in that conversation — but I found the [other instruments] blended really well. They’re all dynamic instruments, in terms of their register.
How have you found the experience of Cheltenham, and being in this environment of composers and creatives?
Yeah, it’s been great! Especially because I used to study here… -laughs- Before I went into music, I used to study here, so coming back here and being in a different place in my life [with] a different outlook [I found] very interesting. Meeting the other composers from different stages in their careers, and different points in their lives, and studying in different places… It’s been amazing to connect with everyone. Everyone’s been so kind, so supportive. In general, I’ve found it a great experience.
Do you have any projects in the pipeline that PRXLUDES readers should be aware of?
There’s a project coming up — the deadline for that is the 31st [July] — and that is the Clements Prize, which is actually a trio [of] violin, cello, and viola. So I’ve got some sketches for that. That’s the next thing I’m doing. I’m also waiting on a few recordings from [Birmingham] Conservatoire of the last year’s pieces I did [for] solo piano [and] percussion trio.
Do you have any advice for anyone who might be interested in coming to Cheltenham and doing this?
Just do it! -laughs- If you have any anxieties about the environment and the kinds of people here, I can assure you [that] everyone — especially in my year — has been very supportive. You’re going to meet people and make connections that maybe you’ll [appreciate] in the future!
Marcus took an interest in composing around two years ago while studying film, he then decided to pursue composition seriously mid-way through his course and decided to drop out of university. Marcus’ aesthetic is centred around the sensory feedback of the subjective experiencing of thoughts and emotions triggered by both internal and external phenomena and the similarities/differences between them. He is now studying composition on a scholarship at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.
Hey Michael! Tell me about the piece you composed for the Chineke! Ensemble — what inspired it?
It’s [a piece] for violin, french horn, and B-flat clarinet, and it’s called ‘Liang Wenbo Celebrates’. Liang Wenbo is a professional snooker player — I like him as a player, I’m a big snooker fan — but he also celebrates in these really explosive, jubilant ways. He’s known for these celebrations [after] he’s won, and [the piece is about] those shifting energies between calm, skillful snooker playing — where everyone’s focused and tense in the audience — and him suddenly bursting into jumping around the room; that sort of texture and image. Not that the music is trying to display that in any programmatic way — it’s just that that atmosphere and energy inspires the music, the surreal shift of that.
That’s an absolutely fascinating concept to base a piece around. Was there any sort of statement you were trying to make through the composition of the piece?
It’s also about the really mad, innate reactions that sport elicits from us; how it makes people celebrate in these intuitive ways. The piece has actually become really topical since England got into the final. -laughs- But I suppose you experience something, you react to something, in a completely primitive way when you watch sport, or if you play it. It’s the juxtaposition between that and almost how ludicrous lots of sport is, and I think snooker’s a great example of that, because it’s so extreme; people spend their [lives] practicing and training this immensely skillful, detailed thing… And all that thing is is knocking balls into holes, with many many different variables. There’s all this culture and money that surrounds it. It’s a huge thing that defines peoples’ lives, and it’s ridiculous — but it’s also not. The innate reactions of people celebrating shows how it connects [with society]. It’s absurd.
Does a lot of your practice centre on this kind of absurdity?
Yeah, I’d say so, definitely. Particularly more suburban or domestic [absurdity] — I guess that snooker has that, it’s very humdrum in a way — which relates to an ongoing series of chamber works about ponds [I’ve written] for different instrumental ensembles. They all feature audio playback of interviews that I do with particular people in my life (or not) about a pond that they are connected to in some way. It’s a way of presenting these peoples’ voices, but on this specific subject. I’m not doing anything particularly musical with the voices — I’m just playing them back, and then there’s instrumental music that sits next to them, or amongst it. For example: there’s one [for] guitar trio, [where] I interviewed my nan talking about a pond she has in her garden. You hear the character of her voice and her personality through this subject, and I play back fragments of that interview alongside the guitar trio. I [also] interviewed a bunch of people from Croydon City Council… -laughs-
What plans do you have for this “pond series” in the future? What’s the next step?
It’s not a series that’s gonna [have] a big performance of all the pieces — although it would be nice to have a recording, or some document of them together — but I think what works is [that] any opportunity I have to write a chamber piece, if I feel it suits it, I can attach this idea to it. It works in a practical sense. They’re independent pieces that all work with the same idea.
And what advice would you give to someone who might be interested in applying to the Composers’ Academy?
I think it’s just really, really incredible how much you learn from hearing other people talk about their music, and from [watching] the rehearsal process. I wasn’t writing for choir, but just hearing the rehearsals for choir, I would be able to write for choir 50% better than I could before. It’s [about] surrounding yourself with other people that are thinking about music, thinking about composition, wanting to discuss it… The more you expose yourself to — especially a random group of composers who aren’t necessarily aligned with you aesthetically or stylistically — you’re more likely to find [new] things about your own music.
Tell me about a recent or upcoming project you’ve done that PRXLUDES readers should be aware of…
I’ve [been] on the guitar course [for] the Psappha ‘Composing For…’ scheme. We worked all year on the pieces — there were six of us on the guitar one — and by the end, it was such an amazing programme of pieces. My piece was called ‘Your Man’s Bland Ballad’… Tom McKinney, the guitarist, was incredible. That was a really fun and totally useful scheme, as well.
Michael is a composer and guitarist from Birmingham currently studying for his Doctorate in composition with William Mival, Steve Goss and Andrew Hamilton at the Royal College of Music. His music has been performed in venues including Barbican, The National Portrait Gallery, Amaryllis Fleming concert hall, The National Museum of Wales, The Sibelius Academy as well as for Listenpony and 840 concert series. Michael’s music has been commissioned and performed by artists including Laura Snowden, Hong Chu Tee and the Vickers Bovey Guitar Duo; it has also been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 performed by the Aurora Orchestra.
Whilst studying at the RCM Michael founded ‘What Guitar Trio’ – an ensemble who specialise in original repertoire for three guitars with a focus on contemporary and early classical music.
Learn more about Michael Hughes here.
Xia Leon Sloane
Hey Xia! Tell me a bit about your piece ‘in peals of æther’ and what inspired it?
So this version that’s being performed [by Chineke! players] is written for cello and violin. The original version was for singing viola — both the vocal line and the viola line are performed by the same musician — and I was interested, in that medium, in exploring the visceral intimacy that seems to come from these two lines interweaving, and being so physically close to each other as they’re emerging. So that was a starting-point for the work. In terms of the soundworld of the piece, it has two main areas; an airy, whistling soundworld consisting of oscillating harmonics — and a more earthy, still, and sustained soundworld which [consists of] held chords in one part… In the vocal version for singing viola, the text is sung in a kind of mantra or incantation over the top of that, and in this [version] I have given the line to the violin, which performs it above [in] very high harmonics.
How did you find the process of workshopping the piece with the Chineke! instrumentalists?
It was interesting because firstly, the other pieces being performed are premieres, so I felt a little guilty for not putting something new together. And the cellist, understandably, was not uncomfortable with singing whilst playing, which was why I ended up bringing in the violinist. It was really wonderful to see the flexibility in the ensemble, and the willingness of the violinist to suddenly come and take the vocal line in their instrument. Since then, both players have really given a lot to the piece, and really engaged with it, in a way that’s been a real privilege to see.
What projects do you have in the pipeline that PRXLUDES readers should be aware of?
I’ve recently finished my undergraduate degree at RNCM [Royal Northern College of Music], and I’m writing a piece for CoMA over the summer. I’m [also] doing some work with the Paraorchestra, which is incredibly exciting, challenging and rewarding. I think I’d like to get more into audiovisual work, and working in more interdisciplinary media.
That’s really interesting; is there anything in particular that draws you to exploring audiovisual work?
Well, I had a GCSE Music teacher who told me that I would never be a film composer, even if I wanted to be, because I couldn’t see the images. As you might imagine, that wasn’t helpful to hear… I’m really interested in vision, visual art, choreography, and in exploring the relationships between different artforms. It doesn’t make sense to me that I shouldn’t be able to engage with these artforms simply because I can’t see them.
What would you say to anyone who’s interested in applying to the Composers Academy?
I’d say really go for it! Even if you make a piece that you’re not sure about initially, this is a really open, friendly, and safe workshop setting where everyone is encouraged, and expected to experiment. It’s very much in the spirit of exploration; it feels like the ensemble are as willing and excited to work with your music as you have been to write it.
Xia Leon Sloane (born June 2000) is a UK-based composer and writer. Their poetry is often metrically free with a strong focus on imagery and sonority. They are deeply concerned by the environmental, social and political issues that exist in contemporary times, and both their musical and literary work often reacts to one or more of these. As a Buddhist, Xia feels that it is essential for activism to be creative and compassionate, and hopes to develop their art with this in mind.
Xia been selected as the winner of The Cambridge Young Composer of the Year, the Joan Weller Composition Prize, The Humphrey Searle Composition Award, the Royal Philharmonic Society/Classic FM 25th Birthday commissions and the BBC Proms Inspire Young Composers’ Competition. Their work has been performed by The BBC Concert Orchestra, VOCES8, The Aurora Orchestra, The Ligeti Quartet, The Brodsky String Quartet, The Hermes Experiment, The Phaedra Ensemble, Dr K Sextet, St Catharine’s Girls Choir, Kings Junior Voices and Ensemble 10/10, among others. In summer 2021, Xia graduated from the Royal Northern College of Music with First-Class Honours as a Principal Study Composer under the tutelage of Professor Emily Howard, Dr Laura Bowler and Steven Daverson. In September 2021, they will be starting a Master in Composition at the RNCM studying with Dr Laura Bowler and Steven Daverson.
Learn more about Xia Leon Sloane here.
You can find out more about the featured composers at the links below: