PRXLUDES | Cheltenham Composers Academy 2021 (2/2)

Music: Aileen Sweeney – Canntaireachd (2021), written for Cheltenham Composers Academy, performed by The Carice Singers.

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 second 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.

Claire Victoria Roberts

www.clairevictoriaroberts.com

Hey Claire! Tell me about your piece ‘Interlude’ for the Composers Academy — how did you approach the compositional process?

So I usually write very melodic music, but this past year I’ve been exploring textures a lot more. I’m working on having a single chord, but with a moving texture — so it feels sustained, but it’s actually bubbling under the surface. That’s what I told the choir.

📸 Zak Chowdry

They’ve got some sustained notes, but some of the middle parts are bubbling away under the surface; they’ve got fast-moving quavers, and it moves from one chord to the next in that way. I just thought [that] I hadn’t heard many choral pieces that have that idea of using sounds as texture. There’s no words: the sounds are just “dedodada, bedodada”, to create that texture.

There’s definitely that element of scat singing in your piece! I couldn’t tell whether that was an influence of yours…

Maybe, yeah. I do sing jazz, so the sounds maybe come from that, cause those were the sounds I’d use when [I’m] improvising, but there are no improvised elements, and no syncopated elements. It’s more in that style of Meredith Monk’s ‘Double Fiesta’ — less extreme, like, she uses more extreme sounds — or Caroline Shaw’s ‘Partita for Eight Voices’, where again, the words [and] the sounds are part of the texture.

What was the experience of workshopping the piece with The Carice Singers like? How did the piece evolve over the course of the week?

So [in] the first workshop, I realised very quickly which parts weren’t gonna work, and I had a day to change those things. And the second workshop was great because I changed those things. The main thing I noticed was how much they worked together as an ensemble; I’d written a solo line in canon, but they’re not soloists and they love to sing sustained notes together, so I tried to make it more like that.

I’d say it definitely succeeded; I’m a huge fan of the piece. -laughs- Following on from that, have you explored these ideas of textural and timbral shift in some of your other work?

I wrote a piece for Camden Symphony Orchestra — which was due to be performed last year, and was postponed — and that piece was all about textures. But in terms of writing music with these influences of jazz and folk in the harmony and style of singing, I’m working on an album at the moment, where I’ll be singing myself. It will be songs and interludes — songs where I will sing, and interludes which will be instrumental — and it will [stylistically] be a mixture of folk, jazz, and classical. I’m composing it all, although some of them are arrangements of traditional tunes.

Do you have any advice for composers interested in applying to Cheltenham?

Oh, I’m not sure I know. -laughs- I applied twice, if that helps. I applied the first time and didn’t get a place, and applied the second time [and got in]. I don’t always do that, but I did for this particular thing, and it paid off. So don’t be afraid of applying for things again and again, and your opportunities will happen at the right time.

Described as ‘one of Wales’s leading composers’ by Wales Arts Review, Claire Victoria Roberts’s music has been performed by BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Psappha Ensemble, cellist Oliver Coates, Opra Cymru, Uproar Ensemble, trumpeter Simon Desbruslais, Camden Symphony Orchestra, The Carice Singers and harpist Anne Denholm. Claire is the Winner of a Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize 2019-2020, as well as 2017 winner of the Mathias Composition prize, and 2019 winner of a Francis Chagrin award. She has been broadcast on Radio 3, Radio Wales and Radio Cymru.

​Outside of the concert hall, Claire’s music revolves around collaborative processes and curation, working with jazz and folk improvisers, spoken word, dance, music facilitation, and visuals. Her RPS commission involved making her Wigmore Hall debut with a jazz song cycle written for voice and piano. She looks forward to combining her career as a jazz vocalist with composing contemporary classical repertoire, on an upcoming album and an orchestral commission featuring jazz vocals with CSO.

Learn more about Claire Victoria Roberts here.

Nneka Cummins

www.nnekacummins.com

Hey Nneka! Tell me a bit about your piece for Cheltenham, ‘Blend’; how did you approach writing the piece for the Chineke! players?

This year, I’m studying [Composition] at Trinity Laban, and I’ve recently started lessons with Christian Onyeji — a composer based in Nigeria.

📸 Eddie @snor.ken

He’s a specialist in African art music, and I’ve been exploring different rhythms, cross-rhythms, the roles of different instrument layers, and I thought I would try and compose a piece that takes inspiration from that — [particularly] because it was for Chineke! Ensemble — [as well as] the other contemporary work I’ve been learning [about] in my Masters.

So how did you “blend” — sorry for the awful pun — those different ideas you’ve been learning about into this piece?

So the initial part was trying to come up with a groove. I wrote four percussion lines — [and] as I was writing, I was trying to reference them, but also depart from them — so there is an underlying groove, but it doesn’t necessarily stay all the way through. The harmony is not necessarily what you would expect from traditional Nigerian music, it’s pretty modal with influence from contemporary classical such as extended techniques.

Do you see the piece almost as a kind of fusion?

Yeah! I think I’m still very much trying to work out what my language is as a composer, and I think I would very much like to do more of this rhythmic stuff; but also, have reference to the fact that I’m studying in London, [and] I’m coming from a contemporary classical style as well. I’m still very much trying to work out where the line is; [if] this piece is very rhythmic, maybe the next piece is less rhythmic — I don’t know — but it’s just something I really wanted to explore further.

How did working with Chineke! feed into that process?

I think it’s definitely made me reflect on the fact that if I’m writing pieces that need to rhythmically “lock in”, to take into account how long practically it takes to rehearse. It’s gonna be a great performance — but that’s something I know in [the] future I’m gonna have to be careful of. There are [also] limits to what I’m writing… making sure I’m writing things in the simplest [way] they could possibly be. There’s loads of things I’ve learned from this experience, and that I’ll definitely take forward in writing [pieces] in the future.

What kind of advice would you give to someone who’s interested in applying to Cheltenham?

I think something that we’ve all taken away from this experience is to be very mindful of the context. -laughs- We did only have a week to rehearse, and to get it all together… You’re not writing for your mates, so you don’t have endless rehearsal time. You have to be able to express your ideas with the time and resources you have.

Do you have any cool projects coming up that you feel are worth sharing to PRXLUDES readers?

Yeah! As part of the Masters at Trinity, I wrote a piece for The Hermes Experiment, which was really really cool — and I’m really proud of. That’s on Soundcloud… and I’ve got a few [more] pieces in the pipeline in Trinity, so I’m really excited to be starting on [those] next year. It’s been [great] to take this and bring it forward.

Nneka Cummins is composer and music producer studying at masters level at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and has been awarded The Gareth Neame Scholarship and The Trinity College London Scholarship. They are currently under the tuition of composers Errollyn Wallen CBE and Amir Konjani, as well as Professor Christian Onyeji of the University of Nigeria.

Nneka was emerging creative on the Factory programme run by 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, Brixton in 2019/2020. Their work was exhibited in OUTPUT gallery Liverpool as part of OUTPUT Open 2 in May 2019. They were artist in residence for the White Pube in May 2017. Nneka completed a short course in mixing and mastering at Goldsmiths University in 2019 and have also studied composition for film at Morley College London.

Learn more about Nneka Cummins here.

📸 Samuel Milea

Samuel Milea

samuelmilea.com

Hey Sam! Tell me about ‘Bourrée’, the piece you’ve written for the Chineke! Ensemble; how did you approach the compositional process for the piece? Was there anything in particular that inspired you?

I teach the guitar — classical guitar — [and] I was looking for a piece for one of my students in a book of transcriptions. It was the first time I’d leafed through this book, and I happened to find this Bourrée, which is from [Bach’s] 4th cello suite in E-flat major. It’s sort of nestled in the middle of another Bourrée — there’s Bourrée I and Bourrée II, this is Bourrée II — and I thought it was really beautiful. It’s short, but so charming and sweet, and I became obsessed with it. When I came to write this piece for the Cheltenham Festival, I would play the Bourrée on the piano. So I thought “why not kill two birds with one stone?” I’m enjoying this piece so much, so why don’t I try and write a piece that’s inspired by it, or takes something from it.

And there’s nothing wrong with that! How did it come together in the workshops you’ve had with Chineke?

It’s been going great! For me, it has been about getting the “pinginess” of the piece. Instruments bounce off [of] one another, and this is totally coming across in the rehearsals. There are two contrasting sections; there’s light, bouncy sections alongside these calmer, more expressive sections, and I think achieving a strong contrast between these two sections was another thing. In the first workshop, the musicians spent time working out where rhythms align with one another — but in [today’s] rehearsal, we broke sections down into smaller chunks, and it really began to come together, that’s for sure.

That’s amazing to hear! Do you have any projects you’ve done recently that you’re proud of, or feel comfortable sharing with PRXLUDES readers?

Erm, no, is the answer. -laughs- This is the first piece I’ve had performed since lockdown began, and I’m finding it really inspiring and exciting to be interacting face-to-face with musicians again. After [my] MA at the Royal Academy of Music, I just needed a break for a while — I started doing some teaching work, and then everyone got a big break in the form of a national lockdown. -laughs-

Of course — the pandemic has really dampened a lot of peoples’ creativity. Were you able to stay creative during covid?

Yeah, I was producing songs and mixing in Logic. I got stuck into learning about the more commercial side of music production.

It’s a blank slate! The world is your oyster, man… -laughs-

Yeah, and I think this week, meeting everyone here who’s doing inspiring things, really feeds into my own creativity and inspiration. You’re all a positive influence.

Do you have any advice for anyone who’s thinking about applying to the Composers’ Academy?

There’s so much you can learn here — even if you’re attending as an observer. There’s so much that I’ve learned this week, just sitting in on the workshops… I’ve probably learned more from other peoples’ pieces than I have from my own. So that speaks volumes. It’s not an isolated experience at all; it’s immersive, communal, and we’re all helping each other out.

In 2019, Samuel graduated from the Royal Academy of Music with an MA in Composition. His teachers included David Sawer, Param Vir and Morgan Hayes. In 2017, Samuel graduated from the University of West London with a BMus in Composition. Some of the ensembles and performers that Samuel has worked with include the Hermes Experiment, the Ligeti Quartet, and bass violist Liam Byrne. Samuel has also collaborated with film-director Edward Hicks at RADA. Whilst a student, Samuel received generous support from the RVW Trust, the Countess of Munster Musical Trust and the Leathersellers’ Company Charitable Trust.

Learn more about Samuel Milea here.

James Batty

www.jamesbatty.com

Hi James! Hope you’re doing well — so tell me about the piece you wrote for the Carice Singers…

Hi! I was inspired by the land of Doggerland — that was the broad inspiration for the piece — which was a landmass that connected the UK to mainland Europe, but was sunk by floods eight thousand years ago.

📸 Jessica Hu

It was a long time in the past, but I was struck by the idea that there is still, under the sea, this physical connection between the UK and other European countries, and I think this is important for us to remember in a post-Brexit world. Also, the idea that this was the last time in history that a whole human population was affected by climate change, and forced to move to either side of the North Sea. So I felt this was a relevant topic today, and it’s inspiring a lot of the pieces I’ve been writing at the moment, including this one.

So I took two texts: I took a text in Old English — the oldest written variety of English that we’ve got — [from] one side of Doggerland; and Old Frisian, which is a language that was spoken around present-day Belgium and Holland, the oldest language preserved that side of the North Sea. I took excerpts from both of those, based on the sea. The Old English poem is called ‘The Seafarer’, and I took a modern translation of this as well (by Ezra Pound) and mixed the languages up. So, at the start of the piece, the languages are separated, and they become unified and integrated as the piece goes on.

How did you find the process of working with these two old languages and teaching the pronunciations to the singers?

They did an amazing job. They’re used to singing in lots of different languages, including less familiar ones such as Swedish, which was a huge advantage. I wanted to make the languages as clear as possible in the score from the outset. For the Old Frisian text, I wrote it out in the phonetic alphabet — although I forgot to do this originally! Some of the symbols in the score are from the IPA, rather than Latin letters. I also used different formatting for the three different languages, so they can distinguish between them. They really embraced this challenge. In the first rehearsal, George [Parris] ran through the text slowly, and the whole process ran very smoothly after that, with just a few tweaks to the pronunciation.

That’s fantastic! It’s so different hearing notes sung by a live choir, especially when you’re using different languages and pronunciations.

Definitely — especially for choir pieces, the text is so important. Even with the best computer realisations, you cannot simulate the sound of the live choir. The other thing I wanted to experiment with was overtone singing; there are a few chords that are influenced by that. You can hear some of the overtones coming through, but I’m hoping we have a chance to experiment with that a little more [in our upcoming rehearsal].

So do you have any projects coming up that PRXLUDES readers should be aware of?

I recently released a solo microtonal piano album, that consists of cinematic piano music, but in a microtonal language that I was trying to make strange and familiar at the same time. The album’s released on Blue Spiral Records; I’d love people to check that out, and tell me their impressions. -laughs- And I’m about to do a project with the Opera North Youth Chorus in August, which should be a lot of fun. We’re taking the story of Ariadne, and looking at that from different perspectives; our aim is to create a video opera out of it, which will be a great new experience for all of us.

James Batty is a composer, pianist and sound artist based in London. He has written for a wide range of musicians and ensembles, including Zoë Martlew, Mark Simpson, Huw Watkins, the BBC Singers, Carice Singers, CHROMA Ensemble, E-MEX Ensemble, Opera North Youth Chorus and Riot Ensemble. His music has been performed in Belgium, Italy, Poland, Russia and Sweden as well as around the UK. James’s music has been played at the Spitalfields and Cheltenham Festivals as well as on BBC Radio 3, SWR2 and Rai Radio 3.

James recently collaborated with Grammy-winning producer Haydn Bendall to record his first solo piano album, Until I Set Him Free. The album is a collection of emotionally-charged compositions for which James devised a brand new spectral piano tuning, and is available now on Blue Spiral Records.

Learn more about James Batty here.

Will Harmer

soundcloud.com/willharmer

Hi Will! So tell me about your piece for the Carice Singers, ‘Loneliness’; what inspired the conception of the piece?

The initial inspiration for ‘Loneliness’ was the experience of the last year and a half being in lockdown; that enforced solitude inspired me to write a piece that reflects on that a bit. I looked into poets and writers who had had similar experiences — [and] I came across Emily Dickinson. Last year, I worked on a song cycle for soprano and piano [based] on Emily Dickinson’s poems, so I’d read a bit into her, but looking more into her work, there was a lot about how she forced herself into [almost] an isolated bubble. A lot of her poetry is raw, distilled… a lot of angst, self-doubt, and self-reflection. That was similarly my experience of lockdown; thoughts and emotions are amplified when you don’t have that avenue when you can talk to people. That was the overall idea. I found a poem by Emily Dickinson called ‘The Loneliness One dare not sound’, which seemed to relate most closely to that theme. The poem questions how to deal with loneliness, almost personifies loneliness in a way.

How did these feelings of loneliness translate into your compositional approach, and your experience writing for the singers?

The initial idea I had improvising at the piano was a melody that’s enclosed by sustained notes. It opens with repeated E-flats in the altos and basses, and there’s a tenor solo that runs through the middle of that octave, so it’s almost texturally enclosed. That’s how I translated the [imagery] of being enclosed in a small space. And thinking about writing for the Carice Singers… I’ve mostly tended to go for writing for all eight parts, to get a harmonic richness. In some ways, I think that’s been one of the most challenging about writing for the piece: adapting it to make sure there are moments which are more intimate, because it’s easy to write lots for eight voices, [but] a lot of the most effective writing for choir mixes full ensemble with moments of very few singers, or even a single singer. I suppose there’s [also] an image of loneliness being this vast thing which is incredibly difficult to conquer, despite being something that you experience in quite an enclosed or small space. So the contrast between big and small textures was something important.

What was the feeling of workshopping the piece like — especially considering how personal the subject matter was?

I always love hearing my music the first time. It comes off the page, and it comes alive, and even if it’s not quite how you expected [it] to sound, it’s such an amazing moment. They’re fantastic singers, and fantastic readers, and there were several moments where just on the first take, they really nailed the intonation and tuning on some of the chords… [It] really resonated in [the] way I was definitely imagining. It was something really special.

The big learning point [for me] was how singers deal with pitch, and intervals. Navigating a score that’s not got a strong tonal centre — how I lay out the score and how I spell those harmonies (in terms of sharps and flats) had a big effect on the tuning, the intonation, how it sounded across the whole group. That’s the big thing I learned.

Do you feel like the piece needed to change at all after hearing it in the workshop for the first time?

I’ve adapted certain bits of the score [since]; there’s one particular bit where it almost builds a canonic pile-on… I don’t know whether that’s a phrase that’s gonna go far. -laughs- [But] I was using this motif, and developing it by superimposing it quite literally, but over that duration, it felt quite static despite it being a growing texture. That’s been something I’ve tried to work on to give it more harmonic direction.

What advice would you give to anyone who’s looking to apply to the Composers Academy?

From hearing the workshops over the last few days, I’ve just been astounded by the variety of approaches, and the outcomes of the musical vision and progression of the pieces. The sheer variety shows that if you love creating [and] composing music, and you’d love to get stuck into it more and write for great ensembles, then you definitely should apply. It’s been really encouraging that there’s been such diversity in [not only] peoples’ musical backgrounds, but also in terms of the way they approach writing for the same group of Chineke! players [and the Carice Singers]. I think that’s encouraging for anyone wanting to apply: there’s not really a restriction on style.

Will is a composer and pianist studying at Worcester College, Oxford. Currently he studies composition with Robert Saxton and piano with Anna Tilbrook. In 2017, Will won the BBC Proms Inspire Competition, with his composition ‘The Whole Heaven on Fire’ being performed by the Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon. He was subsequently commissioned by the BBC Singers to compose ‘Voyage of the Soul’, a piece commemorating the Apollo 11 Moon Landings which was broadcast on Radio 3 last year. Will’s works have been performed in venues such as Snape Maltings, St John’s College Chapel, Wigmore Hall and The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and have been broadcast on BBC radio and television.

Learn more about Will Harmer here.

You can find out more about the featured composers at the links below:

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