“The CoMA pitch — open-scored, accessible to amateurs, flexible instrumentation — it’s an impossible question. What I love most is seeing the ways that composers try to answer this question.”

Matt Gilley, Contemporary Music for All

Contemporary Music for All (CoMA) is a UK-wide music organisation celebrating a vision to extend the contemporary repertoire and make it accessible to all. Since the organisation’s founding by Chris Shurety in 1993, CoMA has established a wide variety of mixed-ability instrumental and vocal ensembles across the UK and Europe, creating an environment for amateur, emerging and acclaimed music-makers of all backgrounds and abilities to build musical communities and create new repertoire for flexible, amateur groups.

The London branch of CoMA — run by music director Matthew Hardy — has recently completed the inaugural year of its composers-in-residence programme, bringing in composers Megan Steinberg and Paul Evernden to perform with, and write pieces for, the CoMA London ensemble over the course of 2023. The residency culminates in a showcase concert at IKLECTIK on 12 December, premiering new works by Megan and Paul alongside pieces by Sylvia Lim, Emily Abdy, and Blasio Kavuma.

Ahead of the concert at IKLECTIK this December, we caught Matthew, Megan, and Paul alongside CoMA London chairman Matt Gilley at one of their rehearsals, and spoke about their experiences running and participating in the programme, the process of writing for mixed-ability and flexible instrumentation, open-mindedness, community, and more…

Mary Offer, ‘Seascape’ (2023), performed by CoMA London at the Royal Academy of Music.

Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi everyone! Thanks so much for joining me today. We’re speaking ahead of a rehearsal alongside your two Composers in Residence for 2023; tell me about how the initiative has been so far?

Matt Gilley: This is the first year that we’ve done it, and so it’s been a bit of a learning curve for us all. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting out of it — but it’s been energising for the ensemble to have composers within it, who we’re working with consistently. Where you can see every stage of the process. I hope that’s something everyone has found exciting — I definitely have. From my perspective, it means we get some really innovative new work out of it — and two dedicated and valuable players. I think it’s been a really good way to connect ourselves, to plug ourselves in a bit to the wider contemporary music scene. To develop that over the course of the year has been very fruitful.

Megan Steinberg: I started working with CoMA in January, for a concert of student works at the Royal Academy of Music. It was a really interesting start; I didn’t compose anything [with CoMA] for a really long time, I was just playing. It’s a really interesting residency to do that way. It’s always nice talking to composition students.

I just gave it some time to play with the ensemble before I started writing anything. It has changed quite a bit in the rehearsal process; you get so much more contact with the players than you normally would. Really, as a composer, the dream is having as much rehearsal time as possible — it changes so much more, because you have the luxury of all this time, and resources, and exposure to peoples’ playing styles.

Matt G: What I think is interesting about the “time” aspect for me, is that because CoMA is an unusual thing — a dedicated amateur contemporary ensemble — it’s meant that you two [Megan and Paul] have both had a lot of time to get to know the ensemble, and learn what we can do in a way that you don’t get from a description of what it is. Both of your pieces have changed a fair bit, as you’ve come into contact with the ensemble — you’ve really seen what the ensemble can do, what its strengths are — and what we’ve ended up with is pieces that are going to challenge and stimulate the ensemble, in ways that are really good for us. I don’t think you get [that] necessarily by explaining CoMA to someone, and then commissioning some music.

Tell me more about the ethos behind CoMA; what are the stated goals of the organisation and how does that factor into your relationship with composers?

Matt G: CoMA was founded thirty years ago, as what it is today — a network of amateur ensembles to commission new music, to get more amateurs involved in new music, and to make new music more accessible to amateurs and the public. Chris Shurety, who founded [CoMA], is an amateur musician, and he was in other amateur orchestras at the time. He wanted to play new music, and it was all too hard; it was the early 90s, during the New Complexity movement. New music being made at the time [often] was absolutely impossible. So he started CoMA in order to commission the best contemporary composers to translate their musical ethos, and style, into something with a wider accessibility — to players and to audiences. 

That’s what CoMA is. It’s always been a fundamental part of it that we work with composers of the time; with the most interesting, exciting composers of the moment; with [composers] who are emerging, and are starting out. Often, when we talk to members of the ensemble, that’s what they like about it most, as well. It’s certainly the thing that you don’t get from other leisure-time music groups — working with composers who are there, in front of you, writing music “just” for you.

Matthew Hardy: If you look at the roster of composers who’ve written for CoMA, it’s basically a “who’s who” of the British composition establishment of the last thirty years. Many big names are in there, as well as lots of medium-sized names, as they were. Every composer who writes for us will come and have their music workshopped, or get to ask questions. People are very vocal about what they think about it… -laughs- Professional ensembles will workshop it — they play it — [and] maybe they’ll say “write something different there, we can’t play that.” Here, you get much more in terms of questions that make you think more about why you write. 

We’ve done workshops with composers [where] they’ve come with a particular way of writing something, and the question becomes: in writing like this, are you truly achieving what you want to achieve with the outcome? One of the things this can do is bring something a little down to earth. The reality is, we are here in this room; we’ve got to play this thing and make it sound good. We don’t want to reinterpret some brand-new method of communicating sound in writing.

Matt G: That’s the impetus behind the residency: [to] keep engaging, as closely as possible, with exciting composers and exciting developments in composition. Keep ourselves connected to the music scene, and keep ourselves developing.

CoMA members performing at St John’s Smith Square, London. Photo credit: Chris Adams

Megan, Paul — tell me about how you approached writing for CoMA musicians. How has the experience been of composing with the nature of the ensemble in mind?

Megan: I did a quick survey of the members, and what they wanted from a new piece. Even though most of them preferred Western classical notation, all of them wanted to be challenged — they all wanted to try new things. That was really nice, because a lot of my practice is [within] accessibility — conforming to what the performer needs. There, it was kind of the opposite: “this is my comfort zone, I want to stay out of it!” 

I don’t think you get that much from professional ensembles. Professional ensembles want to do what they do — but this ensemble really want to try new things. Not that there aren’t new music professional ensembles that want to try new things — there definitely are — but I think this has been the most eager group to push themselves.

Paul Evernden: Because when they nail something, it gives them the confidence to go and do something harder. Certainly for me — the piece I turned in for the workshop last term has completely changed from the piece I’ve just turned in. If I had to write it in the first term, there’s no way I would have given them what I’ve given them, because I would have been worried about doing it. But being with them for ten months, seeing and hearing the progression, gave me the confidence to [write]. At no point did I think “oh, this might be challenging for them” — if anything, I’ve not consciously done the opposite, but I wrote the piece I would write if a professional ensemble had asked. If you start to think of the limitations — “some people are Grade 5, some people are Grade 8” — it’s going to negatively impact your view of the piece.

Matthew H: I think the biggest challenge for composers that write with CoMA is: how do you express yourself, how do you express your own artistic vision — and at the same time, stay within whatever seems manageable for an ensemble like this? It’s a mixed-ability ensemble; we’ve got some people post-Grade 8, we’ve got people playing the cello only since they were 60. Of all the composers that have written for CoMA — how many of those composers truly managed to achieve their artistic vision, within the boundaries, without getting stuck down the dead end of “I’ve got to make sure it isn’t too hard”? I feel like you [Megan and Paul], having been here, understand from the inside out what that is really about.

All music ensembles need to have a challenge — amateur ones moreso than professional ones. It needs to be the right kind of challenge — it can’t be something that’s totally demoralising — [and] it can’t be not enough, otherwise it’s too boring. We’re here to have fun; we’re not here to play middle C all evening for no reason. I think the only way to understand that — how do you pitch the challenge, just about right — is to be there, in the environment. 

Many composers have written brilliant music for CoMA; but I do think it’s a really serious challenge for a composer. I’ve spoken to loads of composers who’ve written for CoMA — some quite eminent composers who’ve said to me “this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write.” You’ve got to see it from this totally different angle.

Cem Güven, ‘Limited Improvisations’ (2023), performed by CoMA London at the Royal Academy of Music.

Before writing the ensemble pieces that are being premiered this December, you spent some time performing with the ensemble. Tell me about how that process has influenced your writing — and are you both performing in your own pieces?

Megan: In each other’s! -laughs- I’m playing turntables in mine, but guitar in everything else. The concept of this piece is something I’ve wanted to write for a really long time, which is for large ensemble and turntable — using a record and a group improvising around the same material. I’m really grateful for that opportunity. I’ve performed with other people as a turntablist, but not on this scale; it’s going to be a brand new adventure.

Paul: I will be playing clarinet in the rest of the programme — including Megan’s piece — and in mine, I’m going to have electronics. I didn’t know I wanted to write this piece… -we all laugh- Until I was on the residency. Talking about comfort zones: I’m taking myself out of one, as well. I haven’t done live manipulation of sound for a long time; and also writing with singers as well — not just the ensemble — [is] something I couldn’t have envisioned before. I’ve really got a kick out of playing in the ensemble. Watching Matt rehearse them has been really helpful, as well; [seeing] ways for them to take apart the piece, and how they will approach our pieces.

Getting a feel for everyone’s playing styles, right?

Paul: I first found out about CoMA when I was a student at the [Royal] Academy, and I did this project [as a student]. We got brought to a couple rehearsals — told to bring my SATB [scores], basically — and that was it. But to sit in, play, and do projects is completely different. And that’s what really attracted me to [this residency] when I saw it advertised almost a year ago. I think it’s a really unique opportunity.

Matthew H: Paul, I think I’ve had a conversation with you at some point about the impression you had from this ensemble, from the first two or three weeks of being here. I can well imagine you being like “wow, okay… what?” -laughs- And as it went on — with the right kind of rehearsals, the right application, [and] time, the ensemble can be tight, and can deliver something that packs a bit of a punch. That understanding is something I feel you can only get over a long period of time. For myself, I feel like I never really got the point for quite a while as a music director — how do I put my finger on the right point, push at the right place, to make this ensemble really work? I’m not sure if I’ve got there yet. -laughs- But more time gives more insight on a more fundamental level that you might not expect when you first arrive at a place like this.

Paul: And everybody feels [like] they’re going forwards. Everyone was really happy with the Academy concert.

Matthew H: We had this really good concert opportunity with the Academy, playing Masters students’ compositions. Then we had this thing with St. John’s Smith Square

Matt G: It was the national CoMA organisation’s 30th anniversary. All of the ensembles from around the country came, and then we all did an anniversary concert.

Matthew H: There was a new commission from Stephen Montague; we had visiting ensembles from overseas, and people who signed up to be part of it for the weekend. That was a great thing for us to aim towards. We had good music to work on, we had [a] really focused project. Going through this year, there has been a sense of excitement of [doing] something that is really special. And now, I feel like the December concert we plan to do at IKLECTIK feels like a real culmination to the year. We’re putting together a project [that’s] really carefully designed; we’ve got new music, we’ve got classics, we’ve got really big-name composers, we’ve got our own Composers-in-Residence. I feel like we have been, for a while, on an upward trajectory.

Paul Evernden, in performance. Photo credit: Alex Nikiporenko

In terms of your compositional practice — what advantages and difficulties have you found writing for CoMA musicians?

Megan: I often write very idiomatic music. So I would say that it being mixed ability has not been a challenge. I don’t find any reward in writing physically difficult music, so that wasn’t an obstacle for me. It’s been really rewarding trying to figure out how to write for a mixed, open instrumentation — I hadn’t done that before. I write normally very idiomatically for instruments; with this, you don’t know who’s gonna be there each week, you don’t have an exact lineup of instruments. So you’ve got to write for an open group, for anybody. 

That’s really opened up my mind to how to compose. I normally think so much about the instrument as a physical object, what it can and can’t do, and what really unique sound it makes; I didn’t have that option, so I really had to focus on completely different parts of music-making. My piece is an improvisation around a melody, and it is a wonderful way of playing with this really simple [idea]. I learned a lot about notation, in that sense, and how to communicate improvisation in a score.

Paul: I’d like to pick up on your comment about notation. Looking at some of my recent works, I’ve realised I’ve started doing [different] things. For instance, having a bracket over a bar [or] page, where “this is a time frame” — whereas before, everything would be metered. I’ve realised now — in my past three or four pieces that I’ve written since being here — this appears in all of them, whereas before it hadn’t. Sitting in the group, doing the workshop, and the Academy things; seeing many different types of notation, and people trying to deal [with] different aspects of organising and communicating sound… It’s like reading a lot of new voices in literature, in a short period of time.

Megan: And also, how the performers respond to those notations. Even in just the break of a rehearsal, a performer being like “I hate that”, and in my head, I’m like “Noted…!” -laughs- You don’t really get that in any other opportunity.

Matthew H: I’ve done loads of music with different community groups over the past ten years — and CoMA is the place where people are the least cynical about anything through the music. People come here so they can do something more weird. Working with a community choir, or band, or orchestra, it’s sometimes a real struggle to get them through some pieces of new music. You really have to persuade them at the beginning of the project, “This is going be worth your while — I promise you”, until you get to a point where one person says “it’s not so bad, this!” Here, people are very, very open-minded. So, if they say in the break “oh my god, that’s a nightmare”, they’re saying that from a point of open-mindedness… -laughs-

Megan: You can trust the feedback. You can trust they’ll be honest, and constructive. Regardless of what kind of ensemble it is [you’re working with] — to work with this amount of time, regularly, means getting so much more information from the ensemble.

Matthew H: Out of interest: do you guys think this experience will inform the way you write for a professional ensemble in the future?

Megan: It’s just as valid as every piece that I write. I always grow [from] piece to piece.

Paul: I agree, I think it would. Particularly if I find that something works here — okay, it looks a bit bizarre, [but] you dealt with it, you rehearsed it, and it works — therefore it’s okay, it’s legitimate. Because of the nature of being open scored, as well: a lot of the pieces I’ve seen, everyone has come to it to do something a little bit different. Even the layout of the score — how we have solos to a thicker texture — everyone thinks a little bit differently. If the score works, [or] if the notation works — you know it works here, I would be confident with taking that through to give to Tonhalle-Orchester. They might not like it… -laughs-

Matt G: What I find really fascinating is that you both had the same brief, you’ve both been on the same residency, you’re both saying similar things about your experiences — but your pieces are completely different. They’re written and communicated in really different ways. That’s, ultimately, what we would want out of this. The CoMA pitch — open-scored, accessible to amateurs, flexible instrumentation — it’s an impossible question. What I love most is seeing the ways that composers try to answer this question. You’ve both done it in really successful, and individual ways, that feel very you. There’s no compromising involved.

Matthew — as director of the London branch of CoMA, how do you see the approach this organisation has to working with composers?

Matthew H: As it’s a community group at its heart — CoMA is effectively a social group, which is focused around playing music, rehearsing music, working with composers. That is where the difference in motivation comes in. With a professional ensemble, you don’t know if they’ve got [the] time or the inclination to give you proper feedback — whereas here, everyone is kind of friends! So you’re not waiting for a busy, potentially stressed out professional to make some space and time for you. What you’ve got is a team, or friends, at the interval, [saying] “have you thought about this, have you thought about that?” It’s a much better way of receiving feedback. 

The idea that it’s this community thing means that over time, they get to know them. In this case, they’ve gotten to know you [Megan and Paul], they like you — everybody likes each other — they’ll be rehearsing your pieces, [and] they will take a certain amount of ownership over that music. Which is something that’s very difficult to get with a professional ensemble: they’ve got a limited amount of rehearsal time, they don’t [always] know the composer, they’ve got something else the next day which might be twice is hard, or more stressful. Here, people are here for this because they want to be here doing this. And this kind of initiative — bringing people in as resident artists — really drives towards that core aspect of CoMA: we are here, together, as a group, to explore, and enjoy, and educate ourselves. That is the core of why community music projects can be so rewarding: it means an awful lot to everybody. It’s just a nice thing that’s really rare to find.

Matt G: Yeah, they both really feel like ours. Not the people… -laughs- Your pieces!

As this is the first year you’re running the Composer in Residence programme — how do you feel your perspectives have shifted as directors, particularly with regard to next year’s cohort? And how has the musical experience shifted your perspectives as composers and new music practitioners?

Matthew H: I don’t think my perception has changed really, to be honest. You learn with every music project you do. I, as director, feel like every time I do a project with any ensemble, there is some element of growth — there is some element I didn’t know before. I think this has been no exception.

Paul: For me, being involved with the other pieces… What is interesting is seeing how it develops, how the players get better. There’s one particular player who was new — [joined] the same time as us, January 2023 — who played saxophone; he’s developed so well. He’s got such a fluent sound. It’s a positive thing to sit next to someone and hear them get better. That’s just one example, but it’s really striking — because it’s January to now — and that wouldn’t have happened without this project.

Matthew H: If you can get a vibe when people are interested in your projects, if you can engineer that somehow — that people are really looking forward to this, good music to play, a nice venue to play in, the right amount of time to get ourselves through it — it doesn’t harm the vibe once people improve in their own playing, and push their own barriers. The number of times an ensemble like this plays something that you had never imagined they’d be able to get through; or play something that is unquestionably more than the sum of its parts, during a performance. Cultivating [an] overall atmosphere of being ambitious; not seeing the fact that somebody may have a more limited technical playing ability as something [to] reduce our ambition to sound totally energising — give a great performance.

I remember when I auditioned for this role [as director], and they said to me “One of our objectives is to get more people coming to watch new music performances, how do you think we should go about that?” — and my answer was: you’ve just got to inspire the people who are performing it! In a community setting, you inspire the people performing it to really want to invite their friends. -laughs- The primary driver is, we exist here for our members, and for our community. And we want to reach people through that.

CoMA London’s showcase concert at IKLECTIK, featuring premieres by Megan Steinberg and Paul Evernden, takes place on 12 December 2023 – more info:

Learn more about CoMA London, Megan Steinberg, and Paul Evernden:

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Zygmund de Somogyi is a composer, performer, and writer based in London, and artistic director of contemporary music magazine PRXLUDES.