Practice-Led Research into an ‘Avant Garde’ Style

I’ve made a YouTube video that tries to elaborate on my own approach to composing music. This entails what I think about what we call “Avant garde” music or “contemporary classical music” today. By all means, check out the video on my YouTube channel. In this video, I outline some practice-led research (from my own PhD in Composition) that led me to conclude that the ‘Avant Garde’ music scene is just one massive adherence to a bunch of unspoken established rules and, essentially, a ‘style’. It’s a style so much so that it can be quoted and even the subject of pastiche. This video (and this blog post) should also go some way to showing how composition IS and CAN BE research (am looking at you, Croft).

I’m going to talk about a particular collection of pieces I started writing during my PhD. This collection of pieces is called ENERGY CANNOT BE CREATED. You can listen to these pieces online. So far there are four pieces in this collection. It’s important to note that I wrote all these pieces for a student ensemble.  This had an influence on how I wrote the pieces because I had to keep in mind the students’ capabilities at all times.

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Olivier Messiaen: Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps

I’ve made an online lecture that discusses the compositional technique of Olivier Messiaen with reference to his quartet: Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) for clarinet, piano, violin and ’cello. In this lecture, I discuss his use of ‘modes of limited transposition’; ‘isorhythms’, ‘non-retrogradable rhythms’, and ‘reductive rhythm’. This blog post features as a supplement to the lecture, which you can find on my YouTube channel.

Olivier Messiaen

First, some contextual background: who was Olivier Messiaen? He was born in 1908 in Avignon, France. His father was a translator of English (especially Shakespeare), and his mother was a poet. Messiaen taught himself piano and wrote The Lady of Shalott after Tennyson’s poem (here, he is already demonstrating extra-musical influences). He attended the Paris Conservatoire in 1919 until 1930. There, he studied piano, organ, percussion and composition (and history). Messiaen also learned about Greek rhythms from Marcel Dupré, and discovered a table of 120 Indian ‘deci-talas’ listed by Sharngadeva (these are rhythms of the Indian provinces). Knowing all this is important for understanding his works post-1935 (including Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps).

In 1931, Messiaen was appointed organist at the Church of La Sainte Trinite in Paris. Messiaen’s Catholic faith is a key influence on him.  It is, along with nature, birdsong and literature, the most important extra-musical source of inspiration for him. Messiaen has also written a lot of organ music, which is meditative rather than for specific use in the actual liturgy of the Roman service.

In 1936, Messiaen forms La Jeune France, a fairly short-lived group determined to write music with a human/spiritual dimension. He also married violinist Claire Delbos in 1932, for whom he writes a song cycle (1936 and 1937). Delbos dies young from illness in 1959.

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New Music Biennial, Hull

The New Music Biennial festival, funded by the PRS for Music foundation, claims to push ‘the boundaries of new music’. It provides an opportunity for ‘new’ musical works to be showcased across the UK and on BBC Radio 3. The term ‘new’ in this instance is to be taken literally: these works were very recently written (some were world premieres) and drew on music history, existing practices, and the musical techniques of a variety of cultures. The festival, initially presented in Hull, the 2017 City of Culture, was repeated at London’s Southbank Centre and follows the previous models of this festival to present a variety of eclectic genres of music being written today. Continue reading

*cellomondo* by cellist Katharina Gross

I have been selected by cellist Katharina Gross to be one of the composers to take part in her cellomondo project. This project aims to explore the music of composers from all over the world. More information about this project can be found here.

Other composers taking part in this project so far include Seung-Won Oh (Korea / The Netherlands/ USA), Amit Gur (Israel/ The Netherlands), Raphaël Languillat (France), Ryszard Lubieniecki (Poland), Johannes Kretz (Austria), Veronika Simor (Hungary / Austria), Dugal McKinnon (New Zealand), Jakhongir Shukur (Uzbekistan), Artyom Kim (Uzbekistan), Aurélio Edler-Copes (Brasil / France), Christopher Wood (USA), Jason Post (New Zealand). Further information about these composers can be found here.

Katharina Gross will perform my composition Parallax Error (2014) for any four-string bowed instrument at the Gaudeamus Muziekweek in Utrecht on 10th of September, 2016.

hcmf// Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 2014

The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (HCMF) is a nine-day long festival of contemporary music, typically held every year in November. The following is a brief account of some of the pieces, from the festival, that have inspired some thoughts about my own compositional approach (having said this, I didn’t attend every event at the festival). I am writing about them here as a means of gathering some thoughts and promoting further composition and research.

The opening night ended with a memorable performance of Salvatore Sciarrino‘s Lohengrin by Sofia Jernberg and musicians assembled by nyMusikk Bergen. The performance was amazing. It highlighted the technically-skilled timbral (especially of the voice) exploration of Sciarrino’s music. This version in particular showcased the variety of sounds that can be produced by just flute, voice and strings. This is something I would like to explore in my own music. I am challenging myself to compose a piece of music that explores timbre/sound to the same extent; however, I will be employing a reduced version of the instrumental groups used in the aforementioned performance (not only because this makes performing the piece practical, but because I enjoy inventing and overcoming compositional restrictions). As such, I propose to write a piece, with ‘wild’ timbral exploration, for (only) one voice, one flute, and one string instrument.

Other pieces I heard this year at #HCMF that resonated with me in some way are as follows:

Josep Sanz Quintana Triphonie I/b

Manuel Rodriguez Valenzuela, T(t) blocks

Luis Codera Puzo, n (pi)

Jon Oivind Ness, Gimilen

James Dillon, Stabat Mater dolorosa (so much to say about this piece!)

Pierre Alexandre Tremblay, Still, Again

Monty Adkins & Jason Payne, Rift Patterns

Benedict Mason, String Quartet No. 2 (especially the penultimate movement)

James Clarke, Quartet No. 3

James Dillon, String Quartet No. 4 and String Quartet No. 5

This year’s festival ended with a showcase of James Dillon’s string quartets (performed by the Arditti Quartet), and a round table discussion.

Iannis Xenakis: Orient Occident

OK, so I’ve just been having a listen to Iannis Xenakis’s Orient Occident. It was actually engaging from beginning to end. When I first heard it, what struck me about this piece was the placement of sonic events (er, so basically it’s structure): to me, the distribution of each sound event is what engages the listener from beginning to end. The placement of each event is also almost narrative. So, I’m saying it’s more the structure that makes it engaging rather than the individual sounds themselves, although they’re interesting too. But, in a less interesting structure they might not get listened to as intently.

The second thing I notice is the sounds themselves: I find Xenakis’s timbral exploration in this piece enchanting. There’s something otherworldly about it. Yes, he’s using electronics so he can modify easier than if he were using acoustic instruments. The timbres also remind me of John Cage’s prepared piano pieces. I don’t know if this means Cage has done something more impressive having done it first and used only acoustic instruments? Well, his compositional structure doesn’t impress me as much as Xenakis’s in this instance.

Having researched the piece on the internet, I have found from a number of different sources that suggest Xenakis’ Orient Occident was originally written for a film. Actually, it does remind me of some early Doctor Who and Star Trek soundtracks.

For more information on this piece, have a gander here and here. Or just Google, why not.

Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2

I have been listening to Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, and it has inspired some thoughts about art and its associations with something ‘other’.

Here is a description of Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, taken from Ethan Haimo’s Schoenberg’s Transformation of Musical Language.I am including it here because I think it provides a concise, yet comprehensive, introductory description of the work:

The String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10 may well be the most heterogeneous of all of Schoenberg’s compositions. No other of his compositions has four movements of such strikingly different character. No other of his compositions begins as an instrumental work and ends as a vocal work. No other of his compositions has movements both with, and without, key signatures. No other of his compositions juxtaposes the tune of a farcical folksong in one movement and a setting of a deadline serious poem in the next. Although Schoenberg took several steps to unify the cycle (using motives from the first two movements as the basis for the principal ideas of the third movement and returning to an F-sharp triad at the end of the finale), the fact remains that the two halves of the work reflect two distinct stages of his compositional development. [1]

As a composer, I am interested in Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 for three main reasons. First, it has an undeniable relationship with something historically embedded: the classical string quartet. I feel this relationship is emphasised by its allusion to a classical harmonic language (this is despite its apparent experimentation with atonality). Second, this work seems to challenge such an inevitable relationship with tradition with the inclusion of a soprano voice. Despite the additional soprano voice, Schoenberg describes this work as his second string quartet, and in doing this he presents an undeniable challenge to the piece’s bonds with traditional string quartet writing. Understandably, his quartet presented receivers with something which challenged what they already knew to be the string quartet. The Guardian provides a helpful description of the reception at the premiere:

Breaking with 150 years of musical tradition, Schoenberg had decided to add a soprano to the two violins, viola and cello that normally constitute a string quartet. The soprano had been silent for the first two movements of the piece, but as soon as she began to sing in the third movement people started to hiss, and there were shouts of “Stop singing” and “We’ve had enough” before the fourth movement. [2]

Third, I believe a contemporary reception of this work demonstrates a change in the way a society interprets artworks over time: what was once interpreted as outré and probably experimental, sounds resolutely classical, in my opinion, today. I am not surprised that Schoenberg claimed to be influenced by Mozart:

I owe very, very much to Mozart; and if one studies, for instance, the way in which I write for string quartet, then one cannot deny that I have learned this directly from Mozart. And I am proud of it! [3]

Perhaps the ‘shock value’ of Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 has been reduced by Ferneyhough’s String Quartet No. 4 which also includes a soprano voice and, in comparison to Schoenberg’s piece, can be regarded as more ‘experimental’ in terms of its timbral and harmonic exploration.

However,  Ferneyhough’s String Quartet No. 4 cannot be regarded as challenging the relationship with tradition in the same way as Schoenberg’s quartet does, simply because it is a response to Schoenberg’s piece. Ferneyhough writes:

…if I assert that it has to do with the ‘history’ of only a limited tradition of the string quartet, of course, it’s the history of my reception of certain quartets – in particular, Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet – which I feel is a work of exceptional interest by virtue of initially attempting to be a string quartet, and then absolutely failing to achieve that goal. [4]

As an additional note, the inclusion of a soprano voice, in Schoenberg’s piece, potentially arose as a result of Schoenberg’s compositional practice in general. Haimo elaborates on this point:

After completing Friede auf Erden, things still did not settle down and Schoenberg continued to jump from project to project. On the same day he completed the fair copy of Friede auf Erden (9 March 1907), Schoenberg returned to Sketchbook III and on p. 57 made some sketches for what would become the String Quartet, No. 2, Op. 10. Almost immediately, he dropped this idea and turned instead to writing songs. In quick succession, he started three songs, “Der verlorene Haufen”, “Jane Grey”, and “Jeduch”. By the end of April 1907 Schoenberg did finish the first two of these, and they were published as the Two Ballades, Op. 12 (as Op. 12, No. 2 and Op. 12, No. 1 respectively.). [5]


[1] Ethan Haimo, Schoenberg’s Transformation of Musical Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 210

[2] Christopher Fox, ‘Air from another Planet’, The Guardian <> [accessed: 09/07/14]

[3] Arnold Schoenberg, ‘Schoenberg as a Painter: Interview with Halsey Stevens’ in Schoenberg: The Expressionist Years 1908 – 1920, Arnold Schoenberg, Halsey Stevens (Sony Classical, SMK62020, 1995)

[4] Brian Ferneyhough, Collected Writings, ed. by James Boros and Richard Toop (The Netherlands: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995), p.153

[5] Ethan Haimo, Schoenberg’s Transformation of Musical Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p.192

Horațiu Rădulescu’s streichquartett nr. 4 opus 33

I recently listened to Horațiu Rădulescu’s streichquartett nr. 4 opus 33 performed by the Arditti quartet. The vast spectral sound-world of 128 strings is striking and quasi-fantastical.

About Horațiu Rădulescu: Roman-French composer Horațiu Rădulescu frequently employed spectral techniques in his compositions. His sound-worlds are described as ‘cosmic’, ‘strange’ and ‘archaic’.  Oliver Messiaen described Rădulescu as a composer who ‘contributed to the renewal of musical language’. [1]

About streichquartett nr. 4 opus 33:  This piece is composed for nine spatialised string quartets. A central live string quartet surrounded by an audience who are, in turn, surrounded by eight string quartets which, according to Rădulescu, can be live or pre-recorded. [2]

Of streichquartett nr. 4 opus 33, Rădulescu writes:

The title is an answer to Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be” and to Lao-tzu’s “being and non-being create each other”. The idea of this opus initially came in the Loire Valley near the Clos Luce where Leonardo spent his last years: a central string quartet […] surrounded by the enormous circle of an imaginary “viola da gamba” with 128 strings… [2]

The concept of time is particularly interesting in this piece. The time-worlds of the central live string quartet and the surrounding fantastical viola da gamba overlap. However, more interesting yet is the traditional-temporal implications of the ensemble. I personally find it thought-provoking how his streichquartett nr. 4 opus 33 denies the tempered scale by formulating a spectral scale of unequal intervals. To me, this notion is quasi-paradoxical because the string quartet is an ensemble of strings all of which are tuned according to the tempered scale. However, this is one of the reasons why I like the piece: the string quartet invariably involves historical implications for any composer, and Rădulescu’s music seems to attempt to overcome this with a curious cosmic sound-world of interwoven textures, ‘spectral fingering and bowing techniques’. Whether he does succeed in overcoming this is probably a matter of opinion: it will always be a connected with the string-quartet genre because it is written for string quartet; however, the encounter I have with this piece feels somewhat removed from the type of encounter I have with classical string quartet music.

[1] See sleeve note: Radulescu, Horatiu, Streichquartett nr. 4 Opus 33, Arditti Quartet (20 jahre inventionen, RZ 4002, 2001)

[2] Ibid.