Nashville-London Exchange

Posted on February 28th, 2010 by

Zubin Kanga, Ceci Fleming, Laurie Bamon. Photo: Madeline Myers

Left to right: David Gorton, Zubin Kanga, Madeline Myers, Michael Slayton, Kelsey Hudson, Ceci Fleming, Chris Lowry, Michael Alec Rose, Laurie Bamon, Alice Barron, PSS. Nashville 13th March
The workshop wide open. Turner Hall, Blair School of Music, 8-3-2010 Photo: Madeline Myers

Nashville-London Exchange 



2010 participants:   

Michael Alec Rose, Kelsey Hudson, Sarah van der Ploeg,  David Gorton, Michael Slayton, Alice Barron, Ceci Fleming, Laurie Bamon, Zubin Kanga, Madeline Myers, Chris Lowry, PSS.   


In the first two weeks of March, composer/friend/collaborator Michael Alec Rose and I were  joined by colleagues from the Blair School of Music, at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, and from the Royal Academy of Music, London for our third exchange programme.    

Opening the Composers' Workshop. Nashville March 2010. L to R, Ceci Flemin, Madeline Myers, Michael Slayton, PSS, David Gorton. Photo: Zubin Kanga

Opening the Composers' Workshop. Nashville March 2010. L to R, Ceci Fleming, Madeline Myers, Michael Slayton, PSS, David Gorton. Photo: Zubin Kanga

4 students from each institution, joined myself, David Gorton, Michael Alec Rose, and Michael Slayton for a two week ‘opening  the composer’s workshop’. Week one was here in London, week two in Nashville.    

..the project unfurls….Days from the exchanged, interspersed with reflections from the participants. 


Extract from Laurie Bamon 'The Wind' (workshopped 12-03-10)

 Wedndesday March 3rd.    

The project is now in full flood. In the past few days we have explored colour in Webern, Nigel Clarke, early pianos, Howard Skempton, Grieg, and new material provided by one of our young composers, Laurie Bamon. Today, the focus has been on the piano and extended techniques. The session has been led by pianist Zubin Kanga, working on an extraordinary work by the virtuoso pianist composer Rolf Hind, The Towers of Silence.  This work draws on the soundworld of the extended piano as initiated and developed by Henry Cowell, John Cage and George Crumb, and incorporates a whole range of new disciplines and demands to introduce what Michael Alec Rose, noted was a ‘real counterpoint’.  The session will then continue with work on Bartok and Indian violin playing.    

Voices of Collaboration 

Kelsey Hudson-Violin (Blair School of Music) 

‘Two weeks of ideas….. 

– Witnessing/Taking part in workshopping Madeline’s piece:  This moment sticks out to me because of the sheer craziness.  David and Dr. Rose were going at it on the piano, showing their compositional prowess, you were suggesting different musical ideas, and the student composers were filling in with ideas (when anyone could get a word in!).  I learned in those moments how it felt to be a part of a living piece, with living ideas and opinions.  I was able to experience the depth and malleability of the work that goes into manipulating sound.  
– Working with Chris’s piece:  At first I was overwhelmed with the incredible number of possibilities that you spoke of when first learning a piece, but as we worked through Chris’s piece I learned so much about how to manipulate sound within a certain context.  Since we had talked so extensively about the beauty and meaning of both silence and sound, I found us all trying to do our best to respect the feel of the piece.  I was using what I had learned in the previous week and a half about experimentation with sound and timbre, but I also greatly respected the fact that we were all contributing to the group sound.  That balance is especially important.
– David Gorton’s Work of Desolation:  I was so struck by our unanimous reaction to David’s piece.  That each of us recognized the supreme desolation that overwhelmed the air when we played.  Sometimes being a musician can feel lonely because music relies so much on interpretation and individuality, and seeing that David’s expertise in sound creation made all of us feel the same way was a relaxing breath for me.  I also enjoyed our conversation about when to incorporate the violence/destruction that was to occur somewhere in the piece.  Madeline said that reliving the memory of trauma can have more of an impact than actually experiencing trauma during the piece, and that really resonated with me, especially because it brought up the point that the audience is ultimately made of individuals, and each person brings a different perspective.’

Thursday March 4th   

After an inspirational  visit to the the Paul Nash exhibit at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the afternoon turned on the question of music and painting, of the transfer of ideas and sounds from brush to bow, from canvas to keyboard, and vice versa. This had been prepared by work the previous day on Madeline Myers’ sketch rooted in one of Nash’s paintings. The conversations veered from Dag Hammershoj to expectations in playing Bach, from Vaughan Williams’ ‘London Symphony’ to Van Gogh’s use of paint. Finally, work on a bi-tonal Bartok Duo, and pluralism….   


  Voices of Collaboration.  

Ceci Fleming-Vanderbilt Composition Student Writes: 

The music, compositions, and collaboration were stimulating, but for me, the people are what made this experience.  From Wilton’s to Sportsman’s, I relished in being surrounded by musically and intellectually inspiring individuals.  During our conversation about art as inspiration for music, I struggled to find the words to describe how I hear and see the opening of the second movement of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto.  The best I can come up with is ineffable.  After the workshop we continued the discussion of this piece and others that make our Favorites list.  I’ve always thought of a favorite as one that I won’t ever tire of hearing or playing; one that I can listen to again and again.  But one of the composers had a different take on the list: a favorite piece of music is one of which you would not change a single thing; every note the composer put on the page is exactly how it should be.  I couldn’t quite grasp the idea of finding fault enough in Beethoven to change anything he wrote, which I think may be more indicative of my steadfast and, at times, naive reverence of the Cannon than of my taste in recreational listening.  My firm allegiance to what the composer has written extends beyond just those composers that we study, so that I found it equally difficult to suggest that I had the authority to change Beethoven or Myers, Lowry, Gorton, Bamon, and Rose.  I know that the material brought in by these composers was in progress, only bleeding stumps intended for discussion and dissection, but I still found myself timid to offer suggestion albeit eager to play and hear the ideas of everyone else.  After two weeks of this collaborative effort, I wouldn’t say that I’m ready to take a red pen to Op. 106, but I do have a more founded perspective, so thank you, to everyone. 

Into the Woods: Sarah van der Ploeg, Zubin Kanga, Laurie Bamon, Alice Barron

  Voices of Collaboration

Sarah van der Ploeg -Singer, Violist. Royal Academy of Music

At the start of the Blair-RAM workshop weeks, I was excited about the opportunity, but still had many reservations in the back of my mind. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, what we would be doing, who else would be there, or if I really had the time or energy to participate as I wanted in the midst of a particularly busy time for me. Thankfully, I jumped in headfirst anyway, and the rewards were massive.

 Even though the first week in London was a bit of a blur for me, jetlagged and travelwearied after two weeks of auditions and flights all over the US, the time I did get to spend in workshops in the piano gallery provided a breath of fresh air. Having the physical and mental time and space to discuss and think through issues ranging from extended technique piano playing to expanding a student composer’s beautiful musical sketch, I started being reminded of why I decided to be a musician in the first place. Escaping from the hectic rat race of lessons, coachings and singing classes in the buildings on Marylebone Road, I got to sit and breathe the music in. Talk over musical philosophies with mindful musos. Laugh. Try things – some of which worked, and some of which didn’t. And laugh again when they didn’t. Or when they did.

 Perhaps that was the most useful part of the two-week journey: learning to let go of my fearfulness of not doing things ‘right’, whatever that means. Giving myself the grace to try things that might fail… or that might just lead to something really interesting. And being surrounded by people who were supportive in allowing that process to occur. 

There were two main ways in which this ‘letting go’ process took place. The first was in a four-hour-long mega session with Peter Sheppard-Skærved, reading through some of Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments. Not having been able to learn notes ahead of time, and not possessing perfect pitch, I was terrified at trying to sightread pieces that would have been difficult to get together even with a lot of prepwork. But having an encouraging partner in the process who urged me to aim for rhythm, shape, and character without worrying about the notes made me less frantic (particularly after a midpoint coffee break), and in the end led to far more interesting music making than if I had worked it all out ahead of time. And, according to Peter, I even started singing (most) of the right notes. Because as a singer I would normally have sat down and learned all of the notes first, before rehearsing with a violinist, this forced me to run my usual rehearsing process almost completely backwards… and it led to a new sort of freedom in the rehearsal for me.

 This was the second major liberator of the exchange: being the only singer in the group. Because singers tend to have a very pre-determined, specific way of learning, coaching, and talking about music, I tend to forget that there is any other way of addressing what it is we’re trying to do (even though I started my musical life as an instrumentalist). Having two weeks of musical discussions in compositional and instrumental language was fantastic. I already like to think of the voice as another equal instrument rather than as some sort of ‘Other’, and the workshops opened that up in myself and my singing more than I had been able to before. In everything from the Kurtag, to workshopping composers’ new pieces, to a particularly engaging and helpful one-on-one session with Dr. Rose on some Andre Previn songs, I stopped thinking so much like a ‘singer’, and more like a complete musician. How I should be singing and thinking all the time.

 Feeling thus inspired, now I simply endeavour to keep these influences a more constant part of my daily practice and performance!

Monday March 8th-Nashville
After a very successful week in London, the whole contingent gradually assemble here on Sunday. As I had arrived a day early with Sarah  Ploeg, I took the opportunity to work intensively with her that day on the Kurtag Kafka Fragments. This was fascinating, to be gently coaxed by Kurtag’s expressive rigour into confronting a real rapprochement between thought and expression. This was taken forward yesterday, when she went off with Michael Alec Rose and worked on the Previn Emily Dickinson Songs. All the students have been very keen to discuss and utilise the importance of poetry  and text (both in vocal and instrumental music)-so Kafka and Dickinson have been joined by Rilke, Thomas Mann, Marlowe and Charlottee Gilmour Perkins in some very gravid discussions.
For yesterday’s workshop we split the group of 12 (8 students and 4 teachers) into two groups. One group, led by David Gorton and Michael Slayton, spent the first couple of hours working on very subtle extended keyboard techniques-focussing particularly on the practical applications of harmonics and overtones. With my group, we worked in close detail on a subtle piece by Laurie Bamon, ‘Here Lies the Memory’. This work, founded on the simplest harmonic core, is a distilled reflection on the Poussin ‘Et in arcadia ego’ painting so beloved of Levi-Strauss, and Laurie took the opportunity to raise the expressive bar very high, but in the most charming way. She has the wonderful gift of being able to make people want to achieve the standards that she has for herself, and we all are learning from her. Then the whole group reassembled to report back and the last hour of the session was spent with the string players adding piles of clusters to E –  bow harmonics in the piano to work on how very powerful beats and overtones could be sent around a concert hall-we have the lovely Turner recital hall  for the workshops.
Voices of Collaboration
Chris Lowry Blair School  Composer/Violist
“The idea of a collaboration between composer and performer is something which often seems to be taken for granted.  My experience over these two weeks showed me how important that collaboration is.  Working with such talented students from the Royal Academy, my colleagues from Blair, as well as fabulous teachers and mentors was an excellent opportunity to truly experience this collaboration at work.  Each day’s workshop was inspiring and rewarding.  It is always interesting to me to see everyone’s entirely different ideas and approaches to the art of making music.  As both a composer and violist myself, I find it crucial to observe how everyone works and be open to their ideas and suggestions.  Every time one of the composers brought in a sketch, we would all experiment with sounds and colors, trying to discover the full potential of a small “bleeding chunk” of music.  Everyone had something to bring to the table, which often resulted in utter cacophony, but just as often turned into a beautiful soundscape rich with color.  The exchange program was an invaluable experience for both the composer and performer sides of me.  I definitely feel I left the program as a better musician.”

Michael Alec Rose 'Yes We Canon'



Voices of Collaboration

Alice Barron – Violin. Royal Academy of Music

The incredible breadth of the RAM-Nashville exchange makes it a challenge to summarise the extent of how this project has influenced me in ways of thinking and playing.  I have never been part of such an open minded group of students and teachers who were fascinated by everyone’s individual thoughts and areas of interest.  This unique situation developed throughout the 2 weeks; starting with Peter’s introduction to the project not having any desired outcome which led to compositions and explorations of a wide range of music and ideas.  Furthermore, nobody had any boundaries of what they were prepared to try out.  For me, a few themes seemed to stand out…

 From the first day in Nashville, trees became a recurring source of inspiration, culminating in Laurie’s stunning composition inspired by the sound of the wind in the eternal beech leaves.  Our walk through Percy Warner Park was a wonderful way to bring more expanse into our discussions and thoughts, whilst enjoying such natural beauty.  Michael Rose’s favourite tulip tree was particularly striking.

 David introduced quarter-tones into the chamber group with his composition, which we experimented with in relation to intonation and combining strings with an e-bow in the piano.  Playing with the same group of musicians for 2 weeks with this intensity of listening led to sensitive playing at a completely different level from what I have experienced before.  I would love to have the chance to play together in the future!

 Peter’s canon ‘trick’ of passing notes around 4 players further developed acute listening.  It was intriguing being part of these experiments as one of the performers, followed by playing compositions by Michael Rose and Laurie that were responses to the canon concept.

 Having not yet found an opportunity to explore my interest in the Indian violin with many classical musicians, I was delighted to be able to share this passion with the rest of the group.  For me one of the highlights of the 2 weeks was combining this with Kelsey’s fabulous American fiddling – two distinctly different genres of music, possibly completely unconnected, but resulting in intriguing colours and a lot of fun!  This freedom and lack of boundaries by specific genres of music was for me one of the most liberating experiences I have taken from the exchange.  I am incredibly grateful to everyone running the project, which was a truly life changing experience.

 Tuesday March 9th-Nashville   

Before the workshop, participants split into several groups, working on composers from Ravel to Paart. The afternoon session then began with work on John Cage’s late work, Four, as a sounding board for ideas about time, structure, timbre and listning. Following this, Alice Barron led a segment on basic ideas around Indian violin playing and her ideas on how this might be linked to 20th century composers’ vocal approaches to string writing. In the meantime, Michael Alec Rose had been given an hour to write a work for voice and small ensemble. He returned with Yes We Canon, which cunningly divided the ensemble into three canonic subgroups. This was followed by work on a fragment by Chris Lowry, which the group subjected to transformation by pitch displacement, chromatic diminution to produce a provisional 5 minute piece for further development.  David Gorton brought in a miniature incorporating the work that we have been doing with E bow, harmonics and clusters. The session concluded with a wonderfully sensitive performance of this, which looks like developing into a set of tableaux for extended piano and strings.   

Voices of Collaboration

Zubin Kanga-Piano: Royal Academy of Music

The London-Nashville Exchange was one of the most interesting, musically engaging and enjoyable experiences I have had since arriving at the Royal Academy of Music three years ago. There were many memorable experiences from the trip, and the following are just a short sample:

 -Working with David Gorton on his piece as it bloomed from experiments with the e-bow into a larger fragment with potential to become a very exciting piece. Starting with my demonstration of some excerpts from Rolf Hind’s Towers of Silence, the use of the e-bow in the piano became one of the recurring themes of the Exchange. Many people contributed to finding new techniques with this device, with Peter showing me a more elegant way of ending the notes, Michael Slayton experimenting with preparations in combination with the e-bow and my own discovery that the pitch could be varied through subtle use of the damper pedal. David cleverly used this fascination with the technique to find ways of depicting the eerie hum of the powerstation that we passed while walking through the Nashville campus.

 -Workshopping Penderecki’s Three Miniatures with Peter with particular attention to the composer’s use of notation and the interplay between the many colours conjured from both instruments. As in many of the workshops, I was drawn into a deeper level of listening than I usually attain and this has carried through into my current chamber and solo work.

 -Watching Alice’s demonstration of Indian violin playing including the unusual technique of balancing the violin on her foot. Having been a fan of the Indian-jazz fusion group, Shakti, in my teens, I found this particularly fascinating. Later, at Michael Rose’s house, Alice jammed with Kelsey who played traditional American ‘fiddling’ music that showed the similarities between seemingly distant musical cultures.

 -Hearing the trio of student string players play a fragment of Madeline’s new piece (written with great care for every note) with extraordinary sensitivity and understanding of her musical voice.

 -Experiencing Laurie’s piece, written for the final workshop, which drew upon many of the workshops and experiences of the exchange. The sounds of the wind through the dead leaves in Percy-Warner Park, the use of improvised canon between performers, the use of spacing of the performers around the full breadth and depth of Turner Hall and the harnessing of Chris’ big viola sound to create a counterpoint to the violins’ whispy textures.

 All these experiences were only possible because of the shared workshops, intense listening, musical exploration and the friendship and depth of understanding between the musicians.

There were also many experiences outside the workshop which were similarly inspiring:

 -Having a deep conversation with Michael Rose about the meaning of cultural identity and the importance of having a sense of place as we walked through his favourite area of Percy-Warner Park in the hills outside Nashville.

 -Discussing and comparing the life of a musician and academic in different countries over dinner with Michael Slayton and David Gorton.

 -Enjoying a home cooked dinner with the American students, each from a different part of the country, and learning about their varied backgrounds, musical tastes, political persuasions and quirky humour while playing the dinner-party card game, “Apples to Apples”.

 -Discovering the beauty of the Vanderbilt campus, with it’s beautiful groves and eclectic mix of architecture.

 -Experiencing Nashville, a city of wild extremes of character between the refined and stimulating collections at the Frisk Gallery to the loud and boisterous bustle of ‘downtown’ with its countless hat and boot shops. The food was similarly varied but always of a high quality, and I was impressed with the attention to detail, even in the pub food!

 -Talking to David during our long journeys about music, literature, movies and the joys and tribulations of raising children.

 From my perspective as a researcher into composer/performer collaborations, the project was particularly interesting as it showed that truly integrative models of collaboration, where hierarchies between composers and performers and between staff and students are dissolved, can exist and be fostered within a higher education institution. Indeed, projects of this sort are extremely rare within music schools and conservatoires, which generally do their best to maintain the status quo where composers and performers rarely meet and taking creative risks is often discouraged. The exchange also provided me with some evidence to support my theory that integrative collaboration expands the creative possibilities and capabilities of all the musicians involved and that musical innovation is best fostered in communities of musicians rather than in the minds of lone individuals. 

My thanks go to all of those involved in this project, but particularly to Peter Sheppard Skaerved and Michael Alec Rose for founding and organizing the London-Nashville Exchange. This is a daring and visionary project, and one that I hope runs for many more years.

The piano under intense scrutiny! Photo: Chris Lowry

Wednesday March 10th   

Today we brought the themes of vocal and instrumental writing together, looking at works by Evis Sammoutis, Peter Sculthorpe and David Matthews. One idea which animates many of the group is the the place of the voice in instrumental music. We have been looking at works for one instrument and voice, the voice as a member of an instrumental group, and the voice as the inspiration for instrumental sound. There has even been a happy diversion into the irony of using the human voice to set off a very inhuman one, the E-bow. All of the three composersa above have written pieces which demand that one player vocalise and play at the same time. These range from relatively simples challenges, of singing or whistling in slow counterpoint with single or mulit-topped lines, to the extremes of Evis Sammoutis’ Taftophonia. Evis piece demands that the player sigh, tongue-click, hum, sing, hiss, and use complex consonants in a sublte weave with his extremely broad tonal palette. This led to a conversation about the limits of performance, and crossing between instrumental genres.  Michael Alec Rose reminded us all that we are in Music City, which is stuffed to the gills with instrumental/vocal multi-taskersp-so a conversation followed as to which it had acquired such significance in the modern classical tradition. Following on from this, an exploration of the Penderecki Three Miniatures, continuing the theme of extended piano techniques. Zubin Kanga went to great lengths to explore some of the issues of how to play non-specified pitches when the composer is demanding a very particular colouristic result.  Finally, the string group went through a series of canon based exercises, using layers of imitation to tease at the boundary lines between composition and improvisation. This was most successful when PSS stepped away from the lead and violist/composer Chris Lowry took the initiative, finding a particular sonority in the linear development of tonality and colour that results from such exercises. It wa only natural, then, to work with violinist Barron on the miraculous Lullaby from Britten’s Suite Op6, perhaps the most extraordinary  instance of this most vocal-orientated of composers transferring the voice to a string instrument. 

Voices of Collaboration 

Thoughts and reflections from Blair Composer Madeline Myers 

1. David Gorton’s piece of desolation, on Thursday, March 11th, is largely filled with held quarter tones, e-bow harmonics, and alternating sound events.  A single listen made my head spin with thoughts.  My immediate impression was that I was inside someone’s mind, and the sound was painting the surface of that mind as I looked out.  I felt fragile, as though the sound created by the strings were thin clouds and the persistent e-bow was a beam of light shining toward a deserted landscape.  Laurie spoke to her sensation of watching through a camera on a barren, post-apocalyptic landscape.  As the group discussed the overwhelming sensation of violence created by the piece, I felt as though the fragile texture of the sound made the piece even more bent on destruction and desolation.  One of the members of the group (Zubin, I believe) asked David how the piece began, and David suggested that this destruction was, in fact, the beginning of the piece.  We continued to discuss how the listener is immediately thrust into a desolate landscape whose source of destruction is completely unknown, making the persistence of the e-bow a malign incubus that inhabits the listener internally.  Dr. Rose raised the problem and irony of violence in music: it becomes beautiful in the mind of the composer, making the true nature of violence unknowable in a way.  As the group tried out different techniques in manipulating the sound– e-bow hairpins, col legno tratto, sul tasto, and Bartok vibrato– I felt the story of destruction that David’s piece told becoming more and more real.  If the piece took a non-linear plot, with the actual cause of destruction occurring later in the work, what could that sound like?  Peter imagined this idea aloud, throwing his energy and strength on the piano so that the walls of Turner Hall shook with fright themselves.  I deeply pondered the story this piece told, and the discussion of memory arose.  I have always felt that memory is often more painful than the actual occurrence of an event itself because memory is persistent, recurring, and often becomes larger in the mind of the individual than the real event.  An event has a duration, a finite beginning and end.  Memory, however, is pervasive and ongoing in the mind of an individual.  The paradox of the simultaneity of destruction and fragility seemed to suggest a painfully persistent memory of violence that torments and inhabits the listener.  As the day came to a close, I asked David how the piece ended, for I desperately wanted to know that some how, in some way, humanity survived this cataclysmic tragedy. 

Paul Nash-Vernal Equinox

2) Day three of the workshop, Wednesday, March 3rd, confronted the sketch I had brought to the Academy.  I played the piece on the piano for the group in the piano gallery, simultaneously anxious and excited for the reactions of my fellow participants.  The piece was a response to Paul Nash’s Landscape of the Vernal Equinox, a piece on exhibit at the Dulwich Gallery which had immediately struck me.  I chose to respond to the Nash image musically because it seemed to posses an inherent duality that begged musical transformation.  Within the saturated colors and obscured space of the image, there is a lurking sense of war and tragedy– hearkening back to Nash’s history as a war artist– and also a calm, pastoral presence that gave me hope.  With nature in flux, the sun and moon reach an equilibrium in the image, yet the stately Wittenham Clumps remain resilient and unchanging in the center of the work.  Balmy hues of coral radiate light from an infinite sky that looks down on a dark, foreboding forest that leads to the open landscape on which the Wittenham Clumps sit.  Throughout all of these visual contradictions, the image exuded a hopeful, lyrical quality in which I found deep meaning.  I had been calling my sketch Chorale on the Vernal Equinox, and David immediately responded to my piece, discussing the monolithic nature of it.  The group charged into action with spirit and energy, and Peter immediately had the string players choose lines to realize from the piano score.  David and Dr. Rose shared the piano bench, rendering my harmonies in different voicings that descending deep into the bass of the piano.  Peter had Sarah sing the melody line, while he doubled it on his violin, and her voice glistened on top of the string texture.  Laurie suggested the presence of chimes or chime-like imitation on the piano during a moment of repose, and I felt that moment captured the fear and hope in the face of coming and going war during which Nash painted.  The deeper the group delved into the piece, the more chaotic it became, while never veering from the spirit of the Nash image.  An energy permeated the group, and the non-stop discussion was filled with laughter and possibility.  I thoughtfully considered the many possibilities from the seemingly-endless imagination of the group, and I was probably most struck by the idea of using a wordless vocal line.  I briefly considered the possibility of setting text to the line but nearly immediately threw it out.  The line almost rejected words, as though it were telling a story that was unfettered by text.  I continued to think about the imagination and possibility as I worked on the piece throughout the rest of the program. 

Chris Lowry, Alice Barron, Kelsey Hudson. Photo: Madeline Myers

Thursday 11th March  

The morning sessions were very composer orientated. I worked with Chris Lowry on his Concert Fantasy and with Laurie Bamon on her solo violin work . The afternoon began with a little exploration of Tartini’s Sonate Piccole, before focusing on Ceci Fleming and Ravel Miroirs. L’Oiseau Triste threw up a whole tranche of questions, ranging from  vertical alignment to the meaning of birdsong and musical environments. David Gorton’s extended version of his developing work for E-bow/piano with string conclusively demonstrated the powerful link between the tiniest musical details and musical meaning.   

Voices of Collaboration
Composer David Gorton-Royal Academy of Music
What struck me most about the workshops at the Academy and the Blair School of Music was the symbiotic evolution of composition and chamber music practice that occurred throughout the two weeks. In some instances there was a quite obvious sense of progression:  as in, for example, the experimental session of extended piano techniques which led directly to my sketch for strings and piano with e-bow (electronic bow). However, there was a far more subtle and complex interplay at work. It became clear that the chamber music issues that were being worked on with the ensemble – listening, balance, intonation (especially of microtones), sound quality/nuance/colour, co-ordination, style, the experimentation with new sounds and techniques – found their way transformed and made new into the sketches of all the participating composers. Similarly, the technical demands being made of the ensemble by the composers were assimilated and found their way into the performances of other music. This process reached its pinnacle with Laurie’s piece, which was played at the end of the last workshop. It was evident that Laurie would not have written that piece if she hadn’t spent the previous two weeks observing and listening: likewise, the ensemble would not have been able to play the piece with such empathy and delicacy if they hadn’t have been playing a broad range of music together for the fortnight. This interplay – where chamber music practice influences composition, which in turn influences the chamber music practice – was too complex to rationalise, but it was beautiful to observe and to be a part of.
On a personal note I found the ongoing conversations I had with all about the aesthetics of 21st-century music to be extremely beneficial. Such discussions among a broad range of intelligent musicians are essential, but with today’s hectic lifestyles they are difficult to find the space for.

Extract from 'Sketch' by Chris Lowry

 Composer Laurie Bamon (Royal Academy of Music) writes: 

For me, some of the most exciting discussions came about when we looked at the sketches written by Chris, David and Madeline. All of the material was so rich and pregnant with possibilities- the smallest details vibrated with potential for development and intensification. When we looked at Madeline’s sketch on the final day, it took only a few moments to feel her ‘dots and lines’ unfurling themselves and revealing landscapes within landscapes- thoughts within thoughts. Michael Rose tenderly picked out some of these details and, passing them to Kelsey, Alice and Chris, the music was distilled: it became somehow more essential as the string players attended to its nuances, stroke by stroke. 

These instances of collective sensitivity towards a composer’s ideas were surface flowerings of the felicitous strands which threaded through the exchange. We were blessed with time. With the hectic pace of student life and deadlines looming, I find it can be tempting to not consider every possibility, but here there was time to embrace each suggestion and half-thought. Furthermore, there was time- to work and think, yes, but more importantly for me- to begin to gain a fuller sense of the individuals in the group: to respond to and respect each others’ emerging musical personalities. Because of this, I felt that we were truly making music, and I found this inspiring in the most forcefully creative sense of the word. 

I also felt that for the most part our egos were left at the door. Peter established early on that we shouldn’t regard anyone as being ‘in charge’ of the discussions. Consequently, any inhibitions stemming from fears of saying something ‘incorrect’ vanished. The first workshop opened with ‘the hunt for sound’, and music and sound became almost an ideal we pursued during the course of the two weeks. While we remained open to all possibilities, we could chase this ideal freely and equally. There were no incentives to compete with one another. The focus was always on sound, and how to make musical sounds more intensely ‘themselves’, in one way or another. 

Learning and sharing in such an environment, I felt liberated by the generosity of spirit and goodwill the group showed towards each others’ interests and ideas (it seemed we could have discussed David’s sketch for hours longer than we did!). I was also filled with a sense that what we were doing was valid: that it deserved to be happening, and that it must happen. I became aware that being surrounded by such steady belief in the act of pursuing sounds and making music was revealing to me again and again the essence of the impulsion to compose. I have much to carry forward from this experience.  


Friday 12th March 

This afternoon all three of our younger composers have brought material.  




Workshopped copy of Madeline Myers' trio Fragment

We begun by working on a two line fragment of string trio music by Madeline Myers, which was sightread with surpassing sensitivity by Chris, Kelsey and Alice. Then we went to work, the piece was tried in multiple different ways-with subtle re-voicings, interior dynamics and rhetorical devices-even a prelude bar offered by Michael Rose. David Gorton suggested birdsong-so I introduced the last importunate chirrup from Oiseau Triste-this elicited the remark, well taken, by Michael Slayton, that hearing such a think once was quite enough-clearly my attempt at introducing a Whipbird did not go well. This was followed by an extended landscape for four strings and piano by Chris, which worked very well with the string players stretched across the room. Chris had found a very effective way of incorporating the colourist richness that has been explored in the past two weeks, as well as the microtonal experimetation of the past two days into a very  dramatic space-it was agreed that a suitably ghostly ending would be for a member of the audience to pace to the stage to put the pedal down for the last knocking gesture on the soundboard of the piano. After the break, we worked on a new piece by Laurie, The Wind. This turned out to be an absolutely inspiring way to end the week. The piece was stimulated by two things-the sound of wind in the beech trees in a park. As Laurie puts it, it is a ‘true Nashville piece’, and one of the aural following exercises that we used earlier. But Laurie has absolutely transcended that initial exercise. The piece is scored for a centrally placed viola, based around Chris’ wonderful singin sound with three violins grouped around the hall. There is wonderfully effective use of mutual cue-ing, very much in the manner utilised in Witold Lutoslawski’s String Quartet. The piece is a finished 10 minute structure, of great colouristic and harmonic beauty, and incorporating so much of the shared creation of sound and mutual affection that has characterised this week’s work.  So an absolute high to end on-an afternoon with new compositions of great individuality and beauty by the three younger composers on the Exchange. I am enraptured to see this kind of music making come out of a programme which Michael and I dreamt up 6 years ago, and which could not exist without the enlightened support of two great institutions. What a privilege to be part of it! 

Composer Michael Slayton thinks. In the piano, Madeline Myers! Photo: Chris Lowry


Voices of Collaboration 

Michael Slayton: 

The highlight of the Royal Academy / Blair School exchange this year was, for me, the struggles and triumphs of the last day we had together. Three of the students presented snippets of fresh, still wet, malleable material that the group then molded and shaped into beautiful bits of sound-art,  often utterly outside the scope of the music’s original conception. This to me is the beauty of exchange among dedicated artists who simply love the act of creation. We were afforded the luxury (of time, of like-mindedness, of spirit) to seek out the essence of the thing, not just the thing itself. To uncover and unmask the essence of a piece of music is the opening of a great door. Struggles come when preconceptions, or distractions, or fears, or egos get in the way; triumphs come through letting those things shear away. What the exchange is so keen to ask from the group is for us so “vulnerable-ize” ourselves – as performers and composers – that we are also unmasked, so all that remains (all that can remain) is that essence we’re looking for. All of these notions came together in a kind of perfect storm, I thought, with Laurie’s last piece. There were fears (mostly her own!) that were overcome, preconceptions, distractions, and egos that had to be put aside for the piece to have any chance of working out. The imperative stillness of that music demanded that all of us, even those who weren’t playing, engage in it – the essence of the thing. This will remain with me. 


The first exchange programme 2006   

Ben Skinner has put together a wonderful archive of photos from the first Exchange programme. Many thanks to him Follow this link:

Michael Alec Rose in action. Photo: Richard Bram

 2006 link