January 1999

Now that's what I call 'contemporary'!

Beverley Crew celebrates CMN’s innovative 1999/2000 season

While swooning over spnm’s seriously sexy new image, I’ve been thinking just how radically perceptions of ‘new’ and ‘contemporary’ music have been changing over the past few years.
Up until quite recently, if you’d invited a friend to a contemporary music concert, chances are they would have politely declined, secretly conjuring up those old hackneyed images of awkward, hairy musicians shuffling silently onto a starkly-lit stage to create sounds reminiscent of a rusty gate in need of a good oiling. That the audience would consist solely of some two dozen anoraks (always male and most definitely single!), was inevitable. And presuming that any marketing had been done, it would consist of a dull, academically-worded A4 sheet, photocopied so darkly as to obscure the musicians’ photo. Distribution would comprise the local library’s noticeboard.
If this scenario were ever true, it certainly isn’t now. ‘Contemporary’ and ‘new’ are increasingly used as terms to encompass musical styles as wide and diverse as jazz, classical, world, electronic and experimental, as well as the more adventurous end of pop, rock and dance music. What’s more, contemporary music audiences actually feature large numbers of women, marketing is tight, focused and appealing – and sometimes, if we’re really lucky, we are allowed to take alcoholic beverages into the auditoria!
It has become second-nature for many composers/musicians to jump effortlessly between music forms, and most are extremely keen to communicate with really diverse audiences. So the organisers of events are able to ever increase their expectations of the broad range of people who are likely to be interested in attending, and the audience itself is having a far more exciting time as a result of this diversification.
So where does Contemporary Music Network (CMN) fit into this picture? CMN, which is funded by and based at the Arts Council of England, has been a major pioneer in producing innovative live contemporary music tours across genres for the past 28 years, showcasing world-class artists to wide audiences throughout the country. We have instigated the first ever visits to this country by the Steve Reich Ensemble, Gil Evans Orchestra, Philip Glass Ensemble, Jan Garbarek Quartet and the Kronos Quartet, to name but a few. We have also championed the huge talent we have here in the UK, creating opportunities for exceptional British artists to develop and tour projects and collaborations with the marketing and press support they deserve. We are delighted that spnm will be striking collaborations with the 1999/2000 tours and look forward to some exciting initiatives.
CMN’s season for 1999/2000 is one of the most eclectic ever, taking us into some new territories. Our programme includes Jazz, Tango, Classical, Brazilian New Beat, Zappa, South African and Cameroonian World/Jazz, Asian Club, Multi-Media Soundcircus, Folk and Japanese Sound and Image Manipulation projects.
Now that’s what I call ‘contemporary’!
For more information about CMN events, please call 0171 973 6504 or email

Beverley Crew is the Administrator of CMN.

A harpist speaks out: it is not a piano!

Catherine Beynon's advice on getting through the pedal barrier...

I know harpists have a reputation for being neurotic and temperamental… but trust me, this has more to do with breaking strings, draughty pits and having to cart the darned thing around! So why is it that most composers seem to be frightened off at the very thought of writing for the harp? It seems one has only to mention a pedal change or an enharmonic in order to bring a composer out in a cold sweat!
The harp is undoubtedly a complicated beast but it really is worth getting through that pedal barrier in order to understand it. We have a relatively small repertoire due to the late development of the pedal action, but we really need to encourage present-day composers to create some good repertoire in order for the harp to be taken seriously in the future. It is an extremely versatile instrument which, in my opinion, is a long way from achieving its full potential. Of course, we can play beautiful glissandi and arpeggios (cf. ‘arpa’), but there is so much more to it than that. It can also be a percussive, aggressive instrument and we harpists are aching for someone to tap its infinite possibilities. Berio, Britten and Petrassi have set the ball well and truly rolling, but all too often we frustrated harpists set about writing ourselves, and we end up with expert harp writing by ‘less expert’ composers.
I’m sure many composers have been interested in writing for the harp at some stage, and have probably got as far as reading up the basics – and then they come across the pedals and opt out! Please give it another try! It must seem thoroughly illogical and off-putting, but I’d like to outline a few basic guidelines that may help to break the ice.

1 I know it sounds obvious, but try to spend 30 minutes with a harp, and preferably a harpist too, and try to play it and understand the sorts of musical figures that might suit it, before you write a note.
2 Don’t worry… only the people that build harps understand why the pedals are in that strange order!
The pedals are our problem – don’t feel restricted in your writing. I would suggest that you write first and then go through the piece bearing pedal movements in mind. As a general rule, steer clear of chromaticism. Since almost every harpist has their own quirky way of marking their pedal changes, you should write in pedals for your own use, but provide the harpist with a clean unmarked copy. It will save on world Tippex resources!
3 Most harpists use only four fingers in each hand (not the little finger), although one or two of us are more rebellious and find that using the little one gives us a fighting chance with Strauss!
4 It is well worth looking in Salzedo’s Modern Study of the harp or in the front of Berio’s Sequenza for details of different sonorities and effects that can be made using different parts of the string, plucking with the nails, etc.
5 Most harpists can easily stretch a tenth in each hand, but be careful when filling in a tenth with other harmonies… try to avoid too wide an interval between 4th and 3rd, and 3rd and 2nd fingers:

is much better than

6 Avoid repeated notes on the same string. Try to build in enharmonics so that one can alternate between the two strings:

rather than

Playing repeated chords on the same string is rather unrewarding as all the resonance is stifled.
This: might sound better as:

7 Harmonics sound an octave higher than the string on which they are played. They have limited success on the metal strings (usually from about the second G below middle C down) and are horrible anywhere above about the C above middle C. In short, they are best in the middle range. The right hand can only play one harmonic at a time, but the left hand can manage two so long as the interval is no more than a fourth.

I hope these points will help. Of course, the best way to learn is by trial and error, so have a bash! Some examples of good idiomatic harp writing can be found in the Mahler symphonies, Puccini operas (very effective and not difficult), Ginastera Harp Concerto, Britten operas and Suite (except for the left hand figures in the Overture!), Caplet Divertissements for solo harp and Conte Fantastique for harp and string quartet, Berio Sequenza and Fauré Impromptu op 86.

Catherine will give the London première of a work by Martyn Harry as part of her Park Lane Group recital on 5 January at the Purcell Room. If you’d like more advice on writing for the harp you’re welcome to introduce yourself after the concert, or to contact her through the spnm office.

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Previous articles:

December 1998
Forty years of madness?

November 1998
To plug in or not to plug in?

October 1998
No, honestly it is a cello

September 1998
Composing for film

July/August 1998
New music on old instruments

June 1998
Blue sheep of record companies

May 1998
spnm looks to the future

April 1998
New Music 98 in Manchester