March 2000

Looking at music in a score is one thing, hearing it come to life is quite another - especially when it’s a piece you have written yourself. One of spnm's key activities over the last 50 years has been to give emerging composers the opportunity of hearing their music performed by professional musicians with feedback from an established composer. Even such prominent figures as James MacMillan never forget their first experience:

"I can remember the first time I heard professional players performing a piece of mine in an spnm workshop at Musica Nova in 1979. It was a great experience, not just hearing what I could do with a handful of instruments, but also finding out in the long term what wasn't going to work. It is such a marvellous experience hearing something come alive, something which was just an imagined sound in the head, and then notes on the paper, taking on musical sonic flesh."

20 years on and the tables are turned. James MacMIllan is leading an spnm workshop with the Britten Sinfonia and Jean Rigby based on his ensemble piece, Raising Sparks. Four composers' works, using the same forces as Raising Sparks – flute, clarinet, piano, harp, string quartet and mezzo-soprano – have been selected and it will be interesting to see how each tackles writing for the voice. For James MacMillan it wasn't so much a challenge as an inspiration:

"There is so much in the contemporary music vocal repertoire recently which has worked against the natural lyricism of the voice. That's not a criticism, it's just a statement of fact. But for me that goes against the whole point of the human voice, which is to link its musical utterances with a deep human universality. The idea of song and story telling through song has always been important to me, not just in the Celtic tradition, but in other traditions. There's nothing Celtic about Raising Sparks, but it does tell a story and to have clouded that story in music that was abstract and separated from human instincts would have been unnatural. So it was back to lyrical lines and the basic instincts of song."

However the four composers choose to approach this challenge and whatever the results, it's the feedback they receive from those involved in the workshop that's of paramount importance:

"It's a great responsibility. You can be a very important influence for a young composer. I certainly remember Stephen Montague who led the first spnm workshop I attended. His comments were very helpful, encouraging, and critical where they needed to be, and I learned a lot. I know some composers can be over critical, sometimes devastatingly critical at these kinds of events. Some people can cope with this and have it in them to take this on board, but others don’t. So it’s a question of moulding your remarks and your approach to the individual concerned and treating them as a human."

James MacMillan has been taught and influenced by a wide range of composers – or as he puts it, he was "a bit of a sponge". The big question was how to take on board this often powerful influence and still find a way to carve his own voice:
"My guiding light in that sense was John Casken. He's a renowned and valued teacher, but he's not a doctrinaire when it comes to questions of style and aesthetic. I also had encounters with composers who are very far from me aesthetically. When I was 20-21 I had two sessions with Brian Ferneyhough. Here was someone who many regard as being at the hard, complex end of contemporary music, but he was able to look at my work, which was very infantile in those days, and see exactly what the issues were without ramming a particular viewpoint down my throat. With someone like him you benefit from the breadth of intellect."

So what advice does he have for these composers who are about to hear their work for the first time:

"I hope they get the excitement of hearing their work performed by expert players and a fantastic singer and that the experience will live with them and inspire them. I hope they will use it as a learning experience. It is a prize in itself to have their piece chosen in this way. But to put the glory aside and to see the importance of absorbing as much information which they can use to build on their skills. To have public performances by professional players at an early stage is something that lives with you for the rest of your career."

James MacMillan was interviewed by Kate Jones. For full details of this event see the listing on March 18.

The monthly listings magazine new notes is essential reading for composers, performers, and everyone interested in what's new in new music. In its printed version new notes reaches over 5,000 contemporary music enthusiasts in the UK and around the world.

If you promote new music events you should advertise them in new notes.
Single concert listings are just £60+VAT. The magazine also features ads for festivals, composer competitions, recordings and more.

new notes
also features
monthly articles on issues at the forefront of new music
special offers on CDs, tickets, scores and books for spnm members
information about forthcoming spnm events
a free classified section for spnm members' non-trade ads.

For full details on advertising or inserting leaflets in new notes please contact
the Editor:

Event listings for this month


Previous articles:

February 2000
the ENO Studio

January 2000
a challenge from Michael Oliva

December 1999
into the next century...

November 1999
Joanna MacGregor writes

October 1999
obsessed with consuming?

September 1999
spnm welcomes Joanna MacGregor.

July/August 1999
Spectrum 2 - miniatures for piano.

June 1999
Hoxton Hall New Music Days.

May 1999
Bath International Music Festival is 50.

April 1999
Who is Georges Aperghis?

March 1999
On frost, birth and death

February 1999
Keeping busy...

January 1999
Now that's what I call contemporary!

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