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The Residency – Days 3 and 4

May 4, 2012

I wouldn’t normally regard two days of wall-to-wall student workshops as ‘light relief’, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to wake up on Tuesday morning feeling a bit of a weight lifted from my shoulders – albeit temporarily.

I think most people assume I’m joking when I announce periodically that Composer Workshops are just about my favourite part of EXAUDI’s activities. It’s true: there’s something about them that I find especially stimulating, freed from the stress of performance and all the carefulness that descends on composer and performer alike when they know they are going to be publicly judged. The laboratory atmosphere of the Workshop encourages experimentation and boldness, and this is exciting for everyone involved – the composers, the performers and all those watching – usually including faculty members and other composers, who all become part of what is at its best a really hot creative crucible.

It’s also become a bit of a personal mission for me as well, because my own postgraduate years as a composer were periodically scarred by bad workshops: workshops led by bored, cowardly composers and timid, cynical or just plain unimaginative performers who could only tell you what you couldn’t do, and what wouldn’t work (which would include pretty much anything interesting or innovative), and wouldn’t know real creativity if it punched them in the face. A workshop should be a place of idealism and risk-taking, and anyone who can’t get fully behind that agenda has no business going anywhere near a young composer. As soon as we had the chance to lead workshops with EXAUDI, both Juliet and I were at pains to make sure that all our singers understood this and didn’t just do the normal thing of problematising any and every slightly unusual demand the score made on them – as they routinely find is the case in other groups they work for. We will try and do absolutely anything we are asked to do, and in the spirit it is intended, even if the composer has wildly miscalculated – who would have bothered trying to play Xenakis’ early pieces if they didn’t take that attitude? We also try and rehearse as much as possible beforehand so we can give absolutely the best possible account of the piece in the time available. This is hardly ground-breaking stuff, but my own experience has been that many performers don’t take workshops properly seriously and are certainly not really on the composer’s side – is that so much to ask?

Our Huddersfield crucible contained four composers, Matthew Sergeant, Barbara Ellison, Liz Nicholas-Stannard and Pia Palme, four singers – Juliet, Lucy, Alastair Putt and Gareth Dayus-Jones (the latter reinforcements especially for this session), myself, three of the students’ teachers (Aaron, Bryn and Liza Lim) and several others. The four pieces were drastically contrasted – Matthew’s a detailed, normally-notated piece based on Ethiopian phonemes with a quite passionate, if not exactly dramatic, feel (‘primal/incanting’ was the instruction), Liz’s a deceptively simple, almost Scratch-music-style experimental piece that she also uses with primary school students, Barbara’s a series of Inuit-inspired ‘scenes’ comprised of little repeated motifs of ‘chanting and panting’, as she called it, and Pia’s a notated work to be sung without the score, with the singers imitating what they hear through their own headphones.

There was plenty of innovative thinking amongst the four (never before have we performed with rubbish bins on our heads) and plenty of practical issues to resolve as well. Singers, one should remember, don’t like heavy panting (at least during work hours) as it dries up the throat and screws up the voice. IPA (the alphabet rather than the drink) is a Good Thing but has to be done correctly and sometimes can be more trouble than it’s worth if you are dealing with just a few quite conventional phonemes. Instructions can always be clearer. But these were accomplished composers who all had something distinctive to say and the confidence to say it and stand up for it, and I can only hope they were encouraged by what we did with their pieces. For me personally the most interesting moment was watching and hearing the singers performing Pia’s piece, which they’d not heard or seen before, by imitating the audio they were hearing in their headphones. There was a fragility and sense of discovery to the sound, and also a sense of direct expressivity and freedom, that simply could not have occurred had they been reading from scores. To hear four of these lines interacting in counterpoint whilst their owners were aware only of their own was a remarkable experience (and the expressions of concentration on the singers’ faces was something to behold) and an idea that could go in some interesting directions. Pia is not the only composer dealing with auditory signals in this way, but what she produced here was new to me, and exciting.

This wasn’t our only workshop date of the day – earlier on Tom, Simon and Jon Bungard had led a fascinating vocal workshop with soloists and a quartet of singers from the University, Tom deploying his full range of singing-teacher similes – some more outrageous than others – on some willing and very interested students.

On Wednesday morning it was off to Huddersfield New College to work with sixth-form students. Our first session with BTEC performers culminated in a rough-edged but invigorating group attempt at some material from Cage’s Song Books and Aria, and the second session with A-level composers on composing with extended vocal techniques ended with a touching and very windy Haiku Seasons group composition. I hope the students enjoyed it as much as we did. I shall treasure the memory of my colleagues (including Aaron and Bryn) miming a car-wash, running round the room barking, and trying not to do all the composing themselves.

That was one of the most intense short patches of work I can remember: every day a new challenge and every challenge stretching and stimulating. Comfort zones were routinely trashed and expectations beaten to a pulp – long may it continue. Of course I’ve missed out one really important bit – the down-time spent traversing the pubs of Huddersfield, the taco evening chez Cassidy, and all the other little moments of respite that are so crucial to bond us together in our shared purpose and which make working with this lovely group of people such a pleasure. It has been a great week and a big confidence-boost for everyone.

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