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Blog Category: composing today

Living on Paper – a Question for Composers

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This week I have heard a couple of excerpts from the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week – “Living on paper”: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995.

It led me to think about the art of writing both words and music and how much technology has influenced the way that it is done today, quite possibly changing the resulting creative work.

What we get from her letters is not only the personal perspective of Iris Murdoch but also an insight into the people around her and the times they were living in. The fact that the letters have been kept for over 80 years is in itself remarkable. I wonder – will we be keeping emails, texts, messaging or postings on Facebook in the same way in 2095?

Technology has changed the way we communicate and to some extent has diminished the art of writing. The letters from Iris Murdoch were considered and composed and not something that was thrown down as the thought occurred to her which is typical of the immediacy of today’s electronic communications.

Has technology also taken away from the art of writing music? Some composers still put pencil to manuscript, but many do not and this is not only because they choose to use technology, but often, also, because they have not learnt the manual writing skills.

Writing music using a computer is surprisingly recent. In the UK, twins Ben and Jonathan Finn created Sibelius 7 to be run on Acorn Computers whilst they were still at university in 1986. By 1998 it was transferred to Windows and Mac and by then the whole world was using it. Finale also came into being in 1988, using the Coda software.

Most of my concerts when I left the Royal Academy of Music, as a clarinettist specialising in British contemporary music, in the 1980’s, were performed from hand written scores. Many of these were clear and rather beautifully written but more, to be honest, were frustratingly illegible.

The act of setting pen or pencil to paper is so much part of a creative process and so very different from that of using a computer. How much, I wonder, has that influenced the art and nature of composition today?

Geraldine Allen

Silence Speaks

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Just a few seconds before 11am on Wednesday 11 November 2015, I was descending the steps into Kings Cross Underground Station in London when a voice came over the tannoy asking that we join with the staff of London Underground in 2 minutes silence to honour those people who had been killed in two world wars and more recent hostilities.

The effect was extraordinary – the people who heard the message hesitated for a moment and one by one stopped their journey and became still and silent. The seconds moved slowly and as new people arrived, they stopped and joined in the silent meditation. The effect was surreal: rather like a film where the action has been paused. And then just as surprisingly the voice came over the tannoy thanking us for joining in the time of remembrance and the film of life jerked into action and off we travelled again.

What will remain with me was the effect of that silence in a busy underground terminal and the way that it drew people together and held our shared attention, making the moment significant in a way that nothing else could.

The significance of silence is recognised by any performer, it is part of your technique of holding the audience with you. Silence is as much a part of the composer’s palette as the notes, and we the interpreters are responsible for inviting the listeners onto the musical canvas with us to be part of the composition in its entirety in both silence and sound.

What better example than John Cage’s 4’33” for solo piano, a period of total performing silence, but joining the attention of performer and audience and the ambience of the hall into the creative wholeness of the live performance.

I carry that silence on the underground with me now, both as a creative expression and also in remembrance, and all the more so as I think of what has happened over the last weekend to the people of Paris.

Geraldine Allen

Young Composer Voices in Cambridge

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10th November saw An Evening of New Music curated by young composers Jay Richardson and Alex Woolf, under the aegis of Young Composers’ Network*. Jay is reading Music at Pembroke College, Cambridge and Alex is in his final year at St John’s College, Cambridge. Both already have impressive CVs which include performances with national orchestras and broadcasts on national radio.

So much for introductions – now down to the music. A programme for violin, oboe, horn, piano, dancer and percussion in various combinations presented work by 7 young composers from ages 15 to 20. It was meaty stuff with highly committed performances from all musicians.

Sorry to say the percussionist, Lucy Landymore, who was performing her own work was taken ill at the last minute and that part of the programme had to be abandoned.

The other young woman composer represented in the programme, Alexia Sloane, lost her sight at the age of 2, but nothing daunted, is a chorister, recorder player, flautist, pianist and composer, this last activity being completely internalised and only brought to the page by an amanuensis.

The points to make about this programme are first the fact that it took place, with professionalism, vigour, originality and candour – nothing inhibited about these creators.

The sweep of styles, language and emotion combined with the confidence and craft were all extremely impressive.

The cross-discipline content of poetry and dance brought added dimensions.

The sense of sharing, outreach and communication was palpable and generous.

The calibre of the audience lent further credence to the occasion with not a few Profs and Dons and a good number of other experienced and serious-minded attendees.

Yes, it was too long and yes the programme would have gained by including timings for each piece – in any new work, you need to know the arc of time and attention that you are following.

Entertaining – highly.
Challenging – satisfyingly.
Worthwhile – undoubtedly.

I know – I was there!
Sarah Rodgers

*Cambridge Young Composers’ Network was set up by Dr Frankie Williams to encourage young people to write music. Projects and opportunities are run in partnership with Aldeburgh Young Musicians, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge Youth Music, Hills Road Sixth Form College and the Faculties of Music and Education at the University of Cambridge. For more information, contact

no pain, no passion

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So, today is the day after the day on which I should have started a new commission and I promised myself, come August 1st, I would put pencil to paper. It didn’t happen and I could give oh so many reasons why not – visitors (composer Ian McQueen and pianist Clive Swansbourne ) – distractions (Clive was stung by a wasp on his finger – not good for a pianist) – indulgence (too much amber nectar; well – cava, malt whiskey, wine and cognac actually, but don’t tell my doctor!) – over-exercising (had a work out session with personal trainer at the gym – my those sumo squats are something else!) – passionate thoughts about restructuring tutti. Long enough list? Enough of the obfuscation! If truth be told, it’s the same old, never goes away, dare I start? Of course I do, but how? I know, I’ll sharpen my pencils – that would be something like 300 so that should take an hour or so. Hmm, thirsty work – time for a cup of tea. Oh look, the acer is thirsty too, must water it. That reminds me, have I fed the orchid recently. Talking of feeding, what are we giving Ian and Clive for a dessert? and SO it goes on. This is the painful bit, but without it I won’t get to the passionate bit! Should I tell you what I am about to write? No, I think I had better wait until I get started – probably later today if all the pencils are sharp . . .

Sarah Rodgers

passionate confession

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Categories: composing today

I can’t believe the last post was in January!

My problem is too much, too big, too often – rather like over-eating, but in this case the bites are chunks of work that are demanding to chew. Take a typical day: start at 7.00am with a quick round of emails for overnight sales from around the world on tutti and then crosscheck these with transaction reports and backing; deal with customer queries and problems (not many of those thankfully!); pick up threads of unfinished items from yesterday or even the day before or even the week before, or in this case, 6 months before! – brief pause for sigh on passing thought that I will probably never catch up – yes that happens EVERY day – and then brighten up at thought that I can cross a few items off the ‘to do’ list. Most days there is a meeting to attend or to prepare for and this can range from a Board meeting at the mcps-prs-alliance (I’m a writer director on that one) to the management group at local church for community centre project (I’m chair of that one!) Spend some time updating pages on Impulse – hundreds of marketing and promotion-hungry composers and performers! Dash out to get to meeting – probably late (but only five minutes. Would love to stay for lunch, but, ‘no’, dash back to pick up some more threads. Prepare contract for latest commission – lovely opportunity to compose a new work for thriving choral society – chorus, string quartet and harp – can’t wait to get started on that one (been saying that for a few months now, but have promised myself to get going in August – not too far around the corner!) Have a big think about developing tutti to include itunes – really important step for classical CD suppliers – talking of which, there is a brilliant Szymanowski (that’s shoe-man-of-ski)on the tutti homepage at the moment – here it is: Complete Piano Music

Oops! have I remembered to eat today? and so it goes on. Anyway, I’m not asking for your sympathy, just a bit of slack in the fall off from blogging. Am now going to work this into the early morning routine. I know, you’ll believe it when you see it. Well I always did like a challenge – passionate about it you might say!

Sarah Rodgers

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