2017....a good year!Read Now
Five years ago I decided to have a renaissance.
I have always written music ever since I was about six years old, it's just what I do! However, following some success in my late teens/early twenties I had three children in very quick succession and drowned under a tsunami of terry nappies. It is fair to say that, whilst still writing....often by candlelight in the caravan outside, I may not have produced by best work...
The boys are now 18, 19 and 20 (and 28) and over the past few years I have been delighted to find that people still seem to like my music! So this blog is a reflection on what the year has brought and how my renaissance is going....
I didn't really like secondary school. In fact, I really didn't like secondary school. I got banned from the music rooms just before my Grade VIII piano by a headmistress who seemed excessively keen for me to go and play with Cindy dolls in the playground.
I didn't. Three reasons;
i) I needed to play the piano.
ii) Dolls. Seriously? Teddy bear girl all the way....
iii) Why were 14 year old girls playing with Cindy dolls?!
So on the first day of Hampshire Music Service's "Heard Differently - Dickens Recomposed" as composer in residence in January I admit to being a little nervous about working with two classes of Year 9s, (although obviously I didn't let on to anyone at the time.) But you know what? They were brilliant!
From the first session with Professor Holly Furneaux to the final multi media performance at Milestones Museum in Basingstoke they were positive, focused and hugely musically creative. The final pieces, about Miss Havisham and Inspector Bucket, included music from every pupil, either live performance, composed songs or a collaborative Garage Band soundtrack to the film footage they had made. They were an absolute pleasure to work with and I know they (and we) were very proud of what they created!
January also saw the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of a short programme about JOURNEYS, my piece reflecting on the ongoing Refugee Crisis for Chiltern Youth Chamber Orchestra commissioned by the Adopt a Composer scheme 2015/16.
In February I returned to Bristol to hear the outcome of the instrumental pieces commissioned as part of the Old Hispanic Office project at Bristol University. Wonderful new pieces by composers including Miranda Driessen, Mauro Agagliate and Mathias Vestergard. It was fascinating to see how divergent the musical outcomes were from a single point of departure! (More on The Old Hispanic project later). In other news I Musical Directed Phantom of the Opera and had some really useful meetings with Adrienne....of which more later.
March was a busy month....at one point I had to set up an Excel spreadsheet to see how everything could fit! First up was "Paschalia", commissioned by Choir & Organ magazine and premiered by Rupert Gough at Royal Holloway. "Heard Differently" culminated in the performance at Milestones, "Dawn. Brussels. October 12th 1915", a piece for double choir, organ and trumpet, received a fabulous premiere by Selwyn College Choir (with thanks to Sarah MacDonald), conducted by Michael Bawtree as part of JAM's Music of Our Time concert. (You can listen here). In true jet-set style I then flew up to Aberdeen for a workshop with the fabulous Juice Vocal Ensemble and also the premiere of Thomas LaVoy's Endless.
Another exciting day was the Martin Read Foundation workshop. I am honoured to be a trustee of MRF, a charity that supports young composers through funding, tuition and professional performances. The workshops were an opportunity for our selected young composers to hear their draft pieces work-shopped by a professional clarinet and piano duo (Broncano-Mnich) prior to their first performance at the Martin Read Festival in May. We certainly have some names to listen out for in the future.....know any young composers? Point them to www.martinreadfoundation.org.
May saw the MRFestival, a wonderful day of contemporary music making featuring premieres of works by our supported composers. "THEY", a choir piece written for Chris Hutching's Choirs Against Racism project was performed in Nottingham, and my Vespers inspired by the medieval "Old Hispanic Office" were premiered in a concert by Bristol Cathedral Choir and Christchurch Cathedral Choir (Oxford) alongside other choral works commissioned as part of the Old Hispanic Office Project (Bristol University) led by the fabulous Emma Hornby. (You can listen to this performance here.) We (my huisband and I) also had a very hot weekend at Lechlade Festival playing rocking English Folk with our band Mad Magdalen....my teenage self cringed as we (may have) tried to smuggle prossecco onto the festival site....I'm glad to report no such poor behaviour at Wessex Folk Festival in June due to an excellent and very good value fruit cider and real ale stall.
My Magnificat (a response to Arvo Part's Nunc Dimittis) was beautifully performed by The Cantus Ensemble (dir. Dominic Brennan) in London in July, alongside pieces by two other outstanding composers, Janet Wheeler and Sarah Rimkus. You can hear this on my Listen Page.
In August I had a number of mini choir rehearsals and development meetings with the absolutely fabulous Adrienne Morgan. It is always a privilege to be able to work with a choir to develop ideas and the sessions reading through the draft scores and ideas, both with the mini-choir made up of Adrienne's friends and relatives and with the whole London Concert Choir were vital in developing the final score (and text and title) for "A Light Not Yet Ready To Go Out (An Affirmation), due for performance in March this year. (Tickets here). It has been a pleasure and a huge responsibility writing this piece. Adrienne lives with metastatic breast cancer and wanted to commission a piece that dwelt on the important things in life whilst not ignoring the darkest moments. It was not under any circumstances to be "hippy". Over several meetings (and excellent soup) we honed the text and tried out musical ideas and I think we are really proud of what we have produced. The piece will be available through Composers Edition in SATB, SSA, 2 Part and One part choir (with piano/organ accompaniment) versions in the hope that as many choirs as possible (of all abilities) can access it with proceeds from the sale of the sheet music/downloads going to support the amazing work of Breast Cancer Now.
On a different note (pardon the pun) the month ended with a great afternoon listening to The Rafters, a five piece folk band from Hampshire and actually one of my very favourite bands. I admit to being biased as my son (the 20 year old one with long dreadlocks) is one of the members but their five part vocal harmonies are just sublime....and their instrumental skills are pretty good too (even if they do keep "borrowing" Mad Magdalen songs....)
In October I was really pleased to be asked to deliver a couple of sessions at the Hampshire Music Service Secondary Music Conference, one about "Heard Differently" centred on using technology in the classroom and one about Practical Composition. I also took up post as accompanist to Luminosa Young Voices, a youth choir in Hampshire that is teaching children to love singing and work to a really professional standard whilst having fun. It has subsequently become one of the highlights of my week, despite a bit of a car accident (totally not my fault), on the way to rehearsal in January this year. I was also delighted to have two songs for mezzo and piano premiered at King's Place as part of the Women of the World Festival - what an excellent event!
November saw my next visit to Aberdeen (where I am a PhD candidate) for tutorials with Paul Mealor and Philip Cooke and a workshop with the incredible BBC Singers. I have to say I thoroughly enjoy being a student again for a few weeks a year and am looking forward to returning imminently. Composition is basically a solitary occupation and I find it really useful having other people shining a light on my work (and hearing the work of so many other contemporary composers).
"Rosarium" for upper voices was performed for the first time by Dulciana in Dublin in December conducted by the very talented Eoghan Desmond. Based on the medieval concept of a "garland of roses" it sets five short texts related to the Virgin Mary as rose.
So, it has been a busy year and I would like to think my renaissance is coming on nicely. All the boys were home for Christmas (so I didn't do much composing on 25th December!). I am about to go back to Secondary School for a project about War Art, have a piece being performed in Nashville Tennessee as I write this and another in California in May, "Love in Idleness" for harp won the Future Blend Project in January, I have been commissioned to write a piece for Hampshire Youth Choir for a service of peace and reconciliation at Winchester Cathedral in June and am very much looking forward to the premiere of "A Light Not Yet Ready To Go Out" in March.
Thank you to everyone who has helped in my journey so far. Here's to 2018 being another good year!
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Alison Willis is a composer and musician based in the East of England.