Category Archives: the news


(Shropshire) A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting beautiful Lithuania for the first time. Under the auspices of the 15th Music Theory Conference sponsored jointly by the Lithuanian Composers Union and the Lithuanian Academy for Music and Theatre, the three-day event featured a small but very stimulating and congenial group of composers and academics from across Europe, with nine different countries represented. The conference has always had the subtitle “Principles of Composing”, each year focusing on a particular aspect of the art, and this year the theme centered on the phenomenon of melody. I delivered a paper which further developed the more melody-centric aspects of my recently-completed thesis commentaries for the PhD at Durham, but of course this also gave me an opportunity to explore some related issues which have arisen in the months since I submitted that work for examination. I’ll upload the paper here to the website when I’ve finished a couple of revisions and added some material that I couldn’t get into the 20 minute paper session. My thanks to all the organisers, faculty and students of the Union and the Academy; it was great to experience the warm, close-knit familial atmosphere which permeates the Vilnius new music scene!

Speaking of which: Vilnius is an realllllly interesting city for the casual tourist as well. Boxed in and around the confluence of two rivers (the Neris and the Vilnia) and surrounded by low hills on all sides, the modest skyline north of the Neris highlights some of the newer development (bank buildings, swanky blocks of flats) which has occurred in the years since independence. Just south of the Neris lies the smallish Old Town (originally a ghetto area, as my expat guide informed me), which contains the University, Presidential Palace, Art Academy, and many more cultural and government institutions of interest. On the hilltops west of the centre, the needle of the Vilnius Television Tower still provides a distant reference point for the tourist. As with other cities I’ve visited in Eastern Europe, there are still ample opportunities to encounter some intriguing echoes of the Soviet days, usually coming in the form of grim-looking blocks of flats, office buildings, or bits of public art languishing in empty piazzas, extolling popular Soviet themes (workers, industry, agriculture, political figures). As I’d seen in advance during my online research, the local beers were all really really good, and very inexpensive (500ml / €0.75). Count me in again for next year!

New music for a new generation.

(DURHAM) It’s been a busy few months. Looking back on the year so far, I’m certainly most proud of the outreach work that my colleague Mark Carroll and I have been doing in a couple of schools in County Durham. We offered a series of sessions with pre-GCSE students (around 13 years of age) at Wellfield School and Shotton Hall Academy, with another cohort coming in from Seaham – in all about 50 students were involved, dipping their toes in the waters of 20th/21st century music history and practice. We had a fantastic time with them, sparking their interest in the myriad possibilities available to the modern composer. Yesterday we finished off the programme series with a concert by Durham Uni’s current ensemble in residence, Ensemble 7Bridges, who played a concert of completely new pieces by Durham composers. For many of the students (almost all of whom are from the northeast), it was their first time to visit a university music school. Needless to say, they were very excited and it was such a treat to show them round, let them interact with the performers and composers, and to give them a small taste of what it’s like to prepare a concert of new music with professional musicians. Many thanks to Durham University for their generous Seedcorn Grant which funded the project!

Thinkin’ bout medium-range polyrhythms.

(DURHAM) Starting to outline a new piece for trio and computer, I find myself once again in front of some nearly-blank A4 sheets on my clipboard, trying to ask the hard questions. What’s the big idea? What’s the global structure, or at least an initial conception of it? Ensemble roles? Texture? Temporal characteristics? What should the computer do?

Of course, these kinds of questions are on my mind all the time. I’ve been preoccupied by the use of medium-range polyrhythms for a couple of years now, first creating them between two pulses in low-integer ratios with a shared pulse unit, most often the quaver. A bit of background: I made a few pieces over several years using shared-quaver pulses of 3:5:7:9 as a local structural determinant (Safety In Numbers, Immortal Witness, Mare Insularum, Mare Orientale), with interesting results. More recently I’ve moved on to experimenting with higher-integer ratios such as 21:25, creating polyrhythms that don’t share a common pulse unit. Mare Marginis, written last summer for the Ives Ensemble, was my most elaborate exploration of this approach, using a polyrhythm of 21:25 which cycled in 35-bar units. This is what I mean by the term “medium-range polyrhythm” – a juxtaposition of two pulse streams which are mutually prime and complete their cycle in some period, usually 30 and 90 seconds of music, which is substantially less than the total duration of the piece.

Working with higher-integer ratios which must be notated for performers brings up several issues, first and foremost the question of beat division and how that will be achieved in a practical way. If one is making music strictly for computer then this is, of course, not an issue at all; the computer can happily perform any polyrhythmic ratios you can imagine, with no thought for irrational values. If you want to divide one beat by 14.35, then you just tell the computer to do it. For human performers, we need to think quite a bit more conservatively, and here is where the interesting challenge comes in: how to coordinate the computer (which can perform complex rhythmic ratios at all temporal levels), with the ensemble, who are pretty much limited to beat divisions (depending on the tempo) of 2, 3, 5 (and their multiples), and 7?

On a totally different note: here is a nice little game which I somehow managed to win after getting myself two pawns down. I was playing against Deep HIARCS 14, when I should have been paying attention to some undergraduate workshops, but never mind:

New work. Lecture at The Sage.

(SNODS EDGE) A quiet, autumnal atmosphere gently descends here on the moors of the northeast, and I’m sketching out the formal plan for my new project: a quintet for the Ives Ensemble, who will be coming over to Durham from Amsterdam at the end of November. I can’t say too much about it at the moment, but I think it’s going to be pretty intense. After the diaphanous lightness of atmosphere that generally defined my recently-completed series of four pieces for chamber ensemble, Maria Lunarem, this piece will be going deep and dark. I’m using only a portion of the ensemble, selecting only the mid- and low-range instruments: cor anglais, piano, viola, cello, and double bass. More information to follow as the piece develops!

For those of you in the Newcastle / Gateshead area: I’ll be giving a one-hour lecture, a “Beginner’s Guide To Contemporary Music” at The Sage on October 8th at 19:00. This is part of their fantastic Exploring Music series. Come listen as we take a whirlwind tour of some of the most vibrant and exciting pieces of 20th (and 21st) century music! It looks like you have to book tickets; have a look here to reserve your place.

By Measure.

(DURHAM) My good friend Billie Howard has a lot of irons in the fire. She’s certainly one of the most creatively diverse musicians that I know. In addition to her various music projects (NbN Trio, The Paver, Girl Group, among many others) she does a fantastic blog which explores the spaces in which musicians live and work. Whilst she was over visiting us from Chicago a couple of months ago, she took the opportunity to get some photos of my studio and to ask me a few questions. Check her out!

Concert update. Immigration.

(SNODS EDGE) Here is the poster I made for the upcoming Ensemble 7Bridges debut concerts in Huddersfield and at The Sage, Gateshead. Just twelve days to go! If you’re in the northeast of England around the 18th and 19th of May, why not treat yourself to seriously good new-music juiciness? Take a gander at this:

Ensemble 7Bridges A4 (lo-res)

In other news, I learned last week that my application for a UK residence card was refused on the grounds that I hadn’t sufficiently proved that I’m eligible for this type of permit, despite the fact that I’ve already essentially *got* one in advance of our arrival here last July…sigh. It’s complicated, having wholly to do with EU treaty regulations that apply to our specific situation (having moved to the UK from another EU member state), and the fact that my wife is British, and was employed in said EU state (The Netherlands). This particular residence card (the so-called ‘EEA Family Permit’) should be a fantastic deal for me as it’s free, unlike the sort of visa for which a Yank would normally have to apply, which costs upwards of 800 pounds. So far, so simple, right? The problem is that no one at the UKBA (UK Border Agency) seems to know much about this permit (‘Oh, it’s that EU stuff; not really sure about that, mate. Sorry I can’t help you..’) and after you apply you can’t get any information about what’s happening. The most frustrating thing about the process is that they actually take your passport, effectively trapping you in the country whilst they review your application. In my case, this has taken four months with the result being a refusal, for which I now have to appeal (meaning possibly another four-month wait, during which I have no way to leave the UK). The funny thing is, to get the EEA Family Permit you have to initially apply for an entry clearance visa (a full-page sticker in your passport) from your country of origin, in my case The Netherlands, during which process they check everything that was supposedly checked during this most recent phase of the process. I got this initial entry clearance last May (2012) with no problems. So: given that I successfully obtained an entry clearance, why should there be any need for them to check those same documents *again* now, just to obtain a residence card? And how is it possible that suddenly there isn’t enough evidence that G was working in Holland, despite the fact that we included official copies of her employment contracts in the application? This all has the stink of fussy, lumbering bureaucracy, and I absolutely HATE it.

Mare Undarum. Ensemble 7Bridges.

(WEST RAYNHAM) Finished a quintet a couple of weeks ago, another in my “Lunar seas” series. I’ve now begun work on a trio for flute, viola, and piano which may be the final instalment. The instrumentation for each of these pieces is different, but they are all derived from the instrumentation of a piece I wrote for a workshop by the Ives Ensemble last year, “Mare Orientale.” The idea is that you could play all four pieces (when this last trio is complete, of course) in one half of a concert, comprising about 24 minutes of music, ordering them such that you begin with cello solo (Mare Insularum), then move on to the trio (Mare Marginis — in progress), the quintet (Mare Undarum), and finish with the octet (Mare Orientale). Of course, the pieces may also be performed individually or in other groupings. I’m in love with these pieces! The feel of time in each one is very individual, delicate, and controlled, whilst at the same time feeling very dynamic, almost improvisatory at times. It’s quite something. I love my job!

In other news, I’ve been asked by the newly-formed new music group Ensemble 7Bridges to perform the part of narrator for a Tom Johnson piece on their debut concerts at The Sage (Gateshead) and in Huddersfield, coming up in mid-May. E7B will also workshop my newly-completed “Mare Undarum” at Durham University next month. It’s exciting to start a new music ensemble, especially one which will be based in an area such as the northeast of England, a region that remains quite under-served in terms of contemporary music and art. Good times ahead! I’ll post information on those concerts when I have more details.

Had a good time in London last weekend with my friend Billie, a musician from Chicago whom I knew from our former days in Montana. She’d never been to London, so we had a ball doing the usual tourist things, also managing to find some cool, out-of-the-way markets, cocktail bars and restaurants. Good Japanese food. Finally saw the Tate Modern. We’ll be welcoming her to our neck of the woods in Northumberland on Tuesday, after she returns from Berlin.

Winter woodshedding.

(SNODS EDGE) Sitting in the Punch Bowl. This is our cozy local, nestled in the village of Edmundbyers (about three miles from our place), perched on the edge of the Pennines. It’s been a strange couple of weeks. With the snow storm that stretched across Britain and across the North Sea to Holland, we were snow-bound for about six days, finally able to get the car out last Saturday for a much-needed shop.

Work-wise, I’ve been focussed on some in-depth study of the SuperCollider programming language, a language which I’ve used for nearly all of my sound processing and synthesis since 2006. While I have attained some real fluency in the language, I’ve been in dire need of a re-think of my approach and coding technique for the last couple of years; it’s just never been a good time for an overhaul. I’ve always been under pressure to just get projects completed on time and I don’t use electronics/SC for every piece that I make. I know that there are ways to write my code more efficiently, make it more modular and flexible. To this end, I’ve been re-visiting the fantastic SuperCollider Book, particularly the chapters on object modelling, sonification, and “just-in-time” programming. During last autumn’s POW Ensemble tour, we did a piece by Wouter Snoei, who is quite an expert with SuperCollider. Examining his approach to design has really been a help as well. Compositionally, as I move from a non-realtime-synthesis / data processing focus into more interactive arenas, it seems a natural time to take a step back, study a bit and take my programming to the next level.

In the York area next week? Why not check out the Supernatant Music Technology Seminars happening at Rymer Auditorium? I’ll see you there.

Boggy Laws.

(SNODS EDGE) Just returned from a walk up around Ingram, Northumberland, just off the A697 south of Wooler. The area is beautiful and feels quite remote (at least as “remote” as one can get in the lower-to-middle portions of this island), and is notable for the scattered remains of hilltop settlements that date back some 2500 years and beyond. We parked on the River Breamish just past Ingram and walked southwest directly up Brough Law (“Laws” being “hills” in the old Anglo-Saxon) to reach the ruins of several enormous rings constructed of dry-stone wall at the summit. The views off to the west were stunning, with snow-lines visible on the higher moors to the south and west. At the top of Cochrane Pike, the midway point of our loop, we had proper fat-flake snow for about five minutes! It really was a lovely day, with dramatic snow / sleet clouds moving past us on all sides, with frequent sunbursts and hundreds of sheep and cows grazing the fields around. Shame about the bogginess. Being a Montana boy, I’m no stranger to outdoor hikes and hill / mountain walking, but nothing could have prepared me for the sheer wetness of the muddy / mucky / slurpy ground here in Britain. The main problem is that I haven’t actually managed to get proper boots yet. While many of the cross-moor trails we’ve walked are marked reasonably well, the concept of the well-trodden trail is frequently all too rare a concept up here in the northeast, and one often has to simply wing it and go cross-country to reach a landmark which is recognisable from your Ordnance Survey map. The moorland up here is quite peaty and full of heather, bracken and gorse, with not a little bit of tufty long grass which is most excellent at disguising hidden soggy-boggies: how many times I’ve blundered into one, or more often, simply been forced to wade in due to the lack of any obvious alternate route. Real waterproof ankle-supporting boots with socks and gators are clearly a must, and not simply for the fashion conscious. Today, the legs of my jeans looked like a Pollock; completely soaked through by the time we’d finally made it round.

And now we’re back home with the Saturday papers and a glass of tokaji (thanks, Kinga!) and a roast chicken with stuffing and then maybe some Thomas Pynchon. Stay warm, everyone. It’s getting cold out there…