Three Questions: Twisted Lounge’s Elaine Mitchener

March 24, 2014

Ahead of her appearance at Sounds New 2014, I put Three Questions to Twisted Lounge’s Elaine Mitchener.

Tell us about yourself.

I am a classically trained vocalist noted for mixing vocal styles drawing from sources as varied as contemporary new music, gospel, soul, jazz, and experimental/free improvisation. I am honoured to have had the chance to perform with and learn from some of the leading figures in the field of free jazz, contemporary new music, free-improv… I won’t name names here but for those interested please visit my website here.

Elaine Mitchener

Elaine Mitchener

What excites you about contemporary music ?

I am excited by great performances of contemporary music by artists committed to what they’re doing, communicating it and taking us on that journey with them. By contemporary I do not necessarily or only mean contemporary classical new music, but a much wider musical context.

What can we expect from your visit to Sounds New in May ?

Expect the unexpected! Okay, do not come with any expectations, be open to the experience.

Elaine performs with the Brodsky Quartet and Matt Wright as part of the Robert Wyatt Project at Sounds New on May 5th. Find out more about the event online here.

Image credit: Wallpaper.

Promotion, presentation and the arts: a call for wider thinking

January 31, 2014

There’s a question percolating on Twitter this morning in connection with a talk to be given by Andrew Burke, Chief Executive of the London Sinfonietta, as part of an event organised by The People’s Salon next month:

Is contemporary music just aping some of the promotion and presentation tricks of the visual arts or are we more willing to take risks as contemporary music audiences?

Now, aside from the loaded terminology being used here – ‘aping’ and ‘just’ being burdened with negative connotations – the question itself presumes that particular aspects of advertising and presenting events are the sole prerogative of particular art-forms. This can be tricky territory; pigeon-holing the language of advertising serves only to perpetuate its clichés.

I realise, of course, than the language of advertising needs to be tempered specifically to its target audience: the tone of promoting a Saga Holiday for the over-50’s is rather different to that used to sell high-energy drinks to athletes. And not everything works across different art-forms. The giant fibreglass statues of Michael Jackson, one of which was floated down the River Thames in 1995 to promote the HIStory tour, might not be right for a new recording by John Eliot Gardiner;

Funky dollar bill...

Funky dollar bill…

That iconic baby-chasing-a-dollar-bill image on the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind might not work to sell the next Dudamel disc (although if anyone uses the idea, you read it here first…). And in the current economic climate, it might be seen as excessively profligate to repeat The KLF’s stunt in 1994 of burning a million dollars. There are many pages on Andy Doe’s marvellous blog, Proper Discord, devoted to classical album covers that don’t work.

But that doesn’t mean that only pop culture has the right to use these methods. And the idea of classical concerts needing to be enshrined in concert-halls before devoted admirers is now obsolete. Festivals and organisations are looking elsewhere. To give but two examples: last year, the London Contemporary Music Festival enthralled audiences (according to the festival website, over 5,000 people) in a car-park in Peckham, embracing a vibrantly eclectic mix of events, including contemporary and electronic music, dance and improvisation and serving up works by Xenakis and Ligeti. The Park Avenue Armory in New York saw over seventy musicians filling the former drill hall with John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit as part of the Tune-In Festival in 2011.

All this is to say that what we really need is wider thinking beyond a sense that you can only deploy certain marketing for certain art-forms, and particular types of events can only take place in specific venues. Innovation is key: thinking of ways to engage audiences with culture shouldn’t see us rattling around in the same wooden boxes, limited to well-trodden campaigns that are deemed appropriate only because their use is enshrined in advertising history.  Andy Warhol saw through that back in the 60s; so can we.

Dan Harding is Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Follow Dan on Twitter.

Im memoriam: Henri Dutilleux

May 22, 2013

Sad news announced that the composer Henri Dutilleux has died at the age of ninety-seven.

Here’s his ravishing, euphoric Mystère de  l’instant, written in 1989.


Image: Schott

Read more about the beguiling, colourful and evocative soundworld of Henri Dutilleux in Tom Service’s blog for The Guardian here.

Hotter than July: contemporary music at this year’s Prom

April 18, 2013

This year’s BBC Proms season has now been announced, and there’s a veritable feast of contemporay music on offer this year. Continue reading

Three Questions: CoMA London Ensemble

April 17, 2013

Ahead of its visit to Sounds New on May 4th, I caught up with Liz Herbert, co-ordinator for the CoMA London ensemble, to find out what’s in store.

Tell us about your ensemble.

LH:  CoMA London Ensemble is one of CoMA‘s (Contemporary Music for All)  many ensembles around the country. There are no auditions, and our ensemble has players of mixed ability, some very good indeed. The ensemble is run by an elected committee of playing members. We meet every Tuesday evening and give about four concerts each year. We play only new music, most of which has been written specifically for CoMA ensembles using flexible scoring, by established or emerging composers.

What excites you about contemporary music ?

LH: Contemporary music is always unexpected; we enjoy exploring pieces which haven’t been played before and also working with composers, trying out pieces in different ways and hearing what they had in mind. The music we play is very varied and usually quite challenging.

What can we expect from your visit to Sounds New next month ?

LH: Our plan is to spend the day workshopping and performing some pieces written for the CoMA London Ensemble by composition students at Canterbury Christchurch University. Our music director, Gregory Rose, visited the University and gave a talk about writing flexibly-scored work for amateur players, and some of the students are now writing pieces for the event on May 4th. We will also be playing some of our past CoMA repertoire to demonstrate some pieces which have used the flexible scoring in different ways.

CoMA London cond. Gregory Rose, at Sounds New in 2012

CoMA London cond. Gregory Rose, at Sounds New in 2012

Many leading  composers have written for CoMA including Philip Cashian, Jonathan Harvey, Stephen Montague, Michael Nyman, Alwynne Pritchard and Sir John Tavener, and works for CoMA have been honoured at the British Composer Awards. Sounds New is delighted to welcome CoMA London ensemble back, after their visit last year with conductor Gregory Rose (pictured).

From the archive: What the flock: audiences for contemporary music

April 10, 2013

(Originally posted on 13 March, 2012).

I was heartened by an article in The Guardian a few weeks ago, which proclaimed that ‘difficult’ concert programmes are attracting audiences in their droves, and that contemporary music audiences are actually in robust health (Audiences flock to ‘difficult’ contemporary classical music, 30 January; click here to read). Alex Needham`s article paints a portrait of people turning out in their droves to a plethora of modern works being programmed over the coming months, from a festival of Minimalism in Scotland to political opera in Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer at ENO and to the Glass/Wilson libretto-less marathon, Einstein on the Beach.

20130401-172847.jpgPeople have been proclaiming the decline of contemporary classical music ever since the avant-garde were thought to have lost touch with their audiences in the twentieth century. The image of the high-minded composer writing difficult works, deliberately antagonistic to audiences, and uncaring as to whether people came to listen to them or not, is an enduring one, trotted out whenever pundits want to paint a depressing picture of an art-form increasingly in decline. Or so they would have us believe.

But contemporary composers aren`t like that anymore. It may have been desirable, in the middle of the last century, to write music in Darmstadt that sought to alienate listeners, and, as Needham mentions, if your concert attracted more than thirty people in the audience, it had to be immediately rejected as populist and therefore deplorable; but these days, composers are striking a balance between pursuing their own inner vision which may indeed involve a challenging musical language, with finding ways actually to draw audiences in, instead of turning them away.

Turnage in particular has managed to combine a musical vocabulary rich in wild textures and shrieking harmonies with a self-confessed love of James Brown, Tower of Power, jazz-funk and pop tunes to create pieces which audiences notice; Blood on the Floor, with its improvising jazz trio at the heart of a modern ensemble; the piece Hammered Out at last year`s Proms wrong-footed a few critics, who failed to notice its roots in Beyoncé when younger audiences got it immediately. Fair enough, his choice of salacious, head-line generating subject matter in the opera Anna Nicole may have been a shrewd move, but within the brash music he wrote for the piece, there lurk some affecting melodies, deft jazz writing, and even a moving aria or two.

Festival programmers are responding to this desire for new music. The ravishing orchestra-meets-electronics vision of Jonathan Harvey was celebrated in a `Total Immersion` weekend at the Barbican; one is also devoted to Australian composer Brett Dean, and a similar festival will focus on the music of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt.

As the composer John Adams observed in his autobiography, there was a time when nineteenth-century concert-going audiences expected to hear new works at concerts, and were actually disappointed when they didn’t (Faber, 2008:48). Some shrewd programming by Simon Rattle, when at the helm of the CBSO, would see him sandwiching challenging modern works between classical staples of the repertoire, such that he was able to champion composers such as Turnage, keeping this tradition alive and cannily using programmes of better-known works to introduce audiences to contemporary pieces at the same time.

People will always proclaim the ‘death of classical music’ or harp on about its dwindling appeal and declining audience numbers. But a closer look at what’s happening across the UK – with festivals of contemporary music ranging from here in Canterbury in the south across to the Huddersfield or Edinburgh Festivals in the north – suggests that the truth may be a lot healthier than you think.

Posted by Daniel Harding

From the archive: Let’s Get Lost: the thrill of the unknown in music

April 1, 2013

I was reminded of the title of Bruce Weber’s documentary on the life of Chet Baker when reading John Terauds’ feature on Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach on his vibrant blog, ‘Musical Toronto’ recently. The Glass-Wilson libretto-less opera was being given its Canadian première in June, and Terauds asks if the work’s success is in part due to the fact that, as an audience, there is nothing that we have to understand in the work: as Wilson himself has apparently said, it’s ‘a work where you can go and get lost.’

20130401-100349.jpgAs Terauds observes, ”I wonder how many people who buy tickets for a new piece of music or theatre, or who buy a novel from a first-time author — any situation where one can’t see beyond the curtain or the cover until the act of engaging with the creator(s) has begun — are able to commit such a leap of faith?”

In an age of high consumerism, where buyers demand value for money, contemporary art and contemporary music in particular can be a risky venture; putting on contemporary works and premières, launching new commissions, and performing new repertoire does seem to ask potential audiences to trust that they will be experiencing something worthwhile, something valuable which will widen their cultural horizons. There’s perhaps a feeling that, if consumers don’t know what they will be getting, then they’ll be unwilling to risk investing in a ticket for a concert when they aren’t familiar with the actual product beforehand. There is a certain sense in this: as purchasers, we don’t want to waste our money on something if we are unsure what it will provide; instead, we turn to those products with which we are already familiar, safe in the knowledge that we know what we’re in for, and that we like it.

But being uncertain about a concert, about a new piece, or about a new composer, can also be terrifically exciting. Instead of hearing the same old warhorse from the Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition that you’ve heard before, and instead of knowing in advance the range of emotional highs and lows that you customarily experience during a piece, your emotional spectrum is now a blank canvas, waiting to receive a new work and be led through a previously unchartered emotional landscape. With familiar works, you know that you’ll cry at that phrase, or start getting excited at that point where the brass come in, or that a particular chord or harmonic passage will make your heart stop; but with a new work, you don’t know where the music will take you.

Sometimes, you listen to pieces with which you are familiar because you want that emotional experience you know that piece provides. For me, it’s a particular phrase in Gabriel Jackson’s gloriously colourful motet O sacrum con vivium,for instance, that occurs four times, growing louder with each repetition until I find it overwhelming; the slow and stately opening to the final movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, with hypnotic piano chords and that yearning violin;

Or there’s the open horn-chord and urgent strings ostinato that kick-starts Walton’s First Symphony, or the ‘Infernal Dance’ in Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite that thrums with the menace of deep-throbbing strings and timpani, both of which immediately set the pulse racing. I turn to these pieces when I feel ready to experience the emotional odyssey they offer.

But there’s a sense of excitement in the new as well. I can still recall the first time I heard Antheil’s Ballet mecanique, George Crumb’s Black Angels, Reich’s The Desert Music; all concerts that will resonate with me for years.

In return for surrendering your certainty, there’s the potential for undergoing a new emotional experience, the chance to revel in a new sound-world and be taken both aurally and emotionally across a new, unchartered landscape. It may well require, as Terauds puts it, a ‘leap of faith;’ but the rewards can be worth it.

Come to Sounds New, or indeed to any music festival or concert offering the chance to hear new work; surrender your certainty, and be prepared for a new experience. You won’t be disappointed.

(Originally posted on 15 April, 2012)

Reach for the stars: recent events at the festival

May 13, 2012

It’s been an epic few days across the Festival recently, ranging from intimate recitals to transcendental meditative states in Canterbury Cathedral.

Rhona McKail

Rhona McKail

Day seven on Thursday saw a lunchtime recital In Praise of Dreams with soprano Rhona McKail and pianist Yshani Perinpanayagam in their lunchtime recital, before the focus shifted out to the Turner Contemporary gallery at Margate for the world premiere of Les Malèdictions d’une Furie, a monodrama by John Croft performed by Loré Lixenberg. Prior to the performance, both Croft and Lixenberg appeared in conversation with Festival Director, Paul Edlin.

New Perspectives ensemble

New Perspectives ensemble

Friday’s lunchtime concert was a sonic exploration in the youthful company of the New Perspectives ensemble, in the chamber-ensemble-meets-electronics world of Jonathan Harvey’s Bhakti; young performers from the Royal College of Music, conducted by Timothy Lines, bathed the audience in the rich colours of Harvey’s unique and visionary soundworld. St Gregory’s was full to bursting for the concert, to the extent that festival assistants were having to put out extra chairs as audience members continued to arrive right up until the concert began.

The visionary nature of the day continued into the evening, as Canterbury Cathedral echoed to the sounds of John Tavener’s The Veil of the Temple, an large-scale meditative work for which the composer himself, in frail health, made the pilgrimage to Canterbury. Nigel Short led Tenebrae and members of the English Chamber Orchestra in Tavener’s epic, all-embracing pan-religious odyssey, which after its two-and-three-quarter-hour performance was greeted with rapturous applause. (The composer himself can be seen seated in the front row on the left in the photo below).

Veil of the Temple

Veil of the Temple

Yesterday’s events continued the journey into the stars, with Darrah Morgan Exploding Stars in works for violin and electronics, including the premiere of Jonty Harrisons’ Some of its Parts. Earlier in the morning, composer Frank Lyons ranged freely over an eclectic range of musical styles in a composition workshop. Top-brass came to the Festival in the evening, as the Grimethorpe Colliery Band (wryly observing on Twittter earlier in the day that they were en route to a ‘local gig’) came to the Cathedral with a programme including John McCabe’s Cloudcatcher Fells and an arrangements for brass of Holst’s The Planets, which, in its original incarnation as Paul Edlin observed, remains one of the previous century’s most influential works.

Against the backdrop of all this, the New Music in Britain conference unfolded in a series of papers and talks exploring aspects of the British contemporary musical landscape and papers focusing on key composers including Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies.

And it doesn’t stop there. There are still three days yet to come, with today’s celebration of Worldwide Mother’s Day in a feast of family events at the Gulbenkian, and a visit from legendary British jazz pianist Julian Joseph tonight.


Images: Peter Cook

Oh Captain, my Captain: interview with Peter Cook

May 2, 2012

The first day of May saw me talking with Peter Cook, the Education Project Manager for Sounds New, jazz saxophonist, teacher, and self-styled ‘Fleet Commander’ (you’ll have to listen to the interview for the explanation for that one!).

20130410-152311.jpgThe educational aspect of Sounds New is a crucial part of the festival’s mission, to engage younger audiences with contemporary music, to find ways in which they can participate in and respond to it. ‘’That’s really the big vision of Sounds New,’’ Peter remarks later in the interview, ‘’to really engage young people now in the music of our time, and for them to be the performers and composers [of tomorrow].’’ As he goes on to explain, different projects encourage people to respond in different ways to Sounds New, through not just music but other art-forms, as part of a wider remit in getting them thinking about contemporary music.

There’s a huge range of projects taking place as part of Sounds New’s educational outreach, with events unfolding all year round, feeding into, and developing ideas associated with, the festival itself.

Here, Peter talks about why helping to bring contemporary music to young audiences is important both to Sounds New and to him, and looks ahead to some of the events occurring this year.

With thanks to Peter.

Only Connect: the Festival launch and dancing with Death

March 22, 2012

There was an expectant audience and an eager buzz at last night’s gathering to launch this year’s Sounds New Festival. The majestic atrium of Augustine House was abuzz with visitors and distinguished guests leafing through this year’s new brochure, hunting for favourite composers, major works or big-name performers coming to Canterbury this May.

The welcome address from Ian Odgers, Chairman of the Board of Directors, reflected on the importance of Sounds New as a means of enhancing the status of Canterbury and east Kent as a cultural mecca, and its contribution to boosting the region’s economic performance. Together with the Deal and Canterbury Festivals, the three events form a complementary alliance that makes this part of the country a vibrant cultural attraction.


Paul Edlin addresses the guests

Artistic Director, Paul Max Edlin (pictured) followed in his own inimitable fashion by highlighting the fact that, as well as presenting cutting-edge music and high-profile performers, the Festival is also about having fun, with its enhanced educational projects and outreach events; as he wryly observed, it’s that rare thing, ‘contemporary music with a sense of humour.’ He also reminded the guests that Sounds New is also about nurturing the music of the future, about helping up-and-coming composers and performers to establish themselves; ‘after all,’ he observed dryly, ‘musicians also need to eat.’


After the Sheriff of Canterbury had also welcomed the launch, and having duly refreshed their glasses, the assembled crowd was then ushered into Augustine Hall, which had been transformed into the dimly-lit atmosphere of a night-club, with a hushed audience seated around tables by flickering candlelight, for the festival’s first major performance: Death’s Cabaret, with cellist Matthew Sharp and the Sacconi Quartet.

A cultural mélange of drama, music, monologue, song and movement, the piece represents a tour de force for the solo cellist, who is obliged to be raconteur, instrumentalist, actor, singer and all-round dramatic performer. Ranging from a concerto grosso-style dialogue with the string quartet to folk-singer and actor, Matthew Sharp proved himself an extraordinary performer, rising to the challenge of delivering across the range of disciplines required.

As the story of a successful performer who loses his confidence after being criticised for his ‘lack of connection’ with the music, and who subsequently descends into a personal nightmare cycle of sex and death, the piece comes across as a cross between an instrumental concerto and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. But the aspect of connecting with audiences, with the music, is itself a reflection of exactly what Sounds New is all about: connecting listeners with music of today, of now, and widening the audiences who are connecting with contemporary music through performances, education projects, even through the BBC (through its partnership with the BBC, who record and broadcast events from the Festival, Sounds New reaches over a million listeners). As a dramatic realisation of Sounds New’s mission, Death’s Cabaret was the ideal vehicle with which to launch this year’s programme.


Photos © Peter Cook / Sounds New