Musical bravery

Approaching new musical languages

APO is preparing two commissioned works for its upcoming 20th anniversary concert: Caitlin Harrison’s ‘From Dawn to Dreams’ (commissioned as part of Making Music and Sound & Music’s ‘Adopt a Music Creator’ project [1], which will receive its world premiere) and Michael Betteridge’s ‘Biscuits, Beer and Bulbs’ (commissioned and first performed by APO in 2013/14). Together, they’ll form a contemporary first half counterpoint to the romanticism of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, which forms the rest of the evening programme. In this blog post, APO’s Music Director, Andrew Taylor, talks about the challenges of preparing brand new works that nobody has ever heard.

Working in an unfamiliar musical language is always a challenge and it doesn’t just apply to brand new music by living composers: getting used to the sound world of any composer takes time. In particular, I find that works by Sibelius and Shostakovich take a little longer to settle during rehearsals, as players find their feet. Indeed, when I listened to Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony for the first time, many years ago, I found some of the thick and intricate texture hard to cut through. What a wonderful challenge to try to declutter it for our upcoming performance!

If you’re wondering what I mean by ‘musical language’, I’m not surprised, because it is a fairly amorphous term that means different things to different people. A basic definition could be the types of textures (combinations of different instruments), harmony (in particular what our western ears regard as ‘consonance’ versus ‘dissonance’), rhythms, interplay between melodic lines/accompaniment.

Other people will be able to add more to this list, but sometimes no analysis is needed. When you’re familiar with a well-known composer’s language, you can often just ‘know’ the music is by them. This, of course, relies not only on the extent of their musical output but how much we’re exposed to it.

Most of the 30 or so brand new pieces commissioned by APO over its 20 years (a record of which I’m very proud!) have been by brilliant young composers learning their trade, so obviously not well known. So what have we learned about how to go about practising, rehearsing and performing brand new music? And how is that manifesting itself in our preparations for our upcoming concert?

Starting slow

Pieces with an unfamiliar musical language are usually slow burners in rehearsal. There’s always a few glances round the players after the first play-through of any piece, with emotions ranging from anxious to amused. Being non-professional musicians, our techniques are not honed by hours of dedicated practice like the pros we all have such admiration for, so we cannot adapt so quickly to technical challenges and music that just sounds ‘different’.

With most music, however, a lot of problems are solved simply by playing through again. This doesn’t necessarily happen with brand new music. It takes considerably more time to overcome the technical challenges, adjust ears to the new musical language and work out what the music is trying to say, as well as how we can help this to be conveyed. It’s much more of a leap of faith than usual and for some commissioned works, it’s not really worked for me until the day of the concert, a phenomenon I’ll return to at the end of this post. Musical bravery is required.

With this in mind, I was slightly anxious about how Caitlin would respond to our first play through of ‘From Dawn to Dreams’ when she attended our first rehearsal. One feels a responsibility for looking after the piece of art over which someone has devoted hours of toil! Of course, I should have known better than to worry, based on my dealings with Caitlin over the course of the project, so far. She’s super-relaxed, patient and supportive – qualities that I’m sure the orchestra picked up on, too.

Double the complexity

When standing in for Mel (Le Breuilly – Reading Youth Orchestra’s music director) during a RYO rehearsals for ‘From Dawn to Dreams’, fairly early on in the learning process, I was incredibly impressed by the calmness of the young musicians, who were (or at least seemed!) completely unfazed by the difficulty of learning a new work with such a different musical language, as described above.

A complicating factor is that the work is for two orchestras. It’s quite usual in a non-professional or youth orchestra context, for there to be a few gaps in the orchestra for any given rehearsal, particularly when it comes to percussion and harps, but with the piece scored for both APO and RYO, this significantly increased the challenge of rehearsing separately and it was a huge relief when we put the two bands together. The piece made so much more sense, even if we won’t get to hear the piece with all the instrumental parts playing until the day of the concert.

Because of the two orchestras, each with its own requirements in terms of level of technical difficulty and instrumentation, Caitlin has had her work cut out in producing such a complex score. Even with the best music notation programme (the software the composer uses to create the sheet music) and the best framing (how the score and parts are put together to be intelligible through considering where page turns are and following conventions of music notation, amongst other things), scores of new music can be very difficult to analyse and annotate, often requiring unwieldy A3 size bindings – and even then the typeface is very small. In the case of ‘From Dawn to Dreams’, Caitlin simply couldn’t physically fit all the parts onto the main ‘full score’, so has cleverly produced a ‘wind expansion’ score for reference. I found to my cost at the first rehearsal that I hadn’t adequately translated some of this expanded score into the limited notation in the full score. The photo below shows Caitlin helping me out as I tried to work out who was playing and when.

We’ve also had to carefully consider how to configure the orchestras, in terms of who sits where, bearing in mind that we have limited stage space at the concert venue.

Finding the rhythm

‘Biscuits, Beer and Bulbs’ and ‘From Dawn to Dreams’ are very different pieces. Obviously – they’re by different composers! But while rhythm is important in both pieces, it’s critical in Michael’s piece due to the way the pitch and rhythm of themes within the piece derives from archive audio from Reading Museum – about Biscuits (Huntley and Palmers), Beer (Simmonds Brewery) and Bulbs (Suttons Seeds). This is played on an audio track that accompanies the orchestral parts, meaning that I have to conduct to a click track to synchronise the audio with the orchestra.

I learned so much about how much I accommodate the orchestra, in terms of tempo (the speed and feel of the music), when we first prepared the piece in 2014. In short, I probably accommodate the players a bit too much and need to be a bit more assertive (something that was backed up when I conducted an orchestra of freelance professional musicians in 2021). Of course, I’m not saying that I should just stand there and be a human metronome; music has to ebb and flow (especially in a Romantic work like the Rachmaninoff). But there is no room for ebb and flow available, in this piece. If I get out with the click track, the piece simply falls apart – no pressure!

Listening to the recording from the first performance back in 2014 and remembering how rehearsals went, this ‘no prisoners taken’ approach means that total command of rhythm is necessary, before tackling articulation and ultimately the pitch of the notes. The latter are tricky in places, but if you haven’t got the rhythm sorted in your head, you haven’t a hope with the notes.

So, this time, I’ve produced a series of rhythmic exercises for players to really get confident with the various little motifs that mimic the speech in the archive audio. The idea is that you start off by listening, then maybe tapping or “bopping” (vocalising the rhythm without adding pitch – kind of like the orchestral version of ‘air guitar’), then adding articulation and finally the notes on your instrument. Here’s the little playlist I’ve created on YouTube with the exercises:

Just like Caitlin, Michael has also been really helpful in agreeing to little suggestions I’ve made, based on my score study, for tiny alterations to parts. For example, if a musical gesture has two parts, and it’s tricky for a certain instrument to get between those parts, can they miss out the first part which is covered by other instruments, in order to make the second part work better, which is more exposed. Any APO players reading this, watch out for an email with these!

Gradually finding the music

So, with the technicalities taken care of as much as possible, it’s time to find a way into what the music is trying to say or convey. On a technical level, Caitlin has followed the brief brilliantly for ‘From Dawn to Dreams’, finding just the right level of technical challenge, balancing making it a satisfying play for the players, but within our technical boundaries (and so did Michael, back in 2014, and indeed most of our young composers over the years).

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams is reported to have said ‘It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.'[2] He was right: music doesn’t have to have a programme. Even if it does, many prefer just to listen to a piece in its own right, but it doesn’t half help with learning new music if there is something to hang on to! Caitlin understood this and has based the four movements of ‘From Dawn to Dreams’ on fragments of poetry. My strategy for engaging the players with the substance of the music was to play through each movement and ask them what they thought the music might be trying to convey, and then reading the poetry fragment. This seemed to work well and I’m looking forward to continuing to ‘unlock’ the music through the rest of the rehearsal process.

The end result

Of course, sometimes a piece doesn’t even work for the players or performers by the day of the concert and the dreaded words ‘I didn’t like/get that piece’ are uttered. I don’t think this is a terrible result for us, the composer, or the listener. Art does not have to be liked or enjoyed; it should provoke an emotional reaction of any kind. Dislike is preferable to indifference, in my view! For the performers, the process of learning can be difficult and unenjoyable, yet the end result satisfying, and vice versa. Obviously I enjoyed ‘Biscuits, Beer and Bulbs’, else I wouldn’t have programmed it again. As for ‘From Dawn to Dreams’, of course we won’t know the ‘end result’ until the first performance on Saturday 29th October, but it’s safe to say that I’m certainly enjoying the process. Working with Caitlin, Mel and the Reading Youth Orchestra players has been a joy. And of course I’m as proud as ever that APO is taking such a positive approach to bringing new music to life.

[1] Since 1935, Making Music has supported and championed leisure-time music across the UK with practical services, artistic opportunities and by providing a collective voice for its members. Representing over 3,800 groups of around 220,000 musicians of all types, genres and abilities, Making Music helps them with the practicalities of running their group so they can get on with making music. The Adopt a Music Creator project brings together music groups and music creators to collaborate on creating a brand new piece of music. The project pairs leisure-time music groups with a music creator for a year, culminating in a premiere performance, a recording and a radio broadcast. Adopt a Music Creator is run by Making Music in partnership with Sound and Music, and is funded by the PRS Foundation and the Philip & Dorothy Green Music Trust.

[2] Quoted in Michael Kennedy The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams ([1964] 1992) p. 302. He reportedly said this to Roy Douglas regarding whether his Symphony No.6 was meant to be programmatic.