Purple Mist

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Birmingham-based composer and educator Kirsty Devaney writes about how conducting gave her new musical inspiration and helped her to rediscover her musical voice. 

The RPS Women Conductors Phase 1.5 Workshop came at a time when I was starting to question my career path. I was completing my PhD,  working as a composer and music educator alongside. After a long period of writing my thesis, my own musical confidence had been waivering and I was needing a fresh musical experience. I had been researching education for the last 4-5 years; my identity as a musician was becoming more ambiguous. Was I more an academic than a performing musician? Or was I an educator more than a composer? Continue reading “Purple Mist”

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The Healing Power of Mozart

Just over a year ago Svend McEwan-Brown, Director of the East Neuk Festival, was on a high when, together with Emma Dunton from 14-18 Now he stepped up to receive the RPS Music Award for Audiences and Engagement for the  wonderfully imaginative and far reaching Memorial Ground Project commissioned to celebrate The Centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

Svend-Schubert-Elie-BeachBut in planning his next festival he came up against a challenge far harder than any posed in previous years.  In September 2017 he suffered a major stroke.  On the eve of the 2018 festival he writes so movingly about how the magic of a Mozart String Trio brought him back to the world and determined to finish the planning for his festival with the tools he had to hand – a hospital bed, an iPhone and the use of one hand.

Tois to Svend and everyone in East Neuk for a fabulous festival this year – and please do read and share his beautiful piece on how music can make such an unexpected difference in people’s lives.

You might also want to download K568 – just in case…

Monday 4 September 2017 was a sunny, homey kind of a day; I did a little work, baked teacakes, gardened, watched some telly. Around 4.30, my left arm suddenly fell heavy and stiff. I could not lift my left foot from the ground. I knew enough to suspect that I was suffering a stroke. Weirdly, the symptoms abated enough for Roy, my husband, to drive me to A&E and for me to walk in under my own steam. A couple of hours later, things looked not so bad – perhaps it was just a scare. We were joking and persuading the medics not to keep me in overnight when the really serious stroke struck. “It’s happening now” I slurred, and saw the junior doctor’s face switch from jolly banter to urgent concern. Then he ran for support.

‘Stroke’ is such a tender word. The experience is oddly painless – things just suddenly stop working. I’ve never actually known anyone who suffered a stroke, never thought about them, and knowing so little made things all the scarier. Should I be saying goodbye to Roy as best I could? If I survived, what might I lose? Mobility, speech, or other bodily and brain functions? There was no telling how bad it might get.

Read the complete blog

East Neuk is a coastal area of Fife, Scotland and the Festival runs from 27 June – 1 July

Why Not?

Ahead of the premiere of his orchestral arrangement of ‘Signal‘, RPS/Classic FM composer Jack Pepper discusses the pigeon-holing of music and the dangers of labelling.

We are too concerned with labels. Let’s not feel guilty about what we listen to: music is music.

Music has never confined itself to a single label. But it has always been plagued by the debate of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Whilst, for example, 20th-century music was varied and flexible enough to include neo-classicism, twelve-tone writing, Harlem Stride and Grime, it was also rigidly dogmatic enough to have individuals like Pierre Boulez famously claiming: “Any musician who has not experienced – I do not say understood, but truly experienced – the necessity of dodecaphonic music is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch.” Should we really be so discriminating in the comparative ‘value’ of different strands of music? Can it really be claimed that each epoch has certain “needs”?

Arguably, no. Every era has featured a panoply of styles; such coexistence of tastes can be seen in 1885 England, where Gilbert and Sullivan completed The Mikado, whilst Dvorak introduced his Sixth Symphony to the London public. This indicates that, despite numerous warnings from traditionalists that classical music is in danger of ‘dumbing down’ (whether through the inclusion of film music in radio shows, or of broader programmes in BBC Proms concerts), music has always been diverse. No one epoch has ever had a certain musical need.

It is therefore ridiculous to suggest that music must be pigeon-holed into various genres when the very richness of music derives from its variety. Far from Boulez’s implicit suggestion that each epoch has certain requirements, surely each era can be defined by its breadth of taste, its breadth of consumption, its breadth of understanding? As a popular songwriter as well as classical composer, I find the labelling of music both alarming and dangerous, for I gain most pleasure when I can jump between composing a wind quintet and writing a pop song. For me, the principal attraction of music is as a liberating force, and what could be more liberating than the ability to enjoy both Haydn string quartets and Gary Barlow, both Art Tatum and Carlo Gesualdo?

I am wary of over-stressing the Boulez debate. Boulez was an incredible musician who was, himself, immensely broad in his skills, equally at home composing dodecaphonic music or conducting Mahler or Debussy. Let me also draw your attention to the crucial sub-clause in the above quotation, for Boulez seems not to be arguing for every composer to write dodecaphonic music, but instead merely insisting that 20th-century musicians must acknowledge its importance. There is, however, an undeniably authoritarian streak to the statement that makes it more than a little unnerving. Music should be liberating, not dictatorial.

We must be wary of categorising music into binary opposites; music is not as simple as ‘either/or’. It cannot be ‘high’ or ‘low’, ‘relevant’ or ‘irrelevant’, or even ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Instead, music operates in degrees, in gradations, in “more this”, “less that”. Think of “and”, not “or”. Music cannot be defined by a single label, as this undermines the very breadth of meaning and value that gives music its potency.

It is imperative that we see different genres of music working together instead of against one another; we should view jazz, classical and popular music as strands in a unified whole – a glorious melting pot of music – where each can influence the other. Gershwin expertly evidences this combination of popular, jazz and classical styles; the composer of such popular songs as Embraceable You also hung an autographed photo of Alban Berg in his apartment. Similarly, the Beatles displayed classical influences with the string quartet in Yesterday. The ability to write and embrace numerous styles is a blessing, not a curse, and we must praise – not condemn – musicians who welcome musical plurality.

This musical inclusiveness is fast becoming a way of life. Thanks to streaming websites and the digitalisation of music, we live in an era of increasing accessibility to a range of musical styles; it is paradoxical to close our minds to such variety at a time when technology is making it most open.

In a period of immense political and social division, it is necessary to remind ourselves that music is beautiful because it can unite, not oppose; music should not become a mere extension of humanity’s divisive political minefield. Music is rich because it is diverse and inclusive. Don’t rob yourself of one of life’s greatest pleasures by insisting music is a battleground.

Jack Pepper was one of seven composers commissioned by the RPS and Classic FM to mark the station’s 25th birthday. His fanfare “Signal” was premiered at ABRSM’s music education event, ‘Shine‘ in July at the Barbican and will receive a repeat performance as an orchestral arrangement on  5 October with the RLPO.