Sense of Place: a blog post by Samantha Fernando

Last year I was lucky enough to be awarded an RPS Composition Prize. As part of the prize, I was commissioned to write for the Philharmonia Orchestra. Over the course of nine months I worked on this commission with mentoring from Unsuk Chin. Working with both the orchestra and Unsuk was a very positive experience and I am so glad to have had this opportunity. The final piece, Sense of Place, was performed alongside pieces by Matthew Kaner and Michael Cutting at the Royal Festival Hall on 31st May 2014, conducted by Clark Rundell.

The commission was for a ten minute work for the following instruments: Flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, 2 percussionists and piano. I used all of the instruments listed, plus the flute doubles on alto flute. The percussion I chose was as follows: Tuned gongs, tam-tam, suspended cymbal, marimba, vibraphone, crotales, snare drum & bass drum.


Whilst working on our commissions, we had access to the players of the orchestra, conducted by Mark Heron, for a preliminary rehearsal where we could try out some of our ideas during the early stages of the project. I produced two sketches of material I wanted to try out in this workshop. One of these two made it into the final piece – a solo for alto flute accompanied by marimba. I dislike workshops as an end in themselves but as part of a work-in-progress they are extremely useful. It provides an opportunity to take risks and try out ideas before committing them to the final piece.

Creative Stimuli

Invisible CitiesOne of the inspirations behind Sense of Place was Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities. Invisible Cities acts as a ‘centre and absence’[1] in Sense of Place; whilst the novel was integral in the construction of the musical work, without prior knowledge the audience would not be able to discern its presence in performance, given this is an instrumental work and none of the text is presented.

My aim was not to attempt to tell the story of Invisible Cities, rather I took the aspects of the novel which made the most striking impression upon me and found musical parallels for my own work. The structure, harmony, rhythm and atmosphere of Sense of Place were deeply influenced by the novel and therefore it is at the heart of the composition. The experience of reading Invisible Cities had a profound effect on me and creating this piece provided a way to possess the novel and respond to it artistically.

Another significant influence on the piece was an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts this spring, Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined. Seven architects from around the world were commissioned to create immersive installations for spaces in and around the Royal Academy. These installations explored ‘the impact of built space on our lived experience’[2], encouraging the public to think about how we react to built spaces, how they make us feel and what they provide beyond the purely functional. As I walked around the Royal Academy, I was acutely aware of how the spaces had been shaped and the impact this had on my experience. This had a lasting effect and I continue to feel this heightened sense of awareness for the spaces in which I inhabit day-to-day, both physically and emotionally. The emotional response is a reaction to the aura of a place but this aura is both immediate and at a remove. It feels close due to the immediacy of our response but it is also beyond our grasp because it is not tangible. It is this response that prompted the title of this piece. Experiencing the aura of a place requires all our senses and in complex combination; we know a city not just by sight but with all our senses and through our interactions with it. Calvino encapsulates this multifarious relationship between man and the metropolis within the pages of Invisible Cities. Sense of Place has the Calvino at its heart, both in terms of its structural features and the musical content itself. Through this piece, my own kaleidoscopic relationship with the city is evoked.

The Concert

The first rehearsal of the piece was three days before the concert at the Warehouse in Waterloo. The period between giving the score to an ensemble and hearing the first rehearsal is a strange sort of purgatory. It is an anxious time and I am always preoccupied with worries about what I have

Interview with the composers
Interview with the composers

written. As well as this, it is the time when control of the music is handed from the composer to the musicians; there are opportunities to comment in rehearsal but ultimately it is up to the conductor and the players to interpret what I have put on the page.

After the first rehearsal there was just one more at the Festival Hall on the day of the concert. The first rehearsal is always quite an overwhelming experience and while the players were brilliant I struggled to feel confident about how it would ‘breathe’ in the Festival Hall. The rehearsal space was far smaller and it was difficult to tell whether I had judged the balance and pacing of events correctly. Clark understood the nerves that come with the first rehearsal and was very reassuring throughout.

My worries were assuaged at the second and last rehearsal. Hearing the piece in the Festival Hall made all the difference. Suddenly everything sat a lot better, in terms of balance and atmosphere. As a composer I cannot control the reactions of the audience but I can try to write a piece that I feel expresses what I want to say. The concert itself was a really lovely occasion and working with Clark, Unsuk and the Philharmonia was a great experience from start to finish. The pieces written by myself, Michael and Matthew were very diverse in style and this made for an interesting concert programme. Hearing their music and watching their rehearsals was as much of a learning experience as working on my own piece.

Samantha Fernando

[1] A phrase coined by Boulez in relation to his use of Mallarmé’s poetry in Pli selon pli.

[2] Extract for the text on the cover of Sensing Spaces, the book which accompanies the exhibition, Royal Academy Publications, 2014.

Re-posted with permission from Samantha from

Flippancy and Music: A blog post by composer Tom Coult

Tom Coult is one of five winners of the 2012 RPS Composition Prize. His piece ‘Four Perpetual Motions’ will be premiered by members of the Philharmonia conducted by Rüdiger Bohn at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday 27th June, 6pm.

Interviewer:How many people – who labour in the same musical vineyard in which you toil – how many are ‘protest singers’, that is people who use their music and use the songs to protest the social state in which we live today…the matter of war, the matter of crime or whatever it might be?
Bob Dylan: How many?
Interviewer:Yes, are there many?
Bob Dylan: (serious) I think there’s about…136
Interviewer: (perplexed) You’d say about 136? Or you mean exactly 136?
Bob Dylan: (impishly) It’s either 136 or 142…

You’d have thought that, being lucky enough to be given the opportunity to work with the Philharmonia Orchestra as part of their Young Composers Academy, and to be commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society to write a piece for the Royal Festival Hall, I would take it rather seriously. And of course I have in most senses – it’s been a brilliant experience to workshop my music with Philharmonia players, to watch them rehearse, to receive guidance on my score from Unsuk Chin and Simon Bainbridge, as well as being sat down for chats with York Höller, Luke Bedford and Esa-Pekka Salonen. But in fact the thing that’s been occupying my mind most while writing my piece has been flippancy.

Flippancy, especially as expressed in art, is a kind of levity and frivolity delivered with a subversive mock-seriousness – a matter-of-fact insincerity that is charming and disarming in equal measure. To be flippant is to indulge the noble urges to dodge every serious question, to prize wit over sincerity, and to take hedonistic delight in obtusely counter-intuitive formations. And if those urges don’t sound very noble at all to you, then perhaps you have misread my flippant tone…

It also implies a certain mode of reception that attracts me as a composer. Language is normally used to inform or persuade – reaching out to the receiver and using rhetorical techniques to affect them. Similarly, the archetypical post-Beethoven piece of music attempts to move the listener, to get her heart racing and her hair standing on end. Above all, it has a sense of meaningfulness – whether this meaning is expressible in words or not. The flippant statement in music or language, however, merely sits there, sublimely unconcerned with the listener’s opinion of it. It is an impassive object of elegant meaninglessness – a beautiful crystal to be admired from afar. Rather than reaching out to the listener, it reclines on a chaise longue, perhaps gently fanning itself, daring anyone to ignore its exquisite charms.

01_aliceIt is the flippant impulse that underlines the work of some of my favourite artists and writers. Lewis Carroll’s Alice books contain some of the most flippant characters in all of literature – Alice (not immune to some high-grade whimsy herself) has her every honest question and inquiry met with stony but fantastical disingenuousness by a succession of animals, royalty and unhinged milliners. The paintings of René Magritte, the drawings of Saul Steinberg and the poetry of Spike Milligan all cultivate a kind of ecstatic nonchalance. When a succession of earnest interviewers asked a succession of earnest questions to what they assumed would be an earnestly political singer-songwriter in 1965, Bob Dylan’s responses were sometimes frivolous, sometimes disdainful, but always immaculately flippant.

02_stravinskyIn classical music, though I can perhaps detect some of the same spirit in Haydn, it is difficult to identify flippancy in composers before the nineteenth century because there was not the same expectation of seriousness. The work of art for the nineteenth century, however, had a transcendental, metaphysical significance – a quasi-religious orientation toward the noumenal that made the sincerity of the composer paramount. Many masterpieces, of course, were produced with this sensibility, but it took until the early twentieth century for a composer to mount a sustained challenge to this high-minded orthodoxy. Among Igor Stravinsky’s many musical innovations, then, I think it is his cultivation of artistic insincerity that is one of the most radical. Stravinsky’s music from the 1920s onwards is delightfully matter-of-fact – a succession of musical objects that hold the listener at arm’s length (but whose elegance and wit are highly intoxicating to the listener that’s willing to forgive the slight).

03_oscarThere are other great purveyors of musical impishness – including the person who has overseen the Philharmonia’s Music of Today series and our Young Composers Academy, Unsuk Chin. She no doubt learnt some of this spirit from her teacher György Ligeti, from whose mischievous pen flowed some of my all-time favourite musical flippancy. And London has recently been treated to the puckish charms of Gerald Barry’s music through his treatment of the flippant work of art par excellence – Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde – surely the most brilliantly, elegantly, luxuriously flippant writer ever to put pen to paper – said of his play that it is ‘exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has its philosophy…that we should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious and studied things of life with sincere and studied triviality’.

So while writing my piece, entitled ‘Four Perpetual Motions’, I was trying to blow my own bubble of equivalent delicacy and fancy. I sketched a number of short miniatures – small bits of characterful and colourful music that eschewed ‘dramatic’ forms and would simply start, play a little game, then finish. While it would be rather grandioise to call it in any way subversive, I felt that this approach would be a nice foil for the apprehension I felt about my music being performed in the august setting of the Royal Festival Hall. After a workshop with Rüdiger Bohn and the Philharmonia players in March, I whittled my miniatures down to the four that now constitute the finished piece. The first three are, I would say, properly flippant. They aim for elegance, wit and matter-of-factness in tone – if the listener has a positive reaction, they are likely to be charmed rather than moved.

I may have faltered in my aims when it came to the last movement, however. I don’t know what happened, but while it’s not exactly emotionally sincere, it seems to have developed a desire to be taken a bit more seriously than its more childish siblings. This more self-important eldest child is the movement I worry most about – will the audience find something worthwhile in it? Will they be moved? Or will it fall flat, making a mockery of its pretensions?

While I adore flippancy and insincerity, I do recognise that at times they are merely methods of sidestepping these important concerns, a shield from the exposing experience of putting something of yourself sincerely into a piece of art and having it appraised by an audience. Perhaps, like all the great artists that I mentioned above have done, I will at some point set myself some loftier ambitions and attempt something serious, even profound.

Perhaps not, though – after all, you shouldn’t take everything I say seriously…

Tom Coult