Keys to life as a composer

28th April 2000 at 01:00
A Glasgow ensemble is giving a few Higher students some very special masterclasses. Christopher Lambton reports

At first glance, the programme for next Friday's Paragon Premieres concert reads like a restaurant menu, with "Prawn Crackers" and "Chicken Soup for the Ears" among the compositions on offer. Other works, such as "Cwicseolfor", "Cascara Sagrada", and "The Butterfly Kissed in Spring", demonstrate that the young composers have at least picked up the technique of naming music as enigmatically as possible.

The concert is the culmination of an education project organised by the Paragon Ensemble, a Glasgow-based contemporary music group whose reputation also extends into music theatre and unusual interpretations of the classical and romantic repertoire.

The project started last autumn, when Andrew Logan, director of Paragon's community and education programme, noticed that "formal" composition was poorly represented in the broad spectrum of community education projects. That is not to deny the value of "informal" composition projects, typically large-scale improvisatory workshops designed to create "music" within a few hours. But Logan's idea was to go to the other extreme.

By tapping into the invention side of the Higher Still music curriculum, the Paragon Ensemble could focus on a handful of school pupils and use the resources of the ensemble to help them develop their examination composition submissions. Detailed involvement at this level, he argued, could be "really useful to teachers".

The first task was to demonstrate what a professional and flexible music ensemble such as the Paragon could do.

The four chosen pupils, Claire McCloy and Claire McManus from Notre Dame High School for Girls in Glasgow and Ross MacTaggart and Joe Smith from Broughton High in Edinburgh, attended the first Paragon Premieres concert at the beginning of November to hear the music of John Lunn and Alasdair Nicolson, who are among the younger generation of Scottish composers. They were then assigned, respectively, to the Glasgow and Edinburgh divisions of the project. Together with postgraduate students from the two cities, Lunn and Nicolson were to provide guidance as the compositions started to take shape.

Not everything went to plan. Pressure of work forced Lunn to drop out, but the popular Glasgow composer Bill Sweeney stepped in, though this delayed the start of the work at Notre Dame High until January. After that progress was rapid, with the two Claires working on a week-by-week basis with postgraduate students Tommy Fowle and Pete Dowling.

Sweeney is delighted: "In these pieces you can hear the swift advance in confidence in the music. "Originally the pieces would start well enough but run out of steam after half a minute. Now they keep going for five or more."

Miss McCloy's "Chicken Soup for the Ears" takes its title from the philosophy book Chicken Soup for the Soul. Although it is technically atonal (that is, not in any specific key), she describes her music as tuneful and rhythmic, chiefly inspired by the contrapuntal writing in Bartok's seminal Concerto for Orchestra.

Miss McManus's title, "Fearless", came from the quotation "The only thing to fear is fear itself". The piece is partly inspired by the dramatic film score for the film Titanic and is based on a four-note melodic phrase that derived from improvisation.

Underpinning the music project has been the participation of the Paragon Ensemble. To have a mini-orchestra at your disposal to try out compositional ideas is a luxury that any professional composer would desire, and these fortunate Higher Still pupils have worked with the ensemble several times, including a professional recording session.

At first the quality of playing by the professional musicians blinded the young composer to deficiencies in the music. "These musicians have spent their life making things sound as beautiful as possible," says Sweeney,"but with repeated listening you can tell when music is empty and has nothing to say."

The key to the success, he says, lies in boldness of design. Young composers are characteristically teeming with a multitude of ideas, but with experience they learn to eliminate unnecessary detail and, most importantly, to develop and repeat the strongest ideas so that the music takes on a recognisable structure.

Notre Dame music teacher Marie Louise O'Neill has been impressed by her students' progress, as has the project's designer, Mr Logan. "It is actually quite staggering what you can achieve with a practical resource such as the Paragon Ensemble in the classroom," he says. "One person playing the clarinet can demonstrate a whole range of possibilities better than any textbook."

One potential hazard of the project is that early fame could encourage music pupils to think of composition as an easy and glamorous career path. But Ms O'Neill says that over the past weeks "the girls have become very aware of the wider music scene, and they know that it's dog eat dog out there".

Paragon Premieres, 7.30pm, May 5, at Matt Thomson Hall, Glasgow, tel 0141 332 5057

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