Noteworthy young composers

1st February 2013 at 00:00
A three-day music workshop involving composition, recording, performing and Yorkshire pudding sounds promising to Jean McLeish

For most people it would be quite an ordeal - three days to compose a piece of contemporary classical music for a public performance by professional musicians. But 11 pupils made light work of the challenge when they took themselves off to corners of the Woodend Barn in Banchory to work on their pieces.

Each pupil took a piece of text to set to music - for 15-year-old Ellen Glass it was a recipe for Yorkshire pudding.

Soprano Sarah Dacey let Ellen hear what she had written. She sang the recipe's ingredients - "Two eggs, three ounces of plain flour" - and was accompanied by cellist Robert Irvine, one of three professionals from Red Note Ensemble who attended.

Someone suggested that Ellen should make Yorkshire puddings for the performance. Her choice of lyrics was unusual, but the fifth-year music pupil was matter of fact: "I like Yorkshire pudding," she said.

Ellen is studying Higher music at Aboyne Academy and plays the fiddle and tuned percussion, and sings. She went on the course to broaden her musical experience. "I wanted to do more composition because I don't do much," she said.

The Go Compose workshop gave the young composers and musicians such as Ellen a unique opportunity to work with professionals and have their work recorded and performed during Sound, north-east Scotland's festival of new music, which took place late last year.

The month-long festival was staged by the University of Aberdeen and Woodend Barn to promote contemporary classical music and included concerts and workshops such as this for young people.

Some teenagers chose poems or extracts from novels to set music to. On the day TESS visited the mood was relaxed, but the pupils were aware that they were working with top musicians and they were not about to squander the privilege.

They received tips from professionals, such as composer Gabriel Jackson, whose work is performed, recorded and broadcast all over the world.

"Spend time reading and re-reading the poem and getting under its skin," he advised. "Certainly, when I'm writing, very quickly I'm no longer referring to it all the time because I've remembered it."

The pupils were asked to write a three-minute piece for voice to be accompanied by a combination of one or all of the cellist, flautist and percussionist from Red Note Ensemble.

"For some of them - maybe not all of them - it's a bit of a leap and they have to make it quickly, because it's two-and-a-half days and then it's done," said Kerry Andrew, a composer and singer who teaches composition and musicianship at Junior Trinity Laban in London.

Emily Smith, 16, from Mearns Academy, sings and plays violin, piano, guitar, drums and viola. She is studying Advanced Higher music at school. "I love creating my own stuff - and to be able to hear it played by professionals sounded amazing," she said.

Emily chose To Helen by Edgar Allan Poe as her text and said her favourite part of the poem was the last two lines about the woman's eyes: "I see them still - two sweetly scintillant Venuses, unextinguished by the sun".

"I've written 'hopelessly hopeful' as the words to describe the poem, which sums it up because there is no hope for him ever being with this woman, but she gives him hope," Emily said. "So I have a few legato, expressive passages for cello and the voice just singing bits of the poem."

Emily said she learned a lot about the technicalities of different instruments. "I never knew flutes could do so much," she said. "It was interesting thinking about instruments in a different way, not just notes, but that you can make so many sounds with the instrument itself."


The successful Go Compose workshop developed as an offshoot of The Sound and Music Summer School for Young Composers.

The summer school is held in the holidays at the Purcell School, Watford, a specialist residential music school for young musicians.

During the most recent workshop at Banchory the focus was on cutting-edge, contemporary classical music rather than pop music.

"Because we've got a singer and because we used the word 'contemporary', just one or two people thought they were coming to be the next Adele. They would have come and been disappointed," said Judith Robinson, creative programmer for Sound and Music, which runs the summer school and organised the workshop.

"It's competitive to get into the summer school and people send in their scores and say what they are doing at school. And it's apparent that some kids have fantastic music education and there are some great teachers out there."

In other places, teachers are less confident about teaching composition, she said, so the pupils are interested and want to create their own music but there is not a lot of support for it.

"It's quite a lonely business," she said. "A lot of people sit in their bedrooms by themselves writing stuff, but they do not get the support and help they need.

"There should really be a Go Compose in every town and every county all round the country every holiday, so that everybody gets the chance to develop their composition skills."

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