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12 December 2018

Keeping your ears open...

by Rory Johnston (Composer Create)

It is a pleasure to write the first blog post for the Composer Create and ORA Singers collaboration, which I’m sure will be an extensive collection of the thoughts and experiences that come with being a young composer. I’d love to start by talking about exploring new music, and the importance of repertoire knowledge.

I was in London on Thursday 22nd November to sit in on the rehearsals and watch the concert of the ORA Singers’ first date of their 2018/19 season. The programme, which had a Thanksgiving theme, had a lovely mix of old and new, blending William Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices with music by American composers Eric Whitacre, Nico Muhly and Morten Lauridsen.

It is always a pleasure to hear beautiful music performed impeccably by a choir of such a high standard, but for me the most enjoyable part of the concert was hearing music that I did not know by composers of whom I had not heard. The ORA Singers are committed to commissioning 100 new works in the first 10 years of their existence, and they added two pieces to their tally on this occasion. Paola Prestini and Julia Adolphe, two American composers, were commissioned to write new pieces for this concert - a reflection on a piece by Palestrina and a setting of the Lord’s Prayer respectively. They were both very different, with Prestini’s piece including a mixture of disparate lines and ‘shh’-ing to create a very sparse and intriguing texture, while Adolphe’s setting of the Pater Noster text stuck relatively homophonic, with juicy harmonies smattered all over the place and a few epic moments of growth and climax. Listening to new commissions is always a joy, not only do you get to hear someone’s ideas come to life, but you also have the exclusivity of hearing music that no one else has heard before. For me though, the two stand out pieces of the night were Dominick DiOrio’s O Virtus Sapientiae and Steven Stucky’s O Sacrum Convivium. The first had three soprano soloists singing wildly virtuosic lines separated from the choir while the choir supported them with sumptuous harmonies and a sense of barrelling momentum that was very exciting. The second’s motifs and ideas of interesting harmonies and snappy rhythms were played with between the double choir set up to great effect, with the craftsmanship of the piece being nothing but evident. 

It was always impressed on me while I was at university that listening to new music broadens your horizons and introduces you to new ideas and new ways of thinking about music. Hearing new things that inspire you to write is really important, and the more you listen, the more potential for inspiration you will have. Critically though, you have to listen to all music and not just the music that you ‘like’. You never know when a piece may either change your mind about a whole genre or give you more insight into your tastes and opinions on the specifics in music.

Composers, like all artists, are creatures of influence and it’s undoubtably true that the music we enjoy listening to and respect is the music we would like to imitate in some fashion. There is a good quote from Elvis Costello that goes something along the lines of ‘I always tried to write like the artists that inspired me, but I always ended up sounding like myself’. Composers have always taken things they liked in other composers works and incorporated them into their own, whether it’s Mendelssohn trying to sound like Bach in St Paul, Takemitsu expanding on techniques used by Debussy and Messiaen, or John Williams using Holst’s Mars motif in the Darth Vader Theme for Star Wars. Bernstein put it best when he said ‘if you’re a good composer, you steal good steals’. Taking things you like and trying to imitate them is the way towards learning new things about the construction of the music you admire. The point of the Elvis Costello quote is that even when he succeeded in imitating the form and function of his inspirations, his own voice would naturally come through as his focus had been on the imitation of sound and not the self-conscious creation of new sound that was authentically him.

For that reason, I encourage you to listen, listen, and listen some more. Go to concerts of new music, go to concerts of old music, even set up your own concerts and ask your friends to write new music for you… you never know when and where your next masterpiece will be inspired – there’s definitely one texture in the DiOrio piece I will be stealing for my next choral piece!

Here is a varied list of music to give you a kickstart (including my two picks of the ORA Singers’ concert):

Steven Stucky – O Sacrum Convivium (ORA Singers Many are the Wonders)

Dominick DiOrio - O Virtus Sapientiae (IU Contemporary Vocal Ensemble)

Robert Fayrfax - O lux beata trinitas (Manchester Renaissance Ensemble)

Joseph Haydn – Gloria from Little Organ Mass (American Bach Soloists)

Pierre Boulez - une page d'éphéméride (Marc Ponthus)

Steve Reich - Music for 18 Musicians (Steve Reich Ensemble)

James MacMillan - Father, forgive them from Seven Last Words from the Cross (Dmitri Ensemble)

Guillaume Machaut - Tels rit au main qui au soir pleure from Le Remède de Fortune (Ensemble Project Ars Nova)


Written by Rory Johnston