Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Adieu to all alluring toys

Next Monday night (7 December), the music department of Cardiff University are giving a very enterprising concert of music by Welsh composers. It takes place at the University Music Department at 7pm  (details here). There is music by Andrew Wilson-Dickson, Gareth Churchill, Christopher PainterSarah Lianne Lewis, Max Charles DaviesJohn Metcalf and others, including a performance of my short cantata Adieu to All Alluring Toys

Some of the most fascinating discoveries in old churches and chapels are often hidden away amongst the memorial stones on the walls or lying benearth our feet. I particularly like those from the later seventeenth or eighteenth century with their lettering and designs by artisan stone-cutters, often with verses that have perhaps been written by someone local. I've often jotted down some of the more striking of these in my notebooks and when, in 2011, I was asked to write a song for a CD of contemporary British songs on the Meridian label, I raided by notebooks to find some texts that might be used. 

Adieu to all Alluring Toys is the name of a short cantata for baritone and piano that I completed in 2011, recorded by Paul Carey Jones and Ian Ryan. it consists of two songs (or arias) framing a small central recitative.The project was masterminded by composer David Power, whose wife Linda Ingham contributed the very striking cover. 

The piece takes words from three eighteenth and early nineteenth century memorial plaques found in churches in South-East Wales and Lincolnshire (those around Brecon and the Black Mountains seem to be particularly rich in such treasures). Two of the epitaphs are written to the memory of small children whilst another warns of the inevitability of our mortality. Innocent, naïve and sentimental, the words nonetheless are full of light, optimism and even humour, far removed from our more recent view of mortality. It is these qualities that the music tries to capture.

Here is the first of the texts and the one from which the piece's title comes. I found it in St Beilo, Llanfilo in Breconshire. It's in memory of Elizabeth the Daughter of Walter Vaughan, of Tredomen, Gent. She died the 31st March 1774 Aged 10 years.

There is a brief central recitative which I took from Rhulen Church, Breconshire. Inscription: James Probert who departed this transitory life, September 17th 1756, aged 66. Here is the church, hidden in the hills.

I found the final text in Grimsby Minster, Lincolnshire: Inscription: Under this Stone was Buried the Body of GEORGE, Infant son of Captain PETER RYE, Royal Navy, who died Dec’r 6th 1808.
Because this is a commercial CD, the music hasn't been posted up on a website, but you can hear extracts if you go to Meridian's site, buy it online or, better still, come along next Monday

Friday, 20 November 2015

Looking to the West

Ferryside is a little estuary village in West Wales, facing Llanstephan and about eight miles from Carmarthen.

For centuries it was on the main coastal route to West Wales, but the estuary needed to be crossed by ferry - hence its name.

These days it is still on the London to Carmarthen line - the original line was built in 1852 and quickly washed away by the ferocious storms that can blow up on the estuary.

The walk along the estuary is spectacular at all times of year, but particularly evocative during November and December. Here are a few more pictures taken there ...

In the distance here you can see Llanstephan Castle just across the estuary.

And looking back up across the railway line, the gables of some of the houses.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Cyppin - The Video

Readers of this blog might remember between October last year and last March I reported on a the process of planning a video with a musical soundtrack. During the summer the final edits were finished and I have just uploaded the result to You Tube. Click here to see it.

The video features and is built around the small non-conformist chapel of Bryn Salem Chapel in Cyppin, Pembrokeshire, founded around 1847 and built in 1852. It now lies unused and derelict, about half a mile off the main road on the edge of a field. You won't find an entry for it in the Buildings of Wales architectural guides. 

The project was part of a the Creative Wales project from the Arts Council of Wales which I am currently completing. It is concerned with musical performances of my music in unusual and remote spaces; particularly small Welsh churches and chapels. Whilst the idea of a performance at the chapel was attractive, in this instance I wished to creating a short video around the chapel, for solo double bass and an electronically generated soundscape made of manipulated natural sounds (wind, birdsong and so forth) captured at the church. 

The video is concerned with the idea of the decay of the chapel and, perhaps, other elements, places, ways of life and so forth in the area and community. But this is not necessarily seen in a negative context: nature gradually and gently reclaims the chapel and its structure,re-absorbing it back into the landscape. A similar process is also applied to the musical structure.

This short film of the chapel and its location was made by Aaron J Cooper and directed by Heledd Wyn Hardy (seen below working on the film on a very cold January day earlier this year)

The music is played here by Ashley John Long and the recording engineer was Odilon Marcenaro.The last sentence however doesn't begin to reveal how much Odilon helped me through the process last winter, mentoring me through the use of electronics and then showing me the process of transferring these to film. Without him it would not have happened.

This is very much a first stab at this way of working and therefore a student effort - it's presented here as a curiosity and more as work in progress than a finished item. I am very much aware of its defects and crudities (at a musical level) but was fortunate to work with several fabulous people - particularly Aaron and Heledd (who constantly pushed me forward and encouraged the project) not to mention the wonder double bass playing of Ashley John Long. 

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

In Transit

I’ve just arrived back from the ancient university town of Leuven, in Flanders, where I attended the Transit Festival: a non-stop forty-eight hours of contemporary music. Fabulous composers and a very high standard of performance and, most refreshing of all, a very un-British take on what contemporary music is. The festival has a new artistic director this year, Maarten Beirens, taking over from Mark Delaere who has built it into such a successful and well-oiled machine.

Leuven is one of the most delightful and civilised Flemish towns with its fantasic Gothic late fifteenth century Stadhuis standing opposite the sixteenth century Sint-Pieterskerk with its famous town clock – just the place to sit outside with a beer to discuss the concerts at the end of the night.

There were some fabulous events this year and great new pieces - a premiere by the Greek composer Georges Aperghis of his Wild Romance to mark his seventieth birthday (a Transit commission). Also work by an Italian composer I had not come across before, Italian-born Pierluigi Billone. Percussionist Tom De Cock’s lecture recital included a work by him for which De Cock had constructed his own instrument using a series of car springs, mounted on wooden bases and struck with hammers.

And, finally a great concert by the Flemish Nadar Ensemble in a theatre space filled with dry ice.

For sometime I have been curious as to what music might be emerging from Putin’s Russia and here, in twenty-nine year old Alexander Khubeev’s The Ghost of Dystopia, was some kind of answer. With conductor Thomas Moore literally chained to the podium, his gestures were an attempt to both gain musical control and break free. Khubeev’s work was as much spectacle as musical experience. The ten-piece ensemble creaked back-and-forth like a piece of rusty machinery on its last legs: an ugly but utterly compelling piece of musical grunge.

I’ve just been writing up a review of the event. Here is the link to the final published article.

Take a look at Transit's website  and photographs from this year's festival on Facebook 

Friday, 16 October 2015


A day out to do some research for the final part of my Creative Wales project. This is the most difficult part, requiring a conceptual leap that I’m still rather uncertain of how to make. It’s concerned with the relationship of music to architecture and place and, following on from the last part of the project (based around the abandon chapel at Cippyn), I have decided to follow up a similar site of which I have been aware for sometime. This is a ruined medieval church at Hasguard, in Pembrokeshire.

Hasguard is quite remote, about ten miles South-west from Haverfordwest and beyond the more industrialised Milford Haven part of the county. This is the bit that tourists and visitors are not so familiar with and is about four miles from the little coastal village of Dale.

As you will see from the photos, it was a perfect early autumn day and the roads were empty apart from an endless stream of tractors; it’s harvest time after all…

Like Cippyn, Hasguard is one of those villages that no longer seem to exist beyond a handful of dispersed houses, farms and the ruined church itself. Unlike Cippyn though, it’s not too difficult to find.

The church is medieval and of uncertain age, added to and adapted from about the thirteenth century onwards. The roof has gone and the inside rendering has been open to the elements and only two windows remain, but it’s otherwise in surprisingly good condition and there is no vandalism or graffiti. 

It certainly could house a performance of some kind without posing any serious Health and Safety risks. As you’ll see it seems to be well-looked after; a friend who visited it some years ago tells me that it was then overgrown with weeds and creepers, though it does still house a small colony of snails.

It’s difficult to know when it was abandoned. The churchyard has a number of rather ordinary nineteenth century headstones and the burials seem to have persisted through into the 1960s, so its use seems to have ceased sometime in the last forty to fifty years.  

And, to follow, a visit to Dale to write up my notes together with some coffee and cake…

Friday, 9 October 2015

A visit to the National Library of Wales

Last Wednesday the students from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, Cardiff, gave a superb memorial concert for Mervyn Burtch, attended by a large and enthusiastic concert. Many thanks and congratulations to all involved. You can read more about it in this short review published by Ty Cerdd.

I've recently returned form a visit to the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth with Michael McCartney, Chair of the Mervyn Burtch Trust, to discuss the bequest made to them to them by Mervyn Burtch before his died of his manuscript scores.

At present the Mervyn Burtch Trust is sorting out the best possible way to deposit the original manuscripts whilst retaining good quality copies (you can find out more about the Trust from one of my previous blogs). Although many of Mervyn's works were published, these probably comprised no more than 10% of his output, some of which have long since gone out of print. In addition, many of the published works are amongst his smaller scale pieces. This means that the Trust needs to keep around 600 works available for anyone who wishes to perform or study them.

We had a fascinating day seeing around the library and how it works. Mervyn's manuscripts will be held in vaults that are virtually fire and bomb-proof.

Here is Michael with myself and Dr Maredudd ApHuw, Manuscripts Librarian at the NLW.

Mervyn's manuscripts will sit alongside thoes of his contemporaries Alun Hoddinott and William Mathias.

The Trust's remit is to keep all of Mervyn's works available, so it is important to have master copies of each score. For many years, the scores deposited at the NLW have been safe, but not easily accessible. Now they are pioneering a new scheme where they will make high quality scans of the scores and make these available to the Trust. Here is one of the studios where the scanning is undertaken.

It's a very exciting and forward looking scheme in which Mervyn's bequest will play a major part.

However, there is still much work to do before the scores are packed up and delivered to Aberystwyth. Each score needs to  be checked for completeness and logged on the Trust's database, Although Mervyn left  his estate in very good order, there are anomalies as well as a number of missing manuscripts (where we only have photocopies). If anyone reading has, or knows, of the whereabouts of any of Mervyn's original manuscripts, we'd love to hear from you . Just drop a line to the Trust through the website.

Plenty of work to do now, but first, to end the day, a visit to Aberystwyth's seafront...

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Mervyn Burtch Memorial Concert

Next Wednesday on 7 October at 1.15pm, the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama will put on a memorial concert for composer Mervyn Burtch who died last May at the age of eighty-five.

Given by various groups of college students, it gives a flavour of the huge number of different combinations of instruments for which Mervyn. He loved writing for young people and providing useful music for everyday use. When I used to programme Wales Millennium Centre's freestage (2004-07) I doubt if a week went by when something by Mervyn didn't turn up there played by the many professional, student and amateur performers who gave concerts there.

Mervyn was always intensely practical and much of the last year of his life was devoted to finding a way in which his music would remain useful after his death. To this end he encouraged and facilitated the setting up of the Mervyn Burtch Trust. The Trust now manage and make available everything by Mervyn that is not published elsewhere. Every one of his 650 or so pieces is listed there, ranging from children's operas and orchestral pieces, through choral and brass band works, to the many pieces for solo and smaller forces.

Do take a look at the website www.mervynburtch.com where you can find links to recordings of his music as well.

Details of and tickets for the memorial concert are available from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama

Links to some of the obituaries of Mervyn can be found here

Daily Telegraph 
Western Mail 

Saturday, 26 September 2015


Peter Zumthor's Kolumba is a museum in the centre of Cologne, built between 1997 and 2007 on the site of the Church of St Kolumba, bombed during World War 2. Unlike so many of the Romanesque and medieval churches in the city that were lovingly reconstructed after the war, St Kolumba was left as a symbolic ruin and a smaller church was built amongst its ruins in the 1950s.

The museum encloses the 1950s church, the medieval ruins and is also a new multi-floor gallery space. The gallery and stairways are reduced to an absolute minimum of internal decoration of "reduced materiality" in which the art-works are given the space to breathe. 

The way in which space is organised and how visitors can move through it is breath-taking. The arts works themselves range from medieval to contemporary installation art.

Rebecca Horn: Berlin Earthbound, 1994
The fabric of the building itself is astonishing in the care and details with which everything is finished along with the attention to details - for instance, the wonderful brickwork or the wooden rails. 

Small openings have been introduced into the brickwork at certain point that allows the sound of the city outside to penetrate into the meditative quality of the space. 

Yet the impression left is quite different to most galleries and is a strangely quiet and meditative experience. 

On the top floor I came across a workshop of pieces by contemporary composers, but such in the nature of the building that it could equally well respond the requirements of medieval polyphony.