Sunday, 2 October 2016

Norman Borders

I'm very lucky to have had two carefully prepared performances this weekend of a new piece given by Borders Trio. The piece, Le Gros Horlage, for clarinet, violin and piano, is based on the chimes of the Great Clock in Rouen, France – an astronomic clock dating back to 1527 and earlier. 

When Anna Perry, clarinetist with the group, asked me to write the piece earlier this year, I remembered I had jotted down the clock's chimes when I was last in Rouen. At the time I was enjoying a glass of wine on the terrace just under the clock and when the chimes sounded I was intrigued by the way they outlined a key without ever sounding the actual tonic (keynote). I jotted them down on the other side of a receipt for the wine I was drinking and only came back to it earlier this year when I was thinking about the trio.

The first performances were given at Ledbury's Market Theatre (a very nice venue for young chamber groups) on Saturday and then at Cardiff's St Teilo's Church this afternoon by clarinetist Anna Perry, violinist David Grubb and pianists Jess Ryan-Phillips. 


Borders Trio are a very enterprising group and five of the seven pieces in their concert were written especially for them. These included some wonderfully inventive and varied works from Alison Doubleday, Karim Bedda, Richard Jackson and Rosemary Kempson. The final result is a short four-minute piece extending the chimes into a longer melodic line. The trio have a number of extended effects to play: Anna made her debut playing claves last night, David has several passages on the other side of the violin bridge and Jess has some inside-the-piano work to do (Alas, we only had an electric instrument, but Jess worked miracles...)

It's a long time since I wrote the chimes down, so I hope that they are an accurate representation of what I heard on that August day back in 2002 ...

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Dyfed Young Composers

I've been down in West Wales for several days taking part in workshops to encourage school age students to compose. The scheme is run by Dyfed Young Composers – a scheme in which young composers in Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokshire work with top quality players. This year they will be working with violinist Steve Bingham and percussionist Chris Brannick. Last week was the start of the process with three workshops to some 300 school pupils given in Haverfordwest, Aberaeron and Gwendraith. I was honoured to be their Composer in Residence between 2010-13 and am very happy to be back again this year. 

Young composers are being invited to compose for violin and percussion and to include electric violin as well together with electronics. Here is Steve Bingham playing on an instrument that is over 200 years old ... 

... and a bright blue new electric violin.

Steve Brannick was unable to join us for the first week of workshops, so it was great to have Steffan Ciccotti on hand to take everyone through the inticacies of writing for percussion. Steffan was both a finalist in the Young Music Makers of Dyfed competition and wrote pieces under the Dyfed Young Composers scheme some years back and is now working as a freelance composer and percussionist in London. It's great news that both he and composer Emily Wright will be coming into the schools to help me ...

You can find out more about the scheme at its website. If you were born in any of the counties of Dyfed and are 22 or under you can also take part or submit a composition for the workshops next April. Many thanks to YMMD's administrator Cathy Morris for the photos.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Pengam Tribute to Mervyn Burtch

Just back from a superbly organised tribute to the work of composer Mervyn Burtch at Lewis School, Pengam on Friday evening where he was once a pupil. The whole event centered around a new painting on one of the school walls of Mervyn by Gigi Jones.

The painting takes its starting point from a classic oil painting at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama which Gigi painted back in the mid-1980s.

At the launch Gigi related how she used to pass Mervyn's house in Oakfield Street, Ystrad Mynach, and saw him composing at the piano. One day she knocked on the door and asked if she could paint him. "Of course", said Mervyn.

The evening also included a superb concert of Mervyn's music; the whole event was organised and put together by the Head of Music Bethan Jenkins. The Garrodus String Quartet opened with the final slow movement of the 13th String Quartet (2000)

Then there was a really wonderful performance of the Second Sonatina for piano (1983) given by Michael Davies.

Jack Mainwaring played the Four Portraits pieces for flute from Alice in Wonderland (1982, rev. 1993) together with a very affectionate introduction and the concert finished with a fabulous performance by singer-songwritter Maddie Jones, Mervyn's step grand-daughter.

 A really lovely and life-affirming evening.

More information on Mervyn's music from the Mervyn Burtch Trust.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Eglwys bach y mor

St Cwyfan's Church lies perched on the small isle of Cribinau just off the coast of Anglesey near Aberffraw in North-west Wales.

Known popularly as 'eglwys bach y mor' (the church in the sea) it was built in the twelfth century (and substantially rebuilt in the fourteenth century) but has been much altered over the centuries. It is reached by walking across the causeway, and the island is usually cut off by the sea for around four hours each day.

When the church was built, the land was still connected to the mainland (as can be seen from the map John Speed made in 1636), but has been eroded over many hundreds of years.

A new church was built a mile inland in 1871 (St Mary) and the old church fell into decay. By the end of the nineteenth century, the church was in danger of being lost altogether: some of the graves had begun to fall into the sea and the building had lost its roof. We owe it to architect Harold Hughes that the present seawall was built around the island and that it was restored in 1893.

If you look at some of the photos you will find on line, you'll see that the church has in recent years been limewashed as it would have been at the time it was built.

The inside is very simple and the north wall shows signs of the north aisle and arcade added in the sixteenth century; this was demolished in the early nineteenth century as the sea eroded the island.

As can be seen, it was a grey August day when I visited the church. I was very fortunate that the church warden was on site that afternoon and so was able to gain access. Potential visitors should note that it is normally locked.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

First Musical Experiences

I recently disposed of a charming (though woodworm riddled) radiogram made in 1954. It was, I think, a wedding present for my parents and when I was very small, had pride of place in their living room.

It was connected to a radio ariel on a tall pole in the garden and its list of stations connected it via shortwave to all sorts of European stations; I can remember my father fiddling to tune into the results of the American presidential elections.

Unfortunately, almost as soon as I could walk, I taught myself how to operate it in order to play LPs and 78rpm. I was enthusiastic, but none too careful and was often told off for playing 78s using an LP stylus (not good for the stylus which was made from different material to the 78rpm one).

Here's the instruction manual.

78rpm discs had just about stopped being manufactured by this time (around 1962-3), but there were still plenty around the house, and many of my father's friends and colleagues off-loaded their collections on to me (which I was overjoyed to receive). These included an acoustic recording of composer York Bowen playing Chopin's Third Ballade (rather good) or, high up in the kitsch levels, an acoustic recording of Ketélbey's In a Monastery Garden, replete with the sounds of mechanical birds. As you can see, I still have these.

There were LPs as well and many EPs - Extended Play 33rpm 7' inch discs. When my parents bought their first fridge in 1964 I quickly snaffled up ten EP discs that came with it as a special offer - Chopin  piano works, Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave, Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies, Borodin's Polovtsian Dances, the Sextet from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and piano works by Liszt among many others.

Sunday, 7 August 2016


I've been in York for a performance of my new piano piece Penllyn, based on the early nineteenth century hymn tune by David Jenkin Morgan (1752-1844).

Here is the original tune (above) and my own version of it.

It was included  in a lunchtime concert by pianist Duncan Honeybourne (see below) as the closing item in Piano Postcards: a programme of miniatures spanning 1916 to 2016 (I was providing the piece from 2016) at York’s Late Music concert series at St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel near to the Shambles. 

The concert features pieces recorded by Duncan as part of a CD project set up by composer David Power featuring a selection of piano works by British composers written over the last century, culminating in recent pieces by David and myself (keep an eye on this blog or my website for more details when the CD is about to appear). There was also an evening concert given by the excellent Late Music Ensemble ensemble conducted by composer James Whittle who organised the day of concerts; it included a splendid new piece by David in tribute to David Bowie: Bye Bye Spaceboy.

We recorded all the pieces in York last year (see the blog I wrote then for more details), but it was never going to be possible to include the series of miniatures I wrote in the concert. This is because they do things with the piano that it is only possible to do in a recorded situation - for instance, doubling melodic lines played on the keyboard simultaneously with the same notes plucked inside the instrument, or adding many different layers of sound. 

Many thanks to Duncan who gave a wonderful performance of the piece and to James for his excellent organisation of the day - if anyone is interested in seeing a copy of the new piece, do drop me an email.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Love from Latvia

Latvia's leading composer Pēteris Vasks has been in Cardiff for the last week for a large 70th birthday retrospective of his work at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. Last night's concert at All Saints' Church in Penarth was devoted to a searing performance of his Piano Quartet by Ensemble MidVest (from Denmark) and also marked John Metcalf's (the festival's artistic director)  forthcoming 70th birthday with incandescent performances of three of his works (the finest performances of them I've heard). Here they both are cutting a birthday cake after the performance. 

I remember first hearing his music back in 1996 when the whole festival was devoted to music from the Baltic States (the first major exposure to this then unknown music in Britain). It was already a hugely rich selection of fantastic new pieces, but the one piece that absolutely blew me away was Vasks’s Symphony for Strings, Stimmen. Twenty years later there's a richer legacy of work. On the first night of the festival (10 May) I was lucky to be able to interview him (with our wonderful interpreter Andy Taurins) and hear about the constraints under which he worked as a composer until well into his forties under the Soviet Regime. 

Before the Second World War, Latvia, rather like Wales, had only a limited tradition of composition. From the 1940s until Perestroika, their composers had limited access to developments in the west and laboured under Soviet political pressure. They had to invent for themselves a recognizable national musical voice and probably, beyond developments in Poland, had little access to the west. Yesterday morning Vasks gave a fascinating interview for the composition students at Cardiff University where he talked about only being able to access new music occasionally via Radio Vienna. What comes through his music and from the man himself is a huge generosity of spirit. For students more used to listening to lectures about row rotations, hearing a composer declare that the most important thing in his music was love was probably quite a new experience. 

John Kehoe's description of his music written now about twenty years ago still sums up his approach: "Vasks will frequently abandon technical explanations in favour of nature imagery, the grandeur of a mighty forest, the free flight of birds and their song. These are matters very close to his heart, and of these things, or rather of their spirit, his music speaks." 

Vasks's new Viola Concerto was premiered at BBC Hoddinott Hall tomorrow night by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (20 May at 7.30pm);I interviewed him and the soloist, Maxim Rysanov.. 

You can see more details of this year's Vale of Glamorgan Festival here

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Fighter for the cause of music

Today marks the anniversary of the death of composer David Lloyd-Howells who died in Abergavenny, Wales, on 14 May 2015. I'd known him since 1977 when we both started as undergraduates at the Music Department at Cardiff University. David was an original and a bit intimidating to other undergrads with his intense engagement with music; he was already thirty-five years old and ravenous to learn. At the time I knew he was a composer; now I know that he was a composer with an already highly developed technique who wrote some of his best and most ambitious pieces during that period (around 1977-82).  

David usually showed up to lectures in a suit and bow tie (rather like the picture above) and engaged with music with terrific intensity. A coffee-break at college might typically open with something along the lines of: "The question is, not, 'what is music?' but, 'why is music?' It was easy to send him up; we also didn't understand or know how he had secured a musical education against all odds, traveling through the USA and Canada in the early 1960s in the process. Here are a couple of photos taken at that time.

And that background didn't equip him for dealing with the politics of negotiating a career in music. He  didn't stroke egos and when things didn't happen or go right, he said what he thought. But what he said was born out of a passionate belief in his art and a frustration if his work didn't bear fruit. And he worked at composition with an intensity that would put most of us to shame. Here he is at a party I gave in January 1983, in characteristic full flow.

One of the pieces I still think is his most impressive is one I had many hours of fascinating discussions about  around 1982 at the time he was writing it. Choirs and Dialogues for 15 solo strings was the last of his pieces written in (more or less) conventional notation - a work of great complexity lasting some 50 minutes or so and perhaps his finest achievement. After this point David decided that the future lay in music technology and gradually built up his own personal studio. These days when access to technology is so much easier, it's difficult to imagine the leap for someone to stop composing and put aside for nearly five years in order to learn and acquire the necessary equipment and training.  

He was hard to deal with. His devotion to what he did and single-mindedness meant that there was never any small talk. Everything was pitched at the highest level. Alas, the attention to detail he applied to his musical texts was not reflected in his literary efforts, letters to papers and individuals (which, unfortunately, was mainly most that the music profession knew of him).

At the time of his death he had been engaged on writing an opera about the 1966 Aberfan disaster which would have been scored for singers with a complex electronic soundscape. He never got to the point of pulling it all together and it now exists in many box files of sketches and various soundfiles. This summer I will be sending his manuscripts and electronic material to the National Library of Wales who have agreed to take the estate. His not inconsiderable electronic studio is now housed in the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff where a new generation of students use it.

I've set up a Soundloud page where recordings will be posted - do listen to the wonderful 2nd Piano Sonata in a BBC recording made by Martin Jones in 1980.

For more details of David Lloyd-Howells's work, email Peter Reynolds at
There is also a page devoted to his music at Musicweb International

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Looking Down to the Wye

Penalt Church rests in a timeless secluded site high up overlooking the Wye Valley (Monmouthshire, Wales), reached via a tangle of little roads from Whitebrook or, better still, through a climb up through the meadows and woodland just above Redbrook.

Most of the church dates from the 15th or early 16th century, but the base of its tower is earlier. It is approached through a lychgate and a pathway of pollarded limes to a church door dated 1539.

The simple East end of the interior has an altar rail dating from 1743 and many fascinating early memorials (see below).

A slanting passage also connects the aisle of the church to the East end in a manner very similar to Rhoscrowther in Pembrokeshire (watch out for a blog on this church soon).

Alongside an ancient chest (apparently older than the building itself) are several memorials from the 1630s and 40s. 

It is early spring and the valley is filled with daffodils .