Why we sing new music


In the last few years, our summer concert has become a time for us to explore new music – sometimes that means pieces that are just new to us, such as the ravishing House of the Mind by Howells, that we sang last year, but it often also means really new, freshly written music by living composers. Singing recently composed pieces is particularly exciting as it reminds us that choral music is not a fossil in a museum, it’s a living, breathing animal that is continuing to evolve. It also helps us, as a group, to grow together: when we sing a very new piece of music, no-one has the advantage of having sung it before; no-one is having to erase instructions from other conductors, and so we create our own performance together, from scratch.

As singers we’re incredibly lucky, and spoilt for choice, when it comes to new music. Our deeply embedded tradition of choral singing, and a thriving community of choirs means that there is a lot of support for commissioning and performing new works; and having such a wide variety of ensembles, from large un-auditioned groups to the slickest professional consorts, means there is a wealth of choral music being written for all levels of musical ability, for choirs of all shapes and sizes, and for many different audiences. 

The British composer Howard Skempton has written a wide range of music, from instrumental miniatures to larger orchestral works, and, increasingly, choral music: he says that he enjoys the expressive potential that comes from writing for voices. When you hear his music, what strikes you is its delicacy and clarity, with the sound stripped back to its bare essentials. In a Q&A on Twitter (that helpfully coincided with this blog post), Skempton talked about finding focus and economy in his composing style – you get the impression that he is brimming over with ideas, but that he likes to use them sparingly in any one piece.

The piece we’re singing by Skempton, He wishes for the cloths of heaven is a setting of the famous verse by Yeats. It’s one of those poems that has become rather tired with over-use, especially its final line, “tread softly, for you tread on my dreams”, but Skempton’s setting deftly avoids sentimentality: it’s sweetly sincere, full of the earnest optimism of the young lad whose dreams have not yet been diluted by reality. In the Twitter questions, when asked about his approach to setting a well-loved text, Skempton replied “My approach to a text is always respectful. The worst thing would be if the setting somehow demeaned the poem”. I asked him about how he approaches a new text, to which he replied that he starts with the rhythmic character of the text, he types  it out and works on the rhythm first: in He wishes for the cloths of heaven, the result is a gentle lilt that captures the enthusiasm and love of the speaker, and keeps the words bouncing along. Have a listen:

If you enjoy this, and want to listen to more Skempton, then the disc “Ben Somewhen” a collection of beautifully crafted chamber and choral pieces, is a good place to start: www.nmcrec.co.uk/recording/ben-somewhen. And Skempton’s most recent recording, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with Roderick Williams, went into the classical charts at no.2.  

From the Irish poet Yeats, we hop across the Atlantic for the other living composer featured in our concert, the American Augusta Read Thomas. She’s one of the most widely performed living composers in the US, but she’s relatively unknown here, so we’re very happy to introduce you to her music. Her career began with large orchestral works, and in an interview on her website, she talks about the excitement of bringing out all the rhythmic and harmonic colours available in an orchestra. Another area that interests her is dance; she has composed several ballets, and like the great baroque composers, dance is an underlying feature of much of her work – she talks about how she composes standing up, dancing, conducting and singing all the parts as she does. There’s something of this very physical connection to the music in her Two E. E. Cummings Songs for ladies’ voices: (kiss me) is beguiling, light and flirtatious, and the music for sky candy sprouting violets follows the idiosyncratic layout of the poem, with little kaleidoscopic patterns jumping around the page. We’ve previously sung settings of E. E. Cummings by Eric Whitacre and Judith Weir, and his startling, abstract imagery is clearly a gift to imaginative composers.


Listen to Two E. E. Cummings Songs  on Augusta Read Thomas’s website – where you can also explore lots of other recordings of her music, and watch video interviews.


Of course, every piece of music was new once, and I often wonder what it was like to hear or sing some of the greatest works of our repertoire for the first time. In 500 years, will people be asking themselves the same question about Howard Skempton or Augusta Read Thomas? Come and hear us singing their music at Brancepeth on 24 June, and decide for yourself.

Jane Shuttleworth
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