University issue press release

The University Press Office have issued a media release under the title ‘University of St Andrews challenging young composers to sound the 600th’.  We’re hoping that this will prove useful, both in terms of attracting coverage for the competition itself, as well as the resulting concert…,57728,en.html

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On ‘the amateur orchestra’

I’ve recently finished reading Stuart Feder’s The Life of Charles Ives, in the Cambridge Musical Lives series. Ives has become, since the Symphony Orchestra’s performance of The Unanswered Question eighteen months ago, something of a favourite of mine. I can’t speak up for the biography – it has a great many faults – but it did put the Concord Sonata and Symphony No. 4 back on my playlist. And, equally as important, it prompted me to rethink an interesting issue for orchestras like ours.

The University of St Andrews Symphony Orchestra is an amateur music group.  There’s no getting around this.  We’re of a good standard for an amateur group – most of our players are Grade VIII holders or the local equivalent, and some come to us with Diplomas in hand – but we are not professional.  And we’re not even a ‘proto-professional’ group, such as the NYO or a music-college orchestra intends to be.  Occasionally we have players who go on to make music their career, though the point of our group certainly isn’t to prepare musicians for the profession.

So the question of what our orchestra is for is a difficult one, tied up with what role the institution of amateur music fulfils in society more broadly.  It’s a cultural training ground, no doubt, for performer and audience alike.  It provides a setting for us all to get to know good music better, outwith some of the alienating contexts that orchestral music is often forced to occupy.  (I wouldn’t now be listening to Concord Sonata and reading the Essays Before, if it hadn’t been for playing Unanswered Question eighteen months ago.)  It performs a social function, too: you only need to see us all half an hour after the rehearsal to realise that.

But Ives seemed to me to have it right that the most important function of amateur scene is to provide a genuinely unrestricted space for music.  One reading of Ives’ decision not to participate in professional musical culture it that he feared that the criterion of success imposed by the profession would interfere with genuine innovation and creativity.  Remaining an ‘amateur’, Ives didn’t need to earn money by writing, and therefore wasn’t at the behest of commercialism and musical fashion.  He remained autonomous.

And it’s odd, in a way, that the word ‘amateur’ doesn’t carry these sorts of connotations more directly.  When we hear an orchestra referred to as ‘amateur’, we don’t tend to think first of autonomy.  Neither do we think first of the fact that the members of an amateur orchestra are all there because they think the project valuable, rather than because they are being financially incentivised.  But all of these things are worth keeping in mind.

Obviously, the pieces you write for us will have to be playable.  This is one consequence of writing for an amateur orchestra, and it’s one we hope you won’t find too constraining.  But we hope also that you’ll feel free to write whatever you want to.  You shouldn’t feel constrained by any style, by any trend, or indeed by any feeling that you need to be ‘innovative’ or ‘new’.  Our status means that we’re in the lucky position to conduct a search for good music that is totally unrestricted.

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Cairn o Mohr to provide wine bar

We are happy to report that further support has been secured for the University of St Andrews 600th Anniversary Composition Competition. Cairn o Mohr, a Perthshire based producer of award winning Fruit Wine, has been added to our growing list of commercial sponsors. As such, Cairn o Mohr Fruit Wine exclusively will be served at our shortlist concert on 21 April 2010.

Cairn o Mohr award winning Scottish Fruit Wines are made from the berries, flowers and leaves that grow through the Carse of Gowrie in Perthshire – world famous for it’s berries. Already having a few bottles in my wine rack, I’m very enthusiastic about this partnership. The company offer a wide range of sparkling and still wines: from almost port-like Wild Elderberry red and medium-dry Autumn Oak Leaf white, to sparkling ‘Strawbubbly’. We’re sure you’ll enjoy tasting these at our concert.

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The term begins…

As we enter into term time in St Andrews, preparations are underway for the start of rehearsals. The Symphony Orchestra rehearses once a week for two to three hours, generally with two added intensive all-day weekend sessions each term. Auditions for new and returning players commence next week.

Under Thomas, who is now going into his third year of conducting the orchestra, we’ve taken to spending the first semester working on music from the classical-romantic repertoire, while spending the second semester on a more modern programme. With our second semester concert on 21 April 2011 representing the final of the composition competition, of course, this structure will be preserved this year.

Readers may be interested in what we’re playing during our first semester. We’ve got two concerts planned.

Fri 3 Dec 2010, 1.15pm, Younger Hall St Andrews
Beethoven Overture, Creatures of Prometheus
Sibelius Scene with Cranes
Fauré Pavane
Mozart Horn Concerto No.3 in E flat major (Jethro Dowell, Solo Horn)

Thu 9 Dec 2010, 7.30pm, Younger Hall St Andrews
Brahms Tragic Overture
Mahler Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Annabel Phillips, Mezzo-Soprano)
Brahms Symphony No. 3 in F

We’re yet to announce the pieces that will be performed alongside shortlisted entries at the final of the competition, but you’ll be the first to know when we do.

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Fairmont St Andrews offer support to competition

We are delighted to announce that Fairmont St Andrews have kindly agreed to support the 600th Anniversary Composition Competition. As such, the entrants whose works are shortlisted for judging at our concert of 21 Apr 2011 will, on that evening, be offered a complementary room in Fairmont St Andrews.

Set on a 520 acre estate with a unique coastal setting, the 209 bedroom luxury Scottish hotel was the host of the G20 Summit for the world’s top financial leaders in November 2009, also that year being named International Resort of the Year by Hotel Review Scotland. In 2010, Fairmont St Andrews hosted the Scottish Senior Open and the British Open Qualifier on the Torrance Course, and offer a further 18 hole golf course: the Kittocks. On top of all this, Fairmont St Andrews boasts a signature spa and health club. The shortlisted entrants are in for a treat.

We are very grateful to the competition’s commercial supporters: their support shows great dedication both to the St Andrews community, and to the UK musical scene more broadly.

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Is there justification for amplification?

This is a cross-post with

There has been much furore in the blogosphere recently concerning the views of Jonathan Harvey, one of the most well-respected of British composers. Specifically, during a broadcast interview with Bob Shingleton for Future Radio, Harvey suggested that classical concerts of the future could use electronic amplification in order to attract younger audiences. His comments were covered by the national media including The Guardian and The Telegraph.

Firstly, what he actually said: “….the mass of young people don’t like concert halls… They wouldn’t normally go to one except for amplified music. They have no concept of what it is to hear music as soft as a pin dropping and that kind of delicacy and refinement. So there’s a big divide between amplified music and non-amplified music and the two cultures. I think what the future must bring is things which are considered blasphemous like amplifying classical music in an atmosphere were people can come and go, where they can even talk, perhaps, and it wouldn’t be sacrilege and they can certainly leave in the middle of a movement if they feel like it. These are the sort of situations where young people’s music takes place”.

He goes on to note that many people are being deprived of classical music due to the off-putting nature of concert hall etiquette. Notice at no point did he advocate the electronic amplification of all classical concerts, although try telling that to a few hysterical bloggers (including Fiona Maddocks in The Observer).

There are a few issues here that have been bundled together: namely, the use of amplification in the concert hall and the supposed relationship between concert hall protocol and the absence of young people in the audience.

Those who have been horrified by the suggestion of amplification in classical gigs (and there have been many) are presumably concerned with the amplification of music that wasn’t originally intended to be made louder. There is plenty of (new-ish) music that intentionally mixes live, unamplified sound with amplified recordings (including many works by Jonathan Harvey himself). But is there nothing to be said for the artistic use of amplification in old-music concerts?

Much of the frothy indignation appearing on the web this week over the issue has been a result of considering “amplification” as synonymous with rock-‘n’-roll volume levels. Whilst cranked-up decibel levels would indeed affront our well-developed listening culture, can the same be said for the subtle use of amplification for musical reasons? For me, arguments that assert that any use of amplification would automatically distort the intentions of performers (and indeed composers) is a false one; works originally intended for small, intimate venues are now routinely played in cavernous auditoriums. For example, I have attended numerous concerts in churches with unbearably-long reverberation times. Were the resulting muddy textures and lack of clarity any more of a distortion of the composer’s/performer’s goals than a bit of electronic enhancement? Why do we allow (albeit grudgingly) the distortions that unsympathetic architecture inflicts upon music but not the enhancements that a sensitive electronic amplification could bring? Just think of all the wonderful, subtle shades of piano that could be expressed by means of amplification, for example, which are usually lost when a soloist is required to project into a large concert space above the sound of a symphony orchestra. Electronic amplification can theoretically be used as an expressive tool to add nuance to a musical performance, not just to make it louder (and let’s not forget that the Royal Festival Hall used electro-acoustic “assisted resonance” from 1964 to 1999).

Many performers may feel aggrieved by the suggestion of amplification, its “interference” with their performance, the lack of total control of sound that performers desire, not to mention the difficulties in monitoring one’s performance in a miked-up situation. Performers are trained to project their sound by working with (and sometimes against) the acoustics of the performance space, this ability being a necessary and prized asset. Sound production is a personal thing for musicians and working with a sound engineer would naturally enforce a degree of collaboration.

However, if used, amplification creates another layer of artistic opportunities; the decisions that have to be made are similar to those of the recording process (for example the type of microphones used, their placement, how the sound is mixed, which frequencies are attenuated etc). The common suggestion that there aren’t many people who could be trusted to amplify classical music (ostensibly because live sound engineers usually “only” work in the pop domain) is nonsense. Not only would the regular amplification of concerts create better training opportunities for classical sound engineers but many commentators seem to underestimate the complexity of recording, producing and mastering a pop track to professional standards (you can’t just plug in and turn up to eleven if you want the finished product to sound good). If amplification is used, a fine rapport with a good sound engineer would be essential; it’s no wonder that the Kronos Quartet (who only ever performed amplified) consider their sound engineer, Scott Fraser, to be an intrinsic member of the ensemble (read about his work here ).

So the (incorrect) assertion that amplification is a blunt, unsympathetic tool cannot be reason enough to dismiss it out of hand. Nor can the difficulties of achieving a good sound-balance (amplifying a whole orchestra is a difficult and expensive exercise, although certainly not impossible). The main reason not to amplify is that amplification for the sake of amplification is not necessary; Jonathan Harvey’s comments, although well-meaning, teeter on the edge of the cliché that the yoof are unable to appreciate subtlety, can’t sit still and can only exhibit one mode of behaviour when attending musical performances. The desire of the audience to talk and move around (thus the need for blanket amplification) is overstated; people don’t talk at the cinema and nor do they feel the need to go for a wander. However, Harvey’s underlying suggestion, that music should be presented in a manner familiar and comfortable to its targeted audience, seems rather like stating the obvious to me. Classical music doesn’t belong to one age group, social class or income-bracket, it belongs to anyone who cares to listen. However, that mode of listening (in a live scenario) is dictated by a social convention which is upheld by one particular social class and age group. It doesn’t suit everyone, so why not supplement it with other modes of listening?

Of course, some have; the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment present late-evening classics at the Roundhouse as part of their “Nightshift” series; Icebreaker, like Kronos, only ever perform amplified; in Scotland the Red Note ensemble have taken over where Paragon left off by regularly performing new music in bars. There are probably many more examples although these remain the exceptions rather than the norm. Maybe Harvey hints at a future where, having lost the aged audience and associated ticket sales, what is now considered outreach work will become an everyday occurrence for established musical ensembles.

Meanwhile there are several schemes that encourage young people to go to standard classical events including Manchester’s Sonic Card and Glasgow’s Fonic Card (disclaimer: I was slightly involved with the Glasgow version). These two schemes are independent of each other (the similarity of name is entirely coincidental….) and both work by offering cheap tickets coupled with a core of young volunteers who publicise the gigs and engage with the young audience. This lends both schemes an air of “for us, by us” authenticity despite being backed by major arts organisations; to get more young people into the concert hall you need to engage and invite them.

Tellingly, the flurry of indignation aimed towards Harvey refers only to a short extract of an excellent interview. In the unedited version (listen to it here) the composer speaks gently but passionately about a variety of subjects (including Benjamin Britten, Hans Keller, Milton Babbitt, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Rudolf Steiner, Buddhism, serialism and spectralism) for over forty minutes. His comments regarding the future of the concert hall occupy less than ninety seconds. Whilst there is plenty of room for debate over the way classical music is presented it seems a pity on this occasion that it replaces discussion of the other things Jonathan Harvey speaks of, not to mention his music. If we’re all getting hot under the collar over concert protocol rather than the music itself, what message does that send to those who haven’t yet experienced live classical music?

Thomas Butler

Thomas Butler is a composer and conductor of the University of St Andrews Symphony Orchestra

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Message of support from Fiona Hyslop MSP

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