Thomas Hewitt Jones charming new carol ‘Love is the Answer’

I’m loving Thomas Hewitt Jones latest carol, Love is the Answer. Published by Stainer & Bell and scored for full choir and organ or piano, THJ’s latest creation is a rosy and uplifting musical expression of kindness. Love is the Answer is packed full of delectable harmonies that evoke a snow-covered hills and brightly lit cottages with wisps of smoke stretching towards the night sky. And that kind of musical indulgence is allowed at Christmas. It’s the law.

Written during the COVID-19 pandemic, this gentle but uplifting feel to the carol was, according to the composer, intended as “an antidote to the gloom, confusion and negativity of that period”.

That same spirit is evident in the promotional video too and points to what I think is Hewitt-Jones particular brand – charm and enthusiasm brimming in every shot most keenly experienced in the stark interior of an office environment. There is a simplicity to the story that makes the emotion of the piece irresistible.

There’s more from THJ later in the month, including a broadcast of the unapologetically perky Holly and the Ivy on 22nd December performed by the BBC Singers.

Love is the Answer is available for SATB choir with organ or piano. Purchase print or download versions via Stainer & Bell.

Alex Groves ‘Curved Form No. 11’ with Gabriella Swallow, Mira Calix, and Sarah Davachi

Electronic and contemporary classical composer Alex Groves has released a new EP in July – Curved Form No. 11.

No. 11 takes on a linear path, starting with a forensic examination of textures created by cellist Gabriella Swallow (currently touring with the Jess Gillam ensemble amongst other things) before handing the baton to composers Mira Calix and Sarah Davachi to put their spin on Groves’ original vision.

Groves’s original material is hypnotic, drawing attention to minute detail in the same way the brilliant Glass/Reich homage Curved Form No. 4 did. Only here its texture – the detail that would otherwise go overlooked in the melee of cello and accompanying orchestra or piano.

In a similar way, Mira Calix’s remix seeks out that which goes overlooked, bringing to the fore false starts and everyday errors which over time become accepted and familiar. Her remix is pleasingly unsettling, where Sara Davachi uses distant harmonies to evoke gentle excitement. All three slow time and bring unexpected joy.

Concluding the EP is a track with a dreamy dance beat. Listening to it there’s a sense that what we’ve listened to is multiple producers reworking an original idea before one of them settling on the final draft. If that was the intention I like it even more.

Listen to Curved Form No. 11 and download via Bandcamp.

Composer Alex Groves is on Patreon.

Highlights from the Ivor Composer Awards 2019

If one was to do some as seemingly pointless as rank classical music awards ceremonies for their usefulness, their print, the range and availability of food and drink, the speed of cloakroom facilities, or the slickness of the actual event, then the BASCAs (now renamed the Ivors Composer Awards) would come out on top for me.

What the Ivors also have over some of the others on the circuit is an element of usefulness. It’s a platform for the individuals who play a crucial part in the creative process but who often go overlooked save for a credit in a programme. In this way composers can sometimes be the faceless wonders, making identification at composer awards a tricky business to anyone who isn’t a publisher or another composer.

In the presence of people to be grateful for

Note my surprise and excitement then when I discovered that composer Edward Gregson not only won the award he was nominated in the Amateur or Young Performers category for ‘The Salamander and The Moonraker’, but was also sat in the row in front of me. Here, a man responsible for music in my formative County Youth and university music-making days that brought a smile to my face.

The Ivors Composer Awards 2019 at British Museum, London – Edward Gregson, winner of Amateur or Young Performers on Wednesday, 4 December 2019. Photo by Mark Allan

Similarly, a cursory glance of the judges page in the programme revealed that another wind band and TV composer hero of mine – Nigel Hess – was also present. I didn’t get to meet them but felt the undeniable buzz when i discovered I was in the same room as creatives who had unwittingly played such a crucial part in my recovery from depression at University. Hess’ works for wind band, so too Gregson’s, helped provide a sense of purpose and through my responsibilities as wind band conductor, an unexpected element of accountability. Making that connection amid the awards made for an unnerving emotional response. Thank God I wasn’t anywhere near a microphone.

Awards that promote self-discovery

What the composer awards achieve is surfacing that which would normally go overlooked in the on-demand world we exist in. When you’re sat in a room and made to listen to excerpts from new works written by people sat all around you, you can’t help but be interested. And if as you’d expect, those excerpts are an illustration of what prompted the judges to elevate these works for the considerable weighty prize.

The Ivors Composer Awards 2019 at British Museum, London – Laura Jurd, winner of Jazz Composition for Large Ensemble on Wednesday, 4 December 2019. Photo by Mark Allan

That means what you hear is compelling. So compelling in many cases that the ridiculously short excerpts were a major disappointment, compounded by longer descriptions of what we’d just heard. Sometimes its better to just play the music and make your own mind up about it.

Laura Jurd, James MacMillan, and Anna Meredith

Perhaps the flip-side of that is that the short excerpts stimulate self-discovery. So it is this morning I’ve spent time discovering the music of Laura Jurd (Jazz Composition for Large Ensemble winner for ‘Jumping In‘), Sir James MacMillan‘s striking and reassuringly warm ‘O Virgo Prudentissima‘ peppered with the composer’s trademark lush close harmonic writing (Choral nomination), and the brilliant ‘Paramour‘ from Anna Meredith MBE (Innovation). The accompanying video is a visual delight.

Winner of the Sound Art – Martin Green’s ‘Aeons’ category piqued my interest too. Where do immersive soundscapes available on-demand? Green’s work was site-specific, hence the title ‘A Sound Walk for Newcastle’. But, as a listener driven by curiosity, creations like Aeons are my next must-explore. And I’d pay to download artistic explorations like that by the very best in the business. Where do I find that stuff? I’m not clear. It’s not being promoted much.

Charlotte Bray

Props to composer Charlotte Bray (winner Solo/Duo for ‘Invisible Cities‘).

The Ivors Composer Awards 2019 at British Museum, London – Charlotte Bray, winner of Solo or Duo on Wednesday, 4 December 2019. Photo by Mark Allan

I like Charlotte’s musical language, illustrated in the second movement of IC – stripped right back. Delicate composition assets both in terms of harmonies and textures that create a character just about clinging on to what ever it is that is keeping them from their last breath.

A lovely evening showcasing new discoveries and, in the case of cellist Anna Joubert in attendance to hear the performance of one of her recently departed father’s solo work for viola, a chance to bump into people from my arts administration career back when I was young, thin and earnest.

Review: Joby Burgess plays Alex Groves at CLF Art Cafe

Prominent exterior signage would help at Peckham’s CLF. The former cricket bat factory has such a range of office, event and creative spaces that go under the banner of the Bussey that an ill-thought out stride through the wrong entrance could result in disappointment.

After visits there to see Opera Story’s production of Dani Howard’s Robin Hood, and one or two other events I always assume the main spaces are accessed via the side entrance. But there is a door at the front – leading up two flights of stone stairs to an white washed adorned with bulky post-war speakers hinting at its industrial past. That’s the key space for me. I probably just need to make a mental note.

This detail is worth stating again (not least because my archive of blog posts is currently unavailable due to a malware attack). CLF’s interior sets the tone, long before a note has been played. And if you’ve had a fraught day full of busy-ness that tone is distinctively one of escapism. A life never lived because you never dared, now possible because it’s open, uncluttered, unfussy and welcoming.

Joby Burgess at CLF Art Cafe, November 2019

Percussionist Joby Burgess has a similar air. Cool, passionate, proud and excited. He retains the cool-kid-who-plays-the-drums-from school vibe, at the same time as speaking with knowledge, experience and love about every composer’s work he brings to life

Wizard-like creations of live sequences permeated this intimate gig showing Burgess as nimble, light-footed, and assertive, marshalling multiple forces to construct imaginative worlds impossible to ignore. Becca Dale’s work written for Burgess – fun, atmospheric, playful and sweet – did much to set the tone. Spirit and verve gently squeezed out from each tantalising melodic cell. Gabriel Prokofiev’s Fanta Bottle riff was riveting storytelling reminiscent of any GCSE music students composition class, Burgess delivering deft theatre and effortless self-deprecation.

Composer, producer and curator Alex Groves Curved Form was scored largely for tam tams – provided a more reflective piece of storytelling. Not so much chilling as gratifyingly dark. An ambient creation that satisfied my NLP weaknesses, healing the flesh-wounds of the day that had gone before it.

Feldman’s King of Denmark – a whispered response to Stockhausen – continued the compelling listening experience but in comparative terms the material felt more a passive aggressive response to Stockhausen’s creative madness. In that way I’m not sure it worked quite so well in the running order – the other works shone brighter. Max de Wardener’s Winterreise infused exploration pushed us the edges of comfortable listening with anguished fragments of barely recognisable material and very loud drums. Some in the audience stuck their fingers in their ears.

Linda Buckley’s brilliant Discordia for sonic harp complete with rosin-coated gloves made for a mesmerising conclusion. This 2018 Barbican commission deserves more outings in evocative spaces after a recording has been released for streaming and download. An ambient-lover’s must-listen.

Alex Groves continues to show his creative and producer mettle with SOLO which combined with his gentle affability must surely project him and his work higher and higher. So too I hope for CLF Art Cafe which has over the past two years developed into a must-be-booked-at South London venue.

Opera ‘Dead Equal’ launches crowdfunder for Edinburgh Fringe 2019 run

Rose Miranda-Hall was one of the composers who participated in the Wildplum Songbook two-day workshop hosted by PRS for Music. I made a film about it.

Now, she’s working with librettist and singer Lila Palmer and director Miranda Cromwell, on a production of a new opera entitled ‘Dead Equal’, featuring the stories that aren’t heard about women in combat during World War One.

Like the workshop participants who featured in Thoroughly Good Podcast 39, there is an unshakeable energy to be fed off when you’re in the company of enthused individuals. I felt it at PRS for Music, and looking back over some of the footage I captured at last night’s launch event for a film I want to make about their work, I felt it again last night.

More and more I find I’m drawing inspiration from the people I speak to as I make the stuff that seeks to spotlight their endeavours. Powerful.

There are a mammoth 19 shows programmed for ‘Dead Equal’s run at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. I don’t envy them. The Fringe offers great opportunities, but demands a great deal from its performers. I’m in no doubt they’ll triumph, just like the subjects of the story they’re telling.

Pledge your support for ‘Dead Equal’ on the production’s Crowdfunder page.