2015/16 Composers' Academy, Thursday 23 June 2016, Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall

The Philharmonia Orchestra's Composers' Academy, in partnership with the Royal Philharmonic Society, presents world premières from three young composers. Over the course of the year they work closely with Philharmonia musicians, visiting composers and Music of Today Artistic Director Unsuk Chin. We are delighted to announce our three emerging composers in the 2016/17 season - Lisa Illean, Gareth Moorcraft and Donghoon Shin.

In this blog, Ivan Hewett explores the music of composers Michael Taplin, Desmond Clarke and Patrick John Jones, performed in our 2015/16 Composers' Academy concert on Thursday 23 June 2016 in the Royal Festival Hall. Read more below and listen to extracts from last season's Music of Today series in our SoundCloud playlist.



It’s a commonplace to say that no single style can claim to be the mainstream in new music. Complexity, post-minimalism, neo-romanticism, the new simplicity all live happily (or at least politely) alongside each other.

This means that teaching young composers has become an enormously difficult and delicate task. The wise older hand has to divine the expressive purposes of the tyro, and help him/her acquire the technical means to achieve it. That is the aim of the Philharmonia’s Composers Academy.  Each year this programme offers three young composers a chance to create a new work for a group of Philharmonia players, under the guidance of the Music of Today artistic director Unsuk Chin. Masterclasses, seminars, and a chance to hear their pieces ‘workshopped’ by the Philharmonia players before the ink is dry, are all part of the deal. It’s not surprising that competition for the three places in the Academy is fierce.

Some schemes for young composers throw up winners of startling diversity, in line with the diversity of new music in general. That wasn’t the case here. The prevailing aesthetic of the Music of Today series, weighted heavily towards challenging modernist fragmentation, surely exerted its own filtering effect on the field of applicants. So it’s not surprising that the three composers chosen this year – Michael Taplin, Desmond Clarke and Patrick John Jones – had a number of family likenesses.

One of them revealed itself before we had heard a note of their music, during the pre-performance chat. Quizzed about the expressive qualities of their music, they all showed a certain squeamishness about tying down their music to a specific image or emotion. What matters for all three of them is working out a purely musical discourse, for which a picture or narrative is only the germinating impulse.

As for the pieces, they all shared a fondness for expressionist extremes of register (clarinettist Mark van de Wiel has surely never played so many stratospherically high notes in one evening), and all three were inspired by imagery and ideas drawn from processes in nature. Another thing they had in common was a blurring of the line between counterpoint and texture, by teasing a tight cluster of notes into insect-like motion, or forming tangled skeins of musical lines all moving at different speeds. Yet another was what one might call a ‘discourse of crisis’, whereby an unfolding process gathered intensity and complexity until it reached a cul-de-sac of nerve-shredding tension. The only way out was a collapse into the opposing state of sudden stillness, or frenetic movement.

Lambent Fires by Michael Taplin was the piece which showed this quality most nakedly. The composer told us that everything rose from a central line or cantus firmus, but this was rarely discernible amidst the flames, which burst to life instantly in the piece’s brilliantly arresting opening pages. The wood-wind swirls and leaping horn lines of this opening were soon swept aside by a furious gesture on the double bass, which recurred whenever any idea became too well-established, as if the piece were constantly activating an auto-destruct function. Towards the end the confrontation between solid line and flame-like gesture worked itself into a frenzy, brought to an end by a peremptory football whistle.

Desmond Clarke’s Xyla projected a very different sound-world, less tense and more playful in its oppositions.  The composer tells us he was inspired by the growth and development of plants, and tried to capture their ‘searching, organic quality, their chaotically elegant structures, and the gradual transformations they work on their surroundings’. One could sense this in the groping overlapping string glissandi of the opening, which seemed persistent and yet somehow blind. These were reminiscent of Xenakis, while the surprising and delightful intrusion of unco-ordinated whistling from the players was a distant echo of the ocarinas in Ligeti’s Violin Concerto. But these echoes enlarged the piece, rather than diminishing it.

The final piece, Patrick Jones’s Locks of the Approaching Storm, was as swirling and self-consuming as Taplin’s piece, except that here the consuming elements were cloud, wind and water, rather than fire. It took its inspiration from Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, which compares a storm approaching over the horizon to ‘the bright hair uplifted from the head of some fierce Maenad…’  Tentative gestures involving flutter-tonguing on flute and clarinet – a sound once banished as a cliché but which here sounded remarkably fresh – built tension slowly. In the foreground all seemed swirling movement; in the background were subtly varied chordal patterns, surging like the sea’s swell. Once again, abstract process joined hands with the evocation of natural process, an idea which suggests another potent influence on these young composers: Harrison Birtwistle.

Ivan Hewett

The 2016/17 Composers' Academy concert takes place on Wednesday 21 June 2017 at 6pm in the Royal Festival Hall. Admission is free and unticketed - just turn up! Find out more here