How can competitions support new music?

Clare Simmonds
October 22, 2017

Competitions that include new music are not unusual. However, the Trinity Laban John Halford Piano and Composition Competition is unique. In no other UK conservatoire do piano students collaborate with composition students to write them a piece for performance within a 20-minute programme of contemporary works of the pianists’ own choice; prizes are awarded to composers and pianists independently of duos formed. Clare Simmonds talks to this year’s winners alongside the current organisers Douglas Finch (piano) and Dominic Murcott(composition), to discover what makes the event special, ahead of the Prizewinning Recital at Borough New Music on Tuesday 31 October 2017. 

DOMINIC MURCOTT – Head of Composition, Trinity Laban

CS: What are the joys of this competition, in your view?

DM: Well, first, anyone who enters gets a performance. For me, the tradition of a lot of classical music competitions (the most heinous being the orchestral competitions) is problematic: you pay £25 and you send in the piece that has taken you two years to write, and then they let you know if you’ve won or not. The world must have a lot of garages containing folders of unplayed pieces! I always think this is a disappointing way of running a competition. The joy of this one is that anyone who enters actually works with the pianist and gets their work played.

The other great thing about it is that it demands a relationship with the pianist. In professional life, especially as you get into orchestral writing, that relationship with a performer disappears, and it all becomes narcissistic, about the composer’s own experience. The nice thing about this is that to do it well, you have to build a relationship with the player. You can’t help but benefit from that. Whether you win or not, it doesn’t matter: you’ve developed this relationship, you’ve had a piece played, and you’ve learnt not only about yourself as a composer but about the performer as well.

CS: Any negative aspects?

DM: Well, you know, writing music is hard. Some people find writing music easy, but I know some very successful composers who find it hard. So for the (generally) young people who enter this competition, it’s challenging! They’re self-critical, they feel under pressure from all quarters, and so there’s just that emotional challenge of creating something and then putting yourself up for critique.

Competitions are weird things – they’re not true. It’s rather like the issue of marking, which is something we’ve been doing a lot of work on at TL recently. You know, marking isn’t ‘true’, it’s a considered opinion that has gone through a process. Maybe if you get enough marking by enough different people, you could approach something that could feel like truth, but a single exam is not truth, and a single competition is absolutely not truth because it’s someone’s opinion. The prize will go to the piece that the adjudicator likes, and that’s fine, as long as people can separate personal sleight from just the fact that someone liked someone else’s music more than yours because it fitted their own model more than yours did.

CS: Is it a challenge to compose for the piano?

DM: We could imagine a time where anyone who studied composition at a conservatoire had to be a fine pianist. Arguably it would be a nice place to go back to. But the truth is, today, our composers are hardly pianists at all. I’m certainly not! Writing for the piano when you’re not a pianist is really hard. It is actually a mystery instrument. So yes, it is a real challenge. If you write for the harp, you know, composers get away with writing great ideas but using terrible technique – it’s almost accepted that hardly any one writes well for the harp! Whereas with the piano, there’s an expectation of doing it well, pianistically. So it’s easy to forget how hard it is to write for the piano.

DOUGLAS FINCH – Professor of Piano and Composition, Trinity Laban

CS: Why is this competition special?

DF: Well, almost every year, the adjudicator comments that it’s fantastic, because it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the UK. It is unique. It has been held every year for at least 15 years, and in that time, we’ve never cancelled one – there has always been enough people to do it! Plus, it’s open to the public to come and listen.

CS: Why do pianists benefit from it?

DF: The most important thing is that pianists learn a new piece that has been written by someone they actually know – which a lot of them haven’t done before.

In some cases, they have very fruitful discussions, in terms of what comes out of that piece. Last year, for instance, a student’s piece went through all sorts of changes, not only with me [as their teacher], but with others… things we thought didn’t work at all, and we got the composer in and discussed it, and tried out all sorts of different things….

I think it’s also a chance for them to think about what other repertoire in 20th and 21st century would work alongside their new piece. You know, in other competitions, the contemporary piece can be a bit of a ‘token’. Often in those situations, everyone has to learn a contemporary piece, but no one has a real relationship with the composer, they just have to fit it in somehow with all their other repertoire. Whereas in this case, the pianist has a commitment to the composer. For instance, one of my students really didn’t like contemporary music, so she found a fairly conventional programme that sort of fitted the bill – what I call ‘easy listening’. And when it came to the piece written for her, we had a real conflict about it! I had to say “you’ve committed to it, so you’ve got to go through with it”. Despite pulling teeth and all that, it came off so well that the piece won the composition prize! My student suddenly realised that actually this wasn’t a bad piece, and it had made an effect. It was a revelation for her.

From the point of view of the composer, I think a lot of them haven’t written a piano piece before, or have never had one performed, and it’s really a chance to encapsulate their imaginative process. It can certainly have more immediacy than an orchestral work that won’t be performed soon or some other complex thing that won’t be fully realised.

CS: As a piano teacher, do you notice that the event makes a difference to your students’ outlook?

DF: Students often come to me saying that their colleagues ask, “Why are you playing all this contemporary music? It’s not going to get you anywhere, and you’ll be penalised in your exam if you play all this weird stuff”. Those myths still exist! The more of them that get involved in this, the more those prejudices disappear. Trinity Laban’s CoLab projects help with this too.

CS: Is it good that it’s a competition not a concert? Why compete?

DF: Like any competition, the competitive element is not the ‘be all and end all’. It allows students to get some feedback [all participants receive written comments from the adjudicator]. The competitive aspect gives them that extra bit of motivation I think. Of course, we try to put on concerts too – we have a contemporary festival every June. It’s just another forum.

JOE HOWSON won the pianists’ prize for a programme that included a new work by Harry Palmer, plus works by Sorabji and Adès.

CS: How did you meet your composer, Harry Palmer? Did you know him beforehand?

JH: Well, I sought him out, because last year he won the [TL] Gold Medal. I was just the first to get in before a million other pianists asked! We were in the same year at TL, so I did know him beforehand.

CS: What happened? How did it work?

JH: I asked him to write me a piece, he came with something, we worked on it together and made a few changes. It was nice and collaborative. We didn’t take it to anyone else!

CS: How did you choose the rest of your programme? Did it have any bearing on the piece written for you?

JH: Yes it did, actually. I wanted to frame it, with a traditional slow piece in the middle – ie fast, slow, fast – classical with a contemporary twist. So my programme included two pieces in very different styles that I really enjoy working on, and I thought that was a nice variety.

CS: How did you feel when you won?

JH: Incredibly surprised! Very happy.

CS: You compose yourself don’t you? Does that make you change your view of composers?

JH: I’ve started trying to compose, but it’s painstakingly slow. Yes, once you have a go for yourself, you understand how intricate the whole process is. More than anything, it makes you feel grateful that someone has taken the time to write a piece for you!

CS: Do you think the process of working with a composer is something you’ll do again?

JH: Yes! In fact, I’m doing it now. I’m currently recording another piece by a student composer at the Royal College of Music. The course that I’m on now is very intertwined with the composition department, so I’m hoping to collaborate a lot more.

MIKE WORBOYS won the composition prize for ‘Bone Memories’ performed by Ieva Dubova[Hear this on Youtube.]

CS: How did you meet your pianist?

MW: It was through another student who was a friend of Ieva’s, who said that Ieva was looking for a composer to write a piece for the competition, and so I basically said “Yeah I’ll do that, it would be good fun!”.

CS: How did you feel about the collaboration? Was it a new experience?

MW: I always like working with a performer. That to me is the perfect way of composing. I don’t really believe in the idea of the composer going away into another world and coming up with something and then delivering it to the performer, although that does happen, of course. I’d much rather work with the performer to develop something that we’re both happy with. That’s my preferred way of working.

CS: How long did you have between the first meeting and the finished piece?

MW: I did it in drafts. I collaborated with Ieva. I came up with a first draft I think in a matter of two weeks of something. We went through it, and she made some suggestions as to what might make it more effective. She did quite a lot of stuff about pedalling, and then we did another draft. I think we did three drafts altogether, so it really was a collaborative process. (Incidentally, to clarify further the Borough New Music interview about this piece on Resonance FM, I’d like to emphasise that ‘Bone Memories’ isn’t a gloomy piece! It’s just about resonance and sound – that’s it.)

CS: Have you written for piano before?

MW: My instrument is piano. Not that I’m a professional pianist, but I’ve played the piano since I was about nine. When I was in my teens, I wrote quite a bit for the piano, but this was the first piece I’d written in the last ten years for the piano.

CS: Do you think you’d do this again in future?

MW: Definitely. I’ve finished at Trinity Laban and have just started a PhD at Durham. There are already some opportunities here – I’m looking forward to working with a variety of performers.

The adjudicator for 2017’s competition, Ian Pace, awarded Mike Worboys the composition prize, and Joe Howson the pianist prize. This prize is the legacy of distinguished composer and teacher at TL (formerly Trinity College of Music), John Halford. Ian Pace also commended the pianists Marisa Muñoz Lopez, Chen Zhang and Mahsa Salali, and the composer Rotem Sherman.

On Tuesday 31 October 2017 at 1pm, these participants will perform in the 2017 Trinity Laban John Halford Competition Prizewinning Recital at St George the Martyr Church SE1 1JA as part of Borough New Music Series 2 (free admission with light refreshments afterwards). The programme is: 

  • Harry Palmer – Birthday Song for Erwin (2017) played by Joe Howson
  • Kaikhosru Sorabji (1892-1988) – Transcendental Etude 20 ‘con fantasia’ (1944) played by Joe Howson
  • Thomas Adès (b. 1971) – Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face (2009) (movements I & IV) played by Joe Howson
  • Michael Worboys (winning composer) – Bone Memories (2017) played by Ieva Dubova
  • Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938) – Piano Piece IV (1977) played by Mahsa Salali
  • Rotem Sherman (commended composer) – Home (2017) played by Rotem Sherman
  • Toby Ingram – Into the Unknown (2017) played by Marisa Muñoz Lopez
  • Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) – Praludien zu Tristan (2003) played by Neus Peris Ferrer

Footnote: Over the decades in which this competition has been running, a huge range of different works has emerged. If you remember or were involved in one, please comment below. Here are two examples to set the ball rolling…