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Howard Skempton

One of my composer gurus is Howard Skempton. I wouldn’t want to worry him about this, but almost anything he says is pondered carefully by me. Recently, he stated: “I just know that, as a composer and an experimentalist, if I work with the grain, if I follow the rules, then something surprising will happen. It always does.” Working in a musical area where “challenging” (the instrument, the performer, the audience) has become an often rather boring norm, the idea that working with the system will produce interesting results comes as balm to the soul, as well as good advice to composers.

Howard’s special (I have to call it) genius was on show at yet another fascinating BCMG concert last weekend. Featuring a cast of just four (oboe and string trio) with a cameo by Howard himself on accordion, the programme which had toured widely to remote countryside locations, focused on work arising out of Howard’s collaboration with textile artist Matthew Harris . Firstly (as the audience saw on film) Howard and Matthew viewed ancient maps of Shropshire fields in an archive – charming, childlike representations of people’s fields and trees. Matthew then created a beautiful textile (pictured) closely resembling the maps – he told the audience how enjoyable it had been to work so much with the colour yellow. On seeing this, Howard established some rules for himself, out of which emerged the marvellous Field Notes, a song-like movement for oboe and strings, impregnated with linear, intense but suave harmony, the most contrapuntal Skempton piece I’ve ever heard (performed with characteristic intelligence and poise by oboist Melinda Maxwell).

After some days reflection I think I understand how the linear patterns in Matthew’s cloth have been transcribed by Howard into music. I told him its sound-world suggested late-late-Fauré to me (he was not averse to this description) even though maybe some of its features are happy accidents of the system. In any case, the beautiful medium of oboe plus string trio has a new repertoire item, which I can’t wait to hear again.




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