In what already seems like a legendary summer, my diary obliged with an almost entirely clear August. The one event marked in was a yearly visit I’d never want to miss – Sound and Music’s composition summer school. In temperatures well above 30 degrees I boarded a boiling train to Bushey, and found the assembled composers and their tutors (housed in the pleasant Purcell School buildings) bouncing with energy, three days in, at seven in the evening.
Invited to speak to the whole group – who during the week's course follow different creative callings, including jazz, non-western music, vocal composition – I hoped it would be helpful to explore ways of abbreviating notation, and still getting what you want to happen. When you have to create a whole piece for performance in one week – a challenge facing every one of my hearers – it would be relaxing to think you don’t necessarily have to write out every note. A facet of SAM’s summer school which I totally love is the excellence of the technical support. Director Judith Robinson ‘effortlessly’ assembled wonderful musicians (including Tom Kemp and Richard Harwood) to play musical extracts live; whilst my brilliant interlocutor David Horne would from time to time leap up to play complicated piano examples from memory. Later a group of volunteer singers graciously emerged from the audience to sightread Sylvia Lim’s beautiful paperwings, a fine example of minimal notation used to maximal effect.
Needless to say, following the session, I realised that the students were already way ahead of me. Alison Cox sent one of her group, Luke Askew, back to the classroom (I think ‘lab’ is a more appropriate term) to show me his emerging prototype for a 3D score – pictured. I’d also like to express my gratitude to another student (sorry, name lost in the melee) who spoke to me, with great relevance, about the music of Earle Brown, the ‘inventor’ of proportional notation. Earle was one of the composers, a kind, interesting man, who taught me in a Tanglewood class in 1975 – but it’s several decades since I’ve come across his work, whilst other experimental composers of his vintage have more than prospered. I’ve since much enjoyed visiting his website archive, unknown to me before this fortuitous conversation at SAM. How often do we say it; our students are our teachers. I have to remind myself that all these clued-up people are still at secondary school, aged 18 and below.