This Autumn, my quartet The Hermes Experiment are working with new music organisation New Dots as part of a concert project featuring three new commissions. Last Wednesday we had an initial workshop with two of the composers writing for us, and I wrote a little something about our experience, and about why I value workshops more generally.


The Joy of Workshops

On Wednesday 31st August we arrived at St John’s Waterloo with our cohort of large (and small) instruments to meet with two of the composers with whom we are working as part of this Autumn’s New Dots concert project – Andrew Thomas and Jia Chai.

As a member of The Hermes Experiment, workshops with composers have become a regular feature of my schedule. They are incredibly useful and enlightening experiences (and this one was no exception), but I believe they are also more generally a very healthy element to have as part of a musical career.  During these havens of experimentation, I am inspired by musical and instrumental ideas the likes of which I have never imagined before, I am motivated by witnessing the hard graft and dedication of composers to their incredibly demanding craft, and of course I am continually challenged beyond my comfort boundaries (something which usually includes highly implausible sight-reading challenges!). As a young professional musician, I count these workshops as invaluable opportunities for inspiration and development, and after a long summer break, our meeting last Wednesday was extremely welcome.

Working on the ideas for both the new works uncovered sounds that we as an ensemble have never created or experienced before. This is partly due to the inspiration behind the two new works: Japanese Noh drama for Andrew, and the sounds and intonation of spoken Chinese for Jia. It is fascinating to see how the two composers are using these diverse sounds, whether it be through inventive recreation on our own instruments, or in more abstract structural elements of their compositions.

Andrew’s multi-movement composition ‘Flowers, aren’t they?’ challenges the ensemble in various ways. We have to blend as one, hold our rhythmic synchronicity in the midst of highly complex writing, pull off performative gestures, and explore semi-improvised sections. I felt exhilarated by the end! It was great to be able to work through the piece with Andrew, hearing and seeing his ideas come to life, receiving feedback, and experimenting with and developing some of his more fledgling ideas.

‘Still Night’ by Jia was equally demanding and interesting. A wide range of soundscapes were created, providing a backdrop for some incredible vocal sounds! We spent a lot of time working out the key mechanics of the piece, as well as discussing the challenging vocal pronunciations for Héloïse and some of the specifics of writing for the harp.

In short, we had a productive and interesting workshop. It is really useful for us as performers to have an idea of the pieces that we will be playing before receiving the final scores, and equally the composers can hear a live version of their ideas which I suspect helps them to consolidate and refine their ideas as they continue with their pieces.

Thank you to New Dots for inviting The Hermes Experiment to be the ensemble for this project – I can’t wait to see, rehearse and perform these two new works amidst the rest of the programme! The concert will be on Wednesday 16th November 2016 – watch out for further details!

(Photo by Cathy Pyle Photography – you can see more photographs from the workshop here.


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