Composing Music In Today’s World


Nick Atkinson, MMus, Bath Spa University

7 March 2012


This was a joint talk given by the two main teachers of composition on the B.A. Music course at Bath Spa University. Nick Atkinson has been on the staff since 1978, while James Saunders joined in 2007. Mr Atkinson relates his composing career, much of which has been in collaboration with visual artists, to the return to tonality in the period after 1970, and the rise of minimalist techniques. James Saunders, born in 1972, relates his very different compositional approach to the experimental music in Britain during the late 1950s and 1960s, an era before he was born.

Nick began by playing brief illustrative extracts from works which were new when he was in his mid-teens. The first two were Steve Reich’s Violin Phase (1967) and Milton Babbitt’s Correspondences (also 1967). In the Reich piece, the characteristics of the new ‘minimalist’ style were already present. These were, evidently, clarity and transparency, a firm pulse, and a texture based on constant repetition. In the Babbitt piece, however, one is chiefly conscious of a deep complexity, a texture which is opaque and obscure, with no pulse or sense of ‘timing’.

Further extracts were played from the following works:

  • Michael Gordon: Weather (1997) for string orchestra, with trumpet in Movt. 1, electronics in Movt. 2 and audio playback in Movt. 3
  • Michael Daugherty: Metropolis Symphony – Lex (1988-1991) for full orchestra, including a very large and varied percussion section.  First performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Zinman in 1995
  • Robert Ashley: Perfect Lives (1978-84) for instrumental ensemble with speaking voice
  • Laurie Anderson: O Superman (1981)
  • Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (1974-1976) in the ‘Phased and Konfused’ remix by D*
  • Michael Nyman: Film score: Drowning by Numbers (1988) for a film by Peter Greenaway
  • Ostinato with simple harmonies
  • Michael Nyman: Film score: The Piano (1993) the film directed by Jane Campion; Lyric style, neo-romantic, with no ‘sense of protest’

The two leading American figures, enormously influential internationally since minimalism began, have been Philip Glass (b. 1935) and John Adams (b. 1948). Glass is famous for his earlier operas, such as Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten, centred on a single charismatic historical figure. Adams is also celebrated as an opera composer (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic) as well as for instrumental works like A Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Grand Pianola Music, and Harmonielehre.

The ‘complex’ style has persisted alongside minimalism. Representatives of ‘complexity’ in Britain have been James Dillon and Brian Ferneyhough, as well as, in certain ways, James Macmillan and John Tavener, both of whom might also be called lyric composers in some of their works. Complexity is married to popular and jazz elements in the work of the prolific Mark Anthony Turnage, composer of the operas The Silver Tassie  (after Sean O’Casey) and Anna Nicole. The point was made that minimalism sounded new in 1970, yet the actual materials were very old, originating in the 19th and even in the 18th centuries. The figure who ‘gave composers permission to do what they wanted’ was, of course, John Cage (1913-1993), the great American experimentalist, whose influence on extending the boundaries of what was possible in music (including silence) cannot be overestimated.

Steve Reich  (b. 1936)

Nick Atkinson has worked collaboratively with the artist and animator Robert Fearns (a teacher at BSU’s School of Art and Design) over many years. Their work Galleries date from the 1990s, and followed visits to Florence (the Uffizi Gallery), Paris (the Louvre) and Madrid (the Prado). Nick made the point that the strong pulse of the music complemented the strong visual pulse of the work of Fearns the filmmaker. Extracts shown included two armoured figures, and two very well dressed young girls, followed by a very well dressed mature woman. Also from the 1990s came Abbey Ladders, based on the Jacob’s Ladder motif on Bath Abbey’s West Front. This was characterised by harpsichord ‘chatter’ alongside the strings texture of two violins and cello. Much more recently, in 2011, Nick has collaborated with the sculptor Angela Cockayne (also on the staff of BSU School of Art and Design) in a project with the title R’s Orphan, part of a film entitled Rachel’s Orphan. In a long extract, we were shown firstly, a woman painting, in real time, the letters NOSUICIDESPERMITTEDHERE as one word, then a man on a floating surfboard in the sea, followed by a woman doing the same. The musical accompaniment to this was a simple, slow tonal waltz. One was distantly reminded of the slow movement from Ravel’s 1930 G major Piano Concerto.

John Adams (b. 1947)

Professor James Saunders began his talk with a screened title ‘Group Behaviours: some methods for the contingent organisation of large ensembles.’ He was keen to demonstrate what it is that orchestras actually do, given that the orchestra consists of 80 or so players whose life is based on their being very good at making music. James quoted the influential American experimental composer Christian Wolff (b.1934), who has observed that ‘apart from giving individual players ranges of choice in what and how to play, my main interest has been in the mutual effects players have on each other in the real time of performance.’ Another key figure for James is the British composer Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981), founder of the Scratch Orchestra, an experimental performing ensemble. Praised for his musicianship by Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose assistant in Cologne he was from 1958 to 1960, Cardew was deeply influenced by John Cage, and also took part in the British premiere of Pierre Boulez’s epoch-making Le Marteau sans Maitre in 1957. Following Treatise in 1963-67, a graphic score covering 193 pages, in which the players are given a great deal of freedom in what and how to play, Cardew’s next work, The Great Learning (1968-71) took Ezra Pound’s Confucius translations as its starting point. It led to the beginnings of the Scratch Orchestra. James Saunders showed the outline sheet of instructions to the players, which began ‘Make or hear an isolated sound, and hear out the following general pause.’ Then a set of four sounds, the first one synchronised. The sequence, in capitals, is both political and exhortatory - THE EMPEROR-SON OF HEAVEN-(DOWN TO X 3)-THE COMMON MAN-SIMPLY AND ALTOGETHER-THIS SELF-DISCIPLINE IS THE ROOT.

Another influence on James Saunders has been the American improviser John Zorn, notably his work Cobra (New York City, October 1984). In this work, Zorn says that ‘anybody, anytime can call for a downbeat/cue; anybody, anytime can hold/delay a downbeat.’ He (Zorn) states that players should use hand-signals to request cues from the prompter, that the prompter should use cue-cards to signal the players, and that the prompter may also initiate cues, including cues by mouth-movement or nose-signals.

Magnus Lindberg, Finnish composer  (b. 1958)

In his 1988 work Conversing with Cage, which appeared five years before John Cage’s death in 1993, Richard Kostelanetz quoted the master as saying: ‘Sometimes compatibility hides itself. Probably we are ultimately compatible with everything, but we make it impossible for things to reach us, or they just don’t cross our paths, or some such thing.’ Compatibility Hides Itself thus became the title of a piece by James Saunders for solo flute and piano, from which we heard an extract.

The following works by him were also featured in sound extracts:

  • 511 Possible Mosaics (1999) for flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, horn, trombone, percussion (1 player), violin, cello and double bass
  • # (Unassigned) (2000-2009) for medium-sized instrumental ensemble
  • # 211007 – one of 175 versions of #(Unassigned), each individual version taking the date of the performance as the title of the format. It was commissioned for the Donaueschingen Festival of Contemporary Music, Germany in 2007 and was performed there by the distinguished group Ensemble Modern
  • Either/Or (2009) for chamber ensemble
  • Geometria Situs (2009-2010) a 25-minute piece for orchestra
  • Things Whole or Not Whole (2011) for a group of at least 40 players. Instrumentation is not specified, as players source their own materials. This piece derived its inspiration from a quotation from the Tenth fragment of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (Fl. C. 500BC) which runs: ‘Things grasped together, things whole or not whole: what is drawn together and what is drawn asunder, the harmonious and the discordant. The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one.’


Dr Robert Blackburn