Lock-down music part 2 – Rainbow

‘Rainbow’ is the title of the piece which I mentioned was in progress in my last blog. I wrote it last month, and it gave me an opportunity to try out my computer skills in putting together a virtual ‘first performance’ with family and friends. 

I wrote the words and the music, and while my skill with words is modest, it does give one the opportunity to work together on words and music at the same time, adjusting the words to fit the music and vice-versa. This is an interesting way to work, and very different from the setting of an existing text to music, which is far more normal for a composer like me. So although I relish the opportunity to set great texts to music, I also sometimes enjoy creating both aspects, as here!

The piece was written for Soprano, Alto, and Baritone and piano (with Alto and Baritone optional), but for this recording I added an extra voice part to make a fuller SATB line-up, orchestrated the piano part, and added visuals.

This link will take you to it.

I learnt a lot in making the recording.

I don’t have much experience of this kind of work, and I soon decided that for me, audio (rather than video) was the way to go – though I did add photos to the track later. 

I found that the preparation is really important. I made a backing track (with a click track) to which performers sing along while listening with headphones. This was from the Sibelius file, but with quite a lot of small tempo changes in it, to mirror the way that a conductor would vary the tempo at cadences and other points in the music. I emailed this out to the performers, in a number of different versions with ‘their’ part highlighted on a different ‘instrument’. I also emailed out a score, with rather more performance details on it than you might get on a printed score, as there would be no conductor to ‘shape’ the music.

Then I started to receive the audio recordings from the singers, mostly made on their phones. Naturally, a number of singers, myself included, were somewhat disheartened by the sound of their single line recordings – and actually my advice is not to listen at that stage! Once it goes into the mix, it is no longer an individual voice, but part of a choir – quite a different thing.

I took each of the 17 tracks in turn and ‘lined them up’ against the backing track in the Audacity sound-editing programme. (Although there were 11 singers, there were more tracks as several singers had recorded more than one voice part). Lining up does get easier with practice, but I’m not sure that I’ve perfected it yet!

Then I made some adjustments. I left the recorded sound as it was (no fancy tricks) but I adjusted the relative sound of each track to make a good mix, and faded out the occasional small performance blemish from individual voices.

I also made an ‘orchestral’ version of the accompaniment again using Sibelius (taking care to start with the original backing track so as to preserve the tempo changes), linking it with the NotePerformer programme which can give a pretty realistic representation of orchestral sounds.  I then lined this up with the other tracks, and removed the original backing track. I adjusted the relative volume between the ‘orchestra’ and voices (this needed some careful adjusting in places so that my enthusiastic orchestration didn’t swamp the voices!) and that was the audio part done.

Then I transferred the audio file to iMovie, and added a range of photos – mostly ones that I took myself of rainbows in front windows, including our own. The lovely rainbow which heads this article, created by my daughter-in-law and family and which graces their front window in Catford, South-East London, I used at the climax point of the song.  Then finally I added the words, endeavouring to use all the different rainbow colours in the process. 

The whole editing process took me about two days.  It would have been possible to spend many more hours adjusting the close detail – though the more you do that the less it feels like a live performance, and I was aiming to get something of that quality into this recording. 

I enjoyed creating it, and hope you enjoy it too!

Lockdown music

There must be so many blogs like this – lockdown somehow makes us more thoughtful and focussed on what seems ‘important’ to us – but I felt that I would like to say something about what it has meant for me so far.

In the UK we are now into the eighth week of lockdown, though had it started a week or two sooner we might be in a better place than we are. The rules haven’t been as strict as in some countries, and a little bit of relaxation was brought in a few days ago, but for those who can work from home, or are retired, things have changed little.  However, had this pandemic happened even twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have had the opportunities that we now have to conduct much of our social and business life on line, and to actually communicate with friends and family perhaps more than we would have done in normal times.

But how has all this affected me musically?  Initially, of course, with despair. Writing music for choirs to sing is one of my main activities, and they won’t be doing that any time soon! But once one has got over that realisation, one starts to realise that the love of singing won’t go away, it just have to be done in relative privacy at the moment – and of course many great choirs are making recordings on line, mixed by technological wizards, and put out there for us to see.  And it must be a choral directors delight to simply turn down the volume a little on a particular soprano track when it becomes a little too prominent, or to gently mute that out-of-tune tenor note! So I’ve started to get to grips with the technology, produced a couple of short virtual choral performances with family members, and am about to try recording a new choral piece with friends and family scattered around the country. I’ll post the results soon, I hope.

In the meanwhile, here are a couple of lock-down performances of my music:

Now the green blade rises

Mind the Gap! – a lively recording from the Bromley Youth Music Trust Junior Singers

I’ve also been focussing on presenting existing recordings of my music in a format that I hope will appeal to choral singers – as a Youtube sound-track with scrolling music.  Here are links to two of them:

God in mine eternity

Images of Peace

I’ve also been, by using a nifty piece of software called NotePerformer, produced digital versions of some of my instrumental pieces. Here are some links:

London Landscapes (wind orchestra)

Cyprian Dances (string orchestra)

Hark to the Bells (full orchestra)

Palace Dances (woodwind orchestra)

I do have new composing projects in progress – an orchestral piece, a new choral piece, and educational music – but just at the moment it feels like the time to look at my back catalogue and evaluate where I’ve got to. And I suspect that for many of us, lock-down has provided that opportunity to look back and consolidate.

My very best wishes to all who read this.  Keep safe.

My Piano Preludes

Some years ago I started writing some piano preludes in odd moments between writing other things, partly to play myself, but also for others to play, of around Grade 6-8 standard. They grew into a set of twelve, one in each major key – hardly an original concept, but one which gave me an opportunity to think hard about variety within my self-imposed limit of only two pages per piece!  This first set was published in 2017, and I then followed this up with a second set, again written in odd moments, which was published very recently, in February 2020. The second set contains one in each minor key.

In both sets, if played complete, I recommend repeating the first prelude to make a final thirteenth prelude – hence the title Twelve or Thirteen Preludes.

I’ve always liked some kind of limitation in my work, whether it be the necessity for sticking to a five-finger position in a very easy piano piece, the demands of a certain key or mode, a specific motif or shape, or the expectations and skills of a particular group of singers, real or imagined. It releases the mind to concentrate on other parameters of musical invention. In these pieces, the aim for variety of style and texture was an important consideration, without ever (I hope) losing sight of my own musical voice. Some movements suggest the romantic, some the neo-classic, some the minimalist, and it was surprising how the requirement for one piece in each key suggested different moods. In the first set, for example, there is a lively D major, a simple and repetitive F sharp major, a quixotic F major, and a mysteriously floating B major; and in the second set there is a quirky B minor, a dramatic C minor, a romantic E minor, and a poignantly heartfelt G sharp minor, dedicated to the memory of a friend who passed away during its composition.

So, apart from key and variety of mood and character, my two main constraints in writing these pieces were, firstly, that I could manage to play them, and secondly, that they were two pages long. It’s been a real joy to explore a variety of textures and moods within these parameters, and it has rekindled my interest in writing for the piano.   You can hear me playing them all on YouTube here:

Twelve or Thirteen Preludes for piano Set One (major keys)

Twelve or Thirteen Preludes for piano Set Two (minor keys)

Further details, and how to buy copies, follow this link.

I’ve also made a version of six of the preludes (some from each set) for clavichord. This has involved a certain amount of rewriting to make them work, and was a really interesting project because it gave me the opportunity to look at the preludes with fresh eyes and ears. This version was first performed by Francis Knights in Fitzwilliam College Chapel on 29 February 2020.

Ancient Mexico and modern Britain – two of my orchestral pieces

I am hoping to write an orchestral piece this year, as a way of seeing in the 2020s.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of piece I might write, and I have an emerging plan in my head – no notes or rhythms yet, but some idea of overall sonorities and how the piece can be shaped by contrasting instrumental registers. While not really a ‘programmatic’ piece it is inspired by a landscape that I know well, and the changes that occur year by year.

Partly as preparation for this, I’ve been listening to a range of orchestral music, including some of my own, and realising yet again the enjoyment, as well as the pitfalls, of writing for orchestra.

Yesterday I listened to two of my orchestral pieces – apart from the fact that, oddly, they both begin with a gong, they are very different pieces.  One of them was written for a youth orchestra, with easy instrumental parts, and the other one was written for an orchestra of music students, and was designed to stretch these trainee professional musicians both technically and musically. Both have several movements, with descriptive titles, but, after that, they have little in common!

The earlier piece was ‘A Colchester Suite’ written in 1982 for the newly-formed Colchester Youth Chamber Orchestra. It has four movements, each relating to a different aspect of life in Colchester, past and present. Colchester is a Roman town, with much history, and these pieces are, if you like, picture postcards of the high-street market, the countryside nearby, and the old port down the hill. And the last movement is a fantasia on the nursery rhyme ‘Old King Cole’, which has some claim to be of Colcestrian origin. The music is accessible, often influenced by folk-song, and uses the orchestra in a colourful but traditional way.  Indeed, its pictorial quality became even more evident when, a few years later, it was made the subject of an Anglia TV film, in which appropriate video was put to the music. (One day I must try and trace that film).

Very different was the piece that I wrote to see in the millennium. ‘Aztec Genesis’ (2000) was written for Christopher Phelps and the Colchester Institute Symphony Orchestra. At that time, Colchester Institute, where I taught, had a very large music department, for students from 16 to 21+, and provided many musical opportunities: this orchestra was just one of the many student ensembles on offer. This is an expansive piece, for large orchestra, and provides both technical and musical challenges for player and listener. 

In the year 2000 I think many of us were thinking of our own past, our traditions and beliefs, and somehow I was led to consider the traditions of other peoples, and in particular the creation myths of the Aztec people of Mexico. The Aztec civilisation goes back many thousands of years, and although much has now been destroyed, some wonderful works of art remain.  There are five movements in my piece, which reflect the Aztec belief that the world was created five times and destroyed four times – we are now living in the fifth era. Each era was named after a god and a force of nature: Sun, Wind, Rain, Water, Earthquake, and I based the music on a five-note motif derived from the letters AZTEC.

Deriving the music from a short motif immediately provided a different approach to the melody, harmony, and texture than in the earlier piece. I think the thing that excited me most about writing this was the opportunity that the large orchestra gave me to think in tone-colours, and although each movement is to an extent pictorial, the picture painted is rather more amorphous and difficult to pin down than in the earlier piece. I was excited – and I think the students were too – by the power unleashed by the heavy percussion, the snarling brass, the rushing woodwind: and by the delicacy of the strings in their highest and lowest registers, by the gentle heterophony (several players playing the same material but deliberately not quite together) and the peaceful sonority created by solo wind instruments, and by the pitched percussion and piano. 

Not everything quite came off – although there are many areas of busy, forward moving music, there are possibly slightly too many points of relaxation; and also in the final bars I wanted the large gong to make so much noise that you couldn’t hear the rest of the orchestra at first, so that gradually the other sounds would emerge as if out of the depths, and this didn’t seem to work.  But most of it did succeed, and I was pleased with the colour and texture that I had created, and have enjoyed listening to the recording again after twenty years.

So, here are two pieces, by the same person, with some similarities, but yet which provide a big contrast in mood and style.  I wonder what my new piece will be like?

The image is a page from the last movement of Aztec Genesis.

You can hear recordings on YouTube of both pieces:

A Colchester Suite 

Aztec Genesis

A new year for church musicians

Now that we’ve put our carol books back on the shelves and taken down the decorations, your thoughts might be turning to music for Lent and Easter.

Easter week is the most meaningful one in the life and music of the Church, and the excitement of Easter morning portrayed in music is one to which I always thrill.

I’ve written quite a few anthems for Lent and Passiontide, but I’ll begin by mentioning my cantata, Wondrous Cross.  Written for my home church of Lion Walk Church, Colchester (you can hear them sing it on Youtube) and subsequently recorded by Selwyn College Choir (dir. Sarah MacDonald) for Regent Records, it lasts about 30 minutes and is based on the Seven Last Words, mixing recitative and congregational hymns with settings of related poems and texts. It’s published by OUP and can be accompanied by organ alone, or organ and strings. I’ve led several workshops on it over the years, and It has now had a healthy number of performances in worship services and in concert, in the UK, Europe and the USA.

Several of the movements in Wondrous Cross can also be sung as separate anthems. Additionally, I have contributed several Lent and Passiontide anthems in The Oxford Book of Flexible Anthems and The Oxford Book of Easy Flexible Anthems. Other anthems include the powerfully dramatic O Saviour of the World and, for Palm Sunday, a lively setting of The Feast of Palms (both of these are recorded on the Wondrous Cross disc, and by following the links you can hear extracts).

Maybe I should write an Easter cantata too – would that be of interest to choir directors, I wonder? Anyway, in the meanwhile my Easter anthems range from the rich and lengthy Rise up, my love to the rhythmic and lively He is Risen. Others include Alleluia, Thine be the Glory, and several arrangements in The Oxford Book of Flexible Anthems.

There’s plenty to choose from – and I’m sure there will be more in the future!

For a full list of my anthems, listed by seasons, go here.

Thank you for reading.

Recent Publications

Recent publications include the following: click the link for details of each one

Images of Peace (choral suite for SATB unaccompanied)

Welcome Yule  (SATB with organ or piano)

For Christ is Born (SATB with organ or piano)

Thine be the glory (SAMen with organ or piano)

Bread of Heaven (SATB unaccompanied)

The world has waited long (SATB with organ or piano)

This is the Key (upper voices in one or two parts)

Song to the Moon (upper voices in or two parts)

He is Risen (SATB with organ or piano)

How Good is our God (SATB unaccompanied)

The Oxford Book of Flexible Choral Songs

Make a joyful noise!

Alan Bullard’s anthem, Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord, receives its first performance on Sunday 27th October at St Guthlac’s Church, Market Deeping, by the church choir directed by the organist, Peter Davies.  Peter has had a long association with Bullard’s music and Alan was delighted to have the opportunity to write this anthem, funded as part of the organ restoration project.

The church’s 137-year-old organ has been given a new lease of life in an £80,000 restoration project and it to be re-dedicated this weekend – the new anthem forming part of the celebrations.

The instrument, in St Guthac’s Church, Market Deeping, will be re-dedicated by the Bishop of Grantham, the Right Rev Dr Nicholas Chamberlain at a service of thanksgiving and re-dedication on Sunday 27th October at 10am.  Details here.

The anthem will be published by Oxford University Press next year.

Clavichord music

In the early 1970s, inspired, I think, by the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and by the clavichord music of my teacher Herbert Howells, I bought a secondhand Morley clavichord, and quite soon wrote some music for it.  Later, due to pressure on space and house-moving, it sat in a corner unplayed, and only recently I found a performance space for it again and was able to revisit and further explore the clavichord repertoire, enjoying this quiet and peaceful, but also most sensitive and colourful keyboard instrument.

This explains the forty-year gap between the composition dates of my clavichord pieces: Prelude, Air and Gigue of 1973 (the Air and Gigue were published by Oxford University Press but are long out of print), Six Miniatures of 1975, and Level, 2018.

Air and Gigue were first performed by Kathleen Crees at London’s Purcell Room in June 1975, and much more recently have been recorded, on harpsichord, by Penelope Cave – details here on the CD ‘Panorama 1919-2013’ (Prima Facie CD) and on Spotify here (tracks 18 and 19).

My recent piece, Level, is a palindromic study originally written for marimba and first performed by Joby Burgess, and now completely revised and rewritten for the clavichord. The marimba and the clavichord have more in common than one might think and it was a very interesting and enjoyable task to recreate the piece.  The palindromic structure – the second half of the piece being the first half in reverse (both in rhythm and pitch), creates a gradual development from calm (with one or two intermediate rises and falls) towards a busy climax, and then a gradual return to the character of the opening.  I think that the difficulty for any composer using this structure is that a climax point half-way through the piece is more difficult to manage, as there is a natural tendency for high points to feel more appropriate at approximately two-thirds of the way through (the ‘golden section’ proportion) but I hope that in my piece the relaxed and calm character of the clavichord, together with the emerging realisation of the unfolding of the music in reverse, will carry the music through.

So it is with great pleasure that I look forward to a clavichord concert by Francis Knights on Saturday 9 March 2019 at 2.30 pm in Hughes Hall, Cambridge, in which he will play all of the above pieces, alongside music by Herbert Howells, Barry Guy (world premiere), Ivan Moody, Julia Usher (world premiere), Graham Lynch and Matyas Seiber: a great opportunity to hear and assess clavichord music of the past hundred years. Admission is free: details here

Alan Bullard’s music at ACDA

For all composers, bringing their work to the attention of performers is a major part of their work, either individually or working with a publisher. This week sees the biannual convention of ACDA (American Choral Directors Association) in Kansas City, to which publishers, performers and composers will be travelling to from all over the world.

Alan Bullard’s music will be available to see and hear both on the OUP and the GIA stands. Oxford University Press have produced the following online material as a backup to their presence at ACDA: you can view an OUP online catalogue for the choral music of Alan Bullard here  and, if you have Spotify, there is an OUP playlist of Alan Bullard’s choral music here

New works for Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas

Two new works for the Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas

Alan Bullard’s two new songs for the Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas, was premiered in Centuries of Song at the Morton H Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, Texas, (see picture) on April 7 2019.
Alan was there to hear Song to the Moon performed by the Prelude Chorus (director Cynthia Nott) and This is the Key, performed by the Apprentice Chorus (director Kimberley Ahrens).

Both works are published by Oxford University Press

While Alan is in Dallas, at 2.00 on the same day he led a workshop on his music entitled Meet and Sing, an afternoon with composer Alan Bullard sponsored by the Church Music Institute, at Northway Christian Church, Dallas.

June update: here are links to the live first performances of Song to the Moon and This is the Key