The Music of Alan Bullard

In 2005 Alan Bullard left his post at Colchester Institute, which was becoming increasingly time-consuming, in order to concentrate on composition. This proved the spur to a number of longer works and collections, which in turn provided renewed and widened interest in his music from performers in the UK, USA, and beyond.
Chorally, as well as writing a great many shorter works, Alan continued the success of Mr Lear (2002) with several other cantatas aimed at amateur choral societies or church choirs, including A Feast for Christmas (2007), Wondrous Cross (2012), O Come Emmanuel (2013) and A Light in the Stable (2014). Of these last three, Wondrous Cross and O Come Emmanuel were both recorded by the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College Cambridge (director Sarah Macdonald) and A Light in the Stable was performed and broadcast in the USA by VocalEssence (director Philip Brunelle), both of these conductors joining other eloquent enthusiasts for Alan’s music.

During this period, OUP published two collections devoted to his music, Alan Bullard Anthems and Alan Bullard Carols, and Alan edited and contributed to The Oxford Book of Flexible Anthems, The Oxford Book of Flexible Carols, and, very recently, The Oxford Book of Easy Flexible Anthems. A performance and broadcast of his Glory to the Christ-Child at the King’s College Cambridge Nine Lessons and Carols Service in 2007 and 2008 directed by Stephen Cleobury also resulted in a wider interest in his Christmas music.
Instrumentally, Alan completed a number of commissions for various players and ensembles, and at the same time he continued his interest in educational music by publishing the nine volumes in the Pianoworks series (OUP), written jointly with his wife Janet, the Joining the Dots sight-reading series (ABRSM) containing 8 piano volumes and 5 volumes for each of Singing, Guitar, and Violin, and also contributed to a number of collections such as Piano Mix (ABRSM) the Graded Piano Player and the Lang Lang Piano Academy (Faber Music).

It can be seen, then, that much of Bullard’s music is a result of his association with a wide variety of performers, both amateur and professional. Bullard’s is not ivory tower music – what pleases him most is to write music which performers enjoy playing and audiences enjoy hearing: music which might provide something of a challenge, but which is not out of reach.

What is it that characterizes Alan Bullard’s music?
The performer is the starting point: not necessarily a specific player, but the type of player and the sound of the voices and instruments. For example in his Trio for violin, cello and piano the whole musical material derives from the open strings of the violin and cello and their associated harmonics, and despite its expansive nature the piece is actually very tightly constructed around chords and rhythms based upon the harmonic series. The harmonic series also features strongly in Overtones for clarinet quartet – in this piece the peculiar character of the clarinet’s overtone series is the starting point for a gradually dissolving toccata which differentiates strongly between the different registers of the instrument.

At the other end of the spectrum, this concern with finding out the way instruments work informs his instrumental pieces for children; for example the melodic ideas in Lunar Landscapes grow from the tuning and fingering patterns of the cello, and those of Colneford Suite derive from a study of trombone technique. Bullard has himself said that he finds the writing of an interesting Grade 1 piece as exciting as any other musical challenge: though at another level he found the thought required for the teaching of composition to his students to be a great stimulus to his own compositional imagination.
It is not difficult to trace the influence of Bullard’s teacher Herbert Howells (particularly, as John Turner has pointed out in an article in The Recorder Magazine, in his use of an inflected scale with a sharpened fourth and flattened seventh) and that of Britten: growing up at a time when each new work of Britten’s was a major event, it is clear that works such as his Ceremony of Carols, and his Spring Symphony made a lasting impression on the young composer.

There are other influences: Philip Scowcroft has pointed out (in an article in the British Music Society Newsletter) the influence of twelve-note techniques in Three Picasso Portraits and Circular Melody, and twelve note rows appear in the most unlikely places: in several of the movements of Fifty for Flute for instance, in vocal works such as Ground Song and The Sea of Faith, and in several orchestral pieces: Scherzo for Swinburne, the Sinfonietta and in Fanfares (this last is also notable for its consistent use of a permutated rhythmic motif). As with the challenge of writing music for beginners with their limited range of notes and rhythms, Bullard relishes wrestling with a sometimes intractable sequence of a note-row, and the challenge to find the wider-ranging textural and rhythmical solutions that this often provides.

But a number of other influences also go into the Bullard melting pot: the complex harmonies and rhythms of jazz, the repeated figurations of minimalism, the shapely melodies of popular and folk-music: all of these have contributed to a musical style which is a unique blend of harmonic richness, rhythmic drive, imagination and sensitivity.

December 2000, partially revised January 2017