In this YouTube video, Alan introduces three contrasting Christmas cantatas, with extracts from each:
O Come, Emmanuel
A Light in the Stable
A Feast for Christmas You can watch Alan’s introduction here
Hope for the Future
Some songs for young voices, by Alan Bullard
I’ve recently had cause to re-visit many of my songs for young voices because of the changed distribution arrangements for Colne Edition publications, and I realised what a number of these were songs about care for the environment, our imaginations, and our hopes for the future – topics at the top of the agenda for many of us, and particularly for our young people. Indeed some of the songs are to words by young people, or suggested by them.
As young people’s choirs get going again after the pandemic, this could be a good time to investigate these songs!
Here’s a selection of some, published by Colne Edition and Oxford University Press – click on the link to read more about each, see the music and hear a performance (for most) – and almost every song is available both as a pdf download or print.
Twenty years ago this spring saw the first performance of my choral work Be Joyful! in the beautiful and sonorous space of Ely Cathedral. The 4-5 minute piece was commissioned by the National Association of Choirs, and performed by the massed choirs of the NAC Eastern Region (Group 20) conducted by Peter Davies.
It was designed so that it could be performed by SATB, SSAA, or TTBB choirs – and choirs of all three types were combined to make a choir of over 200 singers for this first performance; subsequently it has been performed by individual choirs of different types with organ, and, on one occasion, with a full military band accompaniment.
Earlier this year I was honoured to be a guest at the National Association of Choirs Annual conference in Kendal, where I introduced the delegates to a range of my music, including this piece, which is expected to be featured in their concert later in the year.
I hope you enjoy the recordings! Although it has been unpublished for some time, the scores of all three versions (and the wind orchestra version too) are now available via this website, and pdfs / digital downloads are available from Sheet Music Direct and Sheet Music Plus. Please visit this page for further details.
Two conductors, composers, and facilitators died in recent weeks – one who was well known, the other much less so, but both were responsible for performing and promoting music by many composers, including myself.
Stephen Wilkinson died on August 10th 2021, aged 102. He was formerly the conductor of the BBC Northern Singers, composer, and Radio 3 producer, and in the distant past I had sent him some of my choral pieces. Although I heard nothing at the time, I was very excited some years later to get a beautifully calligraphed letter from him to say that he would like to programme my Madrigal Book with the William Byrd Singers, an excellent amateur chamber choir. We travelled to Manchester for the concert, met Stephen, then in his 60s, and his wife Delyth, a soprano in the choir, and it was an excellent performance. He then subsequently did this piece with the BBC Northern Singers, as well as my Three Poems of W.B.Yeats – and then, to celebrate his 70th birthday, the BBC commissioned seven composers, Elizabeth Machonchy, Michael Ball, Stephen Dodgson, John McCabe, John Joubert, David Gow, and myself. My piece was The Spacious Firmament – a poem that Stephen was fond of – and all of these were subsequently broadcast on Radio 3.
In 1991 the BBC Northern Singers were ‘privatised’ and then disbanded, and Stephen moved on to a life involving more composing and instrumental conducting. I was just one of many composers to benefit from Stephen’s fine musicianship and flair for concert-building, and we exchanged musical Christmas cards for the rest of his life.
By contrast, Alan G. Parsons, who died on September 1st 2021 aged 90, was hardly known outside the confines of East Anglia. He was a composer of skill who had studied with Anthony Milner and David Lumsdaine and although some found his atonal musical style somewhat gritty, it was always crafted with care and understanding, and deeply considered. Alongside his composition, his teaching, and his involvement with the church, he was an avid concert promoter, and a wizard at obtaining sponshorship, and for this a wide range of composers in East Anglia have to thank him. A founding member of Mercia Music, and then Colchester New Music, he was responsible for enticing some first-rate performers and ensembles to Colchester, such as The Composers Ensemble, Ixion (Michael Finnissy) Gemini (Ian Mitchell), Lindsay Gowers, Huw Watkins and Christian Forshaw. There they would perform music by local composers in ‘Composers’ Days’ which also involved student composition workshops and various other events. These annual concerts gave me the opportunity to flex my compositional muscles with ensemble pieces like Fling, Flourish, Large White Rock, and several more. Alan Parsons was a kind and thoughtful man, and he will be very much missed.
When did you last play a scale or arpeggio? Probably in the last piece of music that you played. There are few pieces of music, at least in the western classical tradition, that do not contain scales and arpeggios somewhere. Familiarity with these musical building blocks assists greatly in secure performance; for centuries piano teachers have incorporated them into their curriculum, and many examination systems require them as part of their assessment.
Several years ago I was asked by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) to write five support books, Scale Explorer, for the revised scales exam requirements that began in 2021. The books finally went to press during the first Covid-19 lockdown in the UK, and that very same week the ABRSM decided to offer an alternative examination in which the candidate uploaded a video of four pieces, and the supporting tests (scales, aural and sight-reading) were replaced by an assessment of the ‘performance as a whole’. And although some ‘face-to-face’ exams, with supporting tests, have now returned in the UK, the ‘Performance’ exam (as it is called) is likely to become a permanent offering in the future alongside the traditional ‘Practical’ exams.
However, I think teachers will agree that background work in scales, sight-reading, and listening, are still essential for students preparing for a performance, and if you haven’t seen the ‘Scale Explorer’ books it might be worth having a look.
The books, one for each of Grades 1 to 5, are designed to support the new ABRSM scales syllabus. This syllabus, though the result of extensive research and testing amongst many teachers, has not been welcomed universally, perhaps because the number of scales has been reduced, and no longer are all keys required in Grade 5. It does have some advantages too, though:
For Grades 1 to 4, each scale or arpeggio is introduced hands separately, and it then appears as hands together in the next grade, so there is a sense of progression and consolidation.
All keys are covered by the time Grade 5 is reached, in most cases more than once, but the pressure of having to have every scale and arpeggio in readiness for one single exam is avoided.
My aim in writing the books was to present scales as something rather more than mere technical exercises, integrating them with other performance aspects, in the same way as I did for sight-reading in my ‘Joining the Dots’ series. There is a section for each key encountered in that grade, and in each section you will usually find:
Workouts, which approach and rehearse the fingering patterns for each scale or arpeggio by breaking it into bite-size pieces
The complete scale or arpeggio (the music for the entire scale/arpeggio syllabus for the grade is included in the book)
Starters, short melodies that use the scale or arpeggio in one hand only
A Piece or Pieces, which consolidate the shapes and patterns already introduced, in a range of musical styles
The Tune Factory – simple improvisation/composition ideas in the key being studied.
And at the end of each book, there are some longer pieces and a duet.
The Preface includes warm-up exercises, and a list of scales grouped by fingering patterns.
In the inside back cover there is a revision chart, to help the pupil plan their practice.
Here are some sample pages:
This first example is the F major scale section from Book 1. The emphasis is on learning the scale with hands separately, and a foreshadowing of hands together (introduced in Book 2) is given in the final bars of the second piece. Book 1 also contains useful material on how scales and arpeggios are constructed, the differences between major and minor, and fingering technique.
This next example is from Book 3. The key of A major has been introduced hands separately in Book 2, with ‘workouts’, ‘starters’, ‘tune factory’, and ‘pieces’ – so here it is consolidated with hands together workouts, and pieces which integrate the scales and arpeggios into the musical mix. Notice how the exam requirements are highlighted with the little ‘Explorer’ compass symbol.
The last example is from Book 5 – a double page spread for A flat major. This key has been introduced hands separately in Book 4: here the scale is still hands separately, but with staccato articulation: the arpeggio is legato, hands together. Both pieces are designed to highlight these aspects within the context of a more wide-ranging exploration of the key and its fingering patterns, and the page ends with an opportunity for composition or improvisation with the ‘tune factory’.
In summary, these books aim to enhance musical understanding through familiarity with keys and their related finger-patterns, and to provide a range of enjoyable material to keep the learner technically and musically fit.
And from my point of view, it concentrated the mind considerably to write short pieces as ‘repertoire supplements’ which focussed on scale/arpeggio shapes and fingering patterns while also having something to say musically. It was an enjoyable journey for me, and I hope it will be an enjoyable journey for its users too!
Some readers will know that I habitually send a Christmas card with a newly-composed round or canon on it – the material for a ‘do-it-yourself’ performance. This year’s is attached to this post. (There is some argument as to whether the key signature should be one flat or two).
But this year, it’s been ‘do-it-yourself’ for a great many choral singers, as virtual choir performances proliferate. So here are three virtual performances of carols of mine, with apologies if you’ve already heard or seen them. Just click on the title to view.
There is a rose tree A beautifully sung performance of this movement from my cantata ‘O Come Emmanuel’ by father-and-daughter members of the choir of St. Mary’s Hitchin.
Candle Carol A newly composed carol written for St. Mary’s Friston, Suffolk. There will be a socially distanced performance by a vocal quartet at their Christmas carol service: on this recording the same quartet is augmented to eight singers, and compiled from the individual tracks and images by Richard Hubbard of Cantus Firmus and InHarmony Suffolk.
Sing out, Angels! I wrote this carol a few years ago for Marie Curie Cancer Care: it’s now been revised, and here it is performed by members of the Bullard family aged from 3 to 73 (the youngest two appearing just for the chorus!). This recording (audio and video) was put together by me.
I hope you enjoy these. ‘There is a rose tree’ is published by OUP, the other two are currently unpublished.
As a recording project for England’s November lockdown I decided to tackle my carol ‘Sing out Angels’. This was originally commissioned by Music Dynamics for Marie Curie Cancer Care in 2011, and was recorded, but as far as I know it was not taken up by Marie Curie, and it soon went out of print. However, I retained the copyright, so I revised it a little for this project.
It is always fruitful, to look back on something that one has written in the past – I often notice ways in which things could be improved, but of course with published music you don’t have the chance! So it was good to have the opportunity to revisit this piece, and as a result I shortened the last verse, making the coda revert to the opening key, and adjusted some dynamics. I also transposed it down a tone, to better suit the voices of those recording it.
I wrote the words as well as the music for this carol, which gives much flexibility in shaping the music, and it fell neatly into a verse-chorus pattern, in which the words give a message which is not only appropriate for Christmas but also for the present pandemic which affects us all.
In the virtual recording there are five main singers (mostly singing two, and in one case three, parts, sometimes more than once) and also, for part of the chorus, my two granddaughters joining in lustily!
Once I had put it all together on Audacity software, and added a bit of reverberation, I added pictures – in this case Christmas decorations and street scenes – and also the words.
None of this would have been possible without family members singing along on their own to a backing track into their phones – many thanks to them!!
Pylon Power – my new orchestral piece, Friston Moor
For several years, I have walked regularly in the area of farmland just north of the village of Friston, where we have our Suffolk home. It is a beautiful space, with wide skies, ever-changing crops, public footpaths, hedgerows and woodland, and it is right next to the fourteenth-century village church. Just as railway viaducts cross hillsides, the electricity pylons that traverse this landscape, on their way from Sizewell to Ipswich and beyond, give a sense of perspective and of hidden power which I once found rather pleasing and exciting.
But things have changed, and now the pylons feel menacing and frightening. There is currently a proposal from Scottish Power Renewables and National Grid to build three large substations on this site, covering over 35 acres, destroying footpaths, wild life, and the peaceful tranquillity of the village. These substations will, if built, convert the electricity that comes in from North Sea windfarms ready for onward transmission along the power cables. The windfarms are naturally a welcome and relatively carbon-free way of producing electricity, but the ecological aspect of this concept is completely wrecked by the proposal to rip up swathes of countryside all the way from the coast near Thorpeness to Friston (6 miles), laying underground cables in trenches 60 metres wide, right across an Area of Outstanding National Beauty. And Friston will be right next to a massive industrial complex which will overlook the whole village. Without going into details here, there are other ways of channelling wind-generated electricity to the community, but so far these have been overlooked in favour of this destructive proposal.
And whatever the outcome, the stress to local people is immense.
And this is only the start, as there are other proposals in the pipeline too…. For more information about this sorry story please visit www.sases.org.uk
So my orchestral piece, Friston Moor, is my personal response to this situation. My vision was a walk through the fields, accompanied by the birds, the animals scurrying in the undergrowth, the land and the sky, the hum of the pylons and the threat of what may be to come – and always there is the village church, very close to the affected area. It’s like a kind of dream as the different elements of the music overlap.
I hope that the music will stand up on its own: but in this YouTube film I have added visual images which give a picture of the landscape and, I hope, add to the dreamlike quality and the drama of the music. And you will see a landscape which, depending on the planner’s decisions, may never be the same again.
Although the piece is designed for symphony orchestra, and can be played ‘live’, the version that you hear is produced digitally using the NotePerformer software.
‘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.
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.