Recorder31 — Day 25
For Day 25 of Recorder31, we are joined by recorder player Lizzie Knatt to explore the fascinating world of working with composers to create New music for old instruments. Read on to find out more...
New music for old instruments: collaborating with composers as a recorder player
Performing contemporary music and working with composers to create new music for the recorder has been an increasing interest of mine over the past few years. As recorder players we have to be inventive, creating our own projects and seeking out opportunities, and what better way than to collaborate with composers to expand our repertoire at the same time?
This year, I’ve been lucky enough to premiere nine new works for recorders, both as a soloist and with other instruments. This has led to some interesting ensemble combinations – recorder, alto saxophone, electric guitar and baritone voice being a particularly memorable one – and many exciting new experiences for me including playing with live electronics and visual art for the first time. I’m hoping this article will give you an overview of how I got involved with this kind of work, some different types of collaborations I’ve been involved in, and some tips for creating your own collaborative projects.
My first experience of working with composers was as a clarinettist with the Chimera Ensemble in 2017, working with both professional composers and student composers from the University of York. Gradually, I began taking a more active role in collaborations and seeking out more opportunities to work with composers, in particular with The Arc Project and University of Birmingham Creative Exchange, and eventually began creating my own projects.
While it’s often seen as a limited instrument, the simplicity of the recorder lends itself very well to contemporary music, and there are still many unexplored sonic possibilities. Commissioning new recorder music not only broadens the existing repertoire for performers, but continues a long-standing tradition of experimentation and discovery. As a player, this kind of deep exploration of how my instrument works and what it can do is really exciting, and has in many cases led to me find new ideas I can apply to all areas of my playing, not just to contemporary music.
When commissioning music, as well as being the first to play a new piece, we get the opportunity to create a platform for composers we admire, and in many cases to have more creative input into the finished piece. We get the opportunity to educate more people about the recorder, including composers, starting a chain reaction and hopefully leading to even more great recorder music being created. And, most importantly of all, we get to build connections with other musicians who are just as excited about sounds as we are!
The collaboration process can take many forms. Here are three recent collaborations I’ve been involved with, and how they came about.
FLIGHT//FANCY (solo recital, Jun 2021, Aug 2022)
For this project, I worked with composer Owen Russell to create electronic interludes based on tunes from The Bird Fancyer’s Delight for a bird themed recital. I had previously worked with Owen on some pieces using tape loops and had a clear idea of what I wanted for these interludes – I wanted to be able to improvise over the top of the tracks, we had a venue in mind with a very specific speaker set-up, the interludes needed to be a certain length to allow me to change instruments, and link the existing recital pieces in terms of key and thematic material. This was an example of a quite tightly controlled brief, where I had a lot of input into how they would sound. We also had plenty of time to work on the project and Owen created several draft versions of the tracks based on my suggestions.
Juxtapositions (solo recital, Jan 2022)
At the other end of the spectrum, Juxtapositions was a much looser kind of collaboration, where we didn’t know quite what form the project would take until it was well underway. The project started life as a series of conversations with three composers over coffee, where the ideas and discussions we had all had the idea of contrast or juxtaposition in common. This felt very relevant to the recorder as an instrument with such a fragmented repertoire, and I chose to intersperse Jakob van Eyck’s variations on The English Nightingale between the three new pieces as another juxtaposition between past and present.
Letting the project develop from composers’ different ideas and aesthetics in this way led to quite a technologically complex but very exciting programme, using two different live electronics set ups and live digital painting. For most of the pieces, I had less input into the collaborative process than above, and working to a deadline occasionally made some of the decisions for us regarding what could reasonably be rehearsed, recorded and learnt in the time available.
Listen to Antecedere by Andrea Balency-Béarn here.
Nightingale by Suting Han in rehearsal (Juxtapositions project)
Cem Güven – Ice Breath (Jun 2022)
This time, Cem approached me about performing a piece for his concert series, London Contemporary Soloists. LCS aims to provide concert platforms for emerging composers in London, and they have recently completed their first overseas tour to Turkey. I really enjoy Cem’s music so of course I agreed! I’d previously introduced Cem to the Paetzold contrabass recorder, and we’d discovered a shared interest in exploring multiphonics for this instrument. I was also learning Seascape by Fausto Romitelli at the time and was discovering many interesting sounds and extended techniques unique to the Paetzold, which fed into the creation of Ice Breath. As well as creating a piece for the LCS series, this was very much a discovery and exploration process for us both, and this was definitely a collaboration that would have gone on forever had it not been for the looming deadline of a concert performance. Many versions of the score were produced and we had a number of workshop sessions together trying out various sounds and effects, and figuring out where the limitations of the instrument and myself as a player got in the way of Cem’s ideas – particularly the unfortunate woodwind problem of needing to breathe!
Click here to watch a live concert recording of Ice Breath at St. Cyprian’s Clarence Gate.
Section from the score of Ice Breath
- Make use of your networks – you may already know composers or creative people who would be interested in working together. It doesn’t hurt to ask!
- Make sure you’ve established the terms of the collaboration – will you be able to pay the composer? Can you guarantee them a performance or a high-quality recording of their piece?
- Have some resources and pieces you enjoy to show your composer, especially if they’re not familiar with the recorder. Here is a very comprehensive breakdown of techniques by Jorge Isaac, and of course Sarah Jeffrey/Team Recorder has many wonderful and helpful videos. The Modern Recorder has score examples of some of the recorder “classics” which can be useful too.
- Set early deadlines – musicians are incredibly busy people and you will almost always need more time than you think! Make sure to set realistic expectations and factor in enough time for you to learn the piece, especially if you haven’t seen drafts during the composition process
- It’s often easier to demonstrate recorder techniques than trying to explain them. Voice notes are your friend here!
- Don’t be afraid to make suggestions – you are an expert in your instrument and can be a really valuable resource in the process. Have an open mind and always be willing to try things out!
So, what’s next?
Collaborating with composers is a really rewarding process and an important part of my practice, so I’m not planning on stopping any time soon! My next project is the digital release of a woodwind trio (flute, recorders and bassoon) by Taibah Orpin on the 3rd September, which you’ll be able to find on the Arc Project’s Youtube channel here, and I’ll also be recording a piece for the Royal Academy of Music’s bicentenary 200 Pieces project in September. As part of my Masters degree, I’m hoping to commission several new works for bass recorder, an instrument that is often neglected in the contemporary repertoire. I’ll also be working with other students from the Academy in partnership with the Southbank Centre to create an evening of collaborative performance in February.
Interested in writing for the recorder? Want to know more? Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org 😊.