Are conductors necessary?

Originally posted on Steven Berryman:

Haydn’s last visit in 1794-95 [to Great Britain] had marked both the climax of London’s public concert life and the beginning of its decline. The founding of the Philharmonic Society in 1813 by a group of professional musicians was a rare flash of light in an otherwise sombre scene. Although it helped to make London the kind of city that musicians such as Weber, Spohr and Mendelssohn wanted to visit, the concerts were handicapped by the lack of rehearsal time and the absence of a conductor…

(The Triumph of Music, Tim Blanning, p. 156)

The idea that concerts could be successful without a conductor seems unlikely in the early 19th century, yet performances before this often relied upon not one non-playing musician who directed from the front of the ensemble but leadership from within by players. It seems accepted that the conductor is an indispensable component of the large ensemble…

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Opera “too difficult”?

Originally posted on Steven Berryman:

I read Susan Elkin’s piece for The Independent, ‘Why are educationists so afraid of cultural excellence?’ with much nodding of my head. I am particularly passionate about promoting living artists in my teaching – right from Year 4 upwards – and also ensuring pupils are engaging with as much music as they can, from a broad range of styles. No dumbing down.

Why can’t we celebrate that which is great with children rather than apologetically putting them off? Any teacher could familiarise children with, say, The Marriage of Figaro by playing recordings (all those fabulous tunes) sharing film and working on the story. You can appreciate opera without necessarily buying an expensive ticket. And for those who want to take children to see opera at first hand, almost every opera house has an enthusiastic education department and many of them stage events for children. School-based projects are quite usual and…

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Learning to sing

It’s been nearly a year since I took up singing lessons. It remains incredibly stimulating and rewarding work, on a musical and personal level. It connects immediately with all those Alexander Technique lessons I’ve had since 2001; for the voice to work well, like the body (or the ‘self’) it needs to be connected well. Not just particular components, but the whole self. Singing lessons have helped to highlight those connections that needed greater encouragement, or in some cases establishment from nothing! I’m still thinking about the lesson I had with Pedro de Alcantara last year, when singing was still a relatively new endeavour, and his advice and observations continue to hover in my thinking when I’m being coached or practising. 

All my initial musical training gets in the way; the fear of getting it wrong prevents me from letting my body make the vocal sound it can make. I’m still working on the confidence to let it go, and let the vocal sound being something that I allow to happen rather something I believe I can control. It’s reminding me so much of inhibition – the concept of ‘non-doing’ in Alexander Technique. Something I used to be rather good at (as I think deep down I am happy doing ‘nothing’…). Making singing something physical and not mental. It’s muscles (far lower than I realise…) that help control and create the sound. Nothing I can do in the vocal cord region will help. I seem to think trying to control an instrument (the size of the end of my finger) is best down by thinking about my throat rather than the muscles in my abdomen.

I think I had a bit of a breakthrough in my last lesson where a connection seemed to be more secure; what I heard was so very different and felt as if I was hearing from not myself but from a different part of the room. ‘Never listen to yourself’ I’m told. I can understand this now, as we want the sound to be projected to the listener. What I’m hearing is not what the listener hears. Trying to trust this incongruence between what I hear and what the listener hears is difficult, but I think has ramifications not only for singing but for all of musical life. It makes me realise having a singing teacher is a great deal more than perhaps the other teacher-student relationships I have had during my training. There is no instrument to occupy your vision – you have nothing but the teacher to look at and they are eye-balling your every move as you sing. It is an incredible confidence building experience. More than ever the way I think about something is essential; my thoughts can prevent me from activating and sustaining the sound an aria might need for example. Ultimately how I think about myself, and how I contemplate how my body works and how the voice works dictates how successfully I can make the necessary connections to make the sound I want. 

I’m taking part in a variety of singing performances over the coming months; a chance to try out the technique I’m learning but also to increase my confidence of using my voice. Some Mozart in an informal Opera Soiree presented by Harrow Opera (an informal training opportunity for singers who are part of the Harrow Opera group), some Handel as part of The Thomas Tallis Society Choir, some solos as part of an Oxford & Cambridge Musical Club Concert. I recommend singing to all – especially those who like me are late starters. 


Reimagined and Recomposed

Much of my early experiences of composition teaching was exploring the processes of other composers and recently I’ve become fascinated by how other composers and musicians have reimagined the work of others. A student of mine introduced me to the work of the pianist Christopher O’Riley, sharing an album of Radiohead songs O’Riley had reimagined. I asked O’Riley what had lead him to work with the Radiohead songs: ‘I have done transcription on occasion from very early in my career. There is the capacity of the piano, the only instrument, to my mind, capable of emulating, despite its percussive nature, the lyricism of the voice or sostenuto instruments, the enormity of a symphonic orchestra, or the merge-point between music and noise inherent in a rock ensemble. I’ve done transcriptions of Stravinsky (released by Nonesuch) in his ballet scores for Apollo and l’histoire du Soldat, Delibes (the famous duet), Bach (Trio Sonata in C, the Dorian Toccata and Fugue) and Piazzolla (Verano Porteno). I came to hear Radiohead’s music in 1997 at the release of their album, OK Computer. I have always been drawn to luscious harmonies (Ravel, Rachmaninov) and contrast/counterpoint (Bach, Shostakovich) in any music i enjoy. Radiohead fulfilled those requisites in a way that made me seek out lots of their concerts, B-sides and rarities. I was amazed at the quality throughout their catalogue. No one in popular music had such a consistent quality of work, to my mind, since The Beatles. Their interweaving voices, each song really a culmination of threads every member of their quintet contributes, invites a particular texturalization at the piano; very organically exciting music with which to interact/reimagine’. It was this ‘consistent quality of work’ that O’Riley had really brought to the fore in his transcriptions, and it made me reflect on the important of having models in the composition process and working with pre-exisiting material is of real benefit to our students when they are developing their own composition skills. Separating the generation of ideas from the development of material will allow students to experience the latter more fully, rather than get stuck with the former and never quite achieve the development of material that allows them access to the higher mark bands in GCSE and A-level music.

Transcription is nothing new, and O’Riley sees his work connecting with a broader tradition for pianists to transcribe popular music of the day: ‘There is that covetousness of pianists for the magic of other instruments, other works not originally intended for the keyboard, but inspiring and tempting to assay. Liszt’s arrangement for solo piano of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (my most recent recording) was clearly borne of an impassioned advocacy, but also, perhaps, a desire for integrity: subtitled ‘Episode in the Life of a Young Artist’ the Symphonie is arguably more dramatically imparted by a solo artist rather than a teeming orchestral horde.’ Encouraging students to find pre-existing material that truly excites them is the ideal starting point; it could be a classical piece they are learning, a song they are obsessed with, a samba piece they have recently learnt in an ensemble. The nature of the starting material is irrelevant. Material that gives a student a real musical buzz is ideal.

Once a student has settled on their material, the next step in exploring transcribing approaches is to listen, listen and listen again. This is how O’Riley approached his work with Radiohead songs: ‘Each song arrangement was the result of hundreds of listenings, followed by a germ of an idea; usually not the melody and harmony, but something like the looping guitar intro to Let Down, the bass and drum hemiolas of All I Need, or the commonality of guitar noise and yelled vocals in Paranoid Android. I always found one thread that was leading me through. Much of the difficulty has to do with the randomized bass ostinati i would write: they were to be emulative of the chaotic aspects of noise, overtones, etc. I strove to be non-repetitive as possible in the accompaniment/motoric features, and that, coupled with my trying to get all the elements active (the feeling of the listener, in the best of Stravinsky, Liszt, Godowsky arrangements should be the incredulity at the music emerging from only two hands) made for each succeeding arrangement becoming more and more demanding on the performer. Once I had written something that looked pretty unplayable, then learned and performed it, that raised the bar of difficulty or the next one; not purposefully, but certainly potentially’.

Encourage your students to find a different piece that has a process that is worth emulating. I find the ABRSM Spectrum Piano series ideal for exploring compositional processes; many of the short pieces has a singular process at work (the careful progression of chords in Jackson’s September Chorale, the relentless perfect fifths in Sukarlan’s Gentle Darkness). Once they have found a piece with an intriguing process worthy of emulation, set them the challenge of putting their chosen material through the same process. Could they add a perfect fifth accompaniment to a song by One Direction? Could they harmonise the melody from a Beethoven String Quartet by harmonies that only move by step?

It was equally encouraging working with young musicians at Pro Corda to reimagine their chamber music, this time as a group, by combining fragments from the repertoire students were learning during the course to create new works. Only notes from the original chamber music was used to devise new works. The final devised pieces were intriguing conglomerates of the originals and led to a renewed understanding of the music. When the reimagined pieces were performed alongside the originals, it was particularly effective. So working with pre-existing material can free our students to experiment more freely with developing material; the emotional detachment (as the students were not the ones to create the material) means they can be more liberal with how they manipulate the material, and be more ready to discard material. This kind of activity could work well with a whole class at GCSE and A-level, or indeed at earlier key stages. Ask students to bring in a piece they are learning. Ask them to select three of their favourite chunks from the piece, and put the students into small groups (perhaps three or four). Ask them to create a new piece by putting their favourite chunks of material into a piece. Encourage them not to keep the original intact, but to experiment with it. You’ll be surprised how sophisticated the response can be to developing such material when students are not generating the material.

I asked O’Riley if he felt reimaging non-art music repertoire encourages engagement with popular music by classical music enthusiasts or vice-versa: ‘I think it goes both ways. I’ve had young fans of my Radiohead material write to me, saying they see I’m playing a Mozart Concert near them in San Diego, and thanks to our shared musical cameraderie, he’s always being considering ‘checking Mozart out’. I played Radiohead’s ‘Airbag’ as an encore after a Chopin Concerto, and a friend coming to meet me backstage reported a little bun-haired lady humming the melody in the elevator. My attraction to the music of Radiohead, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, Portishead, Cocteau Twins, The Bad Plus is due to the same criteria that leads me to Bach, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and so it’s the characteristics of those musics, not the genre, that attract me to them. And that can work on both sides of the listener/performer membrane’.

Transcribing and reimagining material could never immediately lead to a coursework submission, but students learn a great deal from the process; they learn strategies to manipulate material, and they learn how to experiment and be brave enough to test out processes. The next logical step is to try something original, and after a student has reimagined pre-exisitng material you’ll find it hard to stop them wanting to compose something of their own.

5 Questions to Joby Burgess

As ‘genre-busting’ percussionist, whose work has led you to collaborate with musicians and artists of a variety of disciplines, I wonder where and how this collaborative approach began in your musical career?

Well the variety has always been there: I grew up listening to my Dad’s record collection of jazz, opera, rock, classical and world music, whilst saving my pocket money to buy the latest 7 inch. The categories and perceived barriers in music, to me, have always been just a way to navigate the record store or internet more quickly!

It took me quite some time to seriously pursue percussion—a late convert from drums to gain a place at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama where I spent much of my time writing songs and locked down in the electronic music studio. I’d hear something new and interesting and want to work out how to play it or how it was written. This creative urge has meant I am happiest when working in small ensembles and responding to composers who are actually in the room (not 6 feet under!).

Over the years I have worked on developing a certain set of skills, many learnt because it was simply required. In 2001 my duo, New Noise, commissioned Nigel Osborne. The piece contained a solo for berimbau (an ancient African shepherding instrument) that I quickly learnt to hold (then play!), whilst the music for marimba required 6 mallets with endless interval shifts, so I figured out a way of doing it – it was difficult but most importantly those chords needed all those notes. That same year, I learnt Tihai with Nitin Sawhney, worked on a un-scored / semi improvised production of Romeo and Juliet at London’s National Theatre, played Stravinsky under Boulez and joined percussion group ensemblebash.

Playing and working with so many different sorts of music and musicians keeps me constantly learning new methods and techniques, ready to come to each new project with fresh ears.

It was an an enjoyable and intriguing evening when I attended the Powerplant performance as part of the Spitalfield’s Festival, in London, 2013. Particularly having my name recorded as part of Steve Reich’s ‘My Name Is’. What was the motivation behind Powerplant? I mean, how did it come into being?

Powerplant made its debut in July 2005 at the South Bank Centre and was simply a vehicle for me to bring together several of the things on my ‘wish list’. I had been performing some solo and chamber pieces using tape or simple signal processing, but was keen to develop this electronic part of my performance further. Initially I added a xylosynth to my instrument collection, which gave me a way of using synths and samples alongside my acoustic percussion set-up. I also added loop pedals to be able to construct much bigger sounding solo pieces, without being tethered to a fixed tape part. I asked composer and sound engineer Matthew Fairclough if he would get involved in contributing electronic processing of my acoustic percussion instruments and the first original compositions for the xylosynth.

I also wanted to up the theatrical presentation and brought in visual artist, Kathy Hinde whose video work I had got to know through pianist, Joanna MacGregor. Kathy’s video immediately added a new dimension to my performance and by working regularly together has helped great a cohesive whole for Powerplant’s music and images.

Powerplant’s initial performances featured the Elysian Quartet and focused heavily on the music of Steve Reich and Kraftwerk. The trio of myself (percussion and electronics) with Matthew Fairclough (sound design) and Kathy Hinde (visual artist) remains at the heart of the collective.

What’s your memory of the most successful relationship working with a composer? Can you think why that worked really well?

I feel really lucky to have built many very strong composer / performer relationships over the years and for me it is pretty essential that there is a shared vision from both parties. Working with Gabriel Prokofiev on what became Import/Export – a suite for global junk was a really exciting process and a very organic journey.

In summer 2006 myself and Gabriel had some initial conversations, followed by a meeting to play around with various percussion instruments. We had originally discussed a companion piece for Iannis Xenakis’ Rebonds B, but an empty glass soda bottle (Fanta) sitting in my studio changed everything. I had picked it up in Gambia and used it regularly as a glass guiro (scraper), whilst Gabriel had seen them played like cowbells in Tanzania. We started to explore further ways of playing this found object and began work shopping Gabriel’s ideas, using my live looping set-up over the coming months.

I premiered Fanta in Autumn 2007 and after a couple of dozen performances, we began talking about developing the music further by utilizing more found objects – an oil drum, wooden pallet and plastic bags completed the set-up. The complete suite (which has Fanta® as a middle movement) was premiered as part of a full UK tour in Autumn 2008. Our shared goal of getting maximum music from minimal objects was crucial to the success of that commission, which was then taken a step further in Gabriel’s 2012 commission Concerto for Bass Drum Orchestra.

What could be next? Is there something in terms of collaboration or is there something that you think needs to be done in terms of percussion writing?

Well there is always plenty under discussion, conversations with various composers, writers, producers and promoters, but sourcing and discovering new percussion instruments and computer software is also important.

Powerplant is currently working towards a new commission from Will Gregory, which premieres in Bristol this summer as part of the Filmic Festival. Will is best known for his work with Goldfrapp, but his musical interests are wide ranging and so his passions for synthesizers, Stockhausen and song (or text in this case) are all likely to play a part in his new creation.

I am currently excited to be experimenting with a new version of the ‘Aluminum Harp’ and testing newly developed hardware and software for the xylosynth, all of which will certainly feed into Powerplant’s work in the not to distance future.

I think by simply creating a environment where composers can experiment and take risks, both Powerplant and myself will continue to support relevant new work and fill some of the holes in the percussion repertoire.

How does all that you do in terms of commissioning and development of music filter into your education work?

Well all of my commissioning, collaborations and performances play an essential role in the education work that I deliver. These days that means performance master-classes, rhythm and composition workshops, private tuition, talking about my work and even the odd bit of career advice.

One of the things I often take forward in my education work is groove. I often see young musicians caught up ‘head in the score’, trying to play the ‘right notes’, whilst forgetting to really listen to the sound they are producing or the feel the ensemble is creating. For classical musicians this often means taking away the paper and playing less pitches, in order to really open up the ears and loosen up the body.

For me rhythm and groove is such an essential part of all music making, to the extent that I use the same approach for performing Bartok’s Sonata as I do to touring with Peter Gabriel. By sharing my own insights and experiences with music making, I am aiming to open a few more doors so that others can discover new techniques, resources and help achieve their own ambitions.

Powerplant play Will Gregory on Thursday, May 22 at St George’s, Bristol (UK). More information at

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The American composer Garrett Schumann kindly mentioned some of my music in his weekly blog post series ‘Mapping my Musical Twitterverse‘. He had this to say:  

Steven Berryman is a composer and teacher based in London. From his SoundCloud page, I listened to Echo, for women’s choir and piano, Cypher, for orchestra, and Vera est in loctum, for choir. To be clear, Steven’s output is not as bifurcated as my selection reflects, but, nonetheless, I think these works indicate the fluency within different idioms he possesses as a composer. In other words, the choral works and Cypher sound very different but, each is unfailingly persuasive. Certainly, this is a credit to Steven’s ability and discipline in knowing what will work best in these varied compositional settings.

Opera writing

After seeing so much opera, reading about opera and now learning opera via singing lessons, I have started to work on one with a much welcomed collaborator. Early days, and I eagerly await the libretto to make a start. My main aim is to create something where the music conveys the emotion more than the text; well, at least equally. Seems so obvious, but I think this will be my greatest challenge, as well as working on something on a larger scale. I look forward to it – and a great way to start 2014.