The world premiere of my new piano piece ‘Levantina’ is coming up in just over a week. I’m excited by the prospect of seeing and hearing someone else playing a piano piece of mine as this is a first.

A while ago the young Jordanian Palestinian pianist Iyad Sughayer suggested to my sister Frances, with whom he was lodging, that I might write a new piece for him. He had enjoyed playing through my ‘Suite of Somerset Apples’ written for harpsichord. So it was Frances who made the commission on Iyad’s behalf.

Iyad Sughayer (photo ©Kaupo Kikkas)

Given my interest in folk music and the informal description of me as a ‘folk-minimalist’ we decided that the new piece would be inspired by a folk song from the Levant – hence the title Levantina. In my research I discovered that Levantina is the name of a multinational natural stone company originating in Spain and also a genus of air-breathing land snails. It still seemed the perfect name for a little piece inspired by the Levant so it stuck.

Levantina is based on a folk song which is known by various names but that I know as The Lovers Hymn. The story Iyad tells me, and which I want to hear more about, is that this is a chant sung by women who want to get messages to their husbands and lovers who are away at war. The messages are in code and carried on the wind. This idea of melodies hidden in and carried on the wind has very much inspired the way the piece works with the main tune gradually emerging from inside the texture.

It’s a strange experience having written piano music for myself to perform for over 40 years to think about the experience from another pianist’s perspective. One of my piano pupils is currently learning a piece from my Round & Round set and I’m finding myself explaining how and why the music is the way it is. Like with all kinds of retrospection you find illumination by looking back. There’s a thread common to both pieces of melodies emerging out of patterns.

Iyad plays music from across geographical and temporal boundaries, He performs massive dramatic works with great confidence and panache but can also bring sweetness and delicacy when required. He’s particularly drawn to the music of the Armenian composer Khachaturian, having released his first CD of the composer’s work on the BIS label in November 2019. His second Khachaturian CD recorded with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales is in the pipeline also on BIS.

Iyad’s concert is at 4.00 pm on 6th February at St George’s Bristol. Alongside Levantina he will be playing: Haydn Piano Sonata in F Major Hob XVI:23; Sibelius 6 Impromptus Op 5 and Khachaturian Masquerade Suite, which also appears on the forthcoming album.

The concert is being given in support of PalMusic, an organisation dedicated to improving the lives of young Palestinians through music.

Sitting in the Staircase

We are nearly half way through the presentation of Secret Staircase in vertical spaces in Frome as part of Frome Festival 2021. It has been wonderful sitting at the bottom of these staircases and talking to people about sound and space and memory. It seems to be the case that the installation evokes memories: memories of staircases and events on stairs but also more generally events in life – ups and downs, feelings and moods, somehow the music unlocks feelings as well as memories as well as just existing in the present and in the building or environment it is placed.

Most of the staircases are indoor, parts of the inner workings of buildings, but a couple are outdoors – a chance to hear the sound installation in the open air. All of the sites seem to take people back to events that have happened in the past, on staircases or not; in the imagination or in literature or art. The mind is an incredible thing – making connections, remembering and inventing narratives – making sense of life and art.

It has been lovely to work with saxophonist Nick Sorensen – this is really just the start of what I hope will be an ongoing project. The next stage will involve animation by David Daniels adding another dimension to the work. We are already talking to other venues and many visitors have suggested we make a CD of the music. So watch this space for more manifestitations of Secret Staircase…….

Meanwhile we still have five days of the Frome Festival and Secret Staircase popping up in four very different locations during that time. Follow the links below to book your free tickets for the remaining slots – join us on some of Frome’s staircases.

Location 2: 3rd – 11th July a four storey wooden staircase in an old industrial building
Location 3: 3rd and 6th – 10th July our shortest staircase in a building with many facets
Location 4: 3rd – 7th and 10th July a metal staircase, an escape route, a way out
Location 5: 8th, 9th and 11th July stone steps in a sacred setting

Secret Staircase

It’s been a long wait but performance is back, festivals are up and running and we have a new sound installation about to go live in Frome.

Free tickets

Book a free ticket for a 15 minute slot at one or more of 5 locations – all within easy reach of the centre of Frome. Visit www.artmusic.org.uk for details and links for bookings.

The new work is inspired by the Nelson Staircase in Somerset House, London and other beautiful, dramatic and quirky staircases around the world. Come and experience sound moving up and down, rising and falling and floating in vertical spaces.

Composed by Helen Ottaway; performed by Nick Sorensen; visuals by David Daniels; recording by Alastair Goolden; staircase research and marketing by Steve Ehrlicher.

Secret Staircase is part of Frome Festival 2021

Frome Festival is 20 years old this year. Artmusic presented Lachrymae in the Round Tower Gallery of Black Swan Arts for the first Frome Festival in 2001. We have been intermittently involved in the intervening years and are thriiled to be premiering a new sound installation, Secret Staircase, in this anniversary year.

And if you can’t join us this time…

I realise that not all readers live near Frome. I’ll be working with animator David Daniels on an audio visual version of the piece and this will be available to view online later in the year. We’re also looking for festivals and venues to book the installation. It’s going to be such an easy work to tour, I really hope we get the opportunity to take it to other places. Watch this space…..

The Path is Made by Walking

the path to chapel coppice, Ashley Chase, near Abbotsbury, Dorset

Artmusic’s Lachrymae was created by Alastair Goolden (sound designer), Rowena Pearce and Tim Millar (artists) and me (composer) and was installed in Chapel Coppice in Ashley Chase near Abbotsbury for Ridgeway Responses, a walking strand of the Inside Out Dorset festival in 2014.

In 2015 Alastair Goolden and I collaborated with Satsymph to create a geo-located version of this work, resulting in a perpetual ghost of Lachrymae residing in the woods to this day. You can visit the virtual version of Lachrymae by downloading Satsymph’s Land Bone and Stone App no.1 here and following the map to Chapel Coppice with your smart phone. N.B. At present LBS1 is only available for Google Android.

Around this time, and because of this introduction into geo-located sound walking. I became aware of The Museum of Walking and Sound Walk Sunday. Lachrymae and many of Satsymph’s other geo-located sound walks were included in the Sound Walk Sunday directory – an amazing collection of sound walks from all over the world.

Last year I was invited by Black Swan Arts in Frome to curate LISTEN, a summer season of sound art. Along with presenting music and art in different combinations and settings I wanted to work with Satsymph again and also to involve The Museum of Walking in LISTEN. We invited Satsymph to create a new local geo-located sound walk based on the aural histories recorded by Home in Frome in their Working Memories project. This new walk entitled ‘Walking Memories’ explores the centre of Frome through the voices and memories of those who worked in the town in years gone by. You can find the map and a link to the bespoke app on satsymph’s website here. This app is available for both Google Android and iPhone.

The final day of LISTEN coincided with Sound Walk Sunday and we invited co-founders Geert Vermeire and Andrew Stuck to join us for a one day symposium on sound walking. So for 2019 Sound Walk Sunday came to Frome.

I have continued to be associated with the Museum of Walking – now renamed walk – listen – create and as I type we are in the middle of the new month-long festival, Sound Walk September. As always the website lists sound walks that you can experience actually or virtually from all over the world and this year there are a host of other initiatives and activities available too.

One of this year’s projects is 30 Days of Walking, an opportunity for anyone to select a day and time and record their own soundwalk. 25 days of walking have passed so far with over 60 individual walks recorded and uploaded. There are 5 days left so why not record a walk of your own. I recorded my walk on 7th September in Glastonbury. In my Redstone diary for 2020 opposite the first complete week of September is a poem by Antonio Machado, Canto XXIV from Proverbs and Songs 29. The last line of the extract reads ‘The path is made by walking’. I decided to take this poem about walking as my starting point and wander where the poetry led me. I chose Glastonbury as that may have been where I started life. You can listen to my short autobigraphical soundwalk here.

It’s impossible to know where life will take you next. During lockdown I have had new encounters with Literature, and walking which has led me to think more about these two in combination. Poems about walking, thoughts and stories experienced while walking……..definitely fertile ground for new work.

At the invitation of walk – listen – create, on Monday 28th September at 7.00 pm, I will be co-hosting a discussion about the role of movement in the participation in and appreciation of art. I will describe my creative career in terms of movement from performing Music Walk with John Cage in the 1980s and creating animated installation art with 3 or 4 Composers in the 1990s to making movement-generated work and processional performances in the 2000s and discovering nature and new ideas through walking and networking with Inside Out Dorset in the 2010s. Everyone is welcome to join in the discusion – more info and tickets here.

White Storks online

This week’s breaking news is that my new piece White Storks for string octet is now available online.

On Sunday 19th July 2020 Shipley Arts Festival broadcast their Wilding Concert on Zoom. It was the festival’s 6th concert to reach the audience via the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic. The concert included pre-recorded performances from three venues in and around Shipley in West Sussex.

I am really delighted to have been asked to write a new piece to celebrate the return of white storks to the UK after over 600 years and to have had the chance to work with the Shipley Arts Festival. The world premiere of my White Storks string octet came towards the end of the concert, filmed and recorded the previous weekend at the Knepp Estate in Shipley, where the storks have been re-introduced. The new octet was performed by members of the Bernardi Music Group and accompanied by dancer Vikkie Mead.

Now in it’s 20th year Shipley Arts Festival, led by violinist and artistic director Andrew Bernardi, is exhibiting an admirable doggedness and determination to keep going under difficult circumstances and is succeeding in entertaining and moving a growing audience at a time when we all desperately need creative and cultural stimulii. The whole concert can now be viewed on Andrew Bernardi’s You Tube channel. along with the previous 5 concerts of the 2020 festival.

The new commission has attracted some media interest with plugs on BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM as well as interviews on Radio Sussex’s Breakfast Show with Mark Carter (our interview is 1 hr and 50 mins into the show) and a magazine show, Local World which goes out weekly on two community radio stations in West Dorset: Abbey104 in Sherborne and KeeP106 in Dorchester (my interview with presenter Jenny Devitt and an extract of the new piece is 13 minutes into the 23/07 programme).

I am so grateful to all involved for giving me this wonderful opportunity. They are all named at the end of the concert film. Do take a look.

Of course now, I’m noticing storks everywhere – This morning I went to our drawer of postcards collected by both me and Steve over the last 40 or more years and the first one a picked up was this, produced by German postcard makers Editions Michel + Co in their Sundshine cards category. There definitely seems to be a story here – but what?…… if this rings any bells with anyone, I’d love to know.

Birds and music

Image by katja from Pixabay

In just over 48 hours we will be able to see and hear Shipley Art Festival’s Wilding Concert beamed across the globe via Zoom. Last Sunday the Bernardi Music Group and I gathered, physically distanced of course, at Knepp Castle to record my new commission, White Storks for String Octet. It was the most overwhelming experience – hearing what’s been going round in my head for weeks in reality for the first time. Thanks to the brilliant players and the excellent film and sound producers the piece was reheased and recorded from a standing start in about an hour and a half.

You can get your ticket by visiting the Shipley Arts Festival website and following ‘forthcoming events’ and 19th July or you can go straight to the eventbrite ticket page here.

Shipley Arts Festival have been broadcasting their concerts on YouTube and Zoom since the beginning of lockdown, refusing to give up the idea of sharing music with their friends and audience. In fact this way, people from far and wide can join in and it may be that some who have been unable to attend concerts for years suddenly find themselves among the audience. There are a few silver linings to the restricted world we find ourselves in.

Birds are a frequent source of inspiration for artists of all kinds, but music and dance seem to echo the kinds of words we use to describe the nature and behaviour of birds – flying, soaring, gliding, spiraling. In the first section of my new piece I am imagining the white storks near the end of their journey from Africa to Sussex, glimpsed in the distance, floating in the air, then as individual birds come into view you start to hear solo musical phrases which leap and dip. When we were recording – I explained that the way to play the phrases as I imagine them is to feel like a bird in flight, or a bird on the nest – the storks have a strange way of moving back and forth on the nest as though they can’t quite decide where to stand. The way a stringed instrument is played with the long sweep of the arm with the bow is perfect for this kind of visualisation. The 8 string players play in pairs, sometimes moving as one, sometimes more like a duet or one echoing the other. I’ve tried to write it as a very democratic piece to play. All the players have their moments.

Throughout the process I have been following The White Stork Project on social media and seeing the work of various photographers. I still haven’t seen the storks in real life so for now these amazing images are my reality. Last Sunday I met photographer Malcolm Green who has been following the progress of the White Storks at Knepp for the last 2 years. This is what he said about my new piece:

Your composition is beautiful and it resonated with me because I have watched and photographed the white storks at Knepp Castle Estate for 2 years and your music captures the magic and behaviours of these incredible birds. The white stork project is a re-introduction programme based in West Sussex and it is a wonderful advert for conservation. Your composition is perfect timing too as the first wild storks have successfully bred in the UK for the first time since 1416. For me, your music has now become the white stork project theme tune. Thank you! 

So please do join us on Sunday at 6.00 pm for the Shipley Arts Festival Wilding Concert and the world premiere of White Storks.

Off to Knepp

Tomorrow, Steve and I will be driving off cross country for the first time since the beginning of lockdown. We will be travelling on the iconic A272, subject of ‘A272: An Ode to a Road’ by Pieter and Rita Boogaart, heading for the Knepp estate in Shipley, West Sussex, where the Bernardi String Octet will be recording my new piece, White Storks.

Four of the octet are the members of the quartet who performed in Artmusic’s ‘In the Field’ in Wadhurst in May 2015 and played my ‘A Field in May’ so beautifully. This commission is a consequence of that collaboration and it will be great to be working with those players again.

This morning Andrew Bernardi and I were interviewed on BBC Radio Sussex. The White Stork Project and Shipley Festival’s innovative online concerts are attracting a lot of attention. This concert is special in that it brings together Knepp’s rewilding project and the storks with music and the local community which supports Shipley Arts Festival. This is all very rooted in Sussex but interest in rewilding and protecting endangered species is universal. Because of the online platform we hope the audience will be from across the globe.

The first of the stork chicks flew the nest on Thursday afternoon. The other chicks may be taking their first flights while we’re at Knepp, which would be very exciting to see. The first new stork life in Britain for 600 years. They are beautiful, engaging birds with great character and I feel very fortunate to have been asked to write music to celebrate their return to our landscape.

You can see video of the first chick’s first flight on instagram at @kneppsafaris and you can follow the progress of the storks by visiting the White Stork Project website. And to find out more about the concert on Sunday 19th July and to buy tickets visit the Shipley Arts Festival website.

Pencil and paper

White Storks parts 1
22 pages of parts for my new White Storks string octet

I have been promising myself for years that I will aquire and learn to use a music writing software package. And, thanks to a bit of emergency COVID19 funding from Arts Council England, I will be able to buy my preferred software and aquaint myself with the joys of digital music writing over a semi-locked down summer.

However, I am very much in two minds.  Sitting at the piano with a lovely soft pencil in my hand and blank manuscript paper on the music stand, I feel a bit like an artist poised, brush in hand, to make the first marks of a new painting. It’s not a part of the process that I want to move onto the computer. So sketching out initial ideas will definitely stay analogue.

If it’s an ensemble piece, as in the case of White Storks, even when the score is finished there are the parts to write.  A totally different kind of exercise – very practical – a matter of putting down each player’s notes in such a way that they will be able to understand what’s going on in the other parts without cluttering their page.

White Storks the right ruler

I get my tools together: a pencil, preferably B, a very good rubber and a ruler – I use my father’s old Gestetner ruler – the best ruler I’ve found yet.   In the vicarage in Wolvercote, when I was growing up, the Gestetner duplicating machine sat in the corner of the dining room.  My father would write the notices for the Sunday service by hand.  Then my mother would sit up on Saturday evenings typing them onto the very distinctive Gestetner stencils ready for feeding through the machine to print the sheets for the next day.  I would often come home after a Saturday night out to be welcomed by the ink smells and the machine noises of the Gestetner at work.  So the ruler which I have inherited must have come with the machine. Anyway, a ruler is essential. Hand-drawn note stems are fine but bar lines must be straight.

pencil and music paper

I noticed today after writing with it all week that the pencil I was using had the words ‘shadow play’ printed on the side. So actually it is a drawing pencil designed for creating light and shade – hopefully this is what I’ve been doing with it in some way.

Am I talking myself out of getting to grips with digital technology? No, I’m sure I will find ways to integrate modern ways into my practice, comfortably old-fashioned as it currently is. It’s strange really as, in my work with Artmusic, digital technology is an essential part of the production and presentation process.

Now my hand-written parts for White Storks have winged their way to Sussex and the members of the octet. On Sunday we will gather at Knepp Castle to perform the piece for the first time and record it for broadcast on Zoom the following week.

And meanwhile the source of the inspiration for the piece, the white storks, are busy. The first of the recently hatched chicks took it’s first flight yesterday afternoon. See @Kneppsafaris on Instagram for video footage. These are the first white storks born in Britain for 600 years. This young stork’s siblings will surely take their first flights over the coming days. The ambition is for there to be at least 50 breeding pairs in Southern England by 2030. Such a brilliant story to write music for. Such a privilege.

The Zoom virtual concert featuring my new piece is at 6.30 pm on Sunday 19th July 2020. For more info and links to tickets visit Shipley Arts Festival

For more information about the White Storks visit the White Stork Project

White Storks arriving


Writing White Storks

The first section of my new piece for String Octet depicts the arrival of the White Storks on their journey from Africa to West Sussex.

This is the first time I’ve written a piece that you might call programmatic – telling a story, having a narrative.  It’s a simple narrative describing  the stork’s migratory journey, but also at the same time I am attempting to depict in music their soaring flight, their inelegant flapping and tramping around the nest and the unforgetable way they clatter their bills.

I’ve always been interested in musical performance as choreography, playing with the moment that gesture becomes sound.  And string players would seem to be ideally suited to depicting flight as they make their notes with sweeps of their arms and bows. I hope I can combine the look and the sound in the way I am imagining.

In this first section, the arrival of the white storks, I have used long melodies with large intervals to reflect the wide wing span of the birds as they ride the thermals and spiral in the air.  The tempo quickens as they flap their wings and then they glide again.  In the end though, music is an abstract art and although it’s useful to make pictorial analogies for inspiration and for writing, I hope that what is conveyed is the spirit of flight and flap without seeming too literal.

White Storks will be recorded at Knepp and broadcast in a special Shipley Arts Festival Zoom concert on Sunday 19th July 2020.  https://shipleyartsfestival.co.uk/andrew-bernardi-knepp-castle/





Music for the White Storks

white storks
flight of the white stork

Earlier this year I was invited to write a new piece about the white storks at the Knepp Estate in Sussex.  White storks have been absent from the English landscape for several hundred years but are being encouraged back by rewilding projects around the country, including at Knepp.  You can find out more about the White Stork Project here  and if you are interested in going on a virtual stork walk follow this link.

The commission has come from Andrew Bernardi and the Shipley Arts Festival.  Knepp is in the village of Shipley and the festival and the estate are frequent partners, including an annual concert at Knepp Castle now titled ‘The Wilding Concert’.  The new piece, for String Octet was to have been performed as part of the Wilding Concert on Sunday 21st June 2020.  Due to covid19 the concert has been postponed but the festival, the string octet and I are busy collaborating and working towards a virtual premiere of the new work.

Over the coming weeks I will be documenting the progress of the piece in this blog.  Because of the remote nature of the collaboration bits of score and recording will be flying back and forth between Frome and Sussex.  I will be employing the kind of techniques I use for creating sound installations, recording fragments and experimenting with different combinations.  It’s exciting to be working with such great musicians and to get the chance to hone the material with their help into what I hope will be a landmark piece.

You can also follow the progress of the white storks and their fledgelings on the knepp instagram account @kneppsafaris