Last week, I had the opportunity to sit in on a rehearsal with the Contemporary Music Group (CMG). The group are currently rehearsing for their first concert of the season, entitled Livin’ On Adrenalin, which celebrates the 21st birthday of CoMA (Contemporary Music for All), an organisation that enables musicians of all abilities to explore and actively participate in the music of today.
As a lover of all things contemporary, I was eager to speak to the group’s conductor, Gregory Rose, about CoMA, contemporary music and the students at Trinity Laban.
What is CoMA?
“CoMA began 21 years ago and it came out of an organisation called ELLSO (East London Late Starters Orchestra). This ensemble mainly did Baroque music so Chris Shurety, the founder of ELLSO, thought it was about time we played the music of today.
“Because it was amateurs playing contemporary music, the actual music around that was possible was very limited because it’s hard to expect amateurs, even at a high level, to play pieces by composers like Stockhausen, Berio, and Xenakis. So a system was set up of commissioning pieces from distinguished composers and also having a call for pieces for anyone who was interested in writing for the ensemble.
“Chris also set up the open score project, calling composers to write for unspecified instruments. There are currently 14 different CoMA ensembles across the country and one in Holland, each one with a different set up. One of them might have a piccolo, a guitar and a double bass, and another might have two saxophones and a guitar so you had completely different ensembles all trying to play the same music. The open score project meant that any ensemble could pick these pieces up and play them.”
What kind of relationship does Trinity Laban have with CoMA?
“Trinity Laban doesn’t have a direct relationship with CoMA, but it seemed apt for us to do it for two reasons. Firstly, because we’ve done quite a lot of educational projects and we’ve tried to encourage different youth ensembles to take up CoMA’s repertoire – the pieces are written for amateurs after all. Another reason was that I’ve been conducting the London CoMA ensemble since 1999 and I’m also a professor of conducting here – it made sense to bring the two together.”
How have our students reacted to the pieces? Have the rehearsals been going well?
“The players have been fantastic – I’m really pleased. They’ve taken to it very quickly even though it has a different type of notation than they’re used to. There’s a certain freedom of pitch, for example, and also on occasion a freedom of time. Some musicians find that very hard, especially when they’re highly skilled. They’ve done very well. We’ve just had one rehearsal now, and I’m very pleased with the start they’ve made.”
How much contemporary music are the students exposed to here at Trinity Laban?
“There’s a lot of contemporary music at Trinity Laban I’m glad to say. I help run the CMG along with Dominic Murcott (Head of Composition and Music Technology at Trinity Laban) and about eight years ago we made the CMG part of the Composition Department. This was for several different reasons, the main one being that it seemed sensible to have a contemporary ensemble allied to the composers. Dominic and I run it together and it’s been a very successful partnership – it really has. I think there’s some good contemporary music here. It’s not just the CMG though – a lot of other departments do some very good contemporary music projects. Yes, I think this conservatoire has some very good projects for the music of today.”
How important is it that students get to perform this repertoire?
“For me, it’s absolutely vital that any student at any conservatoire should be exposed to the music of today. And that’s just not because it helps their whole way of thinking. Once they get outside the conservatoire they might suddenly be invited to work with groups like the London Sinfonietta or Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and if they haven’t had exposure to the music they just won’t know where to start. So it’s very important for students to have good exposure to it. I’m not saying they shouldn’t play their Bach suites and their Brahms but it’s really important that they play contemporary music too.”
What’s it like working with Trinity Laban students?
“I’ve been working at Trinity Laban for 21 years now and so I’ve had a long time to work out what people like to do. The attitude nowadays towards contemporary music is fantastic. Students find it enthralling. If they’re excited then you can do anything. If they’ve got a blockage then it makes it hard. But from my perspective as a conductor, it’s great.”
Moving onto the concert, what should the audience be expecting on Friday?
“I think the audience will expect to hear some sharp edged pieces and this particular programme is really celebrating the 21 years at CoMA. These pieces are all what we call CoMA ‘classics’, which were particularly well written for CoMA. So we’ve got some of the best pieces from the last 21 years and I think the audience will enjoy it.”
Contemporary music is a broad term – are there any particular styles or influences you’ve leant towards for this concert?
“I’m inclined to use the term ‘music of today.’ Nowadays there is such a wide spectrum of contemporary styles being used. You think of the tonality of Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt through to the very complex music of Krzysztof Penderecki and Brian Ferneyhough. That means that there is a really broad canvas which people can start. The great thing about CoMA is that it encourages people from all different types of music to compose. We’ve had our professional composers – such as Jonathan Harvey and Michael Finnissy – through to students and amateurs who have never composed before. It embodies the complete spectrum of available styles.”
Trinity Laban’s Contemporary Music Group in conjunction with CoMA will be performing this Friday at 6pm at Blackheath Halls. To find out more information and to buy tickets, visit the Trinity Laban website.
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