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Blogger in Residence: Rory Johnston

Rory Wainwright Johnston is a conductor and composer from Bradford-on-Avon, based in Manchester. He joined ORA Singers as our one of our ‘Bloggers in Residence’ in 2018, eager to share his experience of choral writing, singing, directing with the next generation.

About Rory...

Rory is a composer and conductor based in the rainy city of Manchester. Having just finished his Masters in Composition, he is gradually forging a path in the professional world of music.

Growing up within the English choral tradition as a treble at Bath Abbey, Rory’s musicianship was formed by composers like Howells and Byrd. Luckily having been played plenty of Radiohead and Manic Street Preachers on cassettes in his parents’ car as a kid, his taste broadened to encompass more than just the classical sphere. Nowadays, Rory enjoys listening to Renaissance polyphony and contemporary art music alongside R&B and 90's hiphop.

Rory is passionate about encouraging people to engage with contemporary music, opening their ears to new possibilities and sound worlds. He admires the ORA Singers for their commitment to new music and is thoroughly looking forward to working with them.

Preparing for a workshop

Author:   Rory Johnston, Blogger in Residence

Author: Rory Johnston, Blogger in Residence

Seeing as it is the ORA Young Composers’ Composition Workshop next week, I thought I’d write some of my thoughts about the best way to approach a composition workshop as a composer.

Throughout my time at University, and a few times whilst at school, I had the opportunity to workshop my music - whether it was with a small group of instrumentalists with a specific brief set, or whether it was with a full symphony orchestra with only a maximum duration given as any kind of guideline. Workshopping music is really beneficial for the composer, as it lets you hear your ideas live before the deadline is up meaning you have the opportunity to change things and experiment in ways that are not so feasible when writing by yourself.

There are a few different types of situation that you might be in when turning up to a workshop which spanning three different stages of the compositional process:

1 – Sketching stage

Often, if the link with the musicians is for a long-term project, you could be only just starting to write your composition and there may be the opportunity for an ‘exploratory workshop’. These do exactly what they say on the tin – they explore the potential for musical ideas with the musicians and the composer. When at university, these are often used for either long-term project compositions (as previously stated), or early on in the degree to explore not only musical possibilities, but also to give composers insight into the strengths and weaknesses of a vocal type/instrument.

In these situations, its great to come with as many questions and ideas as possible. Some of the types of questions asked might be: ‘Can a soprano hum a G above the stave’, ‘what does it sound like if a violin plays sul ponticello?’, ‘how does a trumpet get from that note to that note – and is it difficult’. Knowledge of the capabilities of voices and instruments will always help you in the writing process as it will reduce the amount of your time spent on logistical thinking… something that can be severely inhibiting if you have to spend every other note checking whether or not a pitch is in the range of an alto saxophone and whether it transposes…

Musically feel free to play around with the musicians, ask them what their favourite type of line to sing/play is and then explore what about it makes them sound expressive, exciting, or engaging, and why they like it – remember you are not just writing music in a vacuum, the musicians are you biggest allies and if they like what they are performing they will be much more committed to performing it to its fullest extent.

Coming with some small sketches can be useful if you’re already thinking about specific material, but even if you aren’t it can never hurt to bring some random ideas along in sketch form to play around with – you never know what will spark inspiration in you (or joy, as Marie Kondo would say…)

These workshops will generally be quite relaxed in both formality and tempo, and often have a good amount of allocated time.

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2 – Fragments stage

This type of workshop will generally come midway through the compositional process, or in the latter half, near to the deadline. For the Young Composers Competition Workshop on Saturday 18th (head here to see the full details!) this is the stage at which the composers will be when we workshop their music.

At this point, it is likely that you have either decided on what you are going to write and have made some substantial drafts of a few sections or moments, or you have narrowed down your ideas to a few big contenders and want to explore how they sound before making any concrete decisions about which direction to set off in. The fragments that you bring can make this type of workshop either very productive, or not particularly helpful. Bringing as many different sections and types of idea can often be the most beneficial for you (especially if you’re unsure of which ideas you want to commit to). Even if you’ve already decided on your musical ideas, bringing different chunks of one section – one from the beginning of the texture, one as the texture develops, and one at the climax of the desired effect – can help you piece together in your head how it will sound when fully formed.

Remember, this is not a performance it is a workshop, the goal here is to allow you to hear your ideas not to showcase a completed section of music, so even if the musicians sing/play 12 6-bar fragments from 6 different parts of your piece, you will have come away with the knowledge of so much more than if you bring a draft of just the opening.

With this type of workshop you are likely to get feedback that looks closely at the fundamentals of your music and how it is attempting to achieve its goals. At this stage in the process you still have the time to think about rewriting and tweaking your music, so listening to all the feedback and taking it on board is crucial. The musicians offering their thoughts will have good instincts as to what works for their particular voice-type/instrument, and so picking their brains as to what works and what doesn’t can lead to better, more intuitive parts and, consequently, better music.

It’s important to remember, though, that this is your music so sticking to your guns about what you want is not a bad thing in any way, but, that said, it is beneficial to be open to constructive feedback and criticism, as we only learn when we are open to new ideas. Engaging in discussion with the musicians and workshop leader about what your ideas are and asking for advice on how to solve any problems you’ve encountered in the writing process will enable you to get the most out of the time spent – in the end they are there to enable you to make the best music you can.

3 – Performative stage

This final type of workshop comes either at the end, or very near the end of the compositional process (depending on whether you’re writing the piece solely for the workshop, or whether you have a deadline shortly after this time).

At this point you will have written the entirety of the piece, or at least close to it, and you will have  the chance to hear the music in a manner close to a proper performance. At this stage it is important for you to come prepared with both: ideas of moments you aren’t necessarily happy with and how you might change things to fix any issues - this could be solutions such as increasing durations to sort out phrase structures or climactic moments, or thinning out/filling in textures with less/more parts to create the sound that you were aiming for; and ideas and thoughts about minutia that you wanted to experiment with, such as timbral variants of different sections (experimenting with the strings playing all sul pont. or sul tasto during a section), the doubling of melodies either above or below, or even something as simple as tempo.

The type of feedback you might get at this stage is likely to be either of quite broad scope (‘The pacing of that section doesn’t feel quite right to me, why not repeat those four bars?’), or very fine in detail (‘The word setting of the basses at b.23 makes their textual emphasis oppose the sopranos who have the same melody, maybe it should be this…’), so having clear musical and aesthetic ideas in mind as to what you want will help you either explain why a moment is the way you wrote it, or help the musicians to help you.

Don’t be afraid to not like what you hear. That may sound like an odd thing to say, but having the courage to say ‘I really didn’t like that section and I don’t think it works because of X’ and then going away and rewriting can sometimes be the impetus to truly capture what you initially envisioned. The courage to cannibalise your music (break down what you’ve written and use the parts to write something new with the constituent parts) can often lead to great things.

Often with these types of workshop there is not always that music time allocated per composer, so being prepared and knowing what you want to hear and what you want to try out will allow you to make the best use of your slot.

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All in all my advice to you is to come prepared, which doesn’t necessarily mean ‘come with lots of music written. Ideas and conversation about music can often be just as rewarding in these situations than running through segments of music, so knowing what you want and putting forward ideas about how to achieve that is a great step in the right direction. For many this may be the first time you have ever heard your music performed by anyone other than yourself, which is both exciting and –  at least for me – terrifying. Relinquishing control over your music can often feel quite stressful, but it is something that you must learn to deal with, as the more your music is performed the less likely it is that you will be able to be involved in every instance of its performance.

Receiving feedback and criticism about your music is often also tough to take. Putting something out there that is so close to both your heart and so personal in terms of your own value judgements as a musician can be daunting, so it is understandable to feel put upon when hearing someone else’s thoughts on your creation. My advice is to take everything in your stride – most of the time, the people giving you feedback will be there with the sole intention of enabling you to do your best and trying to coax out of you your most musical self; they are not there to demean you and embarrass you, as much as it may feel that way.

I forgot one last point: Enjoy yourself. Having something you have thought up made manifest in the air around you is a joy that not many people get to experience, and I don’t think it ever gets old hearing your ideas become a reality. Savour it.

The ORA Singers Youth Composer Workshop is on Saturday 18th May, 2-5pm, The Church of the Holy Cross, Cromer Street, Kings Cross, London. This event is FREE and unticketed.

Written by Rory Johnston

ORA Singers