In partnership with the ORA Singers Composer Competition
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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.

Young Composers' Workshop

Author:   Rory Johnston, Blogger in Residence

Author: Rory Johnston, Blogger in Residence

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of leading a workshop day for the selected finalists of the ORA Young Composers Competition. It was a wonderful day in a quaint little church near Euston.

I started the day with a talk about the evolution of choral music, in which I spoke about the development from chant in the early Catholic church all the way up to modern pieces like Gabriel Jackson’s Choral Symphony. Here’s a playlist of some of the piece I mentioned, perhaps an interesting starting point for those of you who may not know much about the history of choral music.

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We carried on the morning with a short compositional task, for which I thought we’d make some canons – the musical device, not the weapon of war. The best canons are broken up in ways that mean bar by bar they are structured to compliment the previous section. So for example, ‘Row, row, row your boat’ as you can see here, starts low and gets higher, and starts with big rhythmic denominations and uses smaller ones in the middle – this means you can distinguish the different parts of it at any one time, and they work together well.


I gave a few silly pieces of text to use that the finalists got to choose from, whether it was the first four lines of the Pokemon theme tune (the original, of course!), the first twelve digits of pi, or a tongue twister about taboggans:

‘to begin to taboggan, first buy a taboggan,
but not too big a taboggan.
Too big a taboggan, is not the taboggan
to buy to begin to taboggan’

This was inspired by an event from back in my undergraduate days, where a friend of mine and young conductor, Luke Mather, devised a similar event on a larger scale called ‘Speed Composing’, where all the contestants had one hour to write a piece of choral music to silly texts and the winner was decided by a mixture of a ‘clap-o-meter’ and points for including certain things in the music like use of electronics (mobile phones/lights), English cadences, or even impressions of David Attenborough… as you can imagine, some utterly ridiculous pieces were written.

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In the afternoon the workshop began with four wonderful singers from the ORA Singers ranks, Hannah King, Ailsa Campbell, Tom Castle, and Ben Rowarth. Each of the finalists got around fifteen minutes of time with the singers and myself. In this time we explored their music, by hearing it sung and then experimenting with any ideas they had for their sketches. This included moments where we played with singing hums, open vowels or even really portamento ‘ng’-ing, sections of music which we tried faster and slower, and even sections of music we made up on the spot to try out an idea one of the finalists had not written down. The standard was very high, and a special mention goes out on my part to the youngest contestant, Katie Styles (11yo – Y7), whose music blew me away with its maturity – its musical clarity and patience was something I could not have mustered at her age.

All in all it was a wonderfully musical day with an abundance of different musical ideas, styles, and voices, each one adventuring into different territory, but all equally exciting and full of potential! If you’re free for the final on Saturday 27th July I would highly recommend attending, or else you’ll miss the burgeoning talent the ORA Singers have found!

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What I’ve been listening to this week:

My playlist!

 Written by Rory Johnston


ORA Singers