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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.

The process of reflection

Author:   Rory Johnston, Blogger in Residence

Author: Rory Johnston, Blogger in Residence

If you follow the ORA Singers’ concerts and commissions, you may be familiar with the term ‘reflection’ with regards to composition. One of the main focuses of ORA’s commissioning is that of re-imagining or reflecting on a piece of renaissance polyphony, in order to create a new piece that has some connection to the initial material. In many cases, when composers are commissioned to write music for a concert, they are asked to create a piece that will accompany another, more substantial or famous piece in the programme.

This will occasionally come as a bit of a surprise to the young composer, who may have only had to write to a specific brief before, but never had to compose something that reflects on another piece of music in an overt way. Knowing what that entails, but also what, more often than not, makes a successful ‘re-imagining’ or ‘reflection’, is knowledge worth having up your sleeve as you step into the world of composition and is what I’m going to give a few examples of here.

There are many ways you can approach this task, but in my mind there are two very obvious routes that will always yield some form of success -  these approaches can also be used in conjunction; they are not mutually exclusive.

Transformational

The first technique is that of transformation. Instead of writing lots of their own musical material, a composer can take the music of the piece they are reflecting on/re-imagining and use the building blocks to form new musical structures. This could be in the form of taking interesting chords from the music and using them in different situations, like in repetitive structures or as disparate objects to observe. It could also involve taking melodies and reharmonizing them - putting the interesting, emotive parts of the line in new contexts, giving them more/less tension to bring out different aspects of the melody. Or it could simply be overlaying the music on itself at different tempos (see Nystedt’s Immortal Bach).

Two good example of this from ORA’s commissions are Roderick Williams’ Ave verum corpus Re-imagined which takes the opening chords from William Byrd’s Ave verum corpus and superimposes them over each other, creating a piano sustain pedal effect which is absolutely magical (yes, I know I have already mentioned this piece a million times before… it’s good ok!), and Charlotte Bray’s Agnus Dei which takes contrapuntal lines from Byrd’s Agnus Dei from the Mass for Five Voices, and recontextualises them against each other. In both of these pieces you are constantly linked to the original pieces, both because the material is literally from the original, but also because that material maintains a sense of genre, technique or ‘sound-world’ across the transformation, giving the new piece a sense of being both old and new.

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Constructional

Another way of reflecting on a piece in a less literal manner is to take note of how the music is constructed and utilise the techniques of the original to craft your new piece. This could be anything from knowing that the piece uses imitative counterpoint, and so also using that compositional technique, to using the same structure that the original uses.

An example of the latter can be found in Richard Allain Videte miraculum from ORA’s ‘Many are the wonders’ album, which is a reflection on Tallis’ piece of the same name. Tallis writes this piece in responsorial form, where chant and polyphony alternate – kind of like a verse/chorus type structure. The piece starts with a small intonation of plainchant, followed by a setting of the rest of the main text in a polyphonic style. Once we get to the end we are treated to more plainchant, but then the choir repeat only from a certain point of the main polyphonic music. This happens once more, after the doxology is sung in chant, but we repeat from a different point this time. Allain uses this same structure for his piece. This type of reflection is potentially freer than the first as it allows you the option to write anything you want, without being potentially confined by original material.

There are many other ways to approach this task, and use of overt musical material, be it concrete or meta, isn’t a necessity. Some of the best pieces of music will likely have been written as reflections on others, but we may never know exactly what they are reflecting on - take the Elgar Enigma Riddle, for example.

In my opinion, the most successful reflections are those that clearly give the listener enough of the original that they can recognise it, whilst still bringing something new to the table – be it a recontextualization, complete reharmonizing or something else entirely. ORA have had some truly wonderful reflections by composers over the years, and it doesn’t look like it’s stopping any time soon, so make sure you get listening to their backlog before more wonderful music comes out, otherwise you’ll get behind!


Written by Rory Johnston

ORA Singers