by Ed Hughes

This project asks how and why elements of the historical are voiced in the work of nine contemporary British composers. It does this through a set of interviews with Evelyn Ficarra, Roxanna Panufnik, Shirley Thompson OBE, Judith Weir CBE, Rowland Sutherland, Kerry Andrew, Martin Butler, Tom Armstrong and Ed Hughes. Wherever possible the interviews are illustrated with musical examples in audio to make the most of the online format. The interviews were conducted between October 2018 and July 2019 by Ed Hughes, Mimi Haddon, and Evelyn Ficarra.

The interviews discuss new musical works that consciously reference earlier musical texts, but then broaden into the question of wider influence: do affinities with historical texts – whether recent or relatively ‘early’ – suffuse all contemporary music?

I can clearly remember the stand-off at a Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in the late-1980s between the followers of Brian Ferneyhough (b. 1943), the British composer of complex and highly contrapuntal instrumental music, and Stephen Albert (1941-1992), the late American composer who worked poly-stylistically within a neo-romantic sensibility. For Ferneyhough and followers in that period, referencing 19th century music and tonal systems in contemporary music was a form of decadence. Their position was similar to the French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez (1925-2016), who praised originality and innovation, sought perfection of new systems of composition – and saw obsession with the past as ‘a phenomenon of a dying civilisation’.1 On the other hand, Albert rejected systems for their own sake as sterile, and therefore for him the route forward was through quotation and a referencing back to symphonic methods. In Albert’s Symphony Number 1, RiverRun (1983), the opening gesture is a clear reference to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 8 in c minor (Pathétique). Such a quotation, allied to a tonal sensibility, was, for modernist composers, anathema.

And yet, listening to Albert’s symphony today, I barely notice the Beethoven quote. Instead my attention is drawn to the comparative simplicity of the tonal method in the first movement, and the way that after the quotation is over, the music follows an organised design. Indeed, forget about quotation and Riverrun features variety and changes of texture – admittedly nakedly tonal with strong pitch centres and melodies – not a million miles from Copland, who does have a place in the American modern music pantheon. While there is a playful and disruptive attitude to tonality, there are also recognisable patterns. For example, there is a strong build-up to a B flat 7 chord, which then side-steps a normal resolution (to E flat). Instead the music cuts to B as pitch-centre – but then what follows is a gradual unfolding of a cycle of fifths – B-Fsharp-Csharp-Gsharp, as though the music is recovering its sense of system after the disruption of quotation. A decided switch from irony and provocation, to the systematic pattern-making of a good symphonist. But the quotation was what we heard in the 1980s.

The gulf between Albert and Ferneyhough in the late 1980s – both then academically trained composers and citizens of the USA – seemed stark to me as a young composer in the UK. The situation is different today. Anxieties of influence have fallen away and new generations of composers, bands and music producers create music fluently. But perhaps this, and massive and continuing changes in the consumption of music since the late 1980s, compounded by the overwhelming move to online access of music in the past two decades, has produced a new sense of levelling up that arguably mitigates against any sense history. Perhaps this context helps to understand why some of our composers in this set of interviews are rediscovering historical elements. Not to provoke, or to break away from oppressive compositional systems, as composers like Stephen Albert, and Robin Holloway in the UK, had to do.  Tracing historical elements today for our interviewees may be more about an improved sense of the positioning and ‘grounding’ of their own work in relation to the passage of time, and new understandings of complexity and patterns of influence in musical culture.

Debates around systems, originality, postmodernism and quotation that were part of musical discourse from the 1960s to the 1980s have now faded and would probably baffle young composers today. And yet distinctions persist; in part because the act of composing with or without historical elements today remains for many composers a negotiation with origins and even an affirmation of voice and identity.

Engagement with music outside a composer’s immediate world is more likely to focus on transformation in tension with expressive affinity. But this doesn’t rule out critical interrogation of canons, political thinking, and thinking about identity, through the medium of new work. This is true whether individual compositional processes begin with the underlying structure of an existing text, or the curation of musical fragments as islands of sounds, or sound objects. Aspects of western musical thought are embraced and celebrated, but not in the delimited way that a composer like Schoenberg might have spoken of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms; rather composers seem to be engaged in recovering western music’s historical elements as diverse, colourful, and even chaotic, by drawing them towards a more plural enterprise than modernism itself allowed – for example by fusing contemporary classical expression with popular, traditional, non-western, jazz or even early composition methods and performance practices.

Texts, not scores

As these interviews proceeded, it became obvious that we needed to characterise pre-existing (historical) musics in the broader category of texts rather than scores. Scores are certainly texts. Notation is a vital tool for all the composers surveyed here, but in different ways. Notation can be used to document and analyse, as well as to prescribe actions and organise time. Notation can be a collaborative resource in developing and shaping large-scale compositions and performances for composers in many traditions, including popular music and jazz, where it functions not as a prescriptive but as an enabling medium. Furthermore, varied examples of process are revealed in this collection of interviews: for one composer in this group, the starting point is an iconic jazz album, an L.P., released in 1964; this is one kind of ‘text’; for another composer, English folksongs from the oral tradition are the essential starting texts, re-worked into tracks in a new concept album; for still another composer, the starting point is a score – the printed score of an English opera from 1691 – but the resulting (new) ‘text’ is a performance that has no score but brings together participants from different performing traditions. Musical starting points and ‘outcomes’ may well derive from or contribute to oral traditions, or equally shape new canons in recordings, concert performances and of course scores.

Revisiting, repeating and varying the Historical in order to know it better

Repetition and variation are methods with long histories in musical composition. In the broader historical sense repetition stabilises musical form for a period, and so creates a productive environment in which composers build with increasing sophistication; but the seeds of decadence and fragmentation are also inherent in repetition. This last point is recurrent in 20th century discourse around art. Cocteau says aphoristically ‘One may derive art from life, but not from art’ 2. Bloom comments on repetition (in poetry), ‘the central problem for the latecomer necessarily is repetition, for repetition dialectically raised to recreation is the ephebe’s road of excess, leading away from the horror of finding oneself to be only a copy or a replica’ 3 .

But perhaps this ‘horror’ is more linked to an older, teleological understanding of artistic development, now displaced by a more variegated and chaotic concept, varied, mixed up, occasionally torn down, and cyclic. For Richard Middleton, repetition is a positive mark of ‘the popular’ in the way it enables ‘an inclusive rather than exclusive’ audience: and perhaps classical composers too are now exploring this through their practices, as their ideas around audiences evolve 4 . At any rate, in these interviews, conversations tended to embrace variegated, chaotic and plural methods over the teleological. The artistic search for new expression remains serious, focused and interested in complexity and traditions, yet colourful, diverse and more open than modernism allowed.

Critics who write about art with more detachment than artists can themselves produce psychological insights into repetition and eruptions of the historical in creative outputs. Jung 5 , for example, in analysing Joyce’s Ulysses, arrives at the conclusion that this work’s extraordinary complexity – a suite of historical, classical and Biblical references meshed into the fabric of the story of an ordinary day in 1904 Dublin – is a veil for nihilism. Whereas, for Jung, Picasso’s canvases project images which may outwardly reference known current and historical forms but actually express innermost archetypal forms, feelings and an engaged belief-system, and a human-centred experience of the universe. More recently, Kristeva, writing about Proust, argues that À la recherche du temps perdu enabled readers not simply to understand memory and the past as potentially eruptive and transformative of the present, but also to rethink time, and the experience of time, as fragmented, complex and diachronic 6. Investigating memory, including personal, historical and archetypal memory, is a form of reaching down – a way to escape or transcend the social world and attain an alternate level of consciousness. Critical and scholarly writers, at a distance from the perspectives of the artists themselves, consider what remains, what is residual, in ‘texts’, in order to point out that reaching down or back into memory and the historical may be part of an unconscious project to make the complex and paradoxical experience of time, memory and the historical palpable through the experience and very textures of contemporary art.

This is one of the fascinating things about art – that, in addition to an apprehension of beauty and affinity, when communication works well, listeners, viewers, performers or other participants sense an idea immanent in the medium itself, in the fabric and processes of the work, however enacted – whether painted, scored, performed, or improvised within given constraints. For this reason, interviews with composers and makers are essentially supplementary to their work (whether a score, an album, a unique performance or event). The compositional idea is worked out through the act of composition (broadly conceived) and it is in performance that one truly apprehends it.

Nevertheless, there is immense interest in interviewing composers who are happy to reflect, share starting points, make connections and – perhaps most importantly – dispel misunderstandings, and emphatically correct speculations that are just plain wrong. But what has been fascinating over the course of the interviews is to detect shared themes in Composing the Historical. Concerns with ‘rootedness’ turn out to be an important motivation for working with historical texts. Language forms at the unconscious level (where music is considered to be a language), animated perhaps through the close working out of ideas in the artistic medium itself, but compositional models sometimes provide useful starting points. Secondly, Composing the Historical can be a means to opening and rethinking an established text. By this I mean that a composer who deliberately reworks an old tune, whether a motet or a folksong, is opening the text up in a way that can let in fresh light which illuminates the original when one returns to it. As Kerry Andrew says, quoting Martin Carthy, ‘you can do anything with a song – it’s not sacred – the important thing is that it is sung’.

A third point that came up is that Composing the Historical is a practice that has always occurred. Setting aside the sense that quotation in certain contexts is considered postmodern, at every stage of musical history there are artists, practitioners and composers rethinking contemporary musical languages by acting on the legacies of forerunners and the texts of other contemporaries.  For example, there are medieval motets that include (or “quote”) plainchant in Latin and then have a vernacular language (French) over the top with secular lyrics 7. Indeed, texts are always in dialogue with other texts.

Composing the Historical has always happened

Modern western musical notation began with the efforts of the Catholic Church to standardise chants for its services – instead of diversity its leaders sought to produce a system of chants to be shared across the church as a whole as part of the goal of uniform language. Previously improvised plainchant melodies were collected and written down, using square blocks, called neumes, on staves to indicate relative pitches. According to his biographer, Pope Gregory I (c.540-604) ‘compiled a patchwork antiphonary’ 8 by gathering bodies of chants from diverse traditions for use by the western region of the Church. Although standardisation of chant bore Gregory’s name (Gregorian Chant) it was the result of fusion that was only codified in the late 9th century 9. This meant that ‘local chant repertoires, with their distinctive musical dialects, were suppressed’ 10, but on the other hand a system for notating music that could capture and share creative musical expression across a continent, and document it for future generations to interpret, was established. Furthermore, notation led to the idea that new compositions of greater complexity could be devised on existing chant, (a) by using the now standardised chants as source texts, and (b) by using methods, facilitated by notation, as new composition techniques. Composers of the late 12th century’s so-called Notre Dame school of composition applied quantitative meter from the theory of poetry, assuming ‘at least two abstract durations – one “long”, the other “short”’ 11, to produce the earliest notated ‘measured’ music (i.e. music governed by metre and pulse). The combination of the ‘long’ and the ‘short’ together creates a unit of time which forms the basis of what feels like a modern sense of metre.

It is in this world one can find an early example of Composing the Historical, using a method that was central to the music we know from this period. Viderunt Omnes is a work for voices attributed to the composer Perotin, who may have been a composer at Notre Dame in the 1190s. Perotin started with a Gradual called ‘Viderunt Omnes’ (a response sung or recited between the Epistle and Gospel in the Mass) found in the Liber Usualis (a book of commonly used Gregorian chants in the Catholic tradition) 12 . Perotin stretched out the leading notes of each section of the chant in order to create an underpinning Tenor (or ‘holding’) voice. These notes are so long they are like drone notes and the melody cannot be perceived. The chant is thereby embedded at the centre of the composition symbolically but not perceptually. Instead the chant notes supply occasionally changing pitch centres. This is musical structure. There are three other voices who energetically expand the individual syllables of the chant. Three active plus one timeless voice produces four part polyphony. The effect is to create simultaneity – motion (three voices) within a dramatic framework of expanded or stretched time (one voice) 13 .

Perotin’s use of a Gregorian chant, combined with a technique enabled by synchronised voices moving at different speeds, is a good example of Composing the Historical in 1200: a chant, already several centuries old, provides structural pillars and a symbolic reference; a new method is devised to produce a new experience in the late 12th and early 13th century – a new form of music that is now called ‘Early Polyphony’ 14. Viderunt Omnes in turn eventually inspired the method in Judith Weir’s choral piece All the ends of the earth (1999).

Similar musical materials can acquire completely new meanings in different contexts. Amongst England’s musicians of the 16th and 17th centuries there was an interesting version of this: mining historical sacred music to produce completely new meanings in the secular domain. Many instrumental pieces were composed during the 16th and 17th centuries by English composers with the title ‘In Nomine’. They were secular compositions for domestic use, yet devised using the plainchant Gloria Tibi Trinitas, and inspired by a section of the Benedictus from John Taverner’s mass of the same name. Christopher Tye (c.1505-c.1573), a distinguished but lesser known English Renaissance composer, wrote 24 such polyphonic In nomines for instrumental ensembles of viols. His In Nomine: Crye is a very distinctive work because it departs entirely from the original religious mood and echoes the sound of mid-16th century London town cryers. The plainchant notes are heard in long durations in the second voice – recalling the medieval tenor technique of two co-existing musical systems but with less time between each change of note, so you can just about hear the originating chant. This produces a more mobile and fluid approach to the governing harmony, characterised by constantly shifting fifth related tonal centres and a subtle yet piquant approach to third based major/minor voicings. The four principal voices mimick one another using the technique of musical imitation, but here this is meant to resemble the calls and exchanges of town cryers and traders. The music uses ancient chant to provide a structure for a short composition that is witty and nimble in its evocation of Tye’s contemporary London. Thus a Composing the Historical-type challenge was active amongst diverse English composers between 1550 and 1690 – how imaginative can you be with a highly constrained and archaic brief for a short-form instrumental composition that crosses the boundary between sacred and secular? 15.

In more recent music, older methods as well as materials are borrowed and transformed. Richard Taruskin argues that Mahler’s intertextuality was an aspect of ‘maximalism’, meaning a need to overcome preceding achievements. To proclaim ‘loyalty to Beethovenian precedent’ while announcing advance over it, in Mahler’s Symphony number 2, an extremely chromatic chord is heard before the return of the first movement’s main theme. This is the chord that Beethoven had used in the finale of the Ninth Symphony to precede the Ode to Joy. However, Mahler succeeds in integrating it into the larger tonal fabric of the work, so that although it is a quotation it is integrated into the logic of the musical language itself. The highly dissonant A flat resolves by dropping down to the fifth of the root chord (C minor). Whereas Richard Strauss’s quotation in Metamorphosen (1945) of the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony Number 3 is so carefully embedded that it hardly registers consciously. The former has the expressionist humanism of Picasso, the latter the melancholy detachment of Joyce.

One strategy of Luciano Berio in his Sinfonia of 1968-9 was to create an entire movement (the third) based on the scherzo from Mahler’s second symphony; the strategy and effect were different from Mahler’s own intertexting. As David Osmond-Smith has shown 16 in Berio elements of the scherzo are present throughout the movement in the sense that it defines the metrical structure of the entire movement; but it is like a palimpsest in that its image frequently disappears from view as it is bombarded by musical shards from Berio’s own imagination and buried, Joyce-like, in a tissue of quotations from modernist western art music including Debussy, Schoenberg, Berg and Beethoven. This is music that expresses the modern condition of fractured and displaced culture, yet haunted by the suggestion of an unattainable beauty – the nineteenth century sublime perhaps – obscured, fractured and yet impossibly still flickering in the background.

The English composer Robin Holloway wrote Scenes from Schumann in 1970 – originally entitled Souvenirs de Schumann. The orchestral work is a set of ‘paraphrases’ of six Schumann songs which ‘in their idealistic treatment of love, night and nature, [are] representative of German Romanticism’ 17. The composer wrote these are re-compositions ‘in a manner for which Stravinsky’s treatment of Tchaikovsky in Le Baiser de la Fée is the nearest precedent. I have attempted to ‘get inside’ the songs…to amplify and intensify the originals’. This happens through harmonic enrichment (chromatic alteration and addition of borderline chromatic clusters/harmonies); through ‘paraphrase’ of existing melodic line; and through additional quotation of the German romantics (e.g. Wagner and early Schoenberg). Holloway’s programme was explained by the critic Bayan Northcott – to enrich his harmonic and coloristic resources but additionally to establish an aesthetic aim – to recreate in contemporary terms ‘qualities from the past…ignored by the New Music’ 18. This must be understood to include richness of orchestration, an expanded tonal language, the ability to be ‘intertextual’ in order to evolve new lines of thought on old ones. Perhaps more fundamentally, it goes back to the earliest impulses towards composition which Holloway revealed in a recent interview. Holloway’s earliest childhood experiences of music were through his parents’ 78s – Mozart clarinet quintet, Bach’s Italian Concerto; then of learning little piano pieces – The Merry Peasant, the Beethoven Sonatinas. ‘I wanted to make them go’ differently, to ‘make changes, make this, that it didn’t do’ 19. So the pressure from the ‘imprisoning Zeitgeist’ 20 not to reproduce, comment or address the earlier music was one that stifled the young composer’s creativity and had to be resisted through composition work. This would release powerful orchestrational and developmental techniques that are core to Holloway’s works in later compositions such as the colossal Concerto number 4 for orchestra, op 101 (2004-5). The latter is impressive in its scale and range. It has urgency, scale and architecture; it is inconceivable without the techniques of orchestration and expanded tonality that were liberated by Holloway’s early career compositional tributes to Schumann; yet this work does not itself (to my knowledge) quote or look back to the past.

Michael Finnissy’s Verdi Transcriptions for piano solo date were written over a wide period (1972-2005) and are also responses to found material but the personality from the start of the set is so assertively Finnissy’s that it often overtakes and subsumes Verdi’s. This is a substantial cycle of four books of nine pieces each, totalling 36 separate compositions. The concept of ‘transcription’ is decidedly Finnissy’s here: that notation is itself the transcription of an abstract idea: and that Finnissy’s substantial diversions may be viewed as ‘re-creations of the original ‘abstract ideas’ which prompted Verdi’ 21. The transformations from or out of Verdi are startling. Book 1: I sets the tone in decidedly non-tonal vein and begins with weighty low registers which gradually evolve into a two voiced clustered counterpoint. There is energy in these gestures which explodes riotously from time to time. As one transcription succeeds the next, there is continuity of thought as well as contrast. The music evolves through the mid-point of book 1 towards higher registers, with elusive and constantly shifting counterpoint, at times tender. Finnissy’s purpose in this cycle of composition is to use Verdi to project his programme outwards rather than to reflect inwards (as Holloway): the transcriptions are ‘…not simply about Verdi. They form a critique of a musical culture which is over-saturated in its past…by dissection, analysis, parody, and by self-dramatised intent’ 22. Nevertheless a core thread or line of Verdi is clearly perceivable in critical passages in the complex layers of Verdi Transcriptions. Book 1: V stands at the midpoint of Book 1. It is here that the simultaneous presence of two strong voices, Finnissy’s and Verdi’s, is aurally evident. This tension, sustained between these two co-existing voices, eventually dissolves into a new synthesis in the final pages of this piece, leading directly into number VI which conveys a shimmering beauty and shattering violence. It is as though an explicit counterpoint between the two compositional voices is needed to release a new level of expression, in a kind of fission.

In 2018 I completed a long-planned work, Sinfonia, for the New Music Players. The composition is in six movements and is written for a chamber orchestra of 17 musicians. The first five of the movements are portraits of pre-existing works by early English composers, and the sixth is free-form. These are not arrangements; these are homages which turn into something new and different. The originals were vocal compositions, written down in musical notation between about 1400 and 1600, reflecting a long-standing interest in music in England of that period. I am drawn particularly to the richness of harmony of composers such as Dunstaple (c. 1390 – 1453) and Sheppard (c.1515-1558). Their work is formed in skilfully organised vocal lines (counterpoint) and sound masses, which also show acute regard for the possibilities of harmony and harmonic motion. Dunstaple deliberately introduced the third into chordal formations to produce richer sounding harmonies which were widely admired on the continent. Sheppard produced a motet called ‘Media vita in morte sumus’ for six voices. The chant 23 in the tenor rises in four steps and then falls in a straightforward melodic formulation. But the other voices join at intervals of approximately two bars more or less copying the shape of the chant – but organised in such a way as to produce a chain of rising thirds. The effect of this is beguiling because of the way the harmonies succeed one another with poignant clarity and constant movement. It is this problem of attaining harmonic clarity and textural complexity that has stayed with me as a creative challenge ever since I first heard this music, while still a student in university, and have sought to synthesise it with modern perspectives, especially polytemporal and polytextural devices, in my own music.

However, while Sheppard’s music has certainly helped to shape my harmonic language across many pieces composed to date, it is not the focus of Sinfonia. Instead, this work moves freely across a range of other source texts from both secular and sacred settings. In a sense, Sinfonia aims to synthesise a range of ‘sources’ and to embellish and transform them without obliterating them completely. Where Berio chose music of the 20th century, I chose music of the 15th century! My set of six ‘portraits’ are for modern instruments, which is already a pretty radical transformation of the originals. But the new pieces go further and incorporate modern twists and spins, reflecting all sorts of influences and interests, many derived from the influence of modern composers and some from my work with film (thinking of rhythmic clashes in moving images, superimpositions, and sharp contrasts).

I would like to highlight here two different approaches to Composing the Historical in ‘Sinfonia’. One is to a specific model, the other is in response to a generalisable method. The first is composing directly on the metrical and harmonic structure of a motet by John Dunstaple (1390-1453). The second is addressing the genre or method of composition known as the ‘in nomine’ which was practised by numerous English composers in the period from around 1450 to 1690.

Veni sancte spiritus is a sequence (a chant or hymn for the Christian Eucharist before the proclamation of the Gospel) which Dunstaple combined with the hymn Veni creator spiritus to form the basis of a composed polyphonic motet. In turn, it provided the structural basis for a new composition which formed the third movement of my own Sinfonia. Connections are easily made between the source and the new text. The motif that begins in the violin 1 and clarinet of Sinfonia is the same as the falling motif in the Motetus. However, the upper strings are moving faster than the clarinet and so there is immediately a blur. Additionally the clarinet spins off into a set of chromatic (non-diatonic) notes, to create a surface tension against the broadly diatonic underpinning movement of the strings in the opening bars. Overall the harmonic design of the piece maps to Dunstaple’s elegant motet. This is especially clear at letter G in Sinfonia which aligns harmonically to a point of high register and harmonic clarity in Dunstaple; the falling phrase ‘dulcis hospes anime’ is picked out by the oboe and echoed in other instruments over rapidly shifting texture of string harmonics. But, at the same time as supplying these moments of alignment, my Sinfonia’s ‘Dunstaple’ movement builds up layers of ornamentation and lines which, in their use of coloristic orchestration, different speeds, non-diatonic notes, and other features, are in another world from 15th century music, and in search of a tapestry of shifting colours and effects of multiplicity.

In contrast to my Dunstaple tribute, my In Nomine, the final movement of Sinfonia, is not modelled on any one specific source; instead it responds to the In Nomine genre. As I have already described, many instrumental pieces were composed during the 16th and 17th centuries by English composers with the title In Nomine as a technical and imaginative challenge. Learning from Christopher Tye’s In Nomine: Crye, this final piece uses the “in nomine” chant tune as the anchor point of the composition, bridging a change from duple (short beats) to  the ‘ecstatic’ 24 rhythms of compound metre (long beats). Tye’s example, in which he transforms the genre to create a musical portrait of London street cries, led me to the London Sound Survey ( where one can explore audio recordings of songs and calls of town cryers and stall sellers active in London in the 1930s. I quoted the song of a lavender seller in London on 2 November 1938 and a children’s game song called The Muffin Man, both specially recorded by the BBC. I added tone clusters to represent imaginary car horn sounds as a nod towards this more recent ‘urban’ environment. Thus I composed with the historical to produce new music that expresses affinity with the emotional life of this early music through transformation and translation, while implementing new layers that equate to modern life’s speed, simultaneity and constant change. It was this project that led me to discussions with colleagues and composers, who were incredibly generous with their time and to whom I am very grateful.

The interviews

These interviews consider the motivations behind contemporary creative responses to earlier musical texts. A common feature may be that Composing the Historical as a technique may enable composers to investigate their affinity with the emotional life of earlier music as part of exploring personal rootedness and identity. But as in music from the earliest notations (e.g. Perotin) this is not always obvious – composers also thrive on taking musical materials out of one place and placing them in a completely new context – like taking stones from a ruined abbey in order to build a new town – a very English practice.

The interviews reveal shared connections, and very different methods and interests. Often the composers’ background, training and formative experiences, unexpectedly determine their approaches to abstract compositional methods and historical thinking.  For Evelyn Ficarra, new meanings are released through the cutting up of recordings of western classical music – notably Beethoven’s Symphony number 7, and their reassembly. These are original and characteristic interventions in the field of composition, from a composer whose training and experience reflect western classical instrumental music (Ficarra is a flautist) and film sound editing (Ficarra practised in this field in the 1990s). Ficarra comments (in a partial echo of Cocteau) that the past is a place that is ‘touching’, i.e. affective, but not ‘reproducible’. But this is good because discovering this drives one back to the present.

On the other hand, Roxanna Panufnik sees the past and present as one, and goes further in arguing that seeing time as a continuum enables exploration and creative re-synthesis of diverse traditions across the world, enriching personal musical expression.

Shirley Thompson reveals the formative experiences and heritage that impinge on her work: as an English composer, of Jamaican descent, she recalls performing J.S. Bach’s Passions annually as a teenager, and leader of the Newham youth orchestra in London; influences that she synthesised into a personal language and culture, eventually finding powerful expression in her New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony, composed in 2002, which bears traces of her classical experiences in youth music, the Caribbean experience, and the historical tapestry of London’s story from the past to the present day.

For Judith Weir, the general relation to old music is one of affinity rather than explicit model or quotation – although we do begin by discussing an example of just such an ‘occasional’ piece which includes elements drawn from a work by Perotin. Weir warns against the temptation to make every new piece an arrangement or homage; and provides a very important thought, which really underpins this project and separates it from an enquiry into pastiche, in her assertion that composition should be an exercise in thought, freed from conscious considerations about style.

For Rowland Sutherland, jazz and classical flautist, composer and band leader, his ambitious Enlightenment project, which closed Meltdown Festival in 2014, explicitly homages an iconic text – the album A Love Supreme, by John Coltrane. Yet Sutherland, who conceived the music and devised the form as a live performance project in response to the structure of Coltrane’s L.P. release, shares Weir’s view that composition should be free: the composition is really a tribute to Coltrane’s vision. For while certain motifs and harmonies are quoted, the music breaks free into contemporary expression, bringing together elements that are recognisably symphonic, yet fused with cultures of the past and present including Western, Indian, West African and Cuban.

For Kerry Andrew, the idea of rootedness is important in musical composition and production today – perhaps because of the unprecedented complexity of musical culture with its coexistence of musical styles and forms of production. Like many composers, Andrew’s work exists both for the live, and in specially made recordings. Andrew pays careful attention to the curation of her work in releasable formats as well as in staged forms. Her work engages with pre-existing material, but rejects sentimental reproduction (that Ficarra also warns against); for Andrew an interest in reworking folksong, for example, is about creative empathy rather than a desire to reproduce it exactly.

Composers today may be highly trained in their craft as well as in ideas; but teaching can be in tension with personal intuition and direction. Composers therefore can feel conflicted about their experience of music and composition training in university settings, where the opportunities to learn from the techniques and aesthetic stances of older generation composers may be exciting, yet confusing to identity formation. This comes through in several conversations.

Martin Butler acknowledges the tensions younger composers experience between education and craft, expressed in conflicting views on historical consciousness, mixing of genres and free expression. However, as co-artistic director and pianist of the experimental ensemble notes inegales, Butler develops his ideas cogently in the medium of music itself: for example, through ensemble practices which question the distinct modes of performance and composition themselves and merge them, in this case through the radical re-reading of an early text (Purcell’s King Arthur, 1691).

In interview with Evelyn Ficarra I admit to homage in my own Sinfonia, but then see this process as about breaking away from canonicity and moving contemporary musical language on. Ficarra detects a gradual yet dynamic process of revealing and then re-shrouding the originals.

Tom Armstrong, in interview with Mimi Haddon, describes a process which is a reversal of the idea of accretions, decorations and layers; instead Armstrong’s interest – in relation to Jean-Phillippe Rameau’s music, for example – is in stripping away according to rules-based methods and filters, in order to see what is left and appreciate the qualities of the ‘ruins’ of what remains through repeated listenings.

The process of writing through, with, or out of the Historical emerges as distinctive and important compositional methods, and these interviews show a diverse range of forms. But equally important elements are formative experiences and identifications. Today’s composers synthesise background elements and methods in the service of original compositional thought that is – in the moment – not conscious of style.  In composition, one considers how music itself conveys  properties of the real world and imagined worlds through the act of writing: soaring lines (like cathedrals); curious structures; high culture (for chapels/courts); but with the popular/vernacular also sometimes reflected in suprising links  between the profane and sacred; shared harmonic intensities; occupation and transformation of imaginative and actual spaces through the acts of composition and performance; and the interplay between voices and instruments. Again, through the listening and performing, one may discover jewels whose facets sparkle with music from before their own time.