This November the Aldeburgh Composition and Performance Course at Snape returns after a gap of more than 3 years. It’s difficult to believe that it’s now 30 years since Olly Knussen and I founded it. Around 10 years earlier we’d thought of setting up an Aldeburgh Fringe, at a time when we felt that the programming of the Festival had become a bit too conservative. That proved both impractical and unnecessary after Olly was appointed as a Festival Director in 1983, and subsequently a lot of his energy was also given to his role as head of contemporary music at Tanglewood from 1986. My first of many visits to Tanglewood came soon after that, and it set us thinking about whether we could set up a scheme similar to the long-established composer fellowships there.
In an attempt to follow that model, which is centred around the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer residency, we approached the London Symphony Orchestra (where I was about to be appointed Associate Composer) to see if it was practical for the orchestra to have an Aldeburgh residency. Although there was enthusiasm for the idea it fell through because of the difficulty of accommodating around 90 musicians and staff over a two week period. So we had to scale it down, and we fixed on a model of between 5 and 7 composers (usually 6!) working with an ensemble of 15 players and a trainee conductor over a 10 day period, with 3 or 4 instrumental tutors in addition to Olly and myself.
This hasn’t changed a great deal since 1992, except that we soon felt the need for another composer to be involved, as Olly had to give a lot of time to working with the ensemble. For many years we were lucky to have Magnus Lindberg with us; he was succeeded by Michael Gandolfi (head of composition at Tanglewood), and now Mark Anthony Turnage. Instrumental tutors have included the cellists Fred Sherry, Anssi Karttunen and Zoë Martlew, oboists Nick Daniel and Melinda Maxwell, and horn players Richard Watkins and Michael Thompson.
We ask the composers to turn up without any preliminary sketches (a rule impossible to enforce but usually followed!) so that the piece that they work on is written entirely during the Course. In effect this gives them no more than a week to compose up to 5 minutes of music, which is rehearsed by the ensemble as early in the process as is practical – often this means only a few chords or fragments to begin with. It’s never happened that a composer has failed to meet the deadline, but sometimes it’s come close. In the second course in 1994 Richard Causton spent most of the week hitting stones together to see what sounds they would make until he suddenly produced a remarkable piece at the last moment. The following year Edward Rushton produced a piece based mainly on parallel diminished sevenths : when we suggested he could be more adventurous he not only wrote a completely new and radically different piece with only a few days to go but found time to make a couple of arrangements as well.
Impossible to name every composer who’s been part of the course so my apologies for having to make an invidious selection. We got off to rather a good start with Tom Adès and Julian Anderson in 1992. Subsequent composers have included (in chronological order) Joseph Phibbs, Huw Watkins, Sam Hayden, Jonathan Cole, Stuart MacRae, Arlene Sierra, Luke Bedford, Emily Hall, Anna Meredith, Helen Grime, Vlad Maistorovici, Charlotte Bray, Sean Shepherd, Francisco Coll, Joanna Lee, Edward Nesbit, Edmund Finnis, Matthew Kaner, Elizabeth Ogonek, Tom Coult, Jack Sheen, Josephine Stephenson, Freya Whaley-Cohen and Ryan Latimer. That’s only 28 composers out of a total of 93 (99 with this year’s intake). I hope I can be forgiven for the omissions.
Similarly the ensemble has had too many notable names for me to be able to mention individuals, except that I have to single out Sarah Nicolls, who was an exceptional pianist for no less than 4 early courses. To begin with we had some difficulty in recruiting players who were prepared to learn entirely new repertoire, but over the years we’ve had more and more applications, and it’s been very good to see players going on to work together subsequent to the course. As well as rehearsing the new pieces they work, of course, on a lot of contemporary repertoire – it’s been so heartening to see the changes in the way that the conservatoires approach new music being reflected in remarkably high standards of performance.
And singers. We’ve only had singers on the course intermittently, but with Jane Manning and then Lucy Shelton as vocal coaches this was a regular element of the first six courses. Claire Booth was an outstanding find in 2000, and she’s recently returned to supervise the work of 3 singers each year, with the composers given the opportunity to write for voice as well as ensemble.
Perhaps the biggest change has been the ability to use the Britten Studio for both rehearsal and performance since 2009. Previous to that we were confined to the Recital Room in the Britten Pears Building, with the final concert usually taking place in The Maltings, which allowed very little time to adjust to the radical difference in acoustic. (The limited available space in the building also meant difficulty in securing rooms for the composers to work, away from the sound of players rehearsing.) For the composers there’s been the huge bonus in the last 10 years or so in having their pieces played in the Festival in the year after the course has taken place.
Olly was such a major part of this course that it’s not been easy for us to carry on since his death in 2018. Because of the pandemic there’s so far only been one course without him (in 2019); the last time I saw him was at the concert for the 2017 composers at Snape, only a few weeks before he died. His daughter Sonya continues to be involved in looking after the composers, and I hope he’d be happy to know that the tradition he established continues and thrives.