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Study visit review: OCA New Music Collective Study Day

In April, around 10 OCA students, with their instruments, converged on the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester for a music study day, to spend a day performing, creating, and well, who knew what else? In fact, two people, the study day leader Carla Rees and myself as co-leader, did know, and we had arranged a varied programme of activities designed to intrigue and challenge.

The day began with the students introducing themselves musically, performing a solo piece of their own choice as well as pieces by their fellow students which they had learned in the preceding weeks. The students had different levels of experience performing in front of people and despite the varying degrees to which they found this terrifying everyone took part. Students shared their views on the performances and the general playability and style of the compositions. New ties were created among the students who now have instrumentalists to ask advice from and send sketches to.

Given that the students had performed it felt only fair that at least one of the tutors should play – an invitation taken up by Carla with a demonstration of a contemporary flute piece. This was an example of traditional and extended techniques, involving microtonal passages and multiphonics (the playing of chords). The score was explored and the notation of these non-traditional sounds and how they were produced on the instrument was discussed.
The demonstration heralded the next part of the day which was to involve students broaching new sonic territory. This was to follow further networking over lunch.

Suitably fortified, the afternoon session began with a group improvisation. This marked the inaugural appearance of the OCA New Music Collective, a group intended to rehearse and perform both student compositions and established, contemporary repertoire.
Starting from a series of pre-composed chords the collective was set the task of preparing a performance at short notice. Playing the instruments they had brought with them, using their voice, or moving outside their comfort zone by playing new instruments such as the harpsichord or playing only on the strings of the piano (i.e. not using the keyboard at all) this was an exercise in quick decision making. Each member of the ensemble had to listen intently as well as agree on which instruments to emphasise at various points of the performance. The degree of difference between the run-throughs, not to mention between them and the final performance, illustrated the versatility and creative potential of this kind of structured improvisation.
Now seasoned as new music performers, the ensemble split into two groups to prepare and perform a pair of contrasting graphic scores brought in by two students.

One of these involved musical cells which were combined and repeated ad lib by individuals in the ensemble to produce an improvisation of extended duration whose course was controlled by the listening skills and sense of musical pacing of each of the performers.

The next score was more visually orientated, involving movable tiles with different shapes and patterns on them which could be freely arranged and interpreted by the ensemble.

To push the concept further, the ensemble decided that these tiles could be arranged by the audience at the performance, bringing additional spontaneity and interactivity.

These scores in particular provoked debate surrounding our understanding of musical time and form in the general discussion session which followed.
In all, the day worked on many levels. New friendships were made as well as connections for future collaboration. For some students it was the first time they had had a composition performed, and all students received audio recordings of the day. Overall the consensus was that it had been a valuable occasion – fun and informative and, hopefully, one to be repeated.
The New Music Collective lives on and at each outing will take a new form. The idea is that it is to be guided by students’ own interests so if you have thoughts and ambitions for the Collective, or for any other study day, please share them with your tutor and Carla.

Posted by author: Gavin Wayte
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