Feature Review – Inventions 2005: Simon Holt & David Sawer

Written by: John Fallas

Nothing lasts forever. Young composers must by now have grown resigned to the loss of “State of the Nation”, the weekend’s worth of workshops and first performances which the London Sinfonietta gave annually from 1997 up until three years ago. Last year, its replacement, a February Saturday unimaginatively dubbed “Inventions”, seemed to go unacknowledged as such. This year, for the three-concert afternoon and evening, the Sinfonietta’s Artistic Director Gillian Moore explained the change as deliberate: if the switch from a weekend to a single afternoon still went without comment, it is apparently ‘feedback’, that favourite arbiter of modern judgement, that has decided the new policy of programming young composers in the company of their older contemporaries – on this occasion, Simon Holt (born 1958) and David Sawer (born 1961).

Paul Ayres

The Spring *

Elspeth Brooke

among banged fragments *

Jonathan Girling

Black Heart & A Little Madness *

Julian Allwood

The Bells *

Peter McAleer

Doorkeeper *

Sonja Grossner

Mr and Mrs Spikky Sparrow *

David Sawer


BBC Singers

James Morgan

[* World premiere]

Simon Holt

brief candles

Anna Meredith






James Olsen

Chameleon Concerto [Revised Version; UK premiere]

Mark van de Wiel (clarinet)

Ildikó Allen (soprano)

John Orford (electric bassoon)

Clio Gould (violin)

Rolf Hind (piano)

London Sinfonietta

David Porcelijn

Tansy Davies


Mary Bellamy

Within Dreams I [World premiere]



The Coroner’s Report


Rebus [UK premiere]

Anssi Karttunen (cello)

Rolf Hind (piano)

London Sinfonietta

David Porcelijn

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Saturday 19 February 2005

Dare one suggest that the really radical decision might have been to do away with the youngsters completely? There are several composers in their forties and even fifties who not only would benefit from but who also deserve the exposure of a South Bank feature. Conversely, many young composers would suffer little from catching the limelight a few years later, with less exposure of their youthful efforts in public. If there is anything worthwhile, we can wait five years for it, while in the meantime the struggle might mould them into stronger creative personalities. Simon Holt was right: as he suggested in a mid-afternoon public forum, what many composers starting out need is fewer composition lessons, workshops and schemes, and more chance to experience true artistic isolation. If one thing was clear today, it was that no 25-year-old here could match what Sawer and Holt were capable of at a similar age, when they received their first Sinfonietta performances and commissions in the early 1980s. Of this, the substantial achievement that is Sawer’s 1986 Cat’s-Eye stood as evidence.

The worthlessness of chasing after funding for professional opportunities only to squander it by a lack of discrimination marred the BBC Singers concert most of all, where it yielded a back-to-back run of samey, unoriginal choral premieres by spnm-shortlisted composers (the best being Elspeth Brooke’s Saariaho-inspired take on e. e. cummings). This served only to set in stark relief the utterly different level of inspiration and craftsmanship in David Sawer’s spacious Kandinsky settings, reminiscent in several respects of the composer’s remarkable BBC Singers commission “Songs of Love and War”. Sadly, the present piece did not benefit from the Singers’ over-enunciated, vibrato-heavy performance style.

As for the young stars favoured by the Sinfonietta, these were a mixed bag of immaturity and promise. James Olsen’s Chameleon Concerto, despite a strong opening of bell-like sounds and perceptually rich rhythmic patterning, made a considerably more puzzling and diffuse impression than his piece for soprano and ensemble premiered in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s “Music of Today” series two days previously.

Anna Meredith’s axeman, transforming John Orford’s solo bassoon by way of electric guitar equipment, provided a taster for her forthcoming contribution to “Blue Touch Paper”, the Sinfonietta’s current workshopping/commissioning initiative, while her wordless, sometimes uneasy lullaby fly-by-night caught the ear by stealth – a little self-consciously unusual, perhaps, but not without a certain strange beauty.

Tansy Davies’s neon – yet another modishly uncapitalised title – worried away at a riff while deliberately anti-aesthetic percussion (trash cans and a dully thudding bass drum) reinforced the alienated feel; Mary Bellamy’s Within Dreams I seemed pretty and insubstantial, the music outdone only by its title for lack of imagination. Nonetheless, the flexibility of “Blue Touch Paper” in allowing this premiere to be held off until the composer was happy (Bellamy was one of last year’s participants) is to be commended.

Meanwhile, the feature on Sawer and Holt seemed to do what the South Bank’s Birtwistle festival last autumn could not manage, in retrospectively illuminating the significance of Birtwistle’s achievement. The senior figure’s influence on both composers is tangible, and while Holt is the more often discussed as an heir, it is Sawer’s relation to Birtwistle that provides the greater food for thought.

Common ground consists in vivid orchestral imagination and in a growing interest in music-theatre and opera, but one also notes a strong theatrical sense in works for ensemble. Cat’s-Eye impressed by its sharply etched gestures, use of silence, and precisely functional instrumentation: two facing quartets of instrumentalists also doubled as percussionists through a judicious use of novel playing techniques. The difference is in the evident importance of minimalism to Sawer’s technical development, in a certain surrealism of expression, and in a quite different relationship to music history. Just as Sawer’s titles refer to technological inventions of the 19th or early 20th century rather than to natural forms and mythic first principles, so his musical material is far removed from Birtwistle’s stark originality. Sawer’s music speaks a language that does not scruple to evoke the past; his material is frequently contaminated by earlier usage – by memories of jazz, of popular song, by allusive dallying with human content. He is as fascinated by sentiment as by process, by modern man as much as by modern music.

The vernacular is a presence equally, if not more, sublimated in the dramatic, exotic music of Simon Holt. We heard brief candles, a sequence of miniatures for clarinet surely destined to enter the solo repertory of all adventurous players, and two larger-scale ensemble pieces, “The Coroner’s Report” (2004) and eco-pavan (1998).

Musical formalism comes and goes in cycles. Schoenberg and his pupils’ early forays into atonal expressionism called up a new rationalisation in the shape of the twelve-tone method, and eventually total serialism gave way in turn to a new expressive freedom founded in gesture. A younger generation in the 80s and 90s, post-minimalism, post-complexity, post-neo-romanticism, has seemed concerned once again to reconcile freedom from system with the possibility of order – a kind of ‘third way’? Unlike these contemporaries, Holt continues to take his points of reference from the generation before, most clearly from Birtwistle and Feldman. Each piece is an imaginative journey with no signposts set up in advance, and one has the impression of a composer whom, nearing fifty, is still declining to make life easier for himself. The juxtaposition of colourful, boldly contrasted short movements is typical, as in “The Coroner’s Report”, a set of eight ‘exhibits’ relating to the mystery which inspired Holt’s theatre piece “Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?”. Holt’s references to other art forms sometimes raise the suspicion that visual art and literature – the figures of Emily Dickinson and Lorca loom large – may be standing in for real musical connections, the ability to build a large-scale structure through musical argument and the related capacity to construct an intelligible grammar for extended utterances.

In this sense the flurries of scales in the middle of eco-pavan were perhaps one of the most impressive things about the piece. Set against the still quiet of its slow-moving dance, they imply the possibility of a differentiation between foreground and background, of a distinction between essential and decorative pitches such as forms the basis of any systematised harmonic practice.

And in at least one respect Holt’s music here does open up on to something outside itself. The basic conceit of the piece, a poetic proliferation of unusual timbres – bass flute, heckelphone, cimbalom, mandolin – around the piano at the centre, has the flavour of electro-acoustic exploration such as Holt has not sought to indulge directly, and suggests new ways of listening to his music and different possibilities of allegiance and filiation.

Otherwise, one is left with the feeling that his immensely eclectic tastes ought to have yielded a more various musical voice than one is used to hearing in his carefully crafted, undeniably expressive music. And here lies the hope to be invested in Anna Meredith and Tansy Davies, in those aspects of their work that might otherwise be merely wacky or trendy. They must continue to engage with the whole world of musical and extra-musical possibilities while seeking constantly to refine and strengthen their own technique and expressive reach. If youth is truly radical and original, as the case of Messiaen’s pupils showed in the years around 1950, its achievements can both last in themselves and even invigorate the work of established elders.

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