Young Composers

18 August 2020

A Stay in Aldeburgh by NYCGB Young Composer, Joe Bates

I began the NYCGB Young Composers’ Scheme hoping to find my choral voice, unsure of how my style would work for a cappella choir. I also started severely injured: my interview was only two weeks after a severe car accident.

As such, my experience has been punctuated by ‘firsts’. My interview was the first time I’d left bed since the accident. My piece is the first choral work I’ve written without electronics. And, in Aldeburgh, I swam for the first time since my knee broke.

During lockdown, I began a new work. The blog I’ve written is an attempt to think about how time moves differently when you’re stuck at home, as I was after my accident, and as everyone was during April 2020.

At first, I turned to literal renderings of this idea. I intended to portray the strange distortions of time through warped electronics that would stretch or compress the singers’ voices. As I began writing, this idea fell away. It would have required meticulous structuring, like a prolation canon, for the time-delayed lines to fit with the live music. A canonic approach didn’t meet the emotional intent of this work. I needed to evoke a personal experience that, for me, didn’t fit with such a closely-planned structure.

What emerged instead was a work that evokes distorted time through harmonic rather than rhythmic means. In fact, the pulse is relatively static, using six quavers per bar throughout. Instead, I try to create harmonic blurring. This occurs partly through constantly shifting keys: the piece falls through the circle of fifths, getting flatter and flatter until it comes full circle. More unusually, it uses quartertones: notes that lie directly in between the notes on the piano. These create strange chords halfway in between major and minor.

I wrote a stub of this piece for a workshop with the Fellows, who produced a helpful recording. Yet I felt badly stuck, as if the piece had run out of road. The musical language was a little unfamiliar to me: I normally use quartertones but including them in choral music means they need to be singable. This introduced unfamiliar constraints that I found it hard to imagine my way round.

I arrived in Aldeburgh by bike, wheeling down the gravel path to a house where I’d spend the week alone. I was apprehensive: if the isolation wasn’t conducive, it might be a miserable week. Yet the effect of leaving London for the first time in six months, of being by the sea, of wandering Britten’s garden, of playing a real grand piano, was remarkable. Slowly at first, the words for the piece began to unwind, and its notes began to flow.

It was helped on its way by a joyous surprise. On Wednesday afternoon, I was working at the piano when I heard distant string music through the open door. I rammed on my shoes and trotted out into the gardens. A picnic was taking place, and there was live music. The excellent violist Meghan Cassidy had been staying nearby with her father during lockdown. To thank Aldeburgh for its hospitality, they were playing a small concert for the community. It was the first music I’d heard live in three months; I was deeply moved.

I finished the piece in the late afternoon of my final day. To celebrate the perfect timing I swam, bought a pint of Adnams, and scoffed fish and chips on the beach. There could be no better way to finish a piece or a residency.

Click here to apply for the Young Composers Scheme 2021

Deadline: Friday 4 September, 5.00pm

NYCGB Young Composers Scheme Funders & Supporters:

Programme Digital Partner: NMC Recordings

Programme Innovation Grant Sponsors:

Steinberg Media Technologies (Technology Partner) and Stainer & Bell (Publishing Partner)


Supported by Principal New Music Sponsor & Programme Innovation Grant Sponsors (Technology Partner) Steinberg Media Technologies, Programme Innovation Grant Sponsors (Publishing Partner) Stainer & Bell, RVW Trust, The Finzi Trust, Lord and Lady Lurgan Trust, The Michael Tippett Musical Foundation, Britten Pears Arts and PRS Foundation’s The Open Fund for Organisations.