Young Composers

Photo: Ben Tomlin

From Digital Screens to Safety Screens: Derri Joseph Lewis takes us along his journey towards live-music making, taking a curious detour via Renaissance Italy…

The 8 Young Composers and Fellows of NYCGB were treated to two masterclass days in March 2021: an on-screen software lesson with notation-software Dorico, and meeting on-location for the first time in a workshop between-screens (transparent, COVID-safe panels!). Derri Joseph Lewis takes us along his journey towards live-music making, taking a curious detour via Renaissance Italy… 

Dorico Workshop: 9th March 2021

When we read from sheet music we are in direct contact with the past; these dots, lines, and squiggles on the page are a physical gateway between our ears and the composers mind. From as early as the 15th century, music has been printed — rather than copied out by hand — but it wasnt until the Italian pioneer Valerio Dòrico developed a new printing process 100 years after, that sharing pieces of music far and wide became possible. It is after this trailblazer that the revolutionary new music notation software, Steinbergs Dorico, is named.

Trattado de Glosas by D. Ortiz, published by Dòrico in 1553

On 9th March 2021, the Young Composers and Fellows of the NYCGB were brought up to speed with the software by Dorico-experts Daniel Spreadbury and Lillie Harris (part of the first Young Composers Scheme 19-20) who guided us through the very thoughtfully designed architecture and philosophy of the programme. Rather than clutter the screen with labyrinthine menus, Dorico is organised into five tabsthat cleverly mimic the process of music-making: Setup, Write, Engrave, Play, Print.

Daniel & Lillie from Steinberg leading our Dorico workshop

I was immediately struck by the flexibility of the programme, which seems to me its most valuable feature. Throughout the session, Daniel Spreadbury was keen to point out that there is no decision you have to make in Dorico that cant be instantly changed. Other score-writing software rigidly force the user into pre-determining the size of a bar or the length of a note. Dorico, however, makes no such assumptions, allowing an experience that closely resembles working with paper and pencil.

When Im writing for voices I always start by improvising out loud. Once I find a tune I like, I quickly jot it down on paper. My sketches are usually very vague… and definitely not neat! Then the difficult bit starts: crafting a full-length piece. If the melody is too long, it feels like chiselling away at a great hulking block of marble. When the tune is too compact, it must be slowly developed like untangling a knotted thread. This process of composing is so easy with pencil and paper: any simple mistake can be rubbed out (or if its really bad, torn off!).

The handwritten SATB score of my recent ’11 Pipers Piping’ for Corvus Consort

But despite my best efforts to improve my penmanship, I simply am not speedy enough to copy out my music for all 200 singers of the NYCGB. By the time Id finish, even the youngest members of the choir would probably be close to retirement. So once the handwritten piece is close to completion, I begin to copy the score over to the computer.

One of the fundamental breakthroughs with Dorico is that I can type in music using just my laptops keyboard, rather than drawing in the notes one by one with the mouse. In Dorico, the length of the note is controlled by the digits 1-9, while the note itself is inputted using the keys A-G. Then it’s simply a case of typing — like writing words on a typewriter —  until all the music is in. Simple, quick, and effective!

Once all of the notes are copied over from the paper, I can hearthe piece for the first time, using Doricos built-in virtual instruments. Next comes the engraving. 

An exquisitely neat and readable score created in an instant in Dorico

Originally used to describe the etching of symbols onto the metal printing stamps, the process of engraving now means tidying up the score: spacing out the staves to make page turns accessible, and lining up the lyrics, dynamics, and expressions into exquisitely straight lines… But this brain-melting task is completely taken care of in Dorico: the programmers have worked tirelessly to create perfectly publishable scores in an instant. That means I can take more time doing what matters — a.k.a writing the music — and let Dorico sort out the rest.

It isnt just us composers who will benefit from using this great new software — the NYCGB ’21-22 Fellows are also looking forward to using Dorico to create educational resources and arrangements too.

In the 16th century, Valerio Dòrico’s invention allowed for the mass-publication of music — of composers like Palestrina — for the first time. Fast forward almost half a millennia, and Dòrico’s legacy continues to facilitate the communication of music, on scores and screens across the world. What’s more, Steinberg have opened up access to Dorico SE for FREE, allowing the next generation of composers to create high-quality scores quickly and easily.

We are all so grateful to Daniel and Lillie at Steinberg for supporting this years gang of Young Composers and Fellows, and for inviting us to this thrilling day of workshops and tutorials. None of it would have been possible without the all-too familiar video conferencing platforms — all of our meetings (since our auditions in September 2020) have been facilitated online. The thought of occupying the same room as each other seemed but a faint glint on the horizon…

But, the next time that we eight YCS and Fellows met would finally be in-person!

NYCGB Fellowship & Masterclass: 20th March 2021

Stepping off the train at Paddington for the first time in 12 months was an emotional moment: the blur of colours, rhythmic tannoy chimes, the sharp smell of cleaning fluid. It all came rushing back to me.

First glimpses of urban London outside Paddington Station

Walking through central London was an eerie experience — these deserted streets were busy in my memory — the familiar metropolitan buzz replaced by a quiet, ghostly aura.

On the approach to St. Gabriels Pimlico — where the NYCGB Young Composers and Fellows were to have our first in-person masterclass —  a sudden surge of calm came over me. I expected to feel nervous and confused — instead, everything clicked into place. Standing outside the church were Ben Parry, NYCGB Artistic Director & Principal Conductor, and Ruth Evans, Head of Artistic Planning & Participation, chiming out warm hellos beneath double face-masks.

The first signs of life - Hyde Park Corner

At first it was very strange to be surrounded by newpeople — but these people were in fact not newto me at all. The 8 Young Composers and Fellows of NYCGB have been meeting for the last month and a half online, engaging in masterclasses, workshops, and rehearsals over video-call. For the first time, I was in the same room as composers Kristina Arakelyan, Anna Disley-Simpson and Alex Ho, and Fellows Elizabeth Leather, Shivani Rattan, Benedict Goodall, and - joining us live from the French Alps via Zoom - Michael McCartan. 

St Gabriel's Church, Pimlico. Photo: Ruth Evans

How do you greet someone in-person for the first time, when you already know them? Do you say nice to meet you” or good to see you again?” I had to stop myself using the phrase pleased to e-meet you” which has become a regular salutation over Zoom.

Once the dust had settled and we had all safely cocooned in our clear plastic workstations, it was strange how quickly I forgot all about the last 12 months of isolation. The joy of never hearing the words youre on mute!” and not seeing your own video-reflection staring back at you. Although I must admit, there were times I did miss making throwaway jokes in the chat-box.

Sitting together as a group for the first time, we shared our own favourite pieces for unaccompanied SATB in a discussion with NYCGBs Artistic Director Ben Parry. The range of repertoire was huge! From the early English composer William Byrds Ne irascaris Domineto Moira Smileys 2019 protest piece Sing About It.

Joanna Tomlinson leading vocal warm-ups and exercises. Photo: Ruth Evans

Singing as an octet, we even brought some of the music to life. I was very nervous about this element of the day; I perform music because I enjoy it, not because Im any good at it! Sight reading rhythm and pitch is very much a skill that needs to be constantly topped up — over the last year all aspects of my musicianship havent been nurtured, so it was a bit like being dropped into the deep end singing with some very fine musicians!

But quickly my apprehension was lifted — particularly during Dubras Ave Maria 1, which, luckily for me, was a lot easier to put together than the Byrd! The absolute joy of coming together and feeling like a part of a larger body of sound is an absolutely unrivalled feeling — we are so lucky to have been given this chance by the incredible people that run NYCGB.

Throughout the session, we one by one had our photos taken by the excellent Ben Tomlin, who has the un-enviable task of stitchingour individual shots together to form a virtual group portrait. Im very glad that I got the clippers out last week to hack away at my lockdown-mop!

Photographer Ben Tomlin, photographing Derri Joseph Lewis

In the afternoon we were joined by composer Jonathan Dove — what an experience! Jonathan shared his many insights about writing for voices of all types, from vast works for orchestra and choruses to intimate works for four solo singers. It was very inspiring to hear about his process, and to be given the chance to ask questions in such an open forum.

The day was brought to a close with a masterclass from conductor Joanna Tomlinson, an absolute expert in her field. Joanna covered a wide range of topics, from achieving a great vocal blend to typical troubleshooting advice when leading a choir. I was absolutely in awe of her immense knowledge and skill — demonstrating the subtle tweaks one can make to instantly bind a groups sound together.

On the train back home, I was struck by the absolute rushing speed of the day — it seemed to have whizzed by in an instant. I could hardly believe it had happened at all. My brain is absolutely full of enough inspiration and information to keep me topped up until the next time we can all meet again. I am endlessly grateful to everyone at NYCGB (especially Elizabeth Curwen for organising the day), Jonathan Dove, Joanna Tomlinson, Ben Tomlin, and my Composer and Fellow colleagues for such a thrilling, joyful, and memorable first outing.

Jonathan Dove leading his masterclass about writing for voices. Photo: Joanna Tomlinson