Young Composers

Headshot of Alex, an asian man with glasses and short dark hair with a long fringe

Photo credit: Belinda Lawley

“Hi, I’m Alex and I’m 28”, I awkwardly murmur what will become a haunting week-long echo into a mic, and a wonderful, playful, ironic (or is it meta-ironic?), ZEITGEISTY collaboration - eventually resulting in my piece DEEP (HUH?!) - begins. It’s important that at the time I’m 28 (now 29! Oh dear!) because it makes me squarely a Millennial. Before this gaggle of culturally relevant Zoomers (born after 1997), a “cheugy” (cringe, I know) relic stands, proposing a self-sacrificial roast. “I’ve got this questionnaire on Millennials and how uncool we are, could you fill it out before residential ends?”.Why subject myself so publicly to this masochistic exercise (art is pain)? Because I wanted my commission to CELEBRATE the Tiktok generation! The Cyber-Dreamers! The Avant-Garde Meme-ers! But the earnest is unacceptable to Gen Z so my celebration is hidden under more layers of irony than you could find in a hyper-pop DAW. Not being a writer, I drafted PROFESSIONAL POET and fellow millennial, Alice Frecknall, into the project and we devised our ironic cat-and-mouse exercise:

  1. Questionnaire the National Youth Choir (18-25 Years) and get them to tell us exactly what they think of Millennials (ouch!).
  2. Pale at their responses and acclimatise to a necessary reality check.
  3. Incorporate their responses into a text which makes fun of Millennials but kind of makes fun of Gen Z making fun of Millennials and also makes fun of Millennials making fun of Gen Z making fun of Millennials! And set it musically with the full force of their generation!

The questionnaire was a three-parter, beginning with general questions like “Describe a Millennial” – answers include “Old”; “Cringe”; “Latte munching avocado slurping woke-erati”; “Think that all technology will be the end of humanity, like to act like they had a difficult childhood walking to wells for 10 miles”. Part 2 gauged their reactions to emojis, as this is apparently another definer of the cultural chasm between generations. Part 3 closed the survey with responses to Millennial fashion choices, where answers ranged from “Absolutely disgusting” to “Kinda Slay” (fellow Millennials! There’s hope!). So, Talented Frecknall and I soberly swallowed our pride, donned our cheugy crocs, and weaved references to our obsessions with skinny jeans, coffee, dad jokes and “Disney adult energy” together.

Montage of celebs wearing cringey 2000s fashion including Britney and Justin Timberlake wearing an all-denim dress and suit combo

A selection of images included in the survey for the National Youth Choir (18-25 Years) 2023 cohort

Writing the music was really hard! I’m not a natural choral composer, but that’s exactly why National Youth Choir’s Young Composers’ Scheme was so perfect for me to be involved with! The bewildering sketches I produced for the first workshop were met with brilliant enthusiasm, joy and commitment from the entire choir, Ben and Emily. Feedback ranged from the practical – singability, pitchability, idea density, chromaticism, FUN[!] – to the aesthetic – importantly it was noted that Alice and I had unacceptably neglected to feature the phrase “slay” in our text (honestly, if anything we probably over-corrected on this).

Singers from the National Youth Choir (18-25 Years) do a dramatic reading of some of the workshopped lyrics for DEEP (HUH?!) 

Our collaboration with the choir peaked in a recording session of dropped water bottles, snores and a scarring amount of smooch smacks. Members Tom Underwood, Oscar Bennett, Owen Walters, George Cass, Jenny Weakley, Kizzy Lumley-Edwards and Lucy Che gave their most meme-able originals sounds, which I collated into “ringtones” that are triggered by the choir at the start of my piece. It’s been beautiful to root a piece’s conceptualisation in an effort to understand who I’m working with. I hope I’ve been able to show through playful inanity how bright and irreducible this group of young people are.

Score for DEEP (HUH!?). The opening bars instruct singers to click their phone screens randomly, triggering samples to play, as if they were texting on their devices

Rainflow’rs is a different more serious beast that celebrates my sister and mum, our bond. The fellows took on the sombre, cryptic, surreal tone so beautifully and I can’t really imagine the piece for any other group. It’s so different to DEEP (HUH?!) in tone but there are links in the floridity of vocal line, inspired deeply by my work with medievalist composer Thomas Fournil and the Idrisi Ensemble, and in theme. Both pieces feel like attempts to escape from pain through abstraction. It makes sense to me that Gen Z needs to a break from the innumerable challenges they face. Why not Live, Love and Laugh at your sore generational elder for 15 minutes before returning to the current debilitating climate, mental health and socio-economic crises. Rainflow’rs on the other hand takes textual inspiration from the cryptic E.E. Cummings and abstracts encodes/distils trauma into sets of gentle Images. Here’s a playlist of music that influenced the piece.

Handwritten sketch of score titled Rainflowr

Thank you National Youth Choir, Ben Parry, Ruth Evans, Emily Dickens, Kerry Andrew, Josh Quinlan, Freya Parry, Emma Hall, Emily Varney, Chris O’Leary, Sarina Ratten (SHE NAILS THE G FRICKING QUARTER SHARP EVERYONE), Antonio Oliveira, Jason Ching, Timothy Peters, Olivia Shotten, Ailsa Campbell, Lucy Hollins, Yun Tay and Vicky Tay.

Recordings of Alex's compositions DEEP (HUH?!) and Rainflow'rs will be released in our Young Composers 5 Album, produced by NMC Recordings, which is due out in January 2024.