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John Woolrich: ‘Contemporary music is no different from Brahms’


The British composer John Woolrich discusses the challenges contemporary music faces and the vital role of amateur musicians

My interview with John Woolrich for Cozio has just gone live here, and in it he says many interesting things about his conception of string sound and how he composes for different stringed instruments. I also asked him more general questions that led to a fascinating discussion about the language of contemporary music and the importance of amateur musicians in the classical musical ecosystem.

Woolrich wrote his viola work Through a Limbeck for the 2002 Tertis Viola Competition, and I asked him what this experience was like. Unsettling, he explained: ‘After you’ve heard 40 different players just running through the notes it’s a bit soul destroying. In competitions you meet people who’ve never played contemporary music. It’s both a technical issue and interpretative, as many players don’t know how to make the notes make sense. It makes an interesting challenge, but it’s painful.’

One of the problems, according to Woolrich, is familiarity: ‘Many performers don’t come across contemporary music of any kind, even straightforward contemporary music, and they don’t know how to put the notes together in a musical way. The assumption is that contemporary music is different from Brahms, but it’s not. It’s the same in respect of considering a way of shaping it, slowing down, speeding up: all these things are just the same.’ There is also a language barrier: ‘If you’re a young player and you play Mozart you sort of know how it goes because it’s a familiar language. With contemporary music you have to make it up, which throws players back on their own resources, and many players don't have those resources.’

'I certainly don’t want my music to be played by people who only play contemporary music and can’t play Bach'

The divides between classical music genres don't help, says Woolrich: ‘I agree with Berio, who said he didn’t believe in players who didn’t play both Bach and contemporary music. I certainly don’t want my music to be played by people who only play contemporary music and can’t play Bach. Many Early music players also play modern music, so it’s not an outlandish challenge to do both. You don’t want people to play only Telemann or only Brian Ferneyhough. That would be an impoverished artistic life.’

Woolrich recommends one work in particular to help young players understand musical language early on – Berio’s 34 Duetti, for two violins. He explains: ‘Berio was a string player himself when he was young and two of his sons, who he had quite late in his life, were violinists, so it’s like the equivalent of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos. They are works of genius. There’s always a pupil part and a teacher part, or advanced and beginner. Each piece is a portrait of one of Berio’s friends or heroes, so, for example, there’s ‘Igor’, which is a pastiche of Stravinsky. In some of the pieces Berio uses extended techniques, and some are just for open strings. They are perfect Berio, perfect for little fingers, and absolutely masterly.’

'Who should play our music? Is it only the London Sinfonietta or CoMA?’

The challenge of writing for non-professional fingers is one that Woolrich relishes, and puts into context: ‘So much great music of the 18th and 19th centuries was written for amateurs, and so much of the 20th century is written for professionals. The challenge of writing for an individual voice, making the music challenging but doable for amateur or young fingers is one of the interesting questions of our time. Who should play our music? Is it only the London Sinfonietta or CoMA?’

Indeed, Woolrich’s works have often been played by Kensington Symphony Orchestra, a London amateur orchestra, of which I am an erstwhile member. Woolrich explains the thrill he gets out of having an amateur orchestra play his music: ‘I love having pieces done by KSO. You’ve chosen to be a member, you’ve paid money, and there are wonderful players. It’s moving. If you’re in a professional orchestra it’s wonderful, but you’re paid to play. When orchestras like KSO rehearse every week, it’s a tremendous honour for a composer.’

'Beethoven’s symphonies were written for a mixture of amateurs and professionals'

But he’s also worried that the balance of the musical ecosystem is changing, and that the symbiotic connection between amateurs and professionals is being broken: ‘In the 18th century most performing musicians were amateurs. There was a small order of professional performers and a medium-sized group of non-participating audience. Haydn quartets were written for people to play as much as to listen to. Beethoven’s symphonies were written for a mixture of amateurs and professionals. Now there are more professional musicians, fewer amateurs, and the passive audience has expanded. That is a bad situation. You can’t have an art form that is largely professional in terms of its executants and an audience of people who don’t know what it feels like to sing in the Messiah or play Für Elise. Composers such as Britten, Peter Maxwell Davies, Hindemith and Berio have addressed it, but it’s a cultural problem.’

I'm quite immersed in the amateur classical music scene, which seems healthy to me, and definitely feeds London's concert-going audiences, but maybe this isn't the case with younger generations and will only get worse as music continues to be deprioritised in education. It’s a worrying perspective. What is your experience of this?

Photo: Maurice Foxall

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