Dr K. Sextet

April 2018

Duncan Honeybourne performs Shadows: Six Portraits of William Baines in Gillingham

I am absolutely delighted that Duncan Honeybourne will be giving Shadows another performance, this time to inaugurate the new piano in Gillingham Methodist Church, Dorset on 20 April at 7.30pm. Shadows is inspired by the life and music of little-known Yorkshire composer William Baines. Baines died in 1922 at the age of 23 but left behind a substantial catalogue of over 150 works. Likened to that of Scriabin, Baines’ piano music is sensuous, highly coloured and quite unlike anything being written by his British contemporaries. Shadows are reflections on episodes from Baines’ life and diary entries, each piece incorporating a chord, a gesture or a figuration from one of Baines’ solo piano works. Duncan gave the work its premiere in 2013 in Ripon Cathedral and recorded it for Prima Facie on The Return of the Nightingales (released November 2017):

The movements are entitled:

I ..waiting.. 11 Shepstye Road, Horbury, Yorkshire, 26 March 1899 (Baines’ birth)
II Horbury Co-op Cinema 1912: Ghosts (Baines’ time as a silent movie pianist)
III '..out into the lonely grey..' August 11th 1921 (boat trip around Baines’ beloved Flamborough Head)
IV 'Tomorrow I shall be in khaki.' (Baines was conscripted into the RAF on 4 October 1917)
V '..after I had played le Rossignol..' (Baines’ last piano recital on March 28th 1922)
VI ..waiting.. 91 Albemarle Road, The Mount, York (Baines died at home on 6 November 1922).


Dr K. Sextet

April 2018

Dr K. Sextet performs Bell Music for St. Casimir for Oxford Chamber Music Society

Clarinettist George Sleightholme and pianist Alex Wilson from Dr K. Sextet gave a fantastic performance of Bell Music for St. Casimir on March 4th 2017 at the Unitarian Chapel as part of Late Music York in a programme themed around story-telling, with several pieces exploring folk tales from around the world. They will perform the piece again on 15 April, 3pm in the Holywell Music Room as part of the Oxford Chamber Music Society concert series.

I wrote Bell Music after a visit to Vilnius, capital of Lithuania in February 2004. The clarinet plays a traditional lullaby called Aa-a-Mazulyte (Ah, the little one) and the piano echoes the music from an unusual set of bells in the towers of the Jesuit Church of St. Casimir. In 1997 the Lithuanian composer,Vladimir Tarasov, constructed a set of tubes and sails so that the 15 bells could be played by the wind. As the wind changes so does the music. The clarinet and piano play quite independently until they come together towards the end of the piece. Bell Music for St. Casimir was recorded by Ian Mitchell and Thalia Myers for SPECTRUM ABRSM: There is also a version for violin and piano recorded on NMC An Unexpected Light by Rusne Mataityte and Sergey Okrushko.


King Kong's Love Song

April 2018

SQUISH! (King Kong’s Love Song) at Women Composers Festival Hartford, USA

I am very lucky indeed to have received several performances of SQUISH! by US ensemble Cuatro Puntos and ASL Interpreter Danielle Holdridge) and delighted that they will be playing the work again on 6 April 2018 as part of the Women Composers Festival of Hartford in Connecticut.

SQUISH! is a love story, King Kong’s love story. But not the conventional one immortalised in the 1933 Hollywood film - the terrifying giant ape astride the Empire State Building who clasps the fainting heroine, while swiping hopelessly at the planes which eventually send him crashing dead to the ground. This is the American Sign Language (ASL) version which has something of a twist at the end:

‘Deaf King Kong: The signer starts off by describing King Kong (showing his massive head, huge sausage like fingers, and big teeth) and then the city itself, showing the buildings first then the windows on each of the buildings. King Kong looks in one of the windows and sees something so he reaches his hand in and grabs it. He notices that it is a very attractive woman and he holds on to her. As he is walking the ground is shaking, people look up and see him and scream in fright, they all run away from him. He then sees a huge sky scraper and begins to climb it. When he gets to the top he can see everything. He then looks at the girl he has been holding on to and notices her beauty and signs that she is beautiful. He then realizes that she understood him and that she is Deaf. He tells her he is also Deaf. He signs "I want to Marry..." (the sign for marry is clasping two hands together) and in the process of signing this he squishes her. Oops...’ (© Danielle Holdridge) (

ASL stories are a very important part of deaf culture, serving to entertain as well as teach and this musical interpretation attempts to capture something of the humour of the King Kong story as well as conveying the main narrative elements - the noise of New York, the thunderous footsteps of Kong, climbing the skyscraper, the tender love song and the tragic squish as the Beast kills the Beauty!

Squish! was written during my time as Composer-in-Residence with Cuatro Puntos and was commissioned with funds from the Connecticut Office of the Arts. The premiere took place at the American School for the Deaf (the oldest permanent school for the deaf in the United States founded in1817) in West Hartford, Connecticut on 7 December 2016.

Kevin Bishop and Miguel Campinho

April 2018

Premiere of Molto Viola! at Women Composers Festival of Hartford, USA

Kevin Bishop (viola) and Miguel Campinho (piano) will be giving the premiere Molto Viola! A Small Sonata on 6 April 2018 as part of the Women Composers Festival of Hartford, Connecticut. This 10 minute work was written for my friend Kevin as thanks for his support of my music over several years during my Composer-in-Residency with the US ensemble Cuatro Puntos. The piece is light-hearted in tone and celebrates the versatility of the viola and Kevin’s virtuosity and heart. The movements are marked:

I Molto moto!
II Molto Cantabile
III Molto scherzando
IV Molto Brilliante!

Seventh Angels

March 2018

Premiere of Seven Angels for Baroque violin and truhenorgel in Lüneburg, Germany

Kerstin Lindar-Dewan and Joachim Vogelsänger will give the premiere of Seven Angels for Baroque violin and truhenorgel (a single manual portable organ) on 3 March 2018 in the glorious surroundings of St. Johanniskirche in Lüneburg, Germany.

Seven Angels is based on a plainchant associated with the medieval Lüneburg convent, where the library is blessed with a small but significant number of manuscripts including two sources for the complete liturgy for the Coronation of Nuns. The plainsong text is Locutus est ad me unus ex septem angelis dicens veni ostendam tibi novam nuptam sponsam agni et vidi Jerusalem descendentem de caelo ornatam monilibus suis alleluia alleluia alleluia (I spoke to one of the seven angels, I saw a young bride Bride of the Lamb and Jerusalem coming down from the sky adorned, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia: source - Assisi, Biblioteca comunale, 693, first half of the 13th century).

The work is dedicated with much affection to my two friends Kerstin Lindar-Dewan and Carola Nielinger-Vakil. Carola (1966-2016) remains the foremost authority on Luigi Nono, and Seven Angels contains fragments of his final work Hay que caminar Soñando (You must walk, dreaming) - a thank you to Carola for bringing myself and Kerstin together, continuing her music-making through our joyful collaborations.

The work is supported by a PRSF Women Make Music Award and an Arts Council England International Development Grant as part of my association with the Bei Wu Sculpture Park, Wesenberg.

Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble

March 2018

Hard Rain perform 'No Title Required' on International Women’s Day Belfast

I’m incredibly pleased that the fantastic Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble is performing Quintet: No Title Required as part of International Women’s Day in Belfast on 8 March 2018 at The Crescent. The title of this work is taken from a poem of the same name by the Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996) and considers the importance of revolutions, tyrannicides and political conspiracies in relation to that of skimming shadows, fluttering white butterflies and windblown clouds. No Title Required has two movements. The first is fast and virtuosic, the second, lyrical and colouristic. Both have the same formal pattern - a series of variations where one aspect of each section provides the ‘theme’ for the following variation. Whereas the first movement juxtaposes blocks of material to create a disjunct, segmented structure, the second weaves lines together to create a single, flexible texture (disrupted towards the end by ‘reminiscences’ of the work’s opening). The piece was commissioned by Double Image (to whom the work is dedicated) and has received several performances worldwide. The work was chosen to represent Australia in the ISCM World Music Days, Hong Kong in 2002 and was recorded by Double Image on Metier Records MSV CD 92056.

Knjiga PjesamaKnjiga Pjesama

March 2018

Premiere of Knjiga Pjesama in Granada, Spain (Kakarigi/López-Montes)

I am so grateful to Frano Kakarigi and José López-Montes for giving the premiere of Knjiga Pjesama (A Book of Poems) for double bass and piano on 16 March 2018 (7.30pm) at the Auditórium Caja Rural in Granada Spain. I wrote the piece as a thank you to Frano for his great support of my music - giving the premiere of A Not-So-Sonatina in 2016 with such passion and commitment. Knjiga Pjesama is a four movement work, taking inspiration from the poetry of Croatia (Frano was born in Dubrovnik):

I U Pohode Vukovima (Visiting the wolves) ‘The sounds of howling wolves and dark magic’
II Zvijezda Tjera Mjeseca (The stars chased the moon) ‘A midnight landscape’
III Svijet Je Sjena (The world is a shadow) ‘Outside time, molto rubato’
IV Galebovi (Seagulls) ‘Dancing with the birds’

February 2018

Excellent reviews of Return of the Nightingales CD

Peter Byrom-Smith, January 2018

The recent release of this new album of music by composer Sadie Harrison is receiving a wonderful reception from performers, composers, listeners, and quite deservedly too, in my opinion. We have a collection of works for solo piano, and such a variety it is, it’s like a box of delights, wrapped up in a musical package! Bringing together such a group of excellent pianists, Ian Pace, Philippa Harrison, Duncan Honeybourne and Renee Reznek into such a musical adventure, whilst stirring a superb creative mixture of notes, timbre, rhythms, delicate and powerful structures, in equal measure, we were guaranteed an enlightening experience, which is exactly what we have here.

Very difficult to choose any particular favourite, so I wont, well almost. Also, I won’t say too much about the programme notes, as I always feel the listener/purchaser, should read them for themselves, that way getting a little closer to the composers thoughts – it certainly doesn’t need my ramblings getting in the way, and the booklet has more than enough information, that I don’t intend to repeat it. Sadie Harrison is a terrific and inspired composer of music for the 21st century, and if you don’t know her musical voice, well, this CD is certainly a good introduction. All the works included in this recording were written between 2011 – 2017.

Here nearly 70 minutes of contemporary music for piano, from one of our most creative composers. Influenced by everything from art, writing, as well as music, here is a composer completely in control of where she has been and where she’s going, taking us all along for the ride. Anyone worried that a collection of contemporary solo piano music might be a little ’too much’ for them, and their delicate musical constitution, trust me, the approach to the actual choosing of the programme of works extremely well, in a few ways. Firstly, the moving from one work to another in the running order of the album, and probably took a bit of thought, planning and discussion – this is needed, so we have the auditory senses, stimulated to such an extent, that the music glides smoothly from one piece, to another.

This is very interesting, as each work is very distinct from the preceding, to the following one – Harrison has such a voice though, that it all sounds such an obvious, and natural progression, not always the case with other composer collections. Secondly, the music itself, with delicate beauty, sometimes overwhelmingly powerful, almost and everything in between, shows such a contrast of style within one composers work as to not only stimulate but, well, certainly for me, to hear the music again, well after the disc stops spinning – instead the music spins an emotional and intellectual web inside the listener as to take us on the composers intended journey.

Thirdly, the individual performances of each musician, is definitely second to none, which each pianist, so deeply enveloped amongst this music, that indeed, it almost seems at times that the musicians were there at the compositional birth of their individual pieces, so absorbed are their interpretations. The title track ‘ Return of the Nightingales’ begins with one of natures most beautiful creations, birdsong.

Then joining this hypnotic soundscape the piano enters, sometimes, it seems, in imitation, then building in complexity, and within a few moments the music takes us on a virtuosic journey, before a return to our birds. Any difficult technique here, is easily cast aside, as always, by Ian Pace so as to focus totally on the music. Another highlight for me is ’Shadows: Six Portraits of William Baines’ performed by Duncan Honeybourne.
Here we have the composer reflecting on diary entries of composer William Baines, sometimes using small fragments from Baines piano works. Harrison achieves so much, with so little, never a note out of place, or could ever be removed without the whole composition imploding – perfection. Honeybourne too, he knows both the composer and music so well, that at times, we feel as though we are actually in the head of the composer as she creates the work – the range of tone and dynamic control of each musical idea, love it! Also, the titles of each piece are really great, for example: ‘Horbury Co-op Cinema’ fabulous!! ‘ Par-feshani-ye’: Six Pieces after Bidel’ take their inspiration from a couplet by the Sufi poet Bidel.

The six brief movements, wonderfully performed by Renee Reznek, provides an auditory sensation, as we absorb both the imagery of the words and music, in equal measure. On a personal level, i actually enjoyed reading the words, whilst listening to each short piece in turn, as the score opened up its secrets. ‘Four JazzPortraits’ are a set of miniatures for piano, which were inspired by the individual pianist style of Fats Waller, Bill Evans, Thelonius Monk and Albert Ammons, they are totally inspired, and they capture the feel and style of each. To be honest, I just sat back and enjoyed this group of pieces, performed here by Philippa Harrison, for a personal indulgence. May I add too, they are musically exquisite and will certainly be on radio show playlist for quite a while – as will the the other tracks too, of course! Adding into this mix, some greatly artwork, very informative booklet, with programme notes, individual biographies of both composer and the performers, this is the total package, and one all record producers/companies should take note of!

Thanks to Prima Facie Records and everyone involved in the production of this tremendous addition to contemporary piano music recordings!! Available from Prima Facie Records.

Paul RW Jackson
, January 2018

The world eclectic has become rather a pejorative word in recent times so I think the best words to describe Ms Harrison’s music as wide ranging in style, expression, emotional content, form and structure. The Return of the Nightingales, is the first and longest work on the disc. It begins with a recording of the eponymous bird around which the piano paints arabesques based on Afghanistan music. All this is treated in a Messiaen like way. It is an unsettling often violent work, appropriately so as it is a response to the devastation of the wars in Afghanistan. Par-feshani-ye ‘eshq, are six miniatures based on texts by Sufi poet Bidel. They are varied in their evocation of the words but in their brevity capture a perfumed world much in the way that Sorabji took much longer to do. Lunae are four instantly appealing nocturnes reminiscent most notably of French piano works of the early 20th century. There is Debussyian harmony and Messiaen like bird song, while the second is an elaborate fantasy based on Dowland’s famous Lachrymae Pavan. Shadows, are a homage to the composer William Baines who died tragically aged 23. Each piece is based on some chord or motif from one of his works. These are wide ranging pieces and the music of Ives came to my mind more than once while listening to them. Hymns, marches, slow moving water are perfectly conjured: a strange and wonderful set of works. Four Jazz Portraits are just that, evocations of the piano style of jazz giants seen through a 21st century lens. The laid back boogie woogie which ends the set is a delight. The rest of the disc is made up of three exquisite miniatures dedicated to friends of the composer. All of the pianists are excellent in conjuring up Ms Harrison’s sound world. At the end I am not certain exactly who Ms Harrison is as a composer but listening to the disc is a rewarding experience.

Guy Rickards, March 2018

I am not sure why it needed a relay of four pianists to tackle this programme of recent (i.e. from the past six years) music for solo piano by Sadie Harrison, but the advocacy of each exponent to their allotted piece(s) is very telling. The near 70 minutes of the disc are divided very unequally: Duncan Honeybourne has the lion’s share with exactly half the total playing time with fine accounts of the two large sets, Lunae (2012) and Shadows (2013). The others all have 10-12 minutes apiece. The music itself is as varied as the performers, consisting of one large single movement—the title track, Return of the Nightingales (2013)—plus sets of smaller pieces of varying lengths and complexity, and, to finish, a clutch of occasional pieces celebrating two students (one from Afghanistan) and her former teacher, Nicola Lefanu. Harrison’s interest in the music of the far Middle East is long established and Return of the Nightingales, atmospherically performed by Ian Pace here, was inspired by the removal of the Taliban’s ban on music in Afghanistan. The use of taped birdsong is the direct metaphor of this, Harrison’s own invention emerging from it, weaving around and finally merging back into the natural sound. Par-feshani- ye ‘eshq (‘The fluttering wings of love’, 2013-4), followed on close after that, six miniature meditations, poetic essays in sonority, on couplets of the Sufi poet Bidel. Renée Reznek performs them with the subtle delicacy they deserve, being rather less robust in form than Return.

The works on this album also document Harrison’s return to composition following a compositional silence from 2006 to 2012: one song in 2008 and a small piece for clarinet and piano aside in 2011. The four nocturnes that comprise Lunae were the vanguard of the flood of pieces that then poured out of her pen and each takes a pre-existing piece and extemporises upon it, the composers being respectively John Law, Dowland (Lachrymae, of course), Debussy and Messiaen combined and a medieval chant. Knowledge of the sources is not essential to appreciation of the finished work. The short-lived William Baines (1899-1922), is evoked in Shadows (2013), epigrammatic line drawings all the more expressive for their restraint, whereas in the 4 Jazz Portraits (2014, featuring Fats Waller, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk and Albert Ammons), Harrison lets her hair down. These are great fun, affording Philippa Harrison ample scope to display her mastery of boogie-woogie, and much else besides. This largely reflective album is gentle, wistful and jolly by turns. Terrifically quiet sound, too.

Frances Wilson, January 2018

When I put ‘Return of the Nightingales’ (Prima Facie records) into my CD player, my cat Monty immediately dashed into my office and up onto my desk to find the birds that sing so sweetly at the start of the title track of this new disc of music by Sadie Harrison. The piano enters, delicately yet brightly, imitating the twittering birdsong before moving into a lively, rhythmic passage. Ian Pace, the pianist for this track, is very much at home in contemporary and new music for piano, and it shows in the ease with which he handles technical difficulties and his vivid, immediate sound.

The variety of writing in just a few minutes of this piece signals the theme for the entire disc: it’s a wonderful example of Sadie’s compositional breadth and rich imagination and a lovely introduction to her colourful and accessible music. Not only does the disc demonstrate the range of Sadie’s compositional palette but it also showcases the talents of five excellent pianists – Ian Pace, Renée Reznek, Duncan Honeybourne and Philippa Harrison, all of whom have considerable experience in this type of repertoire and who bring myriad colours, timbre and musical sensitivity and individuality to each work on the disc.

Composed between 2011 and 2017, the pieces on this disc reveal the many contrasting styles within one composer’s output, reflecting Sadie’s wide-ranging musical and cultural influences, including the music of Bartok, Berg, Chopin, and Debussy, jazz legends Bill Evans, Fats Waller and Thelonius Monk, Methodist hymns, vintage film music, her passion for the cultures of Persia and Afghanistan (Sadie is Composer-in-Association of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music), and the natural world. In ‘Return of the Nightingales’ (the title is drawn from the translation of a Persian poem), near-Eastern folk idioms are woven into the starkly modernist suite of pieces Par-feshani-ye ‘eshq (played by Renée Reznek), while in Lunae ‘Four Nocturnes’ Duncan Honeybourne sensitively and sensuously illuminates the tender, intimate lyricism and delicate traceries of these delightful and arresting miniatures (I purchased the sheet music on the strength of this performance in order to learn the pieces myself). Philippa Harrison brings the requisite vibe and swing to the Four Jazz Portraits, capturing the style of each jazz great to whom they are dedicated; while in Shadows ‘Six Portraits of William Baines’ Sadie takes small quotations from Baines’ piano works and reflections on his diary entries to create intriguing miniatures, masterfully presented by Duncan Honeybourne. The Souls of Flowers recalls Chopin in its long-spun melodic lines and shimmering trills, while Northern Lights uses harmonies and idioms redolent of folksong and hymns. The final work, Luna…..for Nicola, is a tiny yet meaningful hommage to Nicola le Fanu, with whom Sadie studied for three years, and was written in response to hearing the premiere of Nicola LeFanu’s orchestral work ‘The Crimson Bird’. in February 2017.

The song of the nightingale is the unifying thread on this disc – in the third of the four Lunae, the evocation of Alabiev–Liszt’s ‘Le Rossignol’ as played by William Baines, and in the fluttering wings of Par-feshani-ye ‘eshq, but also less obviously in the use of trills, sparkling runs, chirruping note clusters and tremolandos.

This is wonderfully rewarding, varied and enjoyable disc, proof that contemporary piano music can be tuneful, attractive and entirely accessible. There is much to delight and challenge the pianist too: the pieces are generally within the capability of the intermediate to advanced player, and are available to purchase as scores (from University of York Music Press). I particularly like Sadie’s treatment of melodic fragments and her jazz-infused harmonies.

Richard Whitehouse, February 2018

The piano music on this disc all comes from the past five years, following on a comparable period when Sadie Harrison (b1965) chose to put compositional activities on hold to work as an archaeologist; an activity no doubt galvanised through her involvement with the culture, its riches so nearly obliterated during the Taliban era, of Afghanistan. This is manifest in the alternately ecstatic and ominous expression to be found in Return of the Nightingales, a field recording of which bird provides the backdrop for some intricate and fastidious writing that alludes to Messiaen and Scriabin across its eventful and increasingly intoxicating course.

Couplets from the 18th-century Sufi poet Bidel lie behind the evocative vignettes of Par-feshani-ye ’eshq (‘The fluttering wings of love’), though Harrison casts her net considerably wider for inspiration. Thus, the subtle contrast in her takes on the archetypal nocturne that is Lunae or the pert homages to jazz pianists of Four Jazz Portraits. Above all, Shadows – six pieces which amount to a biography-in-music of the short-lived while prolific composer William Baines – draws on aspects of his music with salient references from his diary to result in a sequence which renders the protagonist from an affecting and frequently almost tangible perspective.

Three limpidly appealing miniatures conclude a disc that offers much of interest for inquiring listeners and players alike. Not that those latter will find it easy to match the technical finesse and interpretative insight of the pianists featured here, their playing enhanced by the realistic sound courtesy of Prima Facie. Harrison has built up a sizeable discography (find out more at, to which this latest release is a welcome addition.

Musical Opinion Quarterly Gramophone

February 2018

Review of Late Music York Concerts in Musical Opinion Quarterly

Late Music Concert Series: Unitarian Chapel, York

A memorable recital by soprano Peyee Chen and pianist Kate Ledger on 5 August 2017…. Enterprisingly scheduled in the middle of these four settings was the concert premiere of Sadie Harrison’s Hidden Ceremonies I for piano of 2011. Kate Ledger put her stamp on these challenging but rewarding pieces, which are part of an ongoing series inspired by the paintings of Dorset-based artist Brian Graham. The paintings draw together the worlds of prehistoric archaeology, geology, music and contemporary landscape. Katie Ledger’s daringly expansive approach to the widely spaced and richly resonant chords of ‘after Sacrarium’ was especially striking as she maintained intensity throughout the long interstitial silences, making them a vital part of the music. She also managed ingenuously to suggest the physical shape outlined in the score of ‘Flint’. Sadie Harrison’s fragmentary pieces have a vitality and richness which ensures that they resonate long after their tiny durations. The concert debut of this compact, many-sided work was immensely satisfying and, at the same time, left the listeners wanting more.

On 2 September 2017 the Bingham Quartet’s outstanding Late Music concert celebrated York-based composer Nicola LeFanu’s 70th birthday. The evening consisted of pieces by several composers close to LeFanu….Concluding the concert’s first half was the world premiere of a piece by Sadie Harrison, who is another of LeFanu’s ex-pupils. Geda’s Weavings was written in 2004 and recorded on the NMC label. It combines ideas from the composer’s other five works that make up her Lithuanian project together with material inspired by the poetry of Sigitis Geda. There are three movements or ‘Weavings’: the first is tough and barbaric, inspired by Geda’s dark and aggressive ‘Traces of the Toad Cult Found Alongside Veprynas Lake; the second, which has a beguiling simplicity, takes as its starting point the moving ‘Poem for Arvydas, the Field of Love’, and gambolling third reflects ‘The Collective Request of the Dead Country Children of Pateru Village’. Sadie Harrison has laced together these disparate elements to form an emotionally compelling and musically satisfying string quartet with an expository first movement, a poignant and serene slow movement and a spirited, rhythmic finale which revisits the opening material at its conclusion. The Bingham Quartet made these intricately fashioned and keenly expressive pages come alive in a performance of great brio and vitality. I look forward to savouring the subtleties of this compelling piece again in concert – it merits and would reward a variety of interpretations. (Paul Conway)

Steve Larson & Kevin Bishop

February 2018

Premiere of The Oldest Song in the World in Connecticut, USA

Kevin Bishop and Steve Larson will be giving the work its premiere on 16 February 2018 at the Lutheran Church of St. Marks, Glastonbury, Connecticut and again on 23 February at Christchurch Cathedral in Hartford, USA as part of their series The Near East in America.

This brief work for 2 virtuoso violists was written at the request of violist and Director of Cuatro Puntos, Kevin Bishop, as part of a concert programme entitled Near East in America. It weaves together two ancient Arabic sources, the ancient Syrian Hymn to Nikkal reputed to be the oldest notated song in the world dating from c. 1400 BCE, and لما بدا يتثنى (Lamma bada yatathana: When she begins to sway) which was written sometime in the 9th-10th centuries ACE. The lyrics of both songs celebrate women - the Hymn praises Nikkal, the Semitic goddess of fertility and orchards, and لما بدا يتثنى compares the beauty of a lover to the swaying branches of a tree.

The Hymn is heard at the centre of the work, a transformed version that brings out the unusually diatonic and expressive harmony of the music (most probably played on a lyre or sammûm). By contrast, the melody of Lamma bada yatathana is highly rhythmic, with its 10/8 metre (samai thaqil) punctuated by the accompanying viola as drum, emphasising the ‘doom’ on beats 1, 6 and 7 and the ‘tek’ on beats 4 and 8. The work ends with increasingly virtuosic counterpoint, the melody thrown between the two instruments with abandon!

Rose Garden of Light - Eastern Connecticut State University

February 2018

Gulistan-e Nur at Eastern Connecticut State University, USA

Many thanks to Cuatro Puntos for giving Gulistan-e Nur (The Rosegarden of Light) another performance on 23 February 2018 at Eastern Connecticut State University.

On 23 June 2014, Kevin Bishop, Samim Jafar and Madhurjya Barthakur gave the premiere of my Dast be Dast in the Istiqlal School, home to the French Cultural Centre in Kabul. On 11 December 2014, several young musicians from ANIM were performing at the same School. The venue was the target of a serious attack that left ANIM's founder Dr. Ahmad Sarmast with severe injuries. Gulistan-e Nur was devised as a musical response to this attack. It is a joyful celebration of the diversity, vivacity and beauty of the country’s musical heritage, also being a testament to the courage of the students and tutors who continue to make music in the most difficult of circumstances.

Gulistan-e Nur is in three sections, each containing a paired interlude for youth ensemble and a movement for string sextet which develops the interlude’s material. The first pair is based on an Afghan instrumental work known as Bahar-e nastaram-bihag or simply Radio Piece. I transcribed the melody from a private performance of the piece that John Baily (rubab) and Veronica Doubleday (daireh) gave me in February 2015. John had learnt the piece in the 1970s from the work’s likely composer, Ustad Mohammad Omar. The second pair of movements takes a beautiful love song as its inspiration - Shirin dohktar-e maldar (Sweet Nomad Girl). I know this song very well, having heard colleague and friend Veronica Doubleday sing it many times. The opening melody (heard again at the end) is an elaborate, decorated transcription of one of her particularly moving renditions.

The final movement is a whirling attan dance entitled Watan Jan (Dear Homeland), heard first in the Interlude with its joyful 7/8 rhythm (characteristic of this national dance of Afghanistan) and then in a virtuosic development played by the sextet. I found the tune in an anthology ‘Afghan Songs and Melodies -1965’ published by the Press and Information Ministry of Afghanistan. As well as providing an appropriately celebratory ending to the work, Watan Jan also purposely recalls the circumstances which brought about Gulistan-e Nur’s composition, being the same melody used in the final movement of Dast be Dast. A return to music and a Dear Homeland triumphant! The commission was generously supported by The Ambache Charitable Trust and an Arts Council England International Development Grant. (SH)


February 2018

Premiere of NMSW Commission Coretta in Bristol and Bath

Coretta was commissioned by New Music in the South West with generous support from Arts Council England and receives its premiere on 4 February 2018 at the Victoria Rooms, Bristol, (with a further performance on 11 February at St. Michael’s Church, Bath) performed by Andy Keenan, Alison Holford, Michelle Ezigbo and Tomáš Klement.

Coretta is a collage of fictional musical recollections given to Coretta, wife of Martin Luther King, following the assassination of her husband on 4 April 1968. It is not so well known that Coretta King (née Scott) was a fine classical singer and pianist, referred to as ‘a talented young soprano’ in a January 1964 Time Magazine article. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in music and education from Antioch College, Ohio and supported by a scholarship, she undertook a second degree in voice and violin at the New England Conservatory of Music in the early 1950s, meeting Martin Luther King during this time in Boston. Although Coretta has envisioned a life for herself as a musician, she realised that such a career was not fitting for a Baptist minister’s wife. However, following her marriage on 18 June 1953, Coretta continued to perform in concerts and religious services as a form of non-violent protest, giving audiences ‘an emotional connection to the messages of social, economic, and spiritual transformation’.

Martin Luther King also valued music as a force for political change and spoke publicly about its importance for the Civil Rights Movement. On 13 September 1964, he met with the organisers of West Berlin’s first jazz festival, contributing the foreword for the programme. He wrote ‘When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument….Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life's difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.This is triumphant music.’

Coretta begins and ends with Martin Luther King’s favourite song Precious Lord, take my hand. King’s last words prior to his assassination were a request that it be sung at a mass he was to attend that night. The hymn is initially heard transformed by Coretta’s grief into a dark lament, followed by hazy memories of music that she may have shared with her husband - a blues waltz, quirky bebop ‘improvisation’, a dance from a 1950s musical, a quote from There is a Balm in Gilead (the only recording we have of Coretta’s singing voice) and fleeting harmonies taken from Verdi and Rossini soprano arias. These memories gradually transform into a joyful version of the opening hymn, dissolving into its 1932 setting by Thomas Andrew Dorsey. The very first notes of the piece - CorEttA - are heard throughout as a leitmotiv, eventually transformed from the minor into the major, mirroring the journey from personal grief to a public celebration of the First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement, Coretta Scott King (27 April 1927 – 30 January 2006). The work is dedicated to NMSW’s founder and director Julian Leeks.

Composition & Craft

December 2017

The Rosegarden of Light on documentary soundtrack ‘Laila at the Bridge’

I am very honoured indeed that two tracks from The Rosegarden of Light CD (featuring American ensemble Cuatro Puntos and Ensemble Zohra from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, conducted by Camilo Jauregui) have been used for another film, this time an important documentary directed by Elissa Sylvia Mirzaei entitled Laila at the Bridge.

Set against the backdrop of the drug war in Afghanistan, Laila at the Bridge is the story of an Afghan woman working against all odds to care for the thousands of men and women addicted to heroin who live under an infamous bridge in the heart of Kabul.

Filmmaker Elissa Sylvia Mirzaei, born in Pennsylvania, has lived in Afghanistan for eight years. She speaks fluent Dari and is drawn to intimate stories that reveal the complexity, beauty and tragedies of Afghanistan from an Afghan perspective. Shocked by the number of drug addicts using openly on the streets, Elissa felt helpless witnessing passersby step over the huddled and skeletal masses of dying junkies. She and her husband, Gulistan Mirzaei, founders of Mirzaei Films, met Laila in 2012 and were inspired to make their first feature-length documentary, Laila at the Bridge. Elissa had worked on the BBC World Service documentary The Killing of Farkhunda, which aired in August 2015. The Mirzaeis' first film, Stranded In Kabul, was one of 10 films from across Asia selected for Al Jazeera English’s Viewfinder Asia workshop in South Korea and was broadcast on AJE in 2013. Their second film, Farewell Kabul, premiered on AJE in 2014.

Toccata Classics released The Rosegarden of Light in 2016 and it is receiving a great deal of international critical acclaim. Tracks have been used on three films - The Staging Post (Australia), The King of Kabura (Afghanistan) and now Laila at the Bridge (Afghanistan/USA).

Kantos Chamber Choir - The Silver Stars at Play

December 2017

Excellent reviews for As-salāmu ‘alaykum Bethlehem on Prima Facie

I am absolutely thrilled that my new Christmas Carol released on Prima Facie this month has been receiving fabulous reviews. As-salāmu ʿalaykum Bethlehem combines selected words from O Little Town of Bethlehem (written by Phillips Brooks after his visit to the town in 1895) with the Islamic greeting meaning ‘Peace be unto you’. At a time when Bethlehem is beset with troubles, this optimistic carol brings together the two traditions in a spirit of solidarity - ‘Peace be unto you O little town of Bethlehem!’ The work was premiered on 16 December at St. Ann’s Church, Manchester, performed by the excellent KANTOS conducted by Ellie Slorach.

Simon Cummings 5:4 (13.12.2017)
‘Tis the season and all that, and while the majority of festive new releases are concerned with reheating the usual fare, there’s one new Christmas disc that I particularly want to single out. Called The Silver Stars at Play, it’s a collection of 23 contemporary Christmas carol settings, performed by the Manchester-based Kantos Chamber Choir, conducted by the choir’s founder Elspeth Slorach...for me, the most striking carol on the album is Sadie Harrison‘s As-salāmu ʿalaykum Bethlehem, which doesn’t merely challenge the conventions of Christmas music but boldly sets out more or less to ignore them completely (brava!). Combining words from ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ with an Islamic greeting, its music – though contemplative at its epicentre – is daringly wild, so ebullient and confident in its expression of joy and optimism that the carol’s culmination sounds positively feral. Utterly amazing...The effect of Harrison’s carol is only as powerful as it is due to the astonishing determination and fervour that Kantos Chamber Choir bring to it, and that’s just as true for the more introspective and meditative performances captured on the disc as it is for firecrackers like this.

Christian Morris Composition Today (14.12.2017)
'The Silver Stars at Play’ from Prima Facie Records features 23 world premiere carol recordings. At over 70 minutes it is a generous programme, with a cross-section of both significant and lesser-known mostly British composers...Perhaps my favourite was Sadie Harrison’s As-salāmu ‘alaykum Bethlehem, a riot of sound that bows least to the saccharine tendencies of the season. Even whilst pushing the harmonic envelope the result feels like a great shout of joy.

Planethugill (22.12.2017)
I was very struck by Sadie Harrison's As-salamu 'alaykum Bethlehem which combines O Little Town of Bethlehem with the Islamic greeting meaning 'Peace be unto you' to striking effect.