London Sinfonietta Travels: Southampton

Henry Lamont Simpson


Last Sunday the London Sinfonietta performed side-by-side with music students from Southampton University, in the world premiere of Michael Finnissy’s Remembrance Day. This was his major new work for baritone soloist, choir and orchestra setting wartime texts by soldier Henry Lamont Simpson, who died in 1918 aged just 21.


Guest violinist for the London Sinfonietta David Alberman tells us about the tour.

Saturday 15 November

Off before dawn down to Turner Sims concert hall on the lovely campus of Southampton University.  The mists and mellow fruitfulness of Autumn are well represented here, but the real season is that of remembrance of the First World War, a century ago.  Four of us from the London Sinfonietta are playing with wonderful students from the music department for a weekend of rehearsal and performance of Professor Michael Finnissy’s new work Remembrance Day, which is his commemoration of WWI.

I arrive in good time and it soon becomes clear that Head of Strings Paul Cox has done a great job in preparing the players with leg work and sectionals. For those of us who happily live in the new music world, questions like “how do I divide eight quavers into three even minims?” are our daily bread; the students here have now found an answer (which has to do with having a voice in your head counting triplets while you hear straight beats in your ear – a sort of benign, self-induced personality disorder).

Saturday passes in very detailed preparation led by conductor Ben Oliver, who originally came to the London Sinfonietta’s attention as a composer in their Blue Touch Paper scheme. And so to pubgrub, rain and bed.

Impressionistic iPad photo of my desk partner Hannah, with composer Michael Finnissy (also featured in this piece as a brilliant pianist) in the background, at the piano.


Sunday 16 November

Back in London by midnight (Britain’s motorways are at their best when unspoiled by fellow motorists, apart from musicians, of course) with no Audi, just my mostly trustworthy VW camper in which I had a great pre-concert kip, and which then wafted me home afterwards. It was a great performance of Michael Finnissy’s Remembrance Day in Turner Sims Southampton, given by the university music department and friends; including members of the wonderful Exaudi vocal group and 4 representatives from the London Sinfonietta, me among them.

The students rose magnificently to the challenges of the new piece – quiet high notes, playing tricky music while allowing other voices through, and generally sustaining concentration for 90 odd minutes with no break.  All did well, but the the bassoon section in particular clearly relished the showy-offy bits which the composer gave them, and always with exemplary tone and intonation.

I hope that the students have had their appetite for new music and new challenges re-whetted by meeting someone like me who, though otherwise crusty, curmudgeonly, and twisted (albeit not bitter) still loves doing this sort of thing after decades and decades.

Encountering pieces like Michael Finnissy’s Remembrance Day helps – it unflinchingly and yet very movingly considers both the loss of young life in WWI, but also the less comfortable loss of innocence and illusion as we realise that Homo Sapiens is frequently not very sapiens, and that we have fought many wars since WWI, and will probably continue to do so.

And so to a late bed, with no pubgrub.

I spare a thought for Byron Fulcher, London Sinfonietta trombonist extraordinaire, off to Moscow today with the group at crack of wotsit.



(Un)Easy Listening? Birtwistle: A Celebration

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Our latest (Un)easy Listening post delves into Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Theseus Game; a seminal piece written for the London Sinfonietta in 2003. Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, Philip Cashian uncovers one of music’s most challenging minds ahead of our concert on Friday 5 December at Southbank Centre, in which we mark Birtwistle’s 80th birthday. Find out more about Birtwistle: A Celebration and book tickets here.

Harrison Birtwistle: Theseus Game (2002-03) for 30 musicians and two conductors

Titles are always difficult for composers but some are better than others at naming their pieces. This has never been a problem for Harrison Birtwistle; Earth Dances, Angel Fighter, Endless Parade, and The Fields of Sorrow are just a few of his evocative titles. Theseus Game is no exception and like all good titles it is in itself a snapshot or signpost for what’s happening in the music. In his composer’s note at the beginning of the score Birtwistle gives three extremely useful insights into the music. “The piece is about… independent rhythmic layers which are mostly quite simple in themselves, but with two conductors it is possible to fly in different directions and do things that could not be done with only one.” He also states that “a central element of the piece is that of an endless melodic thread… which is passed from one player to another” and “… journeys within a labyrinth are circular and you often retrace your steps… there are parts of the piece where the music keeps coming back to the same place” (the title is a reference to the Greek myth of Theseus and the minotaur in the labyrinth in Crete).

Like the ball of thread Theseus trails behind him to find his way out of the labyrinth there is a continuous string of soloists throughout the work sitting on top of the musical surface. In the opening you can hear a solo violin at 00:54, solo flute at 01:30, solo horn at 02:20, solo tuba at 03:10, solo trumpet at 03:42 and solo bassoon at 04:15. These solo lines are good to hang on to to navigate your way through a constantly changing musical landscape.  Between 29:16 and 29:36 you can hear a melody being passed along from violin to cor anglais to trumpet 1 to trumpet 2.

Even though the piece has many layers Birtwistle places each strand in a different register to differentiate them so that nothing, to my ears, ever gets lost in the musical texture. 05:14 to 05:49 is a good example of this: a busy, rustling tremolo bed in the lower strings, stab chords in the brass punctuating the action and the occasional bass pedal in tuba and double basses all co-exist underneath solo bassoon and solo oboe.

Other Birtwistle trademarks include mechanical ostinati such as the ‘ticking clock’ pianos and marimbas at 06:50 to 07:07 and repetitive figures such as the ascending solo clarinet line between 07:09 and 07:22 which help to establish and focus in on musical characters. By freezing the action and repeating shards of music in different layers Birtwistle is able to create  a wonderful sense of expectation and anticipation in the unfolding drama as well as accumulating and building up tension.

What amazes me about Theseus Game is Birtwistle’s ability to relentlessly invent new material whilst letting the music constantly twist and turn in totally unpredictable directions. Some of my favourite moments illustrate this: 11:39 to 12:52 where a slow moving line in the flutes floats over a dancing solo viola but is gradually absorbed into the viola’s melody by 12:18. Listen at 12:36 as the solo viola melody passes into sustained harmonics in the rest of the strings and freezes, becoming the accompaniment to a new solo trumpet figure.

At different points in the piece the same music reappears.  One recurring figure is a flourish of bell-like notes on pianos and tuned percussion such as at 21:21, 22:09 and 31:50 and then regularly repeating until the end of the work.

The influence of landscape is a recurring theme in Birtwistle’s music and I clearly hear this in Thesues Game with its sudden changes of perspective, shifts between foreground and background, sudden unexpected arrivals in a new place and layers of co-existing musical strata.

Recommended Further Listening

Influences on Birtwistle:

Stravinsky: Agon

Messiaen: Chronochromie

Varese: Octandre

Nancarrow: Piece No.2 for small orchestra

Stockhausen: Gruppen


Birtwistle’s influence on other composers:

John Woolrich: Oboe Concerto

Colin Matthews: Broken Symmetry

Simon Holt: Sparrow Night


© Philip Cashian

A History of Harry and Us

Since 1968, the London Sinfonietta has commissioned and premiered over 20 extraordinary works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle. His work has been a golden thread through our history and we hope you will join us and the man himself on Friday 5 December, to celebrate his 80th birthday.

Below is a complete list of pieces commissioned or co-commissioned by or for the London Sinfonietta:

History of Birtwistle commissions table

In December we’ll perform Theseus Games, In Broken ImagesVirelai and The Message, alongside the world premieres of Duets No 4 and 5. In the meantime, take a listen to some of our other favourite works from the above list:

For more information on Birtwistle: A Celebration and to book tickets click here.

Through the Lens: An Index of Metals

We’re very excited to introduce three new BA photojournalism photographers from the London College of Communication who will be taking part in this year’s Through the Lens project. Mentored by professional photographer Briony Campbell, the photographers will be working with us to capture the life of the London Sinfonietta behind the scenes – in rehearsal, performance and backstage.

Our three photographers this year are Aylin Elci, Clelia Carbonari and Tamara Craiu. Meet the photographers below and check out their first shoot at our rehearsal of Fausto Romitelli’s An Index of Metals on Wednesday 8 October in our new gallery.

Aylin Elci

Aylin Elci Photo








I’m 21 years old, both my parents are Turkish and I was born and brought up in Switzerland hence identifying with both cultures. I am currently an undergraduate photojournalism student at the London College of Communication, part of the University of the Arts London. My interests range from development issues to street art and when taking photographs I try to document subjects as creatively as possible while staying as true as possible to them.

Tamara Craiu

Profile Photo







Tamara Craiu is a passionate budding photographer with a keen interest in live music. She was born and bred in Singapore, with Romanian and Polish ancestry and a ‘personal culture’ that is a blend of Jewish, Latin, Asian and everything else you can find at an international school. Currently she lives in London and is pursuing a BA in Photojournalism at the London College of Communication. She is always trying to adapt and learn new skills and applying them to further her potential. As an independent photographer, she understands the importance of initiative and passion, and brings these qualities to everything she does professionally or otherwise.

Clelia Carbonari

clelia 2







I am an Italian photographer based in London. Currently finishing my BA in Photojournalism at the London College of Communication. My main focus is street photography, I like to walk around and capture the relationship between people and what surrounds them. However, I want to experiment as much as possible and keep my mind open for any new opportunity.


Romitelli: An Index of Metals

We perform the London premiere of Fausto Romitelli‘s An Index of Metals on Wednesday 8 October at Southbank Centre. A truly multi-sensory work, the piece combines an ensemble and singer with electronic distortion, video screens, a light show and surround sound.

We’ve collected a few stills from the video projections to give you an idea of what to expect…

Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

© Paolo Pachini & Leonardo Romoli

London Sinfonietta Travels: Poland

At the end of September our players headed to Poland, to perform the London Sinfonietta’s celebrated Warp Works programme at the Sacrum Profanum Festival in Kraków. Principal Saxophonist Simon Haram tells us about the trip.

Thursday 18 September

Planes, trains and automobiles

7am Brussels: the day starts with the inevitable earworms and sore embouchure that are the result of a two and a half hour Michael Nyman Band show last night. We played a double bill of his scores to Dziga Vertov movies, a world away from Conlon Nancarrow’s Player Piano Study No. 7 which I’ll be playing tomorrow for the London Sinfonietta.

First on the agenda today, bus to Brussels Midi to catch the Eurostar home. Thinking about the Scottish referendum and how it might affect all my friends north of the border. I’ve got some recording sessions with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in a month’s time – will I need my passport to get to Glasgow by then?

3pm Heathrow: made it on time to the airport after a whistlestop visit home. Just time to dump one of my saxophones, grab some lunch, chuck a few clean clothes in the case, feed the cat and then get back on the road. All completed in 35 minutes.

Check in was very smooth as I’m travelling light on this trip. The Nancarrow piece actually calls for tenor and alto sax, but as all the notes fit perfectly on an alto, (and sound better in my opinion), I often play the whole thing on alto when we’re on the road to save the excess baggage fees. Principal Percussionist David Hockings could only look on jealously as I breezed through while he negotiated getting his numerous boxes of toys checked in.

WP_20140918_0019.30pm Somewhere over East Germany: I was hoping to write a few words at Frankfurt airport but the connection was a bit of a scramble so I’m catching up in the air. I’ve already met some new faces on this trip. On the first flight I was sitting next to Ian Hardwick who is playing oboe for this concert and am currently sitting next to Zoe Matthews who is playing viola. Touring often throws up new experiences and right now I’m ticking the box that says “sit next to someone on a plane who has brought a pizza with them just in case they get peckish.” Takes all sorts!

Right now though, I’m missing good friend John Orford who is travelling to Kraków in the morning as he’s involved with the London Sinfonietta’s concert at Kings Place tonight. We traditionally while away plane trips by playing cribbage. A few years ago on a trip to New York John may have lost a considerable sum to me this way, but of course I’m far too polite to ever mention it. Playing crib on my tablet just isn’t as much fun.

Midnight Chopin Hotel Kraków: so a long day of travel draws to a close with the traditional small beer in the hotel bar. There’s a lively atmosphere, with lots of locals seemingly settled in for a good night. Not sure about the decorations in the lobby though. Did it really take that long to get here?


Friday 19 September

Historical re-enactments
WP_20140919_007Morning in Kraków: tonight’s concert is a prelude to a big party that Warp Records are throwing tomorrow night. We’re revisiting a programme that we toured extensively four or five years ago with many of their artists. As such it’s something of a reprise. A stroll to the centre of town this morning after breakfast resulted in a couple more re-enactments in a more impromptu fashion.

I headed for the main square with Principal Trombonist Byron Fulcher and one of our Emerging Artists, trumpeter Christian Barraclough, in order to hear the famous trumpeter play his incomplete fanfares from the tower of St Mary’s Church. The story goes that in the 13th century the trumpeter was playing to signal an imminent attack and was hit by an arrow through the neck mid fanfare. To honour this story the trumpeter never completes his fanfare, even though he is tasked with trying to on the hour, every hour! I hope one day for his sanity he’s allowed to finish it.

The square was that typical European mix of street food market, overpriced cafes, buskers and street theatre. The buskers in particular were of a very high standard. There was a fine soprano, a guy playing musical glass organ and a fabulous accordionist who was powering through Vivaldi’s Four Seasons like it had been written for him. There was also a line of beautiful white horse drawn carriages, looking a bit like an ancient forebear of a Formula 1 starting grid.


Christian kindly re-enacted the untimely demise of his historical colleague for me so I could get a photo for this blog. At that moment, a man mountain dressed as Ghengis Khan, (I think), spotted that we were taking photos and took it upon himself to get involved by threatening to remove the head of our Principal Trombone. It was all good natured stuff though and Genghis insisted on shaking all our hands once the 10 zloty had been handed over for the photo opportunity. Big mistake. His handshake was more like sticking your fist into a vice. I’m just hoping my fingers are okay for the rehearsal in a few hours time.

Afternoon at the venue: being the sax player in an orchestra involves hanging around. A lot of hanging around! This can be a blessing and a curse. Right now, it’s giving me time to work on this blog, but often it can be a bit of a drag.

It seems like the whole of the Kraków tram system between our hotel and the venue is being dug up at the moment so the traffic meant we arrived a bit late to the rehearsal. Nobody is as late as Enno Senft’s bass though, which has been lost somewhere in transit by Lufthansa. The promoters have found him a bass to play the concert on which sports an indian chief at the top. Very impressive.

Andrew Gourlay, our conductor, was also stuck in traffic and got here after us. This means we’ve had to play through everything with little time to double check any wrinkles that show up. So my preparation for tonight so far has been a 1 minute warm up, quick blast through the piece and now a 3 hour wait until the show begins.

You might think this makes my life easy, but it can be tricky switching the concentration back on after such a long break and of course my first entry is a prominent solo. Situation normal for a classical sax player. Sometimes it really is easier to play for the whole concert.

Later at the hotel: the concert finished for me after the first piece so I could make an early getaway. Another diversion strewn journey, in a cab this time, back to the hotel means I’m already packed for the morning and about to call it a night while the rest of the band are still hard at work. Did I mention being a sax player can be an advantage sometimes? We’ve got a 4.30am start in the morning so stealing an extra hour in bed is precious, especially as I’m about three quarters of the way through seven weeks non stop touring. Two flights home tomorrow, mad dash up to Liverpool for a quick rehearsal then off to China for two weeks. Roll on October and a week off.

Romitelli: An Index of Metals

On Wednesday 8 October we perform the London premiere of Fausto Romitelli‘s extraordinary video opera An Index of Metals at Southbank Centre. Here’s what Romitelli himself wrote about his piece shortly before his tragic death aged 41.

My compositions take as their starting point the idea that sound is a matter that can be worked. The grain, thickness, porosity, density, brilliance and elasticity are the main aspects of these sound sculptures resulting from amplification and electro acoustic treatment as well as simple instrumental writing. After Professor Bad Trip, where the instrumental harmonies were perceived as through a veil of mescaline ­ satured, distorted, twisted and liquefied ­ I found myself compelled to follow these experiments through to the limits of perception by projecting sound as though it were light, reaching the extreme hallucination whereby sound is seen.

The aim of Index of Metals is to turn the secular form of opera into an experience of total perception, plunging the spectator into an incandescent matter that is both luminous and sonorous, a magma of flowing sounds, shapes and colours, with no narrative but that of hypnosis, possession and trance. It is a lay ritual, rather like the light shows of 1960s or today’s rave parties in which space, having assumed a solid form through the volume of sound and visual saturation appears to twist into a thousand anamorphoses. Rather than calling on our analytical ability, like most contemporary music, An Index of Metals aims to take possession of the body with its over exposition of senses and pleasure.

An Index of Metals is thus not simply another attempt to the new operatic genre by adding a visual element to the production, nor is it a strictly multi-media approach in which each artist contributes to a common narrative. It is, rather, a completely new concept in which sound and light become part of a single through process, like music and video, where timbre and images are used as elements of a single continuum subjected to the same computer transformations. The story is that of the fusion of perception, the absence of landmarks, the henceforth limitless body in the furnace of a ritual mass of sound.

Even the original libretto by Kenka Lekovich is transformed by being translated from one language to another. The music for soprano and eleven amplified instruments develops an impure timbre through counterpoint with the colourful interference in the video by Paolo Pachini and Leonardo Romoli. Three autonomous films, projected on three screens, take up all the visual space, while the sound is projected as patches of light. Both music and image use the same physical characteristics, including the irisation, corrosion, plastic deformation, rupture, incandescence and solarisation of metallic surfaces, thus revealing their inner violence and even murderous tendencies.

Composing sound visually and filming images acoustically, before subjecting both to the sale computer transformation, has meant a certain period of development in order to unify the tools for capturing and manipulating elements of both worlds. The experimental and production stages of the electro acoustic and video handling of the matter were undertaken in collaboration with a small group of artists and technicians working at the Centre du Fresnoy, composed of Leonardo Romoli (video), Paolo Pachini (computer music, video and executive production), Francesco Giomi (computer music) and Fausto Romitelli (composer). The same group is responsible for the spatial aspects of the work and they direct the video, sound and lighting during the performance.

An Index of Metals presents a violent, abstract narrative, denuded of all operatic artifice, providing an initiation rite of immersion and a trance of light and sound.

© Fausto Romitelli

Reprinted courtesy of Casa Ricordi Srl


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