Alternative Visions: A Collaboration

AV copyBlue Touch Paper is where we light the fuse of new work, with different art forms in alternative spaces. Our next Blue Touch Paper event, on Wednesday 10 December at BFI Southbank, stages an innovative meeting of music and film. Five solo works have been specially written by emerging composers for double bass, cello, tuba, viola and flute, and each of these will have an accompanying film made by students at Central Saint Martins.

We chatted to our  Participation & Learning Assistant, Shoubhik Bandopadhyay and the Course Director of Performance Design & Practice at Central Saint Martins, Michael Spencer about the importance of such collaborations between art forms and institutions.

Tell us about the relationship between Central Saint Martins and the London Sinfonietta and why it’s important.

Michael: The relationship between the London Sinfonietta and Performance Design & Practice course at Central Saint Martins (PDP) is important because it facilitates a dialogue across disciplines which are normally quite separate: that of classical music and visual performance. The original ethos of the Art School is to explore new territory and foster new collaborations across the creative fields. In a broader sense that is why the relationship is so important to develop, not least because of the future possibilities for collaborations between composers, players and designers/performers outside of our institutions.

Shoubhik: The relationship is important because it provides an opportunity for both partners to experience new challenges and to find creative solutions for them. Cross-art collaborations are fairly common these days but they are still very valuable as they take people out of their comfort zones and often result in new practices, new ideas and improved ways of doing things. Working with Michael and his PDP students is really great for this because they are encouraged to experiment and push boundaries wherever they see the opportunity, meaning the work is different every year and the project always feels fresh and relevant.

What does each party gain from collaborative projects such as Alternative Visions?

Michael: For the students to work with young composers and in particular the London Sinfonietta players is a real privilege, although no hierarchy is assumed or imposed. The students learn to develop the technical skills as they would in any project (e.g. film making), but more importantly they learn to negotiate ideas through their practice. They learn to respect and challenge others’ agendas in equal measure. These ‘skills’ or understandings cannot be taught in any other way.

Shoubhik: Firstly, it gives the London Sinfonietta a context in which to commission new music, which is at the heart of what we do. The relatively small scale of each commission also gives us a chance to work with composers with whom we would like to develop a relationship. Many of the composers who we have worked with in previous years have gone on to do larger commissions for us and some of the previous solo commissions have been recorded for release in the Sinfonietta Shorts series on NMC Recordings.

Secondly, it is an aim of the ensemble to place new music at the heart of the today’s culture, much as contemporary art and cinema are, and working with partners such as Central Saint Martins is an excellent way to do this. The audience profile is different at these events as well, which helps us to reach new people who either don’t think that concerts are for them or who generally attend more traditional shows.

How has Alternative Visions evolved from previous projects such as Hidden? And where do you hope the partnership will go next?

Shoubhik: In previous years PDP students were tasked with creating a bespoke environment to accompany the performance of the solo pieces which we had commissioned from five emerging composers. The designers responded to the unique challenges and features of each piece to create a setting that would enhance the audience’s experience of the work, focusing primarily on set and costume design, as well as some performance elements of their own. These were then staged in the backstage areas of Southbank Centre as part of The New Music Show, our ‘festival in a day’. The event had a real buzz around it, showcasing the ingenuity and creativity of the PDP students and giving audiences the chance to enjoy unique performances in spaces they usually couldn’t access.

This year The New Music Show has been replaced in our season by Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s 80th birthday celebrations, meaning our usual performance context was lost. We did initially consider the idea of staging Hidden as a standalone event, but thought that we should embrace the opportunity to do something different instead. As a result, the PDP students have created films in response to the five solo pieces we commissioned and we are really excited to premiere them at BFI Southbank as part of their sci-fi season. The project provides us with new challenges and added benefits, namely a larger audience and the possibility of repeat performances later in the year.

Michael: After this I hope the partnership will expand into different manifestations of the basic aim outlined in my answer to question 1. I would like to see the work reaching a different audience – an audience not usually associated with classical music. This is because I feel the visual aspect opens up the possibility of audiences ‘hearing’ in a different way – a way that some might find more accessible. The context of such work will be important – and is inevitably outside of the established concert halls.

Click here to find out more about Alternative Visions on Wednesday 10 December


The Message scoreOur upcoming concert of music by Sir Harrison Birtwistle opens with The Message – a duet inspired by a quote Birtwistle found engraved on a Bob Law sculpture: “the purpose of life is to pass the message on”. Here at the London Sinfonietta we’ve been commissioning and performing Birtwistle’s music since the ensemble was formed in 1968, and now hope to pass this work on to another generation of players. So, on Friday 5 December we will share the stage with the Royal Academy of Music’s Manson Ensemble.

Ahead of their joint performance, we asked representatives from both generations some quick fire questions. The London Sinfonietta’s Principal Horn Michael Thompson (who studied at RAM) and Manson Ensemble violinist Kate Oswin tell us their highs, their lows and their best musical joke.


What do you regard as your greatest musical achievement?

Singing at La Scala (in a performance of Henze’s Voices with the London Sinfonietta in the 1970s.)

What is your greatest fear?

Boiled swede.

Why did you decide to play the horn?

I started learning the violin at school and then the horn, when I was about 13. By the age of 15, I had realised that I was a terrible violinist, and I had rather fallen for the horn.

What’s currently on your coffee table at home?

The Radio Times.

What was the first recording you ever bought?

Dennis Brain performing the Mozart horn concertos.

What’s the most unusual performance you’ve ever been a part of?

Taking part in Bach’s B Minor Mass in the Vatican.

If you could have any other profession, what would it be?

I’m a great admirer of writers, so maybe I could have tried that.

Who has been the biggest influence in your life?

My wife.  (The double bass player, Valerie Botwright).

Tell us your best musical joke.

Q: How many clarinettists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Just one, but he has to try about twenty bulbs until he finds a good one.


What do you regard as your greatest musical achievement?

Performing the complete Beethoven Symphony cycle by age 21, twice! Earlier this year I was playing violin on contract in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. We had a Beethoven festival where we performed the entire symphony cycle over four days, in Wellington the first week and then in Auckland a week later. It was an absolute musical marathon, but an amazing experience!

What is your greatest fear?

Getting stuck on a broken down tube in the London Underground – before coming to England I had only been on a train a couple of times. We don’t use rail travel that much in New Zealand and the only rail routes we have are very scenic, so getting on the tube at rush hour for the first time was a bit of a shock!

How many instruments can you play and which is your favourite?

My main instrument is violin, but I also like to tinker on the piano and play the viola from time to time.

What’s currently on your coffee table at home?

I don’t actually have a coffee table at the moment as I am living in student accommodation, but back home I would have had my big fruit bowl, a newspaper and, at the weekends, a big rack of home baking cooling off!

What was the first recording you ever bought?

I think it was a compilation CD of violin show pieces. I still have it somewhere.

What’s the most unusual piece you’ve ever performed?

In September each year, New Zealand hosts an international World of Wearable Arts festival that runs over two weeks. A couple of years ago there was a musical category, where all the garments had to be able to be played by the models. New Zealand composer Gareth Farr did a fantastic arrangement of excerpts from Prokofiev Symphony No. 7 (with a few other pieces worked in), which featured each of the garments and was accompanied by a chamber orchestra that I played with. The orchestra were all dressed in steampunk costumes inspired by Alice in Wonderland characters and played in shopping trolleys, suspended from the roof in bathtubs and armchairs, or in my case strapped into the top of a huge A-frame structure, as I was the Queen of Hearts. It was certainly a memorable experience!

If you could have any other profession, what would it be?

Baker – baking for friends is my favourite stress release.

Who has been the biggest influence in your life?

My family, my music teachers and mentors have all been huge influences in my life. I certainly would not be where I am today without them.

Tell us your best musical joke.

A string quartet is made up of a good violinist, a bad violinist, a struggling violinist, and someone who can’t stand the violin!


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

Ripples and Roots: Rushmoor Stories

The London Sinfonietta’s Participation & Learning Assistant, Shoubhik Bandopadhyay, gives us the insider story on his latest community project:

Ripples and Roots: Rushmoor Stories was a collaboration between the London Sinfonietta and electronic musician Scanner as part of the New Dimensions project in Hampshire, which is looking for new ways to involve the community in music-making. After a couple of exploratory meetings, we decided to create a piece inspired by the musical memories of Rushmoor residents. We wanted to find out what role music played in their lives, what their earliest memories were and what music had special meaning for them. We planned to hold these sessions in the West End Centre in Aldershot, one of the main community centres in the Rushmoor area. Working on the project with us were Gabi Swallow (cello), David Cuthbert (flute), Philippa Davies (flute) and Bruce Nockles (trumpet).

Nepalese Dancing Group 3

Our first meeting was with the Nepalese dancing group. Following the Gurkha Justice Campaign, Aldershot has become home to a sizeable Nepali community, many of whom meet once a week for a traditional Nepalese knees-up. I, along with Scanner, Gabi and David, went along to meet them, not really sure what to expect.

Entering the room via the quiet foyer of the building, we were greeted by around sixty colourfully dressed Nepali men and women seated around the edge of the room and a general level of excitement and chatter which belied their age. It felt a little bit like the beginning of a school disco. We sat, observing awkwardly and failing to explain why we were there as we waited for our interpreter to arrive. However, once the popular Nepalese songs started blaring out of the distorted hifi system, the women starting rising to their feet one-by-one and dancing. There was little choreography and each woman danced individually, quite unaware of what was around them although they did occasionally beckon myself, Scanner and David to join in; we politely declined for fear of embarrassing ourselves and potentially angering some of the men who we were quite aware were famed for their bravery in battle!

Eventually our interpreter Hari arrived and he explained to the group that we wanted to understand what significance this music had to them, if any of them played instruments or if they could sing. We learned that they had songs and dances for occasions such as weddings, funerals, births and harvests but it became apparent that, even though they all would have sung together in their youth, this was something that they hadn’t done for many years. After much cajoling and encouragement, they eventually agreed to sing for us.

Nepalese Dancing Group 1

At first there were only five or six reluctant singers, then a few more joined in and eventually there were around forty women joyously taking part in a call and response song which, as Hari explained, was about two lovers separated from each other when a rivers burst its banks. They invited Gabi and David to join in with them as Scanner and I recorded the whole event, watching on as the music grew louder, intertwining with David’s flute playing and underpinned by the rich sound of Gabi’s cello. There was much laughter as each new lyric was introduced and, although we couldn’t understand what they were singing, it was a true musical exchange and amazing to think that an hour earlier we had been struggling to communicate with each other! After quickly stepping into the West End Centre’s theatre to record some of the musical fragments which had come out of the session, we said our goodbyes and left feeling quite privileged to have been part of such a unique and special occasion.

Senior Moments 1Our next meeting was with the Senior Moments retirement group, a group who meet once a week to share a cup of tea and catch up on the goings on in Aldershot. We were very keen to learn about the established historic community in Aldershot; whilst the Nepalese dancing group are a relatively recent addition to the West End Centre, for many of this group it was in fact their school some years ago.

Our conversations with them illustrated how much Aldershot had changed over their lifetimes. It was fascinating to hear from some of the older participants about their early memories of music, seemingly confined to church and school until American soldiers stationed there in WW2 exposed the local community to jitterbug, blues and big band music, revolutionising the local music scene. Other tales included an adolescent trip to Wembley to see Frankie Vaughan perform ‘Give me the Moonlight’ and, most poignantly, a rendition of Ave Maria from Gabi, Bruce and David which one of the ladies had played at her wedding and her husband’s funeral.

Scanner Crawlingphoto4All of these experiences and ideas were woven into the final piece by Scanner, including some spoken word recordings from the participants. Performances were given at the West End Centre’s Summer Festival in August (featuring a completely turfed indoor venue!) and as part of the Remembrance Sunday service at the Aldershot Military Museum in November.

BCPripplesandroots11xRipples and Roots has been a really fulfilling project for us in the Participation and Learning department; working in a new location, with different participant groups and developing work with a new partner in Scanner, who we hope to collaborate with again in the future.

If you would like a free copy of the Ripples and Roots: Rushmoor Stories CD, you can email or contact us via social media.

Thanks go to Barney and his team at the West End Centre, Kevin at Turner Sims Concert Hall, Matthew from the Anvil and Tammy at New Dimensions for all of their help and support on the project.

Shoubhik Bandopadhyay

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

Event page image 1200 x 800

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.



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