We explore partnerships old and new in Duets in a Frame on Wednesday 1 June, with our 22nd commission from Sir Harrison Birtwistle and very first from Tom Coult – one of the most promising young voices of his generation.

Before we give the world premiere of Tom’s new commission Spirit of the Staircase he took some time to answer our quickfire questions:


What do you regard as your greatest artistic achievement?
The music I feel most affection for tends to be measured in pages – sections of music between about two and four pages long. I can think of some examples in my recent pieces Codex (Homage to Serafini), Sonnet Machine, My Curves are not Mad and Beautiful Caged Thing. As a whole piece however, I think there is a clarity and precision about Four Perpetual Motions for 10 players (2013) – it does exactly what it sets out to do.

What do you fear?
That the effects of decades of neoliberalism – on equality, education, the public realm, human relations, labour, the arts – will prove irreversible.

Which piece of music has had the biggest effect on you?
Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

What’s the most unusual performance you’ve been a part of?
I’ve performed in a couple that were raided by police.

What’s currently on your coffee table at home?
Three candles (‘nah nah, three candles…’andles for threeks’), a copy of the Equity magazine, a small chicken figurine and a Harry Potter colouring book.

What was the first recording you ever bought?
I remember buying a CD by The Offspring quite early. The first classical CD was Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos played by Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Bach is still my absolute favourite composer, though my taste in performances have dropped by about a semitone since then.

Describe yourself in three words.

If you could have any other profession, what would it be?
I’d make clocks.

Who has been the biggest influence in your life?
Igor Stravinsky.

Tell us your best musical joke.
A diner is eating in an Oasis-themed restaurant and is served a starter of leek and potato soup. ‘Excuse me waiter,’ she says, ‘but in what way is this leek and potato soup related to Oasis?’.

Witheringly, the waiter replies, ‘You got a roll with it’.


Since 1968, the London Sinfonietta has commissioned and premiered over 20 extraordinary works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle (22 to be precise!). His music has been a golden thread through our history and we hope you will join us for the world premiere of his newest commission Five Lessons in a Frame, which will feature in our concert Duets in a Frame on Wednesday 1 June at St John’s Smith Square.

duets strip

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

Birtwistle History

Take a listen to some of our favourite works from the above list:

For more information on our concert Duets in a Frame and to book tickets click here.


Harrison Birtwistle (c) S Harsent 4Our Duets in a Frame concert on Wednesday 1 June at St John’s Smith Square focuses on partnerships old and new. One of our happiest, most successful and fruitful partnerships has been with Sir Harrison Birtwistle, who we’ve commissioned more than 20 times.

Ahead of the world premiere of his newest commission Five Lessons in a FramePhilip Cashian (Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music) uncovers one of music’s most challenging minds by analysing in his 2003 piece Theseus Game.

Harrison Birtwistle: Theseus Game 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 also 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


Last month, the London Sinfonietta gave Singapore a taste of all things Steve Reich. Conducted by Andrew Gourlay and with Steve himself performing, the concert at Esplanade ended with a standing ovation. Pianist Antoine Françoise shares his diary of the tour:


Day 1
Sunday 13 March – travel day

Here we go  early check in at Heathrow, on our way for a fun trip to Singapore playing Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich. It is my first time playing this piece and a bit of a teenage dream coming true as I’ve loved it for so long. It’s nice to play it with London Sinfonietta; most of the players have done it many times but it feels like they are all just as pleased as I am to play it again. Can’t wait! There’s another ensemble piece in the programme (Radio Rewrite) so it’s a total of 25 players travelling together.

After a nice breakfast at the airport, we board the plane for 12 hours of travel. The plane isn’t really full, meaning we all have loads of space. As we’ll be landing at 7.30am Singapore time, everyone knows we should try and get some sleep but it’s not easy as it feels like the middle of the day for us. I guess everyone has their own technique. Some of us manage to sleep, we all dive into our movies, the flight goes smoothly. One interesting thing happens though: in the middle of the trip, the stewardess announces some possible turbulence and asks everyone to return to their seats; nothing really happens to the plane but I get curious so open the blind to find us flying just above a huge thunderstorm over India. I’ve never seen anything like it above us, the stars so bright, below us, menacing clouds and as far as we can see, flashes of light. Every second they transform the sky completely. It is hard to imagine the scale of it, as it seems like nothing under this could survive, yet we are just above it on a plane and can’t hear a single sound. An image I am not ready to forget.

Day 2
Monday 14 March – a day off

Well, it is a bit hard to call this day 2. We have landed, it is 7.30am, yet our body clock feels like 11.30pm. The day will be hard! Some people go to sleep straight away, some go for walks, some to the bar. I end up doing a bit of all those things. Trying to stay awake is the key.

Walking around Singapore is quite fascinating: the weather is so hot and humid but the city is inviting and clean, with loads of green spaces and some incredible architecture. A quick bowl of noodle soup and I attend a free lunchtime concert at the university of arts some fusion jazz. It’s quite a social experience to see university students and their friends, and the architecture of the place is quite something. Unfortunately by that time, after a concert and a few drinks, I have to give up, and a little afternoon nap is just enough to give me the energy to wake up again for dinner. Some of us go to Clarke Quay, a very busy touristy quarter with loads of bars and restaurant by the river. We had nice Chinese food followed by a stroll along the river, again, amazed by the mix of different building designs and light/laser shows piercing the night sky…

Survived the first day, now it’s 11pm and sleep time for me.

Day 3
Tuesday 15 March – first rehearsal day

Wake up time: 8am. It seems like our jet lag is completely under control, no idea how it happened but it looks like everyone is back on track. We had a delicious breakfast at the hotel, across three servings: continental / full english / full asian (with dim sum and fried noodles), so I’m set for the day. I took the morning off to walk around Singapore, the bay, the wonderful gardens by the bay (and had a nice meal of sting ray and rice whilst there) before walking back through the business center (skyscrapers and all). I’m not made for that weather though, two and a half hours under the sun and I’m dripping like a full on jogger, trying to find the best way back to the hotel through air conditioned malls.

After a quick shower, the group is finally going to the venue, a lovely concert hall that looks a bit like the inside of a green whale, or an old fashioned cruise ship. Everything is set and we begin playing the piece. Four of us are new to Music for 18 Musicians so it’s a slow start but then we go up a gear and it flows  once the machine has started, nothing can stop it. What a pleasure to be playing it, smiles all round. Everyone is involved, giving little remarks and pieces of advice here and there, but three hours pass so quickly. Steve Reich joins us for the second half of the rehearsal and seems really pleased, his thumbs up in the air.

Even though it was my first experience of playing this piece, the highlight of the day is still to come. Under David Hockings’ suggestion (a student of his is from Singapore), we take a few taxis to a residential area, north of the city. We just have the address “block 20” and some Chinese pictograms, but we’ve been told the best chill crab is there. We arrive at what is obviously a food market for locals, order some cheap beer and a few starters then… shock horror… they ran out of crabs. As we are getting ready to jump into another taxi home we ask another market stall just in case and they show us a couple of live crabs in their aquarium. Two minutes later, the table is set and dinner starts (for the second time). What a meal! Beautiful tasty crabs, prawns and satay pork. Everything was absolutely delicious, a real feast. And now I’m ready for a good night’s sleep (after a few more beers obviously).

Day 4
Wednesday 16 March – second rehearsal day

It was harder to wake up this morning and I just made it on time to rehearsal. We go through the piece and things are really starting to groove. The general sound is getting much better, everyone is listening, and there’s even time in the piece to relax and walk around to hear the other instruments (that maracas entry still gives me goosebumps every time!)

This time we go for a safer European lunch of pasta and pizza then everyone goes their own way, whether for walks, practice, swimming or naps. It was a really chilled afternoon and we found another great food market for dinner (preceded by some roof terrace drinks). It feels like we’re finding our way around the city! And are ready to own the Esplanade stage tomorrow.

Day 5
Thursday 17 March – concert day

After a delicious and long breakfast, I decide that I can’t face the heat this morning and head to the National Gallery, which is exactly half way between the hotel and the concert hall. What a building it looks old from the outside but a French architect re-designed the interior a few years ago. It is inside the old justice court building and most rooms are kept as they were, but many of the corridors and halls have been refurbished to look like another building inside the building, with massive concrete pillars imitating trees. The permanent exhibition is about South-Eastern Asian art since the 19th century. Such diversity! It is quite interesting to see the difference between artists from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, with different cultures, religion and traditions all coming through in their art. The 1970s Vietnam room particularly interested me as this was during the war, when such opposing things were happening: communist propaganda art, ultra realist and abstract art, very angry, full of suggestions of death and blood (as well as burning American flags). Heavy stuff but a great discovery.

The afternoon is dedicated to our dress rehearsal, and things are a bit shaky but we get through it and it reminds us that even though the piece seems easy at times, concentration is important.

I have time to do some present shopping and meet an old friend from Singapore before the concert starts. There’s about 1000 people attending, a huge crowd I guess Steve Reich is more than just a classical composer, he’s a musical cult. The first half is a success, with Clapping Music, Radio Rewrite and Electric Counterpoint. There’s a 30 minute interval to set the stage before we play Music for 18 Musicians. Everyone has gone up a gear and it seems like everything is falling perfectly in place the concentration is high and it feels like everyone is listening better than ever. The maracas entrance in the middle of the piece completely gets me, goose bum on stage! It’s a great success, with the entire audience standing up at the end. They call the 18 musicians (and Steve Reich) back onto stage three times, with smiles all round.

A few celebratory drinks by the river then it’s back to the hotel.

Day 6
Friday 18 March – home time

Unfortunately, I am flying earlier than the rest of the group (I was supposed to transfer to another flight later that day but it got cancelled) so a taxi is picking me and Paul Silverthorne up from the hotel at 6.30am. It will be a long day. The nice surprise is to see Steve Reich at the gate – he is on my flight! It gives us some time to chat (I haven’t been able to talk to him at all during the week). We talk about Scottish independence, the UK and the EU, the state of New York Philharmonic and the influence of Boulez and Satie. It made my day!

No need to write here about the 14 hour-long flight, movies and bad food, as that will never change. I’m happy to be home though, and wishing the best to all the others who will not be arriving home for another four hours.

Tired but extremely happy. What a week! I met great new people, one of my heroes and played one of my favourite pieces. It was a huge success and I can’t wait for the next project!


We explore partnerships old and new in Duets in a Frame on Wednesday 1 June at St John’s Smith Square, with our 22nd commission from Sir Harrison Birtwistle and 1st from young composer Tom Coult. Our partnership with Tansy Davies also goes from strength to strength, as we perform the London premiere of her piece Falling Angel.

(C) Rikard ÖsterlundTansy Davies

Ahead of the concert, Tansy took some time to answer our quickfire questions:

What do you regard as your greatest artistic achievement?
My opera Between Worlds.

What do you fear? 
Physical danger.

Which piece of music has had the biggest effect on you?
Iannis Xenakis’ Jonchaies.

What’s the most unusual performance you’ve been a part of?
A recent performance of my song The Second Key comes to mind, with vocalist Elaine Mitchener, conductor Michael Finnissy, members of BCMG, CoMA players and myself on blues guitar.

What’s currently on your coffee table at home?
Georges Bataille’s Lascaux Or The Birth Of Art, and Hilma af Klint – A Pioneer of Abstraction by Hatje Antz.

What was the first recording you ever bought?
It might have been Now That’s What I Call Music II.

Describe yourself in three words.
Mercurial, stoical, giggly.

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

Who has been the biggest influence in your life?


On Sunday 3 April we performed a night of experimentation at The Coronet Theatre, collaborating with many exciting artists including Fred Frith, George Lewis, Christian Marclay and Cassandra Miller.

Rehearsals for the eclectic event were photographed by London College of Communication student Ted Lamb, as part of our Through the Lens project. Throughout the season students will work with professional photographer and mentor Briony Campbell to document the life of the London Sinfonietta backstage.


On Sunday 3 April we’ll perform a mix of music by composers hand-picked for their daring, originality and experimental approach, including the beautiful Bel Canto by Cassandra Miller.

Described as “one of Canada’s most fascinating young composers”, we asked Cassandra what music she’s inspired by at the moment:

1. Henry Flynt Violin Strobe

2. Core of the Coalman (aka Jorge Boehringer)  Migration on the Warm Wing

3. Shelley Hirsch with Kazuhisa Uchihashi  Duets

4. Khatereh Parvaneh  Dastgah Of Shour

5. Iris DeMent My Life

6. Gillian Welch Tennessee

7. Nina Simone Black is the Colour of my True Love’s Hair

8. Joseph Kudirka / Apartment House 21st Century Music

9. Pauline Oliveros Rose Mountain Slow Runner

10. Egidija Medekšaitė / Quatuor Bozzini Megh Malhar


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