Category Archives: Musings

How to Pronounce Boris Ord’s Adam lay Ybownden

Boris Ord’s Adam lay ybownden is a popular Christmas piece amongst amateur and professional choirs alike for its simplicity and and beauty. There have been many other settings of this text by, amongst others, Thea Musgrave and Howard Skempton.

It was in searching for the source of this text that I happened across Thomas Wright’s collection Carols and Songs from a manuscript in the British Museum, a collection of transcriptions from the 14th/15th century Manuscript Sloane MS 2593, currently kept in The British Library. I have written two settings which you can find out about here and here.

But, how to pronounce the Middle English? It is one of those settings that choirs often perform assuming a sort-of modern English pronunciation.

Having looked into how to pronounce Britten’s Wolcum Yule, which is based on a text from the same collection (see this blog post). I thought I’d follow on with this little Middle English gem.

If you’re impatient to skip to the transliteration, please by all means click here.

The principals

I am going to be using the same principals as my Wolcum Yule post, so the first thing we’ll need is the source text, or rather the copy I have from Songs and Carols from a 15th Century Manuscript in the British Museum which takes it from the Sloane MS 2593, now residing The British Library:

Source: Thomas Wright Songs and Carols from a 15th Century Manuscript in the British Museum (

Let’s start with the first line:

Adam lay i-bowndyn

Note straight away the difference in spelling from the Orde (Adam lay ybounden). It could be that Orde used a different source. It’s unclear at this point. We shall use this source however, as it’s all I have presently.

The Middle English Alliterative Poetry blog asserts that “Consonants are pronounced as in Modern English except  ȝ/gh, which represents /x/, the guttural sound in German  Loch“, which for consonants makes our job here pretty easy.

Vowels are more difficult to ascertain, and most medieval pronunciation guides talk about short vowels and long vowels. To understand what that means here is a (hopefully) useful chart:

Modern Long exampleMiddle Long
acat, fatmate, datefather
ebet, fretmeet, feedblame, fame
isit, fitsight, might, whitewheat, meet
odot, trot, lotboat, load, homeshoe, loo, boo
ubut, mullmule, fool, luteflour, How,

Determining which vowels are short and long is more tricky but so long as there is a modern equivalent, you can refer to that modern world as it is etymologically derived. These vowels in bold are long, and underlined are short:

Adam l[ay] [i]-b[ow]nd[yn]

Adam lay bound

[i] – following the forms of binden in this entry on Middle English Compendium I would hazard that this is interchangeable with a y or a yogh (ȝ) character which means it should be long e.g. pronounced ee in middle English.

[yn] – similarly this is a common inflection at the end of the word, the word itself being “bownd”. The presence of an n suggests to me that this inflection should be sung as part of the meter of the song.

[ay] – diphthong of the two long vowels a (father) and i (meet)

[ow] – This diphthong is interchangeable with ou. Dipthongs are pronounced by adding the two long vowels together so thou is o (shoe) + u (flour), to sound like modern English grow, according to Middle English Alliterative Poetry.

Rather than delve into the tricksy and obscure world of the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), here is a likely transliteration (i.e. to be read out as if it were modern English):

Adam lahy eebohndin

Now that we’ve got the principles and method down, let’s investigate the rest of this short poem:

ADAM l[ay] i-b[ow]ndyn,
b[ow]ndyn in a bond,
F[ow]r[e] th[ow]sand wynter
th[ow]t he not to long;
And al was for an appil,
an [appul] that he tok,
As clerkes fyndyn wretyn
in her[e] book.
[Ne] hadd[e] the appil tak[e] ben,
the appil taken ben,
[Ne] hadd[e] never [ou]r lady
a ben heven[e] quen
Blyssid be the tym[e]
that appil tak[e] was!
Th[ere]for[e] we [mown] syngyn
D[eo] gracias
ADAM lay bound,
bound in a bond,
Four thousand winter
thought he not to long;
And all was for an apple,
an apple that he took,
As clerks find written
in here book.
Nor had the apple taken been,
the apple taken been,
Nor had never our lady
a been heaven queen
Blessed be the time
that apple taken was!
Therefore we [shall] sing
Deo gracias

[appul] – alternative spelling of apple. It’s not clear whether this is a spelling mistake or a deliberate other pronunciation of the word. According to the Middle English Compendium it refers to “Any kind of fruit” and of course the forbidden fruit of paradise to which it refers here. I’m taking it at face value here

[Ne] – this word means “nor”. It’s not clear whether it would be long or short but looking at the other word forms in Middle English Compendium ni, nen, nin and also its elision forms e.g. nafter (nor after) would suggest a schwa, or short form, So I’m guessing it would be short vowel eh as in bread. Like a lot of Middle English pronunciation, it goes against my instincts (I’ve always thought of it as ney)

[ere] – as most guides assert, all of the consonants are pronounced in Middle English, and all Rs are rolled. In this case where in modern English ere results in a long voiced r consonant, this should result in vowel-rolled R- vowel. If we think of There and fore being two distinct words as part of a portmanteau then the last vowel of there is probably an inflection, my guess for this is Ther*[e]for*[e] i.e. the e after the initial r is a schwa (neutral vowel) and probably short.

[mown] – I’ve seperated this out as it’s a curious word (meaning must, or shall) that still exists in some dialects. In northern England for example “mun”. According to my own assumptions the pronunciation here should be “mohn” but perhaps it should be more like möen

[eo] – this transliteration assumes that Latin follows the same rules as Middle English at this point. Conveniently this diphthong comes out with the same first vowel as we would naturally pronounce it – D-ay-(oh in modern English, oo in Middle English)

Summary and Transliteration

Here is my transliteration of Adam lay I-bownden. It assumes a neutral British accent when reading out.

Adam lahy eebohndin
bohndin in a bond,
Fohr*[e] thohsand winter
thoht hei not too long;
And all was for an appil,
an appul that hei took,
As cler*kes feendin wr*etin
in heyr*[e] bohk.
Ne had[e] the appil tahk[e] beyn
the appil tahken beyn,
Ne hadd[e] never ohr* lahdy
a beyn heaven[e] queyn
Blissid bey the teem[e]
that appil tahk[e] was!
Ther*[e]for*[e] wey mohn singin
Dayoo Gr*aceeas

[e] = schwa neutral vowel inflection. Not necessarily said and possibly left out mostly when singing, depending on the meter scheme.

r* = rolled R

While it is seductive to try and use these pronunciations in practice, there are definite problems with knowing where to place extra syllables. It would be fun to try, but this is meant as more of an exercise in curiousity.

I am no expert in Middle English Pronunciation and have simply joined dots that are readily available on the internet. If you know better and have anything to add or change, please do leave a comment, or contact me.

Related Works

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How to pronounce Benjamin Britten’s “Wolcum Yule”

During the mid 20th century, the uncovering of some important manuscripts led to a renewed interest in medieval music and poetry. Composer Benjamin Britten was involved in creating editions of newly uncovered Purcell manuscripts and himself wrote a large collection of settings of Middle English and Medieval poetry.

Perhaps his most well known is the carol “Wolcum Yule” from Ceremony of Carols. It’s natural for choir masters to be confused approaching this work by some unusual words such as “lefe”, and may be rightly confused as to how to pronounce it.

If you are one of these directors and would like to skip the explanation, please skip to the end, where there is a full summary transliteration.

Let’s go back to the source

I’ll start by saying that I do not know precisely the source of Britten’s text. What I do have is a transcription of it in British Library Sloane MS 2593, and I have set this text as part of my Sloane 2593 project. This transcription is from Songs and Carols from a manuscript in the British Museum Collected by Thomas Wright in 1856. For details of this setting click here.

Straight away we can see that Britten has put in the work already:

Wolcum, ȝol, thou mery man,

The Middle English Alliterative Poetry blog asserts that “Consonants are pronounced as in Modern English except  ȝ/gh, which represents /x/, the guttural sound in German  Loch“, which makes our job here pretty easy except for the yogh (ȝ) character in ȝol, which this guide on folgerpedia asserts should sound more like a modern “y” at the beginning of the word, which we will follow here.

Vowels are more difficult to ascertain, and most medieval pronunciation guides talk about short vowels and long vowels. To understand what that means here is a (hopefully) useful chart:

Modern Long exampleMiddle Long
acat, fatmate, datefather
ebet, fretmeet, feedblame, fame
isit, fitsight, might, whitewheat, meet
odot, trot, lotboat, load, homeshoe, loo, boo
ubut, mullmule, fool, luteflour, How,

Determining which vowels are short and long is more tricky but so long as there is a modern equivalent, you can refer to that modern world as it is etymologically derived. These vowels in bold are long, and underlined are short:

Welcome Yule, th[ou] merr[y] man

Wolcum, ȝol, th[ou] mer[y] man,

[ou] – diphthongs are pronounced by adding the two vowels together so thou is o (shoe) + u (flour), to sound like modern English grow, according to Middle English Alliterative Poetry.

[y] – this is fairly interchangeable with i. At the end of the word like this is is long (as in wheat)

In IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) this hopefully (according to my fumblings with ToPhonetics) comes out as:

‘wɒlkʌm juːl ðəʊ ˈmɛri mən

But it might be more helpful and less time consuming to create a likely transliteration (a version spelled out in near-english which will result in the right pronunciation). This transliteration assumes a received British-English accent:

Wolcum Yule, thoh merry man,

Ok, it took some work to figure out that Britten was basically right, except in the pronunciation of “thou” (probably). Now we have the basics, let’s speed the process up for the refrain and first verse:

Refrain and Verse 1

Wolcum, ȝol, th[ou] mer[y] man,
In wor[ch]epe of this holy d[ay].
Welcome yule, thou merry man
In worship of this holy day.
WOLCUM be th[ou], heven[e] kyng,
Wolcum, bo[r]n in on mo[rw]enyng,
Wolcum, for hom we [x]al syng,
Welcome be th[ou], heaven king,
Welcome, born in one morning
Welcome, for whom we shall sing,

[ch] – while ch is usually pronounced as in church, except that this word is clearly worship, as in devoutly, and the majority of spellings listed under the citations of the Middle English Dictionary are spelled with sch or sh, both pronounced sh.

[ay] – diphthong of a (father) and y (feet). in IPA ɑɪ. We’ll transliterate this as “dahy”

[e] – e at the end of the word is pronounced “where it is etymologically justified” according to Middle Ensligh Alliterative Poetry, and sites its entry in the Middle English Dictionary (this is a useful entry gate to the Middle English Compendium, an invaluable resource). In this case, heven has a wide variety of forms including hevenes and heavenen so it is probably ok to assume that the e might have been pronounced. Daniel Donoghue’s History of the English Language workbook asserts that in Chaucer’s English this ending inflection would have been pronounced in most cases, except when followed by a vowel.

An e at the end of the word would be an inflection and pronounced as a schwa i.e. a neutral vowel, which to me means that it would be legitimate to make it short and possibly leave it out when singing. It would be an interesting study to see how and when this inflection impacts on the meter of the verse.

[r] – Rs in Middle English are always rolled, according to all of my sources.

[x] – this is pronounced sh as in she or shall.

Wolcum yule, thoh merry man,
In woor*shep[e] of this hooly dahy

Wolcum be thoh, heaven[e] king,
Wolcum, bor*n in on mor*wening,
Wolcum, for hoam wey shall sing,

[e] denotes schwa inflection
* denotes tongue trill

Verse 2

Wolc[o]m be ȝe, Stefn[e] and Jon,
Wolc[o]m[e], Innocentes everychon ;
Wolcum, [Th]omas, ma[r]ter on ;
Welcome be ye, Steven and John,
Welcome, Innocents everyone;
Welcome, Thomas, master one;

[o] -presumably a spelling mistake

[Th] – the etymology of the name Thomas points to a pronunciation of t in most languages as apposed to th as in those.

Wolcum bey yey, Steyfn and John,
Wolcum, Innuecentes ever*ychon;
Wolcum, Tomas, mar*ter on;

Verse 3

Wolcum be ȝe, good new[e] ȝer[e],
Wolcum, twelth[e] day, both[e] in [fer[e]] ;
Wolcum, seyntes, [lef] and dere ;
Welcome be ye, good new year,
Welcome, twelfth day, both [in a group];
Welcome, saints, [loved] and dear;

[fere] – this word, meaning in companionship, or together, brotherhood, is likely rhymed with ȝere and dere, both of which have long e vowels in modern English so although there is no modern English equivalent (although a French equivalent frere) we can guess at a long e vowel.

[lef] – not so obvious is this word meaning loved. The Middle English Dictionary suggests this has a long vowel.

Wolcum bey yey, goad neyw[e] yeyr*[e],
Wolcum, twelth[e] dahy, booth[e] in feyr[e];
Wolcum, sahyntes, leyf and deyr[e];

Verse 4

Wolcum be ȝe, candylmess[e] ;
Wolcum be ȝe, qwyn of blys,
Wolcum both[e] to mor[e] and less[e];
Welcome be ye, Candlemas;
Welcome be ye, queen of bliss,
Welcome both to more and less;

Wolcum bey yey, candilmess[e];
Wolcum bey yey, queen of bliss,
Wolcum booth[e] too mor* and less[e];

Verse 5

Wolcum be ȝe that arn here ;
Wolcum, all[e], and mak good cher[e] ;
Wolcum, all[e], another ȝer[e] 
Welcome be ye that are here;
Welcome, all, and make good cheer;
Welcome, all, another year

Wolcum bey yey that ar*n heyr*[e];
Wolcum, all, and mahk goad cheyr[e];
Wolcum, all, another* yeyr[e]

In Summary (How to Pronounce Wolcum Yule”)

Here is my attempt at a pronunciation of Wolcum Yule based on the available web resources and written in a British-English transliteration. I am as ever very grateful for any corrections from actual Middle English students or professors. Please get in touch or leave a comment below.

Wolcum yule, thoh merry man,
In woor*shep[e] of this hooly dahy

Wolcum be thoh, heaven[e] king,
Wolcum, bor*n in on mor*wening,
Wolcum, for hoam wey shall sing,

Wolcum bey yey, Steyfn and John,
Wolcum, Innuecentes ever*ychon;
Wolcum, Tomas, mar*ter on;

Wolcum bey yey, goad neyw[e] yeyr*[e],
Wolcum, twelth[e] dahy, booth[e] in feyr[e];
Wolcum, sahyntes, leyf and deyr[e];

Wolcum bey yey, candilmess[e];
Wolcum bey yey, queen of bliss,
Wolcum booth[e] too mor* and less[e];

Wolcum bey yey that ar*n heyr*[e];
Wolcum, all, and mahk goad cheyr[e];
Wolcum, all, another* yeyr[e]

[e] = e inflection, pronounced as a short schwa (open vowel). Not necessarily pronounced while singing.

r* = rolled r.

Britten was most likely aware of some of the issues of pronunciation but it is equally likely that research in this field has moved on since he wrote his setting. It would be problematic recreating this pronunciation in performance, however as with my own settings of Middle English poetry, I hope choirs will aim to illuminate the poetry of this era by selectively using a mix of Modern and Middle English language while performing.

I am no expert on Middle English and I am slowly making my way into the field by using the excellent work of people more knowledgeable than me, sources cited above, and in this blog listing some very useful Middle English and Medieval Resources. I am fascinated by this study, interested to know more and hope that it inspires other people to find out about the rich language of 14th/15th century England.

Related Posts

Related Works

Medieval Resources for Composers

thou wost wol little ho is thi foo.
you know well little who is your foe.

partial song from Sloane MS 2593

Owing to a growing interest in Medieval Music and manuscripts, partly because of the uncovering of key manuscripts in the mid 20th century, and partly owing to their dis-obfuscation and distribution into the hands of anyone that goes looking on the internet, there are more and more resources available for exploring these manuscripts, and these are great tools for composers on the hunt for interesting texts.

On this post are some useful links and resources to help you get your head around the sometimes mysterious and at other times deceptively similar Middle English. I will add to this post as I find more useful resources.

Manuscript Resources

Originally the home of the wayback internet archive machine, this project has expanded to become an internet archive, including the wayback machine and every out of copyright archived PDF in existence. As a result it has some remarkable medieval texts and some remarkably banal ephemera from across the years. Searching “Christmas poetry” brings up a remarkable collection of texts from the last two centuries, and a surprising amount of mills and boons “on Christmas night” smut.

british library digitised manuscripts

A growing collection of manuscripts kept at The British Library which includes for example motets by Purcell in the hand of the composer. Surprisingly few complete manuscript collections on here as yet. (only a few pages of Sloane 2593 are available for example) but worth returning to. Also check out their blog which often has interesting updates.


A staple for out of copyright scores, the Petrucci project also includes many complete manuscripts and part books that are attributable earliest sources for a great deal of music.

gallica is the digital arm of the incorporated Biblioteque Nationale Français and contains a huge store of original manuscripts and texts spanning several centuries. On there you will find original charpentier manuscripts, books of French carols and the earliest known Occitane alba En Un Vergier Sotz Fuella d’albespi, for example.

digital bodleian

The Bodleian Library is the jewel in the crown of Oxford University and contains some astonishing manuscripts. These are being digitised and the Bodleian already has a substantial number of digitised manuscripts from the 13th-15th century.

This is an essential tool for finding early sources of music whether and includes useful information such as worldcat references and incipits from the texts themselves.

The Digital Index of Middle English Verse

This is a catalogue of verse and where to find it in which manuscript. Very useful for hunting down alternative sources and texts, and sorting out inconsistencies. Some insight on the entries themselves as to the nature of the poems.

Early English Books Online

Sadly EEBO is only available through the digital services of university libraries, and last time I checked only from their own network (not external logins). However, this is a treasure trove of early manuscripts and first editions of English verse, as well as early documents of all kinds.

Understanding Middle English

While there are plenty of other languages to get your head around when exploring older texts, this is the one I’ve spent most time puzzling over, and have accrued the most resources for. Here are a few useful links:

Middle English Compendium

This is an invaluable tool for demystifying the language. Owing to the huge variety of spellings that even run to completely different spellings for the same word, Middle English Compendium presents you with multiple possibilities, titled with the typical IPA pronunciation of the word and including hundreds of citations from medieval texts relating to each word. Even with this enormously useful tool it is very possible to choose the wrong meaning, and it’s worth spending some time going through the different possibilities.

Complete Old English by Mark Atherton

This is a wonderful step by step guide to learning Old English, particularly Anglo Saxon, Although this is typically older text and therefore more incomprehensible as a modern English speaker, this is a good place to start when understanding and pronouncing Middle English and features a lot of the same concepts.

Middle English Pronunciation

Pronunciation of Middle English is an inexact science and largely based on well informed conjecture, however I would posit that most experts opinions are more accurate than mine, so I choose to use them. The aspect of Middle English pronunciation that is made the most of is the “Great Vowel Shift”, which affects basically the pronunciation of “long” vowels. Here are a couple of useful cheat-sheet style links:

History of the English Language Workbook by Daniel Donoghue at Harvard University

This has useful audio examples and a good explanation of the concepts of pronunciation of Chaucerian Middle English.

Middle English Alliterative Poetry

This has a useful guide to the long vowel shift complete with diagrams.

Tips and Tricks for Pronouncing Middle English (pdf)

This is a very useful short-form guide if you just need a quick reference.

Advice for performers on working with composers

Collaborative performer and musicologist Heather Roche wrote on her blog detailing some Advice for young composers about collaborating with performers, especially groups of performers.

It’s an informed and well written article with some great advice that should definitely be followed to the letter by any composer entering into workshop or collaborative situation, and hits a nerve for me as I think back on my own successful and less successful workshop experiences.

At the moment there’s a culture of composer “opportunities” aimed at young and emerging composers, headed up by large arts bodies such as the HCMF, Sound And Music, the PRSF and various orchestras and new music groups. Heather’s article got me thinking about what advice I could give from the other side of the isle. Although I am no longer a “young” composer, I was once!

I aim to make this constructive, and not moany. It’s too easy to complain about your own bad experiences, and I’ll try just to present some rational behind why composers are how they are.


I guess I should be out in the open and say that it’s rare for a lot of composers to reach a deadline. There are performers that set the deadline early to compensate for this, and I suppose that this is fair game.

It’s down to a number of factors, not least of which is teaching yourself the profession as you go along.

You can insert your own arguments here about not rushing creativity, and you have to bear in mind that if the composer is workshopping with you, chances are they have never used your line up.

Composers also have to do a substantial amount of extra work making their scores readable and presentable. It all adds up.

My advice for organisers is to be realistic about timescale, and the nature of material the composers are submitting. If there is to be a performance, then the workshop needs to be at least a month before the performance, so that last minute problems can be resolved.

If it is a workshop, be prepared for materials to be late and sometimes badly prepared. Your average composer has several projects on the go at any one time and has to prioritise the polished, proof-read work for the actual performances.Speaking of which:

First performances suck

First performances almost never do the piece justice. It takes a good couple of performances for the work to get under the performer’s fingers.

So much importance is put on the premiere of the work in a grandiose setting that the quality of the performance gets lost somewhere. It’s natural that this is the case and more experienced composers tend to know what to expect.

Consider putting on at least two performances, no matter what your feelings are about the piece. Funding organisations such as the RVW Trust make it a condition of their support.

Equally though, although a composer will soon get wise to this and take every performance with a grin and a firm handshake, for a young composer who has put his heart and soul into a piece, this can be crushing.

Performers – go easy on them! If a more experienced composer gets grumpy, feel free to take him to pieces.

Don’t hate me! I need you to like me!

For young composers, building up a network of musical peers, encouraging commissions, especially internationally and among the bigger arts organisations is of paramount importance. So much so that it can turn the often already-socially-awkward into nervous wrecks.

In such states mistakes are made, wrong things are said and bad impressions are made. It is the way of it. It not only affects their attitude and their approach, but also their composition, and the biggest mistake that composers often make is trying to over-compensate for this, stop writing what they want to write, and start writing what they think *you* want them to write.

My best advice for this is not to judge a composer by these first fleeting impressions. Sure, some composers are able to make a good impression from the off and this can lead to some good things, but try not to write people off this readily. Imagine meeting them in a bar a year later and chatting about the weather.

Organisers – for your funders, you may have to make a Big Deal out of the thing you are doing, but it would help composers if you lowered their expectations as to what may result from the scheme. Whether any performance anywhere leads to any commissions or other useful things is as random as the weather.


Performers – composers workshop things usually because they do not know if it will work. Expect to have to do unusual things. A good example of a performer gripe is feeling that they are not being heard. Ask the composer if you can be heard and if the dynamic is right if you feel this is the case.

Often the composer is after something specific. Do not get upset if what the composer is asking is not possible, or you are not comfortable with it.

The best approach is to tell them nicely why, and engage in a friendly debate about it. Getting angry and pontificating about it can come across as patronising, and I do not consider it to be constructive.

Notation, notation, notation.

In my mind, this is the main way in which performers hijack workshops when they feel that there isn’t enough to talk about.

That may be unfair, but I’ve witnessed workshops where a whole session has been taken to berating a composer for bad notational skills, and then an adjacent session praising a composer for *good* notational skills. In neither session was any meaningful work done on the music itself.

The best composers workshops are I think composer led, as there is more chance of something positive coming out of it for the composer (whom it is arguably for).

Performers – it is a good idea and perfectly right that the composer should know when there is something wrong with the notation. Ideally, the best way to deal with this is to clear up only the bare minimum essentials in the workshop itself, and then afterwards, over a coffee, going through any other points that you feel you need to get off your chest.

Praise is nice, but keep it short.

Who pays the piper?

Although, nowadays, you’re a fool if you go into composition expecting it to be a paid job, it’s worth remembering that although the opportunity *is* a good thing for the composer, they rarely receive any remuneration for their work.

This affects several things. The most noteworthy is exactly how much time they have to spend on the composition itself. Usually, composers have to work really hard to support their work, and really hard on the work itself.

Bare this in mind when it comes to deadlines, and demanding part re-writes or anything else. I make no assumptions about what you are paid, but whereas it might seem like hard work to get a piece a month before a concert, have to practice hard and spend your time workshopping, it’s probably 2-4 months less work than that which the composer has put in, and you’re much more likely to be paid, even if it doesn’t feel like a lot.

Who’s doing what, and for whom?

Composing opportunities are for the composers, right? Everything is done for their benefit, and to promote them. Wrong. Everyone benefits from these things. Performers – it may feel like your average paid gig, but to the Organisers it’s “Promoting talented new performers in the New Music Field” and “encouraging growth and networking through workshop events”.

To the ensemble leaders, it’s a prestigious event and lots of exposure. To the organisers, it’s a way of attracting large amounts of funding, especially when the EU is involved. Although it may have “composer” stamped on the title, don’t kid yourself that composers are benefitting any more or less than you, which brings me to my next point:

We’re all in the same boat

It’s too easy to fall into the “Us” and “Them” attitude. Composers are often performers too.

It’s crazy to think that you may know a composer from college who occasionally calls you up to ask advice about technique, or try something out, and yet you might greet a similar inquiry from a nervous composer in a workshop with scorn.

Imagine how you would feel trying to get one of your favourite mainstream composers (whom you don’t know) to write a piece for you, and you’re about halfway to how we feel about the ice wall that often exists between composers and performers.

New performers need the exposure just as much as composers do, and the chatting up has to happen on both sides of the isle if you want to get composers to help promote you.

If you’ve got to the point where it’s just money for sitting in a room playing something, then perhaps you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

I think that just about covers it for now. Let me know what you think and if you feel I’ve been unfair. I enjoy debates 🙂

Cover Image: Me rehearsing material with Trio Atem. Photo by Nik Morris

The Problem of “New” Music

As hard as this problem is to nail down, the problems relating to the nature and style of new music, and pedagogical practice in University music departments relating to composition remain evident in the social practices and assumptions of its practitioners. The problems are by very nature subjective, inconsistent and otherwise influenced by cultural position and social hierarchy and therefore almost impossible to define in a way that we can deal with them succinctly in our own field. Perhaps one should hire a good sociologist to examine the patterns of behaviour and attitude and give this problem some more definition.

Either way, as a result of being difficult to define and thus write lucidly about, these issues remain un-dealt-with and resemble in some way the malcontent of the UK ahead of the EU exit vote. Easy to not take seriously, easy to assume that it is the result of an uneducated opinion, harmful to ongoing progress and attitudes among the new music community.
Here is my attempt to summarise the problems to which I refer:

  • A disenfranchisement among composers about the pedagogical practices of university composition tuition, in particular with regard to serialism or post-serialistic stylistic practices.
  • Defense of New Music as a principal and particular set of aesthetic and structural values.
  • Overt defensiveness of alternative composition methods, sonorities and aesthetics against the apparent values of New Music.
  • A distance of values between the apparent ideals of New Music and of real-world values

I use the term New Music as a bookmark term for what is typically undefined. I will not try to define it myself, but my experience of talking to composers and reading about it place it as the result of the influence of the experimentalism of John Cage, the aesthetic principles of the second Viennese school and a vague perpetual ongoing aesthetic arena to which composers seem to sign up as the ongoing avant guarde.

At this point New Music becomes almost impossible to talk about. It resembles Jazz in musicological terms in that the as a manifesto, it is almost impossible to pin down. Jazz is, in our minds a very definite principle. When I think of Jazz, I think of “Fats” Waller, Dinah Washington, The Ink Spots, Gilad Atzmon, Oscar Peterson, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and about a million others, including many of my friends. When I sit down to play jazz, I have a set of parameters in my mind which comfortably place what I am playing within the remit of what I understand and am physically capable of producing. However I do so with the complete knowledge that what I am contributing a very small part to is a wide field which includes among other things such ill defined terms as “blues”, experimental improvisation, a huge variety of aesthetic principles and approaches and performers that dismantle their instruments as they perform.

Yet, in my mind, I know what Jazz is. Case in point – when I am asked to play (as I frequently am) Blues. This request is impossible to respond to. I suspect they may mean a Boogie Woogie style so I start in that style. When they don’t look satisfied I move to what I define as a Dirty Blues (my own style of John-Lee Hooker inspired down-trodden blues), and when that doesn’t work I move through 4 or 5 other types of blues and usually don’t really manage to live up to whatever drunken expectations they have of whatever part of the century-and-a-half of music tradition they refer to.

I feel I’m straying from my point. New Music is beginning to entrench in composers minds as a barrier, a status quo, a mark on the wall against which we must measure our output. As ill-defined as it is, it is also used as a stick to beat other composers with. “Ours is the true music”, “yours is not good”, or frequently “yours is not legitimate” and conversely, those disenfranchised with the ideal of New Music define their output as “maverick” or “traditional”. Other composer give up when they leave the warm embrace of academia, realising that there isn’t much market for their idea of new music, and yet more completely reverse the type of music they have been writing and spend the rest of their lives grumbling about “academia” and “being outside”.

One thing is evident from the study of contemporary composers, especially well established ones, is that there is no real correlation between them, and there is a massive variety of output pouring into the contemporary music scene. I find “contemporary” to be a useful word, as I can dismiss the idealogical implications of calling something “new” and fall back on the simple meaning of the word to mean current. Even amongst a single composer’s output the stylistic, idealistic and aesthetic nature of their work can change wildly across a lifetime of compositions, and a number of them that have been placed within idealistic genres are quite resistant to the idea (for example “complexity”, a short lived but influential grouping of composers including Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy, Richard Barrett and James Dillon).

Amongst the attitudes which spring up from from this situation is the dismissal out of hand of the bulk of professional music making, which includes the most highly paid in our profession, as not “serious” music., and yet amongst the general populace these musics are extremely influential. As evinced by composer Paul Mealor’s shooting to fame after his Ubi Caritas was performed at the royal wedding, one could consider this as much the product of good marketing as of a good product. Fame and money are things that composers seem to revile and yet court in equal measure.

I haven’t really dealt with the first point in my summary above. Academia is not exclusively, but mainly the path through which composers tread on their way to establishment. Noticeably some of the more well-established composers in our music scene did not study to postgraduate level, however it is frequent that composers do study for a PhD before being expelled into the wide world to make their way, usually as a sales clerk, administrator or accountant. I could not blame academic practices for the attitudes of its students. Music courses are based largely on coursework, and if a student doesn’t take control of their own work, then they are grasping the wrong end of the stick, so to speak.

However, having spent over 13 years in academic institutions, there are some observations I could make. The first is that rightly or wrongly, the exclusivity and idealogy of New Music seems to exist prominently in the experimentalism of research institutes. The other is that amongst the composition courses available there is an unusual weighting towards the teaching of serialism. In my opinion, this is because, having simple mathematical principals, it is very easy to teach, and is sufficiently current to still be relevant when teaching background technique of current composers. Composition teachers at academic institutes could probably do more to emphasise the open ended nature of composition. “This is the story so far” we should be saying, “what are you going to contribute?”. Composers are, after all, the innovators and expressionists of our generation of music making.

Composition teachers at university could also, I dare say it, prepare composers better for a potential career in Professional Composition, as distinct from compositional research. It seems unpalatable to say it, but university courses have a long and growing trend for teaching professional skills in all subjects relevant to a career springing from that subject. We should be teaching students to treat professionalism and research with equal respect, and to contribute to both. Performers, after all, see no difference in performing Boulez and Grieg, to performing backings to Michael Jackson songs in the proms. Academic institutions could also do more to stress the accessibility of all forms of music making, and to make composers aware that their own music can have influence on people not related to their scene. This above all else comes as a shock to me whenever it happens.

Here again though, I am talking in generalities and am aware of my own ignorance of the situation. Much more happens in universities amongst the cliques of composers and new music performers than does in the lecture hall, and academic institutes can hardly be entirely to blame for the attitudes of their students. Composers just out of sixth form and finding their feet as adults are by very nature ideologues and often arrogant, defensive and anxious individuals. Many continue to be that way the rest of their lives.

What can we do to reverse this situation? How can we clear the skies so that we can think clearly about our own compositions, gain some self-awareness and get past the barrier of New Music?

The first thing we can do is be advocates for our own music. If you continually hold yourself to a standard which you fail to achieve, you never become aware of the virtues of your own contribution. You will never know the value of your own art, and you must fight against the external locus of identity that most musicians hold. When you can become at peace with your own output, you can improve it, and love it. Talking about it to other people validates it in their minds and in yours.

The second thing we can do is to stop being so defensive. This leads to such a lot of jerky behaviour amongst composers that can ruin people. This applies to both sides of the argument – dismissing someone else’s attempts, or a particular field which is not your own, (for example professionalism) is just as defensive as it is offensive. Similarly, getting upset about someone elses reaction to your output is pointless and destructive. Failing to show your contributions to people defensively also pointless. I’ve read about “covering ones genitals” in new music and it perfectly describes what we are doing. What we are all afraid of is Not Being Our Favourite Composer. You are not your favourite composer, you never will be.

The third thing to do is to love our audience, and to respect their opinions. A lot of polemical argument has been presented on the importance or non of the audience. This is once more genital-covering. The argument that music should be autonomous, not helped by the experiments of John Cage, is a complete misnomer. Music is not a collection of sounds, etching of dots on the page, or vibrations in the air. It is the relationship between the brain and the impulses which reach it through the nerves connected to the ear. It relies on the functionality of the brain and is different in every subject according to a million or more parameters. You are a member of the audience for your own music. Respect yourself, and the others listening. I’m not saying pander to other people. Completely the opposite. Respect that you are human, have ears, a brain and musical taste. Respect that other people do as well and don’t talk down to them or dismiss them.

Finally, stop getting so obsessed by canon. We are obsessed with becoming the next Beethoven, Mozart, Schoenberg, whoever. These people all pretty much just got on with it. Reel your ego back in and instead focus on making a positive impact on the people around you. Do good works, do things for free. Perform for people, run community ensembles. Don’t hold everyone else to the high standards that you expect of yourself. The more you ignore your ambition, the more you are likely to succeed at it by just doing it.

I am a composer, and the more I talk and think about it, the more I just want to write Music. Not New Music, not Professional or Experimental music, just Music.