NCEM Young Composers Award

By Christian Drew, Music undergraduate student.

The National Centre for Early Music’s Young Composers Award is held each year in York, giving emerging composers an opportunity to engage with early music performance and practices through the lens of contemporary composition. This year entrants were invited to write a lute song, setting a text from a list of poems by Shakespeare or Carol Ann Duffy. Eight shortlisted pieces from two age categories would then be workshopped and performed in concert by the university’s very own Elizabeth Kenny, one of Europe’s leading lutenists and director of Theatre of the Ayre, working alongside tenor Nicholas Mulroy and mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych.

NCEM Young Composers Award 2016
NCEM Young Composers Award, 2016: Finalists, Judges and Musicians (credit: Eddie Rolmanis, NCEM)

Despite playing the guitar, writing for ten-course lute posed an interesting challenge. With its unique colour and resonance as well as various restrictions due to finger span, when composing it was vital to consider how every note would be realised in relation to both technique and sonority. The competition brief asked that our works respond to the seventeenth century English lute songs of composers such as John Dowland and Thomas Campion. For my setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 147, this took the form of embellishing, fragmenting and repositioning familiar gestures and ideas from these traditions within the context of an expressive and narrative response to the text.

After discovering that my piece had been shortlisted, I was invited to attend a day of workshops at the NCEM in York as one of four finalists in the 19 – 25 age group. These workshops were led by British composer Christopher Fox, whose considerable output involves a diverse and prolific range of compositions, as well as voluminous writings and publications on twentieth century and contemporary music. Informal, constructive and most importantly caffeine-fuelled, the workshop experience gave us an invaluable opportunity to work intimately with accomplished performers on the realisation of our lute songs. It quickly became clear that considerable care had already been put into the preparation of our pieces, allowing the workshop to be a space for refinement, experimentation, and importantly collaboration between all those participating.

Held within the medieval church where the NCEM is based, the day culminated in a concert open to the public. The programme included performances of the eight shortlisted works, interspersed with a number of Elizabethan and Jacobean lute songs by composers such as Thomas Morley, Robert Jones and of course Dowland. The concert was followed (swiftly) by a glass of wine and some musical musings between all involved, and later on by the announcement of the winning pieces. A video of the full concert can be viewed on the NCEM website linked below, in addition to audio recordings of the individual shortlisted works.

Christian Drew.