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Three New Works for RNCM50

I'm delighted to have written three new works for the Royal Northern College of Music's 50th birthday! These will premiere on Thursday, June 22, 2023 in Manchester, UK - you can also listen to the full concert on BBC Radio 3, which is available from June 29:

The program "RNCM 50th Birthday Gala" will be broadcast worldwide on BBC Radio 3

The project is special to me for a few reasons. First, the celebration highlights current students and alumni, and I'm proud to have been at the Northern (RNCM) for my master's degree in composition. I loved spending time in that beautiful building on Oxford Road, and it's wonderful to metaphorically return through music! (I have, also, had the pleasure of actually returning - I was privileged to present a guest seminar to the M.Mus composition students last year)

I'm also REALLY excited about the music I've gotten to write for this event! The concert's theme is centered around the idea of "folk," which means many things to many different people. I had the chance to work closely with Richard Collins, Head of Programming at RNCM, to tailor the new pieces to the concept he was curating. With my three pieces, I chose to consider the theme of "home" in the context of three different places that represent home to me. The first piece is linked to Minnesota, the Midwest, and the US at large. The second one is connected to India. And the third is centered in Manchester itself, the home of RNCM.

My first composition is called Heart of Earth, taking its title from a line in the poem "Farmers Market" by Laura Purdie Salas about the "abundance" at the center of "earth's heart." Here is the full text:

snap peas, salmon, sunny days:
Farmers market, keep the change
abundance of the heart of earth
Heavy harvest
Summer wedding, thousand veils
Leafy vows and toasts of dew
sunshine uncurls, unfurls each bloom
Oak marries June–
Fling your leaves into the sky
Give your apples to the deer
Look up so you will find your way
Sky has a knack for pounding out,
Heavy rain, pounding rain, The natural talent of the ground is receiving
Spring has a knack for bursting out,
Heavy blooms, bursting blooms, The natural talent of the seed is believing
Natural talent of the Earth

- Adapted from Farmers Market, Summer Wedding, Inside a Flower Bud, Advice from a Forest, and Natural Talent by Laura Purdie Salas. © Laura Purdie Salas. Used with permission of the author, who holds all rights.

Aren't these beautiful lines? I have so enjoyed working with this evocative imagery. What initially drew me to the text is the connection that Laura and I share as fellow Minnesotans. Her farmers market is my farmers market, for example! I started drafting the piece at Tusen Takk Foundation in Michigan this year, which is one of my favorite places (more on TTF in a forthcoming post - stay tuned!!). While working through Laura's collection of poetry and deciding which lines to weave together, I was struck by how these words were deeply moving in their simplicity - like axioms, in a sense. A counter-rhythm to my playful, singable tune started to emerge, and I felt the urge to clap it.

Clapping can happen in many ways. As I sat alone at my desk in the remote residency, I realized that my desire was to clap communally - not just clap alongside others (as we do as audience members in a concert, for example), but clap with others. If you've ever played brilliant childhood games like Concentration64, then you know that clapping games are not just competitive - they are collaborative (and there is research on this that I just encountered today!). You work with your counterpart to maintain the clapping pattern amongst yourselves. You must rely on each other to reach overall success - just like a group performance! The solution seemed evident: Heart of Earth's jaunty tune would be accompanied by a performer-wide clap "game."

As you can probably imagine, I'm eagerly awaiting the premiere - a situation where the proof is very much in the pudding! The piece is scored for upper voices, but certainly adaptable to wide range of circumstances.

My second composition, scored for SSATB a cappella, is called Bahaari Baarish, and has a two-fold meaning: "spring rains," and a downpour of Bahaar, the raag of the piece.

This work is made up of the rhythmic syllables from Carnatic and Hindustani music, and incorporates some gamakams and inflections/slides found in Bahaar. It also combines rhythmic highlights from these two systems of Indian classical music, too, such as korvai and tihai.

All of these aspects are re-cast when they are brought into a choir. The polyrhythms in these traditional musics are transformed from inherent to explicit when sung polyphonically. The notes of the raag express something different when they come together harmonically, instead of purely melodically. It's an interesting line to straddle, being simultaneously a practitioner of Indian classical music, and a developer in many lands. I try to reconcile it for myself by staying open to where my curiosity takes me, and grounding myself with lots of listening in this oral tradition of ours.

From this very technical (but hopefully fun!) place, we move to my final piece for this occasion: an ode to Manchester. Indeed, that's the title of the piece: To Manc, with Love. I still remember that when I was moving to Manchester from London, my friends and I felt that "Manchester" was a mouthful, so we decided to call my new home "Chessie." We were a bit aggrieved to learn that Manchester already has a nickname: Manc. The name felt a bit bald at first, but the longer I lived in Manc, the more I realized how utterly perfect this diminutive is for the city: direct, maybe a bit abrupt but always kind to its bones, proud, honest, clear, earnest, and so very endearing.

(Yes, I did just use eighteen words to describe 4 letters.)

For this final piece, the great UK poet Michael Symmons Roberts loaned us the use of his words from his magnum opus text Mancunia. The poem that struck our fancy was his "Great Northern Diver." In the piece, the poem is recited in full by a speaker over oscillating gestures from the string orchestra:

This is one of those texts where my approach was essentially to get out of its way :) I just gave a few key lines to the singers to repeat until the end:

"and the clay arrests you, holds you as a pulse for good"
"to everything a city"
"what keeps this city alive is you"
"a pulse for good"

With these last two quotes, I sought to make another, specific ode beyond the one to Manchester: an ode to the students from around the world who congregate on Oxford Road to learn, grow, and contribute to the city. I'm honored to have been among their ranks– and I'm excited that much of the creative reigns of this last piece have been handed over to current students.

Happy Birthday, RNCM! Long may you continue.

With love,



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