King Edward's Music

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Tag: string quartets

Players from the CBSO record the Fifths’ string quartets.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham -- CBSO recordings of boys' string quartets

Knowing the score

So………..serialism. That great musical genre, of harmony, tunefulness and beautifulness. Unfortunately, it wasn’t anything like that. Our compositions were full of increasingly obscure intervals and notes which clash and produce a dissonance that would usually mean your music is awful. But no, not serialism. It can sound as unusual and un-’musical’ as you want. I think that’s the really interesting aspect of our compositions is that we can break the majority of the rules we thought existed. Thus, the creations had rhythms that were harder to notate than play, titles which seemed like the composer was going mad while writing them and notes which had no musical bearing to their surroundings, save the matrix which we so faithfully trusted.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham -- CBSO recordings of boys' string quartets (4)

Trust the Matrix

We embarked on our ‘creations’ towards the end of our fourth year and finally at the end of the autumn term in fifths our pieces got recorded by a remarkable set of players: Kate Suthers, CBSO principal second violin; Kate Oswin, CBSO first violin; Adam Römer, CBSO principal viola; Richard Jenkinson, ex-CBSO ‘cello, Mark Walkem, double bass extraordinaire and Sara Wilander, pianist of note. On that Friday, these players all came together to give life to our pieces and a recording of our pieces that even the titan of Sibelius (the musical composition software not the man himself…) could reproduce.

Arush’s piece Twisted Flamingoes, untwisted into particularly difficult slow triplet minims. We then had a sad moment when Rohan’s Orangutans died, so we had to play them a funeral piece, which was handily composed by Rohan. Then as time flew along we had Louis’ Tempus, and no sooner had we started the baroque-styled piece we moved on. We then had Heftigkeit (violence) by Gokul, which was lost over the summer and then refound (i.e. Gokul re-wrote it). We then tamed Jacob’s Wild Beasts, which turned out to be the middle strings.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham -- CBSO recordings of boys' string quartets (2)

Written the night before?

Then, we had the piano pieces. These came about due to our rebellious nature: Dr Leigh said do a string quartet, so I did a piano sextet, Shirom a piano trio and Jiaqi a piano quartet. I got the prize for the longest title being: A three legged waltz, a bridge, hell and back again. Then Shirom had his Notes- The exploration of serialism through the transcendence of life and love, which had some interesting rhythms and some challenging double stopping that even the CBSO found tricky. Finally Jiaqi, the most rebellious one. He had a ‘normal’ piece after giving up on his serialist one. It had a piano part that wouldn’t be amiss in a Rachmaninov prelude and had some recognisable motifs, at least to the CBSO.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham -- CBSO recordings of boys' string quartets (3)

Hell and back?

So, all I need do now is say thank you to the players and to Dr. Leigh for making this happen.

 

George Roberts, Fifths

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Players from the CBSO record the Fifths’ string quartets.

Music is, depressingly, becoming less prevalent in the curriculum in this day and age. Yet, contrary to popular belief, I have concluded that the reason for this isn’t the content of the course itself, but the students who choose to take it. Sometimes I struggle to understand how Dr Leigh has the motivation to teach us, let alone spend more time with us than the bare minimum. Yet, through his will and determination, he fearlessly led our ragtag crew into the expanse of the Ruddock Hall on an especially dreary Friday afternoon.

Now, if I am giving the impression of reluctance thus far, I wish to say that this was an especially exciting day, for we were to present our ‘serial’ compositions to a select group of musicians (from City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Dante Quartet) consisting Shulah Oliver, Zhiko Georgiev, Adam Romer, and Richard Jenkinson), so we could experience our IGCSE compositions realised in full surround-sound audio, contrary to the pained wailing of a so-called ‘violin’ that Sibelius does its utmost to render.

At this point I should mention the nature of serialism (No, not Special K and the like), as I am sure the introduction of this technical language has caught many of you off guard. I believe the art of serialism can be best summarised by a quote from Schoenberg, the founding father of serialism himself:

‘My music is not lovely.’

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham: string quartet recordings by CBSO

Unlovely music

In layman’s terms, serialism is designed to sound pretty rubbish. One can go into the joy of retrogrades, rows, combinatoriality, and inversions, but essentially serialism is crafted around a foundation of a twelve-tone scale, and doesn’t follow the conventions of traditional western harmony, resulting in something that sounds a ‘bit dodgy’, to use the words of Jonnie. Yet Schoenburg also said:

‘My work should be judged as it enters the ears and heads of listeners, not as it is described to the eyes of readers.’

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham: string quartet recordings by CBSO

Fragile and unreliable

So, I humbly concede to the fragility and unreliability of words, and move on to the topic of the music itself. Our class, being as it is, showed serious apprehension to the dea of purposely bad music, however on the realisation that we were able to ‘bung any old note in and they can’t criticise it’, we discovered a newfound glee at the idea of having one fewer thing to think about when composing.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham: string quartet recordings by CBSO

Newfound glee

And so we presented our crisp copies featuring, but not limited to:

“Alas, my teapot has run off with a spoon. (A Lament of Youth)” by Nathan Cornish
“O why does my toenail itch so?” by Isaac Elliot
“No! Layers, Onions have layers!” by Jonnie Green

And prayed that these fine players would be able to work their way around our indiscernible blotches. Thankfully, despite Jonnie’s initial worries that they may not have a full grasp of dotted rhythms, they realised our work with aplomb, and we left feeling fulfilled, enriched, and most definitely tired.

Matthew Igoe, Fifths

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham: string quartet recordings by CBSO Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham: string quartet recordings by CBSO

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham: string quartet recordings by CBSO

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Players from the CBSO record the Fifths’ string quartets.

Music Department at King Edward's School, Birmingham: recording compositions with the CBSO

Coaching the CBSO?

There was a cold snap to the air that brisk Sunday morning as ten drowsy boys trudged into school from each corner of Birmingham, the sound of their alarms still piercing their skulls. You ask; why were they in school on a Sunday? What could have possibly coerced them into doing such a thing? These are both valid albeit contrived questions as there are very few circumstances which involve lazy adolescents leaving the house on what is, after all, a day of rest.

However, this particular morning elicited no such signs of reluctance, as each and every member of the group had arrived to realise their true calling – to spread the sweet, dulcet tones of serial music, which in case you don’t know, is music that is designed to, well, sound bad…

Hmm, perhaps I should explain this in a little more detail.

     ‘Serial music is that which does not follow a scale or conventional harmony. Rather, it is a combination of different primes, retrogrades, inversion and retrograde-inversions of a chosen line of dissonant notes. I know right.’

Okay, okay. So maybe these school boys were initially somewhat sceptical about composition in such a genre. After all, they had never before listened to let alone composed serial music of any description, and although I would like to say that these minute reservations had vanished once the creative juices started flowing, the truth is that they stuck around until today when the nervous pupils found themselves holding their pristine scores with trepidation.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham: recording with the CBSO

The author looks on, a picture of trepidation.

Perhaps part of this apprehension stemmed not only from the fact that these performances counted towards the final GCSE grade, but also from the weight of the occasion; alas, if seeing Dr. Leigh with his top two, yes two, buttons undone was not already enough make these boys uneasy, then they were in for a treat as today, playing their serial compositions, was the highly esteemed string quartet form none other than the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra! *Cue fanfare*.

The ensemble was comprised of the revered likes of Lena Zeliszwska at first violin, Zhiko Georgiev at second violin, Mike Jenkinson on the viola and Richard Jenkinson on the cello. We were spoiled with their prowess, which made proceedings run smoothly even when some of the students’ limited knowledge of dynamics became blindingly obvious *cough, cough*.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham: recording with the CBSO

The CBSO quartet.

As we progressed through pieces such as ‘Shi No Numa’, ‘Seriaously Bad’ and ‘Why?’ the general consensus amongst the composers began to change from “Grrr, Sunday” to one of a much more positive nature; it was as if real-life string instruments didn’t sound like saxophones as they did on Sibelius; as if this wasn’t all part of one of Dr Leigh’s evil plots! By the end of the session, we’d had great fun listening to some exquisite pieces, played in a manner both unforgettable and professional, and all in time for Sunday lunch.

Miles McCollum, Fifths

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham