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Creative practice in contemporary concert music

Table of Contents

Project overview

Creative practice in music, particularly the music of our own time, takes place in a distributed and interactive manner embracing the activities of composers, performers and improvisers, despite the sharp ‘division of labour’ between composers and performers that traditional concert culture presents. By concentrating very largely on music of the ‘common practice’ period, performance studies has neglected a proper consideration of music for which performance practices remain in flux, precluding direct study of the ways in which the two primary creative agents (composer and performer) interact and negotiate.

The aims of the project were:

  • to study in detail the creative interactions and collaborations between performers and composers in the specific context of preparing and presenting performances of new works
  • to examine a range of notation, preparation and performance practices in contemporary music
  • to interrogate ‘distributed creativity’ between composer and performer in contemporary performance, and in so doing to revive a broad notion of improvisation that has been sidelined in the history of performance.

The primary research focus was on a number of new pieces for specific performers commissioned from composers that allowed the project to explore the varied ways in which collaboration takes place and shapes the production of a work.  These collaborations, in effect a set of case studies, ranged from dyadic interactions through to work involving up to twenty participants, from fully improvised pieces to entirely notated works and included the use of extended techniques, incorporation of digital sound, and the adoption of novel instrumentation.

The outputs from the project included a workshop (2011), two international conferences (2012 and 2014), a series of articles and book chapters, and an edited volume.

The project researchers were Professor Eric Clarke (Principal Investigator) and Dr Mark Doffman (Research Assistant).

CMPCP Visiting Fellow: Dr Renee Timmers (University of Sheffield) Dr Nicolas Donin (IRCAM), Dr Paul Archbold (Institute of Musical Research), and Dr Adam Linson (The Open University).

DPhil candidates:  Emily Payne and Cayenna Ponchione

Project narrative

The project followed four overlapping phases:

  • identification and participation of composers and performers
  • documentation of the collaborations using audio-visual recordings and interviews
  • qualitative and quantitative analysis of preparation, rehearsals and performances
  • written outputs.

The opening phase of the project involved making contact with composers and performers with a view to commissioning a series of works that would be sufficiently varied for the purposes of the project, and yet remain entirely within the creative ambit of the musicians. As a ‘real world’ study, the success in commissioning or having access to the production of a new work depended on a number of factors: the availability of musicians, the viability of our documenting the work without disrupting the creative process, and the congruence of the timelines between the production of the work and the life of the project. It was also important that each one of the collaborations brought something distinctive to the overall set of case studies.

At an early stage of identifying feasible composer/performer collaborations, the project was fortunate to have the opportunity to document the rehearsal process and first performances of Liza Lim‘s Tongue of the Invisible.  This hour-long new work had been commissioned by the Cologne-based contemporary ensemble musikFabrik, and allowed CPICCM the prospect of including a large-scale work that had previously been considered to be outside the scope of the project.  From Spring 2012, the project was involved with three other commissions: Ouija for violin and laptop computer by the Cambridge composer Jeremy Thurlow, written for the violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved; At His Majesty’s Pleasure, a piece written by Oxford composer Martyn Harry for the early music group His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts; and Forlorn Hope, the first of a series of new works for guitar arising out of a collaboration between composer David Gorton and guitarist Stefan Östersjö. All three projects were at different points in the cycle of fieldwork, analysis and writing up.

In addition to the performance projects listed above, CPICCM was also involved in research into creative collaboration at the Royal College of Music, documenting the Contemporary Music in Action postgraduate course – which involves creative collaborations between graduate composers and performers – and examining the ways in which this approach to creative learning, and creative practice, is valuable for students as they prepare for professional careers.

In Autumn 2012, Dr Renee Timmers from the Music Department at the University of Sheffield joined the project as a CMPCP Visiting Fellow. She collaborated with Eric Clarke and Mark Doffman on a quantitative analysis of rehearsal and performance data from Ouija, as well as setting up short experiments that asked listeners to complete ratings for short clips of rehearsal and performance material. By expanding the analysis of the piece to include quantitative data, we aim to shed light on a number of questions about the evolution of expressive performance through rehearsal. The substantial triple-authored paper that resulted from this work is under consideration for publication by the Journal of the Royal Musical Association.

In 2013, the project focused on two final collaborations: an entirely improvised project consisting of a quartet of musicians – Christopher Redgate, Roger Redgate, Neil Heyde and Matt Wright; and a work for piano trio written by Jeremy Thurlow for the Aronovitch Ensemble. Redgate, Redgate, Heyde and Wright – who had never before played together in this formation – met for a workshop/rehearsal/jam-session (their preferred term) at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford, followed by a public performance, in May 2013, filmed by Colin Still. In addition to these two projects, CPICCM was associated with a work by James Saunders and Simon Limbrick, Surfaces, first presented in a 24-hour continuous performance at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2011.

The final phase of the project (to September 2014) involved work on the edited volume (Creativity, Improvisation and Collaboration: Perspectives on the Performance of Contemporary Music) for OUP, submission of other publications, hosting the final Visiting Fellow (Dr Adam Linson), and organising and hosting the final workshop/conference of the project: Perspectives on Musical Improvisation II (Oxford, 9-12 September 2014) – the follow-up conference to the successful PoMI I, which took place two years previously.


Tongue of the Invisible – Liza Lim and musikFabrik; Andre de Ridder (conductor) with Uri Caine (piano), Omar Ebrahim (baritone)

  • An hour-long work by Liza Lim for chamber ensemble and soloists that is based on the work of the Sufi poet Hafez; the work brings together fully notated and, by degrees, improvised performance.
  • February 2011 – initial visit by Mark Doffman to musikFabrik‘s studio in Cologne for recording of pre-rehearsal, exploratory visit by composer Liza Lim
  • June 2011 – recording in early June of one week’s rehearsal leading to the premiere at the Bimhuis, Amsterdam as part of the Holland Festival and a second performance at the WDR Funkhaus in Cologne in late June – a twentieth-birthday celebration for musikFabrik.

Ouija – Jeremy Thurlow and Peter Sheppard Skaerved

  • A piece written by Jeremy Thurlow for violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved
  • It incorporates sound files activated by the composer in performance that circumscribe, accompany and comment on the solo violin part, which is largely improvised or semi-improvised.
  • February and March, 2012 – two rehearsals between composer and performer – recorded on video recorder and audio field recorder.
  • 23 May 2012 – first performance of the work in Sidney Sussex College Chapel as part of the Cambridge Summer Festival. Recorded multi-track audio and on video.
  • 9 July 2012 – workshop performance in Robinson College Chapel, Cambridge.
  • 23 July 2012 – third performance at Wilton’s Music Hall, London. Recorded on audio field recorder.
  • 2 November 2012 – fourth performance at Holywell Music Room, Oxford.

At His Majesty’s Pleasure – Martyn Harry and His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts

  • At His Majesty’s Pleasure consists of nineteen short pieces that together describe an imagined sixteenth-century child monarch, and the workings of his court.
  • The piece is fully notated and scored for various combinations of chamber organ, harpsichord, sackbuts and cornetts.  His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts is an early music group whose core members are Jeremy West and Jamie Savan (cornetts) and Abigail Newman, Stephen Saunders and Adam Wolf (sackbuts).
  • 9–13 April 2012; fieldwork involved audio-visual recording of a week’s rehearsal and recording for a commercial CD.  Conducted by Martyn Harry.
  • 5 May 2012 – performance in the Holywell Music Room of a number of sections from the piece, conducted by Martyn Harry.
  • Release of CD on sfz record label, November 2012

Contemporary Music in Action – Postgraduate composers and performers at the Royal College of Music

  • Fieldwork consisted of five visits to RCM between March and May.
  • Recorded material included interviews and audio-visual recordings of rehearsal and final recital.
  • 8 May 2012 – end-of-year recital for CMIA students

Forlorn Hope – David Gorton and Stefan Östersjö

  • Documentary material provided by the performer and composer over the course of their collaboration
  • 7–9 December 2012 – research weekend with Eric Clarke, Mark Doffman and the musicians.
  • First performance, ORCiM research festival, Ghent, 5 October 2012

Christopher Redgate, Roger Redgate, Neil Heyde and Matt Wright

  • Free improvising quartet (oboe, violin, cello and turntables/live electronics).
  • Workshop 15 May 2013
  • Performance, 17 May 2013, Holywell Music Room, Oxford – filmed by Colin Still (Optic Nerve)

Jeremy Thurlow / Aronowitz Trio

  • The second case study from our work with Jeremy Thurlow involves a piece for the Aronowitz Trio entitled Steeples Eclipse.
  • Documentation of the rehearsal process – May 2013.
  • First performance: Cambridge Summer Music Festival, 25 July 2013, St John’s College Divinity School, Cambridge


Perspectives on Musical Improvisation, 9-12 September 2014, University of Oxford


Building on the success of the 2012 conference (summarised below), this final event of the CPCCM project took place in September 2014 in the Faculty of Music, University of Oxford. This conference followed the plenary format of PoMI I, but we extended our range of invited speakers and panellists. Our speakers included Dr Laudan Nooshin (City University), Professor Joanna McGregor (Royal Academy of Music and concert artist), Professor Gary Peters (York St John University), and Professor Geraint Wiggins (QML, London). Our invited panellists were Professor Daniel Fischlin (University of Guelph), Professor Eric Porter (University of California, Santa Cruz) and Dr Jason Stanyek (University of Oxford).

In addition to papers and poster presentations, the conference included live music – a lecture/recital by Joanna MacGregor, a performance by the Oxford Improvisers and a delegate jam session at The Spin, Oxford’s Jazz Club.

Perspectives on Musical Improvisation, 10–13 September 2012, University of Oxford



The aim of this conference was to address the centrality of improvisation in musical life, bringing together scholars from musicology, ethnomusicology, psychology, philosophy, sociology and education to raise new questions, illuminate older debates and consider what ‘improvisation’ means for performers, listeners and researchers. The conference was co-organised by Eric Clarke, Mark Doffman and David Maw; Emily Payne was conference administrator.

The conference speakers were Professor Ingrid Monson (Harvard University) and Professor Thierry Escaich. In addition, Professor Lydia Goehr (Columbia University), Professor Garry Hagberg (Bard College) and Professor George Lewis offered a discussion panel, and Professor Georgina Born (University of Oxford) led a plenary discussion. In total, the conference presented 34 papers in a plenary format with evening practical workshops, a lecture/recital, concert performance by Trio Faint and a delegate jam session.

Distributed Creativity workshop

Monday 5 September 2011, Faculty of Music, University of Oxford
Hosted by Eric Clarke and Mark Doffman

The first workshop for the project ‘Creative Practice in Contemporary Concert Music’, on the broad theme of Distributed Creativity, was held at the Faculty of Music in Oxford, and was attended by 22 performers, composers, musicologists and psychologists. The day consisted of six short presentations, followed in each case by significant opportunities for discussion. Through a combination of theoretical papers, reports on new projects and presentations that offered novel methods for exploring collaborative musical work, the workshop delivered an informal but rich set of discussions over the course of the day.