Guest Composer of the Month

May 2022

This month’s GCM is Helen Williams, a fellow composer in the Multitude of Voyces project.

Helen and Nigel Williams are the owners of Canossa Music, which offers a range of beautiful pieces for liturgical use and other occasions. If you are in a viol consort, you can find a number of new pieces by Helen and Nigel here.

Here are some of Helen’s compositions, including a stunning piano improvisation, showcasing a flair for exquisite and unexpected dissonances within a warmly tonal framework.

Statuesque

Helen improvises a lot, both in her main job as a Music Therapist with the NHS, and as a ballet pianist at the Susan Handy School of dancing. Most of this is heard once only but occasionally it gets recorded.

When Gemma Reynolds and Robert Whelan designed a calendar of living recreations of famous statues, Helen improvised this soundtrack to their promotional video.

Viol on a balcony

Helen has been playing viola da gamba since 2017. When, in the early days of covid, we heard stories of Italians singing from their balconies, she went out to play on ours and a bird joined in. We think it was a robin, not a blackbird, but can’t quite tell over the sound of the viol.

https://twitter.com/ChoralCanossa/status/1512766458585096197/video/1

She is now writing occasional pieces for viols. Most players play several sizes, so it can be easier to find a consort to play a viol piece than to get a whole choir together for something choral. It underlines how fortunate she has been with the support of St Martin’s Church Choir and Epsom Chamber Choir, who have between them provided most of her recordings from the times before livestreaming.

Embroidery

In 2010 Helen signed up for a Certificate course at the Royal School of Needlework, largely so she could repair delicate ecclesiastical vestments without making them worse. Their teaching raises people’s standards incredibly quickly. Helen found a place in some wonderful teams, volunteering once a week with the St Paul’s Broderers.

HRH The Duchess of Gloucester visits the St Paul's Cathedral broderers

She was involved in some RSN studio projects that got quite a lot of attention.

https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/royal-wedding-dress-embroidery-team-125943

Now she needs to finish her RSN diploma so she can get back to St Paul’s.

John Bunyan

The piece that says most about Helen’s personal choral style is a motet for passiontide. Thus Far Did I Come is a devotional lyric by John Bunyan. Helen set it with fluid metre and tempi and harmony that demands no resolution. This performance is by our church choir in Epsom, conducted by Paul Johnson-Hyde:

https://www.choirplace.com/videos/7786/thus-far-did-i-come

Come, Sleep!​

Helen only undertakes commissions very rarely. Roger Miller is a bass in Epsom Chamber Choir, so had sung many of her works already. When he stepped down as chairman of near neighbours Guildford Chamber Choir, he requested a setting of a poem by John Fletcher. Helen wrote this, ready just before covid arrived.

Like so much else, plans to perform it had to be deferred, but the choir and conductor stuck with it and gave it its first airing in November 2021.

Love is the Key

Helen’s most sung choral piece is Love is the Key, her setting of a Christina Rossetti poem called Song for the Least of All Saints. Unaccompanied, in four parts, it fits into almost any church service. This year, Glasgow Cathedral sang it in Advent, St David’s Baltimore on Good Friday, St Peter’s College Oxford after Easter. Trinity Wall Street and Salford Cathedral sang it even during covid restrictions. Helen loves hearing it done by subtly different voices each time. If you would like to add yours, this video has the score in it too.

Previous Guest Composers of the Month

March 2020

Paul Ayres, from whom I have learned much, was April’s GCM. Paul’s music is approachable yet subtle. In his own words:

“Composing and arranging gives me great joy, and my hope is that performers and audiences will share in that joy. That’s about as far as it goes, in terms of “artistic credo”! I’d like to share three pieces with your website visitors.


Love is the spirit of this church is a simple song, setting a Unitarian text. The melody works in canon. Perhaps because I’m an organist, I love canons, fugues, and strict contrapuntal forms…

[Editorial comment from Tamsin: I highly approve of contrapuntal fun and games!]

Something more bracing next: If music be the food of love (link to MIDI demo with score), for three-part voices (SABar or SAA) with piano duet accompaniment. Written for a youth choir – I tried to keep the vocal parts fairly straightforward, with the rhythmic drive taken by the accompaniment.


“Mostly Bach’s Toccata and Fugue” is an example of how I love to play around with, and “re-write” Baroque pieces. The original BWV565 (which may not be by Bach, and which may not have been written for organ – these are subjects for other chats!) is in 4-4 time, with almost continuous semiquaver movement. What happens if one plays only 7 out of every 8 notes? Bach with 12.5% off..

https://youtu.be/lGxCCNq01Yw (Organ)
https://youtu.be/-a72VpviO6g (Midi demo with score)


Having looked through all the links above, I see that they are all in D minor. I’d like to reassure readers that I can write in other keys too.”

February 2020

Mitch Boucher was Guest Composer for February. A native of Maine, this promising young American composer is a fellow champion for the “New Baroque” aesthetic. As he puts it:

“I find it to be expressive, and I think it is the perfect conduit for the human condition. Music should not only be something that challenges the performer, but it should be something that the listener might relate to. Through its many constraints of form (like a canon, fugue, or a gigue) one can still find room to tell a story. Given that one of the ideals behind the Baroque era was emotional expression, I believe that the music can still be relevant and able to be appreciated by audiences today.” 

Duet for Two Saxophones is a charming duo, with elegant interplay between the players, which takes advantage of the saxophone’s ability to articulate lines cleanly, while bringing a more contemporary tone-colour to the style.

January 2020

GCM for January was Tim Knight, a Classic FM nominee and internationally acclaimed composer whose music encompasses everything from chamber music to large-scale orchestral works, but who is perhaps best known for his accessible and attractive church music.

Tim’s music is evocative and emotionally direct (perhaps that’s because he’s a Yorkshireman!), and says much with great economy of means. One of Tim’s most attractive strengths is his ability to create a memorable tune, and his anthem I will lift up mine eyes to the hills is a great example of that:

Another example is The Lord bless you and keep you for 2 soprano parts and piano, which radiates tranquility and contains some sparingly used, but well judged, flashes of colourful harmony. As it shows, less is often more:

December 2019

Felicity Mazur-Park kindly agreed to be the inaugural guest composer on my website.

Felicity is a composer, organist, and pianist with British and Latvian heritage who is currently based in Dallas, Texas. Here is a wonderful example of her work, the terrific One Language is Never Enough, which seamlessly takes the listener on an exciting international adventure, taking in sounds from Africa, Asia, Central America and North America: