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Composition Competition

Competition Winner commission: first performance

Alex Symcox

At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners, the new work commissioned from the winner of our Composition Competition Alex Symcox, received its premiere at a highly successful concert on Saturday 14 March. A video of the dress rehearsal may be seen here.

Prior to the performance, we asked Alex about his new work:

Where did your ideas come from for this piece? Were these ideas specifically musical or did they come from other (non musical) thoughts or concepts?

I had this idea of juxtaposition of musical material: Quiet and loud, slow and fast, dissonant and harmonic, rhythmic insistency contrasted with erratic passages, which are obvious aspects of all music but I wanted to make a real feature of them. They become the musical material and focal points. Musically, the piece is based around one central melody which is heard very early on at the first climax. This melody is then developed in different ways before returning two thirds of the way through the piece.

Are there other composers who you feel have shaped your approach to the composition of this piece?

Stravinsky had a large and hopefully obvious influence! Harrison Birtwistle, Wolfgang Rihm and Kaija Sariaho are three contemporary composers who I admire and who have definitely influenced me.

How does the title of the piece relate to the music?

At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners is the title of a poem by John Donne. The title is a paradox of great irony which I was loosely drawn to as a basis for an exploration of opposites. The idea of searching for something and upon arrival is not what we imagined, polar opposite, rather appealed to me as a concept.

Can you describe for us the structure of the piece and what happens in it?

Structurally, the piece is in four 'loose' sections: Section A begins very low and dissonant, the music builds very quickly to a melodic climax. Sections B and C develop aspects of the material in different contrasting ways. Section D recaps the initial material and finishes the piece harmonically consonant in the highest register.

What would you like players and audiences to take from this piece? Do you have any advice for people hearing your piece for the first time about how they might best appreciate and enjoy it?

'Contemporary music' encompasses a huge number of styles, genres, and thoughts, and individuals so having an open mind (and ears!) is key. The first time listener should listen out for changes in texture, certain parts build up in 'waves' getting bigger and bigger. Repetition is another thing to listen out for, all textural, thematic, melodic aspects repeat many times, not once is something musical stated without being repeated. Also listening out for the structure above, the sections are clearly defined and greatly contrast each other.

Oxford Times feature article 'Poet inspired new work is job Donne'
Alex Symcox website and biography

The Competition

The Oxford Symphony Orchestra competition was the inspiration of two orchestra members. It has been made possible by their and others' generosity and by a grant from the Doris Field Charitable Trust. Sound and Music which champions new music and the work of British composers has also provided advice and support.

Commenting on their decision to name Alex Symcox as competition winner, the judges said, 'Alex is a really talented young composer... we very much hope that this will prove to be an exciting opportunity for him as much as for the orchestra.' Alex came out top in competition against eighty three other applicants who submitted existing works for consideration. 'The quality of a large number of the entries was truly impressive.'

The competition judging panel members were:

Joseph Phibbs composer and teacher. His works have been championed by leading conductors and performed by major orchestras and instrumentalists throughout Europe and beyond. He teaches at the Purcell School and Kings College, London.
Mark van de Wiel principal clarinettist of the London Sinfonietta and the Philharmonia Orchestra. He is well known for his performances of contemporary music and has given many premieres.
Robert Max Musical Director of Oxford Symphony Orchestra.

March 2015