Category Archives: Composition

Devising BRETHREN – final piece of the PhD puzzle

BRETHREN logoOver the last three weeks I have been devising BRETHREN for choreographed orchestra, the final piece of my PhD.

Rehearsals have been compact, with a half-hour of content to get through for the premiere next week.

Luckily, I have had a fantastic group to work with, The Assembled, which I have been a member of since 2012. Membership has changed over time, yet the group has always been very strongly and enthusiastically committed to trying anything and everything new and experimental.

Joining The Assembled are a number of other Music students, together totalling 14. Though I aimed to recruit a larger community group (and received many responses apologetic that they could not commit to all rehearsals), the piece will work well this size. A stage can be filled by one person, let alone a whole sinfonietta. The group divides evenly to suit a chamber orchestra aesthetic too: 3 wind, 3 percussion, 7 strings, even a harmonium in lieu of a concert grand.

Though I’ve made pieces with all the players before, I have been amazed at how wholeheartedly they have thrown themselves into it, pushing themselves physically and learning movement and music by memory. The adventurous attitude of the students is what makes York such an exciting place to collaborate and compose.

This week I invited Rachel Fullegar, dance artist, teacher and member of Gracefool Collective (collaborators in That’s Yer Lot!), to attend as a rehearsal director. She gave us some insightful advice about thinking through the reasons for movement and performing purposefully to embody the piece’s themes. I won’t explain the piece away now – there’s an overly long programme note for that…

BRETHREN feels like an opposite bookend to Remains of Elmet, made in 2013. As I write up the PhD, the difference in process seems even more marked. For Remains of Elmet, all theatrical and musical material developed from close analysis of the Ted Hughes poems. That generated a bank of metaphors and themes, allowing me to construct the narrative, design ritualistic stage layouts and movement, then write the whole thing down on manuscript paper.

Making BRETHREN has pushed me as a composer and as a director. Although I knew the quality of the movement I was after, the movement itself had to be created by the performers so as to allow them to perform movement authentically, freely, individually. Conceptualising the piece was like imagining a series of images that I knew would be there, but without colour – a paint-by-numbers waiting to be painted.

My previous devised processes included an initial experimental phase in which material was generated, filtered, focused, then refined before rehearsing the final performance. Time could not allow this for BRETHREN, so rehearsals had to follow a close plan of specific movement games and tasks that could produce the desired style of movement and overall aesthetic.

Group 2 interpreting instruments as weapons
Last December I was able to test some concepts and ideas with fellow Musicians in Residence at The Banff Centre. I talked about that in a previous blog. Suffice to say, I learnt a great deal about the piece and about directing there.

At a recent conference in Sheffield, I remarked in my paper that I am no longer certain now that music is the medium in which I want to make work. The problem with that phrase is how you define ‘music’. My PhD’s title, ‘Music is Theatre’, tackles this notion of what we consider separate fields, the boundaries of which disintegrate very quickly in certain contexts. Anyway, that is another story, remaining to be written…

For now, here are some rehearsal snaps to give a flavour of BRETHREN. To find out what’s going on, you’ll have to come to the premiere on 4th May at York Spring Festival – click this link for tickets and more information!

Those not in York may be able to stream the performance live here:

devising BRETHREN

devising BRETHREN

devising BRETHREN


CALL FOR PERFORMERS: BRETHREN for roaming orchestra

BRETHREN Call for Performers
Find out more by downloading this information leaflet or read on!

BRETHREN is a 30-minute performance piece about community and conflict.

Imagine an empty stage, dimly lit. A single violinist walks onto it and begins to play. Another joins. Then more. Soon they form a group, while others emerge: cellists, clarinetists, flautists, all clustering in groups. The way they move and the way they play are all different. Their sounds and shapes build, clash and combine. From chaos, something must be salvaged.

Using the metaphor of an orchestra as a collection of instrumental families, BRETHREN will explore how a community caught in conflict, how peoples upheaved and isolated, can rebuild and move forward as one.

The title comes from words sung in Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms: ‘how good it is for brethren to dwell together in unity’.

Who can perform in BRETHREN?
Any musician, on any instrument associated with the orchestra. The only instruments that cannot be in the piece are pianos and large percussion instruments.

The BRETHREN orchestra will include two University of York Music Department ensembles: The Assembled and Chimera Ensemble. The rest of the orchestra will involve musicians based in York and other students.

Performers will be in groups, arranged by instrumental type and by instruments that move in similar ways (e.g. violins with violas, clarinets with oboes). The choreographed or ‘roaming’ BRETHREN orchestra will inhabit the stage without music stands, without conductor.

What do I need to take part in BRETHREN?
What will I be doing in it?

Comfortable clothing for moving in, enthusiasm and a willingness to try something new!

You will be moving around and forming tableaux on stage, with your instrument, alongside other musicians. Any experience of theatre, dance or movement is a plus but is not necessary for the piece. The orchestra will not be required to act: the focus will be on the sound and on the natural movements we make when we play our instruments.

Rehearsals will be directed and supervised by James throughout. These will start with gentle physical warm-ups, plus games to develop spatial awareness and musical improvisation skills. The orchestra will learn stage and musical directions together by rote, building the piece bit by bit.

What will the music be like?
The first part of the piece, ‘VIOLINS’, will feature each instrumental group building its own block of sound. Gradually, energy and density will grow. The second part, ‘VIOLENCE’, will be quite noisy as the blocks of sound clash. In the third part, ‘SILENCE’, the blocks of sound will complement, interact and combine with each other. There will be silences too!

The music will comprise short composed passages and moments of improvisation. If you are new to improvisation, there is nothing to worry about: instructions for what to do will always be straightforward and structured.

Where & when are rehearsals?
Dates: 16th, 17th, 23rd & 24th April, 1st & 4th* May
(*=run-through only)
Venue: University of York Music Department

Where & when is the performance?
Date: Wednesday 4th May, 7.30pm
Venue: Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York
Part of York Spring Festival: |
View the hall:

How can I get to the rehearsal and performance venues?
There is parking on campus and regular buses. Here are some helpful transport & map links:

Sounds good – sign me up!
Download this form to complete and email to James:
Word (.docx)

WOODEN OVERCOATS Daily Telegraph review

“A quietly significant moment in British radio comedy…
Highly recommended.”
The Daily Telegraph, 24 October 2015

Following news that Wooden Overcoats has reached over 10,000 downloads in 66 countries worldwide, the podcast sitcom has now been reviewed in The Daily Telegraph:

“Mark my words; this release of this funny, clever, independently produced sitcom marks a quietly significant moment in British radio comedy, when the BBC networks stopped being the only conduit by which top-rank young writers and actors got their wares to market. It’s not that podcast sitcoms haven’t been made before; it’s that this one is, for the first time, as good as anything you’d hear on Radio 4. Created by a 27-year-old writer called David K Barnes, it’s set on the small (and, I should point out, fictional) Channel Island of Piffling, and centres upon Rudyard Funn (Felix Trench), the stiff-necked director of the island’s only funeral home – who’s seriously put out by the arrival of a dashing, instantly popular new undertaker called Eric (Tom Crowley). Highly recommended.”

Pete Naughton, The Daily Telegraph 24 October 2015

recording the theme with Jin, Tom, Will and Karl
recording the theme with Jin, Tom, Will and Karl

Elsewhere, lead writer David K. Barnes was recently interviewed on BBC Radio Jersey and BBC Radio Guernsey. Actor Andy Secombe, who plays Reverend Wavering in the series, also discussed the series on BBC Cornwall. You can listen to their interviews here.

The series one finale, Episode 8 ‘The Trial of Rudyard’, will be released this Thursday. The previous episode was a bit of a cliffhanger…

You can listen online here:
or download episodes via iTunes or other podcast clients.

recording the Mariachi band for Episode 5
recording the Mariachi band for Episode 5

If you’ve been listening to the series, we would love to hear what you thought of it. The best way to do this is to write a review on iTunes, tweet @OvercoatsWooden on Twitter, or post on the WOODEN OVERCOATS Facebook page.

Music for radio sitcom WOODEN OVERCOATS

Wooden Overcoats
A podcast sitcom in eight episodes, created by David. K. Barnes.

Rudyard Funn runs a funeral home on the island of piffling. It used to be the only one. It isn’t anymore.

When sexy, new undertaker Eric Chapman sets up shop across the road, Rudyard is thrown into a spiral of envy, obsession and mania, from which he – and the island – may never recover.

With his frustrated sister Antigone, dogsbody Georgie, and a mouse called Madeleine, will Rudyard ever defeat his impossibly charming rival?

Wooden Overcoats is the first full-studio podcast sitcom in the UK or abroad. Created by a previously unknown team of rising talent, the show is written by five of the UK’s best new comic writers (including Royal Court playwright Cordelia Lynn and Shock Treatment stage writer Tom Crowley), features an original orchestral score, and includes some of the biggest names in British comedy.

I was invited to compose the music by John Wakefield, a dear friend and a wonderful radio producer. Here’s the end theme:

“We’ll get the body in the coffin in the ground ON TIME!”
The music was lots of fun to write. I enjoy the challenge of writing music to constraints. With soundtracks each note has to be necessary, focused and precise in what it conveys. No change there, then. But capturing the essence of a place, a mood, a person, for me requires a lot of thought and experimentation. The process reminds me not to hold onto material unnecessarily. Luckily, I’ve not been precious about material for a long time. What’s more, I had helpful support from John, who I had worked with before on award-winning radio drama The New World Order.

John, co-producer Andy Goddard and I discussed at length the peculiarities of Piffling village, nuances of the characters, and the story arc of the series. We agreed that music would be sparse throughout to maintain a naturalistic feel and augment the absurdity of the comedy. I just needed to get the theme right first.

I sent John and Andy six ideas for the main theme, all involving an organ for that funereal feel. Once that was there, I made a number of variations: short cues that could be dotted around the series. I then wrote extended diegetic cues for specific scenes (ep 2 Funeral Jazz Band, ep 3 French New Wave film soundtrack, ep 5 Mexican restaurant Mariachi band…). There was also some special non-diegetic cues for episodes 7 and 8 – but you’ll have to listen to find out why.

We recorded the whole soundtrack in a day at the University of York in the reverberant Jack Lyons Hall. It was a real pleasure to work with John and Andy, both highly skilled professionals who have done a super job mastering the music. I was also lucky to have brilliant musicians in the Piffling Philharmonic:

Trumpet – Patrick Jones
Trombone – Ollie Pickup
Organ – Thomas Dewey
Piano – Jin Hyung Lim
Percussion – Sarah Holmes
Mandolin – Karl Kramer
Guitars – Carlo Estolano & Ben Clark
Violin – Dan Hodd
Cello – William Descrettes
Composer/Conductor – James Whittle
Recording Engineer (Music) – Jethro Bagust

“Enjoy yourselves!”
Wooden Overcoats features some of the biggest established and rising names in British comedy, including Belinda Lang, Andy Secombe, Ciara Baxendale, Andy Hamilton, Julia Deakin, Thom Tuck, Max Olesker, Catriona Knox and Paul Putner.

Each 30 minute episode will be released weekly over eight weeks from 24 September, as a podcast available from iTunes, Stitcher, the Windows Store, or wherever you download podcasts.

You can either listen direct from the website, searching on iTunes and hitting SUBSCRIBE, or you can enter into your podcast client.

Here we are in rehearsal:

Follow @OvercoatsWooden on Twitter

Wooden Overcoats was created, developed and produced by a core production team of five Brixton-based independent comedy professionals in their 20s. Despite being comparatively unknown, and without the backing of any of the major and established comedy production companies, they have created 8 x 30 minute instalments of radio comedy that rival the professional standard of any of their industry contemporaries. This would not have been possible without the dedication and efforts of the 45 actors, musicians, writers and technicians who helped them. They all gave their time for free, out of enthusiasm for the quality of the scripts and the passion of the team. Wooden Overcoats stands as a testament to the enterprising spirit of young talent in the UK arts industry today.

Starring Felix Trench, Beth Eyre, Tom Crowley, Ciara Baxendale and Belinda Lang
Written by David K. Barnes, Tom Crowley, Christopher Hogg, Cordelia Lynn and T.A. Woodsmith
Directed by Andy Goddard and John Wakefield
Music composed by James Whittle
An Audioscribble Production

‘a drawing-down of blinds’ – 4th performance

Alex Wilson will give the fourth performance of my latest solo piano work, a drawing-down of blinds, as part of a World War I conference in York on Saturday 28th February.

Alex commissioned the work for The Banks of Green Willow, a tour of Bristol, Exeter and Gloucester Cathedral, to voice a contemporary reflection on the Great War.

Over Here and Over There: Music of WW1 conference

The York performance will be at the end of a two-day conference, Over There and Over There: The Music of World War I. Alex will play in an evening concert, ‘After the Lusitania’, to include the University of York Chamber Orchestra playing Frank Bridge’s Lament for string orchestra. Lament was written in response to the sinking of the Lusitania on 7th May 1915. Charles Ives responded to the same disaster in his Second Orchestra Set, performed here last week.

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Wilfred Owen, ‘Dulce et decorum est’

How can one begin to contemplate an experience as black, an event as monumentally catastrophic, as the Great War? How does one cope with such a memory? What of the experience one cannot fathom from the distance of time? These questions formed my research for the piece.

I am always struck by the sight of a grand piano alone on stage, black, motionless, silent. After discussion of potential themes with Alex, my aim was to dramatise the physicality between pianist and piano to explore the idea of the weight of the past.

We met to devise physical action which I then composed into notated music, some of which is unmetered (without a regular pulse or barlines). The hope is that through how the pianist is seen to interact with the piano, remembrance — the act of remembering — becomes the focus of the piece.

I am indebted to Geoff Dyer’s recent book The Missing of the Somme for its insightful reflections on the war’s significance to us today, and for four quotations which mark interlinked sections in the score. A fifth quotation appears after the final bar.

‘an incomprehensible look…
it was more terrible that terror, for it was a blindfold look,
without expression’

‘Even when the blinds are raised, the sudden rush of light reveals
how much is – and will remain – concealed, missing.’

‘One does not fight with men against matériel,
it is with matériel served by men that one makes war.’

‘The war goes on, silently, visibly.’

‘When we have been there long enough,
we get up and leave, turn the page and move on.’

‘Der genügsame Liebhaber’ translation

I thought I would post my translation of Hugo Salus’s ‘Der genügsame Liebhaber’, since it was so fun to set such a cheeky poem. My translation acknowledges previous versions by Martha Elliott and Michael P. Rosewall, both of which had faithful elements I liked. Mine differs in a couple of places that were decided as much by where I felt the music needed to go in my setting.

Der genügsame Liebhaber
Meine Freundin hat eine schwarze Katze
Mit weichem knisterndem Sammetfell,
Und ich, ich hab’ eine blitzblanke Glatze,
Blitzblank und glatt und silberhell.

Meine Freundin gehört zu den üppigen Frauen,
Sie liegt auf dem Divan das ganze Jahr,
Beschäftigt das Fell ihrer Katze zu krauen,
Mein Gott ihr behagt halt das sammtweiche Haar.

Und komm’ ich am Abend die Freundin besuchen,
So liegt die Mieze im Schoße bei ihr,
Und nascht mit ihr von dem Honigkuchen
Und schauert, wenn ich leise ihr Haar berühr.

Und will ich mal zärtlich tun mit dem Schatze,
Und daß sie mir auch einmal “Eitschi” macht,
Dann stülp’ ich die Katze auf meine Glatze,
Dann streichelt die Freundin die Katze und lacht.

Hugo Salus (1866 – 1929)

The Undemanding Lover
My girlfriend has a black pussy-cat
With soft fur, rustling and velvety,
And I, I have a shiny bald spot,
Shiny and slick and silvery.

My girlfriend’s a lady of the voluptuous sort,
She lies on the sofa all year round,
Busily stroking the fur of her cat,
Mein Gott! how she loves to pet that velvety fur!

And when in the evening I visit my sweetheart,
The kitty lies in her lap,
And nibbles with her from the honey cake
And trembles when I softly stroke its fur.

And when I want to spend tender times with my sweetheart,
So that she may once say to me “Eitschi!”,
Then I put the cat upon my bald spot,
So my sweetheart then pets it and laughs.

Pierrot Kabarett poster

Pierrot Kabarett commission for Dr K Sextet

I am pleased to announce that I have been selected to write a new work for Dr K Sextet and soprano Lesley Jane Rogers as part of their Pierrot Project.

Dr K Sextet invited composers to set poems used in Schoenberg’s 8 Brettl-Lieder for a Pierrot-plus line-up: soprano, flutes, clarinets, percussion, piano, violin and cello. The new songs will be premièred as part of a Kabarett-themed performance at Club Inégales on 22nd January 2015, alongside the first part of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, in the first of the ‘Pierrot Pop-Ups’ concert series.

Schoenberg wrote the 8 Brettl-Lieder in 1901 whilst working as musical director at the Überbrettl: the German cabaret movement of artists and writers that emulated the French ‘Chat noir’, but were characterised more by political satire and gallows humour. This literary identity certainly doesn’t keep the Brettl-Lieder from being witty, playful and full of raucous double-entendre.

I will be setting one of the more risqué poems of the collection: Der genügsame Liebhaber, “The Easily Satisfied Lover” by Hugo Salus. I am looking forward to seeing what can be done with the full ensemble for it…

More information on the piece will follow soon!

New piano work on WW1 for Alex Wilson

This summer I completed ‘a drawing-down of blinds’ in collaboration with pianist Alex Wilson. Alex commissioned the piece for his toured concert, ‘The Banks of Green Willow’, in aid of the British Red Cross. The concert features music by composers directly affected by World War 1 such as Bridge, Gurney and Ravel, plus music by less familiar composers whose lives were cut short by the war. Our work would provide a present-day perspective on the Great War.

Following the premiere in Bristol and the second concert in Exeter last month, the final concert of the tour is in Gloucester Cathedral Chapter House at 7.30pm on Wednesday 12th November. Tickets can be bought on the door or in advance online.

The piece developed after several months of conversation between me and Alex earlier this year, on how we deal with the memories of something as disastrous and catastrophic as World War 1. I decided to use the solo piano to explore ‘the weight of the past’. This idea translated into a physical relationship between pianist and piano – a struggle between the pianist’s weight and the piano’s materiality.

In the score, four continuous sections are marked by four quotations of Wilfred Owen, Henri Philippe Pétain, and Geoff Dyer. It was Dyer’s book The Missing of the Somme, which offers a meditation on the memorialisation of war, that put me onto these ideas. I found the book particularly illuminating and would recommend it to anyone wanting to explore present-day conceptions of the war, remembrance (or Remembrance), and our relationship to the past.

CARNIVORE: a parade performance

In a carnivalesque world, underclass Minstrel musicians roam the backstreets,
exiled from concert halls for their advocacy of New Music.

When word reaches them that the reigning Troubadours have begun performing their cherished Old Music on the streets themselves, the Minstrels find this tyrannical mockery insufferable.

Enraged by the shameless charade, the Minstrels’ Ringleader initiates a hunt
to do away with the Troubadours and Old Music once and for all.

As the hunt intensifies, the Troubadours begin to plan a reprisal…


In CARNIVORE, the audience is led on a tour around historic sites of York by a band of musicians (the Minstrels), to watch their unfolding musical encounters with a rival gang of buskers (the Troubadours).

This promenade performance takes place on Sunday 11th May at 2pm, starting outside York Pitcher & Piano (off Coney St), as part of the York Spring Festival of New Music 2014.

CARNIVORE (preview): clarinet vs saxophone

From a concept by composer-performers Victoria Bernath and James Whittle, CARNIVORE was created collaboratively by all performers in rehearsal-workshops. As a site-specific experiment, it fuses musical performance with theatre and the spoken word.

YSFNM logoThe concept derived from the Spring Festival’s ‘carnival’ theme, while York itself provided inspiration with its rich culture of festivals, and violent history of invasions and conflict.

Commedia dell-arte, pantomime and writings on the carnivalesque by Mikhail Bakhtin and Umberto Eco also informed play on musical stereotype and the collision of different musical styles…

More information and advance tickets can be found here.

Information for Audience Members
• This is a site-specific performance taking place outdoor, lasting approximately 50 minutes.
• The tour begins at Pitcher & Piano at 2pm and goes around York’s Museum Gardens.
• The performance will feature some interactive elements.
• The audience will be led by the performers. Stewards will be en route to offer assistance.
• Comfortable footwear and appropriate clothing for the weather is recommended.

The Assembled: new work & concert

The Assembled posterThis term I’ve been working on a new improvised theatre work, assembly line, with The Assembled. A free informal concert on Thursday 27th March in the Rymer Auditorium, University of York will showcase this work plus 3 other improvisation pieces we have been working on this year.

Cardew Treatise
James Tenney Swell Piece
Des Clarke new piece
James Whittle assembly line

assembly line was born from a desire to thwart the oft-made observation that musical improvisations will follow the same old path of rising to a climax before fading away. The piece relies on each performer giving any action they choose to make a very precise characterisation. Once on stage, a choice of 1 from 3 traits conditions the kind of interaction a performer may have with any other: dependent, supportive, or independent.

As part of his third year dissertation project, bassist Twm Dylan has been studying the works of Cornelius Cardew. Twm has been leading our improvisation sessions using selected pages from Cardew’s seminal graphic score, ‘Treatise’ (1963-7). Amongst our discussions has been the observation of moving between linear and nonlinear interpretations of a page, as individuals and as a collective.

The group has been playing ‘pure’ versions of James Tenney’s first ‘Swell Piece’, as well as versions with added rules to allow more flexibility around certain parameters.

Des Clarke‘s new piece situates a freely improvising soloist within an accompanimental group, who respond to whatever they interpret as ‘trigger events’. The group’s instructions are in the form of a tree-score of possible directions, favouring, but not always resulting in, material that rapidly decays to silence.