Panufnik Composer Alex Woolf shares his experiences of the scheme so far

Applications for the 2018 Panufnik Composers Scheme close on Wednesday 13 December. Ahead of the deadline, 2017 Panufnik Composer Alex Woolf told us what it's like working with LSO players and how the scheme is influencing the way he writes music.

I knew that the LSO's Panufnik Composers Scheme would offer unparalleled, hands-on composition opportunities, but until a few weeks ago I had no idea just how 'hands-on' ...

Panufnik percussion workshop 2 webIt was Sunday lunchtime at the Barbican: the LSO had just completed its rehearsal of Brahms's Symphony No 2 with Bernard Haitink, and we were invited onto stage for a masterclass with Principal Percussionist Neil Percy.

This was far more than just a simple demonstration of various instruments; within an hour, I was attempting a small marimba solo before lifting a frighteningly heavy pair of clash cymbals. I like to think of this moment as my Barbican debut (albeit to an enthusiastic but select audience of six). The purpose of this exercise was to feel for ourselves just how physical a percussionist's job is: it was a revelation to experience the pressure and thrill of attempting to switch between instruments, change sticks and move around the stage with any kind of precision (or indeed subtlety).

LSO Panufnik 2017 050 webWe’re midway through this year’s Panufnik Scheme, and already there have been count-less more standout moments like this – it was hard to pick just one. The six of us on the scheme, young/emerging composers from all around the country, are now laser-focused on our central challenge: writing a new piece for the entire LSO to workshop under the baton of Principal Guest Conductor François-Xavier Roth in March. This is, of course, an absolute dream, and perhaps the most daunting thing is wanting to make the most of it! Luckily, throughout the year we’re given ample opportunity to do just that.

Workshops like the one above have been so valuable, not only in becoming better acquainted with some of the more unfamiliar and esoteric instruments of the orchestra, but also through simply meeting the players. For me, the feeling of writing for people rather than just their instruments is so important. For my composition, that idea operates on two levels. First, the orchestra as a whole has such a distinctive personality, a kind of group identity. To write for that particular overall sound, known the world over on both the concert stage and on a million film soundtracks, is a real thrill, and one that I’m keen to fully exploit. Second, the character of individual players helps to inform my writing on a more local level. It’s not so much that each part will be tailor-made for a specific person, but that seeing players’ unique gestures and techniques up close gives me a much more vivid idea of what to compose for them.

harp 1 webIn addition to the percussion workshop, we’ve been working closely with a string quartet of LSO players, and the orchestra’s Principal Harp Bryn Lewis, and after those sessions I’ve been left thinking as much about the physical way in which the players interact as I am about the notes I’ve written for them. And who better to mentor us in bring-ing all these ideas and experiences together into our final pieces than Colin Matthews and Christian Mason? To be able to work with Colin and Christian throughout the year is a huge privilege, and my piece is really beginning to take shape! Our drafts are due next month, and then it’ll be an exciting time of editing and eagerly awaiting the workshop in March!

Applications are currently open for next year’s Panufnik intake. As someone who applied this time last year thinking that gaining a place would be extremely unlikely, I can highly recommend doing so! Whatever your background, and whatever stage you’re at (even if you haven’t written too much for orchestra before – I hadn’t!), applying is totally worth it. I'm so grateful to the LSO, Lady Camilla Panufnik and the Helen Hamlyn Trust for making this scheme possible; there’s very little like it anywhere else in the world, and I’m excited to see where else it will take us in the coming months!

Click here to find out more about the Panufnik Composers Scheme and how to apply. Applications for 2018 close on Wednesday 13 December.

You can watch LSO Principal Guest Conductor François-Xavier Roth workshop pieces by this year's composers with the Orchestra on Sunday 18 March at LSO St Luke's. Click here to find out more.