Before applications for the 2018 Paunfinik Composers Scheme close next Wednesday 13 December, former LSO Panufnik composer Bushra El-Turk tells us about what it was like working with the LSO as she combined Middle Eastern and Western art music for her piece Tmesis.
I approached my Panufnik scheme piece Tmesis at a time when I was absorbed in my research as a composer. I was exploring the idea of integrating Middle Eastern and Western art music idioms and that year I had been working with large ensembles of largely Asian instruments in Amsterdam. I worked with Atlas ensemble on my pieces Dramaticule IV and Of Laughter and Forgetting, a piece for piano, Middle Eastern instruments and symphony orchestra which features elements of improvisation. I was making music in a very holistic way, writing for the different personalities and musical traditions within the same ensemble. So, coming back to writing for the LSO, considered a pillar of European classical music, I have had to carefully revise the way I was writing. As I made my return to the detailed notes on the page there were many questions roaming my mind. ‘Who is this monster? And who do you bring out of yourself when facing this monster? Can you present your whole artistic self and sound world? Is it all in the notation?’
With Tmesis I wanted to playfully capture the character and textures of the accompanying instruments of a mawwal, a style played by the large takht ensemble employed in post-1920s Egypt in classical Arabic music, and allow that character to gradually morph into a grotesque version of itself.
What was great about the LSO in the workshop is that they tried hard to emulate the sound world and gestures I wanted to encapsulate beyond what was written in the notation. Principal Second Violin David Alberman explained the quarter-tones in ‘muso-speak’, demonstrating them to the other musicians in the orchestra and, wow, it worked! I had been hesitant to show this world to the Orchestra during the workshop. Would they be open to this and me? I had been in a serious conflict with myself. The ‘Arabic’ moments in the score kept changing from the original E quarter-flats to E flats and vice versa, the phrasing too. Was it worth visiting these other-worlds for brief seconds and spending a significant amount of time on this in a 50-minute workshop? It was.
My experience working with David Alberman later inspired me to form Ensemble Zar, a cross-genre ensemble consisting of ancient instruments from different traditions. We try to foster closer relationships with musicians in ways that blur the boundary between improvisation and notation. We try to be free from the strictly prescriptive etiquette of writing. Here are two pieces to show what I have been up to since being an LSO Panufnik Composer; the opera Woman at Point Zero and Zwareeb for violin, Chinese erhu and Azeri kamancha.
The Panufnik Scheme offered an exciting and stimulating year of activities and support, with opportunities to explore beyond the artistic. It included meeting with experts in PR and marketing, a workshop in presenting yourself on stage as well as musical workshops in writing for percussion, harp, bassoon and violin, along with mentoring by Colin Matthews. Exclusive access to private rehearsals and concerts allowed me to get to know the players closely, and for each character you meet, you can capture their quirks as a stimulus for the piece. I always remember how Lady Panufnik’s supportive smiles and stories warmed the room. Everyone just made us feel part of the LSO family, maybe I still am.
Click here to find out more about the Panufnik Composers Scheme and how to apply. Applications for 2018 close on Wednesday 13 December 2017.
You can watch LSO Principal Guest Conductor François-Xavier Roth workshop pieces by this year's composers with the Orchestra on Sunday 18 March 2018 at LSO St Luke's. Click here to find out more.
For more on Bushra El-Turk, visit bushraelturk.com.