It's 'real' music to judges' ears

The volume of entries alone to the Young Composers competition was inspirational, says Peter Kingston

And the winners of the Guardian/BBC Proms young composers competition are... but hang on. No self-respecting judge simply blurts out the results without making everyone wait a few more tantalising seconds.

The first thing to say is simply: wow - that was the unanimous response of the five composers on our judging panel after a long, muggy day poring over scores at BBC Proms HQ.

The volume of response in this fifth year of the competition - more than twice the number of entries we've ever had - prompted immediate admiration from the judges. "One of the most inspiring things is the number of young people who submitted," said composer James MacMillan.

"On the basis that there are 500 young people who see musical expression - sophisticated musical expression - as a viable possibility, not just in their lives but in the life of the culture, and at a time when serious music of all sorts is being peripherised, it is very encouraging."

The scores and recordings we scrutinised demonstrated eloquently that it is a fallacy to think this generation of young people has lost the ability to concentrate.

As for the quality of the winning entries, and those which gave them a good run, all the judges were unhesitatingly complimentary. "I was struck at the technical facility of the composers, particularly the very young ones; I was nowhere near that facility when I was 14," MacMillan said.

"You do hear a lot about the state of music education and that we're not producing either musicians or composers," said Joe Duddell, a rising young composer and lecturer in composition at Exeter university.

"But I think that the best batch of entries from this show that we are as good as we ever were. I would have been proud to have written some of these pieces not so long ago - and maybe a few of them now."

Although we usually pick three winners in each category, junior and senior, this year it was decided to stick with just two in the junior 11-16 category. The panel felt The Albatroz (for violin, cello and piano) by Alexander Soares, 16, and String Quartet First Movement by Nicholas Shardlow, 16, were markedly ahead of the field.

There was no such dilemma in the 16-18 category and the judges were happy to nominate Piano Trio by Jason Noghani, 18; Silent Moon, for solo piano, by Thomas Hewitt Jones, 18; and Splintered Sounds, for flute, clarinet, piano, double bass and drums, by Christopher Black, 17.

Alexander Soares wrote his piece while on holiday near Lisbon. "Albatroz was the name of the hotel and I could see albatrosses," explained the pupil at St Paul's school, Barnes, south-west London. He is hopeful of a musical career, probably as a pianist, and of continuing to compose. He has been writing music for about 18 months.

The Albatroz drew instant praise. "Very good, excellent," declared Andrew Kurowksi, executive producer for new music at BBC Radio 3, as the last chord faded. "There are sophisticated ideas, the quality of ideas is high," said Fraser Trainer, composer and creative director of the London Sinfonietta. "It has a strong voice," Duddell agreed.

Of Nicholas Shardlow's quartet movement, MacMillan said: "It's a marvellous accomplishment for someone so young."

Of both, all judges remarked on the advantages of writing for "real" instruments, rather than composing for computer. Computers are great for producing printed scores, but these need rigorous checking. Too many submitted scores could not have been given to players because of the serious "grammatical" errors - "the nonsense of having a C major piece scored with B sharps", as Kurowski put it. The advice from the judges was to write for the forces available. In other words, if your school has just two flutes and a ukelele, use them in your composing.

Jocelyn Pook, a film and concert composer, was struck by the "haunting" quality and "spareness" of Jason Noghani's Piano Trio. Jason is just completing his time at the Purcell school, in Bushey, Hertfordshire, and is heading off to the Royal Academy of Music to concentrate on composition. "I'll probably end up writing music for films or adverts," he says. His favourite composers? Probably Stravinsky and Bartok. His influences? "Anything from Radiohead to Stockhausen can influence me."

Composing started at a very early age for Thomas Hewitt Jones, who is leaving Dulwich College for a Cambridge organ scholarship. At three or four, he freaked his mother by correctly telling her the family lawnmower produced a G sharp. He has been composing pretty much ever since. "I just love it. It's my main passion in life."

Though Christopher Black's Splintered Sounds was submitted in computer synthesised sound, it is perfectly feasible for the instruments on the score, and judges said they looked forward to hearing it "real".

Christopher said he had been messing around with composition since he was 11 and had taken it more seriously for the past couple of years.

"I'm hoping to go to university to study medicine. Composing will continue to be my main hobby."

The winners, Senior category

Christopher Black, 17, Greenhead sixth-form college, Huddersfield: Splintered Sounds; Thomas Hewitt Jones, 18, Dulwich college, south-east London: Silent Moon; Jason Noghani, 18, The Purcell School, Bushey: Piano Trio.

Junior category

Alexander Soares, 16, St Paul's school, south-west London: The Albatroz; Nicholas Shardlow, 16, Chetham's School of Music, Manchester: String Quartet First Movement.

Highly commended, Senior

Christian Mason, 18, Westminster school, London: Ether; Isobel Fitzroy, 17, Mander Portman Woodward college, south-west London: Firebird; Samuel Kennedy, 17, Prior Pursglove sixth-form college, Guisborough: Vicious-Etude.


Timothy Rolfe, 13, Friars school, Bangor: Resonances; Stephen Butler, 15, Wanstead high school, E London: Clockwork; James Opstad, 15, Nailsea school, Bristol: Contemplation; Edward Southall, 16, Victoria college, St Helier, Jersey: Monsieur Moustique.

To hear all our winners' pieces, go to


Peter Kingston

The GuardianTramp

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