Morgan Overton (back row, second right) pictured with NYCGB's Esther Jones and Fellowship octet, Living Words' Susanna Howard, and composers Kerry Andrew (mentor), James Chan and Shoshanah Sievers at BBC Maida Vale Studios. Image: David Sandison / Wellcome Collection.


5 October 2017

On Sunday 15 October, BBC Radio 3 will broadcast a special live concert from Wellcome Collection in London. It features new music to texts inspired by the words and experiences of people living with dementias, written by teenage composers and performed by the NYCGB Fellowship octet.

The collaboration is part of Created out of Mind, a project by an interdisciplinary team of scientists, visual artists, musicians, broadcasters, clinicians and carers. Based at The Hub at Wellcome Collection, the team is working to explore, challenge and shape perceptions of dementias and the arts. We spoke to one of the composers, Morgan Overton, to find out more:

When did you write your first composition? (Did you even write it down?)

I have always enjoyed a little improvisation at the piano, since I started at the age of four. That grew more and more into a love of written-down composition and, while I still enjoy improvising ideas and occasionally longer-scale pieces, I have moved more and more to notating ideas, either on paper or on the computer. My first composition I can remember was a brief sketch of a piano piece I wrote when I was six, which I found written in a small manuscript book which I used mainly as a record book for my piano lessons – while it wasn’t much of anything by itself, I have used the fragment of melody as a basis for some other compositions more recently.

How did your involvement in this project come about?

Each year, the BBC Proms runs the BBC Proms Inspire Competition for young composers aged 12-18. I was fortunate enough to be chosen as one of the winners with a piece called 'Two Boys' for two baritones, two horns and two violas. As part of the prize (alongside a performance of my piece at the Proms by Aurora Orchestra) came the commission for the Created out of Mind project.

Is this the first time you’ve written for voices? What’s it been like writing music for the NYCGB Fellowship?

I like to think that writing for voices is one of my stronger suits! Aside from 'Two Boys', I have written a short three-movement set of Native American Spiritual Songs and a setting of the traditional 'Hymn to the Virgin' for voice and keyboard, and various settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Robert Louis Stevenson. I've also written chamber works which incorporate voices, including 'The Owl and the Pussycat' for ensemble and narrator and 'The Red Room' for reader, soprano and ensemble. I enjoy both being able to put my own spin on a text or story, and also the security of having a premade framework (which takes the terror of the blank page away a little!)

Writing music for the Fellowship has been fascinating for me. Writing for specific singers, and getting to meet them before the composition process even began, was certainly a new experience and one which has made the process very interesting. Being able to workshop the piece with them and Esther Jones has been incredibly useful as well, and has allowed me to take practical advice from the singers and Esther to improve the piece to better suit the ensemble.

What can we expect from your new piece?

'I’m Making a Statement' is a suite of five short movements using texts from 'The Things Between Us', the first anthology of poetry from charity Living Words (founded by Created out of Mind collaborator Susanna Howard), which works with dementia patients and produces with them a book of their musings and poetry for them to carry with them. The anthology covers lots of different forms of dementias, which inhibit various strands of everyday life including memory, language, social interaction, time perception, location awareness and so on. I was keen to explore multiple avenues in the work, and so took texts from different sections of the anthology. Each of the movements is in a very different style. As well as voices, there is a synthesised backing track comprising synthesisers, modified instrumental sounds and various shades of noise, which serve to heighten differences between the movements and the stories they entail. The movements often seem disparate and loosely strung together, with voices often picking up each other’s lines, and often consisting of long pauses and silences, and the backing tracks are for the most part somewhat complex and often disorientating – but ultimately, the voices join together at the end of the piece, repeating together my favourite lines of the collection (‘We might be wonderful / Preachers eventually / I always say what I think).

What advice would you give to someone of your own age who’d like to try composition but isn’t sure how or where to start?

First of all, don’t even attempt to write music you don’t find interesting; it needs to communicate what you want it to communicate, and it evidently doesn’t do that if you yourself find it boring. Secondly, make sure that you listen widely and critically; figuring out what you think makes certain music good (and bad), what is and isn’t effective, and even could be improved, allows you to understand your own compositions better and improve them. Even music that you don’t like probably has some ‘good bits’ that are worth remembering. Finally, get your music out into the world. There are loads of competitions and open calls for scores around (just look online), a lot of which will upon request send feedback to your piece. If you don’t feel confident with that, you could always perform your music yourself, or get friends to do it. But get it performed!

The NYCGB Fellowship octet perform new music by Kerry Andrew, James Chan, Morgan Overton and Shoshanah Sievers at Wellcome Collection, 4pm, Sunday 15 October 2017. The concert is broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will also be available for 30 days afterwards via BBC iPlayer. Tickets to the concert are free, available from Wellcome Collection.

For more information about the BBC Proms Inspire Competition and BBC Proms Inspire Scheme please visit www.bbc.co.uk/promsinspire