As part of new music charity Sound and Music's Composer-Curator programme, Emma Welton is bringing concerts of 'quiet music' to unusual spaces in Exeter and beyond. The Skinny meets Welton to find out more about this under-heard work
What is 'quiet music'? And how quiet can it be before it is no longer music?
Is silence music?
Audiences in Exeter have been discovering the answers to these questions over the last few months, thanks to a programme of concerts devised by Emma Welton and Tony Whitehead, two musicians fascinated by the little-known canon of 'quiet music'.
The series, called A Quiet Night In, has brought the work of experimental composers such as James Saunders and Catherine Lamb to unorthodox spaces across the Devon city, with the venues chosen specifically to contribute their own 'sounds' to the experience.
The recent stages of the project have been supported by Composer-Curator, a programme administered by the national charity for new music, Sound and Music, which each year offers funding and guidance (such as marketing and audience development support) to a group of artists curating their own events.
Joining Welton and Whitehead as 2016's Composer-Curators are: Neil Luck, who will be presenting a weekly radio show on Resonance FM; Ailie Robertson, who has curated an eight-date Scottish tour of new work written for the Cappella Nova choir; Michael Betteridge and Anna Braithwaite, whose In Their Own Words commission – comprised entirely of verbatim works – will visit Manchester, Folkestone and London; and Isabel Jones and Duncan Chapman, whose White Cane project is an exploration of the sounds of public spaces, developed in collaboration with blind and visually impaired performers.
“It's been great to meet the other Composer-Curators,” says Welton of the network that the programme has helped foster; “they're all, in some ways, geographically specific so it is really interesting hearing and learning from other people who are also ploughing their own furrow.”
[Listen: A piece by Catherine Lamb, whose work Of Animal features on the upcoming Quiet Night In programme]
A Quiet Night In had been a personal project for Welton and Whitehead before Composer-Curator got involved – “we did it because we needed it,” she says of the early concerts, “so to have it picked up by a national organisation is really lovely, you know; it sort of affirms that what we're doing has value beyond our own little world.”
Audiences clearly recognise this value, too, as the concerts have been selling out, with many attendees coming back for more.
“They really seem to be with us on the journey,” Welton says, pleased that this under-played area of contemporary music is reaching a growing and attentive audience. While many of us will be familiar with the likes of Erik Satie and John Cage – the latter perhaps most famous for his piece 4'33'', four minutes of 'silence' – it's unlikely we'll be aware of the many other composers working in this field. “This music simply isn't known, really, and there's this amazing legacy,” Welton says.
Much of it is “on the threshold of audibility,” she explains, describing her first encounter with quiet music; “I enjoyed the playfulness of the approach but also the extremely focused listening that it requires.
“There's a sort of ambiguity in what you're hearing and not always knowing what you're hearing; whether you're hearing intentional sounds or unintentional sounds.”
The “focused listening space” that quiet music opens up is enhanced by the venues Welton and Whitehead use, which, she says, are “an essential component” of the music itself. Previous concerts have been held in the lavishly upholstered surrounds of an old library and a contrastingly bare art gallery space, while the upcoming – and final – performance in the current series will be held in Exeter's Friends Meeting House, a place “designed for speaking,” with high ceilings and lots of light; accordingly, the planned programme of works will contain several pieces for voice, including a new composition by Whitehead based on Quaker founder George Fox's text, What Canst Thou Say.
[Pictured: Emma Welton and Tony Whitehead performing at A Quiet Night In, November 2015]
Buoyed by the success of A Quiet Night In, Welton has plenty of ideas for where to take the project next: readers may be surprised to hear that it's possible to compose quiet music for organ, and Welton would like to programme a concert of quiet organ music in “a big, resonant space,” as well as “some even more intimate experiences in very small spaces for only a handful of people.”
And with word beginning to spread, there are hopes that A Quiet Night In will visit other locations across the UK soon. You (just about) heard it here first.
A Quiet Night In, Friends Meeting House, Exeter, 19 March, 7.30pm
This project has been developed as part of Sound and Music’s Composer-Curator programme, which is supported by the Arts Council, PRS for Music Foundation and Help Musicians UK.
We'll be interviewing each of the Composer-Curators over the coming months here at The Skinny; be sure to come back for more.