What does a composer do in lockdown when the world stops? David Lancaster wrote a digital premiere for 120 musicians

David Lancaster: Darkness into light in his world premiere of Eclipse at HIF Weekender

DAVID Lancaster, cutting-edge composer, York Late Music projects manager and head of York St John University’s music department, is back on course for the new academic year in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Going smoothly so far, but all fingers are crossed,” he says, when asked “How is the new term going?”.

“It’s the start of term like no other, and we’re aware that we could have an outbreak and/or be shut down at a moment’s notice, which does tend to push up the anxiety levels! Still, here goes for week 2.”

A university term “like no other” for Dr Lancaster continues the unpredictable path of a start-stop-restart year like no other, when all the usual channels of performance were removed overnight under the lockdown strictures imposed on March 23.

Out with the old order, in with the new, as David’s commission for Harrogate International Festivals, Eclipse, became the conversation piece of the hastily arranged inaugural virtual HIF Weekender, when 10,000 people from 60 countries viewed the online line-up of free arts events, exclusive clips and highlights from the July 23-26 programme showcased on BBC Radio 4.

David’s digital commission came to fruition against the stultifying background of lockdown. “The lockdown has proved to be a difficult time for all musicians, particularly for freelance performers, and the members of bands and choirs unable to work together,” he says.

“The impact on composers – who often work alone, in any case – has been significant for different reasons. All performances of my pieces since mid-March have been postponed or cancelled, and the uncertainties surrounding concerts have meant that performers, venues and festivals have been reluctant to make any firm plans for the future.”

Commissions dried up and deadlines, so important to David in providing motivation to complete pieces, disappeared. “Most of all, I miss the interaction and discussion with other musicians that takes place in planning meetings and rehearsals, and in the post-mortem after performances, when so many ideas are nurtured and developed,” he says.

Hence his delight – if trepidation too – at being approached by Harrogate International Festivals’ chief executive, Sharon Canavar, and board member Craig Ratcliffe, director of music at St John Fisher Catholic High School, with a “really great idea” for a new piece.

“Put simply, they wanted a short, fanfare-like composition for brass and percussion that could be recorded remotely by many players, locally, nationally and worldwide, that could be re-assembled in the studio to make a ‘live’ performance,” says David.

“Local brass bands would be contacted, and trumpet virtuoso Mike Lovatt – a  good friend of the Harrogate festival – had very kindly agreed to record a solo track.”

Lovatt was a stellar signing, being professor of trumpet at the Royal Academy of Music and principal trumpet for both the John Wilson Orchestra and BBC Big Band.

Explaining the choice of title for his world premiere, David says: “We chose Eclipse to represent the idea that the Harrogate festival couldn’t take place this year – the concert halls, theatres and community venues had ‘gone dark’ – but that next year, the light would return and the festival and all its bright lights could resume.”

David wrote quickly, finishing the piece in only five days.  “Oddly enough, I had previously composed a fanfare for a ceremonial occasion at the university – the installation of  Reeta Chakrabarti as the new Chancellor – which had been postponed right at the start of lockdown, so I was able to draw upon and develop some of the rhythmic ideas from that piece in Eclipse,” he says.

“There was lots of material on my ‘cutting-room floor’ that I could rifle through, re-cycle and add to for the Harrogate festival piece. I was working on other things at the time, so writing Eclipse was a very pleasant interruption.”

Lockdown and the strange new world of Covid-19 2020 had an impact on David’s composition. “Obviously we all think about then time we are going through, and one of the reasons for being a composer is to get a better understanding of the world we live in as we hope to get back to some kind of normal when we can return to contact,” he says.

Mike Lovatt: Playing trumpet as one of 120 musicians assembled remotely to perform David Lancaster’s Eclipse for Harrogate International Festivals’ HIF At Home festival

Eclipse “isn’t really a conventional fanfare,” suggests David. “I suppose there’s a hint of melancholy that reflects the current mood, but the ending is triumphant, and I hope that will serve us well when this piece is performed live, in front of an audience, when Harrogate International Festival returns in 2021,” he says.

“It would be lovely if Eclipse could complete its journey from darkness to light that way, when things have been so gloomy.”

More than 120 musicians joined forces remotely to record tracks, including players from Opera North, West End musicals and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, complemented by brass players from Qatar, Canada, the United States, South Korea and New Zealand, together with local brass bands and orchestras.

“I was so pleased that so many people got involved in putting Eclipse together,” says David. “When Harrogate International Festival first commissioned it, their intention was to use local brass bands from Ripon, Knaresborough and Harrogate, and then we started getting top players from West End musicals, Opera North and the RPO, with Craig using his contacts to draw in so many musicians.”

Eclipse subsequently was live-streamed for HIF At Home at 6pm on July 24 and made available on the festival website from the end of July.

Meanwhile, serendipitously for David, the new, alienating working conditions necessitated by the pandemic have chimed with a creative project he had in mind already. “Coronavirus has forced musicians to adapt to remote working, often making music independently of one another. Ironically, this is something I had been thinking about in 2019, long before lockdown,” he says.

“I wanted to explore asynchronous rhythmic elements in my music: passages in which players are not governed by a single, unifying pulse, but have opportunities to move apart from one another, to play independently, either individually or in small groups. Little did I suspect that I would be composing this music during a global pandemic in which we were all forced into working apart from one another.

“I have always been intrigued and fascinated by the non-verbal communication that takes place during ensemble performance: the way in which players send – and receive and interpret – visual and musical signals, and I wanted to incorporate some of these ideas into the fabric of a piece.”

The resulting work, Before I Fall Asleep, Again, The City…, takes its title from the first line of a novel by French author Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose use of multiple perspectives mirrors David’s own creative process. “It reflects my concept and it casts my piece into the domain of a recurring, if half-forgotten, memory,” he says.

“As always in my music, there is plentiful repetition; ideas move into the foreground then recede, only to return later in different contexts. I like the analogy of a person wandering aimlessly around a town, during which they regularly encounter sights previously seen from different directions, angles and perspectives: they experience familiar sights, unfamiliar sights, and the familiar ones in new guises.

“Memory plays an important role, so in the music I have tried to ensure that there are elements that will be recognised when they reappear, even if they are never quite the same each time.”

A research grant from York St John University enabled David to approach the new ensemble Trilogy with a view to performing it. “I was delighted when they agreed, but the ongoing pandemic has meant that all arrangements need to be provisional for the moment, though if all goes well, we are looking to perform it in York and London next year – and I can’t wait to hear it.”

As and when those performances can take place, the Trilogy performers will be placed as far apart as possible on stage.  “Not in different rooms, or buildings, as they have to be able to co-ordinate, but we want to use the space they are in to the maximum,” says David.

“We hope to do it as part of the York Late Music 2021 programme in the St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel next May, and we’re still hoping to perform it in London next summer, in June.”

David is working on two more projects too. “One is a piece for a solo violinist, Steve Bingham, who works extensively with live electronics,” he says. “I’ve never done anything like this before, so I’m firing off lots of questions to Steve.

“The other is a longer-term project, where I’m setting the sonnets of John Donne. Last year, two of his Holy Sonnets were performed in Oxford Town Hall – Death, Be Not Proud and At The Round Earth’s Imagined Corner – by Oxford Harmonic Choir, who now want me to do more.”

Persistent crime pays off for Adrian McKinty as he wins Theakston novel prize

The Chain reaction: Adrian McKinty, winner of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year

UBER driver and barman turned last-chance best-selling novelist Adrian McKinty has won the 2020 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year for his “life-changing” thriller The Chain.

His success in the coveted Harrogate trophy represents Lucky 13 for 52-year-old Irishman McKinty, who, two years earlier, had called time on his writing career after 12 books when faced by financial hardship.

McKinty’s win was announced last night in a virtual awards ceremony held to launch the HIF Weekender, this summer’s free virtual festival run by Harrogate International Festivals, which manages the novel award.

Born in Carrickfergus near Belfast, McKinty now lives in New York, where he was forced to give up his writing career two years ago when, earning less than the minimum wage and struggling to make ends meet, McKinty and his family were evicted from their home.

He began working as an Uber driver and bar tender, but a late-night phone call from agent Shane Salerno – who had read McKinty’s blog about his situation – persuaded him to give his writing one last shot.

The book sleeve for Adrian McKinty’s prize-winning crime thriller The Chain

Inspired to write something completely new, McKinty penned The Chain, a thriller that became an overnight success: an international bestseller published in 36 countries, now set for the big screen after Universal snapped up the film rights in a seven-figure deal.

“I am gobsmacked and delighted to win this award,” said McKinty, after winning Britain’s premier crime-writing prize from his fourth such nomination. “Two years ago, I had given up on writing altogether and was working in a bar and driving an Uber, and so to go from that to this is just amazing.

“People think that you write a book and it will be an immediate bestseller. For 12 books, my experience was quite the opposite, but then I started this one. It was deliberately high concept, deliberately different to everything else I had written – and I was still convinced it wouldn’t go anywhere… but now look at this. It has been completely life changing.”

The Chain’s chilling tale of parents being forced to abduct children to save the lives of their own was chosen by public vote and the prize judges, triumphing against a shortlist also featuring Oyinkan Braithwaite, Helen Fitzgerald, Jane Harper, Mick Herron and Abir Mukherjee.

McKinty’s win comes at a time when Britain is experiencing a boom in crime fiction, first seeing an explosion in popularity during lockdown and now soaring sales since bookshops have re-opened.

“I was still convinced it wouldn’t go anywhere… but now look at this. It has been completely life changing,” says Adrian McKinty, reflecting on The Chain’s success

McKinty was nominated previously for the Theakston award in 2011, 2014 and 2016 for his Sean Duffy series. Victorious at last in 2020, he now receives £3,000 and an engraved oak beer cask, hand-carved by one of Britain’s last coopers from the T & R Theakston brewery in Masham.

Theakston executive director Simon Theakston said: “Looking at the titles in contention for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2020, it is clear to see why crime fiction remains the UK’s genre of choice.

“Adrian McKinty is a writer of astonishing talent and tenacity, and we could not be more grateful that he was persuaded to give his literary career one last shot because The Chain is a truly deserving winner.

“While we might be awarding this year’s trophy in slightly different, digital circumstances, we raise a virtual glass of Theakston Old Peculier to Adrian’s success – with the hope that we can do so in person before too long and welcome everyone back to Harrogate next year for a crime-writing celebration like no other.”

Last night would have been the opening chapter of Harrogate’s crime-writing festival, cancelled alas by the Coronavirus pandemic. Instead, Harrogate International Festivals is running the HIF Weekender from July 23 to 26: a free virtual festival of 40-plus free events “bringing world-class culture to everyone at home, featuring performances and interviews with internationally acclaimed musicians, best-selling authors and innovative thinkers”.

For the full programme for today, tomorrow and Sunday, go to: https://harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/live-stream/the-hif-weekender/.

CORONAVIRUS: Harrogate International Festivals cancel all the summer season

“Deep regret and sadness”: Sharon Canavar, chief executive of Harrogate International Festivals, announcing the cancellation of the 2020 summer season

THE Harrogate International Festivals summer season will not go ahead, a decision with “huge financial implications that place the future of the festivals at risk”.

The Coronavirus pandemic has put paid to the Harrogate Music Festival, Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Berwins Salon North, Spiegeltent and Children’s Festival, as well as several outdoor theatre and community events.

Announcing the cancellation with “deep regret and sadness”, chief executive Sharon Canavar said: “This difficult decision was made after carefully assessing several factors, but most importantly the health and safety of everyone involved: our audience, artists, suppliers, partners, volunteers, staff and the wider community.

“Many months of dedicated work went into planning this exceptional season and we share in the disappointment that will be felt by the many writers, musicians, thinkers, performers and festival-goers who were set to join us in Harrogate.”

Her statement continued: “As a not-for-profit arts charity, we are reliant on our events programme and ticket income, alongside sponsor support and donor philanthropy, and so the cancellation of our main season has huge financial implications that place the future of our festivals at risk.

“But despite the unprecedented challenge we now face, our mission to bring immersive and moving cultural experiences to as many people as possible remains unchanged.”

Harrogate International Festivals will continue “our unparalleled celebration” of crime fiction with the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2020, alongside an extensive online programme of author interviews and more besides ahead of the award announcement in July.

In addition, the HIF Player will be launched to allow everyone a virtual festival experience at home. This free online hub will bring together archive event recordings, digital book clubs, learning resources for children and activities for little ones, and it will be updated regularly with new content to keep audiences entertained.

The chief executive’s statement continued: “Since 1966, we have proved an artistic force to be reckoned with and a key cultural provider for the North of England with a diverse year-round portfolio that celebrates world-class artists, champions new talent and plays a vital part in the community with education outreach and inspiring activities.

“Art and culture help us understand what it means to be human and how to make sense of life, and festivals are a vital part of this ecology. When this troubling time passes, we will need – more than ever – the transformative power of the arts to bring communities together, to inspire hope, to lift spirits and change lives. We thank you for your support.”

The festival website, harrogateinternationalfestivals.com, now carries the request Please Consider Making A Donation: “Support our arts charity in this challenging time”.