Hitting the ground running

Nicholas Olsen on the first few meetings with Da Capo Alba for the Adopt a Composer project.

The Adopt a Composer scheme is a one of a kind opportunity for composers to be paired with amateur ensembles from across the UK. I am excited to be one of this year’s composers, and I am delighted to be hitting the ground running with Da Capo Alba, a Guitar and Mandolin Orchestra based in East Kilbride. 

After meeting with Da Capo Alba’s conductor, Barbara Pommerenke-Steel and leader, Craig Moran, in London, the scene was set. Excited to get going, I first met Da Capo Alba during one of their weekly rehearsals. I introduced myself, and Barbara and I talked briefly about the project. I had only planned on staying for the first half, but quickly succumbed to the promise of tea and coffee in the break. One member of the group remarked that Da Capo Alba is not a fretted orchestra at all, but a tea and coffee meeting with a rehearsal either side. I can’t comment on this, but I do remember asking for another chocolate digestive. 

I will admit that driving to that rehearsal I was a little apprehensive about working with a fretted orchestra, having never written for Mandolin, not knowing anything, except for what Barbara had already told me, about the Mandola, and with the challenges this may throw up in a short amount of time!

These fears were, of course, allayed when I heard the sound that the group made when playing together. There’s a real sense of teamwork and respect in Da Capo Alba. During the first few minutes of their rehearsal I was already made to feel at home, and had been asked (at least twice) when I would be joining the mandolin section. I had, perhaps, raised this hope when I inadvertently let slip that there is a mandolin in the bottom of a cupboard at home. 

Hearing Da Capo Alba’s remembrance concert, our second meeting, further allowed me to explore their music making. I was beyond delighted when I head a glorious performance of Heinrich Biber’s “Battalia” which, if you don’t know it, is one of the first notated examples of the use of extended techniques and imitation of non-musical ideas in music. The tumultuous dynamic contrasts and flowing melodies offered throughout the evening continued to whet my musical appetite. I left with both the excitement of the opportunity that lay ahead and a prize from the raffle – the latter was a huge surprise to me, the first was not.

With their concert complete, I was ready to get hands on with the orchestra for the first time and went along to their rehearsal on 28 November armed with music, activities, and games to get underneath the bonnet of Da Capo Alba. David Horne, my Adopt a Composer mentor, joined us for the evening and started the evening with introductions and a promise that he was there not to assess or judge. The evening started with the performance of three works conducted by Barbara giving David an opportunity to hear the group perform. It was after this I led the charge from the front. 

I had brought with me a body full of caffeine, a bag of bad jokes, and eight chords orchestrated for the ensemble.

We played these chords in a variety of different ways with contrasts in dynamics, rhythm, tempo and with elements of free improvisation. At one point I even lured Craig, the leader, to conduct. Heeding the warnings from the first time we met, it felt right to have a coffee break after this. During the break, the orchestra moved their chairs to the side and returned their instruments to their cases.

During the second half of the rehearsal, after a chocolate biscuit and a slice of birthday cake for Eddie, we got stuck in to a collection of games. Ranging from walking around the room swapping hums with each other, to a game of zip-boing, during which we almost got stuck in a forever cycle of zip-boing-zip-boing.

This was a genuine concern at the time, so much so I intervened and stopped the flow of the zip as I was worried we might open a space time vortex. 

After this near-death experience, instruments were removed from cases and seats were reassembled, but this time sat not in normal seats, but with a particular effort made to sit next to an instrument you do not normally sit near and next to someone who you do not normally sit near. The next fifteen minutes or so, was a chance for me to explore the sound world of the fretted orchestra and to take note on what works well, and what doesn’t work well with an exciting group of musicians (all of this was using the material from Happy Birthday as a final hurrah for Eddie!). Just before finishing up we improvised on a story which, I confess, I made up as I went along, but did include real life events, including my chili plant at home, which, now that winter is coming, is starting to look much sadder. 

The session finished with a question and answer about any of the tasks we did as well as my handing out a link to a listening list of music which I have heard over the last month or so, ranging from Molly Joyce to Ralph Vaughan Williams. I also asked anyone who was interested to contribute to an online questionnaire, which following a good uptake has given me a very interesting insight into a few of the things which makes Da Capo Alba players tick. Those eagle-eyed when answering the questionnaire will also have noticed a few curve ball questions, including “bananas or apples?”. I was surprised, and a little disappointed, that most people seemed to indicate a preference for apples. 

I have started writing the first notes of the new work for Da Capo Alba and I am thrilled to be going on this collaborative journey with such an open minded and enthusiastic group. I cannot wait to take them the first few ideas in the new year. 


Follow Adopt a Composer groups and composers on social media:

Nick Olsen Facebook / Twitter

Da Capo Alba Facebook / Twitter

The Adopt a Composer project matches vocal and instrumental leisure-time music groups with some of the UK’s most promising composers to collaborate on creating a new piece of music. The project leads to a première performance and broadcast on BBC Radio 3. If you’re a music group or composer and you’d like to take part, find out more.