A surprise gift from a distant relation

Jamie Sansbury of Glasgow School of Art Choir on receiving the score of Shona Mackay's new piece

Opening the score of a new commission for the first time is rather like opening a surprise gift from a distant relation. You don’t know much about the person offering the gift other than the things you have heard from other family members, and perhaps hearing about the sorts of presents they have given your other relatives; they don’t know a huge amount about you, the receiver, other than the things they have heard; and you have absolutely no idea what to expect or - even - what you would like the present to be. You will certainly know if you don’t like it, however.

The previous times the Glasgow School of Art Choir has commissioned new works I have had the privilege of being the first to view the commissioned score. On each occasion, it has been the same: the composer and our ensemble only know each other by reputation (and from listening to past works/performances by each other); I have had no great inkling as to what the composer will have written, nor what I would like them to have written (offering the composer creative freedom and not being overly prescriptive in our brief as a commissioning ensemble is important to me); but I have been filled with a slight sense of apprehension alongside the obvious excitement in case I absolutely hate the piece.

Opening the first draft of the new commission by Shona Mackay, as part of this year’s Adopt a Composer Scheme, I was faced with lush, densely scored chords for a cappella chorus, sustained for several bars with minor variations in the clusters of notes. Whether Shona knows I am a fan of the works by composers such as Sir James MacMillan – whose work features similarly dissonant yet simultaneously tranquil writing – or not, she had included an element of choral music which both I and the GSA Choir ‘do’ best. A good start.

Next, to discover if this gift included anything I hated, for example needlessly ‘contemporary’ (or, as I have famously termed to the choir, ‘plink-plonky’) music: I am a huge fan of the contemporary sound palette, and of composers challenging their listeners, but not for the simple reason of being described as ‘modern’.

Over the past six months, as Shona and I have come to know one another and she has come to know the ensemble, it seems she had surmised that a score which was self-consciously contemporary without an intellectual requirement for such a style would not be one which our ensemble would necessarily fall in love with. Indeed, Shona’s score fuses the dissonant chords with a much more traditional style and form of singing (for example, the opening tempo marking contains, ‘like a chorale’) which displays the best of both contemporary music and its classical predecessors, in tandem. This marriage of old and new, past and present, features not only in the musical texture of the new work but also in its subject matter.

Without giving too much away, Shona’s piece keeps one eye looking to history whilst the other looks continually forwards. How fitting then that the GSA Choir should be premiering the new work at our Fifth Anniversary Gala Concert in May: an occasion where we will be celebrating all that the choir has achieved as much as anticipating what lies ahead.

With the first three and a half minutes of the new work in my hands, Shona has calmed any potential worries I might have had regarding the soundworld which she would create, whilst offering the choir a magical passage of music which appeals to many aspects of our sensibilities both as an ensemble and as individuals. A wonderful gift you might say then?

Safe to say that, despite opening the score whilst I was on holiday in 30 degrees and sunshine, I felt more like a small boy on Christmas Day.