thu 30/05/2024

First Persons: composers Colin Alexander and Héloïse Werner on fantasy in guided improvisation | reviews, news & interviews

First Persons: composers Colin Alexander and Héloïse Werner on fantasy in guided improvisation

First Persons: composers Colin Alexander and Héloïse Werner on fantasy in guided improvisation

On five new works allowing an element of freedom in the performance

Colin Alexander and Héloïse Werner: image-driven works reimagined by the performersRaphaël Neal

For tonight’s performance at Milton Court, the nuanced and delicate tones of strings, voices, harmonium and chamber organ will merge and mingle together to tell tales of a rain-speckled landscape, luck and misfortune, forgotten valour, daily creative rituals and memories slowly vanishing into flames.

The five composer-performers (we are to be joined by Kit Downes, Aidan O’Rourke and Alice Zawadzki) have each brought an image-driven work of their own to be reimagined by the whole group in a performance of guided improvisation dedicated to transforming these visions into seemingly living stories.        

Many musical works are of course fascinating and beautiful in an entirely abstract nature, working through their own sense of harmony and logic to mysteriously conjure strong emotions and thought processes in the listener. Whilst other pieces follow and bring to life a narrative, there are also those illusionary, even hallucinatory compositions that evoke a single, all-consuming image that lives freely and organically inside the mind of the listener. Perhaps, in this sense, we could think of Scriabin, Messiaen or Alice Coltrane. We are choosing to focus our programme for this upcoming concert around works of our own that were written in this vein, pieces through which we want to impart a particular idea; an imaginary painting, almost hovering in our thoughts. Seven Septets at Milton CourtThis distinct image that we each have in our minds is in itself quite simple and singular and has been drawn from an external source – an object, a poem, a short story, another musical work or a piece of art. It is an idea that we feel we could convey as just a solo, or duo, semi-improvised work but one that we have decided to expand and reimagine with this specially comprised group. (Pictured above and below: images taken by Emma Werner during Seven Septets, the previous improvised performance at Milton Court in December 2022).

One of the common threads that links the five of us as musicians is that improvisation is a key part of our compositional process. This may be at the very beginning of a new piece, when the musical ideas are fluid, elusive concepts that come about as we explore our instruments or voices naively; thoughts of known techniques and necessary discipline put aside for the time being. It could also be a means to develop and transform motifs, harmonies and rhythms, for example, that are so far governing a new work but need to be pulled apart and reformed in order to have a life of their own and allow the music to in some way write itself. Such spontaneity may actually be intrinsic to the performance itself with parameters set and the context created in the former stages of writing before we allow, or indeed rely on, ourselves to compose a final layer of unique material, specific to that particular performance, in the moment and in response to everything surrounding us at the time.  Image taken during 'Seven Septers'Through this amalgamation of like-minded musicians, sympathetic timbres, distinct image-driven works and an instinctive embellishment of the initial material that we will each provide, there is an opportunity to transform the visions that we wish to paint as solo musicians into life-filled, breathing fantasies full of unpredictability and adventure. With each of the performers having a distinct method and approach, our illusionary images will be permeated by four more exploratory musical characters that are unquestionably independent yet inextricably linked by the now multi-dimensional story that they are seeking to convey.

These types of performances, characterised by guided improvisation, can have such a special and fulfilling result in the right hands and we are so lucky to count Kit as our regular collaborator for these events. As a trio, we then invite such wonderful artists as Aidan and Alice to join us and reimagine our individual ideas both before and during the concert. We have previously been so fortunate as to have Max Baillie, Jas Kayser, Angela Wai Nok Hui, Laura Moody and Fred Thomas perform with us and there are some more hugely exciting collaborations coming in 2025 too. Tonight’s concert will be broadcast later on BBC Radio 3’s “New Music Show” and live recordings from previous concerts, Three Trios and Live at the Amadeus, are available on October House Records.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters