Research Projects

Research carried out at RNCM includes the Musical Impact project. This AHRC-funded £1 million project started in September 2013 and sees the UK’s nine top music conservatoires leading the world’s largest ever study into the health and wellbeing of performing musicians.

Recent and current RNCM Research projects include:

Making Music in Manchester During World War I

Professor Barbara Kelly, Director of Research is PI on a 2016 AHRC funded project: Making Music in Manchester during World War I. Assisted by College Archivist Heather Roberts, researcher Geoff Thomason, partners and volunteers, the project will involve an important performance element to recreate some of the music heard at the RMCM and in the North West during and just after the war years. The RNCM will also work with regional bands to explore the fascinating story of WWI bandsmen who, on their return from service, received scholarships to study at the College after the war.

Investigating musical culture in the long 18th century through legal documents

Cheryll Duncan graphic 21 March 2016

Research by Dr Cheryll Duncan demonstrates the importance of legal documents to historical musicology. A systematic search of equity and common law court records underpins the project, which is yielding a wealth of new information concerning professional music culture in England during the long eighteenth century. Legal documents have been virtually untouched by music historians because of the many challenges that they pose, and a central objective of the research is to make the methodological processes more transparent, thereby facilitating access to this rich resource.

Findings to date shed light on the professional and personal lives of iconic figures such as Henry Purcell through to more minor players like Giuseppe Manfredini and Elizabeth Frederica. The lawsuits provide fresh insights into diverse matters including contracts, salaries, debt, consumption, patronage, benefit arrangements, operatic management, concert administration and publishing. Cheryll’s findings have been published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society, Early Music, The Opera Journal, Cambridge Opera Journal, the Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland and the Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle. She contributed to Geminiani Studies, a collection of essays edited by Christopher Hogwood (Ut Orpheus, 2013), and is currently working on a monograph concerning the violinist and composer Felice Giardini and his business relationships.

The Listening Project Symphony

Gary Carpenter

Professor Gary Carpenter‘s composition, the Listening Project Symphony, was part of the BBC Listening Project. It was first broadcast live on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme from Media City  in December 2012, performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in front of a specially invited audience of Listening Project participants. It is available on BBC i-Player and also at Gary’s Soundcloud Channel. Gary talks about the project here.

Operatic composers such as Janáček and Britten often based their vocal lines on speech patterns whilst the American Steve Reich samples speech and loops it into his work. The recently formed Size Zero Opera tackles tough subjects often using unedited texts from national newspapers. The National Theatre has taken ‘verbatim theatre’ even further with ‘London Road’ where transcribed news footage and interviews are musicalized. ‘The Listening Project Symphony’ occupies similar territory – effectively part of a Zeitgeist – but differs markedly from each of these concatenations of incorporated  speech, in that the text is hyper-real: actual untreated voices, actual conversations.

In this respect and particularly from a symphonic perspective, it explores uncharted territory, presenting both as an artwork and as a musicalised social commentary. Further, the piece was specifically intended to be performed live by the orchestra, with the speech recording projected into the concert space in real time. In constructing the work, Reich’s documentary sampling techniques are studiously avoided, but often the lilt and pacing of many of the voices are permitted to provide contour and colour as well as context. The objective in part of the compositional work was to mirror the honesty, warmth and love the conversations evince without over-emphasis, or resorting to overtly cinematic devices.

The piece aspires to travel in tandem with the words – observing, commentating, sympathising; highlighting a little here, spotlighting there. The orchestra ultimately becomes a participant in the dialogue between score and speech – its own character within, as it were. The conversations that the producer Cathy Fitzgerald chose and assembled from the dozens broadcast throughout 2012 are deeply engrossing and evocative. In one of two tangential references to Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the Listening Project Symphony is dedicated ‘to everyone within…’.

First performance and live broadcast: BBC Radio 4, 14 December 2012, Media City UK, Salford. BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Terry Davies conductor.

Perceptions of Musical Time

Michelle Phillips‘ project consisted of a nine-week residency at the Science Museum, London, where museum visitors were given the opportunity to participate in an experiment on ‘Music and the Mind’. The 866 participants spent 10-15 minutes listening to a piece of music, and then answering questions regarding its duration, their responses to it (enjoyment, familiarity, sense of completeness), and their personal characteristics (level of musical training, musical preferences, age, nationality).

The data contributed valuable insight into the wider area of investigation that is the effect of music on sense of elapsed duration. For example, those who enjoyed the musical extract more gave longer estimates of its duration. Also giving visitors a list to remember whilst listening shortened estimates, and varying the music in volume lengthened such. Such findings are in line with, but also partly contradictory to, currently held theories regarding psychological time. Results are currently in preparation for publication and have been presented at a number of conferences. Edinburgh Science Festival Nov 2013 2


Composer: Professor Adam Gorb, RNCM Head of Composition Stage Director: Caroline Clegg, RNCM Tutor in Stagecraft (winner of Human Trafficking Foundation Media Award, 2011 for her production of ‘Slave’) Musical Director: Clark Rundell (RNCM Head of Conducting) Libretto by Ben Kaye (freelance writer) Winner of  Best stage or film production dealing with human trafficking at the Anti-Slavery Day Media Awards 2012.

Anya17 is a one-act opera written to expose the world of sex trafficking and slavery in the UK. Its narrative revolves around four young women deceived and trafficked from Eastern Europe, and their struggle to survive. It aims to educate about the real lives behind the trade in humans, primarily for sexual slavery.

It was premièred in a semi-staged version at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on 7 March 2012, where the 14-piece orchestra was the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s Ensemble 10/10; a second performance was given with a student orchestra at the RNCM on 9 March 2012, as part of the New Music North West Festival.

Anya17 was also performed in Romania in October 2013, Germany (November 2013-February 2014) and the USA in June 2014.  In Romania it was the concluding event to the Third International Symposium on Human Trafficking held in Arad.  It was performed at the Fiharmonica Banatul in Timisoara by a joint UK-Romanian cast which included the RNCM’s Andrea Tweedale, Amy Webber and Thomas Hopkinson.

Another outcome of the staging of Anya17 was an invitation from the Ministry of Internal Affairs in conjunction with The UK-Romania Friendship Foundation to take the opera around Romania and also to repeat their successful International Human Trafficking Symposium. A variety of video interviews with cast and composer have been made, and the librettist created and manages a burgeoning web-site that includes social media, blogging, and press and media content.

anya germany

Musical Impact

Musical Impact logo 3

A £1 million project sees the UK’s nine top music conservatoires leading the world’s largest-ever study into the health and wellbeing of performing musicians.

Musical Impact started in September 2013 and will run for four years until August 2017. It aims to generate new knowledge of the physical and mental demands of music making, to contribute new insight into chronic and acute health problems and their impact over time, and to examine effective strategies for health promotion.

While musicians typically have a long history of self-sufficiency in managing the challenges of performing, Musical Impact aspires to complement musicians’ own ingenuity by providing comprehensive, evidence-led resources to help maximise their educational and professional opportunities.

The project is led by Conservatoires UK (CUK) – the organisation which represents nine major UK conservatoires – and also involves scientists from Cardiff University and Cardiff Metropolitan University. Crucially, these centres of learning will be working with professional musicians and their employers – via the Musicians’ Union and the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) – as well as health practitioners and researchers linked to the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM) and the International Health Humanities Network.

This £1 million project is underpinned by a major £800,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), with the remaining £200,000 coming from the participating institutions.

Brian Ferneyhough

Dr Lois Fitch‘s book is the both the first in English on Brian Ferneyhough, and the first to address his entire compositional output to date, including substantial unpublished juvenilia to which the author is the only researcher to have been granted access. Archival research was undertaken at the Paul Sacher Archive, Basel (which holds Ferneyhough’s sketch materials) as part of an AHRC funded Early Career Fellowship award towards the completion of the book.

The study contextualizes this controversial composer’s career for the first time, evaluating extant musicological and analytical literature on aspects of his work, particularly the debate surrounding his approach to notation, complexity, and the performer. Rather than take a strictly chronological approach to the oeuvre, the study groups discussion of works according to medium and theme (including chapters devoted to each of the multi-movement cycles composed to date).

This approach permits the mapping of major developments in Ferneyhough’s style onto particular types of works over large time-spans (e.g. comparing the approach to large orchestral writing in Firecycle Beta (1969–71) and Plötzlichkeit (2006)), while also accounting for significant stylistic contradictions that are typically ‘collapsed’ in discussions of Ferneyhough’s music that prioritize the issue of notational complexity as a general concept.

The final chapter evaluates key perspectives within Ferneyhough’s aesthetics, demonstrating their formative influence on even his most abstract compositional techniques. This leads to some unexpected conclusions: for example, the extent of Ferneyhough’s concern with image and representation (notwithstanding his statements to the contrary) challenges the typical critical view of the composer as arch-modernist rooted in a post-serial idiom.

It is hoped that this volume will move critical discourse on the composer away from well-worn tropes (notably that of notational complexity) and towards a more rounded appreciation of his importance as a creative figure and thinker.

Brian Ferneyhough is published by Intellect, Bristol and distributed by University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Daedalus in Flight

New Music NW 2013 logo

by Dr David Horne (Boosey and Hawkes, 2013).

This work is rapid throughout with an incessant pulse of 138 crotchet beats per minute. From the outset, the music is characterised by continuous metamorphoses in timbre and texture, often punctuated by stabbing chords.

In Greek myth, Daedalus fashioned sets of wings with which he and his son Icarus could escape Minos of Crete; only Daedalus survived the flight. This is not intentionally explicitly descriptive music, but while writing I was fixated by musical notions of escape, flight and subsequent reflection on their effects.

The resulting orchestral sweeps and plunges, combined with sudden dynamic shifts, were conscious attempts to evoke the sense of this imaginary aerial journey. A problem preoccupying the writing of the work was how to achieve a satisfying sense of variation within the imposed confines of the relentless beat. A technique that has informed much of my orchestral music since 2000 is the idea of ‘aural camouflage’.

In particular, I play with sound not only to blend timbres but to attempt to trick the listener into wondering what instruments are playing what. For example, a strident plucked chord in the strings will quietly resonate in winds where the source of the ‘echo’ is uncertain and constantly changing.

There is also a conscious textural interplay between families of instruments pitted against each other and then fragmented with such a wide array of doublings that the characters of particular groups of instruments are obscured. Much of the music is concerned with writing idiomatically in order to extract maximum gain out of the orchestra. While there is no claim that this is easy music to play it is intended to sound harder than it is.  

Mozart’s Chamber Music with Keyboard

Mozart Mozart postcardMozart’s Chamber Music with Keyboard (ed Dr Martin Harlow,  Cambridge University Press, 2012) is the first research in English that draws together these works as a corpus, examining Mozart’s music from a variety of analytical, historical and critical aspects.

The book contains a collection of essays by some of the most noteworthy Mozart scholars from Europe and America, edited by Harlow. These authors highlight the significance of these works in Mozart’s life and in the context of other examples for their media; the compositional challenges that Mozart faced in developing effective engagement between instruments of contrasting sonorities; his sometimes astounding and innovative solutions to these potential problems; a number of the many issues regarding performance practices of the period; and implications for contemporary players and audiences.

The new lines of questioning which concern the generic placement of this corpus of Mozart’s oeuvre run as a trace throughout the essays in this edited volume, questions which were formulated at the 2008 international conference on the subject, held at the RNCM. The resulting outcomes elicit a first intensive study of this corpus and a significant reappraisal of individual works therein.

Chapter 1, ‘The Chamber Music with Keyboard in Mozart Biography’, sets the tone, examining biography as a new area for musicological discourse, and assessing the line of biographies of Mozart as powerful determinants in the musical reception of the disparate works which make up the body of his chamber music with keyboard. Through this case study biography is shown to shape critical, performer and listener experience. The hitherto unrecorded generic ambiguities around Mozart’s quintet K.452 are highlighted in a close reading of this work in Chapter 10, ‘Action, reaction and interaction, and the play of style and genre in Mozart’s Piano and Wind Quintet, K.452’, where our modern reading and hearing of the work is conditioned by acculturated misconceptions historical, stylistic and generic.

The essay offers paradigms for application to other Mozart repertory, and other music of the classical period. By way of conclusion the editor’s conversation with Charles Rosen explores the ideas of public and private music, as they pertain to genre. Rosen’s ideas are enmeshed and supported by reference to his published work, on Mozart, classical music and style.


 m62 is a practice based research project exploring close collaborations between a diverse group of composers and a virtuoso chamber ensemble. It involves RNCM staff composers (Dr Emily Howard, Dr Mauricio Pauly and Dr Matthew Sergeant) and the newly established Parisian saxophone and percussion duo scapegoat (Joshua Hyde and Noam Bierstone).

The results of this project will produce three new compositions for the duo alongside documentation of both the formative collaborative process from which the work was generated (via video/audio recording of workshops/rehearsals) and evaluative reflection upon it (from both composers and performers).

The new compositions are intended for performance at major international new music festivals whilst the documentation will serve as materials for promotional, archival, presentational (‘video programme notes’) purposes as well as more formal academic publication (as conference papers, etc.). As a result, the project generates three output strands: (i) AV Documentary feature (for online dissemination); (ii) International performance; (iii) Summation/reflective commentary (conference paper/possible journal publication).

Interactive performance for musicians with a hearing impairment 

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of England and led by Dr Carl Hopkins (Reader in Acoustics and Head of the Acoustic Research Unit at the University of Liverpool) and Professor Jane Ginsborg (Associate Dean of Research and Enterprise and Programme Leader for Research Degrees at the RNCM) in partnership with Music and the Deaf, ‘Interactive performance for musicians with a hearing impairment’ was shortlisted for the title of 2013 Research Project of the Year. Full story here.

Songs to the North Sky

Tim Garland‘s work explores the question of how to make jazz processes understandable to a non-jazz audience.

Through-composed orchestral writing is fused with jazz improvisation in ways which break both with conventional jazz forms and the classical concerto format, while the solo voice is a saxophone accompanied by two percussionists who mirror respectively the jazz and classical facets of the soloist’s voice: one fully notated, the other improvising, set within a 30-piece string orchestra. The five instrumental ‘songs’ are lyrical melodies with supporting functional harmony, while the variations plunder elements (often not the most obvious) from the songs to create new, more abstracted pieces from them, with sections left open for the soloist(s) to expand upon.

Thus it is a deliberate constraining factor in this work that the ’songs’ remain concise, eschewing much tangential exploration. Here, jazz music’s habitual reconstruction and reinvention of material is structured in the most accessible way possible: the high degree of importance given to melody and familiar modes of repetition, and the lush and cinematic orchestral textures are signals that this is approachable music.

The variations radically depart from the original song and enter more challenging territory; they are self-contained musical cells, the listener’s expectation is focused on the reworking and transformation of small motifs, while the freedom allowed the soloists allows each successive performance to be unique.


Tim Garland‘s album builds on the composer’s If The Sea Replied (2005), and includes a set of related pieces for the Lighthouse Trio. The research imperative is to challenge the boundaries of composition within jazz, exploring techniques which ‘balance’ notated and improvised music (e.g., drawing on a variety of Classical and folk procedures, various uses of counterpoint, and attention to register, compensating for the absence of a bass player).

A constant focus of the compositional process is the limits of the effectiveness of extended harmony in expanding improvisational choices. CD 1 includes a four-movement ‘concerto’ for the Trio and a conventional orchestra. The first movement, ‘SunGod’, for orchestra alone, deliberately eschews its conventional use in jazz as simply ‘backing’. In the second ‘movement’, ‘MoonGod’, the orchestral sound world is first established before the soloists join in transforming its material in a search for balance between the artistic forces; they reach coexistence, and then engage in exchanges in their different languages, but as equals.

The third movement, ‘On SunGod’ is a jazz re-imagining of the orchestral ‘original’, leading to the album’s eponymous track, ‘Libra’, which amalgamates previous themes. Here, the 10 beat samaii 3+4+3 rhythmic pattern, partly hidden in ‘SunGod’, emerges more fully, as it also does in a later piece, ‘Old Man Winter’. Other tracks such as ‘Arabesque for Three’ pursue within a jazz framework themes that are not derived solely from bass-led harmony.

Sound Histories 

An evening of live music from the Royal Northern College of Music at the British Museum, Sound Histories was the largest yet in the RNCM’s series of site-specific installations created to animate iconic public spaces with music. Having previously collaborated with IWM North, Manchester Piccadilly Station and Victoria Baths, Sound Histories saw us working in London for the first time, our stimulus and partner being the British Museum, home to the most visited collection in the UK. 200 musicians were involved, together performing over 120 pieces, with music for strings, winds, chorus, guitars, harps and saxophones, including solos, duos, chamber music and ensemble pieces that span the last six centuries.

Please also see the document ‘For the first time I felt that it was MY museum: an evaluation of the audience for the British Museum events programme‘. Feedback on the Sound Histories event’s impact on the audiences included the following quotes, in response to the question ‘What did you like best about your experience of attending?:

‘I was able to be close to the musicians in a way that broke down the barrier between performer and audience and greatly improved the overall experience.’

‘The opportunity to support young musicians experience performing in a very different performance venue. The music – compositions, solo and group performances, instruments – reflected the artifacts and their historical contexts in an unusual, stimulating and very enjoyable way. I know that future visits to a room /artifact will be enhanced if I remember having heard a musical performance.’

‘The music was themed to match the exhibits. Often the pieces were quite challenging but the musicians either made you reflect on the connections drew attention to the place and the objects displayed.’

‘It was beautifully done. The music matched the scenery and it moved us all. The way the music was chosen, such as the instruments and also the places selected to withhold it showed how well thought it was. And it also showed that people that took the time to have the idea and put it into action are very passionate about art in all its forms.’

‘A glimpse into a composer’s feelings for a piece of art from antiquity. The sound of musical instruments in the great hall of antiquity was a wonderful moment for conjuring up all sorts of wild imaginings of many different colours.’

‘I loved the classical music in particular. I also really enjoyed seeing the mix of art and music e.g. I saw three musicians playing in front of three statues. The mixing of genres is good in my opinion and should happen more often! Classical music is often limited to the concert hall and I support it appearing elsewhere.’

A Child of our Time

A six minute extract of an interview with Merion Bowen, March 2014.

Merion Bowen was Michael Tippett’s companion and assistant for the last 30 or so years of his long life, working very closely and travelling with him in the time the composer was probably Britain’s most illustrious living composer. Merion Bowen, who was for many years a music critic on The Guardian also published a number of books about the composer and is the dedicatee of The Mask of Time. To mark the performance by the RNCM of Tippett’s oratorio, A Child of our Time, Professor Richard Wistreich talked to Meirion Bowen at his home in London, and this is a short collage of clips from the interview they recorded. They were included as part of the pre-concert discussion at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester on 26 March, 2014 between Professor Wistreich, the broadcaster and writer Dennis Marks, and one of the world’s leading Tippett scholars, Prof. David Clarke (Newcastle University).