Tom Owen

Tom Owen completed a PhD in composition in 2012 at The University of Sheffield. His influences largely include a number of the usual European avant-garde suspects – Boulez, Berio, Pousseur, Lutoslawski.

Tom plays clarinet and bass clarinet, and recently has been drawing on prolonged and exploratory improvisations on these instruments to generate material.

Tom has a varied teaching schedule including at Sheffield Music Academy (composition, theory, piano and ‘A’ level music), at the University (conducting), and private clarinet tuition.

Tom is also a ballet repetiteur


List of works

2 Allemande
3 Courante

I’ve had these transcriptions for a while now and this seems a good opportunity to finally give them an outing. The bass clarinet’s range is extremely close to that of the cello, but the mellow sound and the means of sound production lends these famous works a completely different character.

This arrangement, in combination with Bust (as in ‘Bust of Bach’, a working title that stuck), is a response to a task a former pupil was given on arrival at the RNCM: to transcribe something from Bach’s Art of Fugue and then add another movement. I turned to the 48 Preludes and Fugues instead and ended up with this lop-sided triptych. ! Hopefully the Bach arrangement speaks for itself. The Prelude and Fugue was chosen for the rich chordal textures in the Prelude and the steadily unfolding, closely overlapping counterpoint in the Fugue. This ensemble makes the five voices of the fugue more distinct, but still makes for a satisfying blend when the texture becomes dense.

Bust combines certain elements of the Bach in to longer, huger gestures. I began by thinking of the glow left by the Prelude and Fugue, and then introduced more specific but jumbled, misremembered fragments, with the piece eventually creating an explosive momentum of its own.

Memory Chasm
Interlude: The Beach Planetarium
Anatomical Study with Gearbox
Coda: The Optimum Wound Profile

The ‘Exhibition’ in the title refers to the visual capabilities of the imagination which are triggered even by non-programmatic music, and more specifically to J.G. Ballard’s The atrocity Exhibition, in which the mind’s eye conjures vast and alien settings, and uses strange and confused modes of description. The material is also of an exhibitionistic nature, with everything overtly on display.

There are two ‘landscape’ movements, inspired by chapters in which Ballard’s protagonist walks around worlds generated by his subconscious brain, and two ‘anatomical’ movements, which describe persons. In the landscapes, the sense of scale is dramatically altered, with the terrain broad and barren in a way that only an imaginary landscape can allow – I think of the distance to the cliffs in the background of Dali’s Persistence of memory. The objects that confront the walker within the landscapes are disproportionately huge, with certain disproportionately zoomed-in. Elsewhere the portraits think of Ballard’s oddly geometric descriptions of the human form. Famously in Crash, there are pornographic scenes created from medical emergencies, filled with surgical detail. Elsewhere, though, I am more interested in what is arguably the converse of the same device: a heroine’s figure carefully described in terms that a surgeon or mathematician would use in a scientific document. There is nothing sentimental about this technique, but it successfully suggests a kind of obsession in which the mind of the observer, troubled or working in overdrive, has activated an inappropriate faculty in an attempt to describe.

“Anatomical Study with Gearbox” is something of a game piece, with the performer choosing the order in which the material appears, and also the order of a set of tempo (‘gear’) changes – meaning that any part of the piece could potentially appear at a huge varieties of speeds. The movement in its entirety, then, could turn out turbulent and virtuosic, or sustained and meditative – or a skittish mixture of the two. In other words – it is an attempt to combine virtuosity and spontaneity.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos slightly predate an overwhelming and long-standing trend for the “concerto” format to feature a single, heroic protagonist figure in the soloist. Bach’s soloists dart in and out of the texture contributing to the greater whole, they are not always natural matches for one another timbrally, but they are bund by the idea, which is of great importance than the players. Perhaps one of many reasons that Bach’s music sits so well alongside contemporary music is that the dynamic between solo and ensemble is finally being re-addressed again.

I’ve taken our alternative setup for Brandenburg 2 as a starting point (E-flat clarinet rather than trumpet), and withdrawn the violin soloist back in to the ensemble. I’ve written material in which the soloists are (almost) always interwoven in duos or interlocked as a trio – they cannot help but stand out from the ensemble, but cannot break free from each other. I’ve expanded the solo ‘voice’ downwards to include bass recorder, bass clarinet and cor anglais. There is a sense that the material must be heard in all registers, which leans to some timbral surprises.

Starting with, say, Bach’s Goldberg variations, the German tradition has given us so many fine examples of variation formats – the same object in different lights, or, as Stockhausen later preferred, ‘Different objects in the same light”. My object, having been conceived and projected by the strings in the first movement, is then examined in such detail that it can only be taken on board a layer at a time, a level of detail which is confrontational and at times problematic.

Movement 2- Brandenburg 3, JS Bach.

All Bach left us for the central movement of Brandenburg 3 are a lonely-looking pair of chords forming a Phrygian Cadence, presumably for improvising on. This struck me as a not particularly Bach-like-gesture: his instrumental music often features quasi-improvisatory moments, but they tend to be fully realised in the score. These chords, on the other hand, seem to welcome all comers.

Following the commission from Tom Davies to produce an entirely new movement, I set myself a few criteria: the content should be a total stylistic non-sequitur, so that Bach continues to be the sole inhabitant of his own musical realm. If the result seems blasphemous, consider a counterexample that patronises the Bach with pastiche, or familiar progressions used without Bach’s ingenuity. No parody is intended here, only a “plunge” into a completely foreign place.

The movement should still be fleeting, structurally still nothing more than a link between the weightier forms either side of it -the improvisatory feel should be retained.

Most importantly, the movement should still be a reflection on the Phrygian cadence, and indeed the Phrygian mode. At one point, Phrygian melodic figures from various tonal centres are superimposed. The end of the movement recalls the traditional cadence with a brief moment of clarity – and a slight twist.

This is a resetting of the words to Thomas Vautor’s most significant contribution to musical history, an occasionally trotted-out gentle madrigal memorable for its hoot refrain.
The words here are abridged and reconfigured to depict a more ruthlessly efficient, mouse-obsessed owl.

Solo Bass Clarinet and any three sustaining instruments.

Package 1A is one of an ongoing series of possible deliveries of material taken from studies I’ve been writing for solo bass clarinet.

We hear two studies in full; ‘Control’, and ‘Aggression’ before the soloist is joined by an unseen presence for a slight recomposition of my study in ‘Effects’.

6 Winds.

Womb is a wind sextet in two sections. The opening section is a continuum of two layers, a gently pulsating chord progression unfolds, sometimes giving way to a more effusive, insistent toccata. The bare fifth gradually emerges as an important characteristic colour. The remainder contains elements from Thomas Luis de Victoria’s anthem ‘O Magnum Mysterium’, which concerns the immaculate conception. This second chapter has a more linear agenda, dwelling thoughtfully on this Renaissance source material and eventually going further towards reconciling it with the piece’s opening outbursts.

Whilst this is not a religious piece, I do find that ancient music can seem miraculously ‘fertile’ in spawning new ideas. If Victoria is the Mother of ‘Womb’, the Mother is probably Varese.

Solo Clarinet.

This piece demonstrates what a clarinet sounds like. Holes are systematically covered and uncovered to display the physics of the instrument, and the sound is articulated in all the immediately available ways.

4 Violas.

I. Figures
II. Fever
III. Isolation Drill

Part of a series of pieces inspired by J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, this piece is specifically a response to the third chapter The Assassination Weapon. Like the surrealist painters, Ballard conjures up vast and bizarre landscapes that mirror abstract mental states; his characters wander around in imagined settings that are direct projections of their own unresolved turmoil. It strikes me that this literature is unusually close to what non-programmatical music can achieve, that is, an apparently boundless setting where thoughts and feelings can somehow be explored in the abstract.

In the passage in question, the protagonist climbs a hugely oversized motorway embankment accompanied by three ghostly figures. At the top he finds himself on a ‘beach’ type landscape, although it stretches to the horizon in all directions and is strewn with various debris from his memories. One period of anxiety manifests itself as a stay in an abandoned hut.

Four short pieces, each written as a response to a watercolour painting by Lisa O’Brien as a part of a collaborative project with Platform 4 and Lisa for Broadcast on on 6.8.14. See also

Vent – Jenny Jackson
Changeable, Out – Chris Noble
Remote Location I – Tom James

Lisa O’Brien Biography
Lisa O’Brien is based on the North West coast of Scotland. Her practice over the years has encompassed, performance, composition, video, sound, and installation. Her practice has been influenced by living in one of the remotest parts of North West Scotland for the last 10 years and is often linked to the environment and weather conditions. Her work explores the idea of temporality, and she strives to capture the essence of fleeting moments so that they can be re-examined, to some extent re-lived and this also links with how we experience memories. She is interested in how the link between time, place and sound contribute to a specific moment in time. For remote performances Lisa will make field recordings of perceived silence in the rural setting and she will continue her exploration of developing a graphic notation to record nothingness, or what we think of as silence.

Meet the composers

Tom James

Tom Owen

Jenny Jackson

Chris Noble