lamberto coccioli

on music and beauty

Tag: Birmingham Conservatoire

A vision for the new Birmingham Conservatoire

The move to a new building on Birmingham City University’s City Centre Campus represents the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Birmingham Conservatoire to establish its role as one of the major players in higher music education. By complementing its current provision with new world-class facilities the Conservatoire will become a formidable competitor among its peers in the UK and internationally.

In the increasingly globalised landscape of higher music education Birmingham Conservatoire, unique among the nine British conservatoires, will be able to strengthen and enhance its already excellent educational offer with a vast range of additional resources from the adjacent University campus, and in particular from the other disciplines in its parent faculty: English, acting, media and the visual arts.

The new building will accommodate the same number of students as the present one – around 650 overall. However, it is expected that the number of applicants for the Conservatoire’s undergraduate and postgraduate courses will grow, especially from overseas. An increasingly selective intake, attracting the most talented students and the very best tutors, will contribute to the repositioning of the Conservatoire on the international market.

The Conservatoire is both a provider of higher music education and a public arts organisation, presenting more than three hundred events every year and fulfilling a central role in the cultural fabric of Birmingham. The two dimensions are completely intertwined, and cannot exist in isolation. In its new City Centre Campus location the Conservatoire will become the public face of the University, welcoming Birmingham’s audiences to its concert seasons and a variety of other public events, from community and outreach programmes to commercial hiring of its facilities.

The new location at the heart of the Eastside ‘learning quarter’ (BCU City Centre campus, Aston University, Birmingham Ormiston Academy, Birmingham Metropolitan College) will stimulate the development of a new and younger audience base. However, the move away from our current neighbours (Town Hall, Symphony Hall, CBSO Centre, The Hippodrome, The Rep) will require considerable effort to maintain established audiences. The design of the new building will take this into account. It will be striking and unique, making the new Conservatoire a destination of choice among the city’s various performance venues. It will emphasise the public dimension of the Conservatoire and its role as the interface between the city and the rest of the University’s campus.

The new building will be open and accessible to people of all ages and sections of the community. A number of local music organisations will regard it as their home. Among them the Aston Performing Arts Academy, which draws from one of the most socially and economically deprived areas of the county. The new building will also provide a friendly environment to families and children as the home of the Junior Conservatoire, a key provider of high-quality pre-tertiary music tuition to over 250 talented students drawn from all over the region and from a diverse range of backgrounds.

The way in which music is taught in conservatoires has seen great changes over the last fifty years. From a narrow curriculum focused on training for the orchestra it has evolved into a well-rounded education enriched with research, pedagogy, community work, entrepreneurship, music technology, non-Western music practices and performance health. The new building will reflect the changing nature of music education by providing staff and students with flexible, multi-purpose spaces that can be easily adapted to different needs. One-to-one and small group teaching will take place in teaching studios of different sizes, equipped with grand pianos and audio-video recording and streaming facilities. To provide the best possible student experience all teaching studios will adhere to stringent acoustic insulation and sound absorption standards. The larger rooms will have higher ceilings for better sound diffusion.

Instrumental and vocal practice, the staple of conservatoire education, will take place in dedicated rooms: fifty individual small practice rooms, twelve medium-sized practice rooms for one to three people, twelve ensemble rooms for chamber music and high sound pressure level instruments, and nineteen specialist practice rooms for piano, organ, percussion, harp and jazz. All rooms will be acoustically treated and optimised for the different sonic characteristics of the instruments.

Public music performance will be at the heart of the new Conservatoire. The new building will contain three main performance venues, all exhibiting the highest standards in acoustic design to compete with other existing facilities in Birmingham. A 500-seat concert hall to replace the Adrian Boult Hall, a 200-seat hall to replace the Recital Hall, and a 100/150-seat flexible venue for jazz and other music genres to replace the Arena Foyer. A small organ studio (to be used also for piano masterclasses, chamber choir and early music) and a small ‘black box’ space for experimental composition, electronic music projects and non-Western music practice (including our historical collection of Balinese gamelans) will complete the provision of performance spaces. A large, multi-level foyer area with café/bar facilities will provide access to all the performance venues and a spatially interesting meeting place for students and audiences alike.

Birmingham Conservatoire prides itself in being a caring and nurturing environment. It is an international artistic community where talented students are challenged to achieve their best but can also experiment freely to broaden their creative horizons in a safe environment. Continuous and meaningful interactions among peers and between students and staff are essential for creativity and innovation to thrive. In the new building social interactions will be encouraged by providing several open spaces full of natural light on all levels. These areas carved out of circulation space will allow students to meet and relax, providing a welcome change from hours of solitary practice.

Building on its strengths in music technology and research the new Conservatoire will feature a pervasive digital infrastructure to support innovative pedagogy models, including state-of-the-art digital audio and video recording, and specialised rooms for low-latency distance learning and live broadcasting and streaming of concerts, workshops and masterclasses. Direct digital connectivity from Conservatoire venues to the adjacent Media Centre in the Parkside building will ensure access to the University’s outstanding media facilities.

A modern and well-stocked music learning hub will provide students with all the resources needed for their studies: instrumental and orchestral scores and parts, catalogues, reference books, CDs, DVDs. The hub will include dedicated media booths, computers and a silent study area. It is expected that large lectures for full-year groups (100+ students) will be delivered in a lecture theatre on the University’s campus, while movement and acting classes for singers will be delivered in the School of Acting’s facilities in the Millennium Point building.

Learning from the experience of the University’s Parkside and Curzon buildings the new Conservatoire will be another example of environmental sustainability for the HE sector. The specialist nature of the building will make it more challenging to achieve ambitious environmental targets, opening the way to innovative solutions that can potentially be replicated elsewhere.

Fanfare interview

George Caird, Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, interviewed me for the Fanfare magazine in 2001.

* * *

Composer and Music Technologist, Lamberto Coccioli came to the Conservatoire in September 2000 to take up the newly created post of Head of Music Technology. George Caird spoke to him about Music Technology and his particular interest in new technologies applied to music performance.

GC With our diaries the way they are, interviewing for an article in Fanfare will be a very good way of catching up with you on all that is going on in the Music Technology Department. I suppose the first and most obvious question is: why did you decide to come and work in England?

LC The main reason was that the new Head of Music Technology post here offered the chance to do something “from scratch”. My experience is that it is much harder to undo habits and established ways of going about things and it seemed possible at the Conservatoire to move forward very quickly. I was also interested in the artistic possibilities for Music Technology which you seemed so open toward.

GC And we were very interested in this approach too. You are a composer who also has become expert in music technology. For you, what is music technology?

LC The expression “music technology” covers a vast range of interrelated disciplines. My specific approach to technology is to look at it from a performer’s point of view. We need to consider technology just like another instrument – albeit a very multi-faceted and complex one – and learn how to play it. It is a powerful tool for composers and performers alike. Technology can amplify and project musical ideas and gestures. Technology can help expand and unmask what is latent in the music. But musical ideas should always remain the starting point of any technological process applied to them.

GC For many of us, Music Technology can be a confusing term. The explanation you have just given does not include recording technology for example.

LC That’s right. As I said, Music Technology is a byword for many things and covers recording and production, live sound, music for traditional and new media, and many other areas of application. We are covering all of these areas within the department , with a specific emphasis on technology in performance.

GC When you came to the Conservatoire, our facilities were not very advanced. Since then, we have invested quite a lot in new facilities for your department.

LC I’m very pleased with the consistent and generous support for the department. We now have an iMac lab with 8 fully equipped music workstations running the latest software, 2 editing suites, one for audio-visual projects, and three recording studios: we have completely renovated the recording studio for the Adrian Boult Hall and we are now building a new digital studio for DVD authoring and surround sound in addition to the existing recording studio in the Ground Floor Extension. Both these studios will feature state-of-the-art ProTools HD3 systems and the new Yamaha DM2000 and 02R/96 digital mixing desks.

GC What about staffing?

LC We have also been lucky to appoint Simon Hall as Assistant Head of Music Technology. Simon is Course Director for the new BSc joint course in Music Technology which we are running with UCE’s Engineering Faculty at the Technology Innovation Centre. He is a composer and contributes to our work on performance with technology. Matthew O’Malley, our studio manager, is himself an accomplished musician and ensures the smooth running of our facilities.

GC Tell me something about the creative work which the department is doing.

LC We are working with the Conservatoire’s composition students using live electronics. Some of our students, notably James Hoult, David Denholm, Liz Johnson, Chris McClelland, have taken to this medium with great imagination and new works have been performed on a number of occasions over the past two years.
In addition, some instrumentalists and singers have shown interest in this kind of work. Pianists Laure Pinsmail and Katharine Lam have performed with live electronics in the past year and soprano Sarah Busfield’s performance of Jonathan Harvey’s From Silence with the composer in attendance was a memorable highlight this year.

GC What are your artistic aims for this area of performance?

LC To perform important works by leading composers like Harvey, Boulez, Nono, Reich, Francesconi, etc., in order to establish a continuity between existing repertoire and new works. I want to promote the use of technology in performance to convince artistic directors and conservatoires that this is an important, growing area of creativity. My dream is to establish here a Centre for Performance and Technology, a place where students and professionals can work together.

GC Of course, you are primarily a composer and you worked for many years with Luciano Berio. Are you finding time for composition and what are you working on?

LC I am writing but I certainly need more time! After my experience with Magma I’m planning to write another operatic work with new technologies. Magma involved amplified actors, singers, and orchestra, live electronics and real-time video manipulation. It explored musical gesture and ritual structures, using technology as a means of revealing hidden archetypes. I am interested in how technology can add layers of meaning to the music, “extracting” meaning from a kernel.

GC What other works have you written recently?

LC I’m working on an orchestral piece based on recordings I made of Indian songs and natural sounds from the Orinoco basin in Colombia. Here I analysed the harmonic spectrum of the sounds and then used them to create with the orchestra a sort of “blurred photograph” of the original soundscape, filtering sounds into a complex score. Last year I have also finished river teach me, a work for soprano and string quartet on a text by the late Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, performed recently by the Thallein Ensemble in the Conservatoire.

GC What would you like the Conservatoire to do in response to your ideas on new music?

LC To be more aware of what is going on creatively. To move towards more varied creative ensembles and away from the conventions involving larger orchestras. I would like to see us involved in more cross-faculty and cross-arts work with new media and interdisciplinary creativity, especially with BIAD. We will be showing some possibilities at next year’s Music Xtra Festival in March.

GC I agree that we must look at the potential in all these ideas. It is very exciting to see the Conservatoire responding to the possibilities created by you and your department. Lastly, you are a fine musician and an expert in Music Technology. You also speak four languages fluently and you and Gloria just had a third child…how do you manage so much?

LC Of course I have been lucky to grow up in the center of Europe where speaking more than one language is common. But I am interested in the power of possibilities, in lateral thinking and in taking opportunities as they arise. All these things bring new cultures and enrichment to us all.

Leverhulme application

We have just submitted to the Leverhulme Trust a funding application for a 5-year research plan at UCE Birmingham Conservatoire. Together with Jamie Bullock we have identified usability and sustainability as the key areas of development in the field of live electroacoustic music research in the foreseeable future.

Download the Leverhulme Research Leadership Award statement of research.

Modernising live electronics in Harvey’s works

Together with Jamie Bullock we have started this ambitious project in 2004. Collaborating with Jonathan Harvey, we are modernising live electronics in his works that make use of obsolete technologies, to ensure their long-term preservation and allow for future performances. The modernisation usually involves moving from a hardware-dependent electronics set-up to a software based one, using as much as possible standard, open source tools.

The aims of this project are very close to those of the Integra project. Indeed, we are porting to the Integra environment two of Harvey’s works – Madonna of Winter and Spring and Wheel of Emptiness as part of the repertoire migration activities of the project. We intend to carry out the porting of the electronics of other works by Jonathan outside the Integra project, as part of the Conservatoire’s research activities. Although the modernisation is not advancing as fast as we would like to – due to time constraints and the need to harmonise this project with other research efforts at the Conservatoire – we have been able to achieve some very interesting results.

© 2017 lamberto coccioli

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