Howard Skempton


Julian Foxon (non-CC)

Howard Skempton (b. 31 October, 1947), English composer, pianist, and accordionist.

Since the late 1960s, when he helped to organise the Scratch Orchestra, he has been associated with the English school of experimental music. Skempton's work is characterised by stripped-down, essentials-only choice of materials, absence of formal development and a strong emphasis on melody and sonority. Many of his pieces are quite short, lasting no longer than one or two minutes.

In 1967 he moved to London and began taking private lessons in composition from Cornelius Cardew. In 1968 Skempton joined Cardew's experimental music class at Morley College, where in spring 1969 Cardew, Skempton and Michael Parsons organized the Scratch Orchestra. This ensemble, which had open membership, was dedicated to performing experimental contemporary music by composers such as La Monte Young, John Cage and Terry Riley, as well as by members of the orchestra itself. One of Skempton's early works, Drum No. 1 (1969), became one of the "most useful and satisfying" pieces in the repertory of the Scratch Orchestra.[1]

Through the Scratch Orchestra Skempton met numerous composers and performers, including Christopher Hobbs, John White and various Systems artists, and the pianist John Tilbury. However, tensions arose during the politicising of the Scratch Orchestra in the early 1970s, when Cardew and a number of other important members pushed the ensemble in a Maoist direction. Skempton, Hobbs, Parsons, White and many others refused to be associated with this political line, and the break-up of the Orchestra was accompanied by (in Parsons's words) "a split between its 'political' and 'experimental' factions".[3]

Since 1971 Skempton has been working as a music editor, performer (of his own compositions, on piano and accordion), and teacher, now at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

Selected works

A Humming Song (1967), an early piano piece, is a miniature with static, gentle sound. Chance procedures are used to determine occurrences of individual pitches. The pianist is asked to sustain certain pitches by humming. Drum No. 1 (1969) is inspired by La Monte Young. The score of May Pole (1971), a piece for orchestra, consists of a chance-determined sequence of chords. Each performer chooses a note from a chord, and chooses the moment when to play that note. The later the choice, the softer the dynamics. Skempton later called such pieces "landscapes" that "simply project the material as sound, without momentum."[2]

The early 1970s saw a slow shift from static, abstract pieces to pieces with more clearly defined rhythmic and harmonic structures, although the methods and forms Skempton used remained unorthodox. In addition to "landscapes" two other categories appeared, dubbed "melodies" and "chorales" by the composer. The "melodies" are single melodic lines either with simple accompaniment (Saltaire Melody, for piano (1977)) or suspended in space. "Chorales" are works where material is presented primarily (or solely) using chords e.g. Postlude (1978), for piano. The earlier "melodies" were apparently composed at the instrument, intuitively, whereas the later ones evolve from a series of written pitches.

In 1974 Skempton and Michael Parsons formed a duo to perform their own works. Chamber works composed during this period were almost always for two performers, since they were written to be performed with Parsons. These pieces included a number of horn duos, pieces for two drums, and a duet for piano and woodblocks. Finally, in the 1970s Skempton started playing accordion and composing for this instrument.

In 1980 Skempton composed Chorales, his first major work for orchestra. The composer described it as "essentially the same as what I was doing before, but on an orchestral scale".[2] During the 1980s Skempton's range expanded greatly and during the 1990s and the 2000s Skempton started composing longer works, including some for instruments rarely used in the western tradition like hurdy-gurdy or accordion.

1. Parsons, Michael. 1980. "The Music of Howard Skempton". Contact, issue 21:12–16
2. Parsons, Michael. 1987. "Howard Skempton: Chorales, Landscapes and Melodies". Contact, issue 30:16–29
3. Parsons, Michael. 2001. Note to Piece For Cello and Accordion. From LMJ 11 CD COMPANION, Not Necessarily "English Music" Contributors' Notes.

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