Tutor Spotlight: Edward Henderson

I am a composer and performer from south London. My work tends to feature repetition, duration, group collaboration and found materials.

Since 2013 I have worked with the composer-performer group Bastard Assignments; curating, performing and contributing work to regular shows in London and internationally. From 2017-2019 we were resident on the Open Space programme at Snape Maltings. Bastard Assignments have featured in articles and profiles in the Guardian, the Telegraph, The Wire, Frieze, Positionen, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik and Financial Times.

In 2020 and 2021 Bastard Assignments embarked on a programme of online only pieces: Lockdown Jams. I am currently making pieces for piano and electric guitar with Lewis Spear and an EP of solo violin pieces with Amanda Bailey.

My piece Flower was recorded by the BBC at the Aldeburgh Festival 2019 and was later broadcast on the New Music Show. Other significant performances of my work include Will at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo (2020), Hold at 2017’s hcmf// and Tape Piece at LCMF 2015.

I studied music at the University of Cambridge and composition at Trinity Laban where I was awarded the Directors’ Prize for Composition. In 2016 I was a member of Jennifer Walshe and David Helbich’s Composer-Performer workshop at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt.

write about music for The Wire and Positionen and I teach composition and music history at City Lit, Morley College and Trinity Laban’s junior department and run a community choir for Certitude.

What defines classical music?

In the introduction to each of the six volumes of his vast History of Western Music, the American musicologist Richard Taruskin quotes popular music theorist Robert Walser:

“Classical music is the sort of thing Eric Hobsbawn calls an “invented tradition,” whereby present interests construct a cohesive past to establish or legitimize present-day institutions or social relations. The hodgepodge of the classical canon – aristocratic and bourgeois music; academic, sacred and secular; music for public concerts, private soirées and dancing – achieves its coherence through its function as the most prestigious musical culture of the twentieth century.”

Where does this put us in the twenty-first century? Indeed what does link liturgical medieval music and bel canto Italian opera; music made by computer programmes and keyboard exercises designed to teach people in the eighteenth century? Why collect such a disparate range of notated musics under the banner “classical music”?

Grouped together, these musics take on an exalted air of complexity and sophistication.  Non-Western, non-notated and improvised musics are rejected from the category and are therefore shoved down the hierarchy with classical music placed at the top, acting as a symbol for cultural superiority of “The West”.

How should we listen to classical music?

I have taught music history to adults for some years and it is my view that this supremacist baggage around classical music gets in the way of the music part of classical music. This means that people often come to classical music expecting a transcendental experience and then feel that they are to blame if this fails to arrive. I have repeatedly heard anxieties about people feeling that they don’t know enough to understand the music or that they are unable to listen ‘properly’.

For me, it is freeing to disregard the old canard that classical music is a “universal language”. It is absurd to me that a piece of music written hundreds of years ago, in an utterly different cultural context to our own, could intuitively ‘speak’ to a listener. I prefer to think in terms of building experience with unfamiliar music. If you are a player or experienced listener, you will get more out of it (in the same way someone would probably get more from a football match if they had been to a couple before).

Why should we listen to classical music?

It is the alien nature of the classical canon that keeps me interested. It is unpicking the challenge of its strangeness that makes listening and thinking about Western art music interesting. What were the medieval composers trying to tell their congregations about the nature of God with their immensely long and complex motets? What did Beethoven think an artist was when he was forced to retreat from society due to his deafness? Why did composers in the post war period use computers and numbers to try and make music that was unrecognisable compared to what had come before?

Classical music is a strange and challenging world of wildly disparate music – come on in.

 Which classical music pieces would you recommend a beginner to start from?

Guillaume Dufay – Nuper rosarum flores 

Bach – Partitia 2 (piano) 

Henry Purcell – Hear My Prayer 

Haydn –  Symphony 101 “clock”

Beethoven – Symphony 5 

Messiaen – Turangaliîla Symphony 

Stockhausen – Gesange de Junglinge 

Julius Eastman – Gay Guerilla 

Alexander Schubert – HELLO 

Cassandra Miller – Duet for Cello and Orchestra