Recollecting and obscuring the old to make the new

Matthew Olyver

My project documents and evaluates how concepts of nostalgia inform my compositional approaches to harmony, melody and notation. In doing this, my project explores how selected nostalgically recalled historical musical features can be repurposed within a contemporary musical language. The selected historical musical features that I start with are transformed and/or augmented by features of my own music, such as various forms of harmonically static sound worlds, slowly evolving modal harmonic clouds and heterophonic treatments of melody. The act of obscuring old musical features within slowly unfolding and/or harmonically static frameworks is driven by my intention to give the listener both a metaphorical and a musical sense of fixated familiarity/place that can possibly deliver deeply ingrained feelings of nostalgia.

Two out of the six pieces written as part of my portfolio, Concerto in Clockwork (for piano and small chamber orchestra), and the piece for solo trombone, Melancholic Fanfare, engage with past musical features in a way that can be described as musical borrowing. Concerto in Clockwork was written as a response to a commission of a neo-classical piano concerto for the London Mozart Players and is based upon a chorale from J.S Bach’s St. John’s Passion, and Melancholic Fanfare, written for the trombonist James Druce to play in recital alongside classical repertoire, is based upon a small excerpt taken from the first trombone part of Gustav Mahler’s 3rd Symphony.

'Daybreak' | Image Credit: Matthew Olyver

The remaining four out of the six pieces written as part of my project, Pastoral Dream, Pastoral Melody, Spring Mists and The Agency use a selection of abstracted musical features taken from English folk music as a foundation point for material, such as diatonic/modal harmonic structures, harmonic drones and rapid melodic ascension/slow melodic descension. Pastoral Dream, Pastoral Melody, and Spring Mists were written for small-scale chamber concerts put on by my own musical group, Olyver New Music Collective and The Agency was composed, recorded, produced and filmed for the 2020 Tête à Tête online opera festival.

All of the music written as part of my project was made within a highly collaborative musical environment. The workshops with the Olyver New Music Collective resulted in mutually agreed notational and performative strategies. These strategies manifested themselves into an embrace of forms of rubato and rhythmic freedom, forms that significantly shaped how skeletal my scores have become. This development coincided with and was, to a large extent, reinforced by the practical restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which had a profound impact upon the score of the largest scale piece within my portfolio, The Agency, a filmed piece for singers, actor, and fixed media. For this work, I multi-tracked the ‘orchestral’ fixed media at home, using a highly skeletal score with my own musical instruments. The singers for this project used this score alongside the fixed media to rehearse and workshop the music remotely. This ‘self-generated’ method of creating, workshopping and rehearsing multi-layered ‘orchestral’/vocal music is one that I would like to carry forward into the future, even when the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

Header Image Credit: Harry Cole

Audio and Video

Further Links


If you would like to find out more about this project, please don't hesitate to get in touch:

Matthew Olyver

Philip Cashian (Supervisor)

David Gorton (Supervisor)