Saturday 19 Nov, 7pm

Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Recital Hall

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Although known primarily as an oboist, Melinda Maxwell is also a composer. Melinda's work explores the space between composing and improvising and incorporates instruments from the ancient world. Hear the world premiere of her new Sound Investment Commission Janus on Saturday 19 November along with other improvisers. 

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Improvisers Group, BCMG Soloists


Melinda Maxwell Janus (2022), World Premiere, Sound Investment Commission

for improvising musicians including the ancient greek wind instrument, the Aulos


Callum Armstrong aulos

Melinda Maxwell oboe

Olly Janes clarinets

Percy Pursglove trumpet

Julian Warburton percussion

Liam Halloran percussion

Sebastiano Dessaney bass

James Dooley live electronics


Janus Programme Note by Melinda Maxwell

This piece represents a culmination in my PhD research that involves investigations in perspectives of oboe character. Is there a melodic and harmonic language that can be found in the study of oboe ethnomusicology, including the contemporary, to make music that defines oboe essence? Janus (the two-headed Roman god of transitions, duality, beginnings and endings) is an attempt to find this essence and bring together if you like the double reed soundscapes of an ancient music with that of a contemporary one: ancient wisdom meets modern know-how.

It uses improvisatory and compositional methods discovered in my research that combine, alongside the contemporary sound world of the modern oboe, the music texts and playing histories of two exotic double reed instruments: the ancient Greek aulos and the south Indian nadaswaram. The former is an instrument that has been rediscovered only in the last couple of decades, whilst the latter is the oldest oboe of the ancient Dravidian culture that is still heard today in Tamil Nadu.

These are instruments I have learned to play and their sounds have inspired and led my contemporary ear. The double reed sound itself is a very ancient one: two blades of grass, straw or bamboo vibrating with the breath, carry far and wide, outside and inside. This direct sound evokes instinctive connections to our past inner musical selves and brings the original spiritual home of the oboe back to life.

The ideas behind Janus stem originally from the aulos. It is the oldest oboe in the world and consists of two cylindrical pipes, each with a double reed, played simultaneously. The idea of ‘two’ and ‘double’ became my starting point with ideas around doublings, pairings, mirror images (similar and dissimilar), reflections and refractions, repetitions (ornamental, regular, and irregular), similar and dissimilar versions, duets within duets. The instrumentation reflects these doublings with mixes of oboe/aulos, oboe/trumpet, oboe/clarinet, aulos/trumpet etc. The chosen wind instruments reflect each other and the double bass, percussion and electronics are the glue that binds them together. The harmonic reasoning derives from the make up of the double lines one can make on the aulos and its pitch patterns of major/minor that revolve around ratios of 4ths and 5ths. I have also referred to ancient Greek music theory based on tetra-chord relationships. The flexible aulos tuning based on subtle inflections around the way the double reeds vibrate encourages explorations into microtones.

I have composed four ‘arches’ through and around which improvisations can journey. They act as gateways and frames for the music as it travels back and forth from the past into the future or vice versa. The piece has a central pitch of B natural around which the harmony of the arches rotate. B is a fundamental pitch for the aulos, nadaswaram and oboe.  There is alternation between an F sharp/F natural axis that acts as a provocative interval with the B determining certain harmonic decisions and outcomes.

The piece travels into unknown territory, never heard before in the UK (if not the world!). It is the first to combine the oboe with two of its exotic cousins, the ancient Greek aulos and the south Indian nadaswaram, in a composed and improvised structure. The mirroring with the additional instruments gives Janus a setting in which to explore the past, present and possible future of ‘oboe essence’.

The piece has been written with my own community of improvising musicians in mind (including a rare specialist aulos player with whom I have performed and collaborated) and for BCMG. It employs a rarefied instrumental combination but the piece is also designed to work without the auloi and nadaswaram. It was composed with the aspiration that future oboe players will be able to double on these instruments and that the aulos, an instrument slowly re-emerging after centuries of silence, will return.

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