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 a 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 re-discovered 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 am learning to play and their sounds have inspired and led my contemporary ear.

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, repetitions (ornamental, regular and irregular), similar and dissimilar versions, and 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. 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’.

I would like to thank Stephan Meier for this BCMG commission and his support and belief in the nature of this piece. It has been written with my own community of improvising musicians in mind and for BCMG players. 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.

Melinda Maxwell November 9, 2022

Commissioned by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group with the support of Arts Council England, and the following individuals through BCMG’s Sound Investment scheme:

Derrick & Catherine Archer, Jean Bacon, John Barnden, Samantha Bird, Paul Bond, Richard Bratby, Christopher Carrier, Penny Collier, Simon Collings, Alan Cook, Mervyn Dawe, Darryl de Prez, Susanna Eastburn, Matthew Harris, Simon Holt, Philip Hunt, Stephen Johnson, Colin & Belinda Matthews, Stephen & Jackie Newbould, Roy Parker, Howard Skempton, Michael & Sandra Squires, Nest Thomas, Terry Thorpe, David Lewis & Gwendolyn Tietze, Stephen Williams, Blair Winton.

First performed by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group with Melinda Maxwell, Callum Armstrong, Oliver Janes, Percy Purseglove, Liam Halloran, Julian Warburton, Sebastiano Delaney, James Dooley as soloists, on 19 November 2022 at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Recital Hall.


Melinda Maxwell

Melinda has performed worldwide as soloist in Europe, Japan, Africa, the USA and nationally in the UK. She is also a recitalist, chamber musician, composer, improviser and teacher. She is principal oboist of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and has played as guest principal and sub-principal with the London Sinfonietta for over forty years. She has also been a guest principal with many ensembles and orchestras including Britten Sinfonia, Garsington Opera and in regular demand in the session TV/Film world not least featuring in all the Inspector Morse series for TV. 

Many pieces have been written for her including those by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Simon Holt, Simon Bainbridge, Nicholas Maw, and Howard Skempton. As a composer, she has written several works for oboe and also various ensemble pieces for strings. Her septet Fractures received its premiere in a performance by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in 2016 conducted by the late Oliver Knussen.

She has recorded frequently for the BBC and her own recordings have been critically acclaimed and voted CD of the month in the BBC Music magazine and the Guardian. Her most recent CD Blue Bamboo: jazz and other improvisations was released in 2017 by Oboe Classics.

As a teacher, she has taught at the Royal Academy of Music, Trinity College of Music, and the Royal Northern College of Music: Head of Woodwind (2002-2003) and Consultant in Woodwind Studies (2003-2018). She is the Oboe Tutor at the National Youth Orchestra, a Visiting Oboe Tutor at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and coaches at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies in Snape, Suffolk.

In 2013 she gained an MMus in Jazz Performance at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and in 2016 began a Ph.D. in Improvisation, Performance and Composition. Part of her research involves opening up the idea of oboe character and how this might influence a musical language. This has prompted her to learn the south Indian nadaswaram, and the ancient Greek aulos.


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