The words “classical music” usually conjure up thoughts of late great composers, like Beethoven and Strauss, who were brought to life during school history lessons.
But for the last two decades, contemporary pieces have been the firm focus of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music, which celebrates living composers.
And this year is no exception. Launched at St Donats Arts Centre in Llantwit Major last night with an opening gala entitled Discovering New Music, the festival will host six world premieres and seven European premieres at formal and informal venues in the area – from concert halls to churches – during the next nine days.
Audiences will be able to enjoy performances from international groups, such as Mexico’s Onix Ensemble and Vox Clamantis from Estonia, as well as those a little closer to home.
And a musician who will be firmly in the spotlight is Graham Fitkin.
The Cornish composer, pianist and conductor is particularly known for his music for solo and multiple pianos, as well as for music accompanying dance.
The festival has commissioned a new piece from him which will be premiered at All Saints Church in Penarth next week to mark his 50th birthday.
Harpist Ruth Wall will also be showcasing a number of Fitkin’s works as part of her concert at Cardiff’s Norwegian Church.
Meanwhile, Bangor-based composer Andrew Lewis is looking forward to a performance of his sonic work Lexicon, which highlights the plight of dyslexia sufferers.
Lexicon uses sights and sounds to convey the complexity of language, emphasising the challenge to people battling the condition.
The inspiration for the work was a poem, As I See It, written by documentary maker Tom Barbor- Might when he was just 12 years old.
The project came about through the Wellcome Trust, which encourages arts projects inspired by medical science. Lewis was put in touch with the Miles Dyslexia Centre in Bangor when one of the researchers mentioned the poem.
“In the poem, Tom expresses his feelings about being a dyslexic child, his struggles with language and so on,” says Lewis. “That became the basis for the piece – it’s a great poem, especially for a 12-year-old.”
The poem illustrates some of the word confusion the pupil faced while writing his poem and Lewis says they add to his piece.
For example, he uses the word ‘lifes’ instead of ‘leaves’.
“It provided an additional image which he didn’t intend about life itself being blown around and chaotic,” says Lewis, whose artist daughter Martha is also dyslexic.
The starting piece for the composition was recording a number of dyslexic people reading the poem, including its author.
“I didn’t let them see it before the recording and they were struggling to read what it said, but I was trying to compute their struggle through sound. It led to some interesting and unexpected outcomes.”
Lewis then used computers to manipulate the sounds of the voices.
“Sometimes you can hear the words being said, but sometimes you can’t make them out. Sometimes they are quite chaotic and jumbled and something new can emerge.”
The 16-minute piece was premiered in Manchester last October and Lewis warns that it’s not always easy listening.
“Someone responded to it in their blog, saying it took them back to childhood. At the beginning it’s very uncomfortable and emphasises the struggle and problems with dyslexia.
“But the end of the piece is more positive, there’s more optimism.”
Lewis is now looking forward to the Welsh premiere. In the run-up to the festival, he has been working with schoolchildren to produce a brand new work, which will be performed alongside Lexicon.
The father of four believes attitudes are now changing to dyslexia.
“I teach at university and it’s very common for a student to have a dyslexia diagnosis now,” he says.
“But on the other hand, there’s still a lot of misunderstanding about what it really is.
“People tend to think it’s all about how we see words on a page, but current researchers say how we hear spoken words is just as important, as the consonants can come together.”
Lexicon will be performed by the St Christopher Chamber Orchestra at Urdd Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, tomorrow at 12.15pm. The Vale of Glamorgan Festival runs until Saturday, May 18. For full details, visit valeofglamorganfestival.org.uk