Strangest Music Ever Heard

Ealing Youth Orchestra premiere next month

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The strangest piece of music you have ever heard is about to be premiered in Ealing by the most talented teenage musicians in West London. Polly Manser listened in on rehearsals.

Weird is definitely the word for a piece of ultra-modern orchestral music to world premiere in Ealing next month.

Clarinets will be dismantled, trombones played backwards and violins played on the wrong side of the bridge in Dark Matter Sounding, to be performed by Ealing Youth Orchestra.

The ground-breaking ten minute piece by up-and-coming composer Nina Whiteman is inspired by her love of astrophysics, and sounds unlike anything classical concert going audiences will have previously encountered. By making noise in unconventional ways – without mouth pieces for example – the orchestra is able to produce bizarre and unusual sounds on three main themes; super symmetric particles, cold dark matter and emerging particles. The reason the piece sounds so strange is that only the latter theme has an actual melody.

Ealing Youth Orchestra, which has in recent months been featured on Radio 2 and Radio 3, is made up of the most talented teenage musicians from around 25 state and independent schools. Many will go on to become professional musicians, and all are capable of sight-reading most works. But Dark Matter Sounding is not most works. And prior to the first rehearsal it was clear that three questions were running through everybody’s minds; what would it look like on the page, would anybody be able to play it, and how would the audience respond?

The score certainly looks pretty strange; more words than notes. There are instructions to vary tempo, vary note order, ad lib, and to sing as well as play certain notes. These are interspersed with a selection of more familiar directions; such as glissando (slide) and molto vibrato (lots of vibrato.) Everyone agreed it was doable.

The sound – which is difficult to put into words of course, and has developed from one rehearsal to the next - is mostly without melody; it is at times shimmering and alluring, at times breath-like or air-like and atmospheric. It gives the impression of some cold, distant place, and of millions of particles or stars. Where there is a melody, and actual chords, it gives the feeling of moving at speed. Whatever it is, it is not what you would expect to hear from an orchestra.

Will the audience like it? That’s not really the point, according to EYO chair Chris Brown, who seized this rare chance to enable the orchestra members to do something very experimental. He says: “The music has a shimmering, alluring sound to it, and is also quite pictorial when you think of the ideas of space and the cosmos it is describing. We commissioned Nina to write this piece especially for EYO and while it will certainly be challenging for both players and listeners, it will be exciting too. We think it is very important for young musicians to play and respond to music composed in their lifetime as well as the established classics, and this is literally a matter of weeks old. It will be an absolutely fascinating evening. ”

Nina Whiteman, who has worked with the orchestra extensively to help them prepare, including giving a presentation on astrophysics (see photograph), says: “They are a really enthusiastic exuberant group; the response has been very imaginative and they have taken on some quite difficult scientific concepts.”

Dark Matter Sounding will form part of a concert conducted by Leon Gee at St Barnabas Church, Pitshanger Lane, Ealing, on March 1 at 7.30pm. Other works to be performed are Leonard Bernstein’s Suite from the film On the Waterfront, Respighi’s Pines of Rome and the toe-tapping Danzon no 2 by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez. For tickets and more information visit

The project is funded mainly by the AMBACHE Charitable Trust, which is active in raising the profile of women composers, with additional funding coming from The Penny Trust and London College of Music.

Polly Manser



13th February 2014