Inside Southbank Sinfonia

An orchestra like no other, based in the heart of London

It’s not just noise

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Patrick Tapio Johnson | Southbank SinfoniaPatrick Tapio Johnson

Ever since I was an undergraduate student, I’ve had a passion for contemporary music. Largely, this was fuelled by many of the composers that I knew personally, who were grateful to me for taking what they did seriously; it is amazing how many performers will look at a piece of new music, then make the following announcement:

“It’s just noise! I can play any old [insert profane noun here] and nobody will care!”

But I was one of the ones who was actually willing to go to the trouble of learning the notes – and needless to say, this resulted in quite a few new works being written for me.

Accordingly, when I learned of the extent of my involvement in the Southbank Centre’s Changing Britain festival, I was definitely excited. Two entire programmes of 20th and 21st century music!

However, it was not long before I discovered how much WORK this was going to involve… At the time of writing, I am praying that my neighbours are well-disposed to the strains of Peter Maxwell-Davies’ Fantasia and Two Pavans (in which the cello part resembles a violin concerto, but sadly still needs to be played by a cellist) and Phil Cashian’s Caprichos, a nefarious work of unnecessarily migraine-inducing complexity. I hope they’re okay with some colourful language as well!

Mark Anthony Turnage | Southbank Sinfonia

Mark-Anthony Turnage, conductor Jonathan Berman and the ensemble discuss ‘Twice Through the Heart’ during rehearsal at Southbank Centre

As for the other two works, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Twice Through the Heart and Joanna Lee’s Every Inch of Many Effigies, I’ve had to learn those during my daily commutes to Southbank Sinfonia HQ at St John’s Waterloo, armed with a metronome and some rhythmic sniffing. It’s taken a bit of courage to omit these two works from physical practice – not least as we had the privilege of Turnage coaching a couple of rehearsals on Twice… – but as the mental demands were much greater than the technical ones, it felt like a sensible sacrifice. Also, I’m still in the process of trying to convince myself that the Cashian will be ready by Saturday, and my faith in my abilities is likely to improve with a bit more note-bashing.

And then there are the blisters! It’s amazing how much some of these guys seem to like plucked pizzicato sounds, of all different varieties. At the moment, I’ve run out of blister-free plucking fingers, and have the better part of a week’s worth of rehearsals ahead of me. Time to learn how to play with a handful of plasters?

But at the end of the day, I do this because I enjoy it, and because I feel a sense of duty to give modern composers a chance to have their music represented with the same dedication I would bring to Beethoven or Brahms…

…Because despite what some may think, it ISN’T just noise, and people DO care.

Find out more about Patrick Tapio Johnson here.

Find out more about Southbank Sinfonia’s free salons in Southbank Centre’s Changing Britain festival here.


Author: southbanksinfonia

Every year, Southbank Sinfonia brings together 33 young musicians for an experience that will change their lives. Find out about our upcoming concerts, including our Free Rush Hour Series, at

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