Performing and composing in a pandemic Stories from the University of Manchester's Department of Music

Whether or not we each individually see ourselves as performers, our culture of live performance is central to how we learn about, share and enjoy music at Manchester.

Despite the challenges that we've faced in 2020 and 2021 our staff, students and guest musicians have kept performance and composition going in a range of ways during the pandemic, both on campus and online.

Martin Harris Centre Music Online

Usually, we host a free, professional lunchtime concert every Thursday during term time. They feature first-class professional performers from across the world, with an emphasis on music that is slightly off the beaten track. The concerts take place in the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama (where the Department of Music is based) in our wonderful concert hall, the 'Cosmo', and they are usually followed that afternoon by a masterclass or workshop with our students.

Despite the pandemic, the Martin Harris Centre and the Department of Music are delighted to have been able to support professional musicians from across the globe, and to promote excellence and diversity in our series of virtual lunchtime concerts.

You can find performances from this series on YouTube, including from members of our string quartet in residence, the Quatuor Danel (pictured), and members of our instrumental and vocal teaching staff, such as Rachael Clegg, Kathryn Rudge, Gary Farr and Robert Looman. These are the very people who you could be learning from in your courses and workshops next year!

We've had a particular emphasis on musicians working in or with jazz idioms, including:

Yazz Ahmed, winner of the 2020 Ivor Novello Award for Innovation ...

... singer, guitarist and composer Shirley Tetteh ...

... bassist Marcus McLaurine and pianist Glafkos Kontemeniotis.

We look forward to welcoming more wonderful musicians to our series, and in time to having audiences back into the 'Cosmo', the Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall that lies at the heart of the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama.

The Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall

University Chorus and MUMS activities

In September all student union societies across the UK had to move their operations online. Our student-run Chorus and Music Society sought to do the two things that they do in normal times: to get people making music and to get people socialising. There have been weekly online rehearsals since October via Zoom, a range of social activities including virtual discos, and the hugely popular Wellbeing Wednesday activities.

Here is a performance of Elgar's 'The Snow' that was recorded and edited together in November by members of Chorus with the accompaniment conducted by Rob Guy inside the Cosmo.

And from the winter snow to the summer sun here is the MUMS Big Band, who recently put together their virtual performance of Duke Ellington's 'Brasilliance'.


As an example of how composition thrives in a culture based on live performance, even in a pandemic, composition masterclasses and workshops have taken place with the likes of Psappha (with whom we have a longstanding history) and the university’s resident string quartet, the Quatuor Danel. This is all part of our ethos of ensuring that all student compositions receive performances and recordings, in masterclasses or in student performance. It's also a major benefit of being in a city with such a vibrant new music scene.

MANTIS (Manchester Theatre in Sound)

MANTIS is a festival for the live performance of electroacoustic composition and computer-based music. It takes place twice a year and brings together composers from our NOVARS Research Centre. MANTIS performances range from the live diffusion of acousmatic works on the unique MANTIS 56-loudspeaker sound system, to live electronics, analogue, audio-visual, new-media and live instrumental and electronics with ensemble groups on stage.

NOVARS graduates and staff featured alongside their RNCM counterparts in a recent episode of the BBC Radio 3 New Music Show dedicated to the Manchester new music scene today. Look out for works by staff member Prof. Ricardo Climent and recent graduate Kelly Jane Jones.

Stories from the music industry

Both MUMS and the Department have taken booked speakers from within the music industry to give masterclasses and to discuss their experiences of the challenges and opportunities presented by the pandemic. The MUMS Brass Band, for example, has welcomed renowned trumpeter Paul Benniston.

The School of Arts, Languages and Cultures has a formal relationship with the Manchester Camerata through the appointment of Becky Parnell as a Creative Producer. As part of her role, Becky has organised for our students to take part in an exclusive series of online Q&As with members of Manchester Camerata, discussing the orchestra’s responses to the pandemic, the opportunities of digital culture, and the future of performance spaces.

Social Responsibility and Making a Difference

Our staff and students have been involved in a number of events this year that engage with issues of equality, diversity and inclusion.

Building on our research forum last November on diversity and decolonisation in music studies, in March as part of the annual MUMS Musica Festival -- a celebration of women and music to mark International Women's Day -- we were privileged to welcome guest speakers Alison Buchanan, Artistic Director of Pegasus Opera Company, Natalia Franklin Pierce, Executive Director of Nonclassical, Eleanor Chan, Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow from the University of Manchester Music Department, and Vanessa Parker, flautist and member of the Chieneke! Conservatoires Diversity Network. The topic was 'the underrepresentation of women of colour in the classical music industry and how we can enact change'. The event made it clear that it is not enough to put examples and experiences of racism into the spotlight if action to tackle racism does not follow.

Elsewhere, the MUMS Outreach team have not let the pandemic stop them putting material together for the care homes and schools that they would normally work with. The Outreach team usually run an orchestra, choir and composition project in different settings and it's a great example of how student-run activity can complement modules on the course.

Is the Martin Harris Centre and campus open for music making?

Yes! The university recognises the special status of practice-based subjects like Music. Between September 2020 and the lockdown in January 2021, and now again since 10 March, the Martin Harris Centre has been open in a restricted way to enable students to access practice rooms and the NOVARS studios for electroacoustic and interactive composition. In solo performance, where both the teacher and student have been happy to and able to meet in person, one-to-one lessons have been taking place there. We've also managed to secure additional spaces elsewhere on campus and to repurpose them as practice rooms to help manage the situation.

And finally ...

This is the klezmer classic, "Odessa Bulgar", as performed by the 10th generation (2020-21) of our klezmer ensemble, The Michael Kahan Kapelye (MKK). The klezmer ensemble is one of the options available to our students in the course unit World Music Ensemble Performance.

This video performance was presented to the international audience of the Friday night KlezmerKabaret at KlezNorth 2021. Despite the challenges of this pandemic, MKK are still performing as an ensemble and still able to entertain diverse audiences with their inventive arrangements of klezmer classics. The pandemic is encouraging new approaches to performance (and giving the ensemblists experience in the new skills necessary for such performances) and it is enabling the musicians to perform to a much wider and more klezmer-focused audience.


Created By
Roddy Hawkins