Ben Gaunt ‘Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind’: A Kata-bove the Rest!

Hello classical music fans! After the whirlwind that was my Female Fortnight Challenge 2.0 (check it out on my site!), I think it’s time to post my next blog! This is my 99th blog, so it is very much a celebration of this wonderful composer and friend of mine. For this blog I will be looking into contemporary composer, Ben Gaunt and one of his newer compositions for karateka (yes I do mean a karate practitioner!), and two musicians – Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind. Ben has kindly helped me out with some of the information for this blog – I hope I can do it justice for you! Enjoy!

Ben Gaunt studied at the Royal Northern College of Music for his BMus degree, to which he then stayed on and studied Composition for his Master’s degree. Gaunt has recently completed his PhD in Composition at The University of Sheffield, whilst studying under Dorothy Ker and George Nicholson. For both his Master’s and PhD, Gaunt was funded by The Countess of Munster Musical Trust and The Gladys Hall Scholarship respectively. During his time at The University of Sheffield, Gaunt also won the ‘A Boy Was Born’ Britten Festival Composition competition.

Throughout his fruitful career thus far, Gaunt has studied under the likes of Adam Gorb, Paul Patterson, Dorothy Ker, Harrison Birtwhistle and Alwynne Pritchard. He has developed as a composer of the years by teaching, especially after he gained his PGCE in teaching from Manchester Metropolitan University. He, at this point in time, was a visiting music teacher, specializing in keyboard, composition and music theory. Whilst undergoing his PhD, Gaunt also gave harmony, theory and composition seminars, to which he was shortlisted for Postgraduate Teacher of the Year. Currently, Gaunt is a senior lecturer at Leeds College of Music.

In terms of composition, Gaunt has written and worked with an impressive amount of professional ensembles such as the Icarus Ensemble, London Symphony Orchestra and Britten Sinfonia. As well as this, Gaunt’s compositions have been played around the UK and Europe at festivals and concerts such as Sonic Arts Festival, Sheffield Lyric Festival and also at The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, UK.

Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind was written for musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra as part of Gaunt’s participation in the LSO Soundhub project. His style as a composer is difficult to pin down because all of his compositions sound completely different and all have their own individual character. He describes his style as multi-faceted and eclectic, which can certainly be seen in the inspirations for his compositions. He has also said that his music usually incorporates maths, which adds a new dimension to the music on the page.

As aforementioned, Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind is composed for karateka and two musicians. The genesis for this composition comes from Gaunt’s participation in karate and other different traditional Japanese martial arts. The composition is based various kata, which is a choreographed sequence of movements, which is used to develop technique, dexterity and strength. Typically, kata are used to grade karate students and push them onto the next belt within the discipline. Regularly ‘performing’ kata will enable you to transfer the new-found strength into real-life situations. Kata are built upon kinetic movements such as kicks, punches and blocks, which emphasize the defense element of the discipline. Gaunt has extensively researched many movements within a vast range of kata, as each one possess different rhythmic structures that are intriguingly quite musical. The amalgamation of larger moves, smaller more intricate moves, vocal shouts and extreme movements such as leaps are combined together by Gaunt to create an incredibly exciting musical reaction to this traditional practice.

There is a common issue where the music for a kata does not synchronize with the karateka, and performers will even have to adapt their routines to fit music, which is quite counter-productive at times. To synchronize the karateka and the music, Gaunt has created a work where the ‘conductor’ role is passed to the karateka, and his/her movements act as cues for the musicians. Gaunt has claimed that the work attempts to reflect both the internal and external feelings one would feel when performing different kata. By also having an awareness of the history and language of different kata, Gaunt has been able to bring together many different aspects of this traditional practice and offer a new, rejuvenated dimension with the addition of his music.

Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind presents five different kata, which are accompanied by Gaunt’s musical response to the kata, as well as the karateka’s (Simon Keegan), response to the music at the end of the composition. He has scored for viola and bass clarinet (performed by Anna Bastow and Ausiàs Garrigós Morant respectively). Below are the five kata that Gaunt has chosen for this composition:

Meikyo (‘Bright Mirror’)

Tekki Shodan (‘Iron Horse Riding’)

Heian Sandan (‘Peaceful Mind’)

Bassai Dai (‘Break an Enemy’s Fortress’)

Hangetsu (‘Half-Moon’)

Jo-ha-kyū (‘Beginning, Break, Rapid’)

With the aid of Gaunt’s explanations of each kata, I will next delve into the relationships he has created between movement, music and tradition.


The first kata was chosen to begin this composition due to its language translation into ‘bright mirror’, which foreshadows how Gaunt has mirrored the movements (starting with the sun, and ending with the moon in the Hangetsu movement). Gaunt notes that this particular kata is associated with the legend of the sun goddess, Amaterasu, which perfectly fits into the mirror effect that he has created. (I’d also like to note at this point that this composition must be watched whilst listening or else the whole foundation of the composition is stripped away – therefore I will be referring to video throughout this discussion).

The quiet trills from the clarinet and the harmonics played by the viola at the beginning of this kata blend together to create a shimmering effect, which develops into a faster-paced sequence of notes, which are played in unison with the karateka. The growth of the notes synchronize with the length of punches, kicks and blocks from the leader. The movement heads towards an explosive climax at the end with vocal shouts from the karateka and a synchronized pattern of notes from the instruments.

Tekki Shodan 

The second kata is a favourite of the composer and he notes that interestingly it only incorporates movements going from side-to-side instead of forward and backwards. Gaunt describes the music as a simple, slow barcarolle. Unlike Meikyo, Tekki Shodan differs as the music does not always replicate what the karateka is doing, but instead plays a reaction to the kata, its myths and its meanings within karate. I find this movement incredibly reflective and although not kinetically connected, expressively the movements from the karateka and the musicians is still very much present. The musicians continue playing even after the karateka has finished, which adds to this mythological veil that Gaunt is creating around these kata.

Heian Sandan 

This particular kata is one that beginners may learn when they take up karate, as it imparts basic skills and principles of the tradition. Gaunt notes for us that ‘Heian’ means ‘Peaceful Mind’ and ‘Karate’ means ‘Empty Hand’ – which is where the inspiration for the title has come from. This kata is full of fast movements, which are represented by the fast-moving clarinet part and the pizzicato viola. The music here is quirky, light and playful. However, this all changes by the postlude at the end of this kata where the musicians begins playing in very harsh octaves with extremities in dynamic. This is to represent the effects of the Heian Sandan and how powerful it really is under it’s visibly playful manner.

Bassai Dai 

After the turmoil from the end of the previous kata, Bassai Dai begins with a pulsating accompaniment from the instruments which highlight the synchronized movements performed by the karataka. The music starts strongly, but soon begins to dissolve before the viola slides us back into a familiar realm, before taking us away again. The postlude to this movement is perhaps my personal favourite as I really enjoy the extended techniques that Gaunt has used. The viola, for example, leads us into this section by gently tapping on the main body of her viola, creating a deep, woody sound. This is followed by both instruments playing various pitch bends in their higher registers, creating a whirlwind of sound. The use of clarinet key clicks is also an important aspect of this postlude, as it leads into the next part of this instrumental section. Then, both the viola tapping and the clarinet key clicks come together to emphasize the end of the Bassai Dai journey.


Translating as ‘half-moon’, this movement begins with slowly, with tension being built from both the movements of the karateka and the musicians. The tension reaches a climax with the leader turning and standing firmly, whilst the musicians play a chaotic sequence of flourishing notes, which the karateka moves calmly, strongly and with intention. Gaunt describes parts of this movement as celestial in sound, and after the storm there is a more static feeling, which really hones in on the reflective stages of this kata.


The final movement of this composition encompasses a concept that movements begin slowly and gradually speed up. To fit in with his mirror theme, Gaunt notes that to capture a sense of spontaneity, Jo-ha-kyū is written freely. He also notes that he began writing his movements over long periods of time, which incorporated his love for maths and sequences, whereas the final movements were written a shorter burst of creativity, which alleviate some of the systems that were previously used. Therefore, the musicians here are performing music that is derived from the previous movements, whilst the karateka is improvising responses to this musical dialogue. A very pertinent and effective way to complete this incredibly exciting composition. Jo-ha-kyū is the longest movement, for obvious reasons, and should be watched in its full entirety, with the utmost concentration.

Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind is a very unique composition that builds relationships between movement, music and Japanese practices. By incorporating mythology, language and music to the mix, this composition is exciting, reflective and respectful to all disciplines involved. Gaunt’s use of harmonic language, extended techniques and rhythmic structures creates a new soundworld, which can be appreciated by many. His use of textures in the postludes also feed in to the idea of reflective art, which I find pertinent throughout the whole work. A marvel to behold!

I would like to express my thanks to Ben for his help with this blog, as well as him letting me write about his work (which premiered only last year!). I hope I have done your work the justice it certainly deserves – keep doing you! P.s. – sorry for the awful pun title – I actually couldn’t help myself!

My next blog will be the 100th on the site (crazy right?!), and I will be doing a Blog Bonanza to celebrate the occasion! So keep your eyes peeled for that!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:


Link to LSO Sounhub Project and the exciting musical activities they showcase:

Simon Keegan’s teaching blog (a must see!):



Kaija Saariaho ‘Laterna Magica’: Sonic Beauty

Hello readers! We’ve finally made it to the last day of the Female Fortnight Challenge 2.0! What an exciting rollercoaster of composer we’ve looked at for this challenging. This blog is also the 98th on the classicalexburns site so this is certainly a big day! To round off this very successful challenge I am looking into contemporary Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho and her mystical work for orchestra, Laterna Magica. I hope you have enjoyed this challenge as much as I have – watch this space for new challenges and, of course, new blogs! Without any further ado let us delve into the musical world of Kaija Saariaho!

Kaija Saariaho was born on October 14th, 1952 in Helsinki. Her serious studies within music began with her enrolling into the Sibelius Academy. Her contemporaries include the likes of Paavo Heininen and Magnus Lindberg. She continued studying under Ferneyhough and Huber, whilst also attending summer courses in composition in Darmstadt. From 1982 onwards, Saariaho has researched at the Institute for Research and Coordination Acoustic (IRCAM), which is based in Paris and this is now the city that she has based herself in.

Saariaho’s style changed significantly whilst researching at IRCAM, and her music moved away from serialism and into the modern idea of spectralism (computer-assisted compositions). She has worked extensively with live electronics, and this approach to music has affected the way she writes for orchestras. Instead of writing melodic structures, she expresses dense sounds and ties them up through sound structures and expression. Gradual progressions are a common link between a lot of Saariaho’s orchestral works, and this is no different for Laterna Magica. With the use of spectralist composers, Saariaho created her own analytical approach to create and develop harmonic structures and also to pull apart sounds so that she could use microtonality. She has created a detailed continuum of sounds which extend from pure tones to unpitched noises.

As well as orchestral works, Saariaho has also written vocal music, including solo works and operas, both of which have been successful. Her style for vocal writing has been developed twofold over her fruitful career, with both her orchestral and vocal writing style merging together to create this incredibly unique musical force in every composition that Saariaho writes. Over the course of her career, Saariaho has won a wealth of awards for her compositions including the Prix Ars Italia (1988), Musical America ‘Musician of the Year’ (2008) and the Léonie Sonning Music Prize (2011). Saariaho has also written about having synaesthesia, to which all of her senses are stimulated when listening to music. She writes that her visual and musical worlds collide, and this allows her to access different senses and sound worlds which she uses within her compositions. Her blending of textures and sounds makes her a contemporary composer who stands out of the crowd, and this is shown in her long and successful career in the music industry.

Laterna Magica was composed in 2009, and was commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for the prestigious Lucerne Festival. The piece lasts for approximately 20 minutes and is one single movement of music. It is scored for a large orchestra with added harps, celeste and piano. The title of the piece comes from the autobiography by Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman.  Here is an extract from the program notes written by Saariaho:

“In time, as I read the book, the variation of musical motifs at different tempos emerged as one of the basic ideas behind the orchestral piece on which I was beginning to work. Symbolizing this was the Laterna Magica, the first machine to create the illusion of a moving image: as the handle turns faster and faster, the individual images disappear and instead the eyes see continuous movement.” Saariaho comments on using the speed of the images from the Laterna Magica as inspiration for tempo markings and how we can receive musical sounds, as the author receives moving images. As well as this, Saariaho was also inspired by the way that Bergman had described his favorite cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. Throughout the piece, German members of the orchestra whisper the words that Bergman used to describe Nykvist, which translated are the words:

  • Gentle
  • Dangerous
  • Dream-like
  • Lively
  • Dead
  • Clear
  • Hazy
  • Hot
  • Strong
  • Naked
  • Sudden
  • Dark
  • Spring-like
  • Penetrating
  • Pressing
  • Direct
  • Oblique
  • Sensuous
  • Overpowering
  • Restricting
  • Poisonous
  • Pacifying
  • Bright light
  • Light

With all of these juxtapositions that Saariaho had to play with, it creates a different way to interpret the composition. Although usually abstract in her style, Saariaho uses this narrative to show a different dimension to her musical style. Below are some extracts from her extensive program notes on the work:

“Musically speaking, different tempos underline different parameters: the rhythmic continuity is accentuated at relatively fast tempos, whereas delicate shades require more time and space for the ear to interpret and appreciate them.”

“While I was working with tempos, rhythms with different characters became a major part of the piece’s identity: fiery dance-rhythm inspired by flamenco, a shifting, asymmetrical rhythm provided by speech and an accelerating ostinato that ultimately loses its rhythmic character and becomes a texture.”

“In contrast to this, there emerged music without a clear rhythm or pulse. This material is dominated by strongly sensed colourful planes and airy textures, such as the unified colour of six horns, which divides the orchestral phrases. This use of horns points to Bergman’s film Cries and Whispers, in which the scenes are often changing through sequences of plain red colour.”

Saariaho uses a range of different extended techniques throughout the piece to create different emotions, and to also heighten the tension. The dramatic points of the composition hit a peak that is indeed magical and her use of movement through microtonal sounds is astonishing. Her use of percussion accentuates the ideas that are portrayed throughout the work. Extremities of range also play into the overall atmosphere of the piece, where lower strings often play in their lowest octaves, especially when the upper strings are in their highest ranges, creating a dichotomy between the parts. Strange interventions of sound are littered throughout the music, meaning nothing is predictable – making Laterna Magica very exciting.

Saariaho’s attention to timbral detail shines through in this composition as some of the sounds heard are very unique and not often used. This work has been described as nearly cinematographic and her use of light and shade brings out the juxtaposing ideas that are listed above in the word list. Acoustically, her use of tone colours are set to reverberate the concert hall and create a series of colours (which feeds into her synaesthesia). It has been commented on that her extensive use of wind chimes and tuned percussion created a halo around the orchestra, which speaks volumes for the narrative of the piece. The sonic beauty created in this work leaves a dichotomy of ideas that leaves you wanting more, which is how Saariaho absorbs her listeners into her world.

Laterna Magica is a fabulous work for orchestra that exudes beauty, offers timbres from another world, and proclaims the dominant force that is Kaija Saariaho! I do hope you have enjoyed this blog and are now a fan of Saariaho. Thank you so much for getting to this point of my Female Fortnight Challenge 2.0! It has been a whirlwind and I have covered 14 women composers which can all be found on the main classicalexburns website! Watch this space for more new blogs coming soon! I have nearly reached 100 blogs and to celebrate I will be doing a composer and work very close to my heart – so don’t miss out on the 100 blog bonanza!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:


Julia Gomelskaya ‘Memento Vitae’: A Spiritual Encounter

We’ve made it to the penultimate composer for my Female Fortnight Challenge 2.0 and for this blog I will be talking about the late contemporary composer, Julia Gomelskaya and her work for small orchestra, Memento Vitae. Gomelskaya sadly died in a car accident on December 4, 2016, so this blog is dedicated to her memory.

Julia Gomelskaya was born on March 11, 1964 in Ukraine. At a young age she began engaging in music and this carried through to her later years where she began studying composition at the Simpheropol Tchaikovsky Musical College (1983). Also a talented pianist, Gomelskaya studied under Oleksandr Krasotov. After graduating from the Tchaikovsky Musical College, Gomelskaya went on to study composition at the Ukraine Odessa National A.V. Nezhdanova Music Academy (1990). She received a distinction for her degree and she won the first prize at the Ukrainian National Composers’ competition (1993). Gomelskaya also won third prize at the Women Composers’ Competition (Kiev, 1995) and the first prize at the International Composition Contest of Comines (2003).

In 1995, Gomelskaya was awarded a fellowship for postgraduate study at London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Here she received an MMus in Composition with distinction. Whilst at GSDM, Gomelskaya won six composition competitions, and consequently two of her works have since been published by GSDM and are a compulsory element of the audition process. As well as her MMus, Gomelskaya also earned her PhD in Music Art. She has traveled around the world to be a part of small and large music festivals and her works have been recorded extensively around the world. BBC Radio 3 have recorded her chamber opera, The Divine Sarah and also the ballet music for, Jane Eyre.

Her works cover a wind-range of styles including symphonic, chamber, ballet, opera, vocal and electronic music. Some examples of her compositions include:

In Modo Sketch (for Cello and Piano) – 1992

N-Quartet (for String Quartet) – 1995

Flute Vers-Inversions (for Flute and Tape) – 1996

Rhythmus (for Double Bass and Piano) – 2005

Trace of Trumpet (for Trumpet and Piano) – 2007

Major-Major (for Brass Quintet) – 2012

She has produced many CDs of her own music and her published works are mainly by Sorino Esiziuns Musicales. She is a member of the Ukrainian National Composers’ Union as well as the Laureate of the B. Liatoshynskyj Prize and the Odessa Municipal Prize (2011 & 2006). Gomelskaya has had an array of commissions throughout her career which has allowed her to work with some professional musicians and ensembles.

Memento Vitae was composed in 1996 and is written for a small-scale symphony orchestra. The work encapsulates the idea of spiritual movement, and where our souls go after death. At about 9 minutes in duration, this work is a constant flurry of sounds from within the orchestra, with Gomelskaya utilizing all areas of the ensemble as well as some extended techniques that these instruments can do. For example, pitch bending and flutter-tonguing are among the most popular extended techniques that Gomelskaya uses in Memento Vitae. I think of this work as sounds moving from one place to another, with each new destination in mind. There is no key, and for me that says that these spirits cannot be chained down by tonality, but instead are free to roam wherever they go. The use of chromatic runs and open chords creates this ingenious spatial awareness that I believe Gomelskaya was aiming for when composing this particular work.

The most exciting parts of this work are the constant changes between very busy sections where lots of instruments play many different rhythmically challenging lines, and then sections where most instruments drop out and only a select few remain. Gomelskaya’s use of tuned percussion makes these quieter sections much more atmospheric, as the vibraphone and tubular bells create a shimmering effect within the music. The choice to confine this music to a smaller orchestra means it is much more intense and concentrated in places, which can really touch your emotional strings. The piece requires a lot of stamina, concentration and dexterity to just be able to play the parts in synchronization. Gomelskaya’s use of polyphony and counterpoint makes this work very complex and exciting, and yet still being able to create a range of different emotions such as happiness and hope and sadness and loss. I for one love Gomelskaya’s work and her style is innovative and really makes you think about ‘the music itself’. The work ends in a very eerie way with static strings and a simple melodic input from the winds before just drifting off. The spiritual undertones of this work can shine a new narrative on the music, and whilst this is my interpretation of the work, I believe it fits the music comfortably and offers a fresh and multi-dimensional narrative for the piece.

Memento Vitae is a fantastic orchestral work from the wonderful composer Julia Gomelskaya and after her tragic death just last year, it is vital we keep her music alive for years to come. A tragic loss – R.I.P. Julia Gomelskaya. The next blog will be the last in the Female Fortnight Challenge 2.0 – don’t miss out on it!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording: