Breathe and Draw

Breathe and Draw by Alex Ho, was commissioned by Nevis Ensemble in 2020 and recorded at Adelaide Place, Glasgow in line with the Scottish Government guidance in place at the time.

Below you can see a chat between composer Alex Ho, Nevis Ensemble Artistic Directors Jon Hargreaves and Holly Mathieson and musicians Olivia Tomasovic and Marcus Shanks about the piece and what it was like to perform.

Composer Alex Ho says: “Breathe and Draw is a piece for our individual and collective imaginations. It is an experience that is eased into existence and meaning not by the ‘composer’, but by the people in the performance space; by breathing, drawing, playing, and/or imagining. Each individual will have their own experience of and contribution to the piece, and the hope is to create a sense of community from our unique yet aligned creativities.

Breathe and Draw reminds us that communities are as much imagined as they are physical, that the community spirit is able to bridge distances, and that it is up to us, both individually and collectively, to foster and nurture these communities.

Scored for two ensembles and two conductors, the piece is directly influenced by an audience of artists and writers. The artists draw their own ‘story’ based on what they hear and these drawings then become graphic scores that musicians have to interpret and improvise on. As a result, no two performances of Breathe and Draw will ever be the same.

Even if you are watching online you can take part. As you watch and listen, take any blank piece of paper and any writing implement, and use your imagination to come up with a story that you draw or write down on your piece of paper. After the piece ends, take a photo of your piece of paper with your story and email it to to have it added to the Breathe and Draw archive. There are no limitations to your story – let your imagination run wild and enjoy!

The creative writing and drawings that come from audience members (both live and online) are collected and kept in an ever-growing physical and digital archive of stories and connections. Here are some audience submissions from the online premiere on 18 February 2021.

Drawing a Graphic Score

Don’t feel intimidated about drawing a ‘graphic score’. There are no limits to what it can be, but if you would like to know a bit more about graphic scores there here are some pointers:

  1. How do you want the musician to read it? Left to right? Right to left? Top to bottom? Diagonally? It’s completely up to you. If you have a firm idea of the direction the musician should take, try to put that across. Or you can leave it up to them!
  2. Do you have a theme? You can leave it up to the musician to decide, or you can try to portray a particular story or theme to your score. Perhaps a particular season or weather, or something connected to the environment. Or you can leave it open and create something completely abstract.
  3. Which materials will you use? It can be a plain piece of paper and pencil, or you can use colour, different mediums (pencils, crayons, ink, paint), texture, collage, text, pictures. Or a combination of all of the above.
  4. Does the musician need any instructions? Do you want it to be loud or quiet? Or fast and jumpy? See how you can put that across. You can be really inventive, and ask them to use particular bits of their instrument, or to stand up and walk around. Or, again, you can leave it totally up to them!

Alex Ho is a British-Chinese composer based in London. Winner of the George Butterworth Award 2020, Alex has had pieces performed/commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Radio 3, Royal Opera House, National Opera Studio, Music Theatre Wales, and London Sinfonietta,  Alex was joint-winner of the Philip Bates Composition Competition in 2016, one of Sound and Music’s ‘New Voices 2018’, a Help Musicians UK Fusion Fund Artist in 2019, and one of the LSO’s ‘Soundhub’ composers from 2018-2020. 

He is the co-director of Tangram, an artist collective catalysing transnational imagination and celebrating the vitality of Chinese cultures.

Alex studied Music at Oxford University and graduated with first-class honours in 2016 before completing a master’s in composition at Cambridge University in 2017 where he was awarded the Arthur Bliss Prize in Composition for his final portfolio that attained the highest mark across the university. He is currently studying for a doctorate at the Royal College of Music with a full AHRC scholarship (LAHP Studentship supported by RCM).