Notes at last

With every new piece – and doubly so when the piece has a deadline – I go through a period of trauma when ideas are starting to bubble, but there’s no notes to write down. The longer this goes on, the crankier I get. Finally, of course, notes appear and are captured on the stave, and then the real composition can begin, but it’s a fairly fraught time when they’re there but not there. Today I got notes for the quintet, ending a tense few days. It’s not really been too long this time, but the deadline factor and the inevitable socialising of having parents in the house, which makes it hard for me to really focus, made it seem an absolute aeon. In truth, it’s really only been since Sunday though…

On Sunday I went to the Tate Modern with the parents and Djelibeybi, where my Da pointed out a group of Cy Twombly paintings I’d not seen before that he didn’t think much of but which totally blew me away. They’re not much to describe: Oatmealy-coloured giant canvases with swirls of red paint that’s been allowed to drip down the canvas. Strange how something so simple can be so powerful.

Standing in the middle of these three paintings, I could feel a warmth emanating from them. And the more I looked, the more I saw. Ultimately they came to resemble a thicket of fiery willows. On second viewing on Tuesday, the bright red made me think of thorns and blood and violence – while still with the exciting, secure warmth of the original viewing in place. They set off a chain of thought which ran through concepts of enclosure – groves, fences, hugs, safety, security, claustrophobia, containment, standing stones, panic, contentment. I don’t think any painting has ever elicited a response in me of such total contrasts – certainly not simultaneously.

Gradually I thought my way through all these conflicting ideas to come up with a concept for the piece. It seemed to me that I was really facing two concepts – one where the enclosure was a secure one – warm and soft and safe; the other where it was a form of containment – hard and cold and unyielding, resistant to any attempt to breach it. I started thinking about how to approach this in music and thought a bit about whether maybe the piece should be in two movements – one expressing each approach, but basically felt that this seemed a bit ‘wet’ and also that the safe and secure piece would be likely to be both a little dull and also stylistically unmatched to the other movement. Last night, after thinking about all this on and off for most of the day, I came to a vague conclusion that the piece should perhaps be a single movement, approximately expressing movement from safety and security to entrapment and panic and how easily something benign can seem suffocating.

So today’s notes are fairly tame and – at the moment – they seem almost characterless. When I put them down this morning, they just sort of fell into place but it all seemed a little directionless. This afternoon though, I started listening to The Viola In My Life by Morton Feldman, who was recommended to me by a friend on Twitter, and I’m beginning to think that the judicious use of whitespace in the opening could be very effective in this context.

Not entirely sure what the next step will be. I’m feeling a need to do a lot of reading and listening at the moment – I’m more than halfway through John Adams’ autobiography Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, which is just awesome – I think it’s one of the best composer biographies/autobiographies I’ve read because it focuses so much, not just on the music, but on the process of creating the music and the way his thinking changed as he composed each new piece. It’s absolutely fascinating. I’ve also started reading Mark Rothko’s The Artist’s Reality which has been on my shelf for a while, and suddenly passionately wanting to start in on Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise too. Sadly there are not enough hours in the day…