CAITLIN ROWLEY
composer

Not so String Quartet of Doom

This evening I’ve been daring. Faced with the imminent deadline of this string quartet (my tutor wants it essentially done by Thursday, which would have meant writing 13 minutes of music in 14 days. Up until the point-of-daring I’d struggled to produce 30 seconds in 10 days and even then wasn’t convinced by it), I sat down a couple of hours ago and started to write (words, that is). I wrote about the difficulties I’d been having and tried to work out where it was all going wrong.

I sorted out the starting difficulty about a week ago when I realised (thanks to an assortment of advice from both my tutors) that the material I’d started with was the right material, just in the wrong form. This was a huge breakthrough, and very helpful in terms of how I think about what I write and how to go about transforming something that’s not quite right. You can compare the initial and revised versions here:

Initial version in manuscript

Initial version of the opening of the string quartet – note the large silences!

Revised version in manuscript

Revised version of the opening of the string quartet – note the held notes, tremolando and the glissandi retained from the first version

Since that small breakthrough though, everything’s been stop-start, write-delete so that it’s felt like I’ve made no forward progress at all.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that the plan is the problem. My pretty coloured-pencil plan. True, it’s my plan, and it’s the plan for what I want to do, but the way I’ve been going about this piece has meant that the piece was becoming more about the plan than about what I wanted it to be about. Everything was becoming about “This chord isn’t thick enough/dissonant enough for this part of the plan”, “I need to change texture right now”, “I can’t change harmony yet” and not about the inner needs of the piece. Maybe what’s needed is not actually what I drew. Maybe I got the colours wrong, made a texture too thick. Maybe I just *gasp* changed my mind.

So this evening, I’ve chucked the plan.

It’s now filed in case of future need – because, broadly speaking, it does still apply. I still want to go from thick textures and loud stuff through to quiet and delicate and detailed stuff, so it’s likely I’ll consult it from time to time. I do think too that in terms of how far I’m moving how fast it could also be useful, but for now it’s really limiting me. So now (after another deleting session) I am proceeding based on how I feel about the Seagram Murals and where the musical material seems to want to go. And MY GOODNESS what a transformation.

Just scrubbing the plan from my thoughts and spending a couple of minutes thinking about the paintings and what they’re like as you approach them has reconnected me with what I’m trying to do so that even the opening section sounds different.

When it was All About the Plan, the opening felt blocky. All I could feel from it was the big clumpy chords which correspond to the textural solidity of that block in the plan. Now I’m feeling the glissandi and the shiftiness of it all, which corresponds to the way the Seagram Murals never feel entirely static, which is EXACTLY what I wanted it to be.

Having deleted most of the start of the next bit (about 2 minutes in), I’m mixing up the pizzicato and slightly faster tempo of the deleted material with the more lyrical stuff I started working with just before (because The Plan dictated that I needed a change to the texture Just There) and it’s just working better. Whereas before the pizz stuff felt forced and artificial, now it feels like MY material and it’s behaving itself a lot better. 17 seconds done in about half an hour, and it’s music I think I actually like for a change.

Three cheers for rebellion!

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