Today’s the day!

Tonight my short song-cycle Remembrances of Half-Forgotten Dead People receives its world premiere. The lovely folks at London Composers Forum have included it in their Piano Plus concert, where it will be sung by soprano Tamara Tempera.

The concert also includes works by other members of London Composers Forum – it’s going to be a very varied programme!

So if you’re looking for something to do this evening, come along and have a listen: It’s a favourite piece of mine and I’m really looking forward to finally hearing it with a real singer.

The concert starts at 7.30 at Lauderdale House, near Highgate Village. It’s a ten-minute walk from Archway tube station. Full details are available on the LCF website event page. Find me and say hello if you come!

Connecting through the score

The starting point for this post lies in discussions I’ve been having with Simone O’Callaghan on her use of two-dimensional barcodes (QR codes) to expand her print artworks into the digital dimension. It’s got me thinking about how we composers could use this technology to improve on the standard print-score-or-audio-file offerings which to my mind limit the options we have for promoting understanding of our music.

QR codes provide a link to a particular web address. You use the camera on your phone (or your laptop’s webcam), together with a decoder app such as i-nigma: Scan the barcode via the app and it will take you off to the website. No typing required, just snap and go.

It would be an easy matter to set up a dedicated page or site section for a piece containing extra information which might be useful for people looking at a score and have that content accessible via QR code. The question is, what information or interaction could be provided that might help listeners understand more, and encourage performers to take the plunge and perform our work?

I came up with the following fairly random list. Some things are eminently achievable, others a bit wacky and out of the realms of probability but I wanted to try to stretch the idea as far as it would go and see if any of the ideas sound feasible to implement in the here and now.

Most basic, requiring only initial posting and subsequent updating. No real interaction:

  • Link to a recording of a piece, which can then be updated as better performances occur and are recorded
  • Provide recordings/scores of variant versions of a piece which might provide insight for users preparing a performance or interested in the process
  • Analysis and full programme notes for the piece – content that is more detailed or longer than is appropriate for brief front-of-score notes, but which may aid with understanding the work.
  • Pre-recorded rehearsal parts (e.g. the piano part for a song cycle, orchestra part for a concerto) for download to help with learning the piece and help amateur players create a performance even if they don’t have access to other performers.
  • Pieces requiring tape parts could have the performance-quality tape part available for download in a variety of formats, whether as the primary method of distribution or as a backup for a physical CD version
  • Information about performances and recordings, both archived and upcoming

Slightly more advanced, requiring more active/regular participation from users or the composer:

  • A forum where performers and listeners can raise questions specific to that piece, which the composer can respond to. This then provides a further resource for future visitors
  • Updates to the score or variants may be produced based on forum feedback or to respond to specific requests. These new versions can then be uploaded to the site.
  • A list of blog posts relating to the creation of the work – for me, I track my work on pieces most days I’m working on them via One Creative Thing. I don’t always go into a lot of detail, but possibly some of it could be useful and could give a good idea of what else was happening at the time to influence the development of the work. Many composer-bloggers will talk about their work in progress to a certain extent and simple tagging of posts with a composition name can give an opportunity to easily provide a list like this.
  • Ability for site users to list a performance of a work

More advanced and probably cloud-cuckoo-land, requiring a full community using and connecting through the system:

  • Users able to upload audio/video recordings of their own performances of a piece. I can see this being of most use to amateur performers in terms of feedback on their performance – but it could also then be a great resource for the composer, who could then contact a performer who produced a particularly good interpretation and ask to use their recording on the public site.
  • Performers connecting with each other: Sort of a personals column for musicians – “I’m a flautist in London and I really want to play this piece, but I don’t know anyone who could play the viola or piano parts – anybody interested?”

Not sure whether I’ll actually do anything with this yet, but I’m thinking about it…

 

Do you know anyone who’s doing something like this? Is there anything you think might be useful in such a system? Let me know in the comments!

Approaching a single line from three directions

For some time now I’ve had in the back of my mind the idea to write a piece for unaccompanied cello. None of my attempts yet have been at all successful, mostly because of the unexpected complexity of approaching a ‘single-line’ piece of music. So when the 15 Minutes of Fame call came up for a one-minute piece for unaccompanied violin, I barged in on the chance to experiment a bit.

Contemplating solo instrument pieces – for example, the Bach cello suites, Bartók’s violin sonata, CPE Bach’s flute sonata – one of the key features of these works is that they zip all over the place, making wide use of both ends of the instrument’s range and often leaping from one extreme to another. It makes for a nice little virtuosic display for the performer, but more importantly these fast-moving registral changes give the impression that there are more parts than just the one. They provide variety of tonal colour and imply harmony. But this stuff can be an absolute bugger to just sit down and write.

So I didn’t. I thought about what I wanted to do in this one-minute piece. As with many of my pieces, the starting point for my thinking (although it’s unlikely you’ll detect any connection whatsoever in the final work) was a work of art. Natalia Goncharova’s watercolour sketch for one of the Firebird backdrops which was on display at the V&A recently. This image is harmonious yet vibrant colours, a consistency of linear direction (upwards) – movement and almost tangible form, but an integrated whole.

Natalia Goncharova: Sketch for backdrop for Stravinsky's Firebird

In musical terms, I wanted to start with a chugging sort of chordal ostinato to provide a solid ground for the piece, work in a higher held-note figure for lightness and also pull in some sort of brief melodic fragment as well to give a bit of momentum.

The first step to pulling this off, I figured was to approach the piece from a different angle – to not try to work on it as it would appear when finished. Instead, I worked it as a trio. I dropped things in where they sounded like they wanted to go, without the need to consider how polished it sounded – the idea was to pull together a structure for the piece, so that when I had low bits and high bits intersecting, or accompaniment and melody bits vying for attention, there would be a framework for them to do so in. What I came up with looked like this:

Example - first three-line draft version

There’s considerable overlap between parts – the held notes in the first line overlap the melody in the second and everything overlaps all over the third line. This helped me to build the sound of a ‘real’ piece as a starting point.

Next I condensed everything down into a single line, underneath the original three lines so I could continue to keep an eye on what had been there in the first place:

Example: Adding the amalgamated line

From this point, once I was happy with the balance of elements, I ditched the temporary upper parts and began work refining the piece, starting with the obvious element that the notes of the chord used in the rhythmic pattern won’t work as a triple-stop on the violin because they’re just too close together and low down – there aren’t enough strings.

Currently I am following through an extended process of trimming and refining. It’s taking a lot of tweaking and gentle adjustments to get it to where I want it to go and I’m finding the process almost mesmerising – how something so rough is gradually having its edges gentled and become a coherent whole. I’ll do a follow-up post on this process once I’m happy with where it’s ended up.

Why I’m not applying for my dream job

A few days ago, I spotted on Twitter a link to an advert for what is basically a dream job for me – web editor for the Tate art galleries. I’ve wanted to work for the Tate for ages, and to work on their website would be great. But there’s a downside: it’s full-time and permanent… and turning up just as I’ve decided to take three months off to focus on my music.

So I fretted for a bit, then decided to take a poll, so I put my dilemma up on Facebook and the response was overwhelming: apply for it! And to a certain extent they’re right. If I had a proper job now, I wouldn’t hesitate. If I weren’t also a composer, I wouldn’t hesitate. But most of all, if I weren’t planning on using the next few months to start to set myself up in a position where I wouldn’t need a proper day job at all, I wouldn’t hesitate. But.

So of course the next question is ‘why not apply and see what happens?’.

I’ll start with the fuzzy-hippy-wafty stuff. First up, it feels wrong. It feels like a diversion from a clear path that I’m supposed to be following. I’ve felt like this about jobs before, ignored it and regretted it. Second, I don’t know about other people, but most years I have a pretty clear feeling for what the general mood of the year will be – and I’m often right. This year feels very strongly like I need to keep myself as flexible as possible – like I’ll need to turn on a dime and be ready to take off at a moment’s notice. These are things that full-time, permanent work doesn’t play well with and the combination could mean either letting down my treasured employer and damaging my future prospects for working with them, or not doing things which may be important in either my career or personal life – not entering a high-profile call for scores, not being able to be with my mother when she has her cataracts operation, that sort of thing. This is a year that will be full of opportunities, some of which may require swift action, and I don’t want to miss a minute of it. Nor do I want to let others down by doing so. Which means a different approach is needed.

So enough of the fluffy stuff because there are more concrete reasons too. I’ve had full-time permanent day jobs before but never in my life have I done a full-time permanent job and been able to maintain compositional momentum. I’ve never even really been able to maintain compositional equilibrium – sooner or later my technical skills go backwards and after a while I find I’m not writing at all and to try to do so takes a mammoth amount of willpower. I wasted 10 years of my life like that and it’s taken another 5 to get back on track. I don’t want to waste another minute.

Part of the reason I’m planning to not have a day job at all for the next three months is that I’m signing up for individual composition lessons at the local university. After Durham, I’m really keen to start a Master’s degree soon, so I wanted to do some lessons again to remind me of what it was like to have to check in with work every week, to get some solid feedback and hopefully to also be able to stretch my compositional thinking and improve the work I’m doing. To make the most of this experience requires a goodly amount of spare time in which to compose and think and generally experiment with ideas. I’m also planning on exploring a number of alternatives for income-generation which don’t involve me having to spend 5 days a week in an office – ultimately I want to be able to mix up my day between composition and paying work to create a satisfying and profitable whole. I don’t expect to be supporting myself within three months – that would be stupid – but I do hope to have set some things in motion and hopefully be earning just a little something that I can build on.

I guess if I applied for the job I could resign myself to just working like a demon for a year and doing everything, but I’ve burnt myself out like that before – did it last year, in fact – and the thing that always suffers the most is the composition because there’s no one but me holding me accountable for doing it. And that’s not how I want it to be.

One of my goals for the new year was to ‘be more selfish’. I don’t mean that I’m not sharing my packet of chocolate biscuits with anyone, but instead to put my stuff first. To work out my priorities and work towards ensuring that they are unshiftable priorities, not something that gets pushed out of the way as soon as something that pays comes along.

There may be tightening of belts. There may be darned socks. But I’m absolutely determined that there will also be music and satisfaction and lots of it.

Follow up: The digital dimension: 1a. Programme notes

I am delighted to say that I have been proven to be ignorant and behind the times. Yay!

My last article on programme notes – being oh-so-long-ago as it was – ended up sparking a bit of a discussion on Twitter which has revealed – thanks to the very knowledgeable @frindley – that approaches along the lines of those I outlined are already in use all over the place. It seems that the UK (or at least the concert-going parts of it that I frequent) is rather behind the times even by selling programmes and that many organisations are now giving away programmes and putting all sorts of notes online too. Apparently orchestras all over the place are embracing programme notes as a way of educating their audiences and helping them enjoy the music more, and that the sort of daunting analytical programme note which sparked the whole debate is becoming a very rare beast.

Well, hallelujah, I say. I couldn’t be happier to have been proved out of touch. I won’t rabbit on about it because I’m bound to say something foolish, but as a couple of examples, have a look at the online programme notes produced by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (who also give out free hard-copy programmes) – loads of meaty but readable and helpful content, barely any ads (unlike many paid-for programmes I see) – and CityMusic Cleveland which does a nice line in audio snippets to illustrate the text and gives details of the recordings used too (if this link fails – it looks like it might be season-specific but I couldn’t see an archive – try going to their homepage, then choose Program Notes under the Concerts menu item).

As an additional item of interest, relating to my suggestion that online programme notes could be part of a pre-concert programme purchase option, @frindley tells me that in her organisation, while audiences responded well to the idea of pre-purchase (of hard-copy programme books), they didn’t act on it – I guess this isn’t hugely surprising, given buying behaviour on the web (generally cagey) and traditional patterns, but it’s an interesting snippet nevertheless – it’s good to know when something’s been tried and hasn’t worked just as much as when it has worked. And if the trend towards free programmes continues, it ceases to be a relevant option anyway.

So there you have it. I’m out of touch and orchestras the world over are embracing the digital dimension. Wonderful!


Is your local orchestra or other ensemble being innovative with their programme notes in some way? Tell me in the comments!

 

New piece: Thickets for string quintet

I’ve just added my latest piece, Thickets for 2 violins, viola and 2 celli (or cello and double bass) to this site. Thickets was written for a 5-day composer workshop in Durham with Tansy Davies which was organised by the fantastic organisation CoMA. CoMA focuses on contemporary music-making for amateur players, and as our Masterclass was run in conjunction with a Late Starters String School, it needed to be playable by amateur (late starter) players of a level equating to about grades 4-5.

Writing for amateurs was a brilliant challenge – to limit a piece’s technical challenges while still keeping it interesting to play and working on a musical level – it really brought out the problem-solver in me! And when it was workshopped, the reactions were fantastic – the conductor said it was “incredibly well-written for strings” and players I talked to afterwards said that once they’d worked out the rhythmic challenges of the central hocketing section, it was a fun piece to play and they hoped they’d get to do it again.

The piece has its origins in a trilogy of paintings on the subject of Bacchus by American Abstract Expressionist painter Cy Twombly which are currently on display at the Tate Modern (although, frustratingly, not listed on the Tate’s website so I can’t link to it) which evoked in me impressions of thickets of willows, or possibly thorns. After being passed through the filter of my strange brain, the piece features intertwining shared melodic lines and interlocking rhythmic figures leading to an ending of immense stillness and simplicity.

Thickets (score and parts) is available through this site (free download coming soon – till then, please contact me directly) now and will be in the CoMA library shortly.

The digital dimension: 1. Programme notes

This started out as one post, proceeded to get very rambly and a little bit ranty whereupon I realised it was actually two posts fighting against each other. This is the first part, which I hope will be better behaved now it’s on its own.

A few days ago, Killing Classical Music posted an interesting article entitled Scoreboards in the concert hall – Another solution to classical music’s problem. It looks at the issue of how people unfamiliar with a piece of music can ‘keep track’ of it during performance in a concert hall, with particular reference to the sorts of vague analytical landmarks beloved of programme-note-writers. A follow-up post appeared yesterday.

The problem as I see it, reading Greg Sandow’s original posting of Michael Oneil Lam’s original post (yes, that made my head spin too) is not with the concert, not with the performance or the venue or the repertoire, and certainly not with the listener. The problem is with the programme notes. Mr Lam writes:

My biggest gripe about modern orchestra concerts is that I lose my place so easily. The program notes talk about an “icy interlude in the high strings indicating a modulation to the subdominant;” but even if I understood what a subdominant was, the violins are nearly always playing and they always sound high to me so I have no idea when the particular segment referred to by the program notes actually occurs.

My reading of this is that because the programme notes are pointing out all this stuff, he feels he ought to be looking out for it, so his concert experience is actually ruined by desperately trying to keep track of what he’s been told is important, rather than sitting back, listening and (hopefully) enjoying himself.

The big concern I feel, reading Mr Lam’s post, is of how intimidating these sorts of programme notes must be for novice concertgoers. How much of a dunce must a non-musician feel when they’re told to look out for this icy interlude doing something they have no clue how to interpret? No wonder classical music is termed ‘elitist’ by some! I don’t agree that a concert scoreboard, visible to all, is the way to go – listening to live music is a very personal experience and while it may work for some, there are many (me included) who would be so distracted by such a thing in a concert that it would ruin the whole experience. However, I do agree that something needs to be done to not alienate audience members, and especially audience members who are being brave and giving something a go that they don’t fully understand.

So to me, revising this traditional approach to the programme note seems an excellent place to start.

A clarification: I love programme notes. I love analysis. I think analysis can play a very important part in really getting to grips with a piece, but in the current day and age of recordings vs live performances and ensembles desperate for increasing audience sizes – which inevitably means recruiting new audiences made up of people who are largely unaware of classical music and music theory, I think the concept of the analysis programme note is a little outdated as a tool for general use in the concert hall.

And so I started to think about how programme notes could change. And because I am an internet junkie and a web developer as well as a composer, I started thinking about how ensembles could value-add, tackle the problem of audience development and make the physical programme more useful to audience members of all levels of musical understanding by linking to content in the digital domain.

Point: those who specifically want analysis during a concert are likely to know they’ll want it beforehand

Point: if those people aren’t overly familiar with the music or with music in general, then they’d probably get more from quiet reading of said analysis, possibly with a recording, if available, well before the performance they’re attending, rather than a quick 30-second skim through it as the lights go down

Point: those who don’t want it possibly aren’t buying programmes?

When I put all these points together, it makes me think that changing the approach of concert-space programme notes can only be a good thing. I would suggest that the printed programme could offer more easily digestible information than it often does now – most emphatically NOT dumbed-down, but information that’s more appropriate to the context of a darkened hall and only a few brief moments in which to find out what you’re about to listen to. Who the composer was, what were the circumstances surrounding the work’s composition, the general character of the work and its movements, how does it fit in with the rest of the composer’s output – contextual stuff to give a little solid ground to aid the actual listening that’s about to happen.

I think this would make the concert experience a lot less stressful for those who aren’t familiar with analytical terms. And if programmes are providing actual information that the audiences ensembles want to draw in can understand, then those people will feel more comfortable and hopefully come back to another performance.

More appropriate programme notes would also mean that the audience will be actually listening to the music, not worrying about having missed the super-special oboe theme because they couldn’t work out where the euphonium fanfare happened.

Mr Lam uses a phrase “With increased engagement comes increased memorability” and he’s absolutely right – however, he equates “increased engagement” with “tracking the current progress of the piece”. I think this is a mere technicality – it’s ticking off landmarks in a guidebook.

There’s a wonderful line in the film A Room With A View where the parson is telling a story about a father and daughter who visited Rome: “Say, papa, what did we see in Rome?” “Why, Rome was the place where we saw the yellow dog!”. This totally sums up the issue at hand – the tourists did everything they were supposed to, saw everything in their Baedeker guidebook, but the only thing that stuck was a dog of an unusual colour. The dog was what engaged them, not the Sistine Chapel or the Colosseum. Analytical landmarks in a piece are the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum – they’re great landmarks, beautiful themes, heartbreaking chord progressions, but if you only tick them off and don’t emotionally experience them, then you won’t engage with the work. Only by really listening to a piece will you engage – and that’s when you’ll find your yellow dog.

But what about that analysis that I’ve so heartlessly culled? Head back up to the first two points I mentioned – I believe that the majority of people who actually want analysis will probably know they want it in advance. And if they know they want it in advance and can probably get the most of the concert if they have it in advance, then why shouldn’t they have it then? Put the general contextual notes into the programme – put the analytical notes online. I can see several benefits to this:

  1. Online presentation of analysis means it doesn’t have to be crammed into whatever space is available for that piece in the programme. Instead of cutting the data down to fit the space, there is room to present whatever is needed to make the analysis followable.
  2. More space means there is also the possibility of including snippets of score or audio clips, both of which aid comprehension, especially for newcomers to analysis
  3. It is possible (resources allowing) to provide different levels of analysis for musicians and non-musicians – for those who want as much detail as possible and for those who just want to know a little bit more about the work.
  4. If audience members want to take the analysis along to the concert, they can print it out and do so.
  5. From a financial perspective, the ensemble can leverage the online space as well as the print space of the programme – selling advertising space, promoting recordings with direct links to buy, or offering visitors the option of signing up to a relevant email list. To avoid the potential problem of concertgoers printing off the analysis and then not buying a programme, make it part of a programme pre-purchase deal.

I personally would love to see a day where detailed programme notes available online – or scores or continual ‘scoreboard’ updates – could be used in a concert hall during a performance, on a personal device like a mobile phone, Kindle or iPad – but I suspect that’s a way off being commonplace (although Mr Sandow’s follow-up article gives interesting descriptions of attempts at this sort of information already tried) simply because backlit devices are disturbing to others in a dark concert hall.

Obviously there will be some who will disagree with me – not everyone has access to the internet or a printer, home-printed analyses in a concert may rustle and disturb other patrons, who wants to do ‘homework’ before a concert? and so on. It’s possible that the time is not yet ripe for this approach, but Mr Lam’s idea has me thinking that instead of fretting about audience numbers but continuing to do things the same way we always have, we should be generously embracing the opportunities that digital provides and seeing what happens. As Mr Sandow says in his follow-up post:

I’m concerned that too much discussion of the future of classical music is speculation. “Oh, no, if we do X, then Y and Z will happen, and that would be terrible!” When in fact nobody knows, because X hasn’t been done.

Until we try a new approach, we can’t tell what will work. And until we wholeheartedly take a risk and throw some time/money/effort at making a new approach work in the best way possible, we can’t really tell how it will be received.

Music and silence

After Gorecki’s death a few weeks back, one obituary in The Guardian gave a wonderful quote:

If you can live without music for two or three days, then don’t write – it might be better to spend the time with a girl or with a beer.

This was the answer he would give students who would ask him how to write music or what to write. And an excellent response it is – fun and to the point. But lately I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I actually think that my response would be different. My response would be “If you can live without silence for two or three days, then don’t write”. I frequently go without listening to music for days at a time, not because I don’t want to listen to music but because I’ve not got enough silence in my life and if there’s more sound piling up on top of the sound that’s already causing chaos in my head – even if it’s music, and even if it’s music I’ve chosen – then I pretty quickly feel like I’m going insane. Without regular, large doses of silence, my brain frazzles and I can no longer find myself in my own head.

And I know I’m not the only one. Back in 1958, the wonderful Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks wrote,

‘It is apparent that leisure and silence are absolute prerequisites for composers if they are to engage fully the many forms of awareness involved in creative activity. This leisure and silence have become the greatest luxuries in the modern world, and composers less than any other group in art or science are able to command it.’

True leisure and silence have become incredibly rare, and even more so in the half-century since PG-H wrote those words. Of course a love of music and a need of music are of vital importance to anyone who would compose music – but I would venture to say that a love of, a need and respect for silence comes even before that.


If you would like to find out more about Peggy Glanville-Hicks, read my article, Peggy Glanville-Hicks: A lifetime’s search for leisure and silence at minim-media.com

A new approach for composers

Today I discovered a new site from the American Music Center via their ever-fabulous New Music Box. It’s called Meet the Composer Studio and it’s a fan-funding site along the lines of Kickstarter or ArtistShare. The difference being that (naturally) the projects on the site are all by American serious-music composers. MTC have chosen, in collaboration with performers who will perform the completed works, six composers in three US cities to complete commissions for the projects, which can then be funded by fans – from $5 for a personalised postcard from your composer up to $5000 to be the Lead Commissioner of the new work and everything in between.

I love the idea of fan-funding. I love that composers (and, indeed artists of all types) can move back to a position of interaction with the people who actually listen to their music. That a commission doesn’t have to be down to one person alone, as with historical models – it doesn’t have to be the result of a particular ensemble finding the money to fund a new work, or an individual who has the money to pay for new work finding the composer who needs that funding. I like that even if you don’t have much cash, you can be part of helping to fund new art. Obviously, MTC is in its first iteration and the model is new, but sites like Kickstarter have proven that the model can work, and I think for contemporary classical music it’s a fantastic approach – in recent times too many composers have had to make the incredibly hard decision of whether to compose without financial reward or to wait for a commission, or to not compose at all.

The other aspect I find interesting about Meet The Composer Studio is that the transactions suggested aren’t simple “money = new music” transactions. The model is encouraging the composers to provide bonuses for investors. Most of the composers are offering an option for a signed CD, signed score, a lesson with the composer, some of them offering more social options – dinner with your chosen composer. And the higher the investment amount the more of these bonuses are included. It’s a real expansion of the traditional funding model, and one that’s more in keeping with a world where social networks can enable personal connections even with people you’ve never met. The downside to it is that the composer has to work harder for their money – it’s not as simple as being paid for composition – but it takes advantage of other aspects of the composer which are marketable – the hand-written score, a composer-drawing, personal contact. Self-promotion is by necessity becoming more inventive.

The composers are also providing blog posts, audio and video posts as the project progresses, which should provide a very interesting document of different composers’ creative processes. I can’t wait to see how successful this project is and how feasible this model might become to perhaps replace the day-job as a composer’s main source of income.

Second performance for Deconstruct: Point, line, plane

The London New Wind Festival will be playing my flexible-ensemble piece Deconstruct: Point, line, plane for the second time on 19 November in London at their “Brand New Music for Winds” concert. I’ll be there – and I’ll also be speaking on a panel of composers talking about their work which appears in the concert portion of the evening.

It’s going to be a big night: Panel at 6pm, then a concert at 7pm of sax/clarinets/flute and piano music, and finishing off with the full ensemble concert at 7.45pm (this is the one that Deconstruct will be in). Come along to all of them, or just one.

The full concert programme is over on the London New Wind Festival’s website (you’ll need to scroll down to get to this concert as the page contains details for all concerts in this year’s Festival).

And there’s a Facebook event set up too so you can get reminders. I’ll also be posting reminders closer to the day over on my new Facebook page – visit and become a Fan!