Work in progress: Carrion Comfort 1

This post comes with a disclaimer: it’s taken quite a lot of courage for me to put this online – not only does this post contain the very first moments of the composition of Carrion Comfort, but the piece itself isn’t finished yet – by quite a long way. Please be gentle in the comments and don’t judge what the final work will be based on what you read and hear here. Also, the sounds are straight out of Finale – don’t expect miracles!

I’ve talked myself into posting my work-in-progress online for a few reasons. One is that people seem to like me talking about my compositional process; another is that I’ve reached a point with this piece where I’m feeling a little bit uncertain of where it wants to go. Often analysing what I’ve already done and how I got there helps me to work out how to move forward. Doing this in public, though, is a little scary…

And so to begin

Work in progress: Carrion Comfort 1 by caitlinrowley

Carrion Comfort is a work for chamber orchestra that started as an idea for a song for tenor voice with chamber orchestra. Single winds and brass, strings, maybe some percussion.

Before I started writing, I’d been listening to Nicholas Maw’s Life Studies I pretty solidly for about a week. That’s a fantastic piece. So subtle and spacious. I knew I really wanted to explore a sense of space like I was hearing in the Maw in whatever I was going to write next, so I sat down with the score and started analysing how he achieved that.

The opening of Carrion Comfort is very much about exploring some of the techniques Maw uses. I’ve written about these in an earlier blog post, Making space in music, so I won’t go into detail here, but that’s where it begins.

The first minute and a quarter just wrote themselves in one big blurp (technical term). I had all these sounds in my head from the Maw and sat down to try to make some sense of them, but without much clear idea of exactly what I wanted to do. I just wanted to explore some ideas around the spaciousness in that work. Next thing I knew, I had over a minute’s worth of music solidly sketched. It is very much a sketch – later progress has filled in a lot of detail and given it more form – but it’s a sketch which (I think) shows clearly the form it’s going to take.

The piece started writing itself before I even had a text, which is most unusual for me – the first three notes of the vocal part just put themselves in. I knew I wanted to find a text which explored a crisis of faith, and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Carrion Comfort was just what I was looking for – not only did it express exactly what I was hoping to explore, but its first words exactly matched the pattern that had written itself.

There’s not really a lot more to say about it at this point – it just wrote itself out of what I’d been listening to and thinking about, but this is the starting point – 16 March 2011, 11.23pm.

Next week I’ll dig out a later version to look at. If you want to be sure not to miss it, please do join the email list!

I’d love to hear your comments and your own experiences at starting a new piece – but please be gentle and remember that this is but an egg of the piece yet-to-be-finished!

Refining a single line: Diabolus for solo violin (part 2)

Back in February I wrote a post called Approaching a single line from three directions on the beginnings of my short piece for unaccompanied violin, Diabolus. In it I described how I began this work by condensing three separate lines into one. Today I want to talk about how I took it from where it was then to its completed form.

You might want to download the completed score (free with email signup) and have a look at the final piece first. Or just listen here:

When we left Diabolus back in February, I had condensed my three lines down into one unplayable line.

Example: Adding the amalgamated line

My first task after this point was to fix up the chugging chords so that they would actually be playable while retaining the feel I was after. The tritone was obviously the most important element in the chord – the B-flat to E – and the F dissonance was just icing on the cake so I ditched it and focused on the tritone.

I’ll not go blow-by-blow through the whole process because I was tweaking for about three weeks and it would bore you to tears (if you’re truly fascinated I can send you something like 6 or 8 drafts and you can work it out for yourself), but as I worked through it, a few key things became clear:

  1. While the tritone was the sound I wanted, the continual return to such a raw, unstable interval always in the same place in the instrument’s range became very grating after only a small amount of repetition and really sucked the life out of the piece as a whole
  2. The rhythmic chordal figure (probably in combination with the registral/timbral problem in 1) felt very restrictive and oppressive
  3. Once I’d worked out an ending, it felt very bald and rough and I felt I needed to find ways to gentle both the tritone focus throughout and the ending.

So I worked on these issues, on my own, then in consultation with a violinist friend and my composition teacher and ended up with the following solutions/adjustments.

  • Expanding the tritone chords – flipping the notes, adding a third note, dropping back to a single tone – really helped create both a varied texture and a lighter feel overall. The arpeggiation needed to perform the triple stops helped to free up the oppressive rhythm, giving more of a gypsy-like feel and setting up for the performer to stretch and compress the music and take a few liberties.
  • My friend suggested that I use open strings for some of the Es, and my composition teacher then suggested simultaneous open and stopped Es where extra emphasis was wanted. The earthiness of the open string sound quite changes the character of the note and seems to have more life to it than the stopped sound – must be the unfettered overtones!
  • Expanding the tritone chords encouraged me to push the register of other parts of the music too. The difference octave shifts made was immense! Really brought light and colour into the piece and far from my initial concerns that octave displacements might cut the music’s momentum, they actually seemed to drive it forward. I think I probably wouldn’t have discovered this if I’d just tried to write it as a single line to start with. Because my initial approach required a certain fragmenting of materials as I patched the three lines together, I think this made me think about that material in a different way – each element was still clearly associated in my mind with the line it had initially occupied and this made it easier to throw these bits around and not be too precious about breaking up the perceived line that was starting to form.
  • Exhilarating as I found playing with the octave shifts to be, there still wasn’t that much timbral variety in the piece. My teacher suggested I make use of harmonics for some of the still, held notes to emphasise the change in character.
  • After several experiments with triple stops and various flourishes for the ending, I pulled back a bit, broke up the tritone just before the end and added in a glissando from the last of the tritone notes to the final D. I think this works quite well – it’s a nod to the gypsy idea  and a chance for the performer to stretch things how he wants them, and it ends on a single pure note rather than the harmonic wobbliness of the tritone.

The whole piece was a bit of an experiment, and it was fantastic to play about with some approaches to material and techniques that weren’t things I’d usually have thought of. I think the shortness of the work also encouraged a certain amount of daring – if you need to make a mark in only 60 seconds, then trying something a little extravagant is a good way to achieve it.

In particular, now that I’ve started on a new piece – a work for chamber orchestra – I’m seeing where those experiments have paid off – I’m being freer in my use of a bigger part of the range of the instruments and glissandi have crept into the string parts too! I’m also finding I’m very aware of when I’m being conservative and just following my same old path and when I should maybe be pushing myself more to try something a bit experimental.

After the piece was submitted to 15 Minutes of Fame, my teacher made some additional suggestions which I haven’t explored yet, but would like to, including:

  • Using left-hand pizzicato to allow bowed and plucked notes at the same time for a greater variety of texture and separation of lines
  • Tremolando sul ponticello for the ‘ethereal’ passage in bars 13-14

He also suggested I gather up a few friendly violinists and send each a slightly different version of the piece to play through and record, so as to get a real feel for how these techniques would sound on a real instrument. I love this idea! If you’re a friendly violinist and would like to be involved, please let me know in the comments or email me!

Making space in music

Since I started getting into modern art and using it as a starting point for my composition, I’ve come to think about the way I approach my music as being something like watercolours.

I love the space in watercolours – the always-present texture of the paper, the way that colours can combine on the paper to give fleeting new shades, not just something to be predetermined and absolute from the palette, but shades that can develop and change according to how many layers of pigment are applied.

And this is the way I approach my music too. I feel my way as I go. Add an instrument here, take one away – fleeting timbre changes that occur through layering one transparent colour on top of another. Perhaps that’s why my music has always tended towards smaller ensembles – I’ve had trouble thinking in the large-scale way that bigger ensembles seem to require.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about ways I could tackle larger-scale pieces. Thinking about how to keep a sense of space in a bigger piece. To work with blocks of timbre but not feel crushed by the weight of sound. Thinking about how this might relate to the way I handle form too.

I’m taking lessons this semester at the London College of Music with Simon Lambros and without my even having specifically talked about this space issue, he’s introduced me to a simply amazing piece of music – Nicholas Maw’s Life Studies. No. 1 in particular has been a bit of a revelation – the space in the opening of this piece is just phenomenal!

So I’ve been doing a lot of listening and a little rough analysis on this opening to see what I can glean from this to use in my own work. Here are some initial observations:

  • Chunks of silence – he’s in no hurry to rush on to the next thing. The piece is slow, but there’s still movement, it’s just that the movement from one thing to another isn’t an imperative. It’s more… exploratory.
  • Wide, unhurried melodic leaps. Most of the melodic material at the start of this work moves by leaps of over an octave and I think this expansive use of an instrument’s range spreads out the melodic material vertically as well as horizontally
  • Very long held notes – just as he feels no requirement to have sound at all times, he feels no requirement to end a held note after a “reasonable” duration. He uses these long notes to help ‘pin down’ shorter fragments of melody so they feel a part of the whole – like ornaments on one long breath
  • Quiet yet detailed dynamics. I think the quiet of the piece as a whole makes us pay attention a little more to the detail. You have to really listen for what’s going on. It’s not going to leap out and batter you over the head in a fortissimo moment – if you don’t pay attention you’ll miss something.
  • Chord spacing. The chords he uses aren’t necessarily widely voiced, but most of them have at least one wide interval in them, generally at the bottom of the stack, which makes the smaller intervals higher up (quite often very close intervals – semitones or tones) feel like they’re floating.

Obviously, this isn’t a recipe for every piece – I’m sure there’s a way to write expansive fast and loud music – but it’s giving me food for thought. I’ve started a new piece now – a song for tenor and chamber orchestra which is quite unlike anything I’ve ever written before. It may still be a disaster, of course, but for now I’m finding it interesting just experimenting with these ideas and seeing what happens.


What other pieces of music do you feel achieve this sort of spaciousness? Do you search for space in your own music? What techniques have you found effective? Please share!

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.