Work in progress: Approaching Rothko

I’ve just started work on a piece I’ve wanted to write for a very long time. It’s a piece that’s been incubating ever since I first discovered the Rothko Room at the Tate Modern when I was overwhelmed by and fell in love with Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals.

At first glance, the Seagram Murals are astoundingly simple in concept, yet overwhelmingly powerful, yet on closer inspection and after spending some time with them, they are technically incredibly complex. To start with, they are huge. Really, really big. But unlike most large pieces, they are not actually designed to be looked at from far away – Rothko’s ideal viewing distance for his paintings was apparently eighteen inches (Crow, ‘The Marginal Difference in Rothko’s Abstraction’, p. 26).

Up close, each painting completely fills your field of vision and you discover that far from being the simple blocks of colour you thought you saw when you entered the room, they are full of tiny details, shifting tones and feathered edges. If you sit with the paintings for a while (Tate thoughtfully provides a couple of benches even though it’s a small room) they start to pulse quietly at you. It feels like they’re alive. They really are extraordinary works of art.

I knew I wanted to write a piece around these works very early on. Not so much a piece *about* or *based on* the murals as a piece *for* them. Ideally, I would like to see a performance in the space itself. I’m not sure whether that would be truly practical – it’s a small room, it gets crowded easily and once there’s more than about 6 people in there, it becomes hard to focus on the paintings, but perhaps a recorded version supplied on iPods might be feasible. It would definitely need stereo/surround-sound effects of some sort, but that’s phase 2 of the project and I’m still thinking about what/how/whether to do something of this sort with the completed piece.

I fairly quickly came to the conclusion that a string quartet would be a good lineup for this piece – if it was to be performed in situ, it needed a small ensemble, but the density of the paintings and their collective effect call for the possibility of dense sounds as well as delicate ones. The homogeneity of tone of a string quartet nicely reflects the similarity of colours Rothko used on these canvases.

So now I’m embarked upon the piece. It’s to be one of the major works for my MMus, which means that at some point someone’s actually going to play the thing, which is, frankly, a little daunting! My tutor and I have determined that as part of my personal quest for the year to learn to write longer pieces (the most common criticism of my work is “Oh, I thought it was going to go on longer”), this work will be around 15 minutes long.

I did actually make a start on it a couple of days ago, playing with some initial ideas, but on playing through what I’d done yesterday, I decided it was bin-worthy and have done some more thinking and am starting again.

Because I’m not accustomed to (and daunted by) writing a piece that long, I felt I really needed to think about what I was going to do with that time. I can’t just mess about with it and hope for the best – this has to happen, and it has to happen relatively fast because I have a truckload of work to get through this year and this is only one small part of a whole which also includes a 5-minute orchestral work, 5-minute large ensemble work, 15-minute song cycle, piece for 2 harps and probably more. There is no time for Carrion-Comfort-style 9-months-to-write-3-minutes-of-music shenanigans this year.

So today I have come up with a structural plan which I think I’m pretty happy with. The form of the piece is going to, more or less, reflect the experience of approaching these paintings. From the initial impression, through the approach, to the up-close view.

This gives me three sections I can focus on clearly, each of which is aimed to be approximately 5 minutes long. I pulled out my coloured pencils (my Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer watercolour pencils, if you care about this sort of thing – my usual Derwent Coloursofts have gone down in a box somewhere…) and made a map of what I’m thinking about doing in the piece. This will probably change as I actually develop material, but it’s what I’m considering right now. The three lines represent the three sections, each 5 minutes long. The colours don’t really have any significance I can explain – they’re just how I feel about what I want to be in there. Strength of tone generally reflects overall dynamic/textural density.

Visual structure plan for the new Rothko quartet

My next step is to play around with and settle on some actual notes to begin with. I made a bit of a stab at this this morning but everything sounded like a jazz chord and was all wrong, so I’ve set it aside in favour of my orchestration homework and scrubbing the loungeroom-to-be and will keep playing around with sounds over the next few days.

Note: I haven’t linked to the paintings in the main text of the article because I wanted to say that if you live in or near London, don’t bother looking online to see what I’m talking about – it won’t give you even the vaguest idea of the power these artworks have in real life. Hie thee to Tate Modern and spend half an hour with them. It’s free. If you aren’t in London, then add it to your itinerary for next time you’re here, and in the meantime look at these deeply inadequate photos on the Tate site and try not to get too depressed or think I’m off my rocker (click on the image to see them on a black background, which works better). Bear in mind that looking at these photographs is a bit like someone drawing a picture of a gold and diamond ring in yellow and grey crayon and then telling you how gorgeous their new jewellery is – however accurate it is, it’s it’s nothing like the real thing!

Bibliography (because I’m a good little Research Methods student now although you can probably tell I haven’t yet read the citation guide and I haven’t done this in a long time, but I’m guessing you can work it out): ‘The Marginal Difference in Rothko’s Abstraction’ by Thomas Crow, pp.25-39 in Seeing Rothko, edited by Glenn Phillips and Thomas Crow, Tate Publishing, London 2006.

In Memoriam William Duckworth


I met William Duckworth once. Just once. At the Mini[]Max Festival in Brisbane in 2002, where he was a featured composer and Topology were giving my Pieces of Eight its Australian premiere. My cousin and I took along our laptops and played in a performance of Duckworth’s Cathedral during the Festival, an amazing experience – my first real experience of improvisation, made safe by Nora Farrell’s curating what was being transmitted from the laptop performers in the theatre and over the internet.

After Pieces of Eight was played, Duckworth asked me to send him some of my scores. For one reason and another – largely to do with my tumbling into an extended period of self-doubt and composer’s block – I never did. But I never forgot that he asked, and over the past few years of resurrecting my composer-brain, it’s always been at the back of my mind, assessing when might be the right time to send him something and see if he had time for a lesson or two.

It won’t happen now. But I will be forever grateful to Bill Duckworth, for showing that interest, for giving me something to work towards and enabling me to remind myself that he saw something in my work that was worth pursuing, that there was something in there that might be worth resuscitating. It’s entirely possible that without that little remark, I might not be where I am today, starting a Masters degree in Composition.

Thank you, Bill. Thank you for your music, your ideas, your writings and your interest in me on the basis of one mad little piece. Rest in peace.

Works in progress: New ways of working

Lotus Lilies by Charles Courtney Curran (1888)Now that my mini-opera, On Harrowdown Hill, is all done, I’m back to working on the two pieces that I abandoned to do it, and it occurred to me, coming back to them, that they have quite a bit in common which might be worth exploring.

The first piece, tentatively titled Lilies on the Silver Sea, is for quarter-tone alto flute for London flautist Carla Rees. It’ll be a solo piece, possibly a solo with tape if Carla’s keen – haven’t quite worked that out yet. The second is a piece for Bristol-based recorder quartet Pink Noise, which will probably be called Ladders of Escape.

The key thing about both pieces is that they pull me away from my usual working methods. Up till now most of the music I have written has used equal temperament and ‘normal’ orchestral instruments, so my usual approach of starting at the piano and then moving into Finale where I can hear an approximation of what I’m writing works well. Not so for these – Finale can certainly create scores with quarter-tones but getting them to play back seems to be a major faff – enough of a faff for me to have basically decided against even trying to compose for quarter-tone alto flute directly into Finale.

Similarly, Ladders of Escape will be using an assortment of extended techniques – and being written for multiple recorders, I’m not even sure I have the instrument sounds to start with, and if I do they’ll be the crappy instruments, not the decent ones, which will be painful and inaccurate. So with both pieces I’m kind of flying blind a bit. Well, not entirely blind, because I do know something about composition! but there won’t be that security blanket I usually have of “ah yes, that’s what I was aiming for” – I won’t know until I get the scores to the performers whether what I’m trying to do will work, which is a little scary when you’re not used to it.

However, both pieces have already been through a kind of sketch process with pieces in Lucky Dip, where I specifically explored material with these projects in mind. When I did Watching the Streets of Zurich and Brussels, an improvisation/field recording collage piece, I was specifically exploring quarter-tones and how I could use them and be comfortable using them. True, I was doing this on a normal C-flute – and a C-flute with closed holes at that, so that all the quarter-tones I used were created by rolling the flute in and out to sharpen or flatten.

Carla’s Kingma system flute, however, enables her to get precise quarter tones through fingering, so that they are there on the flute like any other note – no accidental microtonal glissanding (??) required. While I was quite happy with how Watching the Streets… turned out, I did find it a little disturbing that the flute part ended up sounding vaguely Asian. It wasn’t my intention, and while it’s something I quite like, it’s not really what I want for this piece. I think what I need to explore next for Lilies is probably to devise a quarter-tone-based tuning system/soundworld for the piece that works for me, rather than just barrelling at it and sticking in quarter-tones wherever I feel like it. This is probably obvious to people who already work with quarter-tones regularly, but I’m a newbie at this 🙂

The sketch for Ladders of Escape was the solo recorder piece Triptych for One, written for Jennifer Mackerras who is a member of Pink Noise. I knew that Jen was very open to extended techniques and wouldn’t mind trying out all sorts of odd sounds, so I kind of went for broke on that piece to see what things really sounded like – multiphonics, singing while playing, quarter-tones, flutter-tonguing, finger-vibrato. The challenge there was to be able to use this stuff but make it feel like an integral part of the piece, not just fancy stuff blopped onto a normal score.

It’s kind of an odd piece that one, and I’m still not 100% convinced it really works, but it taught me – more than anything else – that with recorders, you have no idea what will work until you get it onto the actual instrument. I wrote that one straight onto paper (VERY rare for me – haven’t done that since about 2nd year of my undergrad degree!) then copied it into Finale so it would be legible. I ended up using a flute sound (just because there needed to be a sound involved and I was curious to hear what I’d written) and it was AWFUL – hearing it on the recorder when Jen brought it round totally changed the piece and made it plausible.

So for both pieces, I need to throw away the safety blanket and take large leaps into the unknown. At least I’m on firmer ground where sources are concerned so I have ideas for mood and structure already in place.

Like many of my recent pieces, both of these have extra-musical points of departure. Lilies on the Silver Sea starts from a painting by Charles Courney Curran – Lotus Lilies (pictured) – which I saw at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh at their Impressionist Gardens exhibition in 2010. I found the postcard I bought of that painting when I was digging through some boxes and it reminded me, all over again, of the wonderful section at the end of C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader where they are sailing through sweet water, covered in lilies. I wanted to write a piece that reflected that serenity but swift movement, peace but exhilaration which Lewis conveys in his writing. Still not sure how I’m going to do that, but it’s given me some clear ideas about how I’m going to develop my material.

Ladders of Escape’s sources are a bit vaguer – its starting point is paintings by Miró (one example being ‘Une Étoile caresse le sein d’une négresse). He uses a ladder motif in many of his paintings, which in later work combines with a stylised image of a Catalan peasant, both of which convey a longing for his homeland, and for freedom and peace for that homeland. My idea for this one is that the work will be in three movements, exploring various facets of the ladder motif and what it represents.

So, new approaches. All a bit scary. And of course it also means that there’s unlikely to be much for you to listen to in future work-in-progress posts for these pieces, because no convenient MIDI renditions, but hopefully there’ll still be some interesting progress to report. Hopefully 🙂

Update: Lilies on the Silver Sea and Ladders of Escape are the subject of my (early) Creative Pact this year. Follow their progress over at One Creative Thing

Acknowledging musical influence: A useful habit

Yesterday I read (yet another) great post by Nico Muhly – this time he was talking about influence and how “journalists ‘call out’ influence as if it were some secret, unspeakable sexual perversion”. Obviously, Muhly has way more experience of journalists than I do, but I entirely agree with his point of being ‘fully transparent’ about our influences.

I’ve always liked Muhly’s approach to influences – he wears his as a badge of honour and in a way I feel it’s a bit like how pianists are so proud of their tuition lineage – you know, when they learn from a teacher who can trace their teachers all the way back to Beethoven. But in the case of a composer, being upfront about our influences is not just about lineage – it can also give a useful point of reference for understanding and enjoying our work.

In the article, Muhly creates a list of some of his influences, and the way he writes shows how important these composers are to him:

When I map out the emotional structure of a piece on a single piece of paper, I think of John Corigliano. When I put a sforzando accent on the and of 4 if in 4/4 time, I pour one out for Christopher Rouse. When I use certain chord structures, I know I’m taking them from Stravinsky. When I do a crazy multi-instrumental smudge of harmonies and their aggressors, I wish Boulez would come over my house. When I use certain harmonic modulations and motoric gestures, I thank, and sometimes email in advance homage, John Adams.

All this gives a really clear impression of whether you might like this person’s music, so you can make an informed decision about whether to listen or not. I’m all for trying out listening to stuff you might not like – simply because you might learn something, and that something might be that you actually do like it – but with so much new music out there to listen to, it does help to know what you’re getting yourself into.

I’m going to take a little turn here into the world of web development, which many of you will know is my dayjob. Part of what I do is to help people optimise their sites for search engines. Long gone are the days when you just wanted as many ‘hits’ as possible; it’s now widely acknowledged that the better approach is to get fewer hits, but more relevant ones – for those visitors to be actively interested in what you have to say. So the information you provide about a piece – including your influences in writing it – helps to set people’s expections. Manage expectations and you’ll get a better response – maybe not as many plays, but an overall more positive reception.

We should never be afraid of turning people away if what we do makes it easier for our music to be found and heard by its ‘right people’, and I am convinced that being upfront about our influences can help with that.

The usefulness of being clear about your influences can also help people who are trying to programme your music. One of the best concerts I ever went to was a Britten Sinfonia concert where they were premiering a new commission by Nico Muhly (Impossible Things) and the whole programme was constructed around this piece and based on key influences on his music and it was amazing – just like stepping inside his head! The programme started with Purcell and Tippett, then Britten and Steve Reich, so that by the time we got to the new commission you could clearly hear all these things going on in the new piece. I can’t imagine a better way to make a new piece easily comprehensible – especially to a non-specialist audience – than by presenting it in the context of older music that has influenced it.

Composers need to stand up and be proud of their influences – to do so is not only honest but helpful. As Muhly says, “We are all wearing the cloaks of influence all the time, and we should all, as composers, proudly announce the labels on these vestments.”

How do you approach your influences? Do you acknowledge them when you write or talk about your work? Share your opinion in the comments!

Work in progress: A failed experiment

Today I took a chance and dived into a great project initiated by flute and saxophone duo, Duo Fujin – a challenge to write a new composition in 12 hours for flute/piccolo and alto/soprano saxophone based on a ‘secret ingredient’ which they would announce at 9am New York time (2pm here in London). It’s been a while since I’ve really stretched myself with a proper deadline so I tentatively signed up to give it a go.

I should say that I haven’t actually managed to produce a piece. What I have produced is an assortment of mangled bits of music that I’m ashamed to show in public (so you’re not going to see them) but the experience of working through my process intensively and quickly has actually been really interesting for me, in spite of my failure to produce anything worth listening to. No sitting back and pondering, it’s been a case of “Right. Now that’s enough of that. What’s the next step?”. And because it’s been interesting for me and because a number of people on Twitter seem to be curious about the work I’ve done towards my failed experiment, I figured it was blogging time.

I’ll run through the stages I went through, along with images of the pages I created as I was working through things. I’ve probably written things that sound stupid and used images that don’t seem to match up with anything but perhaps there’s something enlightening there. If you have questions or gentle observations, please put ’em in the comments!

So the secret ingredient was…


which immediately (as these things are intended to do) threw all my ideas out and set me off on a completely different tangent. I’m interested in popular culture but I’m the first to admit that I’m not hugely up to speed with it. We touched on remixing a bit in the audio production course I did as part of my Graduate Diploma in Design (yes, audio production in a design course, you did read that right) and it interested me but I never really got around to following it up much. So step one was to do some swift reading around the topic and work out what ‘remix’ could actually cover in a classical, notated-or-semi-notated musical context.

Remix Project P1

I remembered that I had a chunk of an old issue of Wired (July 2005, if you’re interested) lurking in the dark depths of my hard-copy read/review file and dug it out and read it – interesting articles on the virtual band Gorillaz (if you haven’t heard their stuff, get out there and listen now – their latest album, Plastic Beach, is fascinating) and a marvellous one by William Gibson on writing as collage.

(I was collating all this stuff on the iPad, so noting notable quotes involved snapping a photo of the text with the iPad’s camera, erasing extraneous bits and drawing over it with the highlighter ‘pen’ 🙂 No excess writing involved.)

That got some thoughts running and sent me hunting for DJ Danger Mouse’s infamous (and, I believe, banned in some places) The Grey Album, a mashup of The Beatles’ ‘white album’ and rapper Jay-Z’s The Black Album. We heard about this in my audio production course but it couldn’t be found for love nor money. Now? Google it. Download. Listen. Awesome.

Remix Project P4

I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The second step was to grab my collage box and just go for a wade and pull out anything that sparked an idea. These I again snapped with the iPad’s camera, pulled them into my notebook programme (Noteshelf, if you’re interested) and slammed them up against each other and made some notes. That was a bit of a curious collection:

  • a black and white line-drawing texture from a brochure I picked up at (I think) the poster museum in Zurich about 5 years ago
  • an ad featuring an excess of hundreds and thousands and a paddle pop
  • an art flyer for an exhibition of the work of Norwegian artist Ørnulf Opdahl which I never stood a chance of getting to at the University Gallery at Northumbria University (I get these things in the post along with stuff that’s going on a King’s Place in London, which I CAN get to). His work is gorgeous. Go and check it out.
  • a Tate promotional postcard for their Eadweard Muybridge exhibition that was on earlier this year (which I did get to)
  • a ticket for Les Machines de l’Île in Nantes
  • a postcard from the Banksy exhibition in Bristol a couple of years back of a zebra having his stripes laundered
  • an ad for incredibly ornate Dior enamelled rings
  • a marvellous drawing of aeroplanes in the sky by Alighiero e Boetti which (used to?) hang in the Tate Modern. I think it’s all done in biro, if I recall correctly. Amazing work.

[If any copyright holders have a problem with this, please let me know and I’ll remove the related section immediately. My work draws on a lot of visual art and it’s hard to explain the process without showing the pieces that went into it, but I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes here]

Remix Project P6

Next up: listening. I found The Grey Album very intriguing but I did begin to wish that I knew the Jay-Z album so I could really tell how it had been used. But even just hearing how the extremely familiar Beatles elements had been incorporated was fascinating. A number of tracks seemed to have random spaces in them which gave an interesting headspinny effect. Not sure if that was intentional or just my poor ailing laptop chucking a wobbly… but it sparked some new thoughts anyway. I’m looking forward to coming back to this one later and really listening quietly through to it a few times.

Remix Project P8

Finally, I pulled in the piano score of my set of 10-second pieces, Pieces of Eight, which I planned to hack up and glue back together in interesting permutations and hunted through looking for similarities and where I might find bits that could mush together effectively. I don’t think it was a bad concept. I suspect that a large part of the difficulty I had was because my musical language has changed a little bit and because of that I think I probably need to take a completely different approach with this early material. It might have worked better by creating a heavily manipulated tape part out of the mashup ideas, then creating shiny new instrumental lines over the top of it that gently referenced some of what was going on underneath. Might follow through on that idea one day.

So there you have it. I really liked pushing myself through the process at high speed and I might try that again someday with another piece – maybe make myself tear through the first stages to a point where I feel that I could do notes, then let it simmer overnight and see what happens. The speed and need to not linger over any one idea seemed to create more imaginative collisions when I found something new and there were a lot of ideas happening. Evidently not the right ideas for this project though!

Want to see the whole notebook? See it on Flickr.

Blades of grass: Arvo Pärt, Joan Miró and musical detail

A few weeks ago a composer-friend posted a wonderful video of a composition masterclass with Arvo Pärt. He takes a tiny phrase from his piano piece Für Alina and separates out its components with beautiful precision. Playing each line separately, he shows that each on its own is musically nothing much, but when put together, the detail of the intervals created and the motion of one part against the other suddenly makes that special Pärt soundworld happen and it’s just gorgeous. In his words, ‘a blade of grass has the status of a flower’ – even the tiniest detail is as important as a big theme.

I haven’t been able to get this idea out of my head. It turned up at about the point I’m up to in my Work in Progress series of posts – I was very focused on the held chords and notes in Carrion Comfort and my teacher was encouraging me to pull out my tiny main theme and work with inversion, augmentation and diminution of intervals to see how it might be transformed and gradually expanded to take it into new territory. It seemed like just the right idea at the right time.

This weekend, I went out to the Tate Modern with another friend to see the big Joan Miró exhibition they have on at the moment. We were both entranced by the details and distillation of his symbolic language, which you could see happening right from some of the earliest paintings in the exhibition – a naturalistic or semi-naturalistic object gradually became a symbolic mark, which then evolved to take on characteristics of other objects-become-symbols. So a ladder-of-escape symbol also reflected the symbol of the Catalan peasant, representative of the painter’s national identity.

Exploring the tiny details in the paintings in the exhibition, I was reminded of Pärt’s remarks. And then afterwards I had a Facebook message from my friend with a Miró quote from a letter the artist sent to JF Rafols:

“Joy at learning to understand a tiny blade of grass in a landscape. Why belittle it? A blade of grass is as enchanting as a tree or a mountain.”

When I looked further into this quote (thank you, Google) I was delighted to find that he goes on to say:

“Everyone looks for and paints only the huge masses of trees, of mountains, without hearing the music of blades of grass and little flowers and without paying attention to the tiny pebbles of a ravine”

I love that some tiny gesture can have so much significance. A twist of an interval, a series of small dots can completely change the way you view the whole. These artists delineate and show only the essence of the work. It makes me wonder what in my own work is really needed and what is just clouding the structure – how does one effectively work with a large number of instruments but still pare the music back to only what is needed?

A blade of grass has the status of a flower.

Creativity/productivity: Improving creative workflow

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on how the Pomodoro Technique helped me to overcome writer’s block. But half the battle with any sort of creative work – not least composition – is not the starting or the ending, but the continuing. It’s the bit where every day you go back to your work, pick up where you left off, and keep going in a consistent manner. Today I’m going to write about how the Pomodoro Technique helps with this too – via a neat little productivity trick called the Hemingway Hack.

Ernest Hemingway’s working habit was “always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next”. Don’t finish your thought, don’t even finish the sentence or the phrase – keep it for next time. And in between now and then, try not to think about it.

It seems like madness – if you’ve got a great idea, why wouldn’t you put it in place? Why would you run the risk of it evaporating between the end of one session and the beginning of another?

The answer is that by not putting everything down, by not finishing the phrase, the brain has something to quietly work on behind the scenes, ready for the next session. It doesn’t have to stress about thinking up shiny new ideas because it already has one that’s quietly maturing and spawning new ideas without you really being involved. And even better, when you make yourself abandon your work before you’re finished, it provides its own incentive to get back to it.

The Pomodoro Technique, with its structure of 25-minute blocks of uninterrupted productivity, separated by 5-10 minute breaks, is a perfect ready-made framework for testing out the Hemingway Hack because it works on two different levels. It applies between work sessions (so long as they’re not too far apart), but it also works in miniature between the individual pomodori of a single session.

My work session can be determined by how many pomodori I want to spend on my project rather than just working until the ideas run out. I’m more likely to feel great about the work I’ve done, rather than depleted and worried about whether I can come up with something tomorrow. And the best bit? I don’t need to decide “this is the bit I’m going to leave unfinished” – I stop when the timer says I should stop. And then I stop thinking about it.1

I find this a great technique for keeping work on a composition moving along. It’s very easy to implement, and works brilliantly if you’re trying to get into the habit of doing your work every day. Give it a go and let me know in the comments how you get on!


1. This bit is the hard part 🙂 Hemingway used to read work by contemporary writers after he’d finished writing. He says “If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day… To keep my mind off writing sometimes after I had worked I would read writers who were writing then” Hemingway on Writing, pp. 42-43

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!

Awesomeness: Tate Modern

Maybe not the most obvious in the general arsenal of composition tools, but the way I work now, a lot of my pieces start with a piece of art. And more often than not that piece of art is one that I’ve seen in the Tate Modern. I LOVE that place. You can see & hear me burbling on about it in the video they made of me for the (doomed) Creative Journeys project. I find it an easy place to burble about.

To start with, there’s so much to see, and all sorts of different styles, ideas, textures, media – everything from a giant’s table and chairs – like something out of Alice in Wonderland post-Drink Me – to crazy Dadaist collages and the astoundingly emotional Seagram Murals of Mark Rothko.

The Rothko Room is my favourite place in London. The Seagram Murals have actually been travelling about the world for quite some time and golly gosh, I’ve missed them (I believe they’re back home now. Must go and visit them again). It’s like a haven of insecurity and instability, if that makes any sense at all. A safe room where the art on the walls seems more and more full of risk the more time you spend with it. It’s like being perfectly still but being surrounded by a great mass of tiny movements. One day I will write a piece for the Seagram Murals. I’m working up to it.

Two recent pieces I’ve written which have started at the Tate Modern are Deconstruct: Point, line, plane and Thickets. Deconstruct starts with Kandinsky. Not any particular Kandinsky, but more the Kandinskyness of Kandinsky. I went to the big exhibition of his work they had a couple of years ago and it sort of stuck with me. That piece comes out of colours and lines, to start with, but is ultimately more about his ideas, especially those in his book Point and Line to Plane. Thickets, on the other hand, started with a specific painting – a room-sized triptych by Cy Twombly – then developed out into more abstract ideas sparked by that painting, ideas about enclosure, security, safety, claustrophobia, connections. I don’t know that either piece would make an uninformed listener leap up and cry “By golly! Kandinsky!” or “It’s just Cy Twombly all over!” but for me the art is a critical point of the process which is how it ended up where it ended up.

Of course, the Tate itself is in London, which is nice and handy for me right now, but not necessarily for you. But don’t let that stop you! The Tate website has all sorts of things on it – go and have a wander round! There’s Tate Channel for interesting videos on artists and exhibitions, the TateShots blog for exploring various aspects of the collection and the Collection section offers a variety of ways to browse the Tate’s amazing (and huge) collection – and not just what’s physically on display at the moment. You can even explore Tate artworks in Google Street View!