Identification: Considering what sort of composer I am

This week is “performance week” at college, which anywhere else would probably be a “reading week” and gosh I wish it was – I need to catch up!! However, all the full-time Trinity students are involved in a big celebration of John Cage, Out of the Cage, which is happening this Friday 12pm-11pm -come along! It’ll be fun!

As such, I have no classes this week, so I’m grabbing the opportunity of an Adler-reading-free train trip to dash off a quick post.

This is one I’ve been meaning to write since the start of term when my new tutor looked at the scores I’d brought in and said “hmm. Conservative”. Now, I know that he was just mentally classifying me as conservative vs avant-grade, and the pieces I brought in for him – Thickets, Carrion Comfort and On Harrowdown Hill – are among my more conservative, even if most successful pieces, but that word “conservative” raised my hackles just a little and I’ve been thinking about why.

After not really very much thought I came to the conclusion that actually I think of myself as an experimental composer. Not because I write stuff that’s particularly radical, but more literally because I like to experiment and because I feel that the foundations of the way I write and think about music are rooted in the experimental tradition more than in standard repertoire.

I write predominantly tonal music – but more because of Gavin Bryars and Steve Reich than Beethoven and Chopin. I like to think I embrace, and set myself, challenges – things like Lucky Dip and the mini opera in 5 weeks. I like to explore different ways of thinking about music, such as how visual art techniques can be repurposed in a musical context as composition tools.

So I guess that’s more about a mindset rather than how the music ends up sounding. And I guess it’s all about putting one’s music in boxes at the end of the day and labels don’t matter, blah blah blah, but there it is. I may seem but a mild-mannered conservative composer, but underneath it all I’m a seething experimentalist 🙂

How would you categorise yourself as a composer or artist?

A self-assessment

Today was the first sort-of-proper day of my Masters degree at Trinity Laban. ‘Sort-of-proper’ because we’re in induction week, so it was mostly welcome and general info meetings, but I learnt a lot about the course I’ve taken on, which led to a serious moment of terror as I read through the assessment requirements and tallied up just how much work is going to be involved!

The most important thing I discovered is that I really need a plan for the year. I need to think about not just want I want to achieve (which is fairly fluffy at the moment: ‘Get exposed to new stuff. Become a better composer. Work with real performers’) but what pieces I want to write, which is something I hadn’t really thought about at all.

So I think the time has come to do some thinking out loud about what I’m pleased with in my latest writing and my approach, and what I think could do with some work.

Stuff I like:

  • The slimness of my textures
  • The focus on line instead of harmony
  • My sense of balance
  • I think I write OK for most instruments

Stuff I’m less sure about:

  • I’m happy with the way I work for the most part, but I also feel hemmed in by it. I’d like to be able to be a bit more flexible, less reliant on the piano and the computer. My August Creative Pact was an attempt to free this up, but it failed miserably. I’d like to sort this out
  • The most common criticism of my music is “It was too short”. While this is also a bit of a compliment, I’m acutely aware that pretty much everything I write is miniature – even the opera! I don’t release a piece into the wild until it feels well balanced to me, but often I stall at the point of trying to push material past about the 3-minute mark. Often if I do push it, it feels stretched and uncomfortable and unfocused. I want to learn how to push this boundary so that I can write a 20 minute piece with the same aplomb I can approach a 2 minute piece. I’m less interested in writing a 20 minute piece quickly than in writing it at all…
  • I feel I flounder when writing for larger ensembles. My preference for delicate textures and focus on horizontal instead of vertical material makes it a real challenge to work out what to do with a large number of instruments. Carrion Comfort was very difficult like this, hence the very limited brass section in that piece – I just couldn’t think of what to do with them that wouldn’t muddy the sound

Stuff I enjoy that I’d like to do more of, things I’d like to try:

  • Writing for voices
  • I’d like to write a string quartet. I’ve had an idea lurking for a while, based on Rothko’s astounding Seagram Murals (at the Tate Modern if you’ve never seen them. They have their own room. Go in and sit with them until they start to pulse gently at you. Amazing) – might be a good time to give it a go?
  • Something for percussion, whether solo or group
  • I’ve had an idea for a while for a piece which combines composing with mobile web development, involving the geolocation API
  • While I’m not sure how it might fit into the course, especially only in one year, I really really want to do some more opera. Maybe a 1-act opera? Maybe a song cycle with theatrical elements? I really enjoyed writing On Harrowdown Hill and am itching to do some more!

Hmm. So what I’m getting from this is:

  • An orchestral piece to tackle the larger ensembles issue. Possibly two.
  • A large-scale chamber piece to tackle the duration issue (because it’s probably not wise to try to address both the larger ensembles and the duration problems in the same piece). Again, possibly two. Maybe these could be the string quartet and the percussion piece?
  • Continuing to push the way I work and trying to get over the feelings of failure if/when it doesn’t work. Maybe I was trying to do too much at once in my Creative Pact – maybe I should try writing a more ‘normal’ piece (for me) but in a new way, instead of tackling extended techniques and new ways of thinking with new ways of approaching my craft.
  • Something to do with voices. I’ve already had a tenor suggest I write a song cycle for him, so that may be a great place to start!
  • We need to create a portfolio of experimental pieces too, so the geolocation piece might work well for that

Obviously, this needs some more thinking, and I need to push myself to get back to writing after the hideous stress of the last couple of weeks scared my brain away, but I think this is a good start.

PS. In Composer Workshop today we brought our instruments along and put together a version of John Cage’s Musicircus which was a lot of fun. One of the singing teachers came along and to start us off she sang four short songs from Cage’s Sonnekus, which are absolutely gorgeous and designed to be interspersed with Erik Satie’s café-concert songs (which I adore). Have a listen on Spotify!

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

ENO Mini Opera: The final cut

On Harrowdown Hill - cover artUh… wow. What a weekend. I’m absolutely exhausted, but it’s SO been worth it. As I said on Twitter the other day, all SQUEE all of the time!

I’m not entirely sure where to start with this, but I guess the logical point is to say that On Harrowdown Hill is FINISHED! And not only finished, but submitted to ENO and on its way to being considered for the next round of the competition. Have a listen:

I’m not thinking too much about the next round. I would LOVE to be shortlisted, and would be an unstoppable ball of squee were I to be picked for the mentorship with Nico Muhly, but even if it goes no further, it’s been a massively worthwhile thing to do.

I think I said earlier that is the first time I’ve written in short score, which was purely for the expediency of having the vocal parts done in time for the singers to learn them while I worked on the (mostly) MIDI instrumental parts (small piece of trivia: I discovered last night, while reading The Muse That Sings, that this is how John Adams did Nixon in China and Death of Klinghoffer too – and for the same reason!). So it was a bit of a new experience, and orchestrating was actually a little harder than I thought it would be because I’d got so used to having the piano sound in my head that it was quite difficult to get rid of it from anywhere.

The beginning ended up fairly lush for me, really, all those strings, but as it went along it got sparser and sparser until at the end it’s just single notes in flute or electric violin underpinning the voice, and finally – after a quiet flourish across the ensemble – it’s just The Inspector. Partly this because I wanted to emphasise how isolated The Inspector feels by the end of it – he’s been thrown to the wolves and there’s nobody defending him; and partly it was down to a lack of time to write anything more complex while preserving that feeling. Oddly, I think the ending is possibly the part I like the best. I like how little underpinning there is. To me it feels both beautiful and really, really bleak, so hoping others feel the same way 🙂

For the fanfarey “They wanted a war”, I ended up cutting out snippets from each of the two piano parts to make the flute part, and doubling some of the bass gestures in the cello for a warmer tone. I think, had there been more time in which to write, and more duration to play with, I would probably have done something smoother with the transition into this section, but Chrissie’s marvellously wicked electric violin noise really helps make the transition sound not as twee as it did when it was just the piano.

I did want to refine and include some more percussion, but there just wasn’t enough time to even think about it – if I go back over it in a bit (which I may) then that’s probably where I’d start.

But overall I’m pleased with how it’s ended up. It’s not perfect, but I kind of like the rough edges too – they sort of go with the vulnerability of The Inspector and – I hope – reinforce his fragile state.

As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been wanting to try my hand at writing an opera for ages, but it’s kind of a daunting thing to start and while I have my chosen topic, I’ve been a little nervous about starting real work on it – maybe I wouldn’t enjoy it that much, maybe I wouldn’t grasp key things about how the drama should work, maybe I’d spend 10 years on it and it still wouldn’t be finished. But this little toe in the operatic water has made me really determined to push on and try a larger project – it’s been so much fun, so satisfying and interesting that I really can’t wait to try my hand at another one.

I’ve hugely enjoyed working with the text and feeling my way through the dramatic differences between words and music, even when that meant I had to cut text or music I really liked. It’s been amazing being able to work with real performers, which still feels like a bit of a novelty for me. And even on the level of the mundanely technical, I’ve learned a heap of stuff – how to get Finale to print out timecode in a score, how to set Logic up properly to deal with a multi-timbral instrument so that it doesn’t overload the computer (DEFINITELY a bonus!). I even finally discovered how to normalise an audio track without having to bounce it in place! WHEE! That one’s eluded me for ages (yes, I’m sure it’s in the manual somewhere but I couldn’t find it).

So, there it is. All done and submitted. So it’s time for a list of thank-yous, because like any opera I couldn’t have done it entirely on my own, so a great big thank you to…

  • Shaun Gardiner for his wonderful libretto & banter on Twitter
  • Charles Turner for agreeing so early in the piece to sing the part of The Inspector – it really wouldn’t have had half the impact if I’d had to sing it!
  • Andrew Pickett for asking if there might be a part for a counter-tenor and thereby not only contributing a great voice (and more excellent Twitter banter) but ensuring that the final product was not marred by my having to sing any of the major parts at all.
  • Nick Allen for volunteering for the tenor part at a point where I had thought it might have to be a tenor-free zone
  • Chrissie Caulfied for agreeing to make scary, scary noises with her electric violin – I really think this lifts the whole thing and makes it all more dramatic
  • Jenni Pinnock, Tamara Tempera, Kris Martin-Baker and Rachel Rhodes for helping out with the chorus of Journalists
  • Chip Michael for his fabulous TwtrSymphony experience, compiled into a marvellously useful email that helped me know what to specify for the recordings to have any hope of making it all sound like everyone was in one room, not on various sides of the Atlantic. It’s not perfect in that regard, but a lot closer than it would have been without Chip’s advice.
  • and – of course! – English National Opera for running the competition in the first place – a great idea and a fantastic experience – I can’t wait to see what results from the video round!

Want to say something about the new opera or its process? Got a question? That’s what the comments are for!

ENO Mini Opera: At draft’s end

Well, I’ve got to the end of the draft! I was beginning to think it would never happen, but I’m there. It was about 7’30” long, so I’ve made a couple of cuts and tightened it up a bit to pull it in under the 7 minute mark. ENO said a few seconds over is allowable, but I wanted to see if I could make it fit without compromising the structure, and I think it’s actually better for it.

I’ve had to make some quite significant cuts in the second half of the libretto to get to this point. It kind of hurt to do it, because I think the libretto as a piece of writing is well balanced, but with the music there were just bits that weren’t working. I could see that there wasn’t enough time to include all the words anyway, so once I realised that I also didn’t really know how to handle the chorus of Politicians’ text properly, and given the difficulty in sourcing male voices – having struggled to find a tenor for the role of the Journalist and at that point only having been able to recruit altos for the choral parts – it seemed a better idea to cut it and just keep The Inspector’s words from that section.

This, of course, makes the role of The Inspector even more central than it was before. The character of the innocent dominates the opera, encircled by the smaller, malevolent roles of The Advisor, The Journalist and the chorus of Journalists. I’m hoping Charles doesn’t mind too much 🙂

I’ve also cut a small section out of the final aria. I wanted to reuse ideas from the first aria, so that the whole wouldn’t seem too rambly, and to reinforce the repetitions in the libretto, and the section “An animal in the trap of its own life, a creature fallen into the gap of its own existence” didn’t sit comfortably – it felt like it was going to draw the material I had out too far, make it feel like I was belabouring the point. Plus, of course, that pesky time-limit.

The part I cut to bring it in under the time-limit is actually a pretty significant piece of text and I hope I haven’t done a disservice to understanding what’s going on by removing it. It appears at the end of the second draft recording that’s up on Soundcloud – “I whispered doubts”. I did really like the end of that section, but the beginning was meandering a bit, and once I’d drafted the end there were quite a lot of sections which were The Inspector singing about how he’d been misrepresented. By the time the Politicians were cut, there was another one too, so I think the drama works better without this section and what I have for “It couldn’t be me” I think is better than what I had for “I whispered doubts” so I’m hoping it’ll all come out in the wash.

So that’s the draft done. I can’t quite believe I’ve actually written 7 minutes of relatively coherent music in about 4 weeks. That’s a first. Length has never been my strong suit – pretty much everything I’ve ever written has tended towards the miniature, so I’m quite pleased with this.

Of course, now I have a mere week in which to flesh out and orchestrate the accompaniment, receive recordings from the principals and chorus, and assemble all those bits into a coherent whole. So the whole thing could still fall flat on its face. Wait and see…

I’m still desperately seeking choral singers! As you can tell, it’s a small part – why not give it a go?

ENO Mini Opera: Calling for choral singers!!!

Today’s a bit of a red-letter day, because not only have I completed the draft score and prepped the click-tracks, but I’ve got soloists for all three major roles! Charles Turner singing The Inspector you know about from an earlier post, but today’s new recruits are counter-tenor Andrew Pickett who is having a go at The Advisor and tenor Nick Allen who is tackling The Journalist.

And now it’s time to get the chorus happening! So far, I have a chorus of 3 altos and one soprano, so I’ve designed the choral bit to be pretty flexible. The video below (best viewed in HD and full screen to see the detail and be able to read the score) runs through the same music three times and the idea is that everyone will record at least one run through – the first time round everything is on A, the second time on C and the third time on E. If you can sing those notes in multiple octaves, or feel like recording several passes through them, please do – the more voices and pitches we have, the lusher the sound will be.

If you do want to participate, here are some pointers for your recording:

  • Please record at the highest quality your equipment can handle – for preference WAV or AIFF files rather than MP3, and the highest bitrate setting you can find (44.1kHz for preference – that’s CD quality)
  • Try to record in a ‘dry’ room – if there’s a lot of resonance in the recording it may be hard to combine them convincingly – adding digital reverb to dry recordings can help to make it sound like everyone’s in the same room.
  • Please include a good chunk (about a minute) of silence in your recording – this is so I have some ambient sound from your environment in case I need it for the mixing.

The video shows the score playing along in Finale and includes a click track (the snare drum sound) to help you keep track of the beat. Just put on your headphones (volume not too loud! Don’t want it coming through into the recording!), set up your recording gear, play the video and record yourself singing along.

Yes, the accompaniment feels very heavy-handed at the moment. That’s because it’s still a draft and hasn’t had any orchestration done to it 🙂 And the “Who” chords feel clunky because it seemed easier to just get everyone to record the notes on the beat and I’ll spread them out when I mix it, rather than messing about with odd rhythms when I didn’t even know how many or what voices I’d have 🙂

Interested? Hurrah! Tell your friends! Recordings need to sent to me no later than Friday Sunday 22nd July (get in touch and we can work out the best way for you to send it) as I’ll need to mix everything in and prepare the file ready for submission on Monday the 23rd.

Alas, it seems I wasn’t clear enough as to what the chorus needs to sing in this – it’s the line directly above the piano in the video, with the words “Who”, “Who”, “Is it this man?”, “Is it this man?” and each run through is just on one pitch – A, C or E (there are three repetitions of the section in the video)…

Want to download the choral score or get the video offline(warning: it’s about 17Mb!)? You can download them here.

ENO Mini Opera: Dramatic movement, working with a libretto and battling twee

I’ve been a bit quiet about progress on my mini opera because I struck a bit of a snag. Working on the section “They wanted a war” (The Inspector/The Journalist) turned out to be trickier than anticipated.

The first idea I came up with was similar in style and mood to the opening (“When my cue comes, call me”) and I began to be a little concerned about the dramatic momentum of the work as a whole – if everything The Inspector sang was going to be slightly sad and warbly, then it’d be a pretty dull opera and it’d be gosh-darned difficult to pull out any real drama.

So I put that to one side and started playing round with a sort of fanfare-like figure in the accompaniment. I was able to create a melody for The Inspector that was a bit stronger but still lyrical and related to his opening ‘aria’ (for want of a better word). However, as soon as I started writing the bit for The Journalist – which reuses text from The Advisor’s part at the end of “When my cue comes”, “Dull, dull, dull… Something with a bit more tooth etc.” – it started turning itself into this twee little chirpy ditty – NOT what I was after at all!

And so I battled. I tweaked and I pulled and I deleted and rewrote and nothing helped.

Then I realised that I’d notated the whole number in 4/4 (because I was sketching straight into Finale) but the feel of it was more 3/4 so (after a good deal of technical palaver thanks to a bug in Finale) I switched the time signature and suddenly it all made a good deal more sense.

I’ve ended up ditching the line from the libretto which was causing me the most trouble, “But these have a sexier sound” – I just couldn’t get it to sound convincing no matter what I tried – and to a certain extent I’ve just embraced the twee but by splitting up The Journalist’s lines for “something with a bit more tooth”, while still keeping a relationship with the first iteration of them, and interspersing them with repetitions of The Inspector’s “Those aren’t my words”, I hope I’ve managed to convey the feel intended in the libretto and heighten the tension a bit too.

I’m finding working with the libretto really extremely interesting. I’ve made very few changes really – deleting “But these have a sexier sound” is the first time I’ve cut a whole line, and I think this work is a bit tighter for it. I contracted “Something with a bit more tooth, a bit more eye, a bit more bite” both times it’s occurred to “Something with a bit more tooth, a bit more eye, more bite” because it helps to raise the melody line a bit – it has more of a soar in it without the extra “a bit”. I’ve repeated a couple of bits, too, like the “Those aren’t my words” and also at a few points in the first aria.

I’m also exploring a new way of working for me. Usually when I’m writing a piece (as you see in the Carrion Comfort Work in Progress posts) I work slowly, producing sections that are pretty much fully formed and only need tweaks. This is the first time I’ve sketched out what I want, needing to come back later and fill it in.

I’ve kind of had to work like this because of the very tight deadline and the need to get the vocal parts off to singers, in particular. Most of the accompaniment I’ll be working on myself, in MIDI, so I have control over that, and mostly it’ll be done in software anyway, but singers need to learn their parts and record them, and then I need to integrate them into the stuff I’ve done. So I’ve been focusing on the vocal lines to get them done and I’ll just be working around those for everything else.

That deadline’s seriously looming, though. I’m quite grateful the employment monster seems to have abandoned me in this respect (although I really could do with the money – anyone need a website built? 🙂 ) because I’ve been able to spend every day out at the house, scraping tar off the floors and working on the opera. I’m still not 100% convinced that I can finish it all in time for the 23rd, but I’m sure going to try my hardest and see what I can come up with.

What? You want to hear it? Oh all right then 🙂 Please bear in mind that these two recordings are as rough as rough can be. You get me singing – badly, and all the parts – and no orchestration. In some places, no accompaniment too. But these are the sketches as they stand. Once I start fleshing them out, I’ll post those too. But first to finish the outlines!

ALSO: I am still Desperately Seeking Choral Singers for the chorus of journalists – if you’re interested – and especially if you’re not an alto (sorry – got 3 altos at the moment but no other voice type!), please get in touch! It’s a small part – shouldn’t take long – and I can provide a click-track version to record to, or any other variant you desire.

Mini opera takes off!!

On Harrowdown HillI hadn’t really planned to blog about this again QUITE so soon, but just amazing things have happened with this in the past few days – indeed, in the past 24 hours!

To start with, my last post was retweeted by ENO with a very kind remark and my site stats hit the sort of peak they haven’t seen in many, many months.

The librettist got in touch and I’m really enjoying his Twitter feed (and you should see his online comic – it’s beautiful) and the work-in-progress stuff he’s posting for the score he’s writing for Mini Operas on Soundcloud.

Yesterday I finally knuckled down to get some notes sorted out. After all, if you’re writing an opera, sooner or later you need to stop talking about it and actually write the wretched thing and with so much unaccustomed attention now, I really do need to write it!

I never did write the blog post I meant to about February’s RPM project, Lucky Dip, but I can say that that experience is paying off in spades right now. The instant I started to work my brain was like “Oh, February again? Sure. I’ll just change gears” – with the result that within a couple of hours I had down the vocal line of the opening aria and half the accompaniment sketched out too. Such a thing would have been unthinkable before RPM when I think I may have been a contender for Slowest Composer in the World.

I think I’m quite pleased with the opening aria. It’s sad and quiet and a little dirge-like, which I’m planning on alleviating just a little with the accompaniment. I’m still working on instrumentation, but I have some live performers lined up too.

I am totally thrilled that Charles Turner, bass-baritone and marvellous composer himself, has agreed to play the principal role of The Inspector.

Charles was involved in February’s Lucky Dip – I wrote To Fortune for him, which you can hear here:

I am also very excited that electric violinist Chrissie Caulfield has also agreed to contribute – she does just amazing things and has a particular talent for the sort of noise work I’m hoping to achieve in the more aggressive parts of the libretto.

Jenni Pinnock has also offered to contribute winds/piano parts and I have hatched some ideas about some other people to approach too.

With the short time constraints and the need to have a polished (or at least not-so-rough-you’d-cut-yourself) recording so quickly, I’m also having to experiment with some different ways – even from Lucky Dip – of getting ideas down. And all the more so as I’m currently living half in temporary accommodation, and half in our bathroomless house where the piano hasn’t even been reassembled (although it soon will be). Plus I’m going to be working with multiple layers and recordings of sound, unlike Lucky Dip where everything that was being sent out was a solo piece or could be recorded with its accompaniment in situ. I’ve never tried this kind of TwtrSymphony/Virtual Choir thing before, so just hoping it works!

So, there it is! 1’30” sketched out, another 5 mins to go!

ENO Mini-Operas: Starting point

I’ve been wanting to write an opera for a long, long time now. I have a big opera project on the simmer but have also long considered the idea of a Milhaud-style mini-opera. Then along has come ENO’s Mini-Operas project, a three-part competition for librettists, composers and filmmakers.

Part One is now complete and the libretti are all online, so it’s over to us composers now. I’m not sure whether I’ll manage to complete a score for this with everything else that’s going on right now – we’re homeless for the next month or so until we can get the bathroom finished in our new/old house plus I need to find me a dayjob for the couple of months before my Masters degree starts, so time is tight, but I really really want to give it a go.

So I’ve picked my libretto – Shaun Gardiner’s On Harrowdown Hill – and am starting to pull together a few ideas.

Firstly, the limitations: The score must be 5-7 minutes long, and a recording must be submitted. This means no cloud-cuckoo-land-please-can-I-have-David-Hobson-on-loan writing for voices or instruments I can’t have. I need to work with what I know I can get hold of at short notice. I have about 5 weeks from this point to write, record and submit the score.

So, to the libretto. I was really very taken by Gardiner’s use of language and the way he has laid out the text – he seems to have really thought about how the music might surround it, while I felt some of the others were a little wordy. I also like the Waiting for Godot feel to it and the possibility of using a chorus too.

However, on the down side, the story is a little unbalanced in that all the main characters are male: The Inspector, the Advisor and the Journalist are all described clearly in the libretto as being male. The Journalists and The Politicians don’t have genders assigned and could probably be mixed, but in reality politicians are usually men, so a male chorus for that group would probably work well.

My personal feeling is that either all-male or all-female casts of pretty much anything can get a bit samey. It can also be hard to tell a number of characters of the same gender apart unless the costuming/makeup/writing is radically different for each one. Plus I know very few singers and most of those are female!

So I have a small dilemma to start with: Do I stick with the letter of the libretto and try to work around a predominantly male cast and perhaps re-use singers for different roles? Or do I fudge it a bit and make one or more of those characters a female part for the variation in timbre and tessitura that will provide? Writing one part for a counter-tenor then getting it performed by a woman might be another solution, resulting in a score which is true to the libretto but also balanced and practical for a recording. I may even write a part for myself – I’m no trained singer, but I might be able to make it work, and my range is an unusally low contralto – I’ve sung tenor in choirs in the past, which might make it plausible.

So far my plan is (probably):

The Inspector: bass-baritone
The Advisor: tenor/low contralto
The Journalist: counter-tenor/alto
The Journalists: chorus of women’s voices
The Politicians: chorus of men’s voices

Thinking cap is on… as is trying to find people to sing! If you’re a singer – either solo or choral – have recording equipment and are interested in being involved, please let me know!