Considering the audience

In our latest ‘All Composers’ session, the question of whether we do or should consider our audience when writing was raised. Now, I know well that this is a question that’s kind of been done to death and this is not a post about whether composers in general should or shouldn’t. I don’t think that discussion is particularly helpful. What I do think is helpful is for individual composers to consider the role the audience plays in what they do and how they perceive what they do.

For me, I don’t think I do really consider the audience that much while I’m writing. I’m more interested by what I feel to be the internal drive of the piece, about creating something that to me feels satisfying and that is appropriate to the situation I’m writing it for – if it’s something I’m writing for a particular performer, what are their strengths, weaknesses, interests and things they want to work on? if it’s a piece I’m just writing for fun, then what parameters (if any) do I want to set myself?

What I do think I do, which I hadn’t really considered before, is to spend a fair bit of time stepping back from a piece and trying to consider it from an audience member’s perspective – does it hang together? If I pretend I don’t know what’s coming next, does this bit still work? what is the overall structural balance like?

In the context of needing to push myself to take more risks, I wonder whether this step in the process might not actually be counterproductive – is this the point at which I sanitise music that might be less conventional to fit into some mould I’m not even conscious of trying to fit? Do the things which sound unbalanced to me actually sound excitingly wobbly to other people? I’m thinking now that these are questions I probably should be exploring. Sometimes, certainly, this process can take a pedestrian section of a piece and make it more interesting, but maybe more would be learned by just writing it, giving it to performers, then hearing it and writing a new piece which learns from what’s been done in the workshop. I guess this is largely what my work on A Sketchbook of Mushrooms was tackling, although I didn’t think of it in these terms at the time.

I think too that this stepping-back process could be part of why I’ve gone through such major periods of stuckness on pieces such as Red on Black on Maroon and Carrion Comfort, so at the very least a period of experimentation with this idea is probably worth a go…

What do you think? What role does the audience (either real or imagined) play in the development of your creative work? Is it important to you for your work to be perceived in a certain way?

(And look! I got through the whole post without mentioning Milton Babbitt! Go me!)

Sonorities, tiny details, process

I’m nearing the end (finally! I hear you squeak) of my string quartet based on Rothko’s Seagram Murals. It now has a proper title – Red on Black on Maroon – and I’m working on the final section and giving serious thought to how I’m going to finish it.

One of the most important things I’m considering at the moment, both in terms of material for the final section, and in terms of adding shape and interest to the parts I’ve already composed, is different qualities of sound. It’s the truly glorious thing about writing for string instruments – the vast array of sounds you can get from a single instrument. There are so many more options than just bowed and plucked and lately I’ve been trying to build a palette of sounds to use across the work, with particular consideration for the final section.

The piece divides roughly into three sections, each around 4 minutes long. The first section is almost entirely chordal, the second has a lot more meandering melodic material, but the third – which represents viewing the paintings from Rothko’s preferred distance of 18 inches – deals in the incredible detail you can see when you’re that close to a Rothko work. The first view of the Seagram Murals is that they are incredibly simple – each one a big block of colour on top of a different big block of colour – but once you’re up close, you can see that neither block of colour is actually just one colour. Rothko’s technique involved building up layers and layers and layers of subtly differentiated shades, and differing types of paint too, which gives the surface a depth and detail which is hard to discern from a distance.

So the final section is about tiny, delicate details, all related to the chordal and melodic material that’s gone before in the piece, but each moment more complex and more independent than in either previous section.

So, like I said, I’ve been building a palette of sounds. I started out with just ‘normal’ bowing, tremolando bowing and some pizzicato, and I always knew I wanted to use harmonics in the final section. Recently, though I’ve added in non-vibrato sounds, bowing sul ponticello and sul tasto, flautando (as a nod to the harmonics in the final section while reserving that particular tonal colour & pitch extreme for the end), some use of mutes, overbowing and – finally – bowing the wood of the instrument. I think this is where I’m drawing a line with the sounds.

I wanted a broad range of sounds, because harmonically the piece is very static. I don’t work with traditional functional harmony even though I write vaguely tonal music, and while I’m sure someone who likes to think that way could deconstruct it all and show… something, that’s not something that interests me at all. The purpose of writing this piece was always about creating something much longer than anything I’d written before, about learning how to stretch out material, and I’ve found that for me the most interesting way to stretch this material is to address the texture of the piece and see what textural and temporal things I can do to make my (static) material interesting over a 12-15 minute timespan. So far I think I’m doing OK and my players seem to agree with me, which is nice 🙂

There have been two key influences in developing this palette of sounds. The first is Janacek’s second string quartet, ‘Intimate Letters’, which Deirdre Gribbin pointed me to during the brief series of lessons I had with her. I’m enjoying the Emerson Quartet‘s very vigorous rendition of this piece at the moment. Janacek uses sul ponticello very effectively in this piece, and the glassy sound was just the contrast I needed for a certain section of the piece, and from there, it’s proved a useful sound elsewhere. From using sul ponticello, I contrasted it with sul tasto in places, expanding the palette in a different direction.

The second influence is a series of great videos being produced by British composer Edd Caine, called ‘Let’s Compose… A string quartet’. In these videos, Edd is tracing the evolution of his work on a quartet he’s writing based on a cycle trip in Italy and he is deriving his musical material from various aspects of this subject matter. In particular, I was very taken with the ‘breathing’ sounds he describes and demonstrates on the cello in the third episode, created by bowing on the edge of the instrument, with different pitches being produced by bowing in different areas, allowing for in/out breathing sounds. The part about the breathing is from about 3:10 in this video, with specific discussion of the sound from about 7:45:

Given the focus of Red on Black on Maroon on the pulsing phenomenon that is experienced when you sit looking at the Seagram Murals for any extended period of time, I’m feeling that the occasional use of these sounds will give a more organic feel to the progression of the music, especially in parts where I’ve been feeling that pitched material gives too precisely musical a realisation of what I want, when what I really want is more of a bodily sensation. I do hope that makes sense… I’m using them in quite a different way, I think, than Edd seems to be aiming for – more of a slow organic gesture than aiming to evoke actual breathing.

Assuming that (as you’re reading this!) you’re interested in compositional process, I really recommend you take the time to watch Edd’s videos. Yes, some of them are fairly long in internet-time (so far they’re all over 10 minutes), but the ideas are really interesting and the slower-paced earlier episodes also give a great insight into the time-consuming nature of coming up with ideas and working things out. They also show a much more mathematical process than I’ve ever used, and I’m finding that really interesting. I can’t wait to hear how his piece turns out – or mine, for that matter…

Procrastination, perfectionism or sheer terror

Why finishing a piece is sometimes the hardest part

Rothko Quartet fragmentEnding a piece can sometimes be even harder than starting one. The fear of the empty page is one we all face regularly, but the fear of ending is another thing entirely.

It can stem from all sorts of issues: perfectionism, where we want everything to be just right before we send it out into the world and so tinker manically with tiny details instead of drawing a double bar line and having done with it; procrastination – for whatever reason we just can’t make ourselves work on it – this could be boredom, lack of ideas, a niggling feeling that something’s not right and it “just needs time” to sort itself out; or maybe it’s just fear – of what the world thinks of it, of what we’re going to do when we no longer have this security-blanket fallback piece to work on.

I’ve been working on my string quartet based on Rothko’s Seagram Murals since October now. Eight months. And still the wretched thing isn’t finished. This piece has dragged on so long that it now has its own hashtag: #stringquartetofdoom and I’m beginning to doubt whether I CAN finish it.

I’ve been here before, of course – the 3 minutes of Carrion Comfort that took 9 months to write looms large in my memory. And given my history, eight months on a 12-minute piece isn’t that bad really, but I need it done and into rehearsal before my lovely quartet skip off on their well-earned holidays.

I think the quartet (really must stop calling it the String Quartet of Doom and find it a proper title) falls a little into all three categories. I’ve felt a strong affinity for the material ever since I came up with it, so it’s become a bit of a security blanket – I like listening back to it, even in Finale’s dodgy rendering – but I’m also getting tetchy and bored with it because I’ve been doing battle with the same notes for so freaking long now. I’m concerned that after all this time it won’t turn out as well as I hope it will, which is a real worry as it represents what will be about a third of my final recital grade. I keep going back over stuff I’ve already written and tweaking it to be better instead of writing new stuff and then there’s just plain old procrastination because I’m fretting about certain problems with it (and whether they are problems at all or just differences of opinion but that’s a whole other blog post).

Obviously the answer is “just get on and finish it” – which I’ll do once I’ve finished this post… I hacked the end off it last night because I wasn’t at all happy with it, and am feeling much better about the whole thing since doing that.

So today I need to re-launch myself into it. Suppress that fear and just get cracking. And in aid of that, I’m posting what I have out here in the cold outside world. It’s helped before, to make me less attached to what I have, so here’s hoping it works now too! Seven minutes down, five to go…

Listen to the latest version of the Rothko quartet:

[sc_embed_player fileurl="/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Rothko-Quartet-DRAFT.mp3"]

(my humble apologies too for the excessive reverb on this – Finale seems to want everything to sound like it’s in a cathedral since I reinstalled – will work it out eventually!)

Not so String Quartet of Doom

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

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

Initial version in manuscript
Initial version of the opening of the string quartet – note the large silences!
Revised version in manuscript
Revised version of the opening of the string quartet – note the held notes, tremolando and the glissandi retained from the first version

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

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

So this evening, I’ve chucked the plan.

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

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

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

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

Three cheers for rebellion!


Term has been underway for six weeks now and I am yet to really start my string quartet. Everything started so well! The research and drawing the plan went well, but when it’s come to finding actual notes to get moving on, I have to confess I am seriously stuck on this one.

The first attempt I made wasn’t quite right but I pushed ahead with it and there’s things I like about it and while most of it has been rejected (Stephen, my tutor quite rightly said that it wasn’t the piece I’d drawn) there are elements which I think I’ll be stealing back at some point.

Stephen set me homework to listen to Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, the Ligeti quartets and Lutoslawski’s quartet, which has been interesting, and there’s stuff I might be able to use there, but not for the opening. I’m really not comfortable with the whole “any high note” thing. Or at least not in a small ensemble context – it can work really well in an orchestra where you’ve got a bunch of people doing the same thing, but at the chamber level, I really don’t want to relinquish that control. The effects and ideas I’m liking in these pieces are mostly really quiet things. Harmonics, ppp tremolando, sul tasto – stuff like that. The louder parts just feel random and unstructured and totally at odds with what I want to achieve.

The latest version – which I’ve just tonight rejected – I just plain don’t like. At first I thought it was because it didn’t feel like me. Now I think it’s because there’s nowhere for the materials to go. I don’t have a reason for using the chord I’ve started with and because it’s just a sound, it doesn’t have any line in it to be drawn out to become something larger, so I don’t know what to do with it and it’s not telling me anything. The material I started the first attempt with, on the other hand, while it didn’t entirely reflect what I’d drawn, I felt had the potential to be useful across the kind of scale this work is intended to have (15 minutes).

I’m also still suffering the major resistance to working away from the computer that I was trying to deal with during my early Creative Pact challenge this year. I’m really not comfortable with it. I guess it’s not helping that I’m finding it hard to find time to just sit and tinker with stuff – we seem to have a succession of workmen in. Or Djeli’s home and renovating, or everything’s such an appalling mess post-latest-renovation-whatevers that I just want to be out of the house (getting that a lot lately!).

So I’m not sure how to tackle this. Trying to do the opening just isn’t working. Maybe I need to do a Satie and start part-way through. The final section is one where I could use some of the effects from these pieces I’ve been listening to, so maybe I could start from there and then I’d find something I could repurpose for the beginning.

Maybe I also need to take a step back and look at the paintings again (well, the catalogue reproductions I have – the paintings themselves still seem to be hidden away after the attack), and do some more research and try to recapture what I was thinking at the time – it was a month ago now!

Plus, of course, there’s the question of whether it matters if I stray from the drawn plan. I personally don’t have a problem with this at all. It’s what usually happens! Drawing the plan just gives me a starting point for the structure but deviation is expected. My aim has never been to directly interpret visual art even in my art-inspired pieces, but rather to use it as a starting point. However, Stephen seems keen on the idea of a plan, and the challenge intrigues me – to not deviate from the plan simply because an idea came along that didn’t fit but instead persevere to find something that will fit the plan and enable me to follow it.

So the quartet’s in limbo for now. And the players I’ve been contacting to see if they want to actually play the thing either aren’t answering their phones or aren’t calling back, which is – to say the least – extremely frustrating!

Things are progressing much better with the piece for two harps I’m working on, but that’s a post for another day 🙂

A response to vandalism

Defaced Rothko painting at Tate Modern
The damage to the Rothko painting, taken by an eyewitness and posted on Twitter.

Yesterday evening a friend alerted me to the news that one of Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals at the Tate Modern has been vandalised. After the initial shock, horror and bewilderment as to what sort of person would walk up to a painting and scribble their name on it, I began to think about how this act affects the work I am doing on my string quartet.

There are two obvious responses: 1. Adjust my approach to the piece to incorporate this violation, as a part of the artworks’ history and now – most probably, in spite of my faith in the Tate’s conservationists’ skills – future. Or 2. Ignore it and carry on.

I fear that my thinking towards the work HAS to change. I feel, perhaps excessively, personally damaged by this act that has not only defaced a favourite artwork, but has invaded and despoiled my favourite place of seclusion and quiet contemplation. How can I think about this composition the same way I did before?

At the same time, it occurs to me that music is a very privileged art form. As a general rule (and considering principally notated music, which is what I deal in, rather than improvised), it is not possible for a single individual, in a matter of seconds, while the work is being experienced, to damage a piece of music so that it is irrevocably changed. A single performance may be spoilt, a score may be torn up, but unless every score, every part, every recording, video and backup file is changed or eliminated, the piece itself remains untarnished and available for another performance another time.

I find it interesting that while music truly lives only in the moment it is played or heard, visual art, a ‘concrete’ object, theoretically always available to be viewed by anybody can be totally destroyed in a moment. A painting can be defaced, burned, damaged by water or light, the materials it is made of can deteriorate (as is happening with some of the Seagram Murals) and all in all, it occurs to me that a painting, against expectations, is a more ephemeral thing than a piece of music, for all that it seems so permanent and music so fleeting.

Once a painting is damaged beyond repair, if it survives at all, it is a different thing from what it was before. The best we can hope for is photographs or copies. A piece of music, though, can be copied (carefully!) time and time again and still remain exactly what it was the day it was completed, even though hundreds of years may have passed (note the word can here – I’m not saying it will. The slip or a copyist’s pen, and the vagaries of fashion and development play their part – I present as evidence Herbert von Karajan conducting anything written before 1800. But the essence remains.)

This thought presents me with a way forward for this piece: to use music as a medium to conserve the experience of experiencing Rothko’s Seagram Murals at the Tate Modern as an untarnished whole. To draw more on my memory of that experience than on the new experience, whatever that may be (if indeed it’s anything at all right now – I had been planning on visiting the paintings today, but it seems possible that the whole room may be closed)

Maybe this is the way forward, and a way that music can ADD to the Seagram Murals, rather than marking a diminishing of that experience. Time and brutal people can damage the paintings, but if I write my string quartet with the specific aim of capturing how I experienced them, for the first time in 2005 and since, up until Sunday, then I capture a piece of their history and contemplate a positive whole, not a damaged collection.

What do you think?

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.