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: 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.

The pitfalls of perfectionism

I have a confession: I’m a perfectionist. I always spend far too long on pretty much everything I write, tweaking and poking and looking for that point where the whole thing seems to balance on a pin. So far it’s worked out OK for me. I mean, people quite often say rather nice things about my music, so I must be doing something right, yes?

But it bugs me, this perfectionism. I am positively green with envy for people who can dash off a piece in a weekend – my 60-second solo violin piece, Diabolus, which was supposed to be a quick project, took me 3 weeks to complete. The 3 minutes of Carrion Comfort has taken 10 months! So on my private list of things to work on this year, and especially with the prospect of a Masters degree coming up, has been to experiment with some techniques to get the writing happening faster.

My feeling is that if I can write faster and fuss less over the tiny details, then maybe I’ll learn more. In David Bayles & Ted Orland’s fantastic book Art and Fear, one of the authors tells a story:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated a “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorising about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

This story makes me wonder: if I’m currently someone who only had to produce one pot, and the work of those producing many pots was ultimately better – how much better could my work be if I could make myself loosen up and produce many more works in the time I’d usually take to write one?

So this month, I’ve let myself be talked into doing the RPM Challenge. It’s a bit like NaNoWriMo or Creative Pact, but the goal is to record an album (10 tracks or 35 minutes) over the course of February – that’s 2-3 recordings a week! Obviously for me to even try to write 2-3 pieces a week would be seriously jumping in the deep end, so I’m setting myself a goal of writing 4-5 pieces in the month – about one a week – and the rest of the work will be finishing off recordings of other pieces I have that have been languishing without even decent MIDI recordings for far too long.

If you want to follow my progress, I’ll be blogging it (more or less) daily over at One Creative Thing – and of course, burbling about it regularly on Twitter.

If you want to join in, please do! You can find out more at the RPM Challenge website and join up, then post a comment here with the address of your blog or SoundCloud feed or wherever you’ll be documenting it.

Composer-performer collaboration: Letting go when we’re dead

View from my deskToday’s post was inspired by a couple of tweets by the pianist John Mannos from June 2011. He’s no longer on Twitter so I can’t link to his account, but what he wrote was this:

Oh, to get inside the minds of these great composers to know precisely what they wanted! How to play the accents? Phrases? !!!!!!!!!

I suppose that is the alluring beauty of playing a work by a deceased master..to have faith that your performance renders his art perfectly

I do understand what Mannos is aiming for, but given the impossibility of ever knowing whether you’ve “got it right”, I feel a different view is more valuable, both for the living performer and for the composer, represented only by the score.

These days, composers can choose whether they want pixel-perfection: they can take the option of writing directly to audio, bypassing the score entirely. Or they can choose to write music for other people to play. People with opinions, ideas, limitations of technique, the whole package.

But this is a recent development. Composers of the past had no option but to write music to be performed by real human musicians. Whether that musician was the composer or someone else, ultimately the notes on the page needed to be turned into sound by a – fallible – person. I feel that the idea of a piece being rendered perfectly would have had little meaning for them, or if it did, it would be no more than an idle fancy.

When you write for performers, you are starting a collaboration. And that goes whether or not you had any chance to choose perfection.

As composers, we create things which, sooner or later, we will leave behind. We have no power over what becomes of them, regardless of how many increasingly specific notations and remarks we litter our scores with. At some point our collaborators will have more say than we will, so we need to accept – as I suspect many of our forebears did, lacking any other model – that there comes a point where we just need to let go and let the new collaboration happen.

And for performers, this is a fantastic chance. It’s an opportunity to work *with* Bach, *with* Stravinsky. Of course, study to understand the composer’s viewpoint is vital – you can’t truly collaborate with a person you don’t know. But it’s only the first step. From understanding what they’ve written, you need to make it your own – they are no longer Beethoven’s accents, Sibelius’ phrases – they’re yours.

For my own part, I don’t want perfection. Sure, I’d like to have the right notes played in the right order at the right speed, but I want it to sound real, human. I want to find out what other people can bring to my work, the nuances they can bring out that I didn’t know were there. I want them to have ideas, test them out and bring them to life.

Obviously, this is what great performers have been doing forever, but it disturbs me that this idea of the dead composer as oracle still persists. They did exactly what we do. Or rather, we do exactly what they did. No mystery, just hard work.

A score is not a piece of music. A score is just notes. It is not sacred, not perfect. It is an incomplete thing, requiring human collaboration to make it live.

What’s your opinion? Do you think we should seek perfection or new interpretations? Or take another approach altogether? Add your rant to the comments!

Work in progress: Carrion Comfort 5 – at last an ending!

Tomorrow is my interview/audition/test thingy for my application to do a composition Masters at Trinity Laban. I really have no clue whether I might get in or not. I’ve been told by very kind people that my compositions should come up to scratch, and my newly-acquired flute teacher says my fluting’s fine, but with it having been 15 years since I finished my undergraduate degree, I find myself wracked with terror at the prospect of the written analytical test. Given that it’s now the day before and really far too late to learn all the stuff I can’t quite remember and haven’t yet got around to revising, I am taking the Doris Day approach and singing Que Sera Sera, going through all my scores and making sure I at least know what I’m going to be talking about with my own work.

Which made me realise that I haven’t done an update on Carrion Comfort in quite some time and that consequently you don’t know yet that it actually has an ending! (Unless you follow me on Twitter, in which case you’ve known this for a while but haven’t actually heard it yet.)

No, it’s still not quite complete (more on that in a moment) but structurally I think it’s basically there – and this version is what is going to be put in front of the awesome and all-powerful Trinity Laban auditioning people tomorrow, so I guess this is as good a version as any to share with you.

The main reason it’s not complete yet is that it’s taken quite a while to get the list of percussion that would actually be available. I’ve known since almost the beginning of the composition that I wanted to include percussion, but I’ve not entirely been sure what to put in there, and knowing that resources were few for the intended ensemble, it seemed better to plough on and get the framework done, then rework as it became clear what I had to work with. Well, the percussion list only turned up on the day I had to send this to the printer to get it to Greenwich in time for the deadline, so it didn’t stand a chance there, but I have it now and am still a little unsure how to approach it. My personal desire is for generous lashings of timpani. But I’ve known from day 1 that timpani were not available, so I need to somehow find a way around that. This is what is at my disposal:

  • Drum kit: pedal bass drum, snare, crash cymbal, ride cymbal, hi-hat, hi tom, mid tom, low tom
  • Bongos
  • Tambourine
  • Mark Tree
  • 3 Triangles
  • Finger cymbal
  • Cow bells
  • Wood blocks
  • Claves
  • Whistle
  • Tambourine
  • Floor tom
  • Snare drum
  • 2 suspended cymbals
  • Glockenspiel
  • Marimba
  • Vibraphone (only if piano isn’t required)

There is only one percussionist, but the pianist can play the vibraphone if required.

So much thinking is really required to decide what and how to use it. I’m thinking the vibraphone might indeed be a useful addition, some cymbal rolls might work well with the string tremolos and maybe an assortment of toms to make up for how I was thinking of the timpani? Really not sure. Experimentation will ensue!

Oh and anything you can provide for tomorrow in the area of crossing fingers, holding thumbs or anything else you do for luck will be most gratefully received! See you on the other side!

Composition as an instrument: ‘Relaxation’ as practice

Today Jay C. Batzner posted an excellent article on his blog entitled Composition as an instrument. In it he looks at how composition often takes a back seat to instrumental practice and how ‘composition’ should really be viewed as an instrument, with the same practice requirements as playing the flute or viola da gamba.

I think he’s entirely right on this matter, but I think that approaching composition as an instrument raises a particular issue to do with the perception of composition work by outsiders.

This problem is that much of what composers consider to be ‘composition’, to the rest of the world looks suspiciously like ‘lazing about’.

Listening, reading and thinking while staring into space are just as much a part of creating a new piece of music as the actual sitting at the piano or computer, putting dots on pieces of paper. It can be incredibly hard to justify these parts of composition to other members of the household who are grumbling because they think you should be doing the vacuuming.

It can also be incredibly hard to justify them to yourself. They’re enjoyable things, generally considered ‘leisure activities’ and much of the work going on is happening behind the scenes, so to speak, and almost on automatic pilot (because composers are almost always analysing the music they hear and searching for new and interesting sounds), so it also feels like a leisure activity, even when in actual fact it’s proper work.

I think this is one of the reasons I bake. When I’m baking, my brain is free to roam about while my hands follow the instructions in the book. I can listen to music when I bake and my mind can be mostly on the listening and analysing without fear of messing anything up in any major way, or any disruptive noises interfering (I can’t effectively listen to music while cooking sausages, for example, because the sizzle gets in the way). And of course I’m baking, so I neither look nor feel idle, so there’s no guilt factor. Plus anyone else in house gets muffins or whatever at the end of it which helps them get over their problem with the vacuuming.

Of course, what this largely comes down to is other people’s perceptions of what we’re doing. Looking at performance and composition in the way Batzner does, and thinking about how those activities are perceived, a composer sitting in a comfy chair, staring into space while listening to a CD and thinking hard about this instrument doubling or that turn of harmony and how this information can be incorporated into that tricky section that won’t come right in the current piece is is not perceptually equivalent to a violinist picking up her instrument and ploughing through a bunch of scales, regardless of how much or little thought she’s putting into that activity. When there’s no visible action, it’s hard for others to tell that work is even happening, far less give it its true value.

I know that I personally have a problem with this, which is why I have to give myself regular pep talks about doing more listening, more score-reading, more book reading. It’s why most of my music-book reading happens on the train, and most of my listening happens in the kitchen. It’s partly why I started going for walks in the morning – to get some thinking and listening time (and to count squirrels, of course, which I just find enjoyable. Hey, I’m Australian – we don’t have anything that cute that ventures into the city!) and it’s why, now that I’m working freelance, I don’t emerge from my burrow till quite late – I’m awake and just taking the opportunity for a good quiet think about what I’m working on, how I’m going to tackle it, and what I might do next.

What goes into your practice time? Tell us in the comments!

Work in progress: Carrion Comfort 3

In which everything goes horribly wrong

What do you do when a piece starts to go off the rails? And how do you fix it? I have never worked by mapping out a composition as it starts – all of my pieces have simply grown organically out of their original material. While I’m pretty comfortable, in general, with this way of working and it gives plenty of scope for unexpected changes that just happen, it can also lead to a good deal of meandering and confusion. When this happens, it’s time to step back, reassess and sometimes take drastic action.

First up, version 16 of the piece, in which we demonstrate a whole host of problems. I’ve set the annotations as Closed Captions so you can watch it through without commentary to start with, if you like. To view them, click the CC button in the player.

So as you can see, I have a number of problems here, mostly to do with meandering, not building up enough tension or momentum, and for the final section, a decorative chunk that doesn’t really connect with the heart of the work I’m trying to write.

I’m not going to inflict all of the next nine iterations of the piece on you while I staggered around looking for a solution, but here are a few of the things I tried:

  • v17: Extended out the end part, added the flute in with drawn-out notes to see if I could get some movement going with interplay with the piano while tying the new section back into what had gone before.
  • v18: Tried to make the flute part a bit more complex to mesh better with the bouncy strings in the end part as the slow-moving part idea wasn’t working.
  • v19: Added an oboe and horn (I was getting kind of manic about how not to delete all the new stuff by this point)
  • v20: Threw some pizz triplets into the string pattern, which really improved it no end, but still wasn’t the answer.
  • v22: Added a viola line at the very beginning, to tie the two opening statements in cello/double bass and bassoon together so it has less of a stop-start feel, deleted the whole of the bouncy new section. However, I ended up quite liking the triplet version, so I filed that one away for possible use in a future piece – no point wasting it!
  • v23: Time for some serious surgery: Hacked out and condensed the central section, inserting two 3/4 bars to push the pace along a bit. By this point I had effectively chopped the piece in half but hadn’t quite committed to it as I’d just moved the end part along, not deleted it entirely
  • v25: Commitment time: I deleted the end sections I wasn’t using and ended up with a totally new section of held chords.

At this point I realised that I had either created an insanely short and unsatisfying piece, or something had gone dramatically wrong. I plumped for the latter after a brief dalliance with the idea of starting a second piece to pair with the first and decided that the thing to do was to go back to the poem to find my way back to what I originally wanted to capture.

Want to find out what I did and how the piece ended up after this slash-and-burn episode? Subscribe to find out as soon as it’s online!

Going to be in London on Friday 7 October? Come to a free lunchtime concert and hear the world premiere of the piano version of Pieces of Eight!

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.

Work in progress: Carrion comfort 2

The last work in progress post on Carrion Comfort looked at the beginnings of the piece – the first composition session I spent on it. Today I’m going to skip forward a bit and look at the next point of major change to the music. Obviously, there are small tweaks going on all the time and new bits continue to be composed but mostly those are a bit dull to write about 🙂

The piece is longer now, which is probably not too surprising. And the new part introduces some new elements to the sound, most notably glissandi in the strings. My composition tutor recommended a bunch of listening for me in between the last version and this one – including Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and, more significantly for this version, Malcolm Arnold’s Trumpet Concerto.

I didn’t get around to doing very much with the Elgar, but I did give the Arnold a good listen to. Overall, I wasn’t that taken with the outer movements, but the second movement, the Andante con moto, I really liked. Again, it’s a space issue – he makes beautiful use of barely-supported solo lines in this movement, especially in the trumpet and flute, and the whole thing is wonderfully still and aetheral. I haven’t been able to find a video or other generally available audio file online of this piece, but it’s on Spotify, if you have access to that in your country. There’s also a deeply inadequate 20-second snippet on iTunes. Anyway, after listening to this piece several times over, I became somewhat enamoured of the idea of the solo line and barely-there accompaniment, which resulted in, in particular, the flute line at the end of today’s version. I’m not 100% sure it works in context, but it achieved a few different things, simply by writing it.

The first thing was to pull me away from the stop-start nature of what I’d been writing before it. It’s the first time where a part has a section of any length to play and got me thinking a bit more about permutations of the thematic material I’d started with. It also made me start to think about which instruments I wanted to be prominent within the piece, why and how they might interact. As a flautist and singer my thinking tends to run in lines, and harmony is something that happens more or less by accident. I don’t think this is an ideal situation, and it’s one I’m working on, but nevertheless, it’s how I work right now.

The big change to this version though, was to do with the text. While Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Carrion Comfort was perfect for the mood I wanted to create, and the opening words had fitted into my opening vocal parts perfectly, I pretty soon ran into difficulties: My setting was becoming a bit stop-start and not terribly effective; Also, at the rate I was setting it, the piece was going to be 2 hours long unless I did some serious text-cutting, which I didn’t want to do; and I was beginning to feel a bit hampered by it because I didn’t want this piece to be epic (except in the sense of ‘awesome’ 🙂 ), I wanted it to be small and passionate and concentrated. Being the first real orchestral piece I’ve ever written, too, I wanted to be able to work within a manageable canvas and have a hope of being able to finish it during the scope of my lessons – which were supposed to end at the beginning of June – so that I could reap the benefits of having a teacher guide me throughout the whole of the piece’s composition. I also had dim hopes of maybe being able to use it in a portfolio for a Masters degree application, which would mean having to have it finished by about August.

So I thought a bit, and re-read the poem and thought some more about how I could fix this and finally came up with the decision to delete the voice and replace it with a trumpet. I wanted a sound that would cut through the other timbres, and I also wanted to have a bit more of a brass “choir” in there, rather than the horn and trombone duo I started out with – it just gives more possibilities, I think, when playing the different sections off each other, to be able to at least use 3-part harmony in an all-brass bit.

I’m really very happy with the vocal replacement. The trumpet I think works really well. I’ve also been a little daring (for me) and included a moment with mute, which I’m hoping to draw on more later, and the stridency of the muted trumpet harks back well to the agonised passion of the poem.

The poem’s still there, still a big influence on the piece – and I’m still planning on calling it Carrion Comfort – but it’s more of a background to the piece rather than having any specific interaction with it, with the exception of certain rhythmic elements which have been taken from the text rhythms.

I’m changing format to use video today because I wanted to start to show you the score as well as the audio, just because I think it makes things clearer. The video is best viewed full-screen to be able to see the detail of the notes. If it’s a bit fuzzy, and your system can handle it, you’ll need to switch to HD: Switch to ‘Watch on YouTube’, then click on where it says “360p” or “480p” or similar, and choose “720p – HD” then go to full-screen again – this should clear it all up.

I hope you enjoy it and look forward to your gentle constructive criticism in the comments 🙂

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