A composer goes back to school

When I told people I was going to take some random composition lessons at Thames Valley University to get ready to apply for a Masters degree in composition, I was amazed how many people said “but why?”. While some of them were nice enough to tell me that I was entirely ready to apply for a Masters, some seemed to be mystified by the thought that I’d just book myself in for some lessons without any real masterplan or qualifications at the end of it.

The ‘why’ is simple: composition, like many endeavours worth endeavouring, is at its heart a commitment to continuous learning – even if we don’t take actual lessons, we are continually learning from what we’ve written before, the music we play and listen to. We learn from what works and what doesn’t work. But sometimes we also need to be shaken up a bit – pushed out of our comfort zones and introduced to new sounds and new ideas.

For me, I’d been feeling I was getting into a bit of a rut. Having got back on track after my almost-a-decade of near-silence, I felt that what I was writing for the most part wasn’t really breaking new ground. Thickets was a bit of an adventure – I tried out some new stuff and really enjoyed trying to stretch my ideas a bit. Then at the CoMA Midwinter Composers Workshop in Durham, Tansy Davies was encouraging us to work with non-standard notation, and while I wasn’t hugely comfortable with the idea, it was really quite a liberating experience to let go of some control and think in new ways.

I also felt that my listening was starting to go in circles. I’d listen to the same composers, the same styles, over and over. I wanted to explore some different sounds but I wasn’t entirely sure how to find them. I’d enjoy my listening time, but I’d stopped discovering anything new to startle my ideas and get me inspired to try something different.

So my aim with signing up for lessons was to see things from someone else’s perspective, possibly discover music and approaches that I hadn’t encountered or really explored before and – most importantly – get some proper feedback on my work, week after week, to push me forward and get back into the swing of studying in preparation for the Next Degree.

And it’s been brilliant. The course has been super-flexible (mostly because the university forgot they even had it and then nobody knew what it was supposed to be) so my tutor, Simon Lambros, and I have been able to really tailor it to my needs. He’s introduced me to music I’d never encountered before – Nicholas Maw’s Life Studies and Gordon Crosse’s Thel, in particular – which we’ve listened to, read the scores of and talked in detail about the techniques used and how they could be put into practice in the music I’m writing now.

He suggests small tweaks and adjustments which improve the work I’ve done and show me new ways of thinking and I can see my writing improving with every lesson. I’m being more ambitious with the scope of what I’m writing and the techniques I’m using. Just knowing I’ll get feedback on my work makes it easier to push myself to experiment more and be more daring. I can now feel when I’m slipping back into my rut and falling back on my old techniques, so I can control more whether I want to do that, and every few weeks I seem to make a bit of a leap forward.

So many leaps that now I’m writing my first real orchestral piece – and loving the experience. I’ve tried writing for orchestra in the past, but it’s never really been terribly successful. I was very uncomfortable with having to deal with so many instruments, but now I can feel in an almost solid way how I want the different groups to interact with each other and the whole thing is coming together in a way I’m really very pleased with.

Signing up for these lessons is one of the best things I’ve done for my composition in years and I’d recommend it as a useful step for any composer who feels they might be getting a little stale in their techniques or just wants to be exposed to some new stuff. After all, there’s precedent: Satie enrolled at the Schola Cantorum at the age of 40 to study counterpoint; Vaughan Williams studied with Ravel for 3 months when he was 35.

So there may not be a degree at the end of it, but I think I’m going to emerge a better and more confident composer, much more capable of standing toe-to-toe with a Masters degree and emerging the victor!

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

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

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

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

Example: Adding the amalgamated line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awesomeness: Tate Modern

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

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

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

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

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

Making space in music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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