On starting up fresh

I’m just beginning work on a string quintet for the CoMA Midwinter Composers Workshop I’m going to be attending in Durham in January and it’s highlighting certain parts of my compositional process that I think are gradually solidifying. The last piece I wrote, Deconstruct: Point, line, plane, had a very clear ‘research’ phase, and I think it helped immensely with the piece constructing itself solidly once I started putting notes down – I had a very clear feeling for the colours, shapes and concepts that I wanted to explore before I ever started in on the notes: I knew I wanted it to be to a certain extent about contrasting colours, to play sound against silence or quasi-silence, I wanted to explore the varied sound qualities of the ensemble – as solo instruments, in groups and as a whole – and I’m looking to work on the process I developed for that piece to see if it will work also for this one.

To start with, the request for a string quintet threw me a little because the application form said string quartet or string orchestra work, so I’d been thinking in terms of a standard quartet formation, but now I have to give some thought to the richer bass possibilities of an additional cello. I found listening to be a vital part of working on Deconstruct: Point, line, plane, just to get the sound of the ensemble into my head, to get a feel for combinations of instruments and just get my brain in the right mode. With the additional cello, I felt that my assortment of string quartet recordings, while tonally similar, of course, wouldn’t really give the right feel for the registral and textural possibilities of the enlarged ensemble. So I went shopping today 🙂

At first I wasn’t really finding anything and I was getting frustrated (note to self: it probably would have helped if I’d looked up composers who have written string quintets before I went rather than just mooching about HMV). The only thing that turned up seemed to be multiple versions of the Brahms string quintets, which at first didn’t hugely appeal to me – I’ve never really got Brahms. It’s that whole Germanic-Romantic thing. I veer more towards the French-20th century end of the spectrum – but they kept showing up! It was like he was following me. But French music didn’t feel right for this piece, for all that I’ve been listening to a lot of Fauré lately. Anyway, finally I had a small flash: Mendelssohn? And LO! Mendelssohn wrote not one but TWO string quintets (which I’m listening to right now – gorgeous!). Then the Brahms cropped up again and in a Mendelssohnian context, he kind of made sense, so I’ve taken the plunge there too, which led me on to thinking of more recent composers who might have something useful to contribute… which took me off to the Martinu section where I discovered a disc of, admittedly not quintets, but a Martinu sextet coupled with a sextet by Schulhoff, whose music I’ve not encountered before but who sounds interesting.

I very much doubt that this will be the end of my listening (especially as I’ve since discovered that Frank Martin and Milhaud both wrote string quintets) but I found it interesting, sort of watching myself from a distance, how clearly I knew what I wanted for this. My usual suspects were pretty much all out of the running – this piece seems to want to be faintly Germanic, which is an odd feeling for me. But it was very clear – my brain knew what it wanted to be fed, and it didn’t want anything else. So now to sit back and enjoy my research – it’s certainly starting well – this Mendelssohn is so light and lovely it’s almost French…