The power of the single idea: How playing the comb is improving my composition

Recently I was part of two performances of Edward Henderson’s opera Manspangled. Edward is a fellow Masters composer at Trinity Laban, and his recent music often uses just a single idea – rather than supplementing and layering themes and concepts, he works with limited materials to create pieces which are simply described but anything but simple in their execution. Manspangled was a very powerful demonstration of this concept of strength and complexity deriving from simplicity.

The work Edward’s doing has been very influential on how I think about my own composition, which all too often, I feel, skips about from idea to idea without fully exploring any of them. I think Drowning Songs demonstrates what I mean by this: I started with two strong ideas – the glissando opening, as expressed in the artwork I made for the piece, and the massed whispered names of drowned sailors. For a five-minute work, this really should have been ample material. Yet something in me felt compelled to add in more conventional music and while I’m pleased with how the piece turned out, I do wonder it might have been a stronger work had I had the courage and tenacity to have pared it back to its essentials.

Now I’ve moved on to the next major work I’m writing this year, a song cycle for tenor and piano, Crossing Dartmoor, which has been commissioned by Simon Oliver Marsh. I’ve not talked about this one much yet because it’s mostly been in brew-mode, but it’s based on textworks (text artworks) by British artist Richard Long, to whom I am most grateful for his permission to use his work.

Crossing Dartmoor started in my mind as a fairly standard sort of song-cycle, but has morphed into a more experimental format. The plan is to write many pieces, each of which explores some facet of reduced compositional control. Some will be fully written out (perhaps having been produced using musical ciphers or chance operations), some will be graphic or text scores that require some or all of the musical material to be generated by the performers. But, whatever approach is taken, each piece will be based around just a single idea. In some pieces this will be a more complex idea than others, but I’m allowing myself no dilution, no distraction: one idea per piece.

So back to Manspangled. My role in this work was as part of a 6-person “insect chorus”. I played the comb (snapping the tines very slowly, drawing my finger down the length of the comb, over and over), the emery board (scraping a nail slowly along the board), bubble wrap, and blew bubbles towards the audience. These sounds (or gestures might be more accurate, given that the bubble-blowing doesn’t really make any noise. Unless, of course, you should chance to knock the lid of your bubble-bottle over the balcony and onto an audience member’s head…) continue throughout the performance.

In its essence, Manspangled can be summed up as:

Quiet continual insect sounds on household items, supplemented by quiet elongated cello glissandi, man speaking, everything interrupted periodically by a loud saxophone.

Or, to be even more reductive:

Quiet. Text. Loud interjections.

Yet complexity is produced in the final result. Listen here:

Firstly, Lavinia Murray’s virtuoso text, wandering through a stream of consciousness, providing shape and momentum to the piece. Secondly the unexpected detail of the tiny insect chorus/cello sounds (you may need headphones to hear them on the recording!) – the tininess of these sounds, and the accumulation of them, drew in both performers and audience to focus at a level which is rare, resulting in a truly mesmeric effect. Thirdly, to be pulled out of this intense focus so violently by the contrasting volume and style of the sax and the actor sets up contradictory modes of listening that are quite shocking and require the listener to completely reassess all the sounds involved in the piece. The bubble-blowing obviously makes no discernible sound but provides a visual counterpoint (as, indeed, do all the insect chorus’ actions) which raises questions for me about what “accompaniment” should/can be.

I’m finding this reduced-materials approach a very useful way of working. The song I’m currently working on for Crossing Dartmoor is using a cipher to generate the pitch material, and I’m finding that this objectivity makes it a bit easier to keep on track with the single-concept plan. Yes, my brain blurts out, “Hey! You could also do this!” but it’s a little easier to identify these and keep them under control than when working entirely with instinct-driven material. It’s easier to focus on the structure and general aims of the piece and to follow the idea through. I’m putting the additional ideas to one side for later pieces 🙂

In particular, I feel that each piece is stronger for being more focused. Not necessarily more beautiful, but that’s not really the aim here. And as an added benefit, composition does seem to be happening faster. I’m procrastinating less and it’s clearer how I need to proceed on pieces. There’s a LOT less reworking of things already done and a lot more focusing on how to move forward.

Edward Henderson can be found on Soundcloud at He is also a member of the Bastard Assignments collective and regularly contributes to their fantastic innovative events. Details of their upcoming performances are on the Bastard Assignments website.

Listening diary: Learning to love Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven, portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820When I was an undergraduate student, away, way back in the dark mists of time, I was a snob. A total and utter snob. I wouldn’t listen to anything that could possibly be termed standard repertoire. I did enjoy playing Bach’s flute works and Mozart’s simpler piano sonatas, but I never felt listening to ‘the obvious stuff’ was really worthwhile, or that I could ever really learn anything of use from it. And Beethoven? I LOATHED Beethoven. Not as much as I loathe Mahler but he was definitely next in line.

So I’m not sure why I bought his complete string quartets shortly after I moved to the UK. Something about being music I *should* listen to, I guess, but I suspect also that moving overseas liberated me a bit from my own narrow ideas. It gave me licence to try stuff I hadn’t thought about before. I also think the limitations of there being few record shops around that would actually let me listen to stuff before buying it, coupled with HMV on Oxford Street having an evil habit of putting box sets of complete works by excellent performers on drastic sale, and having to pay to borrow CDs from the library here, all these encouraged me to throw caution to the winds and just try new stuff.

Obviously, not everything I dared myself to try worked out, but there’ve been enough significant discoveries to completely change the way I think about standard repertoire.

But Beethoven. I am somewhat aghast to find myself totally enamoured of Beethoven. My early experience of him was based largely on Herbert von Karajan’s interpretations of his symphonies, and that led me to believe that Claudio Abbado’s delicate and delicious 6th symphony must be an accident. As was John O’Conor’s recording of the piano sonatas 30, 31 and 32 which sat in the bookcase beside Claudio Arrau’s more solid versions. *Obviously* these were glitches among the heavy stodge of the rest of Ludwig’s output.

So I surprised myself when I bought The Lindsays’ recording of his string quartets. And then I surprised myself even more when I discovered that I REALLY LIKED THEM. And not just the early ones, but the late ones too! And then I was hooked. I now have the complete symphonies (Mackerras), complete violin sonatas (Kremer & Argerich), a couple of piano concertos (Argerich) and – at last, for Christmas – John O’Conor’s interpretation of the complete piano sonatas.

These last are sublime and a total revelation for me. Treated with such a delicate touch, even the Waldstein ceases to be heavily Germanic and instead becomes full of light and shade and meaning.

Download the MP3 (442.4KB): Download fragment of John O’Conor’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata

Every disc so far is full of beautiful treats with none of that bone-jarring thumping that is, alas, so often a feature of recordings of Beethoven’s piano music. I can’t wait to spend more time with them and really explore every nuance and see what I can glean from them to use in my own music.

Have you ever experienced a complete turnaround with a composer’s music? Tell me about it in the comments!

Listening diary: Musical flow in Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3

Right now I’m working on my first real orchestral composition – a chamber orchestra piece based on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Carrion Comfort. One of my aims with the writing I do on this site is to reflect a bit on my composing practice. I want to assess what I learn, how I apply it, how I work. I hope that this will help me to understand my process a bit better, and that it might be of interest to – or possibly even help – others.

In the past few weeks, my composition tutor has been introducing me to works which demonstrate particular concepts that he thinks might be helpful in solving problems I’m finding with the music I’m writing, and I’ve found I’m listening more closely, and that I’m getting more out of the listening experience when I take notes while I listen. So in spite of feeling that posting a listening diary could be a little self-indulgent and possibly dull, I’m going to give it a go.

I guess this is also a way of me sidling up to actually posting a report on the work-in-progress itself with a soundfile or score, which is something I’ve been considering for a little while – is anyone interested in seeing this? Please say something in the comments if you are – or if you aren’t!

The music so far

So far my tutor’s recommendations have seen me listening to:

and of course each has had different lessons to impart – I may come back to some of these later. The Nicholas Maw in particular has had a huge effect on this piece.

Listening to Prokofiev

Last week’s recommendation was Prokofiev’s 3rd Symphony, 3rd movement. This whole work has me fascinated at the moment. Starting with the 3rd movement, listening to that several times over with the score (no mean feat – parts of it go at a hell of a pace!), then just listening to it, then listening to the entire symphony. What a buzz! Just so gloriously dark!

The specific thing he’s highlighting in this piece is how to incorporate different rates of movement into otherwise fairly static passages. Carrion Comfort is focused on trying to create a real sense of space within the sound, but the problem I’m having with that, dealing with slow harmonic movement and limited thematic material, is that all too often, change happens in multiple instruments at the same time, which creates a sort of clunky disconnect.

His suggestion is to use different rates of movement in different parts, so that the points of change aren’t all happening together. Prokofiev has an absolutely fascinating divisi strings texture here which is used in the 3rd movement several times – at first listen the impression is of pulse and flow – it drives the music forward and while you can hear there’s a lot going on underneath that, it’s not until you look at the score that you can really see what he’s doing and understand what it is that you’re hearing and how he manages to make it all sound so smooth. (Well, you might. I couldn’t the first time round.)

From about 26 seconds in:

Prokofiev 3rd Symphony, 3rd movement extract - small
Click score for larger version

(The score sample is the last few bars of this clip. It will open in a new window so you can view and listen at the same time.)

I think I can see how I might use this. Or at any rate I can feel it. I’ve been experimenting in various places where I feel there is bareness and a sense of discontinuity. Rhythmically I think it’s working. It’s just that I haven’t worked out what needs to be done with the pitches yet. It’s a harmony problem, I guess, rather than a conceptual one. I just need to keep experimenting to see where it wants to go…

Interested in seeing more work-in-progress posts? Leave a comment!