Testing assumptions and breaking through resistance

Resistance is a nuisance. One of the hardest things in the world can be working out the best way in which to kill off resistance and destroy the excuses we make to not do things we really want to do. This week I discovered that testing assumptions can make an excellent starting point for doing just that.

I’m currently using my dayjob knowledge to explore a bunch of different options to discover how I can best use the internet to promote my music & that of other composers. I read a lot of stuff around this topic to give me ideas – marketing blogs, sales training, productivity articles and so on. Somehow I ended up on the list of Ramit Sethi, author of a book and website called I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Now, I have low expectations of what “rich” looks like to a classical composer, but I find that these sorts of blogs are often very good for productivity tips and marketing and can yield some real gems.

Last week yielded such a gem. Ramit linked to a post on testing your assumptions. His point was that assumptions can hold you back from achieving your goals (e.g. you don’t enter a competition because that ensemble only commissions [insert style you don’t write in] music).

And, golly gosh, he’s right! My work on Carrion Comfort has made me increasingly uncomfortable with my approach of only working on one piece at a time. I’ve been working on it for six months now, and at times it starts to feel like a bit of a chore because there’s no getting away from it. I wondered how my friends who have multiple pieces on the go most of the time manage it. I thought about why I’ve always been a compositional serial monogamist and I came up with the following answer:

I worry that if I’m not working only on one piece, my concentration will suffer and the music will turn out to be crap.

Right there: three big fat juicy assumptions sitting in front of my nose, blocking my way

  1. I assumed that I wouldn’t be able to focus on more than one piece at a time
  2. I assumed that what I created under such circumstances would be crap
  3. I assumed that it actually mattered if they were crap

Well, piffle!

  1. Won’t know until I try
  2. Won’t know until I try
  3. Doesn’t matter (unless everything I write if I’m working like this does turn out to be crap, but again – won’t know until I try)

There go all my excuses! So I am now resolved to get a second piece underway as soon as possible. I did try to jump right in but kind of failed – the film score that’s come back from the dead needs a different cut than the director’s sent me and he’s away; and the recorder quartet needs the catalogue of the Tate’s recent Miro exhibition to get me back into it but I’ve had to order it online and am still waiting… so I need to identify a new new piece and THEN jump right in.

What assumptions are holding you back right now? Think you can destroy them? Let’s take a leaf out of Ramit’s book: post your troublesome assumptions in the comments then let me know how you get on with blitzing them in the next couple of days!

Work in progress: Carrion Comfort 4

Going back to the source & ending up in unexpected places

When we left Carrion Comfort last time, it had been through the wringer a bit. All the chopping and changing I did improved it, but it was left a little directionless and I felt the new end section (which sounds a bit like an actual ending) was a bit of a let-down. So I decided that the only thing to do was to go back to the beginning – right back to the poem that started it all and have a good think about what I was really trying to achieve here.

For the record, and to compare with the last version, this is version 25 of the piece (as with previous versions, it’s best viewed full screen and using the HD setting rather than the 320 which I think is standard):

So I pulled out the poem, read it through several times, then went hunting for readings on YouTube to see how my interpretation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous sprung rhythm matched up with what other people thought. Well, it may be arrogant to say so, but I think most of the readings on YouTube are dead wrong. There’s no passion in them, no real motion. My personal opinion of Hopkins’ poetry is that he contrasts motion with stillness and all through it there should be an ebb and flow of feeling and rhythms. Anyway, that’s my take. So most of them were incredibly tedious. Until I stumbled onto this gem by a blindingly Aussie gentleman who apparently has taken to shouting Hopkins as a form of stress relief. This one, I feel, is a version worth listening to (although if you’re reading this at work, you might want to put headphones on rather than startle your co-workers…)

I just love it.

After a good deal of time communing with the poem and listening to various interpretations, I felt I needed to do something a bit more practical. Often when I work I like to draw or do collages that pull together the sorts of colours, textures and formal rhythm that I’m looking for in the work I want to write. I had just treated myself to a set of gouache paints (opaque watercolour, for those who haven’t encountered them before – a marvellous medium – you get all the blendy, washy properties of normal watercolour, but these amazingly vibrant colours) so I thought I might try to create a sort of painted map of the poem. I think of it as an ‘intensity map’ rather than interpreting mood, speed or whatnot. It’s more about identifying the highs and lows of passion in the poem. Once I’d painted it, I really wanted to work physically with the text itself too, so I pulled a photo of the map into SketchbookPro on my iPad and really went to town, writing out the words and trying to make my written text also match up the intensities I’d mapped. The result was this (click on the image to view the full-size version):

Carrion Comfort intensity map

This is turning out to be rather a long post, so I’ll look at what I did with this map and the further progress of the piece next time. However, just in the last couple of days, this map I made of the poem has taken on a life of its own. In the course of a discussion on Twitter sparked by my last WIP post, I sent the original (no text) version of the intensity map image to Stuart Russell – he then used that map as a graphic score to create his own electroacoustic work, C. C. – After Caitlin Rowley.

I find it quite fascinating that the same material can spark such different results. Stuart has suggested that this map might be capable of having an independent existence as a graphic score and I confess I’m really interested in that as an idea: that something that was created merely as a tool for the creation of one piece can then take on an independent life of its own, so that in the course of creating a single work, I could end up having actually created two scores, and the possibility of many different versions.

What do you think? Does this idea appeal? Have you ever done anything similar? Share your opinions and stories 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.

Blades of grass: Arvo Pärt, Joan Miró and musical detail

A few weeks ago a composer-friend posted a wonderful video of a composition masterclass with Arvo Pärt. He takes a tiny phrase from his piano piece Für Alina and separates out its components with beautiful precision. Playing each line separately, he shows that each on its own is musically nothing much, but when put together, the detail of the intervals created and the motion of one part against the other suddenly makes that special Pärt soundworld happen and it’s just gorgeous. In his words, ‘a blade of grass has the status of a flower’ – even the tiniest detail is as important as a big theme.

I haven’t been able to get this idea out of my head. It turned up at about the point I’m up to in my Work in Progress series of posts – I was very focused on the held chords and notes in Carrion Comfort and my teacher was encouraging me to pull out my tiny main theme and work with inversion, augmentation and diminution of intervals to see how it might be transformed and gradually expanded to take it into new territory. It seemed like just the right idea at the right time.

This weekend, I went out to the Tate Modern with another friend to see the big Joan Miró exhibition they have on at the moment. We were both entranced by the details and distillation of his symbolic language, which you could see happening right from some of the earliest paintings in the exhibition – a naturalistic or semi-naturalistic object gradually became a symbolic mark, which then evolved to take on characteristics of other objects-become-symbols. So a ladder-of-escape symbol also reflected the symbol of the Catalan peasant, representative of the painter’s national identity.

Exploring the tiny details in the paintings in the exhibition, I was reminded of Pärt’s remarks. And then afterwards I had a Facebook message from my friend with a Miró quote from a letter the artist sent to JF Rafols:

“Joy at learning to understand a tiny blade of grass in a landscape. Why belittle it? A blade of grass is as enchanting as a tree or a mountain.”

When I looked further into this quote (thank you, Google) I was delighted to find that he goes on to say:

“Everyone looks for and paints only the huge masses of trees, of mountains, without hearing the music of blades of grass and little flowers and without paying attention to the tiny pebbles of a ravine”

I love that some tiny gesture can have so much significance. A twist of an interval, a series of small dots can completely change the way you view the whole. These artists delineate and show only the essence of the work. It makes me wonder what in my own work is really needed and what is just clouding the structure – how does one effectively work with a large number of instruments but still pare the music back to only what is needed?

A blade of grass has the status of a flower.

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 🙂

Liking this series? If you don’t want to miss the next one, be sure to join the email list!

Creativity/productivity: Improving creative workflow

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on how the Pomodoro Technique helped me to overcome writer’s block. But half the battle with any sort of creative work – not least composition – is not the starting or the ending, but the continuing. It’s the bit where every day you go back to your work, pick up where you left off, and keep going in a consistent manner. Today I’m going to write about how the Pomodoro Technique helps with this too – via a neat little productivity trick called the Hemingway Hack.

Ernest Hemingway’s working habit was “always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next”. Don’t finish your thought, don’t even finish the sentence or the phrase – keep it for next time. And in between now and then, try not to think about it.

It seems like madness – if you’ve got a great idea, why wouldn’t you put it in place? Why would you run the risk of it evaporating between the end of one session and the beginning of another?

The answer is that by not putting everything down, by not finishing the phrase, the brain has something to quietly work on behind the scenes, ready for the next session. It doesn’t have to stress about thinking up shiny new ideas because it already has one that’s quietly maturing and spawning new ideas without you really being involved. And even better, when you make yourself abandon your work before you’re finished, it provides its own incentive to get back to it.

The Pomodoro Technique, with its structure of 25-minute blocks of uninterrupted productivity, separated by 5-10 minute breaks, is a perfect ready-made framework for testing out the Hemingway Hack because it works on two different levels. It applies between work sessions (so long as they’re not too far apart), but it also works in miniature between the individual pomodori of a single session.

My work session can be determined by how many pomodori I want to spend on my project rather than just working until the ideas run out. I’m more likely to feel great about the work I’ve done, rather than depleted and worried about whether I can come up with something tomorrow. And the best bit? I don’t need to decide “this is the bit I’m going to leave unfinished” – I stop when the timer says I should stop. And then I stop thinking about it.1

I find this a great technique for keeping work on a composition moving along. It’s very easy to implement, and works brilliantly if you’re trying to get into the habit of doing your work every day. Give it a go and let me know in the comments how you get on!


1. This bit is the hard part 🙂 Hemingway used to read work by contemporary writers after he’d finished writing. He says “If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day… To keep my mind off writing sometimes after I had worked I would read writers who were writing then” Hemingway on Writing, pp. 42-43

Work in progress: Carrion Comfort 1

This post comes with a disclaimer: it’s taken quite a lot of courage for me to put this online – not only does this post contain the very first moments of the composition of Carrion Comfort, but the piece itself isn’t finished yet – by quite a long way. Please be gentle in the comments and don’t judge what the final work will be based on what you read and hear here. Also, the sounds are straight out of Finale – don’t expect miracles!

I’ve talked myself into posting my work-in-progress online for a few reasons. One is that people seem to like me talking about my compositional process; another is that I’ve reached a point with this piece where I’m feeling a little bit uncertain of where it wants to go. Often analysing what I’ve already done and how I got there helps me to work out how to move forward. Doing this in public, though, is a little scary…

And so to begin

Work in progress: Carrion Comfort 1 by caitlinrowley

Carrion Comfort is a work for chamber orchestra that started as an idea for a song for tenor voice with chamber orchestra. Single winds and brass, strings, maybe some percussion.

Before I started writing, I’d been listening to Nicholas Maw’s Life Studies I pretty solidly for about a week. That’s a fantastic piece. So subtle and spacious. I knew I really wanted to explore a sense of space like I was hearing in the Maw in whatever I was going to write next, so I sat down with the score and started analysing how he achieved that.

The opening of Carrion Comfort is very much about exploring some of the techniques Maw uses. I’ve written about these in an earlier blog post, Making space in music, so I won’t go into detail here, but that’s where it begins.

The first minute and a quarter just wrote themselves in one big blurp (technical term). I had all these sounds in my head from the Maw and sat down to try to make some sense of them, but without much clear idea of exactly what I wanted to do. I just wanted to explore some ideas around the spaciousness in that work. Next thing I knew, I had over a minute’s worth of music solidly sketched. It is very much a sketch – later progress has filled in a lot of detail and given it more form – but it’s a sketch which (I think) shows clearly the form it’s going to take.

The piece started writing itself before I even had a text, which is most unusual for me – the first three notes of the vocal part just put themselves in. I knew I wanted to find a text which explored a crisis of faith, and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Carrion Comfort was just what I was looking for – not only did it express exactly what I was hoping to explore, but its first words exactly matched the pattern that had written itself.

There’s not really a lot more to say about it at this point – it just wrote itself out of what I’d been listening to and thinking about, but this is the starting point – 16 March 2011, 11.23pm.

Next week I’ll dig out a later version to look at. If you want to be sure not to miss it, please do join the email list!

I’d love to hear your comments and your own experiences at starting a new piece – but please be gentle and remember that this is but an egg of the piece yet-to-be-finished!

Awesomeness: Anglepoise

Photo of an Anglepoise Type75 silver lampYes, today I’m talking lamps. I have a confession to make: I am a total daylight junkie. If I don’t have natural light in my workspace, I can’t work. I’m happiest beside, in front of, or preferably IN a large window.

The desk in my bedroom at my parents’ house in Sydney was amazing. My mother had bay windows built onto all the bedrooms, and into mine and the one that is my father’s study, we had desks built in that run the full length of the window. So that desk had glass on four sides – the front and sides, plus the glass roof of the bay window, looking out into the bush and shielded from the sun by the trees. It was lovely – like sitting outside but without the bugs. And with reverse-cycle air-conditioning. Awesome… *sigh*

Anyway, so ever since then, I’ve craved workspaces that have lots of light and space around them. If I’m facing a blank wall or the light’s bad, I can’t work.

While I was trying to fix up my workspace in our previous house and thinking about why it was that I needed so much space and light, I was contemplating lighting and my friend the artist Simone O’Callaghan told me in no uncertain terms to get an Anglepoise lamp with a daylight bulb. And oh my goodness, she was right.

The Anglepoise design is perfect. Just perfect. It sheds light without getting in the way or showing the glare of a naked bulb, the arm is easily moved around to wherever you need it. And the daylight bulb is possibly the best invention ever. Natural colours, gentle but bright light on what you’re working on so your eyes don’t get as tired as with normal bulbs. Often I forget that it’s even on. It’s just so right.

And now my Anglepoise has become part of my work routine. Switching on the lamp is my signal to myself that I’m starting work for the day – once the light is on, I’m working and focused (strangely enough, even when I’m not at my desk…). In her book The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp talks about rituals for getting started – hers is getting up at unreasonable o’clock and getting in a cab to go to the gym. Mine is switching on my lovely silver Anglepoise. And coffee. Of course coffee.

What’s your getting-started ritual?

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!