Overcoming writer’s block: Composition and the Pomodoro Technique

Long dry spells are hard for any artist to deal with. For ten years I struggled to overcome writer’s block – after finishing university, I lost my sense of where I was going, then got sidelined by a ‘real job’ and the music faded away. But I finally found a cure, thanks to a perceptive physiotherapist and the Pomodoro Technique.

A decade of writer’s block

In spite of not having written anything much in five years, when I moved to the UK I still thought of myself as a composer. One day I suddenly realised just how little music I’d been writing and I began to doubt whether I could ever compose anything worthwhile again.

Over the next four years I worked to try to understand why I was blocked and why even composing a simple two-part invention felt like trying to write the Ring Cycle. I’d find a little time. I’d force myself to try to compose something. And then I’d get overwhelmed by work, or just the sheer struggle of it all and stop again. And each time that happened the frustration and feelings of inadequacy increased.

From writer’s block to regular composition

At the end of 2009, I sprained my ankle very badly. I started seeing a physiotherapist but I wasn’t making much progress and after a while – and a lot of lovely chats – she sat me down and told me that she thought the frustration I was feeling about my composition was holding back the healing process. She decided that I should compose as part of my treatment.

Even thinking about music had come to feel rather like standing at the edge of an abyss, but as I’d just started experimenting with the Pomodoro Technique at work and was seeing good results from it, I thought it might help. I started with reading – just one pomodoro a day: a chapter of Richard Vella’s Musical Environments, then some reading related to a set of songs I’d been struggling to finish for a couple of years.

After a few days, I decided that in my session for the day, I’d just listen to those songs and get to know them again. Before I knew it, I’d tweaked this and adjusted something else. I didn’t even realise I was composing until the timer rang to mark the end of the session. Without the pressure I’d been putting myself under, I saw where things needed to be and just put them there without really thinking about it.

Using this technique, I gradually finished the Three Whitman Songs and moved straight on to an arrangement I’d been having terrible trouble with. Pomodoroed that one and started composing a new piece, which ended up as Deconstruct: Point, line, plane, the most ambitious and (some have kindly said) the best thing I’d ever written.

25 minutes to make composition a habit, not a hobby

Working in short, focused blocks showed me that I didn’t need large chunks of time to do good work. It’s not hard to schedule 25 minutes a day, and it’s long enough to get some real momentum going. Even if you’re tired, 25 minutes is doable – set the timer and just do the work. Nine times out of ten, if I could make myself start one pomodoro, I’d get so involved that I’d move on to a second when the first was done.

The Pomodoro Technique helped me not only to overcome writer’s block, but to stop playing at being a composer and start working at it. That’s an overused phrase, but the difference is vast once you work out what you need to do – and then the work feels more like play than the play ever did. I don’t need my timer that much now for composition, but I know it’s there for those days when it all seems too much like hard work.

What’s your experience of writer’s block? Tell us how you overcome it in the comments!

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!

The wrong teacher, or just the wrong time?

Learning how to make the most of the learning experience

I found out yesterday that my very first composition teacher, Professor Eric Gross, has died. For all my my later-acquired appreciation of both him and his work, I can’t say that I really learned very much in my year with him and for a long time I’ve felt that the only thing I learned was what I didn’t want to do as a composer.

That in itself was a valuable experience, but thinking back now, 20 years later (OMG!), I wonder whether it wasn’t that he was the wrong teacher for me like I’ve always thought, but rather that I wasn’t ready for him to be the right teacher for me. I feel that I’m only just reaching a point in my musical education where I could have both enjoyed and benefited from his teaching.

So what was wrong then? And how could I have got more out of the experience?

Lost in the woods

In first-year uni, I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. Unlike a number of my peers, I hadn’t dreamed of being a composer. I didn’t yet have a burning desire to follow it as a career path. It just turned up: 3 boxes on the Sydney Uni application form: audition, submit scores, or both. I had some scores I’d written for the HSC that I was quite pleased with, so – more or less on a whim – I ticked ‘both’ and when composition was what was offered, I figured I’d follow it through and see what happened.

Add in that I was super-shy and a little intimidated by the whole glorious tertiary-education experience, and a bit confused, and that I had a ridiculous notion that ‘real’ composers were supposed to write very serious music that didn’t sound nice, and the scene is set.

Gross’s teaching style, I suspect, depended to a certain extent on the composer being taught having a sense of path. When you feel a path to where you want your work to go, I think it helps you to identify questions you want to ask and to be aware of where there are gaps in your own knowledge: if you want to write symphonies but don’t know how you should handle the percussion section to give the maximum impact, then you know this; if you want to write choral music but aren’t sure how to approach selecting or setting a text, again, you’ll be aware of this. But when you don’t know what you want to do or where to begin to find out what you want to do, then the only thing you’re aware of is that you know pretty much nothing, and that’s a hard thing to ‘fess up to.

What I should have done

Hindsight, as we all know, has 20/20 vision.

I can see quite clearly now – several teachers and a whole lot of composing, reading and listening later – that what I needed to do was to ask questions. It could have completely transformed that experience even if all I’d done was to ask for some suggestions about whether there was anything I should be listening to or reading outside of what was in the curriculum. I didn’t understand then that the harmony and counterpoint and all that stuff is really just a base for ‘real’ composition, and not the full sum of technique that’s needed to do the thing.

Heck, I think it probably would have improved things if I’d even pretended to have a problem and just asked how I could improve something that I didn’t think was wrong! I think the real key here was to start some communication. My memory of those lessons is a little dim, but basically they went something like this:

EG: ‘Did you have any problems this week?’
me: *squeaks* ‘No, not really’

Probably he should have been trying to coax me more out of my shell, maybe asking me about my working method or something, but also I really should have taken a leap of faith and admitted that I didn’t know what I wanted to do or how to find out what I wanted to do. The following year I was switched over to Peter Sculthorpe as my teacher. He was very good at the coaxing and in contrast to the 5-minute lessons I’d had the year before, often we outstayed our allotted time chatting about whatever we were working on or just random topics of interest. I studied with him for the rest of my time at Sydney Uni and in my Honours year he also supervised my thesis. I suspect my view of Prof Gross’s lessons was coloured by my experience with Sculthorpe, but in all fairness their styles were just completely different and I think as a beginning composer I just wasn’t confident enough to understand what was needed of me on the student side of the learning equation.

The lessons I’m taking now with Simon Lambros are very much based around expanding my listening and how to use what I’m hearing, and it’s fantastic – I’m being encouraged to venture beyond my comfort zone and wow there’s some great stuff out here! Listening and reading and pulling things apart to see what makes them tick is bringing on my ideas in leaps and bounds, I think, and making me braver to experiment with new strategies in my music.

I wonder what I’d have learned if I’d been a little braver and just asked some questions 20 years ago. Rest in peace, Eric. I’m looking forward to exploring your music properly soon and seeing what I can learn from you that I wasn’t ready for back then.

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!

Awesomeness: Behind Bars

About Awesomeness

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking recently about process, working environment, etc. – all the stuff that goes into doing what I do. And then I was thinking about tools and I wondered whether it might not be interesting1 to consider some of my main tools and what makes them so useful – from the usual books and stuff to things that just plain inspire me. So this is the start of an occasional series of posts in which I write briefly about something awesome that helps me with my composing or general staying-sanedness.

I’m starting with a fairly tame tool – but one I’m finding it increasingly difficult to start work without knowing where it is – future awesome things will be a little less obvious…

1. Or not. Interesting for me at any rate… but if you enjoy them, or have an alternative suggestion, or want to voice a huzzah for a particular tool, join in in the comments! I’m always interested in hearing about what other people find useful too.

Behind Bars

Behind Bars - cover imageSo I’m starting with a copying book

‘How dull!’ you may think, but this is actually one of the most exciting books I’ve come across in a considerable period of time. Why? Because – unlike the majority of copying books I’ve looked at in my time as a composer and accredited music copyist – this one has ANSWERS.

It’s only been around for a little over a month (Faber published it at the end of January) and already I’m inclined to agree with Simon Rattle’s hyperbolic description: ‘a kind of Holy Writ for notation’. Obviously, I’ve not read it from cover to cover yet – it’s a big book (655 pages) and I’ve only had it a month – but what I’m finding is that it really does have real live answers to real live questions.

For example, working on the violin piece the other day and becoming engulfed in a mire of varying time signatures, I found myself with 9/8 bars that didn’t follow the obvious 3 + 3 + 3 pattern of stresses. Instead their stress patterns went 2 + 3 + 4 and I didn’t know how to tackle this.

Everyone knows that you beam your music according to the time signature, but if the stresses oughtn’t to fall where the standard interpretation of that time signature say they should, then it’s going to be hard to read and doesn’t make musical sense to beam it the way convention says you should. But to beam against convention can also mess with performers’ expectations and make it harder for them to read the music.

So away to The Book I went, and sure enough, Ms Gould has an answer: use the 9/8 time signature, but indicate the pattern of stresses above the time signature with numerals: 2 + 3 + 4

Example of 9/8 with irregular stress pattern notation

What a neat solution!

Every section of the book seems incredibly detailed and covers solutions for things I never thought were questions. A large chunk of the book is also dedicated to idiomatic notation, plus there’s a final section on score layout, part preparation, electroacoustic notation and a section called ‘freedom and choice’ which covers a whole host of modern composition options – independent repetition, repeating material of unspecified order, stems without noteheads and other ways of notating free pitch. So many things!

Just flicking through Behind Bars makes me want to try out a bunch of different techniques and explore new ways of thinking about composition and notation. It’s not just a dry manual of ‘your notes should line up vertically’ and ‘ensure your dynamic marks appear slightly before the note they refer to’ – although it does of course include these sorts of basics.

Instead it’s like a manual of fresh ideas to be tried and solutions to problems that arise when you let your imagination roam freely outside the constraints of traditional musical thought. It’s a very freeing book where many notation manuals seem to be tying you down. Love it!


Do you have ‘reference’ books you find expand the way you think? Leave a comment, ask a question!

Connecting through the score

The starting point for this post lies in discussions I’ve been having with Simone O’Callaghan on her use of two-dimensional barcodes (QR codes) to expand her print artworks into the digital dimension. It’s got me thinking about how we composers could use this technology to improve on the standard print-score-or-audio-file offerings which to my mind limit the options we have for promoting understanding of our music.

QR codes provide a link to a particular web address. You use the camera on your phone (or your laptop’s webcam), together with a decoder app such as i-nigma: Scan the barcode via the app and it will take you off to the website. No typing required, just snap and go.

It would be an easy matter to set up a dedicated page or site section for a piece containing extra information which might be useful for people looking at a score and have that content accessible via QR code. The question is, what information or interaction could be provided that might help listeners understand more, and encourage performers to take the plunge and perform our work?

I came up with the following fairly random list. Some things are eminently achievable, others a bit wacky and out of the realms of probability but I wanted to try to stretch the idea as far as it would go and see if any of the ideas sound feasible to implement in the here and now.

Most basic, requiring only initial posting and subsequent updating. No real interaction:

  • Link to a recording of a piece, which can then be updated as better performances occur and are recorded
  • Provide recordings/scores of variant versions of a piece which might provide insight for users preparing a performance or interested in the process
  • Analysis and full programme notes for the piece – content that is more detailed or longer than is appropriate for brief front-of-score notes, but which may aid with understanding the work.
  • Pre-recorded rehearsal parts (e.g. the piano part for a song cycle, orchestra part for a concerto) for download to help with learning the piece and help amateur players create a performance even if they don’t have access to other performers.
  • Pieces requiring tape parts could have the performance-quality tape part available for download in a variety of formats, whether as the primary method of distribution or as a backup for a physical CD version
  • Information about performances and recordings, both archived and upcoming

Slightly more advanced, requiring more active/regular participation from users or the composer:

  • A forum where performers and listeners can raise questions specific to that piece, which the composer can respond to. This then provides a further resource for future visitors
  • Updates to the score or variants may be produced based on forum feedback or to respond to specific requests. These new versions can then be uploaded to the site.
  • A list of blog posts relating to the creation of the work – for me, I track my work on pieces most days I’m working on them via One Creative Thing. I don’t always go into a lot of detail, but possibly some of it could be useful and could give a good idea of what else was happening at the time to influence the development of the work. Many composer-bloggers will talk about their work in progress to a certain extent and simple tagging of posts with a composition name can give an opportunity to easily provide a list like this.
  • Ability for site users to list a performance of a work

More advanced and probably cloud-cuckoo-land, requiring a full community using and connecting through the system:

  • Users able to upload audio/video recordings of their own performances of a piece. I can see this being of most use to amateur performers in terms of feedback on their performance – but it could also then be a great resource for the composer, who could then contact a performer who produced a particularly good interpretation and ask to use their recording on the public site.
  • Performers connecting with each other: Sort of a personals column for musicians – “I’m a flautist in London and I really want to play this piece, but I don’t know anyone who could play the viola or piano parts – anybody interested?”

Not sure whether I’ll actually do anything with this yet, but I’m thinking about it…


Do you know anyone who’s doing something like this? Is there anything you think might be useful in such a system? Let me know in the comments!

Approaching a single line from three directions

For some time now I’ve had in the back of my mind the idea to write a piece for unaccompanied cello. None of my attempts yet have been at all successful, mostly because of the unexpected complexity of approaching a ‘single-line’ piece of music. So when the 15 Minutes of Fame call came up for a one-minute piece for unaccompanied violin, I barged in on the chance to experiment a bit.

Contemplating solo instrument pieces – for example, the Bach cello suites, Bartók’s violin sonata, CPE Bach’s flute sonata – one of the key features of these works is that they zip all over the place, making wide use of both ends of the instrument’s range and often leaping from one extreme to another. It makes for a nice little virtuosic display for the performer, but more importantly these fast-moving registral changes give the impression that there are more parts than just the one. They provide variety of tonal colour and imply harmony. But this stuff can be an absolute bugger to just sit down and write.

So I didn’t. I thought about what I wanted to do in this one-minute piece. As with many of my pieces, the starting point for my thinking (although it’s unlikely you’ll detect any connection whatsoever in the final work) was a work of art. Natalia Goncharova’s watercolour sketch for one of the Firebird backdrops which was on display at the V&A recently. This image is harmonious yet vibrant colours, a consistency of linear direction (upwards) – movement and almost tangible form, but an integrated whole.

Natalia Goncharova: Sketch for backdrop for Stravinsky's Firebird

In musical terms, I wanted to start with a chugging sort of chordal ostinato to provide a solid ground for the piece, work in a higher held-note figure for lightness and also pull in some sort of brief melodic fragment as well to give a bit of momentum.

The first step to pulling this off, I figured was to approach the piece from a different angle – to not try to work on it as it would appear when finished. Instead, I worked it as a trio. I dropped things in where they sounded like they wanted to go, without the need to consider how polished it sounded – the idea was to pull together a structure for the piece, so that when I had low bits and high bits intersecting, or accompaniment and melody bits vying for attention, there would be a framework for them to do so in. What I came up with looked like this:

Example - first three-line draft version

There’s considerable overlap between parts – the held notes in the first line overlap the melody in the second and everything overlaps all over the third line. This helped me to build the sound of a ‘real’ piece as a starting point.

Next I condensed everything down into a single line, underneath the original three lines so I could continue to keep an eye on what had been there in the first place:

Example: Adding the amalgamated line

From this point, once I was happy with the balance of elements, I ditched the temporary upper parts and began work refining the piece, starting with the obvious element that the notes of the chord used in the rhythmic pattern won’t work as a triple-stop on the violin because they’re just too close together and low down – there aren’t enough strings.

Currently I am following through an extended process of trimming and refining. It’s taking a lot of tweaking and gentle adjustments to get it to where I want it to go and I’m finding the process almost mesmerising – how something so rough is gradually having its edges gentled and become a coherent whole. I’ll do a follow-up post on this process once I’m happy with where it’s ended up.

Why I’m not applying for my dream job

A few days ago, I spotted on Twitter a link to an advert for what is basically a dream job for me – web editor for the Tate art galleries. I’ve wanted to work for the Tate for ages, and to work on their website would be great. But there’s a downside: it’s full-time and permanent… and turning up just as I’ve decided to take three months off to focus on my music.

So I fretted for a bit, then decided to take a poll, so I put my dilemma up on Facebook and the response was overwhelming: apply for it! And to a certain extent they’re right. If I had a proper job now, I wouldn’t hesitate. If I weren’t also a composer, I wouldn’t hesitate. But most of all, if I weren’t planning on using the next few months to start to set myself up in a position where I wouldn’t need a proper day job at all, I wouldn’t hesitate. But.

So of course the next question is ‘why not apply and see what happens?’.

I’ll start with the fuzzy-hippy-wafty stuff. First up, it feels wrong. It feels like a diversion from a clear path that I’m supposed to be following. I’ve felt like this about jobs before, ignored it and regretted it. Second, I don’t know about other people, but most years I have a pretty clear feeling for what the general mood of the year will be – and I’m often right. This year feels very strongly like I need to keep myself as flexible as possible – like I’ll need to turn on a dime and be ready to take off at a moment’s notice. These are things that full-time, permanent work doesn’t play well with and the combination could mean either letting down my treasured employer and damaging my future prospects for working with them, or not doing things which may be important in either my career or personal life – not entering a high-profile call for scores, not being able to be with my mother when she has her cataracts operation, that sort of thing. This is a year that will be full of opportunities, some of which may require swift action, and I don’t want to miss a minute of it. Nor do I want to let others down by doing so. Which means a different approach is needed.

So enough of the fluffy stuff because there are more concrete reasons too. I’ve had full-time permanent day jobs before but never in my life have I done a full-time permanent job and been able to maintain compositional momentum. I’ve never even really been able to maintain compositional equilibrium – sooner or later my technical skills go backwards and after a while I find I’m not writing at all and to try to do so takes a mammoth amount of willpower. I wasted 10 years of my life like that and it’s taken another 5 to get back on track. I don’t want to waste another minute.

Part of the reason I’m planning to not have a day job at all for the next three months is that I’m signing up for individual composition lessons at the local university. After Durham, I’m really keen to start a Master’s degree soon, so I wanted to do some lessons again to remind me of what it was like to have to check in with work every week, to get some solid feedback and hopefully to also be able to stretch my compositional thinking and improve the work I’m doing. To make the most of this experience requires a goodly amount of spare time in which to compose and think and generally experiment with ideas. I’m also planning on exploring a number of alternatives for income-generation which don’t involve me having to spend 5 days a week in an office – ultimately I want to be able to mix up my day between composition and paying work to create a satisfying and profitable whole. I don’t expect to be supporting myself within three months – that would be stupid – but I do hope to have set some things in motion and hopefully be earning just a little something that I can build on.

I guess if I applied for the job I could resign myself to just working like a demon for a year and doing everything, but I’ve burnt myself out like that before – did it last year, in fact – and the thing that always suffers the most is the composition because there’s no one but me holding me accountable for doing it. And that’s not how I want it to be.

One of my goals for the new year was to ‘be more selfish’. I don’t mean that I’m not sharing my packet of chocolate biscuits with anyone, but instead to put my stuff first. To work out my priorities and work towards ensuring that they are unshiftable priorities, not something that gets pushed out of the way as soon as something that pays comes along.

There may be tightening of belts. There may be darned socks. But I’m absolutely determined that there will also be music and satisfaction and lots of it.