One evening, four songs

Research is all very well and good, but whether it can be applied outside of the research context is the real test. I think that the work I’m doing is leading to better understanding of how a piece functions, and that it’s helping me to work faster, but how can I really, really tell?

A couple of weeks back, I got the chance to put it to the test. Every February, Trinity Laban runs a fantastic college-wide programme called CoLab, ‘Collaboration Laboratory’. For two weeks, all regular classes stop and everyone (except doctoral students and 2nd year MFA) works on collaborative projects.

I did CoLab last year and found it a really interesting and useful experience. I made new friends, I learned how to solder and I had to think deep thoughts about the role of a composer in a collaboration when that role isn’t going to be just going off and writing notes on your own.

This year it was optional for me but when on meeting up with a friend she mentioned that her project needed a composer, I volunteered and joined ‘The Other English Song Project’ led by Jess Walker. The group consisted of 11 singers and 2 pianists with a brief to explore English-language vocal music. I joined on the second day at which point the project had focused itself on songs which explored the concept of ‘home’. I headed home at the end of that first day with four texts about ‘home’ written by four of the singers, and a brief to write some fragments of music that they’d have a bash at singing the next day.

Challenge 1: Write four songs in less than 24 hours (yes, I could have got away with only doing one or two, but I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could do all four).

Challenge 2: Find a way to write these songs in the time available (and while actually getting a reasonable night’s sleep!) that might sound polished enough to be considered a complete piece.

I also wanted to provide properly typeset scores for all the songs. Mostly this is just a point of professional pride, but I do like to always give performers clearly notated parts, even at rough stages. This turned out to be by far the most time-consuming part of the whole process although one of the singers did thank me profusely and in tones of wonderment for doing it, so I think it was worthwhile 🙂

My first step was to look at the texts I’d been given. These were all different lengths and differing levels of poeticism. I decided quickly that I didn’t want to just set a phrase from each text and throw away the rest of the words. What had been written was heartfelt and very personal and it seemed disrespectful to not try to convey a sense of the whole of what had been written.

So I reworked all but one of the texts – shortening, rearranging phrases, trying to keep as much of each writer’s own words and turns of phrase as possible, while condensing them down to four haiku-ish blocks of prose.

After doing this, an approach became clear which I felt I could pull off in the time available and produce a solid result: to set a phrase or two from each, but couched in the context of the whole (shortened) text, with a simple piano accompaniment running under both speech and song parts.

So this was the single idea I was exploring, and the next step was to find the actual notes. Having found using a cipher so helpful in my most recent Crossing Dartmoor song, I decided that was the way in. I used each writer’s first name for the cipher and encoded it into pitches using Honegger’s cipher.

From that point I worked intuitively but found that the work proceeded very quickly as there were so few decisions to make – I had limited pitch material to draw on, I’d already chosen the phrases I wanted to set and I knew it was going to be necessary to make both piano and vocal parts very easy to read and learn, and that I was going to leave a lot of freedom in the music to make it easier to put the parts together, working towards pieces which rely heavily on the two partners responding to each other rather than needing a lot of precision to synchronise their parts.

Was it a success? Well, I rather think it was! Our project leader was thrilled and said it was exactly what she wanted. The singers and pianists seemed happy with their pieces and – incredibly, to me – three of the four singers had their parts off-book (along with several other pieces) for an informal concert in the college cafe 24 hours after receiving them – and all four for the following day’s official concert in the Old Royal Naval College Chapel. With Jess’s expert guidance, the spoken and sung text blended well and I feel that the approach created a distinctive and satisfying result.

I do feel that without the work I’ve done on my project – specifically thinking about exploring single ideas and using cipher-generated pitch material – there is no way I could have completed these four pieces in the timespan I had available. I could probably have done two, but definitely not four. And without these approaches, I also think that the set would not have turned out as coherent as they did – or as rhythmically interesting because my focus would have been (as it usually is when left to my own devices) somewhat obsessed with finding the right notes.

I would like to thank everyone on ‘The Other English Song Project’ but especially Jess Walker and my singer-authors Melanie Harikrishna, Amon-Ra Twilley, Deborah Miller and Lucy Miller-White who did such a fantastic job learning and performing my music in such a short timeframe.

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.

Procrastination = Fear

I’ve known this for a long time. It’s an old chestnut of productivity gurus – procrastinators aren’t lazy, it’s simply a way of processing (or not processing, rather) some sort of fear associated with the task that’s being put off. In my case, in just about every piece I write, sooner or later I find myself procrastinating. I procrastinate before starting a piece because I’m concerned about not working out my materials correctly and that this will mean I can’t develop the piece how I want to. I procrastinate at the end of a piece – usually until I’m sick to death of it, as now – because I’m paralysed by the notion that it’s not the absolute best work I could have done with those materials. I procrastinate in between because of the fear that I’ll choose the wrong path and not know it until I’m too close to the deadline to change it.

Drowning Songs has also brought a whole new fear to the fore – one I’ve been aware of but never really addressed in any significant way: the fear of not really knowing what it sounds like. Without a workshop stage in the process of writing this piece, I’m effectively sending it off without having any concrete evidence to show me whether it’s going to work.

There’s going to be a lot of this this year, I suspect. Most of my previous music has been written within the confines of computer programmes that play back what I’ve written, so that while I still need to balance the sounds they make with my knowledge of how real instruments will sound, I have a pretty good idea of how it all fits together. Not so with Drowning Songs. There’s a few bars towards the end that are ‘normal’, where the parts are synchronised and a computer can show me that they’ll ‘work’. But much of the rest of the piece is unsynchronised, much of the material is unpitched, much relies on the effect of how a group of singers work together. To the point where I’m currently experiencing massive procrastination because I’m terrified that the whole thing’s going to be a disaster because I don’t have the level of control, of certainty, that I’ve come to rely on.

Which is, of course, the point. A Sketchbook of Mushrooms was all about letting go, about NOT controlling every aspect, embracing the random and seeing what would happen. And this project is about taking that a step further – not just loosening up my hold on my materials but actively building performer freedom and flexibility into my music, embracing the possibility of dissonance, of clamour, of confusion in a bid to create an end result that draws out a stronger emotional response from the listener than my previous carefully aligned work.

Even in the face of fear, though, this piece must be finished. I need to remind myself continually that Drowning Songs is part of a research process. I need to commit to an approach, put it on paper, send it off, see what happens. And only once I’ve seen what happens can I assess whether the approach I’ve taken works or not. If it doesn’t I’ll be disappointed. I know this. I accept it. But disappointment doesn’t preclude the possibility of learning something extremely valuable – possibly more valuable than if the piece is a raging success and nothing needs to be changed at all.

Graphic scores, text scores, freedom and ownership

I’ve been taking a bit of a break from work on Drowning Songs since handing in the draft, to work on two very different pieces. The first is Parlour Game, a text score created for Trinity Laban’s Rude Health series of experimental music events; and the second is a new graphic score, Sepiascape with Grey, created for Valentina Pravodelov who, having completed her MMus in classical piano this year is now studying for an MMus in voice, focusing on popular music.

It’s been a good thing, I think, in terms of how I think about my music and specifically about how I’m approaching composition and the whole freeing-up process that started with A Sketchbook of Mushrooms. My MFA project seems to be starting to focus more clearly on notation and the exploration of different ways to convey the more flexible ideas that I come up with when I work on a piece away from the manuscript and away from the computer, so it’s been good to take a step backwards and think about what’s going on when I’m not dealing directly with traditional notation.

Parlour Game is the first time I’ve made a text-based score. It’s based on the children’s game of Chinese Whispers and is structured more like a set of game rules than anything else. The number of performers is flexible (three or more), the actual material used is entirely open and may even be audience-generated (although the audience at the first performance was, it has to be said, a little reluctant to be involved!), a lot of it is improvised performance, both musical and dramatic, and yet watching the performance, in spite of so very many parameters being intentionally placed beyond my control, it still felt like ‘my’ piece.

I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable when working with improvisation (I’ve written about this before so apologies if I’m repeating myself!). I really enjoy making graphic scores and I love hearing what performers make of them, but I never feel like the music is really “mine”. The score is definitely mine, but the music belongs to the performers, even when I can hear how it relates to the score.

Possibly the difference between Parlour Game and graphic scores I’ve made is that it contains a whole series of parameters that influence the performance, whereas my interest with graphic scores is in hearing what the performers’ imaginations make of something. I feel that if I have such a defined idea of how I want a piece to sound that I need to dictate how performers interpret graphic gestures, then I might as well write that out in notes.

The ‘score’ of Parlour Game provides a context for the performance (the singers represent a ‘family’ sitting around, bored, after Christmas dinner), a process for the piece (‘rumours’ circulate through the audience and down to the performers, who use this as the text for singing/arguing), some suggested pastimes while portraying boredom (singing Christmas carols, reading aloud); it sets out parameters for the performers: what to do when a text is received by a performer, the possibility of rejecting a text with suggested phrases for this, graphic melodic suggestions and text-based descriptions of modes of delivery (“shout and stamp your tiny foot”, “get a little tetchy”), a suggested way of ending the piece.

Graphic melodic suggestion for Parlour Game

Explain through gritted teeth - text instruction for Parlour Game


For the first performance, in addition, I was the one who selected the source material (readings and ‘rumours’ were taken from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) and set the dress code (tacky Christmas). Maybe this had something to do with it, but I think the ownership of this piece came more in the setting of parameters than in the detail. Although, that said, the use of some of my suggested phrases possibly also played a large role in how much of myself I see in the piece.

Sepiascape with Grey is almost completely different from Parlour Game. It’s serious where Parlour Game is intensely silly, for a start! Unlike most of my previous graphic scores which have tended to be created quite spontaneously, this one has been through about 7 different drafts before I felt the balance was right, with each version addressing issues that the previous one had raised about my own thinking, and in particular what I usually assume about the musical languages used by my performers.

Sepiascape draft - version 3
Draft version 3 of Sepiascape with Grey – WAY too busy and felt like it had little connection with the other songs in the setlist. (click to view larger version)


Unlike my previous graphic scores which have all been intended for musicians from a classical/experimental background, Sepiascape with Grey is intended for a programme of darkly urban music by bands such as Massive Attack, Portishead and Joy Division.

Now, I’m the first person to admit that – technically – I know very little about popular music, and I found that in the early stages of thinking about this piece I got very caught up in superficial ‘constraints’ such as verse/chorus structures, repetition and unvarying metres. Gradually, though, I realised that these elements are not really things that need to be referenced in the score but rather that they are part of the performer’s equipment that they may bring to the piece – in exactly the same way as flexible metres, fluidity and unfixed structure are part of the language of the experimental musicians I am more accustomed to creating graphic pieces for. I am not writing popular music with this, merely trying to present an appropriate framework within which popular music could happen if the performers choose to drawn on those elements.

Sepiascape with Grey - final version
Final version of Sepiascape with Grey (click to view larger version)


Ultimately, I found myself focusing on textures and timbres, trying to create a structure with these elements that would sit well with the other pieces in the programme.

Text was a particularly tricky aspect of this piece. Most popular music is song, and most popular songs work within a pretty traditional verse/chorus structure. I dallied (very) briefly with the idea of writing some lyrics to go with the score, but I discarded this idea quite fast.

Mostly this was because it seemed to make an assumption that would tie the performers into a particular structure, which rather goes against what interests me about creating graphic scores. I considered leaving out a text entirely, but that too didn’t feel right – whether because the piece really needed the text, or perhaps some deep-rooted assumption about vocal music needing words, or possibly just because so much of my recent work has had a textual element to it.

The compromise that I came to was to include a tiny, tiny text, which could be used as the whole text for the song, a leaping-off point for the band to develop a complete lyric as part of the interpretative process, or which could be ignored as a foreground element, becoming just another part of the overall mood expressed by the score. This text ended up consisting of a single line from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, and a couple of words I pulled together which seemed to fit the whole Dark City feeling I was trying to convey:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn
Unreal city.

I have no idea at this stage how Valentina has approached the piece (although I’ve had an email in which she says it’s working well – hurrah!) but I’m really looking forward to hearing the result in January!

Cut’n’paste job: Constructing a text from multiple sources

I’m very excited to have been commissioned to write a new 5-minute a cappella piece on a maritime theme for the Trinity Laban Chamber Choir. The first draft is due at the beginning of December, so I’m currently immersed in research and drafting up initial ideas. Rather than use specifically nautical poetry, with which I feel little connection and which has already been done extremely well by composers such as Stanford, I have decided to compile a text about drowning from a range of sources. I’m hoping that this approach will combine some of the benefits of writing my own text (not having pacing dictated by the text, tailoring section lengths to musical rather than poetical needs) while avoiding actually having to write my own 🙂

Cue lovely chunks of time ensconced in the National Maritime Museum’s Caird Library (I think that makes 8 libraries I belong to here now…) reading up on drowning. Some of this reading has been useful – a 1904 Method for the Treatment of the Apparently Drowned, a letter dated July 1805 (which I actually got to handle!!!) from a sailor on the HMS Victory conveying the news of a friend’s death by drowning to his parents in Nottinghamshire; other bits have been merely time-consuming, such as the six chapters of a book called All the Drowned Sailors which I read because I simply couldn’t put it down: while they didn’t actually say much about drowning, there was rather a lot of gripping narrative about insanity, dehydration and death by shark. Drowning really is a terrifyingly long way from the worst thing that can happen to you at sea…

In the past couple of days I have started ‘real’ work on the piece. My ideas for the opening solidified quite early, but I kept thinking that I should map out the structure of the piece and then work out which texts to use with what. However, I found that I was having a lot of trouble thinking about the structure without considering the specific text I should use. I guess that even though the musical structure will work independently of a textual structure, it’s still dependent on the text in the same way that when I create structure diagrams for instrumental pieces, they are often based on textural blocks. Without the texture in mind, the structure doesn’t happen, and in this case without picking out the text I wanted to work with, the structure wasn’t happening.

I had originally thought that I might be able to hang the whole piece on the letter, but I think now that that’s not going to work. It’s so very personal that I’m reluctant to use it whole, to dissipate the poignancy of its message through the mechanics of dividing the text between the voices. I had already thought to use just fragments of text from the Method, so now I’m thinking of doing the same with the letter, focusing on phrases which can represent so many similar letters that have been sent to grieving families over the centuries.

I also have a few fragments of poetry that were used in a document from the Shackleton expedition, as epitaphs for lost expedition members. Plus the names of drowned Merchant Navy seamen (I have a book of these on order at the Caird Library – due in on Tuesday!), plus an assortment of words that I’m thinking of as “drowning rhymes” in the manner of Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb’s “shawm rhymes”, “flute rhymes” etc. (which you can hear from about a minute into the following track).

These “rhymes” will be words like DOWN, DROWN, BURN and BREATHE. Not exactly rhyming, but related in the sounds they use (D/B, DR/BR/BUR and the progression of the vowel sounds) and also related to the reported experience of drowning.

I’ve worked up a first draft plan for the opening using these words, showing what I want to do with them. I think it’s fairly clear, but I’m not sure yet how much of the graphic information will make it into the score – I’m still working through some ideas in this respect.

Drowning songs opening

I’m thinking that the piece will proceed via passages of compression and relaxation. This comes from the Method: “sufficient air for the maintenance of life could be introduced by alternate compression and relaxation of the chest walls”. ‘Compression’ will most likely be rhythmic homogeneity while ‘relaxation’ will be more loosely connected material.

I’ve never compiled a text in this way before. It’s a very different way of thinking than working from complete passages or poems. The need to convey a sense of the whole text is removed because it is entirely appropriate if only fragments are comprehensible by the audience in this situation. I’ve chosen this approach because recently I’ve started to feel quite hemmed in when working with complete texts. The reason I rarely set rhymed poetry is that I feel I need to completely break the poem in order to make it appropriate for music. If I don’t then the music seems crippled by the poem’s own internal music (which all good poems have. And many bad poems too). By using fragments, it feels more like the music is in control and that the structure will develop from musical requirements, not textual ones.

The other benefit is that I can include multiple levels of meaning in the words I’m using, which is something that really appeals to me and something I touched on slightly when writing my own text for Breadcrumbs earlier this year. At the moment there are elements of the physical experience of drowning, resuscitation methods, grief and the personal and institutional expression of sorrow, and the very personal specificity of the names of people who have actually died.

I’m hoping that the book of names I’m seeing on Tuesday will yield something I can use – not sure what content I could use to fulfil this role if those documents don’t provide something useful. It’s very important to me with this piece to use – for want of a better word – authentic texts. The specific stories behind the words I’m using are a large part of the power of that text. This may not be something which conveys to an audience, but it matters to me as I’m writing it, and hopefully once the choir knows that the names are the names of real people who drowned, the letter fragments are from an actual letter, the poetry was chosen as a memorial to real people, that it will colour the approach they take in singing this material. There’s a level of respect that goes along with a true story, a gravitas, which cannot be matched by invention, no matter how plausible, and I feel that to try to fake any part of this is to belittle the pain of those who have died and those who have lost people to the sea.

Considering the audience

In our latest ‘All Composers’ session, the question of whether we do or should consider our audience when writing was raised. Now, I know well that this is a question that’s kind of been done to death and this is not a post about whether composers in general should or shouldn’t. I don’t think that discussion is particularly helpful. What I do think is helpful is for individual composers to consider the role the audience plays in what they do and how they perceive what they do.

For me, I don’t think I do really consider the audience that much while I’m writing. I’m more interested by what I feel to be the internal drive of the piece, about creating something that to me feels satisfying and that is appropriate to the situation I’m writing it for – if it’s something I’m writing for a particular performer, what are their strengths, weaknesses, interests and things they want to work on? if it’s a piece I’m just writing for fun, then what parameters (if any) do I want to set myself?

What I do think I do, which I hadn’t really considered before, is to spend a fair bit of time stepping back from a piece and trying to consider it from an audience member’s perspective – does it hang together? If I pretend I don’t know what’s coming next, does this bit still work? what is the overall structural balance like?

In the context of needing to push myself to take more risks, I wonder whether this step in the process might not actually be counterproductive – is this the point at which I sanitise music that might be less conventional to fit into some mould I’m not even conscious of trying to fit? Do the things which sound unbalanced to me actually sound excitingly wobbly to other people? I’m thinking now that these are questions I probably should be exploring. Sometimes, certainly, this process can take a pedestrian section of a piece and make it more interesting, but maybe more would be learned by just writing it, giving it to performers, then hearing it and writing a new piece which learns from what’s been done in the workshop. I guess this is largely what my work on A Sketchbook of Mushrooms was tackling, although I didn’t think of it in these terms at the time.

I think too that this stepping-back process could be part of why I’ve gone through such major periods of stuckness on pieces such as Red on Black on Maroon and Carrion Comfort, so at the very least a period of experimentation with this idea is probably worth a go…

What do you think? What role does the audience (either real or imagined) play in the development of your creative work? Is it important to you for your work to be perceived in a certain way?

(And look! I got through the whole post without mentioning Milton Babbitt! Go me!)

Reconciling research and commissioned work

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my MFA project and how to approach it. The topic has been built around two commissioned pieces, and since receiving feedback on my final recital – which boiled down to ‘needs to take more risks’ – I’ve been trying to balance in my mind the needs of the commissions – to create a satisfying work, suitable to the performer and his/her focus and musical interests while producing work that not only fits with my research questions, but actively experiments with the issues raised and leads me to a better understanding of what I’m trying to investigate.

It’s a tricky balance and I’m feeling that I need to do a LOT of research around the subject matter of these two compositions – on drama, text, poetry and stage design for the opera, and on Richard Long’s art practice, Dartmoor and modern song cycles in general for Crossing Dartmoor.

Last week for our postgraduate composition seminar, we were given an article to read which raises this very question. It’s titled Opus versus output,1 by Nicholas Till and investigates the approach to practice-based research taken by British educational institutions. One section in particular seemed of immediate relevance to my current conundrum:

‘Speaking personally as someone who has pursued both a professional artistic practice in theatre and practice as research within a university context I am very well aware of the difference between producing a professional piece of work (usually to commission) and producing a piece of work in which I have myself determined the questions and issues that I wish to address, and in which I am in control of the methodology for that research process… the bottom line is different, since with the former one has a responsibility to deliver an achieved piece of work to an audience rather than simply to gain new understanding or insights.’2

I get the impression that Till’s view is that the two can’t really co-exist because of conflicting goals; however, I think it should be possible. I think that at the very least, it should be possible to have elements of the work that can be experimental and testing out new ideas, while others are on more solid ground in order to realise that ‘achieved piece of work’. I haven’t yet quite worked out how I will do this, mind you – still at the very beginnings of this thought process, but I feel that it should be possible. I know I WANT it to be possible! Till puts forward the example of Jacopo Peri’s early opera Euridice as being ‘dry and, dare I say it, “academic”‘3 but that that work paved the way for Monteverdi’s Orfeo, ‘a passionate masterpiece that showed the true artistic potential of Peri’s cautious first steps’.4 Yes, sometimes the first exploration does end up being artistically uninteresting, but while I accept that this may be the result, I don’t feel that I need to limit myself to being a Peri rather than a Monteverdi. Now I just need to work out how to do that…

1, 2, 3, 4 Nicholas Till, ‘Opus versus output’, Times Higher Education, 7 March 2013. <> Accessed 30 September 2013


I’m feeling a little shellshocked at the moment. I had my final recital for my Master of Music degree on Friday and am now trying to regather my thoughts.

I was really thrilled with how the recital, titled Colour and Shadows, turned out. My performers all did amazing things with learning and performing my music – some of it really quite difficult – in a short period of time. My huge thanks to all of them: Valentina Pravodelov (piano), the Hanley Quartet, The Peacock Ensemble, Julia Weatherley (soprano) and Clemmie Curd (cor anglais). The response was great too – so many people said such kind and encouraging things afterwards! – it was a really lovely experience. And both Julia and Valentina’s performances of Breadcrumbs and In Detail, respectively, in their own recitals, were fantastic too.

So now I’m regrouping, finalising my transfer into the Master of Fine Arts degree, and thinking about how to approach my projects for the coming year. And these are mounting up! A chamber opera for Julia Weatherley, a song cycle for Simon Marsh, a requiem for solo voice and (possibly) viola for David Jones, some short pieces for violin and cello for the Chapel Hill Duo, and a 5-minute piano duet for Rebecca Cohen – plus a small assortment of other pieces I’d like to write too!

The second year of the MFA is focused on project work – similar to the work I was doing on A Sketchbook of Mushrooms a few months back, but an entire academic year’s worth. ‘Personal Project on steroids’ is how I’m describing it to people! My project is looking at the intersection of art and text in composition. The topic is a little vague right now, but I want to look at different approaches to text-setting, text-creation and the use of speech rhythms in instrumental music.

The pieces I have lined up to write will use a broad range of approaches to text. For the opera, I’m planning on writing my own text (as I did for Breadcrumbs); for the song-cycle I have permission from visual artist Richard Long to use some of his textworks about Dartmoor (hugely excited about this!) so it’s using textual visual art as lyrics. I’m still working on concepts for the requiem, but David’s real strength lies in characterisation and I want to see how I can use this gift while using a standardised, non-narrative text.

Of course, the project will doubtless traipse into other areas (I’m already doing some reading on dramatic form and thinking about how this might relate to instrumental music as well as operatic) and may veer more in one direction than another, but this is all part of the fun…

Breadcrumbs: Handling dramatic time

Jane Manning performs Breadcrumbs at Tete a Tete
Jane Manning performs a late draft of Breadcrumbs at Tête à Tête opera festival

The last week or so has seen some big changes to Breadcrumbs, the dramatic monologue for unaccompanied soprano that I’ve been composing for soprano Julia Weatherley. In particular, I’ve been working on creating context and space for the drama that is implied in the piece. While the text explains fairly clearly (I think!) what is going on and how we got there, it is quite wordy and the issue of time passing and the aspect of what the character feels or experiences which goes unsaid were things that still needed to be addressed.

Fortunately, the Tête à Tête opera festival has been on over the past few weeks, and I’ve managed to get to several performances of new short operas which have been hugely helpful in working through ideas about dramatic space. In particular, Judith Bingham’s unaccompanied soprano rendition of the story of fossil-hunter Mary Anning (part of the Fossils and Monsters performance by Alison Wells) was extremely helpful. The gaps left between phrases, her use of a tiny patch of pebble-beach for the performer to crunch over, the tapping of smooth beach-stones the character is holding in her hands, and the inclusion of half-remembered phrases of hymns all contributed to make a very well-paced, vibrant performance, and helped me to begin to understand some of the finer detail of how Breadcrumbs should work in a performance.

The biggest issue, I felt was how to convey a feeling of passing time. While the piece only takes about 5 minutes to sing, it needs to be clear to the audience that it all happens while Gretel is wandering about in the woods over a much longer time-period, more like several hours. While writing the text, I had considered explicitly stating this – the section “Twilight, twilight, evening, past crepuscular and into more prosaic night-time” is intended to show that the day has ended while she’s been singing. Even at the point of assembling the words, though, I felt that while the “twilight” bit worked, to make the passing of time more explicit would probably be a bit too heavy-handed.

The Téte à Téte performances helped with seeing how the staging can really make the most of pauses and little random snatches of melody. I found that the Bingham piece had some quite large gaps in it, but that they didn’t seem as large as they were, on reflection, because of the visual aspect of the performance – Wells wandered around, crunched over the little beach, looking for ammonites among the pebbles, hummed half-forgotten snatches of hymns, all of which gave a strong sense of a larger context, both physical and temporal.

Originally I had notated pauses in performance with fermatas and breath marks, to indicate long or short pauses.It began to feel like these did not give enough information for the performer though, and I revised the piece while considering why the singer was pausing – what is the dramatic purpose of the break? and what is she doing while it is happening? Once I had worked these out, I removed most of the previous pause marks, replacing them with either notated rests, or blank bars with stage directions such as “Pause to listen, as if expecting a response. Slump with a sigh when it becomes clear he’s not answering” and “Check pockets, or show hands to show you have nothing”.

Thinking like this really brought the music to life for me and – oddly enough – expanding the breaks actually seemed to knit the piece together more strongly. In particular, there are one or two places where a sudden change of mood is called for by the text – adding in stage directions made sense of the context for these sudden changes, and I think they also help with conveying how long a pause should be, based on dramatic, not just musical, time.

I was fortunate enough to have this near-final draft of Breadcrumbs sung by legendary soprano Jane Manning at a sight-reading workshop held by Téte à Téte on the 18th of August. This was an incredibly helpful experience – Manning delivered a very well characterised performance which has really helped me determine the final tweaks to the piece. Overall, I was very pleased with how the work turned out in this performance (also very pleased to hear from my teacher that Manning loved it!) and there are very few changes I’ll be making. The main things are a couple of additional repetitions of phrases/sections which seemed to be over too quickly, and therefore didn’t make enough impact for the dramatic sense they needed to convey, and I’m thinking of tweaking some of the notes to include a glissando here and there – up till now all the notes have been solid pitches, but I think a little flexibility would be very effective.

Onwards and upwards – just a week to go till my Major Portfolio is due in!

The final version of Breadcrumbs will be performed by Julia Weatherley as part of my public MMus final recital at Blackheath Halls in London on 13 September 2013. Click to find out more about this performance >>

All-Rowley programme for September recital

Colour and Shadows: Music by Caitlin Rowley

Colour and Shadows: A recital of music by Caitlin Rowley

2.30pm Friday 13 September 2013
Blackheath Halls, Blackheath

Colour and Shadows is my final recital for my Master of Music degree, to be held at Blackheath Halls. As with many Trinity Laban end-of-year assessment recitals, it’s open to the public – and free!

The programme features a number of works that I’ve blogged about here or talked about on Twitter over the past year, including:

The recital lasts for about 40 minutes and features fantastic Trinity Laban performers in all the pieces. You don’t need to book – just turn up for 2.30. Or maybe come earlier: there are other recitals on throughout the day too, for my fellow composers Michael Thomas Andrews, Barry O’Halpin and Gio Janiashvili, so it’s worth coming earlier or staying later if you’re making the trip – it’s going to be a very varied day!

I’d love to see you there – and of course, if I haven’t met you before, do come up and say hello!

I’ll be posting more information about the works on the programme and the performance itself here on the website over the next few weeks – or join the Facebook event to get the latest details.