The joy of planning

Planning. Gosh that sounds dull, doesn’t it?! However, I am finally seeing the benefits of actually planning my college work and my composing. At the beginning of the academic year, finding my time vanishing away scarily fast, I went to see the Time Management lady here. It was an insanely useful thing to do, mainly because it really showed me how little time there is. There’s a world of difference between “Oh that deadline’s a week away” and “but in that week I have 6 classes, spend 10 hours travelling, need to sleep and eat and shower and do other work and basically I really only have about 8 hours in total (including reading time on the train) and the only big gap I have is tomorrow, to do this thing”.

A couple of weeks back, our lecturer for Orchestration – Large set us the task to plan out our work for our pieces, so that we set ourselves deadlines for each bit that needed to be done, and I really found it very enlightening. “I need to write a piece” became:

  • Complete short score
  • First draft orchestration
  • Second draft orchestration
  • Third draft orchestration
  • Finalise and lay out
  • Produce parts
  • Proofread
  • Correct
  • Print
  • Hand in

Quite a scary amount of work there! So I then took some time to plan out the other pieces I’m working on with similar results.

Today I took a bigger bull by the horns and made a plan for my Personal Project. This one’s not due till mid-May, which seems like miles away, but given that I’ll be writing a bunch of music for it AND writing an essay on the results of those musical experiments, a plan is very much in order. The main thing I’ve discovered is that if I’m to get everything done in a calm and collected fashion, including recording the pieces in good time to be useful, I need to write a piece a week from now till Easter. This takes into account the two weeks of CoLab (‘Collaboration Laboratory’) which is compulsory for the whole college, and when I have no idea if I’ll manage to get anything done at all.

My biggest question now is what forces I’m going to write for. My initial idea was to write for wind quintet and percussion, but the more I think about it, the more I feel it’s going to be a total nightmare to gather all those people in one place for rehearsals or to test out ideas, so I’m thinking one or at most two players is a more sensible approach. I keep coming back to the idea of percussion. I like the variety of instruments available and the wide range of possibilities – from drums to bowed vibraphone. I’ve been wanting to try writing for percussion a bit more seriously and this could be a chance to do this and to get to know a percussionist quite well while I try things out.

Time for some thinking out loud:

Based on my research and thinking so far, though, I think layering is going to be a key concept, and there’s likely to be some kind of drone-based thing in there somewhere, which I’d want to mean sustained continuous tones, not just repetition of a note amid other stuff. And for variety it might be best if the sustaining instrument could play chords too, to allow for that kind of harmonic exploration. I guess that means a string instrument, which gives some nice scope for additional percussive sounds plus a wide range of tonal variations.

Violin doesn’t hugely interest me for this project, double bass could be interesting but I don’t know how easy it would be to get a double bass into the percussion rooms here to test stuff out. Which I guess leaves viola or cello. I’m kind of obsessed with the idea of viola duo at the moment, thanks to discovering George Benjamin’s Viola Viola a couple of days ago but I think I want to save that because I’m thinking viola duo might be the answer to what instruments to use in the song cycle I’ll be writing later this year.

So… cello and percussion? Have we a winner?

Experimental music premiere on Friday

This Friday sees another premiere! Trinity Laban’s composition department holds a series of student-run concerts of experimental music each year – we write the music, organise the performers, plan and market the event ourselves – and mine is this Friday, 25 January 2013 at 7pm It’s free and open to the public, so come along and hear some interesting sounds!

Rude Health: unsensible

Full details are available on the Facebook event page.  My piece (which I’m finishing writing today!) is for four improvising pianists and tape and explores improvisation, both through experimenting with my own improvised sounds in the tape part, and comparing the interpretation of a graphic score in the context of that tape part four times by four different performers. The concert will also include experimental music by my fellow Trinity composers Max De Lucia, Hannah Dilkes, Effy Efthymiou, Litha Efthymiou, Theo Jackson and Declan Kolokowski. Hope to see you there!

Work in progress: On being experimental

At college, we have a series of composer-directed concerts of experimental music called Rude Health. Each concert is organised by a group of composers from the department, and the content consists of our own music. My concert is on on Friday night (come! it’ll be exciting and cutting-edge!) and this weekend I am creating my piece for this event, which will consist of the same short piece of music, played by four different improvising pianists (so the same piece played four times, but it should sound a bit different each time). There’ll be a graphic score to go with a tape part and the aim of the exercise is to see how similar, and how different (and in what ways) the same piece turns out in the hands of pianists of varying improvisational experience. I’ve got my pianists lined up – two first-study pianists and two composers – and now I just have to write the thing.

For the tape part I’m currently working with some improvised viol sounds I recorded in my practice session yesterday and an Elliott Carter quote: “A musical score is written to keep the performer from playing what he already knows and leads him to explore other new ideas and techniques” but while I’m enjoying putting these sounds together it’s feeling more like a tape piece, not a piece for tape and piano, so I need to work on how I’m going to include this.

One of the of members of our group has created his piece around the concept of anxiety and the subconscious and as others in the group seem to feel this theme resonates with what they’re proposing to do, it seems to be becoming a theme. I guess it kind of resonates with mine too because of the risk-taking and role of the subconscious in improvising.

So what am I trying to say with this piece? I personally find improvisation still quite an uncomfortable business. I’ve been going along to an improv group which some of my college friends have on a Thursday evening, and I’ve been enjoying that, mostly improvising on flute, although I’d probably be more comfortable improvising singing (but we have a proper singer who comes sometimes and he’s really good and I’m rather shy about both my vocal ability and my female-tenor voice!). Maybe I’ll try that sometime when I’m a bit more confident in general. I want to find out how much my score and the tape part I’ve provided generate similar sounds from different pianists and how much of the resulting sound comes from the pianist themselves.  For my own role in this, I’ve improvised the viol sounds, and to a certain extent I’m improvising their placement (although as I’m not just dropping them and moving on – maybe I should??), but mostly these sounds that are the result of risk-taking and experimentation are being ordered in a very non-improvisatory fashion in that I’m listening and re-listening and tweaking placement, volume, application of EQ, delay and other effects. The tape is improvisation tamed, while the pianist can do what they want.

I’ve just re-listened to I Want It To Kill People which I wrote for Sam Grinsell last February, which has parallels with this piece in that it’s about the same length as this one will be, is also for improvised instrument (slide guitar) and tape. I’m thinking about what works in that piece and how it differs from what I’m doing now. The first thing I’m aware of is that because my aim with writing that tape part was for a particular sound – brutal and crunchy – the sounds kind of came along quite easily. Also, I wasn’t being marked on it and had given myself permission to fail at the beginning of the project 🙂 I think the crunchiness does work well with it and is more exciting than some of the gentler tape work I’ve done in the past. I’ve been finding myself avoiding those sorts of sounds this time round for a couple of reasons, though.

Firstly, I already did that in I Want It To Kill People and I need this piece to be its own thing, not just a duplication of that. Secondly, I’m acutely aware that I’m going to be marked on this piece and, not being terribly au fait with this sort of thing, I don’t want the piece to seem amateurish to people who do a lot of this because I’ve used some prefab effect that to me sounds really daring but may be the electroacoustic equivalent of Comic Sans. I don’t mind if the experiment overall turns out to not be that interesting, but I do mind if it’s because the bits I’ve written are totally hackneyed and dull.

I think I need to work out the role of the piano in this piece a bit more clearly too – how much white space does it need? Does that white space need to be actual silence or can it just be a lower level of noise? How much do I want the piano to play over noise? Do I want to start with the tape (and so have the start be exactly the same each time) or to start with the piano (so it’ll be slightly different)? What sort of sounds do I (approximately) want to hear out of the piano?

Maybe, in fact, I should be starting with the score and then building the tape part around the score instead of the other way around…


Term has been underway for six weeks now and I am yet to really start my string quartet. Everything started so well! The research and drawing the plan went well, but when it’s come to finding actual notes to get moving on, I have to confess I am seriously stuck on this one.

The first attempt I made wasn’t quite right but I pushed ahead with it and there’s things I like about it and while most of it has been rejected (Stephen, my tutor quite rightly said that it wasn’t the piece I’d drawn) there are elements which I think I’ll be stealing back at some point.

Stephen set me homework to listen to Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, the Ligeti quartets and Lutoslawski’s quartet, which has been interesting, and there’s stuff I might be able to use there, but not for the opening. I’m really not comfortable with the whole “any high note” thing. Or at least not in a small ensemble context – it can work really well in an orchestra where you’ve got a bunch of people doing the same thing, but at the chamber level, I really don’t want to relinquish that control. The effects and ideas I’m liking in these pieces are mostly really quiet things. Harmonics, ppp tremolando, sul tasto – stuff like that. The louder parts just feel random and unstructured and totally at odds with what I want to achieve.

The latest version – which I’ve just tonight rejected – I just plain don’t like. At first I thought it was because it didn’t feel like me. Now I think it’s because there’s nowhere for the materials to go. I don’t have a reason for using the chord I’ve started with and because it’s just a sound, it doesn’t have any line in it to be drawn out to become something larger, so I don’t know what to do with it and it’s not telling me anything. The material I started the first attempt with, on the other hand, while it didn’t entirely reflect what I’d drawn, I felt had the potential to be useful across the kind of scale this work is intended to have (15 minutes).

I’m also still suffering the major resistance to working away from the computer that I was trying to deal with during my early Creative Pact challenge this year. I’m really not comfortable with it. I guess it’s not helping that I’m finding it hard to find time to just sit and tinker with stuff – we seem to have a succession of workmen in. Or Djeli’s home and renovating, or everything’s such an appalling mess post-latest-renovation-whatevers that I just want to be out of the house (getting that a lot lately!).

So I’m not sure how to tackle this. Trying to do the opening just isn’t working. Maybe I need to do a Satie and start part-way through. The final section is one where I could use some of the effects from these pieces I’ve been listening to, so maybe I could start from there and then I’d find something I could repurpose for the beginning.

Maybe I also need to take a step back and look at the paintings again (well, the catalogue reproductions I have – the paintings themselves still seem to be hidden away after the attack), and do some more research and try to recapture what I was thinking at the time – it was a month ago now!

Plus, of course, there’s the question of whether it matters if I stray from the drawn plan. I personally don’t have a problem with this at all. It’s what usually happens! Drawing the plan just gives me a starting point for the structure but deviation is expected. My aim has never been to directly interpret visual art even in my art-inspired pieces, but rather to use it as a starting point. However, Stephen seems keen on the idea of a plan, and the challenge intrigues me – to not deviate from the plan simply because an idea came along that didn’t fit but instead persevere to find something that will fit the plan and enable me to follow it.

So the quartet’s in limbo for now. And the players I’ve been contacting to see if they want to actually play the thing either aren’t answering their phones or aren’t calling back, which is – to say the least – extremely frustrating!

Things are progressing much better with the piece for two harps I’m working on, but that’s a post for another day 🙂

A self-assessment

Today was the first sort-of-proper day of my Masters degree at Trinity Laban. ‘Sort-of-proper’ because we’re in induction week, so it was mostly welcome and general info meetings, but I learnt a lot about the course I’ve taken on, which led to a serious moment of terror as I read through the assessment requirements and tallied up just how much work is going to be involved!

The most important thing I discovered is that I really need a plan for the year. I need to think about not just want I want to achieve (which is fairly fluffy at the moment: ‘Get exposed to new stuff. Become a better composer. Work with real performers’) but what pieces I want to write, which is something I hadn’t really thought about at all.

So I think the time has come to do some thinking out loud about what I’m pleased with in my latest writing and my approach, and what I think could do with some work.

Stuff I like:

  • The slimness of my textures
  • The focus on line instead of harmony
  • My sense of balance
  • I think I write OK for most instruments

Stuff I’m less sure about:

  • I’m happy with the way I work for the most part, but I also feel hemmed in by it. I’d like to be able to be a bit more flexible, less reliant on the piano and the computer. My August Creative Pact was an attempt to free this up, but it failed miserably. I’d like to sort this out
  • The most common criticism of my music is “It was too short”. While this is also a bit of a compliment, I’m acutely aware that pretty much everything I write is miniature – even the opera! I don’t release a piece into the wild until it feels well balanced to me, but often I stall at the point of trying to push material past about the 3-minute mark. Often if I do push it, it feels stretched and uncomfortable and unfocused. I want to learn how to push this boundary so that I can write a 20 minute piece with the same aplomb I can approach a 2 minute piece. I’m less interested in writing a 20 minute piece quickly than in writing it at all…
  • I feel I flounder when writing for larger ensembles. My preference for delicate textures and focus on horizontal instead of vertical material makes it a real challenge to work out what to do with a large number of instruments. Carrion Comfort was very difficult like this, hence the very limited brass section in that piece – I just couldn’t think of what to do with them that wouldn’t muddy the sound

Stuff I enjoy that I’d like to do more of, things I’d like to try:

  • Writing for voices
  • I’d like to write a string quartet. I’ve had an idea lurking for a while, based on Rothko’s astounding Seagram Murals (at the Tate Modern if you’ve never seen them. They have their own room. Go in and sit with them until they start to pulse gently at you. Amazing) – might be a good time to give it a go?
  • Something for percussion, whether solo or group
  • I’ve had an idea for a while for a piece which combines composing with mobile web development, involving the geolocation API
  • While I’m not sure how it might fit into the course, especially only in one year, I really really want to do some more opera. Maybe a 1-act opera? Maybe a song cycle with theatrical elements? I really enjoyed writing On Harrowdown Hill and am itching to do some more!

Hmm. So what I’m getting from this is:

  • An orchestral piece to tackle the larger ensembles issue. Possibly two.
  • A large-scale chamber piece to tackle the duration issue (because it’s probably not wise to try to address both the larger ensembles and the duration problems in the same piece). Again, possibly two. Maybe these could be the string quartet and the percussion piece?
  • Continuing to push the way I work and trying to get over the feelings of failure if/when it doesn’t work. Maybe I was trying to do too much at once in my Creative Pact – maybe I should try writing a more ‘normal’ piece (for me) but in a new way, instead of tackling extended techniques and new ways of thinking with new ways of approaching my craft.
  • Something to do with voices. I’ve already had a tenor suggest I write a song cycle for him, so that may be a great place to start!
  • We need to create a portfolio of experimental pieces too, so the geolocation piece might work well for that

Obviously, this needs some more thinking, and I need to push myself to get back to writing after the hideous stress of the last couple of weeks scared my brain away, but I think this is a good start.

PS. In Composer Workshop today we brought our instruments along and put together a version of John Cage’s Musicircus which was a lot of fun. One of the singing teachers came along and to start us off she sang four short songs from Cage’s Sonnekus, which are absolutely gorgeous and designed to be interspersed with Erik Satie’s café-concert songs (which I adore). Have a listen on Spotify!

Works in progress: New ways of working

Lotus Lilies by Charles Courtney Curran (1888)Now that my mini-opera, On Harrowdown Hill, is all done, I’m back to working on the two pieces that I abandoned to do it, and it occurred to me, coming back to them, that they have quite a bit in common which might be worth exploring.

The first piece, tentatively titled Lilies on the Silver Sea, is for quarter-tone alto flute for London flautist Carla Rees. It’ll be a solo piece, possibly a solo with tape if Carla’s keen – haven’t quite worked that out yet. The second is a piece for Bristol-based recorder quartet Pink Noise, which will probably be called Ladders of Escape.

The key thing about both pieces is that they pull me away from my usual working methods. Up till now most of the music I have written has used equal temperament and ‘normal’ orchestral instruments, so my usual approach of starting at the piano and then moving into Finale where I can hear an approximation of what I’m writing works well. Not so for these – Finale can certainly create scores with quarter-tones but getting them to play back seems to be a major faff – enough of a faff for me to have basically decided against even trying to compose for quarter-tone alto flute directly into Finale.

Similarly, Ladders of Escape will be using an assortment of extended techniques – and being written for multiple recorders, I’m not even sure I have the instrument sounds to start with, and if I do they’ll be the crappy instruments, not the decent ones, which will be painful and inaccurate. So with both pieces I’m kind of flying blind a bit. Well, not entirely blind, because I do know something about composition! but there won’t be that security blanket I usually have of “ah yes, that’s what I was aiming for” – I won’t know until I get the scores to the performers whether what I’m trying to do will work, which is a little scary when you’re not used to it.

However, both pieces have already been through a kind of sketch process with pieces in Lucky Dip, where I specifically explored material with these projects in mind. When I did Watching the Streets of Zurich and Brussels, an improvisation/field recording collage piece, I was specifically exploring quarter-tones and how I could use them and be comfortable using them. True, I was doing this on a normal C-flute – and a C-flute with closed holes at that, so that all the quarter-tones I used were created by rolling the flute in and out to sharpen or flatten.

Carla’s Kingma system flute, however, enables her to get precise quarter tones through fingering, so that they are there on the flute like any other note – no accidental microtonal glissanding (??) required. While I was quite happy with how Watching the Streets… turned out, I did find it a little disturbing that the flute part ended up sounding vaguely Asian. It wasn’t my intention, and while it’s something I quite like, it’s not really what I want for this piece. I think what I need to explore next for Lilies is probably to devise a quarter-tone-based tuning system/soundworld for the piece that works for me, rather than just barrelling at it and sticking in quarter-tones wherever I feel like it. This is probably obvious to people who already work with quarter-tones regularly, but I’m a newbie at this 🙂

The sketch for Ladders of Escape was the solo recorder piece Triptych for One, written for Jennifer Mackerras who is a member of Pink Noise. I knew that Jen was very open to extended techniques and wouldn’t mind trying out all sorts of odd sounds, so I kind of went for broke on that piece to see what things really sounded like – multiphonics, singing while playing, quarter-tones, flutter-tonguing, finger-vibrato. The challenge there was to be able to use this stuff but make it feel like an integral part of the piece, not just fancy stuff blopped onto a normal score.

It’s kind of an odd piece that one, and I’m still not 100% convinced it really works, but it taught me – more than anything else – that with recorders, you have no idea what will work until you get it onto the actual instrument. I wrote that one straight onto paper (VERY rare for me – haven’t done that since about 2nd year of my undergrad degree!) then copied it into Finale so it would be legible. I ended up using a flute sound (just because there needed to be a sound involved and I was curious to hear what I’d written) and it was AWFUL – hearing it on the recorder when Jen brought it round totally changed the piece and made it plausible.

So for both pieces, I need to throw away the safety blanket and take large leaps into the unknown. At least I’m on firmer ground where sources are concerned so I have ideas for mood and structure already in place.

Like many of my recent pieces, both of these have extra-musical points of departure. Lilies on the Silver Sea starts from a painting by Charles Courney Curran – Lotus Lilies (pictured) – which I saw at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh at their Impressionist Gardens exhibition in 2010. I found the postcard I bought of that painting when I was digging through some boxes and it reminded me, all over again, of the wonderful section at the end of C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader where they are sailing through sweet water, covered in lilies. I wanted to write a piece that reflected that serenity but swift movement, peace but exhilaration which Lewis conveys in his writing. Still not sure how I’m going to do that, but it’s given me some clear ideas about how I’m going to develop my material.

Ladders of Escape’s sources are a bit vaguer – its starting point is paintings by Miró (one example being ‘Une Étoile caresse le sein d’une négresse). He uses a ladder motif in many of his paintings, which in later work combines with a stylised image of a Catalan peasant, both of which convey a longing for his homeland, and for freedom and peace for that homeland. My idea for this one is that the work will be in three movements, exploring various facets of the ladder motif and what it represents.

So, new approaches. All a bit scary. And of course it also means that there’s unlikely to be much for you to listen to in future work-in-progress posts for these pieces, because no convenient MIDI renditions, but hopefully there’ll still be some interesting progress to report. Hopefully 🙂

Update: Lilies on the Silver Sea and Ladders of Escape are the subject of my (early) Creative Pact this year. Follow their progress over at One Creative Thing

Mini opera takes off!!

On Harrowdown HillI hadn’t really planned to blog about this again QUITE so soon, but just amazing things have happened with this in the past few days – indeed, in the past 24 hours!

To start with, my last post was retweeted by ENO with a very kind remark and my site stats hit the sort of peak they haven’t seen in many, many months.

The librettist got in touch and I’m really enjoying his Twitter feed (and you should see his online comic – it’s beautiful) and the work-in-progress stuff he’s posting for the score he’s writing for Mini Operas on Soundcloud.

Yesterday I finally knuckled down to get some notes sorted out. After all, if you’re writing an opera, sooner or later you need to stop talking about it and actually write the wretched thing and with so much unaccustomed attention now, I really do need to write it!

I never did write the blog post I meant to about February’s RPM project, Lucky Dip, but I can say that that experience is paying off in spades right now. The instant I started to work my brain was like “Oh, February again? Sure. I’ll just change gears” – with the result that within a couple of hours I had down the vocal line of the opening aria and half the accompaniment sketched out too. Such a thing would have been unthinkable before RPM when I think I may have been a contender for Slowest Composer in the World.

I think I’m quite pleased with the opening aria. It’s sad and quiet and a little dirge-like, which I’m planning on alleviating just a little with the accompaniment. I’m still working on instrumentation, but I have some live performers lined up too.

I am totally thrilled that Charles Turner, bass-baritone and marvellous composer himself, has agreed to play the principal role of The Inspector.

Charles was involved in February’s Lucky Dip – I wrote To Fortune for him, which you can hear here:

I am also very excited that electric violinist Chrissie Caulfield has also agreed to contribute – she does just amazing things and has a particular talent for the sort of noise work I’m hoping to achieve in the more aggressive parts of the libretto.

Jenni Pinnock has also offered to contribute winds/piano parts and I have hatched some ideas about some other people to approach too.

With the short time constraints and the need to have a polished (or at least not-so-rough-you’d-cut-yourself) recording so quickly, I’m also having to experiment with some different ways – even from Lucky Dip – of getting ideas down. And all the more so as I’m currently living half in temporary accommodation, and half in our bathroomless house where the piano hasn’t even been reassembled (although it soon will be). Plus I’m going to be working with multiple layers and recordings of sound, unlike Lucky Dip where everything that was being sent out was a solo piece or could be recorded with its accompaniment in situ. I’ve never tried this kind of TwtrSymphony/Virtual Choir thing before, so just hoping it works!

So, there it is! 1’30” sketched out, another 5 mins to go!

The pitfalls of perfectionism

I have a confession: I’m a perfectionist. I always spend far too long on pretty much everything I write, tweaking and poking and looking for that point where the whole thing seems to balance on a pin. So far it’s worked out OK for me. I mean, people quite often say rather nice things about my music, so I must be doing something right, yes?

But it bugs me, this perfectionism. I am positively green with envy for people who can dash off a piece in a weekend – my 60-second solo violin piece, Diabolus, which was supposed to be a quick project, took me 3 weeks to complete. The 3 minutes of Carrion Comfort has taken 10 months! So on my private list of things to work on this year, and especially with the prospect of a Masters degree coming up, has been to experiment with some techniques to get the writing happening faster.

My feeling is that if I can write faster and fuss less over the tiny details, then maybe I’ll learn more. In David Bayles & Ted Orland’s fantastic book Art and Fear, one of the authors tells a story:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated a “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorising about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

This story makes me wonder: if I’m currently someone who only had to produce one pot, and the work of those producing many pots was ultimately better – how much better could my work be if I could make myself loosen up and produce many more works in the time I’d usually take to write one?

So this month, I’ve let myself be talked into doing the RPM Challenge. It’s a bit like NaNoWriMo or Creative Pact, but the goal is to record an album (10 tracks or 35 minutes) over the course of February – that’s 2-3 recordings a week! Obviously for me to even try to write 2-3 pieces a week would be seriously jumping in the deep end, so I’m setting myself a goal of writing 4-5 pieces in the month – about one a week – and the rest of the work will be finishing off recordings of other pieces I have that have been languishing without even decent MIDI recordings for far too long.

If you want to follow my progress, I’ll be blogging it (more or less) daily over at One Creative Thing – and of course, burbling about it regularly on Twitter.

If you want to join in, please do! You can find out more at the RPM Challenge website and join up, then post a comment here with the address of your blog or SoundCloud feed or wherever you’ll be documenting it.

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 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!