On the year so far

Since beginning PhD study at Royal Holloway, University of London in September, it has been a really productive six months. Although a little daunting at first, the long spells of time in which I now have room to work seem to be helping me to think a lot more about what I compose, why I do it, and how best to communicate these ideas through the notes. Here’s a few thoughts about my recent projects:

bourdon, for solo bass flute

This piece, written for Carla Rees and her beautiful Kingma-system bass flute, was the first I’ve written where I really felt able to connect with a particular instrument in great detail – to understand where it is strong & most suited to the purpose at hand, beyond any kind of abstract technical formulations. I think as an early-career composer you get to hear an awful lot of generalities in workshops – “it’s really not possible to maintain an even dynamic in this register”, for instance – without there being the time to really explore the more important questions of ‘why’, and how that relates to how the instrument actually sounds in that register. Carla gave up huge amounts of workshop & rehearsal time in the lead-up to the performance of this piece, which I think shows in the end result – definitely a collaboration in the truest sense of the word.

Recorded in Picture Gallery, Royal Holloway.

if light is scarce, for eight players

This piece was written as part of a joint Royal Holloway/CHROMA workshop project, and was performed in workshop and concert by CHROMA between 16th-17th March at Royal Holloway’s Picture Gallery. I was a little nervous in the run-up to this one: the piece is unconducted, and formed of a series of small solos, trios, and quartets which overlap one another to create a kind of ‘collage effect’. The players lead their groups independently, and a successful realisation depends on equal parts time-keeping (the tempos are crucial) and expressive flexibility. The nerves were two-fold: I had only the broadest idea of what the finished result would sound like, and expected there to be a fair few reservations on the part of the ensemble with regard to the way in which they were asked to co-ordinate their parts. In the end, I needn’t have worried about this latter: CHROMA played with great sensitivity, and really embraced the loose, meandering spirit of the piece.

I worked on it over a period of about two months, often very early in the morning, when the wintry light which crept into the room where I work was of a somewhat subdued nature. I felt as though this unusual luminescence found its way into the music somehow, which begins with a clear, folk-like melody before a series of subtly-shaded textures begins to slowly unravel. Around this time I’d also found myself reading a collection of zuihitsu, a kind of informal Japanese essay style. Though there was no conscious effort on my part to capture the spirit of this loosely-rambling form, I guess you could say that if light is scarce is a piece which ‘follows the brush’, beginning and ending without any attempt to arrive at a clear destination.

in negative, for alto flute, cello, and piano

This short piece was written for the Marsyas Trio in connection with the Peter Reynolds Composer Studio, a week of workshops & seminars to be held in May by the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. I’ll say a little more about it then, but it continues in the vein of works which have less-defined instrumental relationships. In each of its two movements, the instruments are split into two halves – a duo and a soloist – and the interaction between these differing processes forms (I hope) much of the interest of the piece.