On the year so far
posted March 20, 2017 at 11:58
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.
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.
Process and freedom
posted August 12, 2016 at 14:46
For the past two weeks I’ve been working reasonably intensively on a short piece for six female voices and harp. Today’s tutorial threw up a few interesting themes, some of which seem to have been circulating around for a little while now via one medium or another. Initially, our conversation had been about Per Nørgard’s Voyage Into the Golden Screen and the idea of the ‘infinity series’ – a set of reasonably intuitive procedures which combine to quickly generate an almost ‘fractal’ sense of expansion. We also chatted about Pérotin, who I confess I was completely unfamiliar with – listening to his ‘Viderunt omnes‘, I was struck by how incredibly modern it sounds to 21st-century ears. Breaking down the Latin phrase into its parts as spoken, Pérotin composes modal variations on each syllable until each has been sounded – at which point, the piece ends. But pieces based on processes need not unfold in this way – rather, the process itself might force the music to stand still. Lachenmann:
I like to distinguish between music as a kind of discursive text on the one hand, and, on the other, music as a kind of situation, be it a static or dynamic one. A fugue by Bach is somehow a text, and so is the Wind Quintet by Schoenberg, whereas the beginning of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with its pulsating fifth or the Fourth Symphony of Bruckner with its mysterious tremolo on all strings is more like a situation […] a Bach fugue, as a polyphonic game, is also a sort of situation, and each situation, be it dynamic or static, is somehow eloquent.Quoted in Heathcote (2006) ‘Sound Structures, Transformations and Broken Magic’
What Lachenmann describes as a ‘static’ situation is really a way of turning the focus on the material, rather than the structure. For me the compositional tenor of Viderunt omnes shares a real kinship with the music of Cassandra Miller, a composer whose work has grabbed my attention recently. The very modern stance that leads to the ‘breaking up’ of texts (whether musical or literary) in Miller’s work is akin to the way material might be treated in an electronic studio, and surfaces in her use of other kinds of simple processes (notably looping). In Bel Canto, the repeated focus on the same short fragment of aria is lent incredible expressive poignance by the finely-wrought variations & subtle developments she coaxes from it.
The exact mechanics of sound production in Bel Canto, however, are far less strict: whilst the ‘framing’ of material is often governed by an audible process, control of the exact performance may be left to the performer’s discretion. Certain factors (often pitch & dynamic) are governed with precision, but players perform with great rhythmic (& hence expressive) freedom. In her own words:
“I have to admit that what I dislike most about much of the music I hear these days is the feeling that everything is strictly coordinated and is (why, God?) in 4/4. You can try to write all sorts of beautifully complex rhythms, but stick it in 4/4 and put a conductor in front of it, and it’s ruined. Take a butter- fly and stick a pin through it.”Quoted in Weeks (2014) ‘Along the Grain: The Music of Cassandra Miller’, Tempo Vol. 68:269 pp.50-64.
This chimed with my experience of working on strange calligraphy for the Dr K Sextet (at the Cheltenham Festival Composers’ Academy). After several failed attempts at a draft in strict notation, I decided to rewrite the piece using a mixture of stopwatch timings & ‘fuzzy’, loose, cues to guide the players’ entries. Hints at the character of a potential realisation are offered – for instance, “colour the clarinet line”, “gradually displace alto flute”, etc., but exact points of co-ordination are never specified. I think it was a successful performance, in some part due to this looseness: it lent the work a sense of organic spontaneity that fit well with the material.
Interesting to note that, as ever, freedom of one sort seems to require balance by something more restrictive. In scatter, the aforementioned work for choir & harp, I’ve been generating the material (variations on a descending scale) and its development by means of a simple rhythmic series & its compression/expansion. As a result the piece has taken on a process-orientated form, but oddly I again feel like this strict sketch-work is really just the precursor to a loosening up, a relaxing of the performing version.
Reflections – Cheltenham Festival Composers’ Academy & ‘strange calligraphy’
posted July 17, 2016 at 22:37I’ve just returned from a week’s residency at the Cheltenham Festival Composers’ Academy, where I was working alongside 21 fantastic composers. 12 of us were chosen to write for two of the excellent ‘house’ ensembles attached to the project (Dr. K Sextet and MANTRAS Piano Duo). After a brief & eventful process of writing, more writing, and ultimately rejecting everything in favour of something much simpler, my piece strange calligraphy was premiered by the Dr. K Sextet on the 11th July at the Parabola Arts Centre.
The work is a first exploration of a number of themes which are becoming important to me – in particular the ways in which we write toward & perceive connections between material as composers & listeners, what precisely constitutes structural ‘significance’, and the ways in which unusual ensemble dynamics can contribute towards a different kind of listening. The piece has no score – instead, individual players perform as though entirely detached, occasionally becoming drawn to one part or another through a series of ‘fuzzy’ cues. The way in which these fragile connections come together & ultimately fall apart was inspired in part by the style of David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress:
The Academy itself was a remarkable chance to learn from interactions with Michael Zev Gordon and the players of the ensemble – but equally striking for me was the amount of insight about the composition & rehearsal process that could be gleaned by simply observing each day’s workshops. During the week other, more philosophical, themes emerged. In particular a recurring strand was one familiar to anyone who has studied 20th- & 21st-century music in any detail, namely the relationship of the composer to the performer & vice versa.
There is nobody at the window in the painting of the house, by the way.
I have now concluded that what I believed to be a person is a shadow.
If it is not a shadow, it is perhaps a curtain.
As a matter of fact, it could actually be nothing more than an attempt to imply depths, within the room.
Although in a manner of speaking all that is really in the window is burnt sienna pigment. And some yellow ochre.
In fact there is no window either, in that same manner of speaking, but only shape.
I have put that badly.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress, p. 54-5
It seems to me that there is a fine balance to be had between the demands of the work, and the practicalities of performance – knowing when the right moment is to stand your ground and assert that yes, it really is important that the quintuplets in that section are exactly even despite the difficulty level. By doing so you risk alienating your colleagues who are performing your work, but equally sometimes it really does matter to you, and the piece would suffer without it. In the end it only underlines the importance of considering your ideas carefully, and seeing them through to their conclusions – if you know, to use an awful phrase, that the ‘vision’ is correct, then it’s just a matter of sticking to your guns as pleasantly as possible.
Not that the input of the players should be ignored, though – in the course of rehearsing strange calligraphy we unanimously decided that the percussion writing wasn’t up to scratch. What ensued was a half hour spell in which Joe, the percussionist, managed to coax through experimentation some of the most fascinating sounds out of a suspended cymbal, some of which were so striking in their appropriateness that we settled on keeping them almost instantaneously. A closed mind would have missed the opportunity to add these subtle colours to the mix, and the piece would have suffered as a result.
Different spheres I
posted February 15, 2015 at 22:04
Last Saturday at Canterbury Christ Church University’s St. Gregory’s Centre for Music saw the premiere of four movements from an ongoing project for solo viola, given very generously by Martin Outram of the Maggini Quartet. Entitled songs, the piece is an opportunity to explore the small-scale possibilities of ‘song structure’, the ABAB verse-chorus form (and its extensions/variations) that have predominated amongst folk- and popular-music for many centuries. The format was attractive principally for its brevity; I have always loved the unusual, sculpted power that a short but well-crafted miniature carries.
This sparse, often ghostly piece was a chance to experiment. In particular I was interested in distilling the form down to its bare bones, examining whether the careful alternation of two simple, distinctive materials was really powerful enough in its own right to generate a sufficient musical tension. At times I consciously took this to extremes; thus movement III, comfortably the shortest at <30", alternates in call-and-response style a chromatic semiquaver passage with bursts of Bartok pizzicato. At its close, a ghostly natural harmonic played tremolando serves as a ‘middle-eight’ and coda rolled into one. Others are more lengthy; V takes the repeated strophic structure of much early folk music and elaborates over a few minutes until the initial material is merely a skeleton upon which much cloth has been draped.
Thus in actuality these pieces are ‘ghosts’, pointing us to something beyond; the material clinging thinly to the form, outlining, shaping itself according to the frame beneath. But the power of the song is in its ability to make a minute into an eternity, to open the structural space in front of us and swallow us whole.
Sounds of the New: ‘duo music’
posted November 21, 2013 at 20:45
Last Thursday the wonderful players of the Octandre Ensemble performed a reworked version of my piece duo music for violin and ‘cello at The Forge, Camden Town.
In early 2013 the organisers New Dots put out a Call for Scores, seeking composers to collaborate with the ensemble on pieces for a concert later in the year. This short nocturnal piece, originally written for the players of the Leon Quartet, was completed in 2012 but in many ways felt unfinished following its premiere. I can’t thank Jon, Aisha and Corentin enough for their musical input, and am hugely indebted to Meryl & all at New Dots for helping bring this new version of the piece to life.
There are photos from the event below – and a short film by Patrick Hallet Morley documenting the workshop process can be seen here.
posted November 11, 2013 at 11:01
Photos taken in Hammersmith after a productive rehearsal with Aisha & Corentin (Octandre Ensemble).
This Thursday Octandre perform a revised version of my piece ‘duo music’ at the Forge in Camden. Tickets available here.
Rewriting ‘duo music’
posted September 28, 2013 at 20:28Returning to a piece you have already completed once is an interesting kind of challenge – it’s not quite the spontaneous wave of excitement that often comes over you when working on something new. If anything it feels at times like you’re covering old ground that doesn’t quite belong to you; like visiting an old friend and without asking rearranging their furniture.
At a workshop given by a veteran British composer, I heard him praise the music of Boulez, save to say “that I wish he’d stop rewriting the damned stuff”. The inference of this statement is clear: a composer’s music is devalued with every new version, every revision, every ‘reimagining’. But is this so? For me, there is something of an out-of-date historicist twang to this viewpoint, a deifying of the fixed; how are we to analyse & ultimately apply value to a work of art that exists afresh with each alteration? Respected though he may be, the composer in question is ignoring the wonder of a form that breathes, lives in sound – a form that has to be ‘summoned’ into being to be experienced at all.
So: revision of my piece duo music is now nearly complete, and has raised a few things. A friend (also a composer) recently put forward in conversation an intriguing idea – that whatever we (i.e. composers) attempt to mask or alter in music, whether in terms of structure or content, ultimately becomes plain through the music in other, unforeseen ways (I hope I have done this justice Matt). So it seems to have been with this short duo for violin and ‘cello; composed around the time that a kind of general anxiety regarding harmony and pitch came to the fore, the original version was lean and sparing in its use of pitched material.I suppose I was trying to get away from the obligations that come with placing one note next to, or on top of, another, but sparseness brought each note or combination of notes into sharp & critical relief. What I had hoped would owe nothing to harmony somehow became a ‘composing out’ of the original problem, a piece that instead of having nothing whatsoever to do with pitch became fixated upon it.
Though I was happy with it at the time, the pre-revision version of duo music was lacking in a number of crucial respects. At times the music seemed stretched a little thin; gestures which I had envisioned as pulse-pumping, dancing figures to drive the work forward sputtered and died into nothingness once heard, and its outer sections (where the sparseness of pitch was most pronounced) needed developing. In its new form, I hope that duo music fulfils the early promise of its original incarnation, which turned out to be nothing more substantial than a first draft – perhaps even the first of many. Thanks go to New Dots, Jon Hargreaves, and the players of the Octandre Ensemble for the opportunity to bring the piece to life once more.