Reflections – Cheltenham Festival Composers’ Academy & ‘strange calligraphy’

Rehearsal room @ Park House, Cheltenham

Rehearsal room @ Park House, Cheltenham

I’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:

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

Japanese eggs @ Park House, Cheltenham

Japanese eggs @ Park House, Cheltenham

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.

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.