I had a fantastic time meeting and passing on a few handy tips to the 2013 participants of the Panufnik Scheme this morning, which reminded me that I haven’t written a blog post since I wrote my first three minute piece for the scheme, which was now nearly two years ago!

Since then I’ve completed a brand new piece for the orchestra, a 10 minute commission that will be workshopped on 11th April at LSO St. Luke’s, followed by the full premiere in September 2013 in the Barbican. It’s called The Calligrapher’s Manuscript and is inspired by the remarkable calligraphy of 17th-century master Johann Hering, which has only recently come to public attention through its online publication on the Bamberg State Library website.

As you’ll see from some of the images below, the manuscript in the Bamberg Library is not a conventional artefact in any way. Most calligraphers from this period would produce copybooks or modelbooks for students to learn their craft from, whereas Hering’s album seems to have been intended purely for private study and experimentation. This means that a number of the designs are incredibly elaborate, and towards the end, almost completely abstract.

Johann Hering Calligraphy 1

In the first movement of my piece (which lasts 5 minute or so), I worked on the idea of a ‘main text’ adorned by a continuous elaborate layer of filigree, as found on many pages of the manuscript. (You can see a fairly typical example of this above.) Each of these pages begins with a very enlarged and highly decorated single letter, which sets the tone of the remaining filigree surrounding the body of the text. At the very opening of my piece, therefore, very detailed decorative figuration forms the initial foreground, but from this texture, melodic fragments gradually begin to emerge, until they coalesce into a clear melodic line, which becomes the focus of the rest of the movement: the ‘main text’, if you will. Nevertheless, this main line still continues to interact with the layer of decorative writing that almost constantly surrounds it and occasionally, rather mischievously, lurches forward to take the limelight.

In the second movement, I took a contrasting (but musically related) approach. Here, the gradual transformation of a very straightforward rendering of the alphabet into extremely decorative, and eventually purely abstract designs in Hering’s manuscript was the inspiration (see the images below). This manifests itself as a simple harmonised line in the strings that repeats and evolves throughout the movement, but is gradually joined by other melodic figures in the woodwinds placed in counterpoint against it. These superposed woodwind melodies appear more and more frequently as the movement continues, and themselves become more and more ornamented until a climax of activity is reached, with several layers of extremely decorated lines sounding against one another simultaneously.

Johann Hering Calligraphy 2
Johann Hering Calligraphy 3
Johann Hering Calligraphy 4

Whilst at Tanglewood this summer, the other fellows and I were required to write three short pieces in as many days, each for a different combination of duos, the first of which was for Violin and Viola. I sneakily took this as an opportunity to try out some musical ideas that I knew would relate to what I wanted to do in the second half of my orchestral piece; so if you have a listen, you should be able to hear the process of ever-increasing decoration that I describe above (in a much smaller chamber music format of course!).

Today, I have been proof-reading the orchestral parts of my piece for the LSO, which means that it is as good as finished. Which means that I have roundly failed in my intention of diligently documenting the writing of it all last year.

I was serious. I was going to blog my little heart out about the creative process, but it didn’t happen. There was too much going on. Besides the composition, there were workshops, discussions, meetings, concerts and all the other fascinating, energising stuff that comes with the Panufnik scheme. Plus having a slew of other projects on the go. Plus a day job. Blogging got sidelined.

To make amends, or rather to ameliorate my guilty conscience, I am going to retrospectively share some of the process, with pictures. And other things.

You must know this: I make notes. If I don’t write ideas down as soon as they come to me they’re gone and lost forever. So I fill up notebooks, PostIt notes, scraps of paper, and the FiloFax (yes, I have a FiloFax, because I am from the 1980s) with thoughts – a combination of project ideas, strategies and scraps of lyrics for songs.

Here is some of last year’s detritus:

Dreadful Notebooks

Obviously, 90% of this stuff never makes it into a finished piece, or a successfully realised project. I’ve come to think of these meanderings as “The Dreadful Notebooks”. In fact, one of the ideas from last year was a project with that very title, a kind of intellectual damage limitation exercise wherein I would just sing the contents of a notebook or two, in its entirety, cover to cover, live.

There’s a dreadful card index file too…

Card Index File

…whilst any extra ‘inspirational’ visual material ends up stuck on the studio walls:

Studio Wall

Naturally, the first thing I did when thinking about what I’d write for the LSO was gather ideas in text form. For the last 10 years or so, I’ve worked in pop and electronic music, and on sound for gallery installations, so it’s been a while since I wrote anything for the orchestra. It felt important to consider why the orchestra is still an artistically powerful medium and how writing for it might fall within my own practice in a meaningful way.

This was last February (2012). I made a spider diagram. The kids call them mind maps these days, but it’s a spider diagram (click it for a bigger version):

Spider Diagram

I didn’t refer back to this whilst writing, so it’s interesting to see how it now matches/doesn’t match the finished piece. These phrases jump out now: Simplicity – ‘Melty’ Tonality – Democracy [vs.] Hierarchies – Stasis – Hymn. I think these qualities probably remain in the finished thing. Certainly, I haven’t gone for anything showy. No flash. No orchestral fireworks.

I see that I wrote Brit Surrealism. I really hope that quality ended up in the piece, somehow. Up at the top it also says Not a warm bath, whatever that means.

There’s another page of notes for an initial, conceptual idea which I rejected sharpish, wherein the orchestra would play one long sound effect like a foley cue; the sound of a spaceship landing. I was thinking it would be a small tribute to the LSO’s illustrious history as superlative performers of some of the 20th century’s iconic film scores. It seemed a bit trite. Binned.

Instead, here’s the germ of the final idea I used for the musical content. One descending scale, plus an unrelated dissonant chord:

Idea

This ended up generating everything in the piece. The scale falls over and over again, the colouring changes, but only once a phrase.

I realised today, whilst going through this stuff, that the score of Erik Satie’s Harmonies has been resting on a synth in the studio for months on end, so maybe a bit of Satie’s ‘blankness’ subconsciously found its way into my piece too:

Erik Satie - Harmonies

Finally, in the very late stages of writing this piece, at the beginning of December, I saw an exhibition of pieces by the ‘Arte Povera’ artist Jannis Kounellis. I’ve always liked these particular artists for presenting familiar or simple objects or processes with a minimum of interference and maximum wit and meaning (I wrote some music many years ago which was based on ideas by another Arte Povera figure, Alighiero Boetti). It gave me a little confidence to not push my own, musical everyday object (the descending scale) around too much. In fact, I only intended to push it just enough to give it back some energy, or “put its teeth back in” as I thought of it. Perhaps that’s what I meant by not a warm bath.

An orchestral object for the LSO needed a title reflecting the orchestra’s historical position, some elegance and a certain amount of weight. The piece is called Brown Leather Sofa.

Score

Anyway. It’s done. I’m now looking forward to hearing what everyone makes of it on the 11th April at LSO St. Lukes. I’m also very excited to hear what my fellow Panufnik scheme composers (Patrick Brennan, David Coonan, Bushra El-Turk, Ryan Latimer and Aaron Parker) have been up to. They’re a brilliant and talented bunch.

The shipping forecast has started.

See you in April.

Leo out.

The orchestra is, when you think about it, an odd beast: an assortment of technical specialists (their precise deployment customisable depending on the circumstances) whose expertise is in the vibration of skin, string and air. For hundreds of years, its constituent parts grew in number and became more complex in arrangement, shaped by the whim of ever more inventive and demanding composers (especially Beethoven) and the broadening of a professional concert culture. In the 20th century, it seems that the orchestra reaches the apogee of its development, for the symphony orchestra today is much the same as that of the 1910s, when the piano was finally grudgingly accepted into its ranks. Composers today are faced with the same highly variegated, sophisticated ensemble as Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Since the development of the orchestra appears to have plateaued, does this make it now an unevolving museum piece? And does its current state reflect the ideal palette of sounds for a composer to play with, on top of which no other type of sound needs adding? Well, no, in both cases. But the practicalities of performing the repertoire, and thus a healthy concert culture, depend upon a level of consistency within the ensemble. Composers may add various extra layers of sound to an orchestral score- Messiaen’s ondes martenot or John Adams’ samplers- but as a rule the orchestra exists as a compromise between the logistics of live music-making and a Platonic ideal of ‘sound-art’.

The sound of a full orchestra is so common a sense-experience to us that it is easy to overlook the extraordinary complexity and wonderful strangeness of its instruments, themselves the product of generations of honing, refining. The various transpositions of woodwind instruments, and the cohabitation of ‘fixed’ note instruments such as percussion (here extended to include harp and piano) and instruments with access to a more fluid, microtonally inflected pitchspace (most obviously the strings) conspires to create a major tuning headache for all but the finest ensembles, but also results in the unique way an orchestra ‘sings’. It is the delicate balance in which these conflicting tunings are held in check that accounts for the orchestra’s particular harmonic footprint.

Bells, too, have fascinatingly complex harmonic spectra. Their overtones are inharmonic, which is to say that their frequencies cannot be analysed as nice whole multiples of the fundamental frequency, as those of a vibrating string can (though not perfectly). This accounts for the captivating afterglow of the bell, as its initial stroke is transformed ‘into something rich and strange’. Many composers have been inspired by bells, from Stravinsky himself in Les Noces to the spectral analysis of Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco and Julian Anderson’s recent Bell Mass. For Tocco, I turned again to the process of change-ringing, the mathematical process by which bell-ringers compose peals, which can be very complicated or very simple. In a previous piece, Cascabelada for 4 pianos and percussion, this technique was used to generate single pitches, resulting in music that sought to emulate directly the irregular (and yet highly controlled) clanging of a set of bells. Here I was keen for the bells to be a little more oblique. Therefore, the change-ringing method is here used not to determine the melodic movement, but rather the harmony.

To do so, I had to think about how numbers could be used analogously to harmonic movement, and the natural solution came in the form of the circle of fifths, which returns to its starting point after cycling through all twelve notes of the scale. Therefore I chose for my original row the numbers 1-12, with each successive number representing an upward transposition by a perfect fifth. This row is developed according to the simplest change-ringing method, the ‘plain hunt’, in which pairs of numbers swap positions in each successive line:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
2 1 4 3 6 5 8 7 10 9 12 11
2 4 1 6 3 8 5 10 7 12 9 11
4 2 6 1 8 3 10 5 12 7 11 9
4 6 2 8 1 10 3 12 5 11 7 9
etc.

These chains of numbers determine the sequences of transposition of fragments (chosen freely by me) from a 12-note source chord, the effect being that of objects being viewed from rapidly shifting perspectives. These iterations form the underlying structure of the piece. Consequently, Tocco is by far the most ‘systematised’ music I have ever written, being a conscious attempt to impose a more rigid framework on my music, whilst still allowing for intuition to have the final say: if a sequence of chords resulting from the mathematical pattern doesn’t sound ‘right’, I need not blindly follow it to its conclusion, but might replace it with a different fragment from the source chord, or tinker with the textural or rhythmic detail of the passage to ‘smooth over’ any potential rough edges arising from some harmonic disjuncture. The challenge of solving such compositional quandaries has always appealed to me- they are musical puzzles, and each one might have only satisfactory solution.

Another concern for the piece was that it should provide sufficient textural contrast in its four-minute span. Such a short commission suggested to me (and indeed all the other composers) a fast tempo, since anything slower would not necessarily exhaust itself in time. But I felt that four minutes of uninterrupted virtuosity could sound wearyingly frantic and hyperactive. To that end, I decided to create a tripartite structure with a slower central section, which explores the circle of fifths in more detail. I think (and hope) that this breaking up of the pace of the music creates the illusion of the piece being longer than it actually is!
Tocco represents the summation of many of my recent compositional interests, and, while there are areas that are more successful than others, I am proud of its overall shape and impact. Because I see it as something of a ‘summing up’ of ideas, I suspect (hope?) that my next piece will see an approach very different to anything I have previously attempted.

I greatly enjoyed yesterday’s Panufnik Catch-Up afternoon at LSO St. Luke’s. As a composer, I do suffer from a tendency to become completely over-ensconced in the intricacies of my music, usually with the admirable intention of shutting out all external pressures and focusing as clearly as I can on the task in hand.

Though many of the ideas for my piece are now quite developed, the material itself always seems to come to me in a rather rough form at first; it takes a lot of painstaking work to sculpt these initial inklings of ideas into the musical objects I’d actually like to use (or at least don’t hate).

Sadly, this crafting process has always been very challenging for me — despite the fact I’ve been through it so many times now — but there is a good reason for it be difficult. None (or at least very little) of what I do is controlled by systems; each chord, instrumental colouring, melodic contour and so forth, simply has to be judged by ear and with my imagination. Nothing else seems to produce satisfactory results. Furthermore, I am constantly aware of the need to get ideas right from the beginning — the structure and materials for the rest of the piece may well depend on it!

As frustrating as this may all sound, I am in very good company in this respect. As Colin Matthews pointed out during our group discussion yesterday, Debussy turned down a commission for an orchestral piece, simply for the reason that the one month they’d allowed him for the composition of the score, was roughly the time it took him to get from one chord to the next!

However, making what seem like such big decisions about often very tiny details, and thinking quite so critically about the implications of these decisions, inevitably has a wearying effect. I was therefore, rather unsurprisingly, delighted to leave my flat yesterday to meet with the other composers and organisers on the scheme, and to work closely with some fantastic players from the orchestra. As well as the obvious benefit of simply introducing some fresh air into my system, I really enjoyed the opportunity to discuss other works that meant something to each of us, and was absolutely inspired by seeing the players take us through the workings of their own instruments.

It is (perhaps) strange, but the more you learn about orchestration and instrumentation, the more you notice the inadequacies with the well-known orchestration text books. There is simply nothing like bringing a passage to an instrumentalist (or group of instrumentalists) and discussing the problems and virtues of the material in person. And it is always after discussing these sorts of practicalities and absorbing the musical points of view from various different members of the group that I personally find myself engaging with the task ahead with a renewed spirit and fresh enthusiasm.

So now I seem be teeming with ideas, full of solutions to problems I was struggling with until this point, and in possession of a huge listening list of pieces I’d forgotten about, not thought of as being directly relevant, or not even got round to playing yet. Indeed, this whole process has reminded me how important it is for us composers to break out of our shells, at least once in a while, both for the sake of maintaining our sanity, but more importantly, so that we can get on with task in hand in a way we actually enjoy.

For this reason, I’m incredibly excited about hearing Bernard Haitink rehearse and perform Ravel’s Mother Goose suite with the orchestra next week; one of the finest transcriptions of a piece originally for piano duet I’ve ever come across. I’m particularly looking forward to hearing the famous contrabassoon solo in ‘Les Entretiens de la Belle et la Bete’, and hopefully having a chat with the player, as the next passage I’m writing will now feature this instrument quite prominently.

“So, Joanna, there are no singers in a symphony orchestra” was the gist of Colin Matthews’ quip as I entered my first LSO tutorial in February.  “Common sense” I hear you say but Colin is aware of the confession I am about to make: it has been a while since I last composed a work without a singer.

Vocal composition has been my…to find the word…‘obsession’ for several years.  I hastily add I haven’t neglected nor disliked instrumental writing, after all these pieces have been for voice/s with orchestra or chamber ensemble, so its role has been integral.  It is simply that I rate the voice ‘high’ on my favoured-list, plus I have an uncanny habit of entering orchestral projects and leaving with a piece for orchestra and singer (well if I’m presented with a singing force like Jane Manning, Sarah Leonard or Sonya Knussen, who am I to say “no”)!  Not this time!

After reaching the vocal-milestone of my first chamber opera last summer, I was eager for new challenges, to expand and prove my versatility and to tread the path of compositional-self-improvement.  Encouraged by friends who enthused about their participation in the Panufnik Scheme, this seemed the ideal project to inspire and encourage me out of my comfort zone.

Since the congratulatory call from our dedicated organiser Laura, I have experienced a combination of complete exhilaration coupled with panic!  As I enjoy the privileges of the Scheme, such as contact with players and attending rehearsals and concerts, I am reminded of the thrill and honour of working with one of the world’s best symphony orchestras but also, the responsibility one feels to provide good fodder for those talented players.  Plus there is that little niggle of not having done this in a while and confession no. 2: this is my first work for symphony orchestra.

Since our Reality Weekend in February, I have been pondering over the challenges writing without voice brings.  A text has been the starting point for my work: it has provided inspiration, structure, pacing, rhythm and the overall sentiment and associated musical elements for the piece.  A voice has brought line, a direct communicative power and another of my obsessions, theatricality.  How to reassign these and to maintain ‘compositional me’ without one of the forces that feels intrinsic to that?

I have considered composing a piece that relates to vocal composition, perhaps a hidden text to determine material or a dramatic scene like an instrumental opera but that would defeat the object.  A composer friend joked I could just get all the players to sing…I cannot deny ‘vocal effects’ appear on my plan sheet or that I have asked Patrick, the orchestra’s tuba-player, if he can beatbox down his instrument (he can and very enthusiastically and splendidly too)!

I am pleased to report that I haven’t as yet fallen off the orchestral-wagon and the ratio between exhilaration to panic is weighing increasingly and heavily on the former.  My ‘plans, ideas and sketches’ sheet is bustling with ideas and is looking positively instrumental, and I was greatly encouraged by my last tutorial with Colin when he announced “there is hope”!  I am looking forward to putting those thoughts into action and to some hard composing graft but before that can happen, my mistress is demanding my attention: I have a short opera to complete!

Way back in springtime, a sudden gust of wind sent flurries of cherry blossom swirling, around, before settling gently like a carpet of snow on the grass. As I observed, pensively, my imagination stirred from its slumber and a seed was sown. A very long time and a fair few sleepless nights later, I finally managed to hand in Sakura for the LSO, the last few months having been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. Every time I sat down to realise the story in my head, I became overwhelmed by the huge sheet of stripy paper looming in front of me, and so often it seemed like a better idea to leave it lurking on my desk and write a song instead.

I remembered a beautiful occasion the year before: Whilst daydreaming in the Jardin Japonais de l’Île de Versailles, Nantes… I watched as the cherry blossom floated on the breeze, settling gently on the calm surface of a pond. The reflection of the trees reminded me of Escher’s lithograph Three Worlds’… It was a combination of these memories that became the point of departure for this piece. I found these images so beautiful and evocative that I was inspired to write a haiku and the piece grew with this in mind.

Sakura dancing

like snow on the winds of change

reflect in water.

The discomfort that arises as I write this blog is very telling of why I’ve avoided it for so long! I like to be quiet, and think about things, and play, and sing, and write music sometimes – to be a vessel for the music to breathe through. I’m not that good at shouting to the world ‘helloooo this is me…. Blah’ … I prefer to hide behind my cello, or the manuscript paper.

I spent much creative time playing cello with my band Miss Maud’s Folly, singing, exploring the streets of Nantes, and walking for solitary hours in the Cardiff parks and on the Cornish moors… all the while, sounds were making themselves known in my head. I felt like I was bursting at the seams with ideas, yet having to choose some for the 3-minute piece was a daunting prospect! I prepared with trepidation for the task of tying the lucky few down onto that big empty bit of paper.

… So, in the calm after the storm, I reflect on how I loved watching my piece grow, transform and take on a life of its own. At one point I tried to mould it to the old springtime seed but the music always had it’s own ideas. The more I wrote, the more the ideas flowed… looking back, I am amused by the emotional drama that arose during the initial creative process!

I have really enjoyed being a part of the Panufnik scheme, I feel so blessed to have this opportunity. I especially enjoyed the few occasions I ventured all the way to London to see the orchestra in rehearsal. Highlights for me were Gergiev conducting Dutilleux, and discovering the music and aesthetic of Helmut Lachenmann. I went home every time buzzing with inspiration and joie de vivre, ready to engage with that lurking stripy paper!

My LSO piece seems like a very long time ago now, bringing back memories of long, hot summer days spent writing in the shed at the bottom of the garden. Unfortunately, I’m now shivering away whilst writing my latest piece – even when wearing two fleeces and a woolly hat – but it certainly makes you focus (in between the obligatory hot chocolates to thaw out)!

However, I’m aware that the January workshop is fast approaching. This week, we had an interview with composer David Knotts to discuss thoughts and ideas relating to our pieces. David is now writing up the interview as a programme note, and as my interview was very wide ranging – from structure to bird watching – I await this with great anticipation!

Whilst I am waiting for the programme note to come through, I thought I would outline a few ideas behind my piece, just to put it into context. I seem to have rambled on through four previous posts without even giving away as much as the title!

My first thought, when faced with the challenge of writing a three minute orchestral piece, was the possible link between such a piece and the Haiku form in poetry. However after further thought, it became clear that what I was interested in was simply the ‘essence’ of the world of the Haiku. I didn’t want to base my piece around one particular Haiku or to recreate a Haiku poem in music. Instead, I focussed on taking certain structural ideas, for example the Kireji (cut) and the juxtaposition of contrasting images, and manipulating these to create a musical form.

There are two related, but sharply contrasting, musical ideas juxtaposed during the piece. I like to think of these ideas as two images, but I want to leave it up to the listener to decide what these images might be. The title will give a clue though: Sudden Squall, Sudden Shadow.

One of my concerns when thinking about structuring such a short piece was the lack of time during the three minutes to develop an idea in any detail. Drawing my structure from ideas relating to the Haiku solved this problem for me. In my piece, as with the Haiku form, it is the relationship or contrast between the two ideas which provides the driving force for the music. The use of the Kireji allowed me to leap between my two contrasting musical ideas without any transition or use of real development.

I also spent a great deal of time thinking about how to conclude. I felt that I hadn’t really earned the right to have a big or dramatic finish and also wanted to conclude with a sense of the piece being open ended. Therefore my final gesture, although conclusive in certain respects, feels as though the piece could move on to a new and perhaps contrasting section.

Ceci n’est pas un mixtape

I have put together some tracks that made me laugh, dance, cry, or growl and subsequently inspired ‘A Dancing Place’. It may not always be obvious how each sound influenced this piece, but it’s there somewhere – come along on the 7th of January to solve the riddle…

When the Clown Speaks

After non-stop composing day and night with my laptop on a high workbench so I could dance while typing, and consuming so much chocolate I flirted with a diabetic coma, the scores have been finished and printed!

As I double-checked the proofs, I became more and more frightened of my creation. Lessons for me had included having to rewrite the entire score into a more legible time-signature, realising I hadn’t complemented the orchestra’s ensemble instinct as well as I’d hoped for in last blog, also that I should seek regular composition tuition, and that learning from the experience of instrumentalists is as valuable as water in the desert.

But speaking honestly, I think the image that struck – and stuck – hardest was one of battle. When I showed my score to other composers, the humorous performance directions that formed the fibres of  ‘A Dancing Place’ were met largely with concern. Details that I’d written for fun, they suggested, could be seen as frivolous, and treated as such, and I should prepare myself for a struggle.

Once I came to my senses, I started wondering why so many composers I’ve met seem wary of the orchestra. Like a proper duel, etiquette is carefully observed (including greeting and thanking the right people at the work’s performance) but the participants are mutually concerned about insult and public humiliation. Of course, this representation of the relationship between composer and orchestra is neither comprehensive nor fair — I guess I’m just trying to say that it doesn’t look easy. Composers can sometimes upset classical players, who have trained for years to create beautiful and effortless sound, by asking them to perform things they may see as regressive or damaging. Composers can sometimes be upset by classical players that seem reluctant to take their unconventional ideas seriously.

The great thing about the workshop set-up of the Panufnik Scheme is that both parties get a chance to explain themselves.  No ‘Great Dictatorship’ can really exist here — our differences can be discussed and developed, and everyone’s opinion is equally valued.

In these blogs, I’ve dwelt on the humour in my work because I’ve felt the need to justify it. After all this, my piece isn’t even anywhere near laugh-your-face-off-funny. The main humorous elements are just little directions in the score to dictate when the individuals play. Foolish, at best.

But perhaps that’s not a bad thing. The Fool, the little man, is called holy because of his sincerity and innocence: Chaplin and Harpo clown their way to a vision of a better world, one where music is indispensable. In the footsteps of clowning tradition, ‘A Dancing Place’ is meant to be both elegant and clumsy, whole-hearted and rough-edged, and, by the grace of humour, humble and utterly sincere.

Our compositions as they looked in May

ceveloise

In the photo above, the big scribble is my brain-spasm, the miniature fairy booklet is Eloise Nancy Glynn’s first notes. In the last two months, the two of us have kept each other composing to deadline through the night thanks to the Modern Technology that is instant messaging…

One Panufnik LSO discovery for me was that I enjoyed the company and support of other composers involved in the project. I hope new projects will grow from our meeting.

Here we go, my first blog. Better late than never, I say.

Every time I tried to write this blog, I panicked and thought that instead I should be using the little time I had to write the composition that was sitting like a fat toad in my subconsciousness.

In fact, I’ve given myself very few chances to compose (myself and the work) this year. In January I was offered the opportunity to make an album. Naturally I thought that I could record and produce my first CD, and set up a publishing company, and that it would ‘all be over by Christmas’. It wasn’t. Though I carried the sounds in my head all year, I found myself writing the first notes of my LSO composition just four days before the deadline for the draft submission this month.

Until then, each time I faced the LSO blog, and then panicked and faced the LSO composition, I then panicked and did ‘the Groucho Marx Dance’ – a spritely move that involves hopping and twisting alternate legs. A procrastination exercise? Indeed. But it’s had a profound effect on my composition, ‘A Dancing Place’.

The Marx brothers tumbled their way into the themes of this composition, and they’re lending me their anarchic confidence as I complete it. Although the title of the piece draws from the original meaning of ‘orchestra’ in ancient Greek theatre, I found the efficient hierarchies within modern orchestral practice did not reflect the name’s roots in classical democratic society. As a composer used to working with individuals and improvisers, I was awe-struck by how the LSO, a body of 100 souls, appears to think and move as one. They follow the leader.

My response? I’m writing a work that draws on the 3-minute pop structure which, ironically, I’ve ignored in my pop album this year. It has a bass and a beat you could move to. The lines are constructed out of ornamentation, rather than decorated with it. But while the intricacies would be improvised in the cultures that inspired them (French Baroque and Middle-Eastern Mugham) I have worked to current orchestral practice and notated every curl.

When my grip on this convention lessened, I’ve written semi-theatrical directions that encourage the players, for a few seconds, to work independently. However, these directions are sometimes based on conditions that they have no control over… like the colour of their eyes.

Thus, I aim to make melodic music from ancient democracy and chaotic anarchy, and draw from both the elegance of Lully’s ballets (when he was underscoring the comedy of Molière) and the clowning of Groucho (when he was dancing over the music of his brothers).

I confess that, as an outsider to whom the orchestral world is exotic, and by awkwardly trampling over 19th-Century traditions, I do feel like a bit of a clown. But in the true sense of clowning, what I intend to express is sincere and essential. Thankfully, the Panufnik Scheme has provided me with space to negotiate through cultural clashes, and begin to learn new languages. The open and friendly nature of the London Symphony Orchestra has allowed me to approach its players for advice. Suddenly, I’m writing for individuals after all.

I may well write another blog (hopefully shorter, for everyone’s sake) as I complete ‘A Dancing Place’. I sign off with the news that I’ve just been nominated for an award which involves me submitting a detailed proposal on the exact same date that my final score must meet with the LSO copyist. The submissions have to go to different cities. ‘Groucho Dance’, here we go again.

With my last post on this blog having been written three months ago, it seems that I have failed in my ambition to write several articles about the start of my compositional process; indeed, with the deadline for the draft having passed on Monday, the process is nearing its end. So this post constitutes less of a look forward to what issues I plan to explore, and more of a summing-up of what I hope I’ve achieved.

I’ll start with the common-sense observation that the more a given musical object contrasts with the music around it, the longer the time for which the listener will remember it. If a loud chord appears in the middle of a sequence of other loud chords, it will be forgotten almost immediately; at the other end of the spectrum, if it appears in the midst of quiet music, it will be remembered for the duration of the piece (or, at least, for the duration of a three minute piece).

In my previous music, I have been at pains to smooth over all the seams and create continuous structures where one event follows the next as naturally as possible; loud chords are worked up to and down from, never appearing from nowhere. This approach makes for music that is satisfying on a moment-by-moment basis, but which, I think, lacks tension: ‘music that flows naturally’ is ultimately another way of saying (or even a euphemism for) ‘music that does exactly what the listener expects it to do’.

In my piece for LSO, I am playing explicitly with the idea of surface disjunction for the first time, in the hope that it will prove a useful device for creating tension over the course of a musical structure. If the music does not immediately answer the questions that it asks (a loud chord asks the question “Why am I here?”; the surrounding quiet music fails to provide an answer) the listener will continue to ask that question until an answer is provided. If that answer is not provided until two minutes later, the listener experiences a level of anticipation which is very hard to achieve if the music flows continuously; and the resolution – the answer – is all the more powerful for having been withheld.

And yes, you guessed it. My piece does indeed include a loud chord in the middle of quiet music.

October 2014
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