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First thing’s first. I think I’ve come up with a title. I think I’m going to call the piece ‘but today we collect ads’, after a quotation from the Smithson Partnership (Alison and Peter Smithson were revolutionary British Architects), writing as part of the infamous ‘Independent Group’ of artists:

“GROPIOUS WROTE A BOOK ON GRAIN SILOS,

LE CORBUSIER ON AEROPLANES,

AND CHARLOTTE PERIAND BROUGHT A NEW OBJECT TO THE OFFICE EVERY MORNING,

BUT TODAY WE COLLECT ADS.”

I like titles. And I usually come up with the fairly early. For me, a title serves as more than merely a label to distinguish between different pieces in a composer’s catalgoue. It actually becomes part of the composing process. Coming up with a title forces me to summarise the agenda or intensions of a piece in a single word or phrase. In doing so, I have to make some decisions as to what the piece is going to be be ‘about’ or what it’s going to ‘do’. Which, I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, are quite important things to decide.

I’m quite pleased with this title. Perhaps I’ll tell you more about it another time.

I’m also quite pleased with the new A2 manuscript paper which arrived this morning to help me write it. It is, quite possibly, the largest manuscript paper my desk has ever seen. At heart I suppose a small part of every composer is somewhat stationary obsessed.

More to follow.

Matthew =)

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As I was in Barcelona last June for the Sónar Festival, a friend showed me the catalogue of an exhibition titled ‘Hammershøi i Dreyer’ which was on show at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB) earlier in the year. From what I saw in the catalogue, I wished I were there for the exhibition. Until then, I have not heard of Vilhelm Hammershøi, nor Carl Theodor Dreyer, not to mention the artistic links between the two.

 

After my return, I tried to track down Hammershøi’s paintings in London Galleries, only to discover that they are not currently on display – and there are not that many of them. Edward Hopper has always been one of my favourite painters – that indescribable sense of isolation and solitude is something I always find haunting. You look at some of Hopper’s late paintings – Sunlight in an Empty Room (1963) for example – your mind would wonder what goes on outside the picture, the things that are felt but not seen. I get the same feeling when I listen to Sciarrino’s music; I have heard Omaggio A Burri (1995) and Esplorazione del Bianco II (1986) in concert, and they were possibly the most intense listening experiences I have ever had – very unsettling.

 

Why is Hammershøi’s art so neglected outside Denmark – just as the way Nielsen’s music once was? I know Michael Palin made a documentary called The Mystery of Hammershøi in 2005 for the BBC, which I have not seen. I wonder how much it helped to make non-Danish speakers aware of this marvellous painter.

 

On a brighter note, most of Dreyer’s movies are now available on DVD; my copies of Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964) have just arrived. Something for the bank holiday weekend when I get a bit stuck with the composing.
 

Brush teeth. Boil kettle. Search for two matching socks in underwear draw… etc. It strikes me as I begin work on my piece, that each of my post-alarm-postponed morning routines surmount to roughly the same unit of time as we’ve been allocated for our piece: 3 minutes.

*

My beloved great-grandmother, Ada, recently turned 100. I have spent a lot of time since attempting to get my head around what it must mean to live for that amount of time – to boil her 100 years down into a graspable sense of biography that nevertheless avoids being reductive. And now, with this piece, I’m forced to conceptualise a unit of time that threatens – in the context of 100 years at least – to pose the somewhat opposite problem: how can I say something ‘meaningful’ in such a short amount of time without succumbing to the gluttonous temptation to overcrowd?

*

A potential solution lies at the V and A. When I was still at school –in the days before its snazzy new renovation – I often escaped to the consolingly gloomy halls of the museum after class – lingering between the dingy fashion exhibit and the largely unoccupied miniature portrait gallery. The latter contains a rich and wide-ranging collection which was – at that time – anything but lauded by the unpretentious (what others might consider uninspired), curation. The formats and materials of these miniature portraits vary, as do the identities of the sitters; my favourite (today at least), is Holbein’s portrait of Jane Small.

*

The allure of any miniature’s Lilliputian dimensions lies of course in our heightened awareness of the virtuosic technical skill required in order to produce such an intense detail vs. framework ratio. But it is less the detailed intricacy itself that is compelling than the fact that it demands an altered mode of perception from the viewer in order to be fully appreciated. In other words, the attention it demands of one is an indication of the extent to which it exceeds its physical dimensions and form. Thus despite a miniature’s reliance upon its own artifice, its real magic is that we are nevertheless led beyond the awe-inspiring nature of its construction into a conviction that far more is contained within that palmate surface than watercolour and vellum or the image of a woman; the entirety of a human life is implied.

*

My love of these miniatures stems from a childhood obsession with everything tiny: from multi-roomed dolls-houses built within empty Kleenex boxes to palatial flowerpot enclosures for ants and woodlice. My projects may have been small in size/resources but they were also nevertheless big (or at least grand) in their aspirations. A cardboard box came to mean/imply so much more than its size and the variety of tissue it originally contained.

While these visually-oriented/architectural experiences do not – in many ways – translate smoothly into musical terms, what does remain analogous in a musical context is the ability of the composer to manipulate the listener into believing that there is far more contained within our surface – (our 3 minutes of clock time) – than one might expect.

And so I will attempt to empty my 3 minutes of its tissues and toothbrushes and fill it instead with a “boiled-down” ‘image’ which, like the Holbein, implies so much more; I might even aim for 100 years.

Well, gradually, little by little, all the other work I need to do for university is dying down, and bit by bit I’m able to turn my head towards writing this orchestral piece. I just need to write a quartet for the BCMG and then I’m pretty much free (I think this may be one of those few moments in life when I’m a little frustrated to be having to write for the BCMG!)

I’ve got my basic blueprints for this piece, at least, and my basic form. As I’m overly secretive about these things, I’ll only give you a little snippet of what exactly is happening in the mind of Joshua Penduck: essntially, I’m going to be writing a fast piece, which moves from being fanfare-like (I have a fear my trumpeters will not know what hit them – but hopefully not), to a more granite-like textures, full of massive chords (think of sailing from the open sea towards some imposing cliffs on the coast…).

If anyone out there is actually interested, I also have some of my technicaL, structural aspects beginning to fit into place. To put it briefly (and virtually incomprehensibly): I am basing the piece on a seven-note 3-octave chord, which, when turned into a set of notes, is put through a series of measures (i.e. a rotational transpositional scheme, creating harmony; a Babbittian process of transfering chordal intervals into rhythm) to create my harmonic and rhythmic templates. Now did you understand that? I know I don’t!

Hopefully, I’ll be back with you soon, with a lot more technical mumbo-jumbo up my sleeve!
Joshua Penduck

A friend took me to see Gergiev conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony with the LSO last night.

It has not been my favourite piece of Mahler – I appreciate the Sixth, Seventh, Ninth Symphony or Das Lied von der Erde more. But last night performance changed my point of view to the piece – not totally, but it certainly helped me to understand and appreciate the piece better.

First and foremost, there was so much more violence in this piece than I previously realised; at time, it was as frightening as the Sixth. But that was not all – violence and anger alone cannot conquer the world alone, if at all. Gergiev’s decision to play the three middle movements attacca was more than a touch of genius, and it really showed his understanding of the theatricality of the music: just as the ländler of the second movement coming to an end, the tranquility was interrupted by the short, aggressive timpani strokes. It hit you like the news of the suicide of your best friend for twenty-three years – shocking and merciless. Life would never be the same again – even the transcendental luminosity of the primal light could not turn back time. But that is just life.

It was interesting to note that Gergiev placed the first violins, cellos and double basses on his left, and the second violins and violas on his right – it made an arresting listening experience. Never have I heard In ruhig fliessender Bewegung sounding so kaleidoscopic and manic. If that was not spellbounding, I am not sure what is.

I look forward to his Rachmaninoff symphonies this autumn.

I am currently going through the painful process of finding raw material for this piece (in other words trying to get a good idea!). One of the problems I’m facing is that I’ve never written for such a large palette before. I keep having to remind myself the depth of sound I’m dealing with here.

I’ve also had a possible title for the work for quite some time but I’m not sure if what’s ending up on paper is exactly the same piece. Maybe at this stage it’s more important to get stuff ON paper but I think the title is lingering at the back of my mind during this process and certainly helps in giving me a direction.

I’ve managed to arrange a meeting with Colin for next week so it’ll be interesting to find out what he has to say about my scribblings! 

My reaction of hearing Harrison Birtwistle’s music for the first time ever (The Triumph of Time and Punch and Judy, in the early 1990s) was: ‘Can music get any uglier? Isn’t the composer a bit tone-deaf?’.

 

Since then, as my youthful arrogance and ignorance were wearing off, I came to understand and appreciate Birtwistle’s music more and more. In 2003, when I was a spnm shortlisted composer, Birtwistle (or so I was told) chose my wind quintet to be included in a concert at the Huddersfield Festival of which his Refrains and Choruses was to be the focus. In a pre-concert talk, I was asked by the host about my ‘secret’ of making the alto flute heard amid the busy texture in a particular movement. As I was rambling away nervously, clever words swirling in my heads and trying to sound sophisticated and clever, Sir Harry suddenly broke me off and said: ‘Raymond, you are allowed to leave some dirt in your music!’. I was lost for words. I was lost for words because of a moment of revelation – it is not cleverness that gives a piece of music its heart and soul; it is the earthiness and rawness that matter. There are things beyond analysis. In that sense, the music of Birtwistle and Janáček have a lot in common.

 

I went to the general rehearsal of The Minotaur at Covent Garden last Saturday. It really blew me away. It is a long way away from the Birtwistle of Punch and Judy or The Mask of Orpheus. In fact, I found Birtwistle’s music has been becoming more and more lyrical since The Second Mrs Kong. The opening of the new opera really reminded me of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

 

Once again, as in The Second Mrs Kong, the cimbalom plays an important part in the orchestra, alongside Ariadne’s obbligato saxophone. In the entire duration of the opera, sonic wonders never ceased (and I can’t wait to see the full score). The last scene of the opera was doubtless the most moving moment in Birtwistle’s entire output.

 

First night is tonight. Go see it if you can. At the end of the day, who’s afraid of Birtwistle?

Last Sunday morning, all the houses were covered with snow; during the week, there was plenty of sun. It felt like spring has come and gone, and back again, in the space of one week, even though it felt longer. Changes of weather are like music – they distort our sensation of natural time flow.

My first meeting with Colin Matthews happened three days ago. Other than getting some interesting tips on ‘What and What Not’, we had some interesting discussion on music by other composers – some dead, some alive – and it transpired to be a very helpful exercise. We both agreed Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony is an underrated masterpiece; I would go as far as saying all Nielsen’s symphonies are underrated masterpieces, as well as his three concerti, two operas, and other orchestral pieces. Nielsen and Sibelius should be on equal ground. How long will we have to wait to hear the next Nielsen Symphony Cycle in London? Well, at least something is happening across the Atlantic, according to Alex Ross.

The title of the my piece, Xocolatl, came to me when I was re-reading Philip Ridley’s The Pitchfork Disney. On the day I went to see Colin, I found the perfect little preface to the score:

In that November off Tehuantepec
Night stilled the slopping of the sea.
The day came, bowing and voluble, upon the deck,

Good clown … One thought of Chinese chocolate
And large umbrellas. And a motley green
Followed the drift of the obese machine

Of ocean, perfected in indolence.
What pistache one, ingenious and droll,
Beheld the sovereign clouds as jugglery

And the sea as turquoise-turbaned Sambo, neat
At tossing saucers – cloudy-conjuring sea?
C’était mon esprit bâtard, l’ignominie.

The sovereign clouds came clustering. The conch
Of loyal conjuration trumped. The wind
Of green blooms turning crisped the motley hue

To clearing opalescence. Then the sea
And heaven rolled as one and from the two
Came fresh transfigurings of freshest blue.

Sea Surface Full of Clouds, Wallace Stevens

There will be no Holloway; instead, just a little help from Mozart.

April 2008
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