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.