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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


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.

August 2020
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