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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.

Reading Lizzie’s article about precomposition, I feel myself descending more than ever into the stereotype of the man incapable of multitasking. I find it very difficult to think about more than one piece at a time and so, far from having months of ruminating already behind me, I have spent the time since our Total Immersion Weekend totally immersed in other things. So, as I came to start my piece for the Panufnik Scheme last Wednesday, I sat down at my desk with nothing: no ideas for texture, harmony, ‘mood’, or whatever other mysterious things people who have precompositional ideas have precompositional ideas about.

I had nothing, that is, except a (rather long) series of dissatisfactions with the piece I’ve just finished, and an (even longer) list of dissatisfactions with all my other recent pieces, and it will be the attempt to solve these issues which will – I hope – act as a catalyst for my new piece. When Wolfgang Rihm came to London earlier this year, I heard him talking about how he conceives of each of his pieces as a dialogue with his last piece, and I have found this a useful way of thinking about my own work. At a certain point in the compositional process ideas about expression take over, but when it comes to making the initial step of getting away from the dreaded blank manuscript paper, I like to have something rather more tangible to think about.

So I thought that writing a series of articles exploring these technical questions (though I hope not in overly technical terms) would be the best way of giving an insight into my experience at the start of the Panufnik Scheme. And, with any luck, writing the articles might give me a clearer idea of what I’m talking about as well…

This first posting is dedicated to thoughts about how to exploit the resources available to me. The symphony orchestra is massive: it consists of 78 musicians, it has a range of seven octaves, a vast dynamic range, extraordinary timbral variety, and occupies a large physical area. As my title implies, I am looking for ways to fill this space. And this space does need to be filled: a glance at Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, or Boulez’s orchestration of his own Notations, reveals just how much piano music needs to be filled out with activity in order to become orchestral music. In the last week I’ve been looking at George Benjamin’s Dance Figures, an orchestration of his Piano Figures, and I have been struck yet again by the necessary extent of this transformation.

But what to fill the space with? Although I have already written three orchestral pieces, I haven’t yet found a satisfactory solution to this issue. In the first two pieces (for those of you familiar with my work, I’m referring to Kojata and Concerto for Orchestra) I was so intent on avoiding thinness that all the textures I wrote were saturated with activity – be it heterophonic flourishes in the woodwind, flurries of pizzicato, or any other busy texture you care to mention. The problem was that filling the space became almost the material’s sole function, and this diminished the extent to which I could construct a varied and individual musical discourse. To put it another way, I was writing good orchestral music, but bad orchestral music.

I wrote my most recent orchestral piece, The Forest, in response to this issue. My intention was to cut out the ‘filler’ which had played too great a role in the previous two pieces, to tighten the degree of motivic unity, to make every note count. I am yet to hear the piece (it is being played at Centre Acanthes in July) so I may be wrong, but I think I went too far in the other direction, and the music has a sparse, almost chamber-like quality which is fundamentally unorchestral and fails to fill the space.

So here is the challenge: to write music that has the desired level of aural depth and complexity without succumbing to the temptation to write filler; to generate the activity from inside the musical material rather than merely throwing a wash of notes over everything I write. I have many more questions than answers at this stage; in a sense, it’s that uncertainty, and with any luck the subsequent clarity, that makes the piece worth writing.

August 2020
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