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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.

Recently, I returned from a holiday in Wales, mostly spent taking photos of Red Kites and braving the great outdoors wearing inadequate clothes (well, I thought August was supposed to be hot!!).  I was very pleased that I managed to finish the LSO piece before I left, as I’ve discovered on previous occasions that composition and holidays with my husband don’t mix particularly well!   I’m now embarking on the next piece – which I’m writing as part of the VOX course at the Royal Opera House – but the LSO piece is still very much in the back of my mind.

One really useful aspect of the scheme is that we are able to send draft instrumental parts to individual players of the LSO, in order to get advice on writing for those instruments we feel less confident with.  In my case this is definitely the harp – as an ex viola player I can just about cope with four strings, but any more than that flummoxes me somewhat!  I have also taken the opportunity to send my percussion part over and I hope this will produce some useful feedback.  Then, after submitting my draft score, I can wait for some final feedback from James MacMillan before looking forward to the workshop in January.

Writing for the LSO has been a great challenge, slightly nerve-racking, but overall a tremendously exciting experience. Getting to know the orchestra has been wonderful too. I first remember hearing the LSO when I was about 12 years old – I was rather obsessed by Yuri Bashmet from around this time and I remember dragging my long suffering father along to several Bashmet/LSO concerts.  My ambition at that time was not to be a soloist like Bashmet, but to play in an orchestra – and hearing the LSO left an indelible impression.  A couple of years later, I was lucky enough to undertake my school work experience with the LSO.  I spent a week helping (or possibly hindering!) the admin department, backstage – and sitting in on Vengerov and Rostropovich recording the Shostakovich 1st violin concerto which was an unforgettable experience.

By several twists of fate I haven’t ended up playing for the LSO, but have ended up writing for them instead!  As this will be my final blog post here I’d like to thank everyone involved with the scheme and encourage all composers out there to apply as it really is a great experience.  I hope to see you all at the workshop in January.

Yesterday, I realised that I had reached the halfway point of my piece for the LSO.  While I do sketch out the whole work in some form or other during the preliminary stages, I usually then return to the beginning and work in quite a linear way – although making numerous drafts of each section as the piece progresses.

If I am to be honest, which I suppose is the point of these blogs, I am feeling extremely relieved to have finally made it this far!  Working on a piece tends to fall into two stages: the uphill struggle – the first half – followed by the second half which is usually (or hopefully!) downhill most of the way.  While writing the end of a piece sometimes presents its own problems, which I will no doubt discuss later on, I do usually enjoy writing the latter stages of the piece more.

The first half of this piece however, has felt a little more of a struggle than normal.  I don’t feel that this is the issue of writing for large orchestra for the first time, or the added pressure (which is certainly there, despite the obvious excitement) of writing a piece for the LSO, or even the conflict of life – i.e. teaching, trying to move house, teaching, mending the shower…and teaching – versus composition time.

It is more that, whilst writing this piece, my ideas have persistently been challenged and turned upside down in ways that I didn’t necessarily expect when I began.  For a start, all the composers on the scheme have been incredibly lucky to have had open access to LSO rehearsals and concerts.  This is tremendously useful and inspiring, but has constantly made me rethink what I am writing – not only from listening to the sound of the LSO but also by being introduced to new repertoire. Gerald Barry and Helmut Lachenmann are two composers I didn’t really know a great deal about prior to the LSO scheme – but I am very glad that I do now!  Then, there are the very interesting conversations I have had with the other composers on the scheme, which raise all sorts of questions.  We had a catch up session in June and it was really interesting to discover the diverse approaches that we all have.  Finally, of course, there are the composition lessons which are always thought provoking.

Don’t get me wrong, these are all really good things, and very positive.  And I do feel that my writing is progressing in the right way, thanks to all these influences.  However, they have all contributed to make the journey to the halfway point slightly more unpredictable than normal.  But I think that is what makes being a composer so interesting.

These words are currently written in large letters on a piece of paper blue tacked to the wall next to my desk.  Having just read Ed’s recent post, I must say that I sympathise a great deal both with his ‘list of dissatisfactions’ relating to previous compositions and his desire to ‘fill the space’ in an orchestral piece, or indeed any other piece, to the correct degree.

Integral to the preliminary process of composition outlined in my first post is always an analysis of what I am unhappy or uneasy about in my recent works.  These issues are constantly at the back of my mind during the planning process, so by the start of each new piece I find myself writing pages in my notebooks about ‘things to achieve’, ‘things to avoid’, ‘ideas to experiment with’ and so on.  A rather fun way to begin work on the first day of any new piece is to stick all these pages to the walls of the shed where I write…fifteen minutes later I am surrounded by sheets of paper and feel I have at least achieved something with my day.

However, I am also very conscious of the fact that I have been guilty in the past of trying to pack far too much into a piece of music – not only in terms of orchestration and use of instruments, but also regarding musical idea.  Therefore, this first week of writing has been about trying to focus my ideas to form the basis for what I hope will be a coherent and concise piece of music.  And the very mention of the word ‘concise’ leads me back to the inescapable fact that this piece is ONLY THREE MINUTES LONG.  I write that in capitals just to remind myself.  It shouldn’t really be a problem by now as I’ve been thinking about the piece for months and the very starting point was the issue of its brevity.  There are also many successful very short orchestral pieces; Oliver Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks being one I particularly admire.

But, I have to keep on reminding myself – hence the words at the beginning of this blog post, ‘stop and think’.  Hopefully if I do this, I will save myself a lot of hassle – and a great deal of manuscript paper!

So, the initial LSO Panufnik Scheme meeting was back in February and, 3 months later, I am still yet to write that all important first bar.  OK, I had a wind band piece to complete, far too much teaching, a PhD proposal to submit, a holiday to America…well, perhaps the last example shouldn’t really count – but you get the idea! However, just because I haven’t put that first elusive note on the manuscript paper yet doesn’t mean that I haven’t been working on my piece in other ways.

I love the whole planning process of composition.  For example, the title of my PhD is ‘Tracing the Compositional Journey: Exploring the Process of Composition in Diverse Musical Contexts’.  This means (funding permitting of course!) that I am about to spend three years looking at my compositional working methods and comparing these with the methods of other composers.  Talking to some of the other composers on the scheme about how they approach their work has been very interesting and enlightening.  And so, while I haven’t actually started what some people may define as the actual process of composition, I feel I have made a lot of progress with my piece.

As soon as I know that I have a new piece to write, I almost straight away start jotting down ideas in a notebook. Very gradually, sometimes over several months, (and usually a couple of other pieces later!) the work starts to take shape and I can begin to draw out structural ideas, fragments of musical material which I usually notate in diagrams or in words, and ideas for instrumentation.  I nearly always have a title in mind before I begin writing.  I also write a lot about my ideas behind the piece, which is always useful later on when it comes to compiling a programme note.

The LSO Panufnik Scheme has therefore been totally ideal for my methods of working.  We were given the initial brief months ago and so I’ve had plenty of time to spend on this important first stage.  Alongside this, I’ve been going to as many LSO rehearsals and concerts as possible – including a very interesting rehearsal spent sitting in the trombone section!  I’m pleased to say that I am now nearly ready to start writing…well at least making preliminary sketches.  And luckily, once I do start writing, the work often progresses quite quickly.  Unless of course there’s an unforeseen crisis, for example misplacing the one pencil I can work with!  More updates to follow…

August 2020
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