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!

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.

On the 2nd of March, 1959, drummer Jimmy Cobb played a note on a cymbal just before Miles Davis started his solo on So What.  The album they were recording was Kind of Blue, and for me, that cymbal crash exemplifies everything I like about the idea of flow in music. The moment that he judged so perfectly was how to set the scene in the transition from the composed music to the improvising section, and it opened up a whole know way of playing jazz. There is a lesson in this moment that I must bear in mind: simple things done in just the right way are all that is required. My piece is about flow. Perhaps every time I am tempted to overcomplicate the orchestration, I just need to remember that one little tap on a round piece of suspended metal …

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…

Back to 3 minutes.  I’ve been writing hard, and am reasonably happy.  Possibly because I haven’t finished and haven’t had to make any decisions about orchestration though…

Positive: my recent John Adams-related epiphany.  Negative: my lovely computer which never crashes or gives me any problems, has crashed and is giving me problems.  No files have disappeared, I just can’t access them.  That means I can’t use my notation software to write my piece with.  So, I am being forced to be the musician I used to be.  I was trained to write music using manuscript paper, a piano, and my head.  So I am rediscovering what you see when you are not looking at a computer screen.

OK, for this blog, forget the 3 minute rule.  I have had a ‘moment’.  Let me explain.  In my musical life, there have been a small number of times when something that has been going on at the back of my mind suddenly bursts through into my consciousness.  The first was when I was 5 or 6 and my recorder group played Raggle Taggle Gypsy.  It hit me: I loved playing music. There were a few others, but the next really life-changing moment came when I was 26.  I was at Ronnie Scotts, listening to Michael Brecker.  I had heard him live before, but in large concert halls.  This time I was up close and personal, and something about him impressed me a lot.  I decided then and there to become a jazz musician.  Fast forward 10 years, and I am a musician working in jazz, trying to find a my own way of doing things.  I assumed that learning about the LSO would be a part of that.  That was until last night, or more precisely, yesterday afternoon, which was the last day of three consecutive days of attending LSO rehearsals with John Adams.  I knew some of his music, and thought that it was the rhythmic quality that was of interest.  Not so.  Yesterday afternoon I saw the film documenting some of the creative process behind his opera, Dr Atomic.  A few hours earlier I had heard members of the orchestra playing his Shaker Loops.  Seeing the journey from early to mature work had a similar effect on me as Brecker did 10 years previously.  Adams explored such an interesting theme in the Opera, and although it may seem simplistic, having the knowledge that music can be used to go beyond just musical ideas has been inspiring.   So there it is.  My 10 year plan.  Write an Opera!  I never saw that one coming…..

It is now the beginning of week 4 of the scheme. I started writing in the second week – on good advice – and having those ideas ticking away as I go to the concerts has certainly helped with my thinking.  I have been going to as many rehearsals and concerts as I can, and each time I find that I learn something new and unexpected.  This is a very similar process to the one I undertook when I started to seriously study jazz.  Under the guidance of my teacher, Dave Liebman, I spent just under 5 years listening, transcribing, and playing solos of the great jazz musicians.  In the ‘transcription process’ I could feel my hearing and judgement becoming sharpened.  I hope that there is something similar going on as I go to each rehearsal, each concert.  Time’s up…..

Well, what can I say? I have started writing a lot, and although some of the quality is questionable, it feels good to be in the process of writing.  So many questions get thrown up and then answered by circumstance.  I’m really enjoying digging into my jazz chord hall of fame.  Of course, I also know that the material I’m using goes past so quickly, that ultimately, I will have to sacrifice their richness for the sake of clarity.  Oh well. And so on to South African Print Making.  After the LSO’s concert for A Journey through Life, I have been thinking a lot about image and music.  The only other orchestral example I have seen was Adés’ Seven Days, which used a very different technique.  I have been around Southern African prints all my life, and they are deeply fascinating to me.  To what end, I don’t know, but I think that I have a way to investigate this relationship between image and sound.  William Kentridge and Ndavasla Muafangejo are the starting points for me with this.  Oops, just checked the time – five mintues…… Better stop.!

August 2020
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