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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.
I think we’d all agree that the LSO Panufnik scheme is a truly amazing opportunity – to be one of just six composers chosen to write a piece for one of the best orchestras in the world does sound rather mind-blowing. And of course it is! But they don’t like to make it too easy for us . . . as I imagine nearly every other blogger in this forum will have remarked, this ‘commission’ has been made exceedingly tricky to handle, not necessarily due to the complex nature of the orchestral palette we’re dealing with, or even the balancing act many of us are undertaking (between this and the various other simultaneous commissions). No, the Devil, for us, appears in the apparently benign form of the number 3. Or perhaps, more accurately, that obscenely small time limit of just 3 minutes long! This might be an irritatingly recurrent theme throughout the Panufnik blogs (and I apologise for bringing it up yet again), but really, it is such a tricky problem to address. Full-length piece with beginning, middle and end, or short, exploratory study? “Show ‘em what you can do”, maverick-style, or aim for a strong, cohesive piece of stand-alone music? Or both?
I’ve foolishly plumped for the latter. My first draft score was submitted yesterday to Colin Matthews, and I wait with trepidation to see if he thinks I’ve succeeded – I shall, no doubt, post all ensuing criticism here very soon!
So. I’m in the middle of the piece. Quite literarily in the middle. Those of you who can remember through the last ice-age to the time of my last blog entry will remember the brainwave that was A2 manuscript paper. Well, it transpires there is a downside. The piece, and all its pages and all its associated sketches have now taken over my entire flat. There is paper everywhere. I am, as I say, quite literarily in the middle of the piece. All the time.
But such things are not what’s on my mind today. I’ve been thinking a lot about colour recently. And by colour I mean timbre (perhaps that’s obvious, a thousand apologies if so). I hear a lot of new music, it’s a kind of necessary by-product of being a composer-cum-new-music-fan, and much of the time my ears are bombarded with inventive orchestration; scurrying textures and thousands of mercurial shimmering dancing fleeting glitzy showbiz gestures.
Now don’t get me wrong. All this is very seductive, believe me; I’m often well and truly seduced. Music is about sound. If you like music, you probably like sound, and if you’re looking for interesting music – you’ll most likely love interesting sounds. But, if you’re anything like me, you’ll often come away from hearing a premiere and find yourself saying things in the bar afterwards like ‘I absolutely loved the orchestration!’ or ‘Did you hear the bit with the contrabass flexatone and piccolo bassoon playing in unison – so inventive!’ (Yes, they are made up instruments).
And this is all well and good. After all, music is about sound. If you like music you probably like sound… (etc, see above). But what ever happened to good ol’ fashioned material in a no-nonsense-cum-monolithic ‘ am the composer, these are my notes, these are my ideas laid bare, I’ll transform them for you later, but just for the moment these are my notes, these are my ideas and if you don’t like them you can shove off.’ …those are the words I can imagine running through Beethoven’s head as he wrote the opening his fifth symphony.
So here I am, sat here. Covered in paper. Wondering which piece of paper has that telephone number scribbled on that I’m really going to need in a minute. And I’m looking at my music and I find myself thinking ‘Ooooh – it’s the LSO! They can play anything! Ooooh – I could just splash out and add a contrabass flexatone here, a piccolo bassoon there – Oooh now there’s such wonderous colour!’ and with that I take a satisfied intake of breath, grasp my hands together and grin….
But then I think about Beethoven writing the opening of the fifth symphony (I’m not comparing myself to Beethoven by the way, although I think it probably goes without saying that I know he’s much better than I will ever be!) and things begin to change… ‘No.’ I think ‘I am the composer, these are my notes, these are my ideas laid bare, I’ll transform them for you later, but just for the moment these are my notes, these are my ideas, and if you don’t like them you can… well… give me some constructive criticism at the interval.’
A friend took me to see Gergiev conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony with the LSO last night.
It has not been my favourite piece of Mahler – I appreciate the Sixth, Seventh, Ninth Symphony or Das Lied von der Erde more. But last night performance changed my point of view to the piece – not totally, but it certainly helped me to understand and appreciate the piece better.
First and foremost, there was so much more violence in this piece than I previously realised; at time, it was as frightening as the Sixth. But that was not all – violence and anger alone cannot conquer the world alone, if at all. Gergiev’s decision to play the three middle movements attacca was more than a touch of genius, and it really showed his understanding of the theatricality of the music: just as the ländler of the second movement coming to an end, the tranquility was interrupted by the short, aggressive timpani strokes. It hit you like the news of the suicide of your best friend for twenty-three years – shocking and merciless. Life would never be the same again – even the transcendental luminosity of the primal light could not turn back time. But that is just life.
It was interesting to note that Gergiev placed the first violins, cellos and double basses on his left, and the second violins and violas on his right – it made an arresting listening experience. Never have I heard In ruhig fliessender Bewegung sounding so kaleidoscopic and manic. If that was not spellbounding, I am not sure what is.
I look forward to his Rachmaninoff symphonies this autumn.
I am currently going through the painful process of finding raw material for this piece (in other words trying to get a good idea!). One of the problems I’m facing is that I’ve never written for such a large palette before. I keep having to remind myself the depth of sound I’m dealing with here.
I’ve also had a possible title for the work for quite some time but I’m not sure if what’s ending up on paper is exactly the same piece. Maybe at this stage it’s more important to get stuff ON paper but I think the title is lingering at the back of my mind during this process and certainly helps in giving me a direction.
I’ve managed to arrange a meeting with Colin for next week so it’ll be interesting to find out what he has to say about my scribblings!
Last Sunday morning, all the houses were covered with snow; during the week, there was plenty of sun. It felt like spring has come and gone, and back again, in the space of one week, even though it felt longer. Changes of weather are like music – they distort our sensation of natural time flow.
My first meeting with Colin Matthews happened three days ago. Other than getting some interesting tips on ‘What and What Not’, we had some interesting discussion on music by other composers – some dead, some alive – and it transpired to be a very helpful exercise. We both agreed Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony is an underrated masterpiece; I would go as far as saying all Nielsen’s symphonies are underrated masterpieces, as well as his three concerti, two operas, and other orchestral pieces. Nielsen and Sibelius should be on equal ground. How long will we have to wait to hear the next Nielsen Symphony Cycle in London? Well, at least something is happening across the Atlantic, according to Alex Ross.
The title of the my piece, Xocolatl, came to me when I was re-reading Philip Ridley’s The Pitchfork Disney. On the day I went to see Colin, I found the perfect little preface to the score:
In that November off Tehuantepec
Night stilled the slopping of the sea.
The day came, bowing and voluble, upon the deck,
Good clown … One thought of Chinese chocolate
And large umbrellas. And a motley green
Followed the drift of the obese machine
Of ocean, perfected in indolence.
What pistache one, ingenious and droll,
Beheld the sovereign clouds as jugglery
And the sea as turquoise-turbaned Sambo, neat
At tossing saucers – cloudy-conjuring sea?
C’était mon esprit bâtard, l’ignominie.
The sovereign clouds came clustering. The conch
Of loyal conjuration trumped. The wind
Of green blooms turning crisped the motley hue
To clearing opalescence. Then the sea
And heaven rolled as one and from the two
Came fresh transfigurings of freshest blue.
Sea Surface Full of Clouds, Wallace Stevens
There will be no Holloway; instead, just a little help from Mozart.