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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 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.

August 2020
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