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The Panufnik Young Composers Scheme 2008 is a thing of the past – the workshop took place over three months ago, and I have already met the six Panufnik Young Composers of 2009 (Francisco Coll Garcia, Edmund Finnis, Fung Lam, Vlad Maistorovici, Max de Wardener and Toby Young) last weekend, shared my experience on the scheme and gave (hopefully) useful tips. An impressive brunch, and apparently for the time since PYCS started an all-male selection. Their new pieces will be something one looks forward to.


PYCS has been a wonderful experience, as well as having my first orchestral piece played by the London Symphony Orchestra, the best thing for me was to meet the five wonderful fellow composers – Andrew McCormack, Ayanna Witter-Johnson, Joshua Penduck, Matthew Sergeant and Sasha Siem; each one of them with has an individual voice, and I would be delighted to share platform with all of them sometime in the future.


Out of the six of us, Andrew received a commission to write a 10-minute piece for the LSO, which is to be premiered later on this year. And I have the honour to receive a commission to write a piece for the Chinese pianist Lang Lang and the London based Silk String Quartet. It is a piano quintet with a difference as the four members of the quartet play not violin, viola or any familiar Western instruments; instead, the quartet is made up of four Chinese string instruments – erhu (二胡), pipa (琵琶), yangqin (揚琴) and guzheng (古箏). An interesting combination, and a challenging piece to write. I hope the end result, Maomao Yü, is going to turn out alright.

Brush teeth. Boil kettle. Search for two matching socks in underwear draw… etc. It strikes me as I begin work on my piece, that each of my post-alarm-postponed morning routines surmount to roughly the same unit of time as we’ve been allocated for our piece: 3 minutes.


My beloved great-grandmother, Ada, recently turned 100. I have spent a lot of time since attempting to get my head around what it must mean to live for that amount of time – to boil her 100 years down into a graspable sense of biography that nevertheless avoids being reductive. And now, with this piece, I’m forced to conceptualise a unit of time that threatens – in the context of 100 years at least – to pose the somewhat opposite problem: how can I say something ‘meaningful’ in such a short amount of time without succumbing to the gluttonous temptation to overcrowd?


A potential solution lies at the V and A. When I was still at school –in the days before its snazzy new renovation – I often escaped to the consolingly gloomy halls of the museum after class – lingering between the dingy fashion exhibit and the largely unoccupied miniature portrait gallery. The latter contains a rich and wide-ranging collection which was – at that time – anything but lauded by the unpretentious (what others might consider uninspired), curation. The formats and materials of these miniature portraits vary, as do the identities of the sitters; my favourite (today at least), is Holbein’s portrait of Jane Small.


The allure of any miniature’s Lilliputian dimensions lies of course in our heightened awareness of the virtuosic technical skill required in order to produce such an intense detail vs. framework ratio. But it is less the detailed intricacy itself that is compelling than the fact that it demands an altered mode of perception from the viewer in order to be fully appreciated. In other words, the attention it demands of one is an indication of the extent to which it exceeds its physical dimensions and form. Thus despite a miniature’s reliance upon its own artifice, its real magic is that we are nevertheless led beyond the awe-inspiring nature of its construction into a conviction that far more is contained within that palmate surface than watercolour and vellum or the image of a woman; the entirety of a human life is implied.


My love of these miniatures stems from a childhood obsession with everything tiny: from multi-roomed dolls-houses built within empty Kleenex boxes to palatial flowerpot enclosures for ants and woodlice. My projects may have been small in size/resources but they were also nevertheless big (or at least grand) in their aspirations. A cardboard box came to mean/imply so much more than its size and the variety of tissue it originally contained.

While these visually-oriented/architectural experiences do not – in many ways – translate smoothly into musical terms, what does remain analogous in a musical context is the ability of the composer to manipulate the listener into believing that there is far more contained within our surface – (our 3 minutes of clock time) – than one might expect.

And so I will attempt to empty my 3 minutes of its tissues and toothbrushes and fill it instead with a “boiled-down” ‘image’ which, like the Holbein, implies so much more; I might even aim for 100 years.

February 2020
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