Saturday, 8 March 2014

Prelude in G

During my researches into combining silences with music, I came across an old CD I made about twelve years ago.  These thoughts were clearly in my mind when I wrote this little prelude in 2002...

spatia inter

spacia inter is my latest experiment with sound and silences.  silentum inter is still on the go for alto recorder played Treena Hope.  Things take time...

But that is precisely the point.  I've always taken for too much time to write music.  It's a habit I've fallen into but I'm going to find a climb a way out of if kills me.  No more working for five hours in the morning, completing twenty bars or so, then going back in the afternoon (after my daily dose of Waitrose White Chocolate Tiramisu) only to delete half of them.  And tinker with the rest until I forget the initial inspiration, why I started it in the first place.

I can improvise, for heaven's sake;  it's just a matter of taking the mood of one of these improvs and setting it down definitively.  This, from now on, will be my new compositional method.  Intellectual rigour will be, well, taken care of.

As those of you who have gone to the trouble of reading my older posts will know, I haven't done much composition for some time.  I lack self confidence. Maybe I even lack skill but I've been doing this now for more than fifty years - I remember reading books about composition by Reginald Smith-Brindle when I was in my early teens.  I wrote two completely tonal symphonies when I was 14 and 17 years old.  In 1972, I wrote a completely atonal Capriccio for cello and orchestra;  I know this because I still have a copy of the opening section.

I wrote ten musical theatre pieces between 1977 and 1984; numerous piano pieces, two string quartets (1970 & 1994), masses of music which I made time to begin but not to finish.

I have some sort of ability and a tremendous urge to make music.  It really is about time I let the world hear some of what I write.

I now Tweet (composerinukMPS) and I've had tremendous support from other composers and groups.  I always try to support them back whenever I can. There's a sort of fellowship on Twitter; a sort of understanding that to be critical of composers who are still alive is hurtful, pointless and nasty.  We all get enough of that from every source you can imagine.

Someone asked me not long ago what I did for a living.  I told her that I am a composer...

That sounds rather self-indulgent...

is what she said.  Well, you know, it really isn't.  I have plenty to say and I have gleaned a sort of technique simply inferred from how long I've been doing it.  I can get better.  I will get better... But I'm doing okay.

I'll upload a link to spacia inter as soon as it goes up.

Happy International Women's Day to all of us.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

That Eureka Moment...!

I've been working on two pieces recently, side by side.  One a piano piece, the other for an old pupil of mine, Treena Hope, who plays treble recorder better than anyone I know.

The piano piece had a title and quite a few bars;  silentum inter (the silence in between) and, although I might write eight or nine bars in a single session, I fell into the habit of deleting half of them when I next opened the file. Progress, taking two steps forward and one back, was (as I'm sure you can imagine) painfully slow.

Then, at 3 am today, the solution came to me - put them together as one piece.  It was truly eureka moment but I needed to remember a few of the details and had to get up out if bed to note them down.  I was tempted to write the whole thing then and there but experience has taught me that working through the night is not a good idea.

I hope the next piece of writing on this blog will be called silentum inter and that it will mean that these two pieces have been successfully merged.

This is a short blog, rather like a long Tweet.  Yes, I have joined Twitter and already have 18 followers;  I'm no Stephen Fry but I do hope that number will increase soon.  After all, I've been twittering for almost three days now.  

Like my music, not every piece nor every blog has to be seminal.  I will keep this short just to keep you all posted...

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

I told you it was difficult...

Here I am, in December 2013, having not added a word to my blog in eight months.  You see?  I told you that writing music is very difficult.

Part of the problem is defining who I am and what I want to say as a composer; another part of it is suffering from depression, which has robbed me of many months this year, but this is not the place to talk about that.

In my last entry, I said that I wanted to write short pieces for individual or small groups of performers.  That way, or so my logic went, I would avoid massive problems like the structure or architecture of large scale works.  I also managed to convince myself that if I wrote just one minute of music a day (surely possible with such short pieces for a few instrumentalists) then at the end of the month I would have at least thirty minutes of music.  Quite a portfolio building up there.  And if I'd been able to stick to my plan, I'd have four hours of music written and possibly performed by now.  But it didn't quite go to plan...

To be fair to myself, I have written a few sketches and I have had an abundance of ideas; but they have never once made up a single complete work, although I am coming close with a string quartet, which (for reasons I'll mention on another occasion - like when the thing is finished!) is called, Gestures and Memories.

But there are so many voices in my head, so many sounds, I'm not actually sure that any of them are mine.  And what's the point of being a composer if your music just sounds like a cheap version of someone else's?

But I think things have taken a turn for the better and I want to talk a little bit about that.

The internet being what it is, a vast resource of information and opportunities never before granted to watch pornography (I jest, of course),  I'm able to study scores which may have been completed only very recently.  The one thing I don't see is trends; that's a good thing.  I see composers from all over the world coming up with their own solutions to compositional problems, including the fundamental one; what happens next?  We call all come up with a flourish or a simple series of sounds - a tone row even - but what happens after that?  That's always been the big problem for me.  Does that mean I'm simply not very inventive?  Maybe so but I do hope not.  I have been doing this a long time so it's clearly much more than a passing fad.  But there's just such a huge volume of music out there, where should I decide who my influences might be?  I discounted all -ism, including serialism and minimalism.  So where was I to start...?

In the end, I approached this thought another way.  I greatly admire the musically complex music of the hugely talented composer, Brian Fernyhough.  But I do know that I don't want my music to sound like his.  Brian writes music of enormous difficulty for both performers and listeners alike, in which events happen, often very quickly and frequently simultaneously.  Let me say again that I admire his music a great deal, but I don't want to imitate him.  In fact, I want to reject the New Complexity altogether.  It isn't for me.  Much as I might be impressed by it, I don't want to write like that.

Then I came across a remarkable young composer called Marc Yeats - of course you can search these people on YouTube and you'll get many hits.  What, it seems to me, is different about Marc is his complete and utter rejection of  -isms;  every piece for him sounds like a new challenge and a new adventure and I have grown to love many of his pieces.  And I learn from that, almost self evidently, that the music I hear in my head, and there's a lot of it which I choose to call my own, also rejects -isms.  Why would the world want to hear my pale imitations of New Complexity when there are some very talented young composers who have studied it and would do a far better job than I.

Also, again self evidently and this time from Marc, that every piece I write need not be seminal, cast in a form or structure that I will then spend the rest of my life duplicating, having 'found my voice'.  There are thousands of voices in my head (or embryonic pieces as I choose to call them) and not one of them sounds like another.  In fact, unlike in writing, I think finding my voice would be a disastrous thing for me.    

So, no -isms to follow and not one composer from whom I want to steal.  That's a start, at least.  And I have another piece for string quartet that's been swimming around my head for weeks now, and it seems that I've alighted on a solution, if not for ever, then at least for this piece.  And that is that it will be slow moving.  Events will unfold slowly and attacks will be few and far between - the opposite, it seems to me, of Brian's music.  And there will be prolonged silences and moments of stillness and contemplation.  For me, that's new.

It's not much, but it is a starting point.  And I know other composers have reached similar conclusions, like John Taverner and Arvo Part, but I'm not, again somewhat self evidently, them.  I can approach these new voices without the weight on my shoulders of having to be seminal;  this is my solution for one piece, not necessarily the direction of my music for the rest of my life.  I have to thank Marc for that.

Ladies and gentlemen (if my readership amounts to that many people) I can only promise to keep you posted.

And in the meantime I wish you all a happy holiday and all the best for 2014.  Maybe that will be the year you come to hear of me!

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Spaces in Between...

This week I saw a TV documentary (on the sainted BBC4) about the painter and sculptor William Turnbull who died at a great age last year.  In a fascinating and enlightening show, I found great inspiration from an artist whose work I have admired for many years.  Needless to say, in any creative activity, there is cross-fertilization and he said a couple things which made a lot of sense to my continuing progress as a 'baby' composer.

He spoke about his early sculptures:  "They didn't refer to something else they only referred to themselves".  Quite.  I couldn't have put it better myself.  Unless I am setting words, the music I write is self referential and rarely anything else.  I've always disliked music which set out to sound like something else; the sea, a storm, a storm at sea.  My music lives in my imagination first, then it is put on paper (with all the inevitable consequences and compromises that entails) and then offered to an audience. If I'm ever asked, 'But what is it about?' I always facetiously use the old Andre Previn line, 'It's about thirty minutes.'

I imagine that abstract artists have the same problem.  In fact I know they do.  I was once in a gallery which was showing the work of a young female sculptor and while admiring one of her clearly abstract pieces, one authoritative sounding female voice from behind me said, "Of course it screams about the pain of childbirth!"  Well, it didn't to me and nor did it to the artist, with whom I enjoyed a very pleasant chat over coffee after the doors closed.

We search for meaning and patterns.  Of course we do; our brains are hardwired to.  In the paintings of Mark Rothko we might see windows; in Kandinsky (whom I also love) we might see ships or mouth organs.  Does it matter?  Of course not.  We each take away from a painting or a piece of music our own, unique experiences.  And I really don't think it matters all that much if we 'get it', by which I mean that we come to understand the work on the level the composer/artist might.  Only in music which is intended to convey or conjure the sound the proverbial storm at sea do we 'fail' if we think it sounds like falling crockery.

I write mostly abstract music.  I'm very drawn to music known by the rather redundant tag 'new complexity'.  I say redundant because if you see a score of it or heat it in a concert you will be in no doubt that it is complex;  and, often, somewhat jarring to the unaccustomed ear.  But it is something the ear can be attuned to, as I learned back in the 1970s while studying a remarkable piece by Peter Maxwell Davis called, Eight Songs for a Mad King.  Then, it jarred.  Now, it thrills.

But there was something else I drew from the programme about Turnbull; he married an extraordinarily talented sculptor called Kim Lim.  She died some years ago and there were no direct quotes from her but she did inspire me by something that was said of her.  The speaker was talking about Brankusi's The Kiss.  Her take on it inspired this blog; she was quoted as saying that she was fascinated by the spaces in between.  In an object so seemingly devoid of spaces this struck me as being a seminal moment in her own career.  And possibly mine.

Composers often talk about the importance of silences; the spaces in between the sounds.  I was looking for a starting point for a completely new piece - I still don't have sufficient mastery of Sibelius to write truly complex notation - which includes, along with its quiet gestures and freaky flourishes, moments of complete repose, demonstrated by silences.  The whole first section of this new piece came to me in a flash and you thank your nearest god when that happens!

It hasn't been a very productive week.  I'm stumbling back into composition after this yearning eight year absence rather than launching myself straight back in to it.  I now have a much greater capacity for self editing and criticism.  I hope it doesn't stifle me but I think it won't and I think it will make me a better, more consistent composer.  One can only hope...!

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I want to conclude with a word about this blog itself.  It is, really, for me to set out my ideas a little more formally that if I were to commit some scribbled words in a journal.  But, in truth, it is little more than that.  Sometimes I may write amusingly and with my usual dose of self deprecation.  At other times the subject matter may be more esoteric.  But what it isn't is an academic exercise.  There will not be any 'composer notes' to the music I am working on at any one time.  As I said, it's written for me and for anyone who might like to get to know me or my music a little better.  I won't edit it or try to improve it, it really will just me me with stream of consciousness ramblings.

I really am taking baby steps back into serious composition.  And these steps may be tentative at first and I may well stumble a lot.  Or fall on my face if you prefer.  But I shall do it.  And I hope by the end of 2013, with a combination of my 'orphaned' pieces (see my first blog) and completely new works, I may well have a small body of work in which I can take genuine pride.

Monday, 11 March 2013

I really do find all this music writing stuff very difficult...

I have been composing music now for more than 50 years.  I have also been walking, talking, eating, playing the piano and dressing myself for about the same length of time; but in these activities (apart from playing the piano) I have complete mastery.  I can eat whole meals now without forkfuls of food ending up on the floor or sticking to my face.  I can tie my own shoe laces almost without thinking about it.  I can put one foot in front of the other without, generally speaking, falling over and embarrassing myself.  Yes, I am good at these things.  I am a Master.

But composing music is a different matter.  It's hard.  That's worth saying again - it really is very hard indeed.  It wasn't, once, a very long time ago.  When I was seven years old, music poured out of me; pastoral and romantic, energetic and wild, it was all the same to me.  The problem was, of course, that none of that music was any good.  It didn't matter then.  I remember my infants school teacher (a very fetching young woman called Miss Stevenson) asking me a question which baffled me.  "I don't know, Miss Stevenson.  I'm only six!"  So it was okay then to write bad music.  I was never going to be another Mozart and I'm not being engagingly or endearingly modest when I say that none of this music was any good.  It really, truly wasn't.

I was dyslexic, you see, in a time before dyslexia was invented.  I was a bright boy but my lack of reading skills puzzled my teachers (including the estimable Miss Stevenson) and led them to believe that I wasn't really trying hard enough.  Reading music was to be a worse nightmare, but that's jumping ahead a little.  I was a good actor and I was always chosen to play the lead in school plays.  I had a decent voice and I was often selected (much to my chagrin, I have to make public after all these years) to sing a solo in assembly.  And I seemed 'bright'.  But reading troubled me.  In those days we used to read aloud in class, each child taking a paragraph.  I sat 11th in the chain and I used to count off 10 paragraphs and sit trying to make sense of the series of letters which landed on my ever moistening eyes.  Sometimes it may have worked out okay but I don't remember any of those successes.  Sometimes, by luck, mine would be a short paragraph.  But on other occasions fate would play a part in my downfall.  Linda Jennet, 8th in the chain, had an especially weak bladder and she would sometimes ask to be excused with the consequence that I had to negotiate a different and unfamiliar set of words at only a few moments' notice.  This would cause me to panic and panic made me stammer.  'W's were fatal and I would stumble through my painful paragraph, spluttering every time a 'w' occurred, especially at the beginning of a word.  And 'J's.  And 'P's now i come to think of it.  And 'R's.  And especially 'F's!

At about the same time as this torture of a small boy was going on, my Aunt Edith acquired a piano and she encouraged me to play.  On our first date the instrument and I fell in love.  It's been a torrid relationship ever since and if we had married there would have been years spent in relationship counselling.  I was sent to a local piano teacher, Mrs Victor, who pronounced after one whole lesson that I didn't have a musical bone in my body and that my parents, far from well-off, needn't bother to send me any more.

But we were in love and we didn't let little things like total humiliation get in the way.  I started to perform my own little tunes (again, I should remind you, we are not talking Benjamin Britten or Mozart here) which the family and some friends generously applauded.  I was hooked on the idea that I was performing something for the first time - that every time I thought of a new tune, there would be a world premier soon after.  I felt like an inventor.  Something that hadn't existed a few minutes before, now did.  It was as simple as that.

Being so young and having very few musical friends, I suffered from a lack of self censure or constructive criticism. And when I say I 'wrote' lots of music, what I really mean is that I performed my own music frequently.  I didn't have a clue about how to notate what I was creating.

When I was 14 and having decided that composing music was to be my career, I was sent to another piano teacher, a Mr Beckett.  I played him a bit of a Beethoven sonata which I had learned by ear and he seemed satisfied.  I recall him remarking that I showed a real mastery of the pedal - though which one I wasn't sure.  So he sent me off with a Bach prelude, I'm sure expecting a fully assured performance a week later.  This did not happen.  I stared at the music for hours and tried so hard to figure it out but it was gibberish to me.  Mr Beckett, although making the at least consistent conclusion that I was bone idle, didn't give up on me and when he heard a piece I had written some weeks later, I turned to find his head in his hands... "Oh Michael, if only you'd work!"

But I digress.  All this talk about childhood has just been a distraction.  What I need to do now is to go away and write some music.  And I mean write this time because I now own the Sibelius notation software.  It makes notating music simple (once you've waded through the 1103 page handbook) and now all I have to do is to tell it what to write.  This part is called composing.  It's not as easy as it looks, you know.  In fact, it's really difficult.  Did I mention that...?