Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Essays before a composition (1)

When I was young I discovered the record section of Birmingham Central Library (something that sadly would be all but impossible now in more than one way, and will become utterly impossible if this government gets its way). I discovered many things within those thing cardboard sleeves, sounds that I’d never heard or imagined could be made. I devoured Nielsen’s symphonies, Stockhausen’s Telemusik and Miles Davies’ Bitches Brew with equal enthusiasm, if not immediate understanding. I pored over the sleeve notes for the Stockhausen. They were all but impenetrable, and if I’d been relying on them to guide me into the music I doubt I’d have made it far. Fortunately I just liked the sounds and didn’t worry about what I was supposed to think about them. It was gratifying years later to hear Stockhausen himself introduce his music. His advice on how to listen to his music mentioned nothing of tone rows or retrograde inversions, but boiled down to: you will hear some sounds. Listen to them and hear what happens to them. It turned out Karlheinz was a lot easier to get my head round than Miles.

Essays before a composition (preamble)

I'm about to start work on a reasonably big piece. I tend to steer clear of big pieces these days; it's all very well churning out page after page of music for an enormous body of musicians like an orchestra regardless when you're 20, but now it doesn't seem worth the effort unless there's a realistic chance of a performance. I'd rather work on the small scale, move fast, move on, have stuff ready that someone might actually pick up. Small forces make it easier to make a stab at originality, too; I think larger groups by their nature are more of the establishment and tend to drive out different ways of thinking.

But once the prospect of an actual performance raises its head all my worthy self-justification goes out of the window and I get childishly excited at the thought of having all those instruments to play with.

I'll have to write a programme note, of course. I was thinking about this at the weekend when I went to see the London Sinfonietta's "Pavilions" concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, a curious mixture of music, not really a programme, more just a bunch of pieces that got played on the same night. I liked about half of it, which I think is a decent strike rate (dear professional composer in their 40s with a teaching post and a decent stretch as a composer: by now you really ought to be able to work out how long your piece is. A couple of minutes out is understandable, but nearly double the advertised length just pisses people off, especially when it doesn't justify the length).

Anyway, I got to talking to my friends in the interval, and I mentioned that I thought on the whole that composers shouldn't be allowed to write notes for their own music, something demonstrated by at least two of the composers represented at the concert. They tend to forget that what's interesting for a composer in what he's written isn't necessarily the same as what a listener wants to know. It was pointed out to me that I'll be breaking my own rule next year and writing my own note for my piece. I said I might write a programme note about why composers shouldn't write programme notes. "I'll remind you about that next year!" said E.

So over the coming months I'm going to scribble random thoughts and stick them up here. Don't expect any continuity or even sense between the posts. It'll essentially be a series of random thoughts that I put down to try and help me get my head around the ideas I'm tackling with this piece, how I might try and explain them in a programme note, whether I should. I'm hoping tat something might emerge magically out of this. It might just turn out to be a disjointed sequence of uninteresting waffle though. So sorry if that's what happens.