Friday, June 24, 2011

Essays before a composition (4)

The complete consort dancing together by petemaskreplica

The last time I wrote a piece for a symphony orchestra was in 2005: a small piece with a long title to celebrate Kensington Symphony Orchestra's 50th season. The last time I wrote for orchestra before that was in 2001, a work which got a play through in rehearsal but has never been publicly performed. When you're 20 years old and filled with energy and idealism you think nothing of churning out enormous pieces of music without a thought for who's going to play them, but as I get older it seems a waste of time and energy to slave over an orchestral score with no prospect of it being heard. It's so easy now and so satisfying to produce something large scale in my own living room, and immediately get it uploaded and out there; why sweat over something as arcane as an orchestra when I'll probably never hear the result?

As a result of this ideas stew in my brain for years. I've had the idea for the piece I'm about to begin work on for a long time. In fact, when I wrote The complete consort I had it in mind that it might be in part a preparatory sketch for the bigger work I wanted to write but couldn't at that time justify spending time on.

Over time ideas get half buried, maybe rethought for more realistic projects. Meanwhile new influences continually change my ideas of how to make music, and what sort of music to make. These new ideas and strategies sink into those half-buried seeds and mutate them. You'd think having had the germ of a piece fermenting in my mind for the best part of a decade would make it easy to produce when the chance finally comes. In fact it's hard: I and my music have changed in so many ways I couldn't have foreseen that the idea itself has begun to change, and many of the aspects that I thought were most fixed turn out now not to fit in with how I currently do things. It's not impossible that I'll raid the older music for elements I can use in the new piece, but it seems unlikely that it'll be as straightforward a relationship as I once thought it would be. Music's always on the move; any particular piece that's set down in a definable form is only a snapshot of a moment that's already gone.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Stretching it

I've got a new toy.

In a Cavern by petemaskreplica

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Essays before a composition (3)

They chase, they chase their quarry, or the idea of it. Look at them, wildly swinging their nets, each lunge met with empty air. And still they hunt. And meanwhile I sit here, chasing an imagined sound, pen skittering across the page trying to capture my quarry, my conception, even as it recedes ever before me and behind me, each moment gone before it happens...

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Essays before a composition (2)

One of the problems for a composer trying to write a programme note is that the experience of listening to a piece of music is almost the precise opposite of the experience of writing it. When you compose, you begin with an idea, a concept of what impression you want the piece to give. The process of producing the music is then a process of unpacking this idea, expanding it and rolling it out into a time span. The listener does this process more or less backwards: over the time span, he or she absorbs the notes, the textures and so on and (if the composer’s done the job well) at the end will have a concept of the work in the mind (which may bear a greater or lesser similarity to the concept the composer had in the fist place). Moreover, what concerns and interests a composer in the act of writing isn’t necessarily what concerns the listener. The composer is concerned with processes: how do I put things together so a to realise this idea of sound? Of course, once he’s worked this out he feels very excited and pleased, and wants to tell people how he did it. But that’s exactly what a listener doesn’t need or want to know. Roberto Gerhard wrote, “Understanding comes first; knowledge second.” There’s a fundamental mistake that’s made all the time in the classical music world: people who like classical music know a lot about it, gos the reasoning, so if you tell people a lot about it they’ll like it. In fact what happens is that if you bombard people with technical detail they start to think that unless they know about it they can’t possibly like or even begin to listen to it. If people like a piece they may well find out more about it, and they may get into the nitty gritty of theory and technique, but that’s for later. Programme notes in which the composer drones on about the clever technical devices he used to write the piece are therefore the biggest turn off imaginable, and such notes often lose the audience’s sympathy before they’ve heard a note.