Saturday, May 28, 2011


Today I turn 33, which seems weird.
I do feel that the music I'm writing now (well not right now) is good, worth writing, worth playing and worth hearing. I can now look back at my frighteningly (to me at least) prolific years of study as an apprenticeship. There's not all that much that I am bothered to preserve if I am honest, and I've finally (hallelujah!) learnt that there is much to be said for moving on with new projects rather than revisiting old ones.
Moving away from what you might call complexity towards the (just as complex in other ways) pragmatic notation I've been working on for the last three years, has also had the added advantage that I can play my own music again (theoretically). I'll be doing this at Whitespace in Edinburgh from 5th-19th August this year as part of my exhibition Memories of You, and this has to be good. I'm involved in a very basic way with the things that make up a life in music.
So I want to carry on writing as much as possible, working with musicians, performing my own music as much as possible, and staying positive. If the music I am writing isn't right, I want to find the music that is right.

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Alfie Hay's Tom

I've been working for the last week or so orchestrating some songs from a musical written by Alfie Hay.
It's called Tom, and is based on Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies.
This is a musical that Alfie wrote in the 70s (before I was born), and it was the first of many that he wrote for the children in the schools in which he has taught since that time.

When I was at primary school, Alfie was my headmaster, and it was under his tutelage that I learned a great deal. He conducted the school orchestra in which I played clarinet, and we learnt how to transpose together, often transpose on sight - a skill that has stood me in very good stead since that time! Alfie taught me how to perform, and the importance of performing for others rather than for myself. He made performing fun, social and part of every day life. I performed in a different musical that he had written every year of my study, and finally took the lead in Francis (based on the life of St Francis of Assisi) in my final year in 1989. I played my first publicly performed composition (called originally Shapechanger, but in the context was renamed Into Danger) during School Party, which we performed in 1988. Experiences of collaboration with Alfie, writing scripts even though we were school children, gave a real sense of ownership, and he always treated us as equals. This sometimes meant that he expected a lot from us, but he always gave so much energy to every project in which he was involved. Since I left the school, I continued to be involved with Alfie and with his family. My sister and I, and his two daughters put on various performances, musical and dramatic, and I continued to be encouraged (egged on) and challenged by him through secondary school, and into my A-Levels and beyond.

Last year, Alfie contacted me and asked me if I'd be willing to help him out with his latest revision of his cantata/musical Jewel of the River. I took this on willingly, and Alfie came up to Edinburgh to work on some of the songs with me. I arranged them for voice and piano, and roped in a student to sing the vocals for a recording to be distributed to schools in the area around Henley-on-Thames. These schools then rehearsed the material to perform it with soloists and choreography at The Hexagon, Reading. Meanwhile, I orchestrated my arrangements for a small chamber line-up (two flutes, oboe, saxophone, two horns, two trumpets, tuba, piano, percussion, strings - in the end the saxophone line was taken by a clarinet, and the tuba part by a bassoon) and ended up conducting the orchestra on the night while Alfie directed the massed choirs. It was a lot of fun, and well worth the stress and trials that went into the production. See the local paper's review here.

Later last year, Alfie rang me up and asked me if I'd be willing to do the same again with a new musical, this time a revision of his first composition. I recorded the songs with a former student at the beginning of this year, and am currently working on the orchestrations. The orchestrations are slightly different this year. Rather than a semi-pro chamber orchestra, I'm writing this time for secondary school children from Langtree School (flute, clarinets, saxophones, and a bass instrument). The challenges are different obviously and have stretched me in different ways. I was thinking, initially, that something along the lines of Britten's Noyes Fludde might be called for, but I have since moved away from the ideas of massed percussionists playing kitchen sinks towards a simpler wind-based ensemble inspired by the groups I played in at school (and, following the closure of my local Saturday morning music school, at Langtree School on Wednesday afternoons).

Alfie is self-taught as a composer, but writes songs that are so catchy that I find myself singing them without even realising. Both of my vocalists have since complained that they can't stop singing them, and I have been told that I can't leave scores lying around the flat because they lodge in the brain so firmly and persistently. It's been a privilege to work with the material, to analyse Alfie's harmony and bring it out in both piano arrangement and in orchestration. Working with someone else's material, whether this orchestration work or the type-setting that I have done in the past (and will do again) for Fabrice Fitch, is always really nice, and I discover new things about material and the basic craft in which I am engaged every time.

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Friday, May 27, 2011

Begin again

I've been reading Kenneth Silverman's biography of John Cage, Begin Again over the last few weeks.
Having never really engaged with Cage as a human being before, it's been really interesting and I'm left with a couple of instant reactions:
1. I wanted to listen to more and more of his music as I read about the conditions of its composition
2. I was surprised at the extent to which he seemed to value loyalty above professional integrity and found it difficult to separate friendships from professional associations. This, to me, seems to run at variance to the philosophies and aesthetics of life that texts such as his Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) seems to espouse.

This second observation set me to thinking if I would be able to carry on being close friends with someone who criticised my music (and deeper than that, my whole aesthetic) in print. Would I be able to separate personal from professional? I just don't know. I find it personal enough when I read feedback from students on my classes, and my music is so much more personal to me.

Cage comes across, in this biography, as being quite lonely towards the end of his life, and I have to say that I was moved by the account of his death. I certainly don't think I could live like him, and I'm not sure I would have been friends with him if I had met him, but I would like to work on being as positive as him in terms of his work ethic. He may have despaired of the world at times, and of his own personal life, but he retained a belief that his work could actually help things along.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Things to come

Finally finished all of the marking that needed doing...
Finishing off some orchestration (for secondary school orchestra - more details to follow)
Once that's done, it's on with the fun.
As well as everything that I've mentioned above, the summer will see a week or so devoted to getting a good recording by Nicholas Ashton of EMG (stands for 'Even More Geese'), and a session experimenting with the department's 5-octave marimba (and possibly playing with other percussion instruments - timpani and detuned vibraphones (based on some exciting ideas tweeted by Jacob Sudol (@jdsudol on Twitter)).

While I was taking my MA at Huddersfield, I wrote a piece called More Geese for the Firebird ensemble conducted by Barrie Webb with Alison Wells singing mezzo-soprano. The piece was based on Orlando Gibbon's madrigal The Silver Swan but extrapolated from the original material and really problematised the rhythmic structure. Even though I loved the piece, and the players and Alison did a great job, the notation made the whole piece a lot harder than it should have been. Although, at the time, what I was aiming for was a sense of rhythmic floating, almost like a tightrope walk, my obsession with ideas of control were getting in the way of what I actually wanted to hear (at least that's my perspective now). I had written the piece in reaction to an editorial by Steve Martland for spnm's in-house magazine new notes (spnm has now merged with other UK concerns to become Sound and Music) in which he said that 'notation is merely a means to an end'. I still feel that as a sound-bite, that really misses the point about notation and its relationship to its realisation, and that notation has its own implied (unwritten) tradition, simply based on a reception and interpretative tradition so by writing in a certain way (as I was then), I was aligning myself with composers like Brian Ferneyhough and Michael Finnissy rather than with composers like Steve Reich or Peter Maxwell Davies (to pick two names out of the air). In many ways though, my piece missed the point. So much attention rested on the notation and its realisation (and the relationship of the parts to the conductor's pulse) that the 'history' of the notation became more important than the way it sounded (so far so good) but only to the performers. The sound was rather beautiful and floating, but it didn't rely on the notation to make it like this. So I want to revisit the notation and make it less rhythmically problematic, and dispose of the conductor and the score. I'm convinced that the piece will be stronger for it.

Even More Geese is a piece for solo piano that I haven't finished. It exists in potential but not in reality. the idea is that I will take the uncoordinated parts of More Geese and transcribe them for solo piano. The notational aspect of this is going to take a lot of thinking about, but I think it could be a good piece... We shall see if I ever get around to writing it of course!

EMG takes a series of vertical slices from the potential score of Even More Geese and sustains them as chords for a specified length of time based on a durational series. This durational series, and the (related) series that determined from where (or rather when) these slices were to be taken were derived from the name of the dedicatee (Nicholas Ashton) . I'm still in the process of inputting this into Sibelius and making the notation all 'nice' from my hand-scrawled (my carefully hand-written scores of the past are now, alas, in the past) A3 manuscript (it's a bit more than making it neat though - I want to clean up the score and remove some of the stave lines to give more of a sense of the sound of the piece from the notation), but at present it looks a little like this (click for a bigger copy): Photobucket 
I say 'a little like this' because there are some revisions still to be implemented but hopefully you get the idea. Chains of (metreless) durations are what concern me at the moment, and I would say that they dominate much of what I am writing at the moment.

The experiments in percussion are for a couple of reasons really. The first is to pick the brains of the percussionist from my ensemble, Edinburgh Experimental Musicians, Ian Munro, before he leaves for his MA place in London next year, but the second is for a specific piece. I originally wrote the instrumental parts of JAMESTENNEY for [rout] and scored it for soprano saxophone, electric violin, electric guitar, bass guitar, piano, hammond organ, and sine waves. Never quite got around to finishing the instrumental parts, but the notation was beginning to move away from the complex rhythmic notation that dominated my PhD writing, and towards the more simplified (indeed inspired, in part, by the composers of the so-called Cologne School) notation that I'm trying to get to right now. I would say that the reason I didn't finish it was because the notation (and the compositional approach) was still in embryonic form. I didn't know what I was doing. The sine wave part was finished (and can be heard by visiting my myspace page) and I'm hoping to finish a solo piano version in time to play it at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer, but I'm revisiting the original instrumental parts. My plan is to replace the piano part with an amplified marimba. Why do I want to do this? In part, it's a practical thing: in order to perform a part with a piano, you have to have a venue with a piano, and a marimba (even a 5-octave marimba) is just easier to transport; but I also want to explore what you can do with an amplified marimba. I've always written the marimba off so I want to see if I can make something of it... Only time will tell I guess. Quite enjoy this sense of moving away from the traditional 'nailed down' concept of what does and doesn't constitute a 'work' and I think that the instrumental parts may well be a compendium from which performers can select an ensemble (rather like Cage's Concert - a work that is informing ideas about Kinderszenen as well).

In many ways this is all very 'me me me' (and some would say that's how I've always been). Will perhaps say some things about composers that I think are worth listening to over the next few weeks. Then again, I may just witter on about me and the pieces I'm just about to write any day now as soon as other things cease being quite so important...

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