Thursday, 4 October 2012

Bohortha in Performance

4th October 2012

Well, I guess it’s the day after the night before – when after all the build-up, one inevitably falls back to earth. But I have to say it was such an enjoyable and uplifting experience that I’m still floating.

In the afternoon’s dress rehearsal, though, it was rather different: the music felt unsettled. And I began to doubt what I’d done – had I set the tempi too fast?, were the movements out of kilter?, why did the brass not come through as they should do at certain places? And then my nerves built up because of the pre-concert talk. Of course one wants to put across the piece, the ideas, the hopes for it. But an hour and half before the first performance is a time of most vulnerability – just when I prefer to stay quiet.

Then suddenly the talk was upon me – and I met my interlocuter, who I hadn’t seen for 12 years, and I calmed down – and it became a pleasure, a release of tension. And family and friends appeared as I sat after it having a sandwich in the café – and the event was no longer just a public one but a personal one too. And so into the hall, and the strong sense of how intimate the Barbican can feel, as well as grand: the orchestra all packs in, they feel close.

What happens to my state with a first performance? Well, generally I simply cannot listen to the music properly. I hear, but cannot listen - it blurs, it bends strangely. But something else happened last night, and it’s rare. And that was from the first down-beat of Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s baton, I knew it was going to be okay. It all resonated again, just as it had on the previous day’s rehearsal. The music was settled, balanced. The right feeling was coming out, the sounds shone.

And so I could do what I rarely can: I could properly focus on the piece. And as much as listening, I watched. A concert is about sound – of course. But a live event is perhaps almost as much about seeing people making the music: the effort, the energy, the touch, the…feeling.

Afterwards many came up to me with kind words, audience and performers. It’s a great moment, especially when the players are generous with their words. And my children were delighted – and then told me how I have to learn to bow better!

And me? I’m a hard critic: I will continue to think about the lengths of the musical sections, about the gap between intention and realization. But that is what drives me on to the next piece – to try to improve, to try to refine further.  And at the same time, I think I can say that something was realized here, something achieved. If Mahler’s Rückertlieder, which followed my piece in the concert, remains for me like a holy grail of refinement and emotion, I felt not totally dwarfed by it. I felt that writing this work for orchestra had released a newly rich palette of colours, emotional and sonic, in my music. I felt that I had made something that could excite and soothe, that had its own sound-world, its own integrity.

It’s a special thing to see so many people working together to put across one’s work. It was an exceptional evening.



Bohortha in Rehearsal

2nd October 2012

It’s been a long time coming. I’m just out of rehearsal with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, the day before the concert. I finished Bohortha back at the end of March, because teaching duties called, and also because I knew that the preparation of parts would take much longer than predicted – and I didn’t, for once, want to be rushing.

And suddenly, it is the sand speeding up as it runs out of the hour-glass, or as it appears to - and finally, after all this time of composing and preparation, I am at the point of meeting those who will bring it out into the light of day; and finally at the point of finding out if what I hear really matches up to what I imagined.

Discussions with musicians are always pragmatic in part: do the page turns work, is there a sharp missing in the horn part, does the pause need to be a bit longer to allow the flautist to change to the alto flute? But I actually greatly enjoy this side of it: the things that must be done as a professional to make the making of music work!

And there are further basic practical things to consider: can you hear the bassoon solo at this point, does the celeste colour the strings in the right way, does the percussion cut through precisely as it should, or ought the dynamic be changed to make it more effective?

There are always things to hone further: turns of phrase that don’t make the impact you hope they will; pacing that seems too pacey or too slack; a climax point that seems to underwhelm. And as I reflect now - and will continue to - there are places in Bohortha that could be altered.

But what came through today with force - unexpected force I have to say - was the sheer sound of the orchestra: the marvelous thing of 100 or so musicians playing together. My work resonated, it ‘spoke’, the big picture was clear – well at least for me.

And it felt a privilege to have conductor and orchestra putting their energy, intellectual, emotional and physical into my piece. I slaved for many months at the piano, at the desk – alone. Finally, there they were: those that complete the music, those that breathe life into it.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Post Scriptum

One more thing has given me cause to think while writing Bohortha for the BBC Symphony Orchestra - and that’s if writing my blog on it actually had its own effect on the piece, or rather on the composing of the piece. I had to come up with something reasonably articulate in the blog! And as I’ve tried to indicate, composition is as much about clarification and selection as free-flow expression. So by regularly putting into words what doesn’t always easily go into words, there was one more layer of focusing, which may well have had its input into my compositional choices - and even my powers of concentration.

I did, it’s true, write most of the blogs immediately following composition, not while I was actually doing it! That would have got just too much in the way. But something flowed on from the blogs. And I think dividing the process into considered small parts  - that blogging made me do - affected the composition too. Despite my moment of blockage, I think it probably speeded things up.

Does that mean I’d do it again? In so public a sphere, perhaps not – or not soon. But it will encourage me greatly to fill more notebooks with something beyond hurried notes to myself. It will push me on towards a more balanced approach between intuition and reason. Balance will always be the goal.

Monday, 30 January 2012


I read terribly slowly, and not so long ago, after months of reading, I finished Anna Karenina. As happens with every book I like – and this one I truly loved – I am driven on in the last chapters to know the end, and so things speed up. And yet, at the same time, I dwell on every page, then every sentence, not wanting the delectable moments to finish. It feels like saying goodbye to a dear friend and it makes me sad.

It’s not so very different when I come to the end of a piece, especially one I’ve taken a long time over, as in the case of Bohortha. And in the last two weeks as I have been polishing and re-polishing the last movement, I have both accelerated towards the last notes, and held off drawing the final double-bar line.

Things do often seem to come easier, quicker at the close – and still it takes me by surprise. Only three days before I completed my work, I thought I was still a long way off. I didn’t know if the textures were too full, or which way the final bars would indeed go. I wasn’t sure if I had done enough to capture the multi-time world I was trying to evoke in this last movement, which shares the same title as the piece as a whole. In my previous blog I was still deliberating over minutiae of patterns: would the end stay in a slow 5-beat time?; would it give way to ametrical music?; would it all sound too predictable, and so monotonous, if I wasn’t careful?

And then suddenly two days before I finished, all somehow fell into place. Yes, I would keep the 5-time – but I would overlay it with something of the 3- and 4- time to  have one more take on superimposition of metre. Yes, the opening of the whole work would be re-visited – but I would not end it there. No, that would be too ‘neat’. And so, yes, a final – longer – ametrical section would end the whole work. And the notes to fill these large ideas came easily – just flowed out – as they very occasionally do, when I am, as it were, really in the moment. And when that happens, concerns – as it were from a critical distance – as to the danger of boredom, evaporate. The piece has to be as it is.

It is a rare event, this. Perhaps it is akin to inspiration, the kind of thing composers know all too well is largely a thing of fantasy. We are usually not ‘vessels through which pieces are written’. Neither too was Stravinsky as his sketchbooks for the Rite show well, even though it amused him to propagate the myth. But there are these moments, epiphanies, where things do speak; and I feel in touch with something, dare I say, larger than myself.

And a certain, brief, serenity comes from this. Perhaps it may not seem a surprise that such calm centring in the act of composition comes with the composition of something calm – as the end of my piece tries to be. But it certainly need not be that way. Nor is there any correlation, I have to say, between calm and quality. Anxiety can also lead to good things. Still my work’s whole trajectory is from turbulence to release – as so much of my music continues to be – and so it is meaningful, and even moving, for me, that the final moments of the compositional process itself actually led to internal calm.

Art imitates life, it’s sometimes said – or do I mean the other way round?! At any rate, what is perhaps less remarked upon is the relationship between an artist’s work, the product, and the process that leads to it – how one is intimately bound up with the other; how a piece for the composer has as much to do with the way of making it as what is being made; and how much the act of composing may affect the final result.

I hope this blog, in some small way, has shed a little light on this – on the usually private and elusive world of the composition studio: on the slow-motion assemblage that is composing; on the doubts; on the decisions that may then change; on the big ideas, and then the detailed working out that can alter those ideas; on when it flows and when it doesn’t; on the way a composer - at least this composer! - works.

Thursday, 12 January 2012


I’ve reached the final part of my work – and once again I’m facing its recurring subject: time. 6 months ago I wasn’t sure if I would really call this last movement, and the whole piece, after a tiny cul-de-sac of a hamlet in rural Cornwall. But my visit there last May has remained deeply etched inside me: a perfect image of tranquillity and stillness, of time stretching out towards infinity. And this is where this last movement – and the whole piece - is headed.

At the same time, early on in writing the piece, I had the idea that the last movement would try something new for me in terms of the evocation of time, and that was to attempt to layer different kinds of time. A kind of experiment I suppose, but with a deep poetic impulse behind it. I felt - and as I’m now in the midst of writing the music, I feel even more - that infinite ‘slow’ time or ‘timeless’ time, would appear all the more so if I could superimpose upon it different kinds of ‘faster’ time. Certain questions have arisen in doing this. Does one kind of time subsume, or win over, the other? Am I really dealing with speed rather than time? Can I really have any control over how a listener perceives the passing of time?

But I am of course the first listener of my music – as all composers are. And as all composers do, I write as I hear. And it seems to me that there is at least a possibility of evoking simultaneous time layers; and that there is also a relationship, however difficult to define, between the way music moves and how (much) time appears to have passed.

There are precedents for what I’m trying to do – though perhaps not so very many. One in particular figures strongly for me – and that is Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. In his piece, the orchestral strings inhabit a world of sustained long notes, changing little and unpredictably – the infinite universe; against it a trumpet is layered with its question, and scampering woodwind respond. And I’ve certainly taken the idea of using orchestral texture and colour to differentiate the time layers. The strings at the start of my movement are also the timeless layer. But as I’ve worked into the piece, I’ve realised too that I want to try to evoke stillness not only as something static from the start, but also in terms of slowing down - to reach an even deeper calm.

To do this, I’ve thought again about both slow cycles as an evocation of the infinite, and music entirely without metre. Moving from the first to the second seems to me a possible way to get to a deeper sense of suspension and calm  - as metrical repetition gives way to pure duration. So the movement starts with a serenely repeating pattern in a slow 3 in the strings – which is then dissolved by the presence of a slower metre in pitched percussion, piano, harp and celeste, which in turn takes over and moves into a passage of completely unmetred material. This idea I have in mind to repeat two more times, with a slow 4-time and then a still slower 5-time, each one moving into ametrical music. Each section then stretches out more than the previous, each section part of a larger-scale cycle.

But will this be too schematic and predictable, and so just boring, and not a route to the ineffable, as I would like: it’s always the danger with slow moving repetition. But I’m hoping that my core idea of layering fast time – over the first two sections - will temper this. And I also hope  - though I haven’t written it yet – that the ‘4’- and ‘5’- patterns will surprise in the most delicate of ways through added resonance in the harmonies, and different orchestration mixtures.

And there is something else – and that is that I actually want to approach utter predictability too. How dangerous it feels to write this – even now in 2012 – in the polarised world of new music! For slow cyclic repetition – in the hands of early Reich and Arvo Pärt, or in another way Feldman, my favoured minimalists – was indeed a marvellous  ‘discovery’, I think, in the evocation of the timeless. And I want this to be part of this final movement: to nail my colours to the wall!

In fact I have had something of this in mind from the very start of the piece. For one of my early ideas was that the opening 3 bars of the first movement would serve as the basis of the last, and even that the very end of the piece would repeat these first 3 bars, as some kind of large-scale cycle: the work could, at least theoretically, go round and round again. The notion now though of ‘my end is my beginning’ feels just a little too easy. Time does not end! And so I think the 5-time will indeed give way to another unmetred stretch: settling in to the deepest Bohorthian stillness.

Well, we’ll see.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Of Pain and Angels

I've had the most terrible tooth problems of late. The extraction of a wisdom tooth has led to all kinds of complications you don't want to know about. But it has led me to dwell all the more on the relationship between creative expression and suffering, which movement 6 of my set, Terrifying Angel, explicitly focuses on - even if I had originally intended it to be of a more spiritual sort!

The pathos of, say, the Adagietto from Mahler's 5th Symphony, or Billy Holiday singing the blues touches in an extraordinary way. Some may see our desire to listen to such things as a need for catharsis: as we witness the outpourings of others, our own pain, at least temporarily, is eased. But for me, instead, hearing Mahler 5 or Tchaikowsky's Pathétique has more to do with empathy, with sharing something we hold in common.

Even before my tooth episode, I saw the sixth movement, as needing to be especially intense and soaring, so that the final movement will appear all the more timeless and tranquil - beyond human passions. And in this work of short movements, I have particularly seen no.6 as not taking its time to unfold. It has to burst in and shatter, and be gone. There is a danger in this of course. Things do need a certain length of time to speak. But this work has in part been about taking risks, of pushing things towards the edge -  and here of trusting that a fragment may actually be more powerful than a whole, the poignancy in part coming precisely because it is broken off.

So what kind of expressive world have I tried to create? It's not been an ode to tooth decay! Nor did I want there to be too much personalised expression. Not because I'm against such a Romantic idea - what more affecting music is there than, say, the intimacy of Schumann piano pieces? But still, I wanted here for the music to sound more like a collective cry of anguish. It has felt to me that in such a short time-frame this might make more a mark.

How to be collective? This seems to me to have to do with tapping into shared material: folk or religious music are two possible routes that many have taken. And just the other day, I heard a piece I sung as a child - Britten's A Ceremony if Carols - and was taken by the strength a simple strand of 'common' plainsong can bring in the opening and closing processionals. Stravinsky's example is so powerful in this too:  gaining distance and universality by using Russian chant or folksong.

And so my idea here has been to draw on my own heritage: the sound of Jewish chant. 
By engaging with that melos, it has immediately felt that I am inhabiting the music of others, not simply making my own. The tension I've felt, though, is that one can be overly-subsumed by it, the music losing individuality. Never a danger of that for Stravinsky. Whatever he borrowed, he imprinted himself upon it. But have I done this? Have I transcended the shared elements. For others of course to decide. But  - as my teeth continue to throb - right now, as I'm just completing this movement, it's felt an oddly moving place for me to go: to embrace so openly my heritage.

Oh - and who is the terrifying angel? Old testament maybe? But the image in fact comes from Rilke: his wrestling in his  Duino Elegies with all-perfect angels - trying to come to terms with human frailty along the path to enlightenment - is one of the most profound things I know.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Staying Light

Fast and light is very difficult to maintain. As a performer, the bow is easily too heavy for a moment, the breath loses its constancy, the urge to shape creates over-emphasis. It’s just the same for the composer. A phrase sags, buoyancy is lost, and most of all the music can so quickly get overrun with too many notes. How right Schoenberg was, in his composition manual, to warn against letting the ‘smallest notes’ take over!

As I battled my block of the last few weeks, perhaps as much as anything it was this that was stopping me in my 5th movement, On Gossamer Wings. Not that I had too few notes - but too many. And I’ve found the danger of ‘over-writing’ especially hard to resist in composing for large orchestra. Perhaps it was a particularly difficult challenge to set myself. For the image I had in mind was of something up in the air, as if flying – as weightless as possible, untrammeled, continuously on the move. And to make 80 or so musicians try to do that felt at times almost contradictory.

There are of course many examples of perpetuum mobile type movement in the repertoire, and the symphonic scherzo is in the background to my piece. But most of these are earth-bound dances rather than heaven-directed flights. Orchestral lightness instead normally seems to come with spaciousness and stillness. But there are exceptions of course – Mendelssohn for example, Berlioz at times, and when I’ve thought particularly of the second movement of Debussy’s La Mer, I’ve been suitably inspired and humbled. How extraordinary the way the music rises and falls, somersaults and floats: water is as good an extra-musical trigger as air.

So what have I learnt from Debussy? And how did I break the block?! For a start  - and it’s a big and basic one – orchestration, even of loud music, can be made delicate in all kinds of ways. One instrument or group can trigger or overlap with another, an illusion of lightness can come from the speed of change of the sonic palette rather than simply from the turnover of notes. Then there’s a very careful ear given to register: high notes immediately lighten the sound, but subtly placed low ones, or cushions of sound can give spring and lift. The interplay of particular rhythms, their lilt and flux, adds to lightness; and the careful avoidance of downbeats or over-emphasis of metre is terribly important. I’ve thought too of what Ligeti said about his Piano Concerto: he wanted to achieve ‘lift-off’ there through his use of poly-metric layers.

And then there’s the image of waves. Debussy’s full of it of course. But so is music in general – from Bach to Berio. And what freed me up in the end was finding a way to pull back rhythmically and in terms of harmonic movement at a certain point in the piece, only then to be able to allow the music to ‘break out’, or fly higher, later on. But I had to be careful to reduce things down without losing momentum, and I did this by decreasing the number of notes, but increasing the layering of different pulses. This way, I hope, the music stays buoyed up, expectant, energy-full.

Well, the metaphor has moved from air to sea! But talking about music is often most expressive when using metaphors. And so here’s another of sorts. Last weekend I went to the Degas exhibition at the Royal Academy and was especially struck by one late painting called Two Dancers Resting. There they are, the dancers, appearing to do nothing – and yet the colour of the pastels, the mixture of definition and blur, is doing everything. The painting is marvelously poised - between vivid textural richness and the restraint of the subject. It’s as light as a feather. Here’s hoping my piece is that too.