Bach and insomnia

Thomas Mann once wrote that the life of an artist is a curse rather than a gift, and that only a fool would think they can take a leaf from the tree of art without paying for it with their life. One of the odder sidelines of being a composer is that from time to time one’s sleep is interrupted or delayed by the strangest of obsessions. On the night before one of my A-level music exams I lay awake until heaven knows when in the morning in my house (now, ironically, the base for a board game retailer) while my brain improvised string quartets in my head, in the style of Mozart, too. On Sunday morning, while I tried in vain to nod off, my cerebellum instead spent a good four hours attempting to decipher the inner workings of Komm, Jesu komm by Bach, especially the progressions of the final chorale. This was probably occasioned by the practising of a Bach cantata movement earlier in the day, but seemed the oddest of payoffs. I drove to London on Sunday morning having had precious little sleep, but strangely invigorated – what else? – by the music of the master.

I have also been invigorated by Schumann’s Piano Concerto this week, a work whose thematic detail continues to beguile and fascinate me, as so often with this composer, a characteristic which constantly asks the question about whether what he did was craft or pure instinct. The answer is probably a combination of both, the latter acquired through the force of the former, but the unity of those themes is very impressive. I also learned that the downward opening notes of the main theme – C, B, A, A –, which in German spell CHAA, are most likely a cipher for Chiara, a substitution for Clara, of course. Robert Schumann’s music is so often full of these codes, the literary intertwined with the musical in his life from the start, but this is one that I had missed. So, another love letter for Clara, one to place alongside the Fantaisie.

This particular composer has been dealing with much more earthbound music this week, scribbling away on rhythmic and melodic derivations of the theme for a new organ work I am writing mainly for myself. The techniques of the twenty first century composer are in some ways very different from those of Schumann and Bach, but the aim for the decent writer remains the same, I think, namely to strike that perfect balance between novelty and repetition, and to provide material that, while new to the ear, is actually derived from earlier ideas. Some of my time this week was spent extracting exactly those kinds of derivations, and for the modern writer aware of the technique, it is a little like filling the painter’s palette with shades of the same colour. For both musician and painter all those shades are available, but the skill, the touch that differentiates one creator’s work from the other, lies in which of those shades are used, and when and how.

On Friday afternoon I chatted to a lady from the Oxford Mail about This Light Of Reason, which will be performed in Exeter College, Oxford, on 4th February. Knowing that an interview will be recorded is still a terrifying prospect, so I tend to go more slowly and use that extra time to think ahead. Anyway, I hope I managed to communicate the essence of the piece, why it is the way it is and what it is trying to represent, and I am very glad it is being aired so early in 2017.

There is another piece on the distant horizon, one for which I am collecting ideas, but for now it remains just the faintest of suggestions rather than anything concrete, so the passing days will see how much shape it takes. Meanwhile, into the new week.