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It’s amazing what a sharpened 4th can do. I was searching online for any recent performances of my pieces when I stumbled across a comment on a Classic FM page on Facebook, requesting “some melodious music after listening to Nicholas O’Neill’s Missa Sancti Nicolai on the Beeb. This was an even more far-out work than Gyorgy Ligeti’s Requiem from the film 2001”. This comment really tickled me, partially because I really don’t think my piece is all that far out, but mainly because I never really imagined that my work would ever be compared to that of Ligeti.

For many years and for many composers, Ligeti was simply the greatest composer alive, an extraordinarily vivid imagination allied to an impish sense of humour. I wrote an obituary about him for Vox, the magazine of the Academy of Saint Cecilia, and also composed To The Darkside, for harpsichord, as a tribute. This was a work which simultaneously imagined a trip into Ligeti’s music and a journey to the far side of the moon, using Hungarian scales as its main building blocks.

Ligeti makes a point

Undoubtedly, Ligeti’s work can be difficult to listen to, but it can be completely unlike any other music, and, more importantly, it pushes boundaries, something very few composers’ music does. His aural imagination is so extraordinary that, at times, it takes my breath away – in the Etudes or the Violin Concerto. He was also a highly principled man, by all accounts, so he gets a resounding thumbs up in my book. To be compared to him is an honour, and it gives me a warm feeling inside to know that the Missa Sancti Nicolai made an impact, even if I think it is actually rather a conservative piece.

The Mass is now up on the website of the St. Nicholas Center in America, and may be downloaded from there in a slightly reset edition. The video clips of the broadcast are also now up on YouTube, so you can judge for yourself just how far-out the work is. I will admit that the Gloria is probably a little frisky for a Christmas Eve audience on the BBC, but it is meant to be a celebratory occasion, after all, and the first time those words have been heard for a month.

I finally lived up to my word yesterday and worked for a solid two hours on We Three Kings, and now have several chunks of music waiting to be sewn together into a coherent whole. The middle verse (the frankincense) is the one I have yet to set, and I am tinkering with problems of balance in the chorus, trying to make sure that it is never the same, but also that the internal distribution is correct. One might think that this really will not matter to an audience looking forward to mulled wine and mince pies, but it matters to me, and I know that I will not be happy until I can find an elegant solution. I once spent an hour and a half balancing a single chord in a work, which may seem excessive, but it is now my favourite chord in that piece.

I have to do some organ practice today, for I have a hefty list of pieces to play for a wedding tomorrow, but, now that the ball is rolling again, I am hopeful of getting yet further with the Kings. I might not be able to devote two hours to them, but it would be handy to get the majority of the work sketched out today. I think that the piece will exist only in piano score for a while, for it seems a little unwise to go orchestrating when I will not know what orchestra I have for another eleven months or so. I sense that I will be buying myself a second diary for 2012, one devoted only to composition.

The irony of that comment on the Classic FM Facebook page, of course, is that Sweet Was The Song was broadcast by them earlier in the day, which is melodious, I think. In fact, only a couple of entries earlier somebody had written “Back from midnight mass, off to bed. Really enjoyed the westminster concert”. I worry all the time that my work is not modern enough or too modern or is too melodious or not melodious enough, but it seems that it is hitting many people’s sensibilities in the right places. Although I adapt my technique to fit the performers and audience available, I believe that my voice always remains the same. I must remember – like Ligeti – never to change the latter, else I am no longer writing my music.

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