I have begun a new piece today, a solo viola work to enter into a competition in May, which I hope might also double up as a study for a possible viola concerto somewhere along the line. Despite all the jokes, the viola has always been my favourite instrument of the strings, mellow and yet agile and, in the right hands, capable of a real beauty of tone. Its players and music also tend to avoid the “look-at-me” histrionics of the violin repertoire, something brought forcefully home to me when listening to recent Composer Of The Week podcast about Paganini. I already have two cats in the house, so tend to give violin concerti a wide berth.
Of decent viola concerti, however, there are precious few. There is the lovely and lyrical effort by William Walton…and that is more or less it. You can keep Harold In Italy, thank you very much. Thus this competition’s requirements, for a ten minute solo viola piece in two contrasting movements, will act as a study for the instrument, an opportunity to hone my recent learning about melody and rhythm, and also a possibility to throw out some ideas about a larger piece.
After all my reading of late, I have gone back to basics, and done what I should have been doing all along, namely generating a large amount of basic material. This is easily done, but also easily forgotten when starting from scratch, but it makes the whole process of writing so much easier and more cohesive, something brought home to me very forcefully today.
I began by writing a simple three-bar rhythmic motif and then attaching a melody to it, sticking to a certain mode and either conjunct notes or narrow melodic leaps. From this I generated retrograde (backwards), inverted and retrograde inverted versions, shifting barlines a little for interest and balance, and, hey presto, I had my basic material.
Perhaps the most significant choice at this point in the process, so close to the start, was not to quote the original melody and then go from there, but instead to recompose and extend it, using fragments from the various different versions I had written down, beginning, if necessary, on different parts of the scale. This enabled me to write an interesting and yet fully cohesive theme with a genuine shape to it, and an ebb and flow of dynamic, register and rhythm.
Playing with those same rhythms, the cells with which I had begun, and combining them has also given me more interesting possibilities for later in the piece, but, for now, I need to state my original material and think about developing it later.
With a moderately satisfactory opening in place, I decided to go to the middle of the first movement and write a little of the climax, reasoning that it is easier to get somewhere if you know where you are going. Here I used louder dynamics and brought the viola into its upper register for a sense of tension towards the middle of the first movement, taking the more energetic fragments of the opening material and using them rather freely for now. It is better to get something down than nothing at all, of course.
It was interesting to note, after a while, that I had fallen into the trap of writing a long (and rather boring) sequence of quavers at one point, which not only took all of the rhythmic interest out of the piece, but also undermined the whole identity of the work. Recasting this section using the three cells from the very beginning of the compositional process has provided a much more satisfactory sequence and one which, crucially, sounds appropriate and right.
In terms of musical language I have, thus far, been fairly conservative, sticking to a single mode and avoiding double-stopping, harmonics and any other such techniques. In this case, especially as I am trying to transfer a large amount of new information and ideas to paper, I think it is crucial that I begin simply and develop later rather than the other way round. In all, it has been a satisfying day’s work.