One of the reasons this blog has been so quiet for a while is simple. It is, at its core and despite the many diversions, a blog about composing, and the past six weeks or so have been relatively quiet on the composing front. Both Flyht and against the pull of silence were signed, sealed and delivered (more or less) by the end of August, and, despite performances here and there, I have not been putting too many pieces together. I have been hammering away at various technical exercises, though, and I would hardly think that makes for inspiring reading, but, to be fair, it only rarely makes for inspiring music either. All that technical work does bear dividends, however, once the business of writing proper returns, and over the past couple of days I have begun work on my latest choral piece, a setting of a text by Christopher Smart, he of the cat Jeoffrey. The kinds of choices a composer makes at the beginning of a work will have serious implications for the kind of sound world it inhabits, and grinding out technical exercise after exercise at least adds to one’s knowledge of how various combinations of melodies, harmonies and rhythms do or do not work together. The piece itself is fairly short, but that does not matter. For now it is enough to be working on something towards performance for a change, rather than a snippet destined most likely either for the desk drawer or the literal or figurative recylcing bin.
I was fortunate enough to take part in a performance of the Monteverdi Vespers recently at St John’s, Smith Square. For a start the piece remains a staggering achievement by one of the greatest and most creative minds in the history of music on the cusp of enormous aesthetic change. It is also a momumental sonic experience, imagined on a vast and (for the time) unprecedented scale, still enough to put a surprised smile on people’s faces. In fact, our soprano soloist was all smiles throughout, and I think that this may have been her first Vespers. As I sat in the changing room before the concert I tried to remember my first appearance on the stage at Smith Square, for I came to London with the venue very much on my mind, oft mentioned on Radio 3 and, to me, the epitome of having arrived. These days I am at the venue a few times a year, and have conducted, played and had my music performed there, but it is important to stay in touch with the good fortune of being able to deliver wonderful music to an audience there. As it happened, scanning the audience before taking to the stage, I spotted one of my students there and remembered that, to those of the next generation, I appear as somebody who has arrived. even if, for me, the journey goes on.
Talking of students, I had a discussion the other day with one of them about Wagner’s Tristan. For the record, I agree with Debussy on this, that it is a beautiful sunset taken for a dawn. The harmonies are veiled by extreme chromaticism but, underneath it all, this is still functional harmony, the dominants pulling towards a tonic- it is just that this tonic never happens and that those dominants are obscured by various chromatic and sinuous leitmotivs. Debussy’s Prelude is, for me, much more modern, any semblance of a tonic immediately undermined, a theme deliberately designed to obscure key, pulse and rhythm and redefined every time it appears. Also, Wagner does not develop his argument – Parsifal, right at the end of his career, is not the natural conclusion of the harmonic path begun by Tristan, anything but, and it becomes clear that the music is defined by the opera, which is nothing less than one should expect from him. Debussy, however, steps resolutely forwards into the musical void, however, abandoning what Grove refers to as “charming, unpretentious salon pieces” and exploring the outer reaches of early twentieth century music in the piano works, the late sonatas and Jeux. Yes, for all of his association with the first Arabesque I think I’ll stick with my opinion, and not forget that Liszt was also tinkering with those same voids in his later piano works, although on a much more private and intimate scale. Thoughts?
I also have another piece on the go, a larger piano work, which is filling up spare moments of my time. I think that my catalogue has but one or two piano pieces in it, and that a miniature, so it is probably about time to flesh out that caategory a little. It is a private piece rather than a public commission, and something in which I can work out a few ideas in a manner which might be satisfying to me. Add to this various chunks of arranging for the Christmas season, a performance of Achias The Hero in Chichester Cathedral last week, and mutterings of interest about commissions from a couple of places, and I would have to say that things continue to go well. I am also putting things back into balance which have been a little out of kilter of late, time-wise, so fingers crossed I shall be more active here.