It sounds very self-absorbed, but every note I write gives me a better indication of where I write best. You would think that after nearly forty years of putting notes on paper I would have a great idea of where my strengths lie, but sometimes the wood is hidden by the trees. Organ works, which should be my forte, and tightly argued writing such as string quartets seem to cause me no end of problems; piano works and tightly argued writing for vocal quartets and choirs (with organ accompaniment, ironically) come much more easily. Odd.
Where I really feel free, though, is on a large orchestral canvas, even if there are some caveats in this area as well. That elusive symphony sits inside me awaiting a commission, but until that arrives all my beginnings for The Large Orchestral Work are abortive, all my sketches quickly forgotten. Give me a topic and a deadline, however, and everything begins to fall into place, and I simply adore writing for orchestral forces.
I must credit Grayston Ives, my tutor at Oxford and universally known as Bill, for this. I doubt he is reading this, but I learned so many, many things from his excellent teaching, often given in words but sometimes also in mime as he tried to work out what would fit a particular instrument or not. Several tricks of his I use to this day, and rather than thinking of an orchestra in terms of melody, harmony and bass (which is a start I recommend) I always think of it the way a painter might view their paints.
If I want a bit of definition on this particular line I’ll maybe a harp to the oboe melody, the equivalent, I always think, of a black pencil line on the outside of a particular brush stroke. Interlocking instruments in chords and overlapping textures is also a particular fondness of mine, and it works every time (thanks, Bill). The extra space for splashing around is literally inspiring.
Why do I write this? While still awaiting the confirmation of a short orchestral commission I have, in anticipation, gone ahead and started writing it, and I am enjoying every second. Sometimes – no, make that often – composition can be very hard work indeed, but this piece feels much easier, and that is always a good sign. It sounds exciting too.