Despite this being my fortieth year as a composer (don’t worry, I started young!) I still feel that every new piece, every new commission starts from ground zero. I sat in a cafe yesterday afternoon in Glastonbury and stared at the text for my next commission, a setting of three poems by Emily Dickinson, and wondered, as always, how on earth I was going to go about writing it.
Ten minutes of slow and considered reading later, with some sotto voce recitation so as not to frighten my neighbours, and some basic ideas were down on paper – tonalities, scale formations, areas of darkness and light – and the most basic of thematic outlines for phrases that suggested the more immediately obvious patterns of rises and falls. One may often wonder where on earth to start, but starting anywhere at all always seems to be a solid opening tactic.
I would love to be able to write about how composition becomes easier as the years go by, about how it all happens in a manner akin to automatic writing, but to utter such comforting platitudes would be plain wrong. If anything it gets more difficult as those critical internal voices outrun our technique – as I love to relate, when Elgar was asked what it was like to be a composer he replied “It’s damned hard work, my boy!”
Amen to that, but Amen also to rewards being more or less linked to the amount of effort put in. As I sat down at the start of the year to think about what notes lie inside me waiting to be committed to paper, that fleeting idea of a symphony whipped around once more, also the realisation that it would take many months, possibly years to write.
And yet even the longest of journeys begins with the single step, something I know well from trekking up the peaks of the Lake District of a summer. The difference is that the compositional land around me lies shrouded in fog and mists, so that I do not really know where I am going, but at least I have set out.