Since getting back to work on the Symphony (yes, let’s capitalise that thing!) I have been thinking about why I had stayed away from it for so long, and although I know that partly it was to let the material simmer and to come back at it from the perspective of distance, I have also come to a conclusion about my writing and why I found other things to dabble with for a month or so. I think it comes down to the very nature of what composition is for me and how I approach it.
A colleague of mine, still composing pretty successfully, once told me that he wrote the kind of music that he wanted to hear, while another two colleagues, both even more successful, have said to me on occasion that they just more or less follow their noses, go where the music takes them. If I have ever fallen into either of these camps then it has certainly been the latter – in fact, I remember those I don’t really know what I am doing days distinctly, that reliance on instinct and taste, that aesthetic high-wire act.
For me nowadays composition is working out a problem. Here are the materials, there is the subject, this is my palette and that is my aim. Now, how to I get from here to there while making sure that the whole thing makes sense? It turns every day of composition into one of solving challenges of timbre, rhythm, harmony, melody and metre, which, of course, makes it hard work.
I wonder if perhaps this is why I am drawn to board gaming so much, that what appeals to me about it, apart from the social aspect and the worlds that they create, is the challenge to solve a problem. Here is your farm and there are your choices and you also have to feed your family (Agricola). How do I give a one-word clue to my ally so that they choose only the words that I want them to choose and not the one that will lose the game for us (Codenames)? How can I best use my limited resources to target the virus that threatens to wipe out humanity (Infection: Humanity’s Last Gasp)?
In composition the problems have a similar layout. How can I dovetail this phrase with the next in a way that avoids those dead two beats but in a way that sounds inevitable? What harmony best links these two areas? Or, most often, What on earth should go into this massive gap in the middle of the movement? Maybe if I found compositon more fun then it would be less intimidating, but this is the way it is, and at least my pieces come out at the other end with almost all their decisions deliberated and weighed, even if there are often one or two that get swept quietly under the carpet.