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introduction    through the sharp hawthorn    in principio    four archetypes    sextet    only connect    shilbottle cobbles    miscellaneous pieces    scena    concertino    three pieces for two pianos    conclusions    bibliography



12.1 Overall

One of the main impressions I have gained through the compilation of this commentary is that of a gradual and general progression. Kurt Vonnegut, in an essay in the collection Palm Sunday, gives grades to each of his major books, from D to A and tries to give his overall impression on the quality of his writing. In my case, the Sextet with its complicated rhythms, harmonies, the poor sense of rhythm and melody is definitely a D. In general, the pieces get better to In Principio, dip with Shilbottle Cobbles, and then rise again with Three Pieces for Two Pianos. My view of Four Archetypes is still unformed at this time, as it is awaiting its first performance, and it was only completed six weeks ago. However, my impression of the Fanfares, after the first, otherwise highly unsatisfactory performance, was that it was strong and clean, the gestures worked well and the invention was quite fluent. I have quite high hopes for this piece.

In general, I feel that my sense of and control over structures and the momentum which drives them has increased greatly. With the exception of Arias from Three Pieces, I think I have managed in the later pieces to gain control over the elements of my style that can tend towards the vague and vapid. Finally, I feel I have, with effort (and probably some experience of teaching) developed the ability to view my music much more objectively: although it hurts, I can take the knife to passages I previously liked much more easily. This latter development was, as others have been, helped by he use of sequence files, as it is possible to create many versions of the same passage and contrast and compare them without destroying anything.

It is inevitable that over a six year period there will be pieces which (at the deepest level) are not so satisfactory as others. Alternatively, there are pieces, (and certainly passages from pieces that have risen substantially above the average.

As has been mentioned above, the lack of electro-acoustic work is a disappointment to me, as I had hoped to include at least something for the medium. This has not been possible, due to a combination of factors including location, the availability of equipment, the fact that I have always been involved in the composition of this or that acoustic piece, and probably most especially, my own nervousness about the medium. Even now, I find myself more excited by the rhythmic and stylistic elements of music than the creation of new sounds, and these are still intertwined with the conventions of acoustic instruments. However, I am hoping that with the acquisition of hard and software able to contend with quite sophisticated hard disk digital recording and editing I will have a single platform to work with, (as one has with 'dot' composition), as well as the ability to use both sampled and synthesized sound sources. It will also give me the opportunity to use the equipment for periods of time that are equivalent to the time taken to complete a 'dot' piece - usually a few weeks' initial planning and then a further number of weeks finishing at perhaps 12-14 hours a day. These periods of time have simply not been available in studios - even if one felt entirely comfortable in that environment for that length of time. I am hopeful that this will enable me to combine the two elements of highly rhythmicised and non-rhythmic, quasi-improvisational material acceptably.

12.2 Helps and Hindrances

Throughout the six year period, I have been both helped and hindered by those around me. The situation at Charterhouse was strange: a very pleasant specification, but within an enclosed, isolated and to some extent stifling environment. Since teaching, although I have found many things to help and encourage me, ironically many of those things also constrict me: primarily, of course, time. However, with increased efficiency this problem is being contained, if not as yet solved.

The biggest help and hindrance has been my own character. While it has provided the determination to complete many of the more arduous processes involved, (especially part- and score-writing!), it also gets me so deeply involved in the piece that I have a tendency to forget about the performer(s), whether potential or real. This has had the consequence that in spite of the best of intentions the music gets more and more difficult. The story of In Principio is typical of this. The opening chromatic lines were originally designed to be simple and easy to sing - no large leaps, no complex rhythms - the very antithesis of the complexities of a piece like the Sextet. However, as the composition took form, the lines became more chromatic, the harmonies more complex and the rhythms, although still fairly standard, became more syncopated. The problem would appear to be that during composition, one's impression of the piece changes, so that what would have appeared too difficult becomes, through familiarity, 'not that difficult really'. There is a further, more substantial difficulty, which will be discussed in Why My Music Is So Difficult? below.

12.3 Educational Music

Obviously, the problems outlined above would not be the case if one were writing each piece for professional groups, (although it's a symptom of the problem that even the BBC Singers when they tackled In Principio, they had tuning problems because of the chromaticism and even more ironically, the one straightforward major, root position triad in the whole portfolio, (fig **), was one of the most incorrectly sung - this was a piece originally for 15-18 years olds). The difficulty with educational music is that, unless one's style allows the use of certain very simple textures that can be quickly understood, it is very difficult to write music that is both musically interesting and performable by young amateurs. All my attempts in this area have been failures in this respect. Only Connect was performable by the Durham Orchestra, but there was not the rehearsal time to do it convincingly - a factor which I did not properly take into account. Neither In Principio nor Shilbottle Cobbles were performed by the original groups, (although the latter was performed satisfactorily by Anglia's Symphonic Wind Band) and the fiasco that accompanied the first performance of Four Archetypes has been described sufficiently above. The only pieces which approached success were the Two Pieces for Junior Orchestra, although in this case only No 1 was satisfactory on all counts: performability, enjoyability and musicality, (although in the latter regard the piece is too modest to be of real value).

Whatever, the advantages and disadvantages of the pieces and the quality of the end results, there is little doubt that the complete portfolio has been very influenced by attempts, if unsuccessful, at 'performable' music. I have often had occasion to wonder whether this has been the right course to follow, whether it would have been a better idea to avoid these opportunities and concentrate on obtaining more professional performances and commissions. However, this would also have meant cutting my work from its environment, and whatever the consequences, successes or failures, I feel that working within one's environment and community is of very great importance.

12.4 Disappointments and Hopes

Some disappointments have been outlined above: my music is often very difficult and long even for professional performers, and there have been too few performances at any level. Because of this difficulty, it is very difficult to get amateurs to 'have a go' - irritating, but quite understandable. The rhythmic complexities need a vast amount of rehearsal.

Overcoming this problem without compromising the music may be overcome if the hope mentioned above comes about: the acquisition and use of a single platform method of recording and manipulating sound digitally. This will enable me to achieve the same familiarity and concentration with relevant methods that I currently enjoy with 'dot' composition. Although I am still suspicious about some aspects of these 'performerless' piece, they do have the advantage of liberating the composer from practical constraints. I am especially interested in the possibility of using methods such as those described above in relation to the Sextet in both electro-acoustic and 'dot' media. Although in that piece the results were not profoundly mature or successful, I am convinced that an ability to compose and manipulate graphically, while maintaining a control over theoretical aspects will prove a great source of material and inspiration.

12.5 Why Is My Music So Difficult to Play?

This is a question that haunts me regularly. I do not believe the language of 'contemporary music' is as profoundly difficult as some would appear to believe, but it does seem to require a certain outlook, an ability to appreciate some musical factors above others, to avoid automatically looking for meaning only in traditional ideas of harmony, melody and rhythm. I have spent much time suggesting to people that twentieth century harmonies are the same as 'orthodox' harmonies, if only you listen to the important things, not the detail.

When I compose, in my enthusiasm I tend to lose my sense of perspective with the result that large segments of very difficult, rhythmically intensive music can be created. To some extent this is to do with my own character which is fairly obsessive, and leads to the dogmatic pursuit of a particular goal in spite of everything - although this also helps complete the pieces. Also, the way in which I compose, with much planning ending in great attention to detail means that rhythms are 'deliberately' composed to be overwhelming - complex so they cannot be 'understood' easily, with hypnotic syncopation.

12.6 Judgements & Personality

As mentioned above my character forms the major influence on my music, and although I'm capable of recognizing this objectively after the event, I forget during the act itself. This is one reason why I sometimes feel the need to struggle against certain characteristics which I find plaguing my work. In the Introduction I mentioned the dichotomy between precise, complex rhythmic events and quasi-improvisatory, vague material, and this itself symbolizes to me the struggle between the consciousness wanting to control and yet not wanting the 'responsibility' of this control. My interest in computer-based compositional systems is also a result of this: the desire is to be able to set up a system which does the composing for you. In this way, the act of composition becomes the compilation of various processes. It is encouraged by the way in which one can use already existing technical means to input information and receive transformations as output. In many ways I see this as no more than accepting another musical instrument, (the equipment used), and learning to control its responses with sensitivity.

During my second year at Durham I presented a seminar paper discussing some of the remarkable similarities between different human activities, specifically in the way that they can be ordered into arbitrary sets of levels. An example has already been described in my compositonal process, where an initial overall snapshot is developed into increasingly complex and detailed forms. The interesting point was how, while each level was clearly related to those directly 'above' or 'below' any particular level, as one progressed to more remote levels, the relationships seemed to dissolve, and one might arrive at a result that was entirely unpredictable. This has a surprising number of cross-disciplinary counterparts in all areas of natural activity, and in consequence there are some surprising philosophical ramifications. An interesting and highly developed discussion of these forms the basis of Douglas Hofstadter's book: Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. It is a fascinating journey into the complexities of natural events, (and, incidentally, an argument for why humans can never fully understand them).

In my opinion, the dynamic interplay between different 'levels' of material is the basis of composition, (and indeed all human action). A good composition will balance this interplay so that relationships are comprehensible enough to retain interest, and yet not so comprehensible that they too quickly become dull and commonplace. Truly great pieces, some of which have been mentioned above, have such a balance, and beyond that, have an element of brilliance that will probably always be both mysterious and inexplicable.