Saturday, 4 March 2017


'Percussion' Version.

Initially, I intended to write a series of biographical ‘incidents’ outlining significant events in my life. But then, it turned into an observation about the whole concept of self-image. Many of us are familiar with the story of Narcissus. The young man who saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realising it was merely an image. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, he lost his will to live. He stared at his reflection until he died.  This is one of my first completed orchestral works. 

Many of us are familiar with the story of Narcissus. The young man who saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realising it was merely an image. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, he lost his will to live. He stared at his reflection until he died. We live, perhaps, in a age of narcissism. This is how Elan Golomb (Trapped In The Mirror) views the narcissistic personality. “-They unconsciously deny an unstated and intolerably poor self-image through inflation. They turn themselves into glittering figures of immense grandeur surrounded by psychologically impenetrable walls. The goal of this self-deception is to be impervious to greatly feared external criticism and to their own rolling sea of doubts - ” We live, perhaps, in a age of narcissism. This is one of my first completed orchestral works. It ends with a de-constructed theme from Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Palette de Couleur et de Lumiere

Palette de Couleur et de Lumiere

The concept of a palette of instrumental colour and timbre is derived from deepest aesthetic principles of the work.  The choice of instruments are essential to the colouristic balance of the work.

Glockenspiel                                            Vibraphone
Bongos                                                    Congas
Tom-toms                                                Bass drum
Small shaker                                            Tambourine
Whistles                                                  Blowers
Flute/Alto Flute                                       Clarinet/Bass Clarinet

With the piano as the mediator, the opportunity for balanced and contrasting exploration of instrumental colour are great.  For example;

The two types of combinations are demonstrated below.  The first is cross-species representation where there is a contrast of both instrument and register.

Example 1


The second contrast intrumental colour only.

Example 2

This is similar to the first cross-species representation above.  Here however, they are of the same instrumental family-the drum.  Therefore the contrast is of timbre rather than colour.

Example 3

This is a contrast of timbre and a subtle change of register.

Example 4

With the keyboard percussion combined (which in terms of colour and register stretches a wide range)interesting cells of timbre and colour emerge. 

Example 5

The combinations are maximised when woodwind are taken into consideration:

Example 6

Example 7
                           Treble           Alto           Tenor          Bass
Catergories I        Flute          Alto Flute   Clarinet      Bass Clarinet

Catergories II       Glock.        Vibraphone.............      Pianoforte 

Catergories III      Cabasa       Tom-Tom    Congas       Bass drum

Catergories can also be made in terms of metal and wood sounding instruments:

Metal                                    Wood
Flute/(alto)                             Clarinet/(bass)
Vibraphone                             Wood blocks...

Like the previous work Apres La Mort des Artistes, the instrumental combinations are devised through an elaborate and complex plan.  The leading figurative writing is divided between instruments that are intended to dominate the texture. 

Pitch and Rhythm Generation

As this work is predominately a percussion piece for the nature of the pitch generative material is one that is closely associated with spectral processes. In other words pitch and rhythm are created side by side. Pitch and rhythm in terms of acoustics are inseparable-partials are elements of rhythmic displacement from the fundamental tone, tributaries form the main source. The displacement of rhythm causes irregular reverberations and alters the frequency of the tone. It is the amplitude of these pitches that determines the timbre and the colour of the tone.( Every acoustic tone consists of a multiplicity of overtones and partials that are semi-suppressed or active). The 'palette' of colour is derived from the conflict of rhythm and pitch that is created by the disparagement between the main tone and its off-shoots.  Wave lengths are often drawn as regular curve lines that gradually expanding and then contracting in curvature but in reality pitch tones played on acoustic instrument rarely display such simple pattern. In acoustic instruments (violin,flute, trumpet and clarinets) the same pitch undergoes incredibly different manipulation according to the material its made of, manner in which the instrument is played, etc... The note is passed through several bands of partials of which some remain dormant due to their relative low amplitude or some partials come to the foreground. This effectively is an essential element that gives an instrument its sense of timbre and colour:

Model of Tone Reverberation


Flute Sonatine 1st Movement

The Flute Sonatine came at the height of my obsession with the works of Pierre Boulez. In 1947, he wrote a Flute Sonatine for piano and flute as a result of a suggestion by his then teacher, René Leibowitz. with whom he was later to have a notorious falling out.

"With a red pen, [Rene] Leibowitz began marking up the manuscript [to Boulez's first sonata], then dedicated to him. Grabbing the score, Boulez fled, shouting at Leibowitz "vous etes de la merde!" Three years later, Boulez's publisher Herve' Dugadin asked him if the dedication should remain on the printed score. As Boulez shouted "Non!" he stabbed the manuscript with a letter opener until it was virtually in shreads." 
His Sonatine fuses together the two waring factions of Stravinsky and Schoenberg in terms of rhythm and harmony. It is described by David Schiff as,

releasing in the sonatina an explosion of musical violence, nervousness, and instability.
My Flute Sonatine, for solo flute, is intended to have a similar effect. It's frantic wild leaps of the second movement are possessed with a wildness of spirit that is close to insanity.  The struggle to play the music is part of the effect.  Brian Ferneyhough spoke about this in an interview with Colin Blakemore about pushing the performers to the extremity of their capabilities.

The first movement is somewhat different to the second. It starts very quietly, almost timid in character.  The lines of canon are clearly exposed.  The notation helps to reveal the contrapuntal writing. Each phrase has it's opposing counter theme, usually inverted.  Steadily, the momentum gathers pace and builds up to the frenzy that is the second movement.

The American virtuoso flautist, Nancy Ruffer is the performer on this recording.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015


"Empfindsamkeit" started off as a commission from Christopher Redgate. His idea was to write a piece for his Oboe Quintet to appear on an upcoming CD. Unfortunately, it wasn't finished in time for the recording.  However, in the extra time that I was permitted, a situation occurred that unwittingly contributed to changing my ideas about my music. Unlike much of the music that I composed around that time, this work was written without much prior organisation.  Usually, my work is planned meticulously. Weeks, sometimes months are spent, organising pitch elements and rhythms. No such undertaking for this work.  What I heard was virtually what was written down.  No more, no less.  Instead, I concentrated on the sonorities of the music.  I moved my focus from pitch and rhythm to timbre and colour.  I also had not written for such a conventional group of instruments. Had it not been for Christopher Redgate, I would not have entertained this particular combination. Nevertheless, I was encouraged by the fact that both Ferneyhough and Dillon have written amazing string quartets.

One thing that needs to be made clear - there is no romantic rekindling of the past.  The idea of sentimentality is still too close to music of the romantic period for comfort. This work is intended to heighten the senses; I mean in the same way that Synesthesia, Tetrachromacy or Misophonia (but without the rage - just pure emotion) does.  This work, alongside "Adieu", was the beginning of a new phase in my compositional output.  Instead of the hectic world of "Damballah" and "Chantefables", it was the colour/timbre conscious serenity of "Adieu" and "Empfindsamkeit" after which there would be a pause of about seven years and a rethink about the next step.

As mentioned before, although their wasn’t much pre-planning, there are tight reins held on the pitch and rhythmic material: throughout this work there is a fixed pitch register(e.g. notes will only appear at a specific positions in the scale). For example, the first nine bars stick almost exclusively to these pitches in the string parts;

Fixed register

The Oboe part has slightly more freedom.  The register is comprised of an octave tetrachords which are dominated by intervals of thirds and fourths.  The two lowest octaves are orientated around a ‘C’ natural, the higher around a ’G’ sharp.  The first two have a mirroring quality.
A similar process (fixed patterns) occurs where the rhythmic writing is concerned. Each bar either consists of staggered rhythmic cells (e.g the string writing of the first bar) or of a rhythmic decomposition (broken down into tiny cells) of an initial idea:
The first rhythms of the string parts of the bar below...

However, it is the coloristic effects that form the most significant element of this work.  It is my intention to create a ‘metallic’ effect by staggering the timbral effects so that the vibrations react with one another.  Rather like the natural harmonics effect of orchestral string writing, it is not normally discernible on its own but with a microphone it can be picked up:
'Syncopated' timbral effects.

At the time, this composition didn't appear to be significant to my journey as a composer.  However, the long self imposed break afterwards meant that it is important landmark; in terms of the music that came before and the music that came afterwards.  It made me realise that to accomplish the desired effects I could only use micro-phoned chamber musicians or the forces of an orchestra and that is the direction that I needed to head towards.

Monday, 21 September 2015

In the shadow of a genius.

Recently, I have discovered a fascinating revelation about the composers we admire so much.  That behind many geniuses, there usually is a predecessor lurking in the background.  It reminds of that often quoted phrase by Picasso
good artist borrows and great artist steals

Now, I am not suggesting that the composers who I mention are stealing peoples' ideas - there is no evidence to support that fact.  However, I am suggesting that the idea of a genius who came from nowhere may not be accurate.  Let's take the case of Ernest Fanelli.  Who? You might ask.  He is a significant but unknown person in the development of impressionism.  He is an Italian born composer living in Paris.  He composed a good deal of 'new' music at the end of the nineteenth century.  His ideas were quite radical; his instrumentation included harmonics, sul pont., he used wordless choruses.  Unfortunately, he wasn't as talented a composer as Debussy and his music wasn't played as often.  He struggled as a musician and turned to copying to supplement his living.  When he handed his music to a conductor as an example of his copying skills, the conductor was so impressed by his music that he arranged performances.  Even though, some of the music was written before Debussy, it wasn't played until after his music was premiered.  A controversy ensued.  Debussy denying any claims that he knew his work.  It became such an issue that at one time Debussy walked into a cafe and when he saw that Fanelli was playing his own compositions, he walked straight back out again. 
Ravel said,

"now we know where his [Debussy’s] impressionism comes from".
To be fair, there can be no conclusive proof either way and it is possible for two people to work on exactly the same thing in two different places.  It would make no difference.  Claude Debussy was a better composer and had he not been a leading figure in impressionism, I don't think we would be as preoccupied with Fanelli's music.
Now to another unknown.  Has anyone heard of Hans Rott? Who you may inquire.  Well, this case is a little more clear cut.  Hans Rott is a friend of Mahler.  He was a very sensitive man.  He loved to write symphonies in the style of Bruckner but wanted to take the art-form to another level.  I think you know where this is going...He wrote symphonies on a grand scale with huge climaxes, bird song... Like Fanelli he wasn't the best composer of his time but he was brimming with innovative ideas.  Unfortunately, he suffered from self-doubt.  Brahms told him that he
"had no talent whatsoever and should give up music"
But Mahler saw the talent and the failings.  His second symphony uses many of the innovations.
Hans Rott was committed to an asylum in the late 19 century and died a few years later.  He was only 25. Mahler clearly admits his admiration for some of his work.
a musician of genius ... who died unrecognised and in want on the very threshold of his career. ... What music has lost in him cannot be estimated. Such is the height to which his genius soars in ... [his] Symphony [in E major], which he wrote as 20-year-old youth and makes him ... the Founder of the New Symphony as I see it. To be sure, what he wanted is not quite what he achieved. … But I know where he aims. Indeed, he is so near to my inmost self that he and I seem to me like two fruits from the same tree which the same soil has produced and the same air nourished. He could have meant infinitely much to me and perhaps the two of us would have well-nigh exhausted the content of new time which was breaking out for music.

Symphony E minor 

Hans Rott is the initial inspiration of Mahler's symphonic style. It is difficult to imagine the Second Symphony without the ground work that his predecessor had made.

Now onto Arthur Lourié.  He was a prominent Russian avant garde composer.  He befriended Igor Stravinsky and did copying work for him.  Lourie was one of the first composers in modern music to leave an empty space where there were empty bars. Stravinsky may have been influenced by the layout of Lourie scores. Lourie was known as a avant garde composer but he suddenly changed direction in the 1920s.  Then, he wrote in the "neo-classical" style.

Lourié’s A Little Chamber Music (1924) seems to prophesy Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète (1927)...Certainly in his later works Stravinsky adopted Lourié’s style of notation with blank space instead of empty bars.
In my opinion, there is nothing wrong using the material from the past(no matter how recent) to boost new music.  The worrying aspect of this concept is when the composer doesn't publicise the influence. To say the attribution is "hidden" may be stretching a point too far but openness promotes a more comfortable feeling about the borrowing of other composer's ideas.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Streaming royalties

Michael Price is a composer of television and film music and the chair of the New Media Executive Committee of the British Academy of Songwriters.  He is unhappy about the changes made by media companies in the way that composers are being paid for their music.

(The Independent)
Price said he was a supporter of licensed streaming services, but called for a new era of “transparency” in which tech giants and record companies disclose explicit details of the deals which set the rates on how much artists and songwriters receive. His comments follow the recent launches of the Amazon Prime Music and Apple Music streaming services, and come in the wake of claims by US musician David Byrne that record companies are siphoning off revenues from streaming and not paying royalties to artists and writers.
Price claimed that many of their employees didn’t recognise the value of music. “People working in these tech companies are often of a generation that has never paid for music in a conventional sense. They cannot understand that the value of their service is only because people want to listen to the music on it.”
Price pointed out that, unlike successful pop and rock artists, composers were usually not able to supplement their music royalties by selling tickets for live performances. “There was a concept that free exposure for artists was good for our career – that ship sailed quite a long time ago.”
He is chair of the media executive committee of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors, which is campaigning for a 50-50 split of streaming royalties between the creator of a piece of music and the record companies. Songwriters currently receive only 10.5 per cent.
Price is looking forward to the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in London next weekend, featuring the score he wrote with fellow composer David Arnold, alongside other music connected to the detective.
But he fears quality music from less high-profile shows is being denied the chance to be recorded as an album because of low streaming rates

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Female composers and New Complexity.


This is a controversial one.  

I am reposting a discussion that Tim Rutherford-Johnson had with some of twitter followers about the lack of Female New Complexity composers. As far as I am concerned, there are two major issues here:

One is the lack of published female composers.

The other is the terminology "New Complexity" - what does it refer to and what does it mean?

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