Saturday 26th July 2014: Last night I premiered my new piano piece (as yet untitled) after dinner at the Arts Club. I revise my estimation made below that the piece did not show signs of haste, which it does - although, I add in my defence, more in the pacing and other finesse details than the actual ideas. A very interesting discussion post-concert revealed a wide range of interpretations of a piece that was based by me on fairly strong and specific influences. I only mentioned any 'programme' which hides behind the work after its performance (as a very general rule I don't believe in listening to a piece of instrumental music with certain things in mind...) and the audience were then keen to point out what they had heard expressed by various musical events, especially when contrasting to what I had had in mind while composing them.
For example, a certain series of chords which I was using to imply a desolate or grieving emotion were seen by some as rather peaceful. A 'resolution' onto what I had coined as a dissonance was heard by others as more conlusive and conventionally resolving.
I'm not for getting into the sort of simplistic discussion, normally foisted on 6 year olds, on 'what music is supposed to represent', or even a discussion on whether that is a question worth asking - not that music doesn't represent things, of course, as we all know it does. The babel-fish like interface between emotional expressivity, and its reception, through music of different ages, forms and cultures, is a complex one, and surely comprised of more connections than my 12 month old son's developing baby brain. It seems it is not something we are ever likely to understand or calculate. Nor do I want to be able to do so.
Nonetheless I remember vivid debate at university on the rhetoric of the classical period, with the use of signs in music and the general idea of whole pieces or movements of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven being based on 'subjects' becoming more and more convincing and commonplace. The opening of Beethoven's 5th representing 'fate knocking at the door' - fanciful, or likely? As likely as anything, I feel. But everyone immediately thinking or 'getting' that when they hear the music is as far from the truth as everyone launching a rocket into space arriving on Mars. We know something is behind the music, and we know it expresses something profound and very real. But exchange it back into our concrete words, in one language, and use those to express the emotions we feel that the music is expressing, and whether those are parallel to what we express via words in an interpretation of sounds through which we perceive what the music, used by the composer to express something..... I've only just namked about 3 or many millions of connections and back and forths which could go on more or less for ever. We are destined to end up in a blind alley on this.
Yet what occurs to me is that music is seemingly needed to be justified through explanation in language - musicians are always being asked to explain why we should listen to this, what the piece means, what I get from this, why it means so much to me... Is music a language which does not communicate on its own, and needs some sort of introduction to put any two people on common ground? I guess it is. (Has it ever been different?) Do we seek to justify or introduce Shakespeare through music, or explain our feelings for a painting through a glass of wine? It may be fun to, but it is not a pre-requisite that we do so before sharing those other art forms with others. I wonder if music only has this problem - whereas modern artists seem ever more relevant to today's culture (and therefore able to be more controversial...)
Perhaps to summarise by mentioning another discussion over drinks yesterday - if operas deal in the most fundamental priniples of human existance, which we all understand and relate to - love, trust, betrayal, loss, etc. - why is it a medium the music world seems increasingly panic-striken that few understand? I can only say that if anyone has to actually justify to today's audiences the virtues or relevance, not to mention the beauty, of Handel's operas, then I can hardly be depressed if my music needs justification...
Friday 25th July 2014: This week at Aldeburgh has flown by. Today is the last day composing - I have been asked to make a presentation of my week's work to assembled guests at the Arts Club this evening, with further performances twice tomorrow and once on Sunday. I'm very pleased to say, not to mention surprised, I *think* I have written a 7 or so minute piece of piano music starting on Monday lunchtime and finishing yesterday. This morning I will draw together various components to see if I am right. It certainly seems to be there in my head anyway - and what is on the page is sketchy in places, but I hope there is not so much detail absent as to not be able to give it a decent rendering on the piano this evening.
It has been a pleasant surprise to see this piece come together in such a short space of time. As a composer I normally reckon composing three or four minutes of music a month, let alone a week, to be pretty good progress, yet the music I have written this week doesn't seem to display overt signs of haste, nor is it particularly repetitive or even very slow. Somehow this week has just been about composing, not the long, drawn-out thought processes and decision-making which often go on in the background. A few simple ideas have led to a lot of music, and the ideas themselves seem to have been of a minute or two of sounds, rather than one bar or a motive or similar. The discussions around Fran Crowe
's ideas, the inspiring, art-focussed nature of the Arts Club, or perhaps just the change of scene have all provided a backdrop of mental freedom to go on whatever way one sees, rather than questioning the direction or trying to find a way. I also think that sealing this week off in my mind as a time where whatever happened, happened, and whatever I composed I could either rip up or leave or come back to later, has led to a pleasing sense of inconsequence about what I am writing.
Pressure might make me good at some things - in a sort of packhorse industrial productivity sort of way - but I don't think it allows me best use of my instincts - and, for any art, those are key. Perhaps I just feel a week discussing ideas with Fran and Caroline is worthwhile and enjoyable enough to cancel out any puritanical need to have produced a great work to compensate for it, and I could just compose for my own amusement with little need for justification. After all, the worst that could happen was a few minutes of not particularly brilliant music and that did not seem a result to be afraid of. As Alexander Goehr said to my over-strung undergraduate self a few years ago, 'One of the greatest fears I see in young composers is that they think the world will end if they do not finish their piece. But the world is not going to end if you do not finish your piece - in fact, it will sacrcely notice even if you do.' He is right, of course - although it is the unspoken 'So...?' which hovers after the sentence which is the real rub - So...? Does this give you the perfect reason to compose, or the perfect reason to stop? This week, for all the reasons mentioned above and probably any other number I haven't even thought of, the feeling of composing with no reason, purpose, nor necessity was the perfect reason to do it, and its been liberating. In another 6 months, I will be in a better position to judge whether the piece's quality reflects its happy origins.
Tuesday 22nd July 2014:
I'm currently a sort of composer-in-residence (ironically, as I only live down the road, but you know what I mean) at the wonderful Arts Club Aldeburgh Beach
alongside the artist Fran Crowe
and writer Leanne Moden
. Perched up in an old lookout tower from which I can see nothing but shingle, sea and sky, I'm writing a series of piano works based on Fran's Museum of Beyond
. Fran picks up plastic washed up on the beach and turns it into a museum exhibit and artistic display for a post-oil civilisation a few thousand years in the future. I was struck by her work for a number of reasons: the resonance with a comment by one of my former teachers, Martin Bresnick
, that as a composer 'why shouldn't I just walk along the beach and pick up and work with objects which fascinate me?'... - then there are the issues of old and new in music, how the functional can become an object of rarity or fascination over time... - how something plastic or manufactured becomes something artistic on account of its journey, how old it is, and how it came down to us... - and how different objects can be viewed from different angles to produce very different results (a sort of 'cultural cubism'...) and the whole question of chance in a Cage-ian sense, and using whatever materials are washed up at your door.
As a composer living in a post-modern era, the main problem for me is not where to start or what to write, but where not to start and what not to write - as you can literally start anywhere and absolutely anything goes these days. There is seemingly no trend in our culture today which does not have its reverse somewhere. So I decided, as I walked along the beach looking for ideas and came across Fran, walking along the beach looking for ideas on the beach (literally, in her case), to base some music on her thoughts and ideas - not being object-specific (ie Sonata on an old Flip-flop, or whatever) but more the philosophical and time-perspective concerns.
How that translates into what music I write and whether it allows me to justify certian notes over others (to which simple essence I would distill what a composer does) is not an easy thing to explain. But then again, how any ephemeral inspiration is turned into music is hardly explicable anyway. A more important question to ask, perhaps, is how much of this should/needs to come over to the audience when they hear your work? Fascinating discussion with our host Caroline Wiseman over lunch yesterday on this very subject. I feel it is helpful to make the connection, and hopefully it will be of interest to the audience, but a good story or idea behind the work is not enough to promote the value of the piece as a work of art. I'm performing the pieces at the end of the week, so nothing will be too perfect at this stage anyway, but the Aldeburgh Arts Club is a place where experiments are welcome and, as with any good residency, its a good idea to just get some ideas down and let the inspiration flow, and then worry about the fine tunings a bit later on. More tomorrow. Back to it for now...
Some other news:
This summer I'm also working on a Cello Sonata for Charles Watt. And learning a lot of new repertoire for autumn concerts and concertos, including some fabuloue 20th century and contemporary works by Peter Dickinson, Lloyd Moore, John McCabe, and William Alwyn, for the Alwyn Festival in the autumn.
Southwold Concert Series
begins its autumn series on Sunday September 14th, with violinist Fenella Humphreys performing works from her Bach to the Future
project. We also welcome the London Haydn Quartet on Thursday October 23rd. More details on both those concerts here
Another recent composition, Trans Atlantic Flight of Fancy
was commissioned by NOW Ensemble
and premiered by them at Barge Music in New York City, with further performances across the US earlier this year. The work will feature on their new CD to be released at the end of this year on the New Amsterdam
More piano music composed this year was Variations on a Theme of Cole Porter which has had six or so performances in the last couple of months, with more to follow in the autumn.
Nathan Williamson leads a diverse and varied career as pianist, composer, and conductor, collaborating with a wide range of artists both at home and abroad. click here for more