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Monthly Archive: January 2015


Making it work

Posted on Tuesday, January 06, 2015


I like what Glyn Maxwell says in his book On Poetry (discussed here) that he had 'nothing to say' until his mid-30s and instead spent his time 'playing with words'. For composers as for poets, I think there's so much technique to learn, it's not even worth thinking about whether you have anything to say for a considerable period - and for me that was definitely well into my 30s as well. I've no idea how my 'career' seems from the outside, but even now, in my mid-40s I feel I'm only starting to be on top of how to handle all the instruments, and all the combinations of instruments - and looking back, I recognise the feeling that I had all through my younger years, that it didn't really matter what I was trying to say at that stage - I was still nowhere near having the tools to even think about saying anything meaningful or coherent. I've now finally had two big orchestral pieces premiered, which allowed me to start wrestle with that particular demon, and pleased as I am with the results, I still feel a long way from what I think I should be able to achieve. That's probably the way most artists feel, even when they're 100.

I don't want to get into commenting on the success or otherwise of particular composers and their aesthetics here (being a judgmental composer, I can find huge gaping holes even with some of my favourite pieces and/or pieces that have exerted a huge influence over me), but what really makes me happy and inspired listening to my colleagues' work is when I sense someone achieving amazing things in their control of the instruments. Three pieces have made me feel that way in the past couple of years:

  • Stuart Macrae's Ghost Patrol which I caught at ROH Lindbury. Just a spell-binding use of instrumental colour and technique.


  • Thomas Ades Totentanz, which whips up an awesome array of deathly sounds



  • and most recently, Andrew Norman's Play




    What's interesting is all three use standard orchestral instruments (actually Stuart managed an equally impressive integration of some electronics into his score), but find new ways of using the old 'avant-garde' techniques that make them sound fresh and exciting. I love exploring these territories, finding new sounds, but I do usually opt for a fairly tentative approach - for example, I did use a hand-slap on the Tuba mouthpiece in Night Parade - and loved the effect - but Andrew Norman uses a whole ensemble of them in Play (the score is, by the way, viewable online here - how marvelous that publishers do this these days), as well as some great "air sounds" and much much, more besides - what's really refreshing about it is, unlike some of the old scores by Penderecki et al which use these effects and can seem a bit stuffy these days - Norman's piece is really witty. I suspect, like Ades and Macrae, Norman was way-too-gifted way-too-young - he's apparently 35 now, so I guess I can just about forgive him (-: But how exciting to see what what these composers can achieve with their incredible techniques in the coming years.





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