Monthly Archive: May 2014

It's all in the detail

Posted on Thursday, May 15, 2014

I'm currently in what it one of the most enjoyable and rewarding - if exhausting - parts of the creative process. The piece I'm working on is the new Violin Concerto I'm writing for Gil Shaham and the San Diego Symphony (the premiere is in December). My working process, such as it is, seems to be to work on the essential details first, until such time as I have the entire piece in this bare bones structure. I do think of orchestration from the outset, so I will often know that a particular line is on a particular instrument, but more than anything, what I am thinking of is harmony, texture and energy. The flow of the structure, moments of surprise. If I'm carving a form in stone, this is the outline general shape. Decisions taken at this stage are ones that count and are pretty irreversible without throwing the whole thing away.

This first stage is by far the hardest, it's the real moment of creativity, where you're trying to create a shape- and somehow a significant and meaningful shape - where there is just a lump of rock. It's a real strain, and it's the time when I would most appreciate a log cabin I could retreat to for a couple of weeks to be alone with my thoughts.

But once that outline shape is in place it's all about the detail. From that zoomed out view you are suddenly spending a week poring over a couple of bars which will wizz by in less than a second. But this work, intricate and infinite as it is, is pure pleasure, I'm playing with musical toys.

You sometimes hear composers talking about 'taking risks' - I think 9 times out of 10 this will be referring to orchestration, or things that occur within this 'details' period. When you are trying to create a fresh and interesting texture, sometimes you just have to try an approach that has never been tried before. But you sure can hear in your head the voices of the players ridiculing you "You can't play that on a violin!"

For example, just at the moment I'm considering a sound I wanted to make, which is a sort of 'white noise'. Now, if you get high enough up the violin, if you play so your bow is right next to the bridge and your left hand finger is right next to the bow, it does create a sort of pitchless 'shum' - I had the idea, what if an entire section makes that noise. And then what if you get them to give that shum a bit of life by gently glissando-ing it up and down a little. How would that sound if a whole section does it,each one moving independently. That's an example of a 'risk' - I don't actually know how it will sound, because I've never heard it, but I have a suspicion it might be interesting. In the next couple of weeks I will have to decide whether the suspicion outweighs the risk.

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