Tuesday, 28 February 2012

On Saturday, everything crystalized. I thought I’d tell you how.

On Saturday 25th February I got all the ideas for the Atlantic crossing. Days like this are great. I haven’t known how to set this bit for a while, couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but now, after weeks of putting it out of my mind and writing other bits instead, it finally all came together. Days like this are also great because one feels one does a tremendous amount of work with hardly any effort, which in my book is really the way it should always be but never is. Things click into place, things which were perplexing suddenly become obvious, and connections become apparent and tangible between things and other things that previously seemed totally unrelated.

As soon as everything came together I had to stop, as I had to go to a performance of a piano trio of mine the next day, and now as I type am on my way up to Leeds to teach. But I thought I’d put down on paper all my thoughts about how I’m going to compose this section first, before I actually write it, and then, when I’ve finished it in a week or so, I’ll tell you what I actually did.

The last section that I set involved Amy and Jim embarking on their joint Atlantic crossing. I think I wrote about this earlier in the post about Jim Mollison. The part that I was worried about was the section directly after this - where they start to run out of fuel and then crash.

So, it’s basically a section in two parts - they start off in England in the first part, run out of fuel over the USA and crash in the second. I wanted to represent the change of continents with a change in harmony - in simple terms from English pastoral to New York cool. So the first sections are based around E and F chords, moving in to F sharp majory/minory chords in the second (as they just ‘fit’ to me). The first bit is set to a sort of off-kilter waltz (see a few blogs back) and the second will be completely different - variable time signatures etc with very likely a constant quaver motion running throughout.

Thinking about pacing, this is going to move rather fast, and the rhythm is going to be repetitive but with ‘spluttering’ breaks in it that will increase due to the gradual failure of the engine (as it runs out of petrol). Harmony-wise, I spent an hour or so looking through Mark Levine’s Jazz Piano book, as I wanted to find jazz influenced harmony that would sound very ‘urban’: I think to Jim New York might be some kind of socialising mecca. The chapter on upper structure chords was what I was looking for, and in fact simply playing through the table of the 9 upper structure chords sounds really great on it’s own. In other parts of the opera the chords span a wide distance - sometimes in a five note chord each interval may be more than an octave apart. In this section I am going to keep the top and bottom notes of the chord quite close together - probaby under two octaves. This is partly just for variety, and partly because I want to use write chord melodies, with all the parts playing in parallel motion, going up and down mimicking the motion of the airplane as Amy continually urges Jim to get the nose higher and circle in order to lessen the impact of the crash. This will be more apparent if the chords are quite narrow in range as they will be able to go up and down over wide distances without going out of intrumental ranges. The vocal parts are going to be quite rapidly delivered - they are after all in increasing panic, so they may be quite recitative-like over the busy orchestral writing.

Well, I think that’s as good a place as any to stop for now. I’d better get on with writing it...

Monday, 27 February 2012

Hello Again

Hello, and apologies for the long break in this blog. I had a week off after the workshops, and, after getting over jet lag and now fully back in the swing of composing. I was a bit paranoid about taking a break but have learnt that sometimes one has to force oneself to have some time off from note writing, and the fact that I’m not longer something approaching a compositional corpse that has to bribe myself into composing a few more notes with regular 15 minute excerpts of Have I got News for You on iPlayer thankfully proves me right.

The workshops were really great and I’m so grateful to everybody involved. Jonathan Lo the conductor tirelessly rehearsed the music so that we were able to perform nearly all of it in front of an invited audience at the end of the second day. And I’m really grateful to the singers Natalie Raybould, Lizzie Marshall, Nick Watts and Edd Caine the repetiteur for singing and playing so brilliantly. And of course Adam for everything from writing the words to introducing the performed material to the audience while I tried to make myself as invisible as impossible behind the piano.

I can’t say there were any revelations from the workshop - I had after all heard what I’d written both in my head, and through my own play-throughs at home, many times. I think we changed a couple of word settings. But, after getting back from holiday, a few thoughts have come into my head that to be honest probably would have occurred to me anyway, but may have been hastened along by the workshops. But it was really great to hear my music performed live and I’m so grateful to everybody for working so hard both before and during the workshops.

I’m a bit worried about appearing a bit smug when I say “there were no revelations”. But the simple fact was that there just weren’t, as, when I’m composing, I take so long over it that by the time I do put pen to paper I know exactly what I want. That’s not to say I’m completely averse to changing things - Adam has suggested some cuts for instance and although I’m not currently totally convinced, he may well turn out to be completely right. It was really great to know that the vocal parts were well written though - I’m pretty confident writing for female voices but was slightly worried about the tenor writing. There were no problems at all though, apart from one note which was a bit too low, so, well, that’s reassuring!

Mainly I’ve been thinking about pacing. Looking back on what I’ve written, there are parts which in simple terms take quite a long time in relation to the amount of text set. Which I don’t want to change - just as I go on composing I’m identifying the sections which I want to ‘move’ faster. For instance I’m setting the Atlantic crossing at the moment, and in this scene, I want to in part recreate the panic of Amy and Jim’s crash with fast moving music: this section is not a time for a line of text to be repeated several times in order to create a mood etc.

In addition to the workshops we also held auditions for the singers and musicians. It was really great to finally nail down the exact orchestration for this opera - I’ve been writing in piano score (a necessity due to time limits and the workshop) with fairly-to-extremely accurate ideas as to what instrument will play what - but now I know exactly who is playing, I am starting to think even more orchestrally, which is great. I knew roughly the orchestration right from the beginning, but for instance, having it definitely confirmed that the flautist involved does own an alto flute, does make a difference to how one thinks during composing.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Amy comes to lunch

Despite the previous moan about just getting inspired and having to stop (which is basically how my work pattern generally seems to go) I was really excited about last saturday when Natalie Raybould, who is going to sing Amy in the opera, came to visit and sing through what I’d written so far.

To be honest at this point, I was actually not looking forward to the workshops that much, which are due to take place this week, as I was very happy in my seclusion writing writing and writing thank-you-very-much, and anything which doesn’t involve just sitting and writing becomes something of a bloody inconvenience. But hearing Amy come to life properly (as opposed to through my own, distinctly second-rate singing voice) was very excited, and now I am really looking forward to them!

Basically Natalie had completely got what I was wanting, which is mostly down to the fact that she is totally fantastic, but hopefully also in part to the fact that I’d been successful in imbuing the music with as much character as I could. I always find it difficult knowing how much to put in the score when writing for voices - I tend to put in a fewer instructions as a) the words suggest a lot of the emotion, and b) I’m not sure one can use so much of one’s brain to think about dynamics when singing (and in this case acting too) as when playing. Not sure about this. Perhaps it’s just because, in vocal music, due to the necessity of getting the words across as clearly as possible (which is very important to me for the vast majority of time) there are actually less dynamic variations in the melodic lines.

Natalie understood the influences of the music, whilst still kindly saying that it had retained my own voice. I said to her that I was really pleased about this, as over the last few months I’d spent a lot of time trying to really internalise, and then forget, music as diverse as Jack Hylton’s 30’s dance music and Lily Allen. I think that’s really quite important - to really get under the skin of a kind of music (if that’s what inspires your music), really get the feel of it and understand how it works, and then try and forget as much as possible and compose your own music, which can’t but help being influenced by the music you’ve got to know so well in some way or other. Seems to work for me anyway.

So, that’s where I’ve got to so far. I’m almost at Manchester and am going to sign off for a premiere at the Bridgewater Hall, with the fabulous Lawson Piano trio and pupils from Chethams School of Music, who are going to premiere an Olympic-inspired piece for double piano trio. Tomorrow there are two days of workshops at Opera North on the music that I’ve written so far. Typing that sentence just made me feel rather nervous so I’m going to stop now, and I’ll let you know how the workshops went in a few day’s time!

Dancing across the Atlantic

Sometimes one just seems to have a stroke of luck - I suppose it’s partly to do with being very open to suggestion when one is inspired (if that doesn’t sound hideously affected). You know, those times when you walk past a billboard with some crappy advert on it that nevertheless triggers off something that gives you an idea, or when you turn on the radio to catch something totally fascinating that ends up becoming a new piece twelve months later. I was very glad to have used Desert Island Discs as my procrastinatary tool of choice that morning.

When David told us about his third disc, it became obvious: a waltz was like the perfect way to set the Atlantic crossing! I think I actually said “aha!” in an embarrassingly declamatory fashion whilst throwing my arms up in the air at this point (another reason why I’m probably best off living alone at the moment).

Both Amy and Jim were the epitome of 1930’s glamour. The idea of a plane as a bird somehow tied in - the grace of a bird and grace of a dancer. The fact that they were working as a couple, swopping places in the cockpit (like whirling round on a dance floor). The outward elegance alongside the hidden sweat and muscle ache of top class dancing paralleled the elegance of the long distance flight, Amy touching up her makeup and hair before she touched down having not slept for several days straight and on the verge of collapse. The ability of the waltz to be both slightly twee, naive and comic at the same time as passionate and expansive (something that I really went for during Jim’s second statement of “Just you and me and the sky and the sea”). The ability to ‘off-kilter-ise’ a waltz by occasionally inserting a 5/8 or 7/8 bar (lengthening or shortening the 3/4 bar by a quaver so that the second “cha” of the “umm-cha-cha” rhythm is either slightly too short or too long, so as to represent the plane being buffeted by the winds, being thrown off course etc, etc.

I got very excited about this and wrote almost all of Jim’s material for this scene that day. The waltz pattern also allowed me to clearly present sometimes quite complex harmony - I had in my ear harmony for both England (the start point) and the New York (the intended end point) and wanted to play about with gradually moving from one type of harmony to the other (very simplified, England equated to pastoral e minors and F majors in my mind, whilst New York was full of sharp-9 chords and F sharp minor/major).

So, that was a great day, and I felt all re-inspired, just as I had to stop everything and start rehearsals for the workshops. Typical.

David Attenborough comes to the rescue.

So, I was still stuck on the ‘how to set the Atlantic crossing’ section of the opera. It had to be both humorous, often even slightly clown-like (Amy and Jim bump into each other as they repeatedly swop seats) but also not belittling of their huge achievement (even though they did crash land). There was also the romance of the dual crossing to suggest, or at any rate, the working togetherness of the trip.

So in the typical ‘yes-I-meant-to-start-at-9am-on-the-dot-but-this-radio-programme-sounds-awfully-interesting-so-maybe-I’ll-just-listen-to-this-first’ style, I found myself listening to David Attenborough on Desert Island Discs.

And then he chose a waltz for disc number three, and my problems were solved.

Jim Mollison: a bally good explorer, even if he was a drunken womaniser...

Recently I’ve been setting more music for Jim Mollison. Until this point all I’d really written was his part in the aviation-term-seduction-duet, where for the most part he is indulging in innuendo-laden banter, and, well, this certainly only represents one side of his character.

There are some truly wonderful quotes about Jim in Midge Gillie’s biography of Amy.

For instance:

ʻJim had developed a knack of squeezing the most pleasure and the least discomfort

out of any situation he found himself in...’

‘Jim was proud of his suede shoes and double breasted suits that quickly became

rumpled, giving him a ʻjust out of bedʼ look’’ and ‘his most common pose what that of one hand in his pocket, the other holding a cigarette between his thumb and middle finger. He rarely smiled.’

Like Amy, he would often dress up to the nines for aviation (in this I totally approve....I, erm, had my premiere dress organised for this opera before I’d written a note, and currently own three aviation-themed broaches, and probably will own more in due course (there are more than three performances of this opera, don’t you know...). The dress was 90% off in the Harvey Nics sale so was actually a compulsory buy. Fact.

Anyway, I digress. Jim’s nickname was ‘Brandy Mollison’, as he had a habit of taking flasks of brandy and other beverages with him in the cockpit, imbibing copious amounts on his record breaking flights. And by all accounts he was a terrible womaniser. Another great quote from the book about Amy and Jim’s relationship:

“Their relationship had always been tempestuous: now it fell into the pattern of their flight

across the Atlantic: short periods of calm followed by turbulence that finally ended in a

dramatic crash fueled by alcohol and overwrought emotions, before the whole process

started again with high hopes and replenished supplies of good will. Amy refused to

believe that the marriage could not be rescued.”

Well, she refused to believe that the marriage couldn’t be rescued until she found Jim drunk in a hotel room with a woman she didn’t recognise....

So, it’s pretty apparent that Jim wasn’t exactly ideal husband material and all that, being as he was an arrogant, womanising, heavy drinking man who resented Amy’s greater fame.

However, he still was a bloody good pilot who undertook some amazing, life threatening, courageous journeys, and in the opera, I really want to portray a little of this. This opera is very much about Amy, and Jim’s function is largely to help tell Amy’s story, but I still didn’t want to reduce him to a caricature, as if nothing else, he wouldn’t be that attractive and surely one has to be moderately-to-exceedingly attractive in at least one way to be a successful womaniser (God, I have the feeling this might be a hideously un-PC thing to say, but you know what I mean). Simply put, I wanted to be able to rather fancy Jim’s character in the opera, or at least see what Amy saw in him at points, rather than roll my eyes at what an up-himself berk he was.

Jim has the line “Just you and me and the sky and the sea” several times in the Atlantic crossing scene. I really like the mixture of naivety, wonder, courage, childishness and affection in this line (as amongst other things he’s obviously happy that Amy is with him). There’s a kind of faux charm about the line that is very simplistic, but when you think about it it sums up a variety of emotions from joy and freedom to terror (Amy hated flying over water). I wanted to set these lines in a way that would give us a glimpse into Jim’s pioneering spirit, and the fact that (at first, anyway) Amy and Jim were excellent, professional flying companions.

Anyway, this is all well and good but I was completely stuck on this for a few days.

There were several reasons for this. First, I’ve just been composing non stop for several months now (I’ve written 35 minutes of music in less than 6 weeks, way over my usual output) and I feel I am something of a compositional corpse (just as well I have a week of not composing coming up, which I’m slightly terrified about in one way but I think a short enforced break might be very good idea). Secondly, this was the last scene of the opera I had, as I hadn’t had the final third of the libretto from Adam yet. The Atlantic crossing scene is humorous, and I love it, but it came directly after the seduction duet which was also humorous. I was a bit worried by the fact that there wasn’t enough serious stuff in the opera to balance things out, put simply. But this was completely solved when I saw the final third of the opera, which is a wonderfully passionate, expansive aria for Amy. This reassured me that I could follow my instincts on how to set the Atlantic crossing, as there would be music of greater depth to provide contrast and balance in the remaining part of the opera.

So, that was that aspect of the problem solved. But I still didn’t really know how to set it, until David Attenborough came to my rescue.

On never wanting to see another chromatic passing note again, or at least until tomorrow.

I’ve been setting passages for the chorus in the last few days. The chorus features in the prologue and epilogue of the opera and is made up of local singers from Bridlington. As the chorus are of mixed standard it was important to write something that was singable and easy to put together but that also didn’t seem out of place in the opera.

At one point the chorus sing Amy, Wonderful Amy”: a song by Jack Hylton that became very famous after Amy’s trip to Australia. Both Adam and I wanted to reference the song but not just whack in a carbon copy of it: we wanted an off-kilter version if you like. But when I actually came to write this bit I got really stuck, as any addition of “off-kilter-ness” would usually be created by the inclusion of strange intervals (augmenting a perfect 4th to an augmented 4th in the melody etc, making it sound a bit strange whilst still retaining the melodic shape for instance) or strange rhythms (a cheeky 7/8 bar nestling in between the 4/4 bars to just make you wonder what just happened). But it’s very hard to sing a tritone or a melody in 7/8, often even for professional singers, and I didn’t want the chorus to despise me, so this wasn’t really an option. I solved the problem by retaining the exact melody for the choir, but shifting it up and down so that at some points they sing in C major, at others in D major, and in many other keys. The accompaniment links the phrases in different keys and I was careful to try and suggest the new key centre very strongly in the preceding minim of each new phrase so the new key would be firmly planted in the chorus’s ear. I hit upon the idea of writing an extremely chromatic accompaniment (in the first phrase I’ve harmonised it with a bassline that descends step by step over almost an octave, as I’ll put this on bass with a slight glissando between each note, which will hopefully be reminiscent of the drone of aeroplane engines....)

Hopefully what results is a recognisable song that just occasionally takes you by surprise, or takes a corner you don’t expect, but you can’t quite put your fingers on what exactly happened. The opening scene is set in the 1930’s, and I quite like the idea of a song drifting over to us in 2012, occasionally getting distorted by the wind and/or the passage of time. There’s also possibly a suggestion that what will follow in the opera won’t necessarily always present the perfect Amy, dressed for pioneering aviation as she dressed for dinner at the Ritz, etc. etc. I hope. Anyway, this all added up to a very satisfying but very tiring day of creating layers of chromatic melodies and harmonic progressions. I was glad to move on to something else by the next day!

Been a while....

Apologies for the rather long holiday I’ve had from this blog. A mixture of being slightly ill and rushing to write as much music as I could for the workshops this week meant that I hardly exited my non-wi-fi’d house. I’ve got a lot of work done but feel slightly as if I’m on day release, heading up for a premiere in Manchester on the train today which seems to be full of overly sincere young business people discussing marketing strategies. I think I preferred my composer’s ivory tower (which has actually been very white in this recent weather).

Anyway. The following (or above, since this is a blog) is what I’ve been up to over the last week or so.