|June 22, 2013|
|2:30 pm||to||4:30 pm|
|June 22, 2013|
|2:30 pm||to||4:30 pm|
Last week on twitter, I linked to Tiffany Mueller’s Lighstalking article on making photographs more compelling, and asked what people thought similar advice might be for composers to make their music more compelling. I was thankful for the thoughtful replies that came through. Adrian Thomas highlighted the difference between photography and music, which he suggested might be down to ‘objectivity’:
I’m sensitive to Adrian’s point, though I’m sure he’d also agree that much of what makes a photograph compelling is also somewhat subjective. I wonder if this isn’t more fundamentally about the (usually) more abstract nature of music. In photography, we’d probably be more likely to agree on whether a picture is good or not where the photograph is more literal in terms of realism.
There are also, perhaps, more logistical ‘rules’ in photography which can more readily be analysed and applied to what we see (e.g. the rule of thirds) than a similar idea (e.g. the golden section) can be applied to what we hear. While acknowledging this, I do still think that there are many points of connection between the art of photography and musical composition. I’ve written before about applying Steve Simon’s excellent book The Passionate Photographer to composition, and I do think that there are some important points that can also be drawn out of Tiffany’s post on making photographs more compelling.
1. Write Music You Want to Hear Tiffany says: One of the easiest, least technical ways to create fascinating photos is to simply shoot what you love. This is an obvious point in photography. Like animals? Take pictures of wildlife. Unfortunately, it’s a much larger, much more difficult battle for the composer.
Firstly, writing music you want to hear is very much a matter of technique. Translating the sounds in your head into dots on a piece of paper involves a great deal of time, energy and study. Like the music of Composer X? You will firstly need to spend hours and hours listening and studying their scores, and then will need to figure out how the ideas and music can influence your music without dominating it.
Secondly, I completely agree with the thrust of Michael’s tweet (above), but the truth is that there are many composers who ignore the voice inside them precisely because there is more of an audience and/or critical acceptance for music that exists in particular styles/genres/forms/etc… (And, amazingly, much of these ideals are still drawn along geographical lines). Remember: it takes a lot of time for a composer to discover what this music of their’s is. So think of this piece of advice as a goal for your journey, and once (if) you get there, keep hold of it!
2. Pay attention to what you what the listener to hear Especially with larger ensembles, it is very easy to become so heavily invested in each layer of the composition that it becomes almost impossible for the listener to tell what material is meant to be in the foreground, and what is meant to be in the background. In my own work I have found the metaphor of photographic aperture to be a really helpful one as professional photographers are always in control of how much of the picture you are supposed to be focusing on. This can be applied in many ways. It can simply emphasise the thing you are supposed to be looking at, but it can equally draw your attention to an unusual relationship. The principle is what is important: To draw your attention to something in the picture, it is necessary that other things be obscured or left out.
The same is true of music. If every layer of your composition is in exquisite focus and calling for our attention, we will most likely miss the point altogether. So ask yourself every day as you begin: what is it that I actually want the listener to hear?
3. It is large scale form that is ultimately compelling, not individual moments
Great pieces, of course, have both. But I would argue that there are many piece with fantastic moments that do not hold together or remain compelling over their entire duration, while truly great works are those that give us exciting moments within a truly compelling large scale form. This harkens back to the first point in that it takes a much longer time – and a great deal of score study – to learn how form imparts meaning (as opposed to creating an exciting moment), and it then takes a lot of technique to write music that does this effectively.
4. Think about saturation
My guess is that you’re expecting this point to be along the lines of ‘not having everyone play all the time’. Visually, though, saturation provides us with a much more fruitful and precise analogy than this. Saturation has to do with intensity and or purity of a colour. As you move toward a single wavelength of light, the colour becomes more intense/more highly saturated.
This idea of purity and intensity is an extremely helpful one when composing. We can apply it to virtually every parameter of music. Take register as just one example. It isn’t, of course, that you always want everything confined within a single register at all times (just as you would only want to create a photograph that was a single colour for specific artistic reasons), but clarity and distinctiveness of register are hugely important tools to the composer. I see a huge number of scores which – from beginning to end – exist in only the most extreme registers, or even more boringly have music continuously in all possible registers from beginning to end. Think of each new register as an added colour, and you’ll have a perfect visual example of why this so quickly dissolves into a sort of shadeless grey.
5. Young composers: do a lot of work. Older composers: do less.
At the very end of her article, Tiffany adds a sixth piece of advice to photographers: slow down:
If you feel like [your] photographs are just missing the target, despite correct exposure and other technicalities, by all means, don’t rush yourself. Take your time to fully evaluate the setting and the subject.
This can be useful advice for the composer, but my experience with young composers suggests to me that actually the most important thing to overcoming this is simply getting through a significant body of work. The best way I’ve ever heard this explained is by Ira Glass (well worth 2 minutes of your time!):
But a note of caution. Often, once you achieve some success, you find that you have to speed up your work dramatically as you clamour to fulfil a growing number of commissions. I think that it is at this point that the advice “slow down” is so important. Playing out your compositional technique at top-speed might be fun for a while, but it inevitably leads to repetition and makes it impossible to really step back and critique your work. Now, every composer is different, but my own observation is that this speed – the speed at which we can continue to be truly creative and meaningful in our music is much slower than we expect it to be.
So there you have it. Five pieces of advice to make your music more compelling. What have I missed? Where am I wrong? I’d hugely value your further comments below!
Thanks To Christian Carey for this!
|July 1, 2013 10:00 am||to||July 6, 2013 7:00 pm|
I’m really excited to announce that I’ve been selected as a for the 2013 Cheltenham Composer Academy.
I will be writing a new sextet for the Dr. K Sextet, to be premiered on 6 July at the Cheltenham Music Festival, and will have workshops at the festival with the sextet and composers Kenneth Hesketh, Arlene Sierra, Peter Wiegold and Christopher Fox.
It’s turning into a very busy summer!
|May 3, 2013|
|11:00 am||to||6:00 pm|
As part of the LSO Soundhub Scheme (who are currently accepting applications), I’ll be at LSO St. Luke’s this morning working with LSO Principal Second Violin (and previous member of the Arditti Quartet) David Alberman and Elaine Gould (senior new music editor at Faber Music of Behind Bars fame!)
The morning session will be a reflection on creating orchestral parts (I assume with an emphasis on string parts), while the afternoon will include a workshop of some new sketches and pieces composed for Mr. Alberman by various Soundhub composers. The pieces were supposed to include ‘at least one’ harmonic. Mine ended up with a few more than that…
I’ll be back with some reflections and a summary of the day later this week!
|April 23, 2013|
|9:30 pm||to||10:30 pm|
Tonight at 9:30pm I’ll be on Resonance FM discussing composing for voice. There’ll be an extended discussion of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, along with a broadcast of The Riot Ensemble’s world premiere of my work ‘Plainer Sailing.’
|May 12, 2013|
|11:20 am||to||12:00 pm|
I’m really pleased to have gotten through to the London Sinfonietta Academy‘s live conducting auditions. The course (and audition panel) is being led by George Benjamin. The audition will include the 2nd and 4th movements of Oliver Knussen’s Songs Without Voices. It’s a really exciting opportunity and I’ll be working hard on preparing the score over the coming weeks!
A life’s collection
Fills many fractured rooms.
Pieces of plates -
neatly stacked -
and wine glass stems
perfectly lit in the glass-doored cupboard.
Try pouring yourself out into these vessels
and you’re bound to pick up some deep cuts on the way in or the way out.
To anyone who’s ever created a warm bed of life from two metal sticks,
it’s no wonder
life stings a bit at the seams.
But you’ve got to go right down them
because there’s a particular way a deadly cold seeps in:
Not like a thief but a sledgehammer
lifted again and again,
high over you or your opponent’s head
and somehow – every time -
still a surprise when it comes down.
|April 13, 2013|
My review of the Royal Opera House’s closing night performance of George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s Written on Skin is now up on I Care If You Listen.
…Librettist Crimp describes Written on Skin in the programme notes as a “hot story set within a cold frame,” and Benjamin approached his setting in very much this way. In his music, the ‘hot centre’ are the voices. They are virtually omnipresent in the opera, and often times appear to be singing with only the sparsest accompaniment from the orchestra. Benjamin knew the exact voices to be employed in the premiere production when he was writing the opera. This comes through clearly as the voices spread out over their full ranges, interweave perfectly in a number of stunning duets and trios, and come back time and again to their most colourful and expressive notes…