The Geometry of Clouds: Sketch and Realization

It took roughly two hours of work this morning to realize this sketch into The Geometry of Clouds.  The five bars of music will be roughly fifteen seconds of music in the final piece.

This piece, for piano quartet, will be premiered this summer at the 2014 Aspen Music Festival.


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5 Non-Musical Books for the Craft of Composing

I’ve recently written a post about 5 Technical Books Every Composer Should OwnWhile these books are fundamental to the technique of being a composer, I have had numerous teachers tell me that they’ve learned far more about composition from non-musical books and artists than they ever did from other composers.

I wonder if some of this is that books from another discipline don’t truly threaten us or the things we come to hold so dearly to as an artist.  A comment about the nature of style is less dangerous to me when it’s about writers or painters than when it is directly about style in music, and therefore has direct implications for my own choices.

I also think that cross-discipline books are important for artists because they force you to come to terms with the things you care about and want to accomplish in the abstract.  The big questions are not “why F-sharp here, and why mezzo-piano there?” but “why do you create at all” and “what we are trying to say?”  When you read about what someone focuses on when writing lyrics, for example, you can take hold of the principles they are speaking about and then do the important work of applying those ideas to your creative process.

In the end, a composer should have both technical and non-technical books on their shelves.  If I had to give up one of these sets tomorrow, though, you’d find all the books below in place on my desk without a second thought.

Bird by Bird1. Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

I was first introduced to this book for an acting course I was doing at University, and I can honestly say that no other book has had such a profound or lasting impact on my thoughts and habits as a composer.  Written as ‘advice to writers’, the overarching idea is that the act of creation is a long one, and that you’ve got to move your eyes from the big things you want to accomplish to the simple act of creating every day.

But it is  the page-by-page humour, compassion and wisdom that this book has really affected me. Here are some things I’ve carried with me for years, and now consider vital to my work:

  • Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts (shitty first drafts).
  • The problem that comes up over and over again is that people want to be successful.  They kind of want to create things, but they really want to be successful. (emphasis added).
  • The dream must be vivid and continuous.

And, finally,

“You need to put yourself at the centre of your work, you and what you believe to be true or right….to be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care….A writer always tries, I think, to be part of the solution, to understand a little about life and pass this on….So a moral position is not a message. A moral position is a passionate caring inside you. We are all in danger now and have everything to face, and there is no point in gathering an audience and demanding its attention unless you have something to say that is important and constructive.”

Josef Albers2. The Interaction of Color, Joself Albers

A classic example of concrete thinking in one discipline being useful as abstract, inspirational material in another.  I was introduced to this work by fantastic young composer Edmund Finnis, and immediately found it so inspirational that I wrote my first piece on the LSO Soundhub Scheme (Interaction) in direct response to its opening chapters.

Take Albers opening:

In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is
- as it physically is.
This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.

In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize
that color deceives continually.
To this end, the beginning is not a study of color systems.

Is this not equally true of pitch?  Of harmony?  Of timbre?  One could spend an entire doctorate thinking about how just these six lines apply to music in all its aspects and forms. I also cannot resist including this absolute gem:

In writing, a knowledge of spelling has nothing to do with an understanding of poetry.

Stephen-Sondheim-Finishing-the-Hat-9637-cropped13. Finishing the Hat (and Look I Made a Hat), Stephen Sondheim

The subtitle of this book goes some way to explaining its wonderful, tongue-in-cheek, insight: “The Collected Lyrics of Stephen Sondheim with attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes.”  The books come in two volumes – Finishing the Hat, Vol 1; and Look I Made a Hat, Vol 2).  I own both, but suggest beginning with the first.  It includes three of my favourite Sondheim musicals (Company, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd), though not the one I consider the best (Sunday in the Park with George) or the one I love the most (Into the Woods). 

The seriousness with which Sondheim takes his craft is obvious from the insightful chapter on “Rhyme and Its Reasons”, the anecdotes are fascinating to any artist (“I had been trained by Oscar Hammerstein to think of a song as a one-act play with either intensifies a moment or moves the story forward”) and the song-by-song analysis of every lyric he wrote for the stage – especially the moments when he criticisizes himself – were eye-opening to me as a composer.

archictecture school-14. 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, Matthew Frederick

I have never found a better analogy to describe the work of composing than to that of an architect.  People have great difficulty understanding how one ‘creates’ a piece, but when it is described in terms of “building a building” (settling on your materials, discovering what you will lay as the foundation, creating different rooms, thinking about the overall shape and structure) it immediately opens up to them.

This is the one book I try to open every single day when I compose. Here are a few of the concrete architectural ideas you might find useful:


  • Our experience of an architectural space is strongly influenced by how we arrive in it.
  • Create architectural richness through informed simplicity or an interaction of simples rather than through unnecessary busy agglomerations.  (!!!)
  • Being process-oriented, not product-driven is the most important and difficult skill for a designer to develop.

These examples are all very quickly and obviously applicable to music.  But I know that Samantha Fernando recently wrote a work for the London Sinfonietta based entirely on the seemingly less-musical tenant: ‘We move through negative spaces and dwell in positive spaces’.

archictecture school-2

I know this because I heard her describe the idea and had used the exact same idea as the starting place for my Wind Quintet How to Avoid Huge Ships. I explained the way the ideas affected the composition in a short introductory video:

Zen and art of Archery5. Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel

Every year during my Doctorate studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Alexander Goehr would come and give a single, three-hour lecture to the composition students.  Each year, without fail, in the final hour Mr. Goehr would turn the discussion to ‘the most important book on composing he’d ever read’: Zen and the Art of Archery.  When, in the first year, I mentioned I’d read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maitenence he derisively wrote off the book (and perhaps me!) as a commercial watering down of the truly important ideas found here.

The overarching premise – and the lesson Mr. Goehr constantly wanted to drive home to us – is that “Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking….when this is attained, man thinks yet he does not think.  He thinks like showers coming down from the sky…”


Note that this book is not a call to abandon technique:

“Far from wishing to waken the artist in the pupil prematurely, the teacher considers it his first task to make him a skilled artisan with sovereign control of their craft.”

So the point ends up being a hugely useful one.  What is all that technique you are developing for?  And how do you put it to good use?  As the artist pursues this, “he grows daily more capable of following any inspiration without technical effort, and also of letting inspiration come to him through meticulous observation.”

So there you have it.  Five non-musical books that can directly impact your outlook on why we do the thing we do, and what it means to be a composer.  I hope some of them might be useful to you, and would love to hear your own suggestions in the comments below!

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2014 Aspen Music Festival

June 16, 2014 10:00 amtoAugust 17, 2014 5:00 pm

aspen1I’m very pleased to have been offered (and to have accepted!) a full scholarship to attend and study at the 2014 Aspen Summer Music Festival.  I’ll be writing a new orchestral piece (after my work with the BBCSO this past year) and a new chamber work for the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble.  Faculty at the festival include Steven Stucky, George Tsontakis and Christopher Theofanidis.  It’s looking to be a very excited (and very beautiful) summer!

Aspen Music Festival tent

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5 Technical Books Every Composer Should Own

I’m a rather avid collector of books, and unsurprisingly a large number of my books are either directly or indirectly connected to my work as a musician.  Over the next few weeks, I’m going to bring together a couple of lists of books that help, inspire and challenge me as a composer.

As someone who has also spent some time presenting concerts and conducting new music, I believe that the one thing all composers share in 2014 is the need for a rock-solid technique.  Rehearsal time is too fleeting and the economic realities of our profession too pressing to waste time and energy creating music that is (unintentionally) imprecise or obtuse.  The books below are a suggested starting place for a contemporary composer’s library of technical books.  They will not always provide creative drive or inspiration (though they certainly can), but will instead help a composer develop a rigorous technique with the fundamental tools that allow a composer to write their music in the clearest, most practical way possible.

1. Behind Bars, Elaine Gould (Notation)

Behind BarsWhat size should my staves be in an orchestral score? What is the correct order of technical instructions in a string part? How do I notate note-values that do not divide according to standard beat division? How should I notate a pedal buzz on the harp?

Every experienced composer will have encountered the complaint that computer notation software – while incredibly useful – seems to be creating a generation of composers who have lost basic notation skills.  I’ve recently noticed more and more young composers taking to Facebook to throw notation questions to the crowd, and am always amazed at how stubborn, impassioned and (I must say) downright wrong much of the advice that comes back through these posts really is. With this in mind, every composer should race to get this encyclopaedic treatise by Elaine Gould, the Senior New Music Editor at Faber Music since 1987.  Moreover, more than just a place where I can go to read about notation, I have discovered numerous instrumental techniques I’d never heard of before finding a description of their notation in Behind Bars.  

It is an admittedly expensive place to start but – especially considering the growing number of digital orchestration resources now available – it is absolutely the first and most important book any composer should own.

Behind Bars Sample

A sample page from Behind Bars, discussing technical notations in string parts

2. An Orchestration Book

Instrumentation and OrchestrationThere are any number of adequate orchestration books.  It can be tremendously useful for a composer to own a few of these books, and to take the time to read each chapter on a particular instrument when starting a new solo or chamber piece.  If I had to pick of the orchestration books I currently own (which include Adler, Piston, Rimsky-Korsakov, Brant and Del Mar) I’d recommend a composer begin with Blatter’s Instrumentation and Orchestration.  

All orchestration books will give you a largely similar (short) background on the instrument, discussion of its physical characteristics and some (generally minor) discussion of possible effects and extended techniques.  Blatter’s book is thorough and, in my experience, the most accurate of the texts.  I also appreciate – and have greatly benefited from – Blatter’s chapters on transcription and scoring for some of the more common ensembles.


3. How to Write for Percussion (Samuel Solomon)

percussionOf all the ‘instruments’ to write for in the orchestra, none is harder to master than percussion.  Percussionists play about a hundred ‘standard’ instruments, followed by about a million other instruments from around the world.  This is only slight hyperbole.

Each of these instruments has their own idiosyncrasies including notation, tuning (if they are pitched), range and mallets.  It is easy for a composer to fall in love with a sound – say a gong dipped into water – without ever thinking about just how big a bucket you need to successfully dip that gong into, just how heavy that bucket becomes when filled with enough water to create the effect, and just how hard it will be to carry that bucket from the nearest bathroom, up three flights of stairs, to the concert stage.  (True story.)

Percussionists must find/borrow/purchase the instruments you want, incorporate them into what is likely a totally new set-up and then learn to play them to a reasonably high standard.  They do this while standing further from the music than any other musician, often moving from one stand to another mid-performance.  Don’t forget to count!

Even all of this just scratches the surface of the complexity that comes in writing for percussion instruments, and so it is well worth every composer’s time to sit down with Solomon’s book and think deeply about the concrete physical challenges that face every percussionist, and the clearest and most practical way to achieve what they want in their music.

4The Technique of my Musical Language (Olivier Messiaen, trans. John Satterfield)

Messiaen is obviously widely regarded as one of the most important composers of the 20th Century, and he was also an incredibly important and influential teacher (his students included Boulez, Xenakis, Stockhausen, George Benjamin, etc…)  This book includes chapters detailing Messiaen’s rhythmic, melodic, harmonic and formal techniques (along with a short discussion of bird-song).  It’s an incredibly important book for composers, and especially for young composers, not just because it gives you a quick way to learn from Messiaen’s techniques, but because it gives an overview of a composer who was so thoroughly rigorous in every area of his thinking.  In the end, each composer may take or leave these ideas, but interacting with them is a clear and useful way to develop as a musician.

Messiaen discusses melodic development

Messiaen discusses melodic development

5. Elliott Carter’s Harmony Book (Edited by Nicholas Hopkins and John F. Link)

Carter HarmonyThis is a highly technical reference book, but one which absolutely opened up my eyes to a number of harmonic possibilities I would simply never have conceived without coming across it.  This book is not about learning voice leading or ‘how to harmonise’.  It is, instead, a massive cross-referenced encyclopaedia of harmonies.  Compiled by Carter over 20 years, it includes every possible chord of 2-6 notes (presented in prime form) placed alongside its complementary chord (that is, all the notes which are not already present in the first chord).  The chords are further broken down into their subgroups (e.g. which 3-note chords does this 6-note chord contain?)

The real use I found in this book were the possibilities it opened up in formal harmonic planning.  By digging into the chords in a systematic way, Carter found and utilised deep connections that are not always present on the surface.  One does need to be careful that the necessary connections are audible in the eventual music, but as a pre-compositional tool and general approach to harmonic thought, I have found this book to be invaluable.


So there you have it.  The five technical books I would suggest every composer should have in their library.  Do you agree?  Disagree?  What books would you add or take away?


Opus 2014: Shortlist

December 6, 2013
10:30 amto4:30 pm
January 11, 2014toJanuary 12, 2014

It’s a pleasure to announce that I’ve been shortlisted for the Britten Sinfonia’s OPUS2014 competition.  I am currently composing a wind quintet (my second of 2013!), which will be workshopped with the Britten Sinfonia – under the watchful eye of Huw Watkins – in January.  From that point, one of the composers will be selected to complete their piece for a series of concerts with the Sinfonia in Autumn 2014.

Obviously I’m just beginning the work, but I’ve already landed on the title of my new piece: The Dialect of Lunatic Hurricanes.  This is taken from the first poem in the most recent issue of Modern Poetry Translation Magazine, which focuses on Polish poetry.   In her opening editorial, Sasha Dugdale makes a powerful case – in the line of Seamus Heaney’s The Impact of Translation - that we have a constant need for voices that are ‘credible, desolating and resuscitative.’  That the roads taken by the leading lights of the generations ahead of us are not the only options.

I have been approaching this work as very close family friends deal with an extremely difficult situation involving one of their young children.  As I’ve rolled the music over and around in my head, these words – “credible, desolating and resuscitative” – have been resonating with me as the responsibility of artists when we are responding to suffering in the world.  Without ever being indulgent, we must be serious about representing and responding to the world as it actually is.

It’s hard to know how much of our own situation we read into art, but for me, all of these ideas were seemingly wrapped up into the very first poem in the magazine.  That poem, Dialect of Hurricanes – translated by André Naffis-Sahely from Frankétienne‘s original French opens:

Every day, I use the dialect of lunatic hurricanes.
I speak the folly of colliding winds.
Ever evening, I use the patois of furious rains.
I speak the fury f flooding waters.
Every night, I speak to the Caribbean islands in the tongue of
hysterical storms. I speak the hysteria of the roaring sea.
Dialect of hurricanes. Patois of rains. Language of storms. Flow
of the spiralling life….



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LSO: Friday Afternoon’s

November 22, 2013
6:00 pmto7:30 pm

I’ve written two arrangements of Benjamin Britten’s Friday Afternoonsa set of twelve songs he wrote for school children in 1935.  These arrangements (of ‘I mun be married on Sunday’ and ‘Jazz Man’) will be performed by London Symphony Orchestra players on their (nearly sold out!) Friday Afternoons concert on Friday 22nd November.

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Every Riven Thing: 2nd Performance

December 5, 2013
7:30 pmto10:30 pm

My song setting of Christian Wiman’s poem Every Riven Thing - written as part of the 2013 Aldeburgh English Song Project - will receive it’s 2nd performance at Club Inegales on Thursday 5th December.  Presented by The Riot Ensemble, the song will be performed by tenor Oliver Brignall and pianist Charis Cheung.

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London Sinfonietta: Interview

I’ve done an interview for the London Sinfonietta in connection with my recent commission for their New Music Show (part of their ‘Writing the Future‘ scheme).  The questions range from the challenges of writing for a solo instrument, to the process of collaborating with students from Central St. Martin’s School of Design.

Support Writing the Future

You can support the London Sinfonietta’s work with emerging composers on the Writing the Future scheme by texting LSF001 followed by your donation amount to 70970.  Donations can be £3, £5 or £10.



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Minnesota Public Radio: Profile & Interview

My many thanks to Alison Young for this extremely kind profile and interview on Minnesota Public Radio.

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Gruppen and The Londonist

October 6, 2013
6:00 pmto9:00 pm

It was my pleasure to host a number of bloggers – on behalf of The Londonist – at the London Sinfonietta and Royal Academy of Music’s performance of Gruppen on Sunday 6th October.  They’ve now had a chance to reflect on the experience and have written a number of interesting responses to the evening which you can see over at The Londonist (Three Orchestras Playing at Once: Gruppen – the Verdict).

The Londonist will also be sending bloggers to my upcoming premiere with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in November, and I do hope some of these people will return to hear the London Sinfonietta perform In Vain in December!

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