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11 Jan  

(With apologies to Jim Aitchison, as this covers some of the same ground as his own recent blog)

How very ‘present’ the past is these days. Our daily existence finds the past ghosting up beside us and making an appearance in so many ways: retro designs, the nostalgic costume dramas and history programmes on TV, and the current fascination for tracing the family tree, to name a few of many examples. No other culture has been as entranced with previous times as our own is.

I find the past endlessly fascinating, not for the reasons I’ve mentioned above but for the fact that it gives us a chance to see the world through other’s eyes, to try and break out of our own contemporary conditioning. When I’m in London I’ll often visit the British Museum, and wandering from room to room I come across affirmations of being and awareness; the way octopus designs curl cleverly around Minoan pottery, the Sumerian sculptures of power and shamanistic presence, the perfected and dramatic forms of ancient Greece. As I can’t access the music of these distant cultures I can at least see how they created artefacts that tackled problems of visual depiction - form and space, the precision of content – and somehow this experience, and my reflections on it, throws my own creative processes into relief. It also shows me how much creativity is enabled, and restricted, by the medium that is available for it to work through.

From a musical point of view, a quick survey of the contemporary composer’s resources proves illuminating. Instruments have reached a stage of ‘finite technology’; there are only so many ways one can produce sound – blow, pluck, scrape - and these seem to have been mostly explored. Electronic music has added a new dimension, but has failed to have more than a fringe impact in the classical arena. Another piece of finite technology is tonality, which slowly developed its complex and expressive system of harmonic relationships until it appeared to exhaust all possibilities. As classical composers we worry a great deal about the regressive aspects of writing tonal music, but the rest of the musical world seems happily undisturbed by this question – pop, rock, jazz, and many other styles, continue to produce new music that recycles the same harmonies. Are we fretting unnecessarily? After all, novelists fashion their work within the context of a verbal language that is developing very slowly, and mostly by small additions of vocabulary than by any larger changes to grammar and syntax.

If instruments are no longer developing in new directions, and if it is hard to create any previously unused harmonic relationships, is there any sense of the ‘new’ in music. Is it even necessary? Am I running up a white flag by suggesting that novelty and innovation are no longer a composer’s prized aspirations?!

Much of the music written in the decades that followed 1945 had something of the ‘shock of the new’ about it; graphic notation, improvisation, total serialism, silence, mobile forms, and so on. Many of these innovations have withered and failed to produce a genuinely new language that can move music forward; there were of course interesting offshoots from these experiments that shouldn’t be ignored, but they have not become mainstream. More importantly, there was a mindset during this period that contemporary music should be intensely serious, profound, difficult (to both listen to, and perform), and always striving to break new ground. This approach seems to have alienated audiences to the extent that contemporary classical music is now virtually off the cultural map.

François Couperin once wrote, ‘I would say, quite honestly, that I greatly prefer that which touches me to that which surprises me,’ a viewpoint that I’d concur with. The question of what was being communicated in post war music was at times ignored in favour of a scramble for innovation; no wonder so many listeners lost interest. Technical modifications and cutting edge processes were rarely partners to new sentiments, although some composers could do both, and continue to excite me today as much as they did when I first encountered their music.

This is why, for me, the experience of hanging around the British Museum is so important – a mixture of caffeine and culture is always heady anyway. Looking at the exhibits one can see objects that offer up passion, beauty, ritual, enjoyment, pleasure, craftsmanship, and many other qualities. Some show incredible technical refinement, others have a strange mythic presence.

The creative hurly-burly of the last two centuries (or to be precise, the whole process of the emancipation of the artist after the French Revolution) seems to have slowed. If we are to get modern classical music back into cultural life perhaps we need to worry less about the future of music, and more about the qualities we invest in the pieces we are writing right now. Those who fashioned Greek vases, or the decorative motifs of ancient Egypt, were not concerned with ground breaking innovation, but with pleasure, meaning and communication, which is why these objects still speak to us after all this time.

An afterthought: I was listening to BBC Radio 4 today – there was a trailer for a new series of programmes in which the comedian/writer/actor Lenny Henry is to explore three things that he’s always failed to get his head around. The trailer announced, ‘Lenny Henry will examine the plays of Samuel Beckett, the paintings of Jackson Pollock…and maths.’  There was a slight pause before the ‘and maths’ bit, in which my mind automatically filled in the blank with ‘the music of Stockhausen’. It was a logical thought, literature/art/music; but it turned out to be one of the many instances in cultural life that one notices contemporary classical music only because of its absence!

8 Jan  

Ahead of his 50th birthday concert on Sunday 7 February 2010 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the London Sinfonietta has produced a new podcast profiling composer George Benjamin.

Sara Mohr-Pietsch talks to the composer about his life’s work, influences and compositional styles highlighting the music that has brought him international renown.


For a further overview of Benjamin's work see our feature article by Gavin Thomas

7 Jan  

The good folks over at Sequenza 21 have been fortunate enough to link up with world-renowned violinist Hilary Hahn, to do a series of composer interviews. In the latest video, Hilary interviews composer David Lang, who's Little Match Girl Passion won the Pulitzer Prize 2008 (which you can listen to at the Carnegie Hall website  )

David talks about his creative process, how in his training he felt your duty was to push all your composer colleagues under buses, and how, despite winning the Pulitzer, he is on the whole not in favour of competitions. It's a fascinating insight into one of the US's most prominent composers.


Video Part 2
Video Part 3

1 Jan  

I am writing a piece at the moment, a singspiel, which is taken from a satirical story by Hoffman. Hoffman was satirising Napoleonic times with its delusions of grandeur and attendant subservient flunkeys – a universal theme if ever there was one! Although I have moved the story away from Napoleon, I feel that I want to keep one foot in the early 19th century, and so I am referencing Rossini a bit, and using one particular melody ‘Di tanti palpiti’ from Tancredi (for all you Rossini fans!) as a basic source material for the music.

This tune is a real ohrwurm. I do recommend that you look at the Wikipedia entry for earworm ( – it is amazing how much people have thought about tunes that get stuck in your head. And did you know that earworms should not be confused with ‘endomusia, a serious affliction, through which a sufferer actually hears music that is not playing externally.’ Hmm.

The brief for my singspiel was that the theme of the festival it’s in is Robert Schumann and mental health, and you may know that Robert Schumann had endomusia, and sometimes believed that angels were dictating pieces to him. But I wonder just where the dividing line is between hearing music in your head when you are composing and the serious affliction known as endomusia? I often wake up in the night and the piece I am writing is playing in my head, and I maybe even find it is solving a problem. (Sometimes I find it thinks it is solving a problem but it is not.) But whatever, I am always reassured that in the attic room that is my subconscious, work is being done while I (the drone) get to sleep.

Boulez - hard to remember?History demonstrates that it seems to be important for a piece of music to be memorable in order for it to survive. But it is hard to define what memorability means. It doesn’t mean easy or hard, for something like the Rite of Spring is extremely memorable, both melodically and harmonically. When I was in the BBC Singers it was always interesting what stayed in your mind and what didn’t. We recorded all of Boulez’ choral works, and performed them many times and yet personally I could not sing you anything from any of them, or even properly recall them in the way that I can recall The Rite. Sometimes as soon as the rehearsal had finished, the music was gone and the reigning earworm whether it was by Reich, Radiohead or even me, would return as if it had simply been put on hold.

Pieces which have been heard only once but have impressed can be recalled months or years later in a sort of compressed memory chip, some aural image of them which has been retained. What it is that makes them memorable is not necessarily that they can be whistled, like Rossini, but that something about them is so important to us personally that we need to repeat the memory of them. Maybe our subconscious minds are sending us some sort of psychological message in the same way that I believe illness is a physical message. I realise that this is an unsatisfactory explanation! and would welcome everyone’s input. Meanwhile, I must get back to the serious affliction that is composing.

17 Dec  

I would like to update you on a festival in Moscow called Homecoming - a series of chamber music concerts.  The idea was that the young top classical musicians who where educated at Moscow’s best music schools and subsequently settled in Europe return to Moscow every winter to play together.  The festival, which started as a small group of friends making music to their pleasure, gradually grew into a major event on Moscow’s classical scene.  Newspapers, programmes on national TV and Radio extensively cover it every season.   The festival has its own devoted audience; when the house is full, people stand through the concerts or sit on window sills – in Russia they are not as conscious of safety rules! 

Each year the Homecoming Festival commissions a new piece from a young contemporary composer –Dobrinka Tobakova, Ed Bennet and Brian Irvine are among the names you might know.  Sometimes, European musicians are invited to join - this winter they have a British soprano Anna Dennis, who is going to sing Ades’ Life Story, Stravinsky’s songs and my own Two Cat Songs. Whatever new music Homecoming features, it is cleverly put in a context which allows a quite traditionally-minded Russian audience to digest it.

As well as premiers, the Homecoming musicians perform varied and eclectic programmes consisting of music of all possible epochs and styles.  Each concert has a unifying theme. This season, for example, two themes are ‘Counterpoint’, with music by Guillaume Dufay, Webern, Schostakovich, Glinka, Reger, Schnittke and Beethoven, and ‘In Nature’ featuring works by Coelestin Harst (1698-1776), George Crumb, Stravinsky, Giacino Scelsi, Latvian minimal composer George Pelecis. 

The concept of mixing contemporary music with other music is obviously not new.  Still, I believe it is one of the best ways to create an exciting programme.  Besides the programming, I think the success of the new music within the festival is due to the prodigious musicality of the performers, who bring exactly the same level of precision and interpretative refinement to their renditions of contemporary pieces as they would to a Schubert song or Beethoven string quartet.

For more information, visit the Homecoming Festival page on its Artistic Director’s website:

16 Dec  

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Things can get very daunting very quickly if you don’t break things down into their component parts and set yourself small tasks. You should always try to have a good sense of the whole, but, as you can’t write the whole thing in one sitting, once you have that sense, just work on small tasks for a while.

2)    Don’t throw sketches away, even the things that didn’t work. Revisit them. You may well find with a fresh perspective that there’s something there. If you don’t find that, try to understand why something doesn’t work. That can be a valuable lesson. Go back and look at your initial sketches. I’ve lost count of the amount of times that I’ve gone back to look at my initial sketch only to find some compositional nugget scrawled on the corner of a page that has become the key that unlocks the piece.

3)    This is a little thing, but something that I find quite useful: When you finish for the day, leave a little something undone. Nothing that requires a half hour of trying to figure out what you were doing, but something that you need to fix the next day. That way you’ll start up working again more easily.

The fifth and final thing is the use of external creativity tools, something that gets the creative juices flowing, beyond the musical sphere. Some composers read, some go to art galleries, some watch movies, some go for long walks. I suppose I do my combination of all of those but there are things to help that you can find from the comfort of your own work desk. One thing that a friend sent to me recently I haven’t really used, but I’ll pass it on as something that might be quite useful: Brain Eno and Peter Schmidt’s “Oblique Strategies”. They started life as cards in a pack for use when ideas were at a premium in the studio. You can buy a new edition of the cards, but you can also find them online, here for example:

That’s pretty much it. The creative process is a strange thing and so many things happen along to way to give the impression of randomness but you can control some of the variables. Every composer has his or her own way of working, but most composers that I’ve spoken to do some variation of the above. There will always be emotional highs and lows along the way, just remember that everyone goes through this. That’s part and parcel of the creative process and you can mitigate some of it by trying some of the methods above. If you’re in the throws of creative depression and you want to make yourself feel better, just take a look at Beethoven’s sketches. If trial and error and frustration are good enough for Beethoven, they’re good enough for me.