Concertino for Piano and Small Ensemble

My trip to Venice in October 2011 was in order to attend the premiere of my Concertino, which was written earlier in the year for the Ex Novo Ensemble. The concert took place at the Conservatorio Benedetto Marcello where I had been a student of Rubin de Cervin and Sinopoli for one year in the 1970s. (Photos: Roderik de Man)

When that I was and a little tiny boy………….

ct-jester_14253_lgGRAVY EVERYWHERE

Finish your plate they said, because Chinese children don’t have enough to eat. Where was the logic to that? Anyway, we had to finish whatever bad-smelling rubbish they put on our plates.

And once, one end of a trestle table we were sitting at collapsed and all the plates slid off on to the floor. Wonderful, but scary. Several of us were called to the headmaster’s office to explain what had happened. Somebody had loosened the screws at one end of the table. Not me.

Oh nice. Gravy everywhere. Boys could have slid around in it, made slides, as they did in the playground during winter time. Long slides, until the bloody teachers put salt on them. .

But I didn’t do it, sir. And I didn’t do it.

Those shit meals, they deserved to be tossed on the floor.

PLASTICINE

Take some plasticine to make a model. You can roll it in your hands and make long worms of it. And eat some on the sly because it tastes nice, though somewhat gritty. .

BUDS

The playground was where boys played football against a wall. They didn’t invite me and I wasn’t interested. I looked instead at the branches of trees. Something sticky there and budding. The teacher brought the branches into the classroom and we watched them explode with green leaves.

YOUR FACE

Your face, like a mask or helmet – perfectly symmetrical – but I didn’t know I loved you, as the word had not yet been born in my mind, let alone in my mouth. Only the feeling was there. But you were definitely a hero, of sorts, me trotting after you like a dog. Until you invited me to go swimming one Saturday morning and I said yes. But didn’t go, out of shame, because I couldn’t actually swim. You were angry and after that we never spoke again.

MR KING, TEACHER OF THE TOP CLASS AT JUNIOR SCHOOL

Frightening old bald man with my father’s name. He loved Gilbert and Sullivan. He asked me to sing some and I sang what I knew and loved – a short cadenza from the Yeoman of the Guard. But he wanted a tune, complete with “comic words”. He showed his disappointment. Another time I stole a swig of some home-made dandelion wine from his cupboard. Daring. And it tasted nice. It’s possible I still like cadenzas more than tunes. And I don’t bother about words, comic, or otherwise.

RADIANCE I – SOMETHING IN THE SKY

Once, sitting on a low wall I saw something bright in the sky. What was that? There were no words even to think it, let alone describe it. But I knew it wasn’t meant to be there.

CRAYONS

The teacher promised us a gift of crayons and I was delighted. But in the end we received only wax ones – which babies used. I took them home. My sister saw me walking up the stairs in a rage and asked what was wrong. I explained and she said she wanted the crayons. I threw them down to her and they broke in pieces at her feet. She cried. We were very poor. Couldn’t even afford coloured pencils. That’s where the rage came from I guess. There was a lot of crying in that freezing cold, dark, empty, broken-down home.

RADIANCE II – A MAN IN BLUE

Once, crossing the road diagonally to our house on Boswell Road, I passed a young man who was so radiant I turned round to stare at him and just stood there. I was too young to know I shouldn’t do that. He was dressed in blue. I would like to know now what that exact image was, because, sometimes, when I see the colour blue, the feeling of that radiance returns – radiance, with no words, like music.

BEST DAY AT SCHOOL

Right before Christmas, we got to make paper chains. The coloured strips had glue on the back which you licked. They came in packets, each packet one colour. You made a circle of one strip, then looped the next one through it, making another circle of that one. And so on, in an interlocking chain. Nowadays I would be busy calculating which order to put the colours in, but in those days, I hadn’t developed an interest in numbers. On the other hand, I still appreciate Christmas for its colours, its lights and the stillness of winter.

A tune, a dream, a cat

Woman With a Cat c.1875 Renoir
Woman With a Cat c.1875 Renoir
Over the summer I worked on a piece for Chinese instruments. It was a frustrating time, just reading about them and listening to recordings, yet not knowing the nuts and bolts in terms of tuning, range and fingering etc. I couldn’t compose with certainty. The sounds of Chinese instruments are absolutely beautiful, however the issue is how to write for them appropriately.

I remember way back in my Royal College of Music days one of my teachers (it was Mr. X, if you must know) saying that he didn’t care how players made the sounds he wrote for them. It was an attitude I found at the time impressive, but nowadays find completely baffling. Why on earth would one NOT care? Mr. X was speaking at a peculiar moment in music history and he was not alone in his attitude. Therefore one cannot condemn him, just condemn the zeitgeist. And condemnation is easier than understanding where someone is coming from and I prefer trying to work that out.

Anyway, finally I threw up my hands in despair and said to my composer friend Luiz Yudo (from whom the idea had come to write such a piece) that I would simply transcribe what I had done for Western instruments. I was angry and didn’t quite manage to spare him from seeing that, even snapping at him when he put pressure on me not to give up.

After I had this conversation with Luiz, I went to bed and dreamed about the issue of the Chinese ensemble in an oblique, yet none the less clear manner. In the dream I had moved to a new house. It was very tall and there were many rooms and a few people already living there. My space was at the top of this house. One of my former partners was in the dream too and I asked him to wait for me in my new rooms. I was apprehensive however that he would run off, as he was nervous and indeed when I returned he was gone – but only gone in human form, as he had undergone a surreal transformation from former partner to feline quadruped and was now a nervous black cat hiding under a piece of furniture in the dark. When I called to him, he came out from his hiding place, cautious but trusting. I woke up with a familiar melody in my mind and understood that this had to be in my new piece. The cat in the dream WAS the melody actually. I woke at five in the morning, but I was really wide awake. I went straight to the desk and back to studying the fingering charts for the Chinese instruments, knowing what I had to do.

Still in the end, a few days later I gave up, defeated by the practical difficulties involved in the novel instrumentation.

When Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta performed my Magritte Weather at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 2000, I was interviewed on stage by the Stravinsky biographer Stephen Walsh. He asked me a question about the influence of dreams on my work (Magritte Weather had been conceived in a dream and he had spotted the fact in my programme note). It was an awkward moment because I didn’t know how to put into words the considerable influence dreams have on me. Ten years later I give here a good answer to his question.

It was reading Jung back in the late 1960s that first alerted me to the significance of dreams and their influence on human activities. And I think I was introduced to this literature by my piano teacher, the formidable Alan Rowlands.

Now, a note about that tune and the black cat of my dream. Like a cat, I am often anxious and cautious, for no good reason. Hence, perhaps, my empathy with these furry friends. My family tells me that when I was at the nursery I once carried a cat that lived there all the way home and as I was only 4 when I went to school, I can’t have been more than that when the event took place. I only very faintly remember it, but looking back, I mainly wonder at the way children were handled in those days – I think the nurses had given me the cat – such a small boy on his own, no doubt struggling with a nervous cat on a busy street, it wouldn’t occur nowadays I imagine.

With regard to the tune that the cat embodied – the British organist and composer Michael Bonaventure had been staying with me shortly before all this took place. I took the opportunity to play him this tune which had been in my mind for several years. It’s a chorale, and more English than German. Michael is playing in church every Sunday, so I asked him if it was really my tune or just something remembered. He found some phrases a bit familiar, but that was all, so I got the go-ahead to use it.

Speaking to Hamish

Old Town Edinburgh from Calton Hill, G.W.Wilson 1870s
Old Town Edinburgh from Calton Hill, G.W.Wilson 1870s

Hamish is my closest friend, albeit a fairly grumpy one. He has seen much of my joy and sorrow and commented on nearly all of what he has seen. There has been plenty of laughter along the way. It is now over 20 years since I left Edinburgh but the connection with him has grown stronger, not weaker. Artistic matters are the most personal of all and I have been able to discuss these with him, but not so candidly with others. Like everyone, I am guarded about what is most personal. Yet I have the necessary release of being able to share my private world with this one friend.

Though Hamish is not a musician, he hears me out on my ideas for writing music, saying what he finds positive and what he finds negative. And this is good as one wishes in any case to reach out to a public that does not comprise simply fellow composers. Our music descends into a purely professional activity if we are not careful. We speak to each other like doctors whose jargon excludes the general public. Yet music is intended for that general public just as much as medicine is. Indeed, is it not a sort of medicine? At college, where one sits in the auditorium amongst fellow students, listening to the work of other students, one acquires a taste for “purely professional activity”.

So, in a long conversation last night I explained what I have been planning for the group in Venice I am writing for. It is a radical departure for me, though in a direction I have tried to travel before. There is a point of departure, a direction, a route, a goal, and all things must align themselves if the voyage is to happen. Yes, I can be honest and admit that I have spent a great deal of time hanging around the harbour “getting ready” whereas I was actually “getting into trouble” of various kinds. After I talked to Hamish and he approved my ideas, I felt a nice puff of wind in my sails and some forward momentum as a result.

Annelie de Man

The news of the death of my colleague and friend, the harpsichordist Annelie de Man, arrived today in a letter from her husband, the composer Roderik de Man.

Let me say something about what I most admired about Annelie. She was a first rate musician, a world class harpsichordist. I loved the way she could speak her mind and tell the truth about what she believed. She was everlastingly enthusiastic and positive and energetic. She dedicated herself to lifting up her instrument to a new level. She reached out and helped other musicians. I myself wrote a piece for her that certainly wouldn’t exist otherwise and she recorded it.

Notwithstanding the grief which is shared by many, I want above all to say to Annelie herself, congratulations. You achieved so much in this life. God blessed you with a high intelligence and high talent but you matched that with hard work and dedication. He is well pleased with you, we can be sure about that.

Open and closed

117af-magritte-rene-la-victoire-9952604In 1987/88, when I was (briefly) doing a composer-in-residence job in the north of England, I started going out with a guy I met there. He wasn’t a student but was that sort of age. He’d left school and was already working. I was cheating on my partner, who lived in another city far away, so I was feeling uneasy about that. One day the young guy told me his favourite singer was Tracy Chapman. I smiled at him sweetly thinking to myself: “Why am I with this moron who likes pop music?” I assumed directly that Tracy Chapman was some pop bimbo of the moment. But actually I didn’t know anything about her………….so my reaction was pure prejudice, pure snobbery. And, as I indicate, it was deceitful, because my thoughts were not “sweet”. In fact it was deceit within deceitfulness, given the circumstances. Crystalline deceit, lies reflecting from every wall…..

Today, nearly 23 years on, I watched a video of Tracy Chapman’s song “Fast Car”. I’d been attracted to this song which was coming over the radio at work and elsewhere. I didn’t know what it was and I decided to track it down. Imagine my surprise when I found out…..

I loved it. It’s gorgeous. She’s gorgeous.

It’s a long time to be mistaken about something, but realizing the error is not an unpleasant experience. On the contrary, it’s interesting. Suddenly discovering such a “mistake”, if that’s the correct word, half a lifetime later shines a light on my then ignorance. And it shines a light on my then prejudice and snobbery. Also it shines a light on now. I think I am “open” today but perhaps I am simply “closed” in new ways. Am I open, am I closed? Am I good, am I bad? The questions are not futile, just tricky.

“Know thyself” seems to be a saying featured in nearly every religious text. I am guessing though that to achieve such an understanding requires opening up your heart and seeing everything that is there..

Disobeying the die

diceWalking yesterday in Rembrandtpark, I had my 20-sided die with me in my pocket – the green one, that I use partly for yes/no answers. This had not only brought me to the park – I couldn’t decide where to walk – but it was also guiding me around it. Naturally there are many different directions to take, all more or less equal in their appeal…… I came to a fork and the die said go right but I went left. Right only led to the children’s zoo and from a distance I had already seen that it was crowded with people. Nowhere to sit there. So I was wrong to give a decision to the die as there was actually no choice to be made.

I was looking for a quiet bench as I wanted to compose the variation theme for the piano sonata I had started the day before. I had brought manuscript paper with me and a pencil and a rubber. The music was in my head, but only vaguely so. It lacked that specificity that I sometimes have. I like to compose out of doors or in cafes. As I walked through the park I remembered how in the sixth form at school I also used to like sketching out of doors. I miss that. It was a nice time for me. Here in Amsterdam I never see anybody doing that. In Venice you see it the whole time. Why? Because it’s picturesque there? But people should sketch everywhere. Big factory chimneys belching smoke are visually nice too.

I turned left disobeying the die. I thought about that and the irony of my decision. The point of the die of course is to facilitate decisions where there is no obvious choice. It gets you quickly over any hesitation. And yet, disobeying the die like that causes uneasiness. Therefore I must conclude that the randomness is something more than randomness. The die starts to take on an authority, as if it not only chooses, but also sets rules.

It was hard to find a place where people weren’t coming by, as the day was beautiful and the park was full. As I looked for a place I took time to watch people playing. I enjoyed very much watching a rather fat young woman playing football in a little family group. It was a Moslem family I presumed as the women had head scarves on. So the fat woman looked very happy to have that freedom to play football within her family. And I thought directly of Picasso as people are always carping on about the way he depicts the women in his life, but the truth is that there are many paintings of his where he celebrates peace – peaceful scenes like the one I was watching. People free to play in the park without fear of attack. I think that the theme of peace in Picasso is a big one, though perhaps not as important as the theme of eroticism.

I thought a lot about the woman – the meaning of the head scarf and the context in which she was playing, within the family group like that. She had long robes and was really too fat to run properly and was laughing. It made me happy to see her so happy. I found a bench and I started to write. I continued to use the die, twirling it in my left hand and finding the answers I needed whilst writing with my right hand. The die was deciding for me questions to which there were no obvious answers. Apart from the outflow of sound (I compared it once to the Nile in flood) you can say that composition consists of replying to questions. Meanwhile, the biggest questions aren’t even asked and they are decided for you by the spirit that stands at your shoulder – the real director of things. You don’t see his face as it is the face of a god.

I was writing in four-part counterpoint yesterday rather than in homophonic or chordal texture. So the lines went their separate ways. Later at home I made a neat copy using four coloured pens, so that things didn’t get too confused on the page. I made repeated mistakes and in the end got so tired that I had to abandon the task. Making the mistakes upset me and I realized again that random decisions become as fixed as any others. I wasn’t willing to accept mistakes in what I had decided. Therefore disobeying the die is no simple matter. There’s a bigger issue there.

The colours in the score are very pleasing and are in fact part of the fun of doing it. This morning I was up early and completed the thing quickly. The sun was streaming through the windows in the back room where I worked on the dining table. I thought of the cactuses in the bedroom – they share the room with me and sit in the window behind the curtain. They would be enjoying the same intense light at that moment and I knew they would be content as yesterday I had soaked them in water. I also thought of Venice as the intense light reminded me of springtime there, walking around as a student, completely lost in all those little alleys where everything repeats itself in endless variation. The smells of flowers and of baking, and the bright sunshine and many shadows, the sounds of voices and that delicious Venetian accent which itself is music. Though in those days I had not yet understood the concept of a very wide definition of what music is.

I began to write this note as I waited for my neighbours to wake up so that I could play what I had copied neatly. My piano is dampened with felt. Even so, I fear that the sound travels down through the floor.