Alcibiades being taught by Socrates

Alcibiades being taught by Socrates

(The sound of wind in trees) (a spotlight illuminates two characters sitting next to each other on stage, Tybert to the left and Rose to the right)

Tybert (T): Can you tell me please, Rose, should a new and original kind of music be arrived at by thinking hard and planning hard, or in some other way?

Rose (R): If you put a question like that to anyone around here, they will probably dismiss it and tell you just to write down or to perform the music that comes to you from your imagination. For myself, I don’t have an immediate answer to your question. I am clueless in so many things.

By the way Tybert, are you male or female? You are so covered with fur it is not easy to tell. You see how ignorant I am……..

T: If I am so covered with fur that you don’t know my gender, then leave it at that. What does it matter? I go by the name of Tibby in any case and that should do for any gender. Now can you answer my question?

R: Well, let us leave the issue of gender to one side. You yourself, my handsome Tibby, what do you say that the words “new, original, thinking and planning” mean? Are these words easily defined? And I hardly dare ask you what “music” is, because I see that you have little patience. Speak and reply to an ignorant old woman’s question and prove yourself knowledgeable.

T: So you avoid my question by replying with a question. A very cheap trick, if I may say so.

“New and original” are things that haven’t been done before. “Thinking and planning” are words equally easy to define – anybody who remembers that it might rain and takes an umbrella to work has done that; and music is sound that has been organized by a human mind.

R: O my fine Tibby, not only is your glossy fur a joy to behold, but you claw your way through the difficulties I present you with ease. I see I have great good fortune in encountering someone so wise. I thought you might labour over these issues, as I myself have done. But tell me Tibby, if someone writes a piece for violin solo, is that something new or something original?

T: Well, that depends on the style. If it sounds, like Wieniawski, then, clearly, it’s not original, but it is new.


R: Good, so now we have opened up a gap between what is new and what is new, but also original. Perhaps we can also open up gaps within those words. For example, are there degrees of originality? Is Sibelius as original as Schoenberg?

T: They are equally original but Schoenberg sounds newer than Sibelius. In Sibelius you have many memories of older music.

(Sibelius’s music)

R: I think perhaps you have forgotten that beautiful perfect 5th near to the beginning of Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra. That sounds quite ancient to me. But I agree with you that Schoenberg’s music frequently sounds newer than that of Sibelius. I also agree with you that they are equally original.

(Schoenberg’s music)

I think we begin to see that what is new or original is not a simple matter of “things which haven’t been done before” but more complex. And indeed if we find a piece for solo violin which is, let us say, completely new and completely original, isn’t even the idea of writing a solo violin piece already an old one?

(Bach violin music)

T: Well yes of course it’s an old idea. No music is entirely new nor entirely original. Indeed if it were, perhaps we shouldn’t even be able to call it music.

R: Exactly. And that brings me to your definition of music as “sound organized by a human mind”. Neat though that definition is, I find it lacking.

T: As a matter of fact, I think my definition can apply to all music of any style or tradition throughout human history.

R: And if a small child in a pram is wheeled through a tunnel by its mother (I am thinking of one of those underpasses that we use in order to get from one side of the street to the other) and starts to use its voice to enjoy the echo, is that also “sound organized by a human mind” and therefore music? The tunnel is certainly not a concert hall and it probably smells of piss, with a few dried up turds scattered around as well………..but it is at that moment a “music venue”, as they say, albeit a very dusty one.

(a child making vocal sounds echoing around)

T: I hardly think that a screaming child is music. Where is the organization there?

R: And where is the “organization” in any improvisation? It’s organized, yes? Or it’s organized, no? You could argue both ways. I’d rather cut that word right out of the discussion.

T: I was including improvisation in my definition, because that is the human mind organizing sound in a very fast manner, though I admit I hadn’t quite thought of a screaming child as improvising. That is a stretch, but I suppose you are right.

R: Indeed I am right. A child making sounds in the circumstances I describe is making music. Organized, or not, there it is, and you will find that the creation of music and of images and of stories is founded in what we do as children. All three activities fascinate children. Well, we say they are “playing”. We could also take that word apart, just as we are doing with the other words here, but let’s leave that issue on one side, we already have enough to deal with.

T: By all means, let us leave at least some word definitions on one side. It is not I who am making such a fuss about simple definitions, it is you. Your probing into everything gives me a suffocating feeling. I don’t want to be choking on all this unnecessary questioning.

R: My dear Tibby, forgive me, I believe you asked me a question and I am trying to answer it, that is all. Perhaps I should tickle you under the chin and that will calm you down..

T: I’d prefer you to keep your hands to yourself. Just let me run up and down this curtain a few times and I will feel better.

R: Very well, you do that. And I will take a sip of this wine meanwhile.

(silence) (pause)


(the sound of a child’s echoing voice)

R: Now did we establish that a child improvising with its voice is also producing music?

T: Yes Rose we did, though I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

R: Good, because many people have not recognized that children are making making music a lot during the course of the day. They invent and perform music with their voices and their banging around.

Our modern aesthete possibly imagines the smelly underpass I describe with a feeling little short of horror. I myself find that these little nooks and crannies in the contemporary world can be strangely exciting……….But let us transport our fragile aesthete to somewhere more in line with their tastes. To a pine forest somewhere in an alpine landscape, shall we say? It is a windy day and the tops of trees are waving to and fro. They make a marvelous sound and our aesthete sits on a log to listen carefully. I hear them mutter “what a beautiful music”.

(the sound of wind in trees)

T: Well they could hear it that way, but the most you could honestly say about it would be that it is musical.

R: So a sound can be musical, without being music?

T: Of course

R: But you spoke of organized sound and so I think you need to explain what happens to the musical aspect of sound once we remove the human organization. There is no human organization in the sound of wind in trees, but you admit that it can be musical. I suggest to you that whether sound is music, or at least musical, does not have to reflect human organization.

T; Now you are going too far and by the way, did I ever tell you that your old neck wobbling around makes you look like a frog?

(the sound of frogs)

R: I suggest to you that sound sometimes becomes music simply because of the way we listen to it.

T: You are a crazy old frog. You might as well say that a pile of bricks becomes a work of art just because of the way we look at it.

R: You are exactly right. A pile of bricks can indeed become a work of art in certain circumstances.

T: Oh just hop off somewhere will you?

R: It can, just in the way that a slip of paper can become a treasure once a love letter is written on it – a treasure so precious that you hardly dare touch it. But what would you know about love letters? I saw you perched on that fence the other day………you were being visited by several admirers. They were…….

T: Oh shut up you old frog. You have no admirers, that’s clear.

(Tybert exits)

R: You asked a good question in the beginning, but are we anywhere near to an answer? No, we’re not, because you don’t have the patience to find an answer.

Tibby?………………….. Oh, she’s gone. Or he is. I’ll just sit here and finish my wine.

(frog sounds) (light fades to darkness)

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.


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. .


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, 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.