Last night I dreamt that I was writing an orchestral piece for a student orchestra. I think I was back in the Royal College of Music, and the piece was a work in progress. Anyway, someone pointed out that the first section I had written was more or less identical to the beginning of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, even down to the squealing clarinet. I looked at it again, saw the truth of that and started to feel bad.
I was concerned, because, like every other composer (except perhaps for film composers?), I didn’t want just to repeat some existing style, unless it was to give it a new twist. So, still in the dream, I cancelled the music that followed on from this “Stravinsky section” and started to write something in stark contrast – some very sleazy pop style . It would become a “piece about style”, I thought. The dream didn’t go further than that and I woke up. I realized that the thoughts were really about the quartet I am writing……that it has artistic issues to deal with, as do I. Also the dream opened up the possibility that I can work with the musicians as I go along, rather than just serve up a finished product.
There are several kinds of lying. One kind – “I can’t go to school today because I am sick” is naked. There is nothing hidden about that. You don’t want to go, and there isn’t the possibility to phone up and say “I don’t want to go”. So you lie about it.
The lie in the dream (“I will make it a piece about style”) is of a different class. You can convince yourself with that sort of pretence, but maybe no one else. If it were to be a piece about style then you would have begun like that. The reality is that it is not a piece about style, it is going to be a fake piece about style.
The dream also opens up a subject which is quite painful (though not a pain to go to the doctor with……..heh-heh). The convention is that the composer goes along to the performer with “the notes”. He/she has brought the finished product on the page and now the rehearsals are going to be about accuracy and understanding. Yes, play all those notes for me and with understanding please. This is our convention. Playrights work differently, as we know. Musical theatre works differently, as we know.
So where is the pain, you ask? Well these meetings with performers can be pretty confronting. First of all it is unlikely that you are an expert on his/her instrument, so the stance of arriving with “what I want you to play” is a bit of a shaky one, to say the least. Then what are they going to do with your uncertainty? “He couldn’t hear it when I played wrong notes”. “He couldn’t even perform the rhythm himself”. “I was playing the chamber organ a semitone down during rehearsal and neither the conductor nor the composer noticed”.
That last example is one from my own experience (I was the conductor). It was an instrument that had a mechanism for transposing that involved shifting the keyboard manually, back and forth. In that instance, no one noticed anything was wrong for the simple reason that it didn’t matter whether the music was a semitone down or not, the effect was just the same. This issue of how pitch works in contemporary music puts me in mind of John Cage.
One of the wonderful (and irritating) things about him was that he held a mirror up. You could catch a reflection there of things you didn’t want to see. Ideas, feelings, you had brushed aside and thought were hidden. I shall return to that issue another time…………as indeed I have a little tidying to do myself now.