Thoughts in the forge – art, craft, language and the invention of musical ideas


I believe that many artistic problems that crop up, either on the work table, or in the conversations of composers, are really only as problematic as we choose to make them. Many diverse things can be artistic, even a child playing with coloured bricks. But a mother would be foolish to come into a room and complain that her child should put two blues together, rather than combine a blue with a red. If she did, the child would be right to carry on playing, regarding his mother’s remark as bit more adult craziness to be ignored. So here at least there’s one “artistic problem” that can be discounted……….

Fashion and also money manifest as artistic issues. Rich people are perhaps uninterested in last year’s designs, so if you are out of date, and trying to sell to that clientele, you’d better watch out. However, there are those who are so poor that they are lucky if they own any clothes at all, so they are hardly likely to be concerned with fashion. Everyone needs clothes, but only a few need fashion.

Similarly, in music, if you compose like those long dead out-of-fashion composers (like John Ireland for example) then you are going to be shifted to the least prestigious venues (dusty church halls? – whatever). Whilst composers who write “cutting edge” stuff have their pieces done by the major ensembles and in the ritziest of surroundings. I like that hideous cliché “cutting edge” along with another overused term – “challenging”. “He is a cutting edge composer doing challenging work”.

There are those who say they write for themselves and those who say they write for others. I think it’s a false distinction. It’s not like making dinner in which you can say you cooked just for yourself and didn’t invite anyone along. A better metaphor is language. You don’t talk to a child the same way as you would talk to a pope or a princess. And you don’t talk to a pope or a princess the way you would talk to an intimate friend. The language differs. So it is right what Stravinsky says – he said he composed for the hypothetical other. We are always “addressing” someone – hypothetical, or real – it’s unavoidable.

The invention of musical ideas is the simplest of tasks. In my case the ideas are there the whole time and if I think about one, it just starts developing automatically. In the four minute movement I wrote over Christmas, I made for the first time a special point of using this automatic invention I have. Over the course of a few days I wrote down all the variations that occurred to me of a particular idea, in a long list, simply that. When this involuntary invention came to an end I incorporated everything I had invented into the piece. In fact I think nothing else was invented for the piece aside from the decisions about proportions and texture, instrumentation and so forth – the structural stuff. Well, put like that, it seems quite an unoriginal way of working, but as I say, it was a first for me.

I am troubled by some craft issues. It vexes me for example that I do not play a wind instrument and have to work so hard to imagine the physical actions required to play my wind music. In addition there are sound issues with regard to the combinations of elements that are hard work to imagine. Here though, I believe I made recent progress. In the new piece I included a few moments where the instrumental texture combines in such a way that distinct identities break down and the sound blends. I adore these moments. They have for me the status that “special effects” do in sci-fi films. This is an old art to be sure. Look for example at the first few moments of Stravinsky’s 1917 symphonic poem Le Chant du Rossignol. That is a model of this kind of writing and not the only example from the master’s work in that period of his career.

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