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.

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.

The primacy of pitch

pitchNo one talks about Webern any more. He’s never mentioned. Yet his music is a hundred times more attractive to me than nearly everything new that I hear, so it’s disconcerting. His use of pitch restores me to myself. Restores my balance, is that it? Because I recall why I became involved in this modern style as a teenager? That there can be pitch structures so attractive to me, though existing without the “gravitational” aspect of old scales, is a wonder. It is a wonder of the European story I think. Stravinsky spoke of “dazzling diamonds” in reference to this music. And indeed I find it noble. Who imagined in 1900 that such a thing might be possible? Anyone?

There is nothing I regret in Webern’s music. Not at all, I can’t. Yet there are things that I wish were otherwise. There is an inescapable bond with Expressionism it seems to me and I don’t like that. This constant human cry petering out in a morendo for example. It does not move me and I want it to stop. I am attracted to something else – the harmonies, the lines and the splintering of beats. I do not regret the nerve-racking task for performers. Do they not have this same exposure in Mozart – nowhere to hide? And who regrets Mozart because it is so difficult to perform? For that music I fall to my knees.

I keep quiet when I hear composers complain about Schoenberg and I wonder if these individuals are simply unable to understand chromatic music and unaffected by it therefore. Schoenberg and his pupils – Berg and Webern – remain for me a standard impossible to reach, yet one that drives me on down the road to the future.

The primacy of pitch II

Is American music “the gift that keeps on giving”? Well, to me, it truly is. I have caught the song “Use Somebody” in several versions as I go about my business. Kings of Leon, the rockers who wrote it, have their recording a tone lower than the cover version by the Dutch singer Laura Jansen. I adore her voice, but it is the pitches that I adore most – the bass with its low F (low G in the Jansen version) and the appoggiatura on E (or F#). Yet, as I watch the video of the Kings of Leon original, I am also reminded of why I found men so dazzling in the first place, and call to mind all the grievances and anger that flowed from that.

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.

It’s Sunday!

churchbellToday, for the most part, I was grumbling about the thought of having to go shopping. A tussle between opposing wills – you HAVE to go, no I don’t WANT to go – which got quite heated. Until, that is, I realized it was a Sunday and not a Saturday. Working so hard on finishing the score of my new piece I had lost a day. (Well that’s nothing – I also discovered an entire meal that I thawed out yesterday in the microwave but forgot to eat…….). Of course, now I have one day less for finalizing everything, but that loss is more than compensated for by the delicious fact, thanks to the Christian religion, of not being able to go shopping. The sun is shining, yes, but I think I will just IMAGINE a walk. And with all this lack of exercise I have been having lately, I am rapidly losing weight – another compensation………..

I am very pleased with à la mémoire for vibraphone and piano. It was written for Miguel Bernat and Ananda Sukarlan who will give the première in July, in Spain. The piece was almost complete even before I discussed the possibility of a performance, so this time I am spared all that anxiety about “writing something suitable”. Though of course I am deeply concerned about communicating with the common man etc.

The title (which floated into my head as I was reclining on the couch in the room above, where I compose) is a reference to a work by my former teacher Giuseppe Sinopoli. I remember him talking about his Souvenirs à la mémoire many years ago in Venice. I am just not sure whether I ever actually HEARD the piece.

I had been thinking about the ethos of my new work and fiddling around with various titles in my mind. I could appreciate that it was quite somber, yet, also gently wistful. I thought of the word lament and then all of a sudden the French title just, as I say, floated into my mind. It seemed appropriate.
Of course, I should add that I believe absolutely in Stravinsky’s views about music and expression…..

“For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc….”

Oh my goodness, yes, how true this is. In reality, music is not expressive at all. It is no more expressive than athletics. Does anybody care whether a discus thrower is expressing himself? We want to know how far he can fling that thing, that’s all. And we want to know if a pianist can get to the top of the keyboard without any lumps in his scales. Double thirds all round. Chromatic ones if you like. Personally I think of a dominant 7th as a sort of lapsed triad – a loose 4th finger could easily account for that F if we are in C, or that Bb if we are in F.

Music is sound. And painting is paint. Poetry is words and religion is sore knees. The world itself is sods of earth gummed together by green stuff we call grass. It’s all very simple if you think about it.