1883, Seurat – Peasant Woman Seated in the Grass

I completed the comic song “I know where my genius lies” today. It was written for two colleagues – a baritone and a pianist – to perform in April. I wrote the words a couple of weeks ago, the melody on Sunday and the piano part yesterday and today. Even so, I was irritated all day because of the time taken for this work. Also I hate playing things on the piano which I needed to do, so as to make the piano writing as technically easy as possible. But you immediately see all the different possibilities. Ugh, I hate that, it’s like soap under the nails. The only thing I use the piano for nowadays, by the way, is to practise five-finger exercises. And I enjoy those. They are pleasant and don’t give me any bother.

The decisions about “different possibilities” that I hate, have to do with alternatives which are equally valid. In tonal music (which this was) it can be the exact positions of triads, or the register in which you set them. I also hate choosing dynamics. A lot of this sort of time-wasting crap I just decide randomly nowadays. What was interesting to do was the little dance I put in at the end – each phrase in a different key. That was fun. (It’s like my apartment with a different colour marmoleum* for each room – yellow, blue, green, red, etc.). Also there was one nice moment where I combined two separate ideas to make something new, in a way that you would recall both sources.

I thought of John Cage and his colleagues at Black Mountain College. I write something for colleagues which is more or less a Gilbert and Sullivan comic song. Cage would never have done that. I thought about the difference between him and me.

Whilst working at my table I looked out of the window at the balcony of a house opposite. I saw a coloured woman and thought very fast “O my God, it’s a new neighbour, the white people have moved out” and “look she’s making an unsightly mess there, hanging out her washing, like a peasant “. Then I thought “wait a minute, perhaps she’s a cleaner…..I hope so”.

These thoughts happened so fast that there was no time for the censor to swing into action. And the observer in me noted my thoughts with some surprise – I don’t THINK of myself as racist!

I suppose then that I live in denial like my friends. I’d like to be honest with MYSELF at least! And that selfish issue has nothing to do with the sad issue of a woman being disliked just because of her colour and because she steps out on to the balcony to hang out some washing “like a peasant”. What can I say? I caught myself out!

* “Marmoleum is a thoroughly versatile floor covering made from natural and harvestable raw materials such as linseed oil, wood flour, chalk and pine rosin.”

A sleepy bumblebee

bumblebeeOn the way to the glass disposal container round the corner, with some empty wine bottles (yes I drink a lot), I passed a very sleepy, or possibly dying, bumblebee. It was motionless there on the ground, and covered with tiny raindrops. Fortunately no child had discovered it, so I was able to save it from being playfully squashed. I nudged it on to the back of a tram ticket, which I found distasteful, as it overturned and wriggled big black legs (like those of a swift house spider). But I persevered and gently tipped the groggy little thing amongst some bushes that grow alongside the street. I suppose it will be eaten………… Oh well, I did what I could.

Since I am nearing the end of my days I seem to have developed a little more reverence for life. I hate for example the way people set house plants out by the rubbish. Are they bored with them? The cactii which live so happily in my front window – it gets the afternoon sun – are growing like crazy and they are my friends. I wouldn’t dream of dumping them out by the rubbish. Now there is an orchid on the windowsill as well. It is currently budding, having been quiet for a long time. It was given to me by a horrible person – a “Judas of character” – and I really didn’t want to keep it. But the orchid is not to blame. No, in this instance, I am to blame, for having such a poor choice when it comes to friends. That person has disappeared now and all that is left of him is a few emails and the orchid……heh-heh. Perhaps that’s all that will be left of me when I am gone. Hahaha.

I have decided, by the way, to get a cat (as I’m talking of critters)…………

Hamish reacts….

Hi Geoff,
Your piece seems fine – if a trifle glum. Your prose poem on a dying bee reminds me of a typical piece of Hamish useless fact-rummaging. Bees love the nectar of the familiar lime tree (or linden in the US). One popular variety, however, the Silver pendant lime (Tilia petiolaris) produces its flowers later in the season (summer) and has a very strong, beautiful scent, which we humans appreciate – but proves deliciously narcotic to bees, many of whom can be seen “drunk” or knocked out at the base of that tree in summer, driven to sweet unconsciousness by the delicious fumes they have imbibed. Some of the bees recover and sober up – but others never wake up again….

Are you really going to get a cat? Who’ll look after puss when you’re on your hols?


1961, Bridget Riley "Movement in Squares"

1961, Bridget Riley “Movement in Squares”

My last partner pointed out that I serve music as if it were a goddess. And he added that if you worship a god, he/she should look after you in return. This thought has stayed with me for several years.

It reoccurs to me this morning as I make a neat copy of the duo I wrote yesterday evening (“Future” – number seven of the eight songs I am working on). This duo is for mezzo and tenor, singing in thirds. It interests me how when you combine high tenor with a mezzo singing just a third above, you get the illusion that the mezzo notes are actually beneath the tenor ones. Curious – an aural equivalent of one of those eye popping moments in Bridget Riley. Incidentally, as I love her work so much, along with that of her style compatriots, I wonder why I have written so much neo-romantic music. Yet more to think about…

Anyway, why I was put in mind of the goddess issue is because the songs I have been writing (I did the texts as well) deal directly, for the first time, with my own biography. I am sure that other works I have composed treat this obliquely, but that is not the same thing. Here I include actual sentences that were said by me or by others. And each situation is one that I know from my own story. So, it occurs to me this morning that here, finally, there is chance of some reward. That I can say what happened in my life. Not that it matters to anyone, not that it adds anything new to what we know. But that it is a joy to say it.


I have, for most of my composing career, been almost completely uninterested in performers – their techniques, their mentality, their world – even quite hostile to them, to be honest.

I have changed my mind about this over the last couple of years. People reading through my blog might not imagine me to be a sentimental person (more of a “mental” one… heh-heh). In fact though, I am intensely sentimental, but unpredictably so. Anyway, for no phony reason, I have begun to get interested in performers as both people of action, and people with a complex and delicate psychology.

I think for example of that moment at the beginning of concertos when they are waiting for their first entry. But then, there are ALL the moment to moment actions (the fingerings, the breaths, the rests) which involve psychology as well as physical gestures. I have in mind here soloists – groups are different again.

Composers often complain about how arrogant and uncooperative performers are. But how arrogant have composers been towards performers? Is it not arrogant to write for instruments as if they were only sound sources and not actions with a psychological aspect?

In the bad old days (at the height [or depth] of the decadence) composers thought of instruments as “colour”. Colour, which didn’t even have a human hand attached to it, let alone a human psychology. They DID delve into the colour issue a bit. There was an entire book produced in those times, dedicated to the thousands of different squawks you can produce from wind instruments (Nuovi Suoni per I Legni. Bruno Bartolozzi. Milan: Edizioni Suvini Zerboni). I did not fail to read and inwardly digest that fascinating work. And you can be assured that when seagulls are flying over my Amsterdam apartment early in the morning, I am drowsy, but not so drowsy that I forget to distinguish one bird from another. Do you imagine that I – a composer of the advanced school – would lump all those squawks together? Perish the thought! And the electronics departments opened up too, so that we could have, in addition to wind squawks, electronic ones. “Ooohh……..yes……….do me another squawk. Make me a tape of that squawk at once. I’ll take it home”.

It has become a cliché to say that composers write for each other, rather than for the public, or for performers. Things have changed a great deal since the avant-garde collapsed a few years ago. But how far composers are still trying to impress each other is not clear to me. Perhaps that stuff goes on still. The status and subsidy issues are still major ones of course – are you published and who’s cutting you a slice of the cake? Because of subsidy, all this activity could carry on independently of audience input. But now there is pressure from the agencies who bake the cake. They don’t want composers to be so “art for art’s sake”. The pressure is on to force composers to take people (other than each other) into account.

I am re-reading Aristotle and Plato on the subject of music and ethos. That is my route to deal with this matter. I am also interested in new American music, both the classical wing and the, much larger, popular wing. Here also there are many clues available to solve the puzzle of audience alienation. Issues of style and ethos are all unresolved in me still. And that’s how it must be I guess, because it is in my nature to waver in the face of different sources of attraction.

Back to the issue of performers……I mean to write some solo pieces over the next few years. That’s one of my projects. It has nothing to do with money and nothing to do with “what I am expected to do”. Maybe I am expected to write Jesus symphonies? I am sure I could do one of those. But I’d prefer to do it well, rather than behave like a general who doesn’t care what happens to his soldiers.

The Anglican Communion 2

After my voice broke and I stopped singing in chapel services at Addington Palace (the then headquarters of the Royal School of Church Music), I let go of my interest in Anglican church music. Neither organ playing nor singing were studies I wished to take up. But I retained, “locked in a cupboard” somewhere in my mind, a memory of that whole repertoire. And sometimes it is reflected in my music. The culture of the chapel was largely a safe, ordered and disciplined world. And one shouldn’t forget that the Anglican Church is one of the few areas of our musical life where there is a genuine interest in new music. (I remember the excitement when Derek Holman wrote a piece for us).

Over the years since, I have probably failed to point out how much I owe to the chapel training (which included piano and composition lessons). And it was all given gratis – no small thing, as my family could not have afforded any of it.

It is decades since I listened to this music. Here are some of the composers I loved as a child:-

Thomas Attwood, Edward Bairstow, Benjamin Britten, William Byrd, William Croft, Harold Darke, George Dyson, Orlando Gibbons, John Goss, Maurice Greene, George Frideric Handel, William H. Harris, Pelham Humfrey, E. J. Moeran, Thomas Morley, Frederick Ouseley, Henry Purcell, Charles Villiers Stanford, Herbert Sumsion, Thomas Tallis, Thomas Tomkins, Christopher Tye, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Thomas Attwood Walmisley, William Walton, Thomas Weelkes, Samuel Sebastian Wesley, Charles Wood.

John Marbeck I didn’t like. And psalm singing was always a bore – I doubt they have abandoned that ugly tradition. The Roman Catholic method of psalm singing however was PERFECT, and that HAS been abandoned (after Vatican II). Such are the ironies of…….

Incidentally, my first (failed) attempt at composition was of a psalm chant – I threw it away.

….where three roads meet……

diceIn De Clercqstraat, today, I had a musical idea which I began to sing quietly to myself as I waited for tram 14. Well, I was already singing it before I even noticed it was there. It was easy to memorize, and I noted it down as soon as I got to the house.

I had been on tram 3 on my way home from Wibautstraat. (I go there every Tuesday and Thursday to attend a Dutch class). I would have to change from a 3 to a 12 or a 14 in order to complete my journey. But as I got off at the crossroads where the tram routes intersect, I didn’t notice that a 12 was already waiting there. So it pulled away without me. That meant walking round the corner to wait for a 14.

That’s how I came to be standing in De Clercqstraat singing that bit of music. If I had noticed the 12, I would have caught it, and not conceived the musical idea. So this idea would not now exist and the string quartet would be a different piece as a consequence (I decided to include it in the new work).

I get irritated with all these musical ideas that appear. Yes, they are attractive, but at the same time they are like little birds in a nest with mouths wide open – the ideas have to be “fed”. I sometimes just push them away, through laziness. The same applies if I am in bed and cannot be bothered to get up to write music down.

But I should count all this a blessing really, because, years ago, when things reached rock bottom as far as my creativity was concerned, I would negate any spontaneous idea I had.

Today, the one that arrived, was vintage Geoffrey King – the sort of idea that my friend and colleague Peter Nelson teases me about (because of its Celtic derivation). When I later came to consider the fragment seriously, I decided immediately to use it…….as I said. And it will be easy to develop. What I have written in recent days will readily combine with it.

Ideas develop on their own, or through applying various modalities. They can also develop through interaction with other ideas. One can speak of an attraction between ideas. And because they don’t have our shame, they can openly say, “oh come here, I want to fuck with you right away”, and before the thought is even over, the dirty deed is done…………..heh-heh.

Ooooooohhhhhhhhhh, HOW could I make THAT comparison? Oooh, the shame of it!

But, returning to the subject……early in 1999 during dinner at a friend’s house, I was talking about my interest in chance and said “if, later, I take a certain route home, I may encounter a person in the street who will become immensely important to me, whereas, if I take another route, I shall never even meet him”. I cycled off, and half way home, the front wheel of my bike collapsed. I was catapulted over the handlebars and ended up on my back with a shattered elbow. If I had taken another route, I would have, at the very least, fallen differently, or perhaps not at all………

And that’s why I point out that there is no complete Oedipus story without the involvement of chance……………specifically, no murder of Laius.

The gods say that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother, so he flees his homeland in order to prevent this fate. He comes to a place where three roads meet, and by chance encounters a group of men going in the opposite direction. They force him off the road and in retaliation he kills them all. Amongst these is Laius…………his real father…………