Nigel Morgan writes on 28 December.
I am constantly intrigued by the ‘how’ of musical composition. How is a piece made? How does a composer organise his or her own thinking and technique to make music that satisfies and is satisfactory to composer, performer and listener?
There’s plenty of evidence from centuries of musical practice. Sketches, drafts, diary jottings, letters, commentaries, the anecdotal, even experimental observation, all provide a wealth of knowledge that can reveal the ‘how’.
Unlike visual artists, composers don’t have a true equivalent to the practice of drawing – a practice that can so clearly and instantly reveal the ‘how’ of an artist’s work. Composing rather than improvising is not a real-time activity. For the composer what comes nearest to this (often daily) activity is time spent playing an instrument or making a close analytical study of a chosen score. Schumann reckoned his daily engagement as a composer was founded upon playing Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier, a work that still beckons to composers as a manual for composition, a manual without words, just musical examples. For today’s composer a particular score or recording may provide a still point from which creative activity and engagement with the imagination can develop. For several years the touchstone for Harrison Birtwistle’s music was Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments.
Most composers agree that the music they create is not ‘radio in the head’, instant new music that can be turned on and off at will. It is a slow, painstaking search for material that exhibits the potential for good continuation. Another point of agreement is that making a piece of music is a search for rightness. A composer intuitively knows or learns when a rightness has been achieved. If that wasn’t so, compositions would rarely progress towards a finished state, a state that reflects a working through of ideas able to fit the conditions surrounding or required by the brief of the task.
In the 1950s before taking up a professorial post at Yale Paul Hindemith began a scholarly examination of how composers had been taught in the past, and how they learn. Thanks to the class notes of some of his students, we know much about Hindemith’s own practice and what he identified and advocated as the ‘how’ of composing. There’s much common-sense that holds no surprises for most composers, but it is can be very meaningful for the listener and performer. I’ve always felt Hindemith’s revelations about ‘the how’ are significant and useful particularly his notion that at the outset one must examine and respond to the peculiar conditions surrounding each work. Such conditions include knowledge of the instruments (Hindemith was proud that he could play all orchestral instruments), the circumstances of performance, being sensitive to the performers’ musical history and repertoire. Music is not composed in a vacuum; it is usually for a performance and performers. Some composers respond wonderfully and imaginatively to such conditions and constraints, most notably Benjamin Britten. Hindemith’s ‘way’ isn’t composing by numbers but it does dispel some of the assumptions so often made about the composing act, and demystifies a process of creation that can act as a valuable basis for critical engagement. In my piano trio After Hindemith it is possible to explore further how the ideas of this (rather unfashionable) composer have affected my own rationale for composition.
Why does some music touch the listener, engage the player and warrant the enthusiasm of the conductor, promoter or record producer? Mostly, it is a complex recipe in which the ingredients of musical elements, references, past compositions and even extra-musical sources and allusions can be identified and acknowledged; but it is more. And often that ‘more’ is something worth investigation, questioning, and a manner of engagement that needs to be more active than pressing the button to restart the CD. Radio 3’s Discovering Music is testament to that. I doubt if I would be a composer today had it not been for its revelatory predecessor Talking about Music with Anthony Hopkins.
It is against this background that I wanted to record something of the process of composing a new work for orchestra and bass voice. I was keen to use the medium of the Internet blog, a medium that uniquely allows the author to make reference to existing web-based material as further illustration and example. If I mention a previous and related work of my own that has some bearing on the new work (as I have above) I can provide a link to my on-line score archive. If I point to another composer, a performer or ensemble, perhaps a particular influence, I can invite the reader to investigate that reference in more detail and depth than my own text could reasonably deal with.
This recording process began the week I wrote the first music that belongs to Sounding the Deep: a set of Signature Moments for solo piano. But these twenty pieces appeared several months after my first tentative thoughts and experiments about what this composition might be like, and also the preparation of a libretto that would ultimately govern the structure of the work. Descriptions of this early part of the composing process, the pre-composition stage, are largely absent from the blog, but they are no less important than the descriptions of ‘how’ the music itself was written.
During the extended negotiations involved in settling the commission for this work I thought it valuable to create a short vocal piece that could not only give a prospective soloist some notion of the piece to come, but something tangible for those commissioning the work to have before them. So while decisions were being thrashed out about the practicalities of the commission and its extension as a public and educational project I was taking my first steps to explore the potential of the subject.
The process of composing began in earnest with research on the web and in a university library. The outcome was a cornucopia of possibilities. I searched for existing poetry and prose in the first instance, imaginative creative writing that had responded to what is clearly a vast subject. I considered the history of ocean exploration. I investigated issues surrounding our guardianship of the oceans, the nature of their conservation at a time where the exploitation of natural resources is exposing their fragility. Ideally, I wanted a blend of expressions of wonder at the natural and still relatively unexplored world of the ocean depths with our past and present relationship with what lies beneath the surface. At that point it didn’t enter my head to consider putting centre-stage the experiences of real explorer and zoologist.
The first ‘find’ from that initial research was what I’ve come to believe is a remarkable poem, Deep Sea Diver by Robert Francis. It has become the composition’s signature, its words and phrases running in counterpoint with the eventual libretto. It seemed not only entirely appropriate in its treatment of its subject but also a right length, and beautifully crafted into sections of descent and ascent. These attributes have become important musical metaphors in the education work attached to this composition. When I say a right length, I mean that the poem was concise, spare, and free from complex vocabulary and convoluted images. I hardly remember setting the poem; it came to me very quickly and, as I will discuss later, the musical material flowing from the text proved unusually rich. But this fluency of composing was prefaced by two full days of preparation: the first spent learning the text by heart, improvising with my voice its possible setting, notating over and over different rhythmic solutions; the second devoted to experiments searching for a harmonic rationale. I was acutely conscious during this search of needing a distinct soundscape that was not the stuff of TV or movie scores associated with ‘being underwater’. To this end I eventually devised transformations of two chords, one high, one low: making descents and ascents, ‘diving’ from one harmonic ‘state’ to another, listening to what occurred in-between.
Such experimentation is very common. When Olivier Messiaen worked on a new composition he had two concurrent scores on the go, one lying on a table for rhythm and melody developed silently by ear, the other on the music stand of an adjacent piano for the harmony of the piece usually created by the physical sounding out of chords. I dare to mention Messiaen here because there are small similarities between my own way of working and his. Whereas Messiaen was a concert pianist of distinction and invariably used the piano in the majority of his compositions, I am a guitarist. Like Berlioz, another guitarist, I don’t need to touch an instrument to sound out ideas. I do however use a computer running my own software application for experimentation and modelling compositions. This software I’ve been using and devloping regularly over the last 20 years does not ‘record’ performance at a MIDI keyboard or provide a staff on which to place Common Music Notation. It is a programming language that enables the creation of ‘what ifs’. What if I want to interpolate a chord of four notes in a high register with a chord of three notes in a low register to produce a sequence of 12 inner chords? The software does not dictate a particular process design by an anonymous programmer but allows me to create my own functions able to sound out such a ‘what if’. Not only that, but once a program to achieve this is written (often just a few lines of code in a language called LISP) it can be tweeked in a matter of seconds to produce variants. 26 chords instead of 12? Let the sequence of chords assume the pitch shape of the downward trajectory of a modulated sinewave? Produce variants in all the different inversions of the chords generated? And so on . . .
Prior to computing, this intricate working out of ‘what ifs’ would take place on paper and could fill days of careful calculation. American composer Elliot Carter is a good example of a composer who would draft each musical section not just once but sometimes twenty times trying out ‘what-ifs’. I have learnt that such careful working out ‘by hand’ rather than on the computer can have advantages. The very slowness does allow time for intense reflection just as in the electroacoustic studio digital editing at a computer does not produce intrinsically better musical results than working with magnetic tape and a razor blade (thought the acoustic quality may be considerable better). Though the speed of computer processing is seductive I feel I’m fortunate to be of a generation who has had the experience of both. New technology can and does bypass the important need for reflection about intention . . . if you’ve spent several hours working out a possible continuation you’re less unlikely to put it aside without some careful critical thought.
I make mention of this example of this particular ‘how’ in composing because not only has the descent part of the song Deep Sea Diver become an interlude in Sounding the Deep but its core musical elements are embedded at every point of the orchestral score. This means that in playing through the song both listener and performer may quickly identify how the musical material has been developed. Even if they don’t, subconsciously it is ‘there’, a real presence in the midst of the composition. Sometimes, as in the opening section of the first movement this presence is a pair of chords. In other sections, such as the opening of the fourth movement, the ‘quote’ from the song is more extensive, four bars in fact. But I am missing out an important piece of the jigsaw: the libretto.
I came to call this a libretto because, as the work on the text proceeded, I realised I was composing a piece of music theatre. This is how it happened:
During the research period I unearthed many references to the exploits of a certain William Beebe, an American zoologist extraordinaire. Reading recently James Lovelock’s book on the Gaia hypothesis I am reminded yet again of the significance of Beebe not just as a popular naturalist with a David Attenborough talent for bringing the wonders of the natural world to a large audience, but of a scientist who almost single-handedly defined the discipline of ecology. His name and achievement in this area are still recognised today, mainly in connection with figures like Rachel Carson and Jacques Cousteau.
In 1937 Beebe wrote a book called Half Mile Down. This combines a history of undersea exploration with the author’s own exploits as a helmet diver making the first detailed studies of the coral realm. He was then the first to descend into the no man’s land of the deep oceans in a steel bathysphere. His book, like so much of his writing, describes the wonder of it all. We’ve become accustomed to the glow in Attenborough’s voice as he describes the marvels of nature on the TV screen. Beebe had to use his books, the pages of National Geographic and worldwide lecture tours. His words, and particularly his descriptions of descending to the ocean depths verge on the rhapsodic and are no less full of wonder as that of Brian Cox in full flow. As soon as I began to read Beebe I could hear his words set to music. He is fanciful, he does exaggerate (what explorer doesn’t), he has somewhat peculiar visions of the future, but his way with language is masterful and is not dissimilar to that of John Muir whose ecological thinking about the preservation of wilderness areas in a previous generation remains highly regarded today.
So the libretto emerged directly from Beebe’s book. The idea that it should be cast as a kind of public lecture came gradually as, with my co-librettist Phil Legard, we devised a scenario out of the structure of the book itself. The libretto begins almost where the book begins, with a meditation on the idea of wonder, and ends with Beebe recalling his experience of isolation in the intense darkness of the ocean a half mile down, commenting on the similarities with that other vast region of the unknown, outer space.
What goes on in-between is the tale of how Beebe came to descend into ‘the perpetual night’ of the ocean depths in a steel bathysphere. But is this the stuff of a serious concert work? Are there precursors of such telling out in music of a personal response to exploration and the natural world? Certainly. Most recently Will Gregory’s opera on Auguste Piccard (the first scientist to venture into the strathosphere) has evoked much critical discussion in the music press. Kurt Weill wrote a celebrate cantata on Lindberg’s Atlantic Flight. Karlheinz Stockhausen in Sirius and Sternklang has imagined a festival of welcome to visiting beings from that distant star. Peter Maxwell Davies has written in his eighth symphony a record of his experience of visiting Antartica. None of the works mentioned here are film or TV scores. They don’t rely on images as an explanatory prop; their musical context is quite rich enough for the music to stand on its own in the concert hall.
This is what I hope for Sounding the Deep. I think its subject as well as its music may well catch the music community’s imagination, particularly in the USA where Beebe’s achievement is still highly regarded. Beebe himself was a charismatic lecturer who was able to engage large audiences without slideshows and visual aids. So the libretto gradually became an imagined public lecture set to music. This means that, with the exception of movement four, which is through-composed, and five (hardly more than a brief though important coda), the scenario unfolds in a sequence of short reminiscences of Beebe’s past adventures that make up the first two movements. Then, he takes time out to sing my setting of Deep Sea Diver, a poem inspired by his own exploits, before telling his audience of The Birth of the Bathysphere.
Like Will Gregory’s Piccard In Space I decided, at quite a late stage (and after consulting with the HPO’s conductor), to use musical references from the rich popular music styles of the 1930s. I remember looking closely at scores of Milhaud, Weill, Hindemith, Stravinsky all of whom couldn’t resist the temptation of referencing, and in Weill’s case actually writing in, a jazz style. I’ve not attempted to emulate the lively jazz of that period, but simply provided brief moments of music that in their often oblique references to popular dance forms match Beebe’s vigorous moments of enthusiasm and rhapsody. There’s a blues, a Latin samba, a Ragtime one-step, and most significantly, and at some length, a march that takes its cue from John Philip Souza. But there is no jazz as such, and only one invitation (to a solo flute) to play in a jazz style. Scoring detail certainly does reflect the styles I’ve chosen to colour the music with, and there is an open invitation to performers to recreate the authentic playing styles should they wish. I’m encouraged to do this because I find more and more musicians well able to move comfortably across musical boundaries of performance style. You only have to listen to what the BBC Concert Orchestra achieved in Piccard in Space.
There is, however, a very particular association with the practice of jazz present in the score, indeed in all my orchestral and large ensemble scores. It is in my use of a continuo ensemble of four players (keyboard, two percussionists and double bass) whose role underpins the whole of the music. I could easily have called this a rhythm section, but I’ve chosen continuo because that term is more about providing a supporting resonance of harmony and harmonic rhythm of the music. These continuo parts are not cast in stone. The guidance notes in the score detail how their music may be radically altered, rescored, thinned out, even omitted altogether.
To conclude this extended blog on the ‘how’ of the composition of Sounding the Deep I want to join up what I’ve discussed here about the origins of the libretto and the musical sources with what has now become a finished score for orchestra and bass voice. As blog records I began working on the 20 Signature Moments having vigorously pruned the libretto to about half its original length. Each ‘signature moment’ describes a section taken from the five-movement libretto structure. The music imposes a distinct signature on these sections and provides a structure from which to develop an orchestral and vocal part. With these signatures in place it was then possible to create a vocal score for bass voice and piano by joining up and expanding the music of the signatures, taking care to make the ‘joins’ between the signatures as effective as possible. Inevitably, as the vocal score progressed (it took just under a month to complete), changes were made to the libretto, mainly judicious pruning and a little rewriting. Overall, what the soloist sings are the very words of William Beebe. For what its worth I don’t know of any other composition to have used such a technique. This device wasn’t so much planned as evolved. I’m sure I’ll be using it again in the future . . .
I do see this work as an orchestral piece with a bass soloist. I’ve written it to enable the orchestra to enjoy the musical journey of the piece without the soloist present. It was also my original intention not to use those extra instruments that a voluntary orchestra usually can only afford to bring in at the final rehearsal. There is no harp, but at the request of the conductor contra-bassoon and bass trombone are to be allowed as optional extras. I believe there is now an issue about some of these optional instruments doubling the vocal part in places. The performance guidance notes make it clear that such vocal doublings are optional and can be dispensed with in performance (except for the horn duo doubling the voice in the fourth movement – an idea developed at the suggestion of the soloist James Gower).
I am aware that there are only few sections in the score that are exclusively for full orchestra alone. The notion of the bass voice giving a meaningful ‘lecture’ to a strict 20-minute time limit precluded this. There are, however, many, many opportunities for instrumental soloists to feature from every part of the orchestra. The changes in the orchestration are kaleidoscopic in their variety and, as I explain in the performance guidance notes, this orchestration can be creatively readjusted. My rationale with the orchestration has been to attempt the best balance of bass voice and orchestra possible without diminishing the musical contribution of the orchestra, indeed I have placed the orchestra in a prominent musical role. I don’t think of the orchestra as being just an accompanist. It has been suggested that the vocal part is one long recitative. I think this is misjudged comment, but will happily point to a number of short passages in the third movement where a recit-like quality was indeed the intention.
I hope this explanation of the ‘how’ of this new composition will have provided a partial response to some of the ‘comments’ received on this blog recently. My thanks to those members of the orchestra who clearly went to considerable trouble to set up a proxy server to make these comments anonymously.