Some thoughts on being a young composer now

I have been writing music for half a century. Some of it has been published [mostly earlier works and now  probably  out of print] and some of it has been performed, although much remains unperformed. I could be considered an “also ran” among composers – not well-known but not entirely unknown.

I would like to  begin  with three inter-related  quotations by three composers regarding the purpose of music [and art in general]

 “What is music? What does it do in the world? What does it do in society? “

 [ Frank Denyer -   from a talk given at Brunel University 13th Feb. 2013]

“I am a composer. That is someone who imagines sounds, creating music from the inner world of the imagination. The ability to experience and communicate this inner world is a gift. Throughout history, society has recognized that certain men possess this gift and has accorded them a special place. But if such men – poets if you like – are honoured, are the products of their imagination of any real value to the society which honours them?  Or are we, particularly at this present point in history, deluding ourselves that this may be so?”

[Sir Michael Tippett  Poets in a Barren Age  from    Moving Into Aquarius]


 ”A work of art is identified  by its complete uselessness”

[Harold Budd  [quoted from memory, so may not be the  exact wording. ]

Considering the quote from Frank Denyer first, we could list some possible uses of music, e.g.

To enhance religious ritual or ceremonial events; to accompany some physical activity e.g. dancing, exercising, working etc.; for didactic purposes e.g. studies and exercises for solo instruments or voice, and teaching pieces for lower grades ; to enhance other art forms such as theatre [incidental music] film or TV programmes;  to support some political, philosophical or sociological idea;  or for  a purely aesthetic purpose – music meant just to be listened to and “appreciated” for its own intrinsic beauty.

For the composer in Medieval and Renaissance eras the question “why am I composing?”  would  hardly  have arisen: one wrote mostly  either for church or court. The only other option was to write music to be performed by individuals or small groups in a domestic setting [ e.g. Elizabethan keyboard and consort music] and for which no mass audience was available.

From the Baroque period onwards things changed. There was a growth of what could be termed a larger and increasingly less specialised audience, firstly for the new invention of opera and then for music per se to be savoured just for itself as a source of aesthetic pleasure  with the rise of concerts and purpose-built auditoriums in which they could be held.

Frank Denyer  just asks the questions.  His own music is strictly of the aesthetic kind, although it shows an awareness of the music of non-European cultures.

For Tippett, the solution to the dilemma of the usefulness of the modern artist was to write a number of works that reflected his left-wing and pacifist views, the most notable of which is “A Child of Our Time” [1939] and hope that they might be of some value in bringing an awareness of the problems that beset the modern world.

For Budd, and probably most other “serious”  contemporary composers, the problems are swept aside by the assertion that “works of art are identified by their complete uselessness”; they have no purpose beyond their contemplation by the observer or listener. [This does not so much  apply to literature which very often, as in the novels of Dickens and Hardy for example, does have the purpose of drawing the reader’s attention to failures and problems within society.]

 For the contemporary serious-minded composer the last of these reasons for writing music at all today  seems to be the most prevalent. All the others are problematic.

Music for worship: is a good choice if you have the flair for it and it can certainly serve a useful purpose. However, there is an awful lot out there already, good, bad and indifferent, so it would be  difficult to add anything of  lasting value.

The Court – a non-starter unless you are Master of the Queen’s Musicke

Activity-music for dance, exercise etc. This is the province of the popular music “producer” using electronic means of composing and would hardly  be of interest to the serious composer unless as a secondary and hopefully, more lucrative activity.

Music for didactic purposes: The advantages, if your work is published  or otherwise made available are that it will be seen and played. The drawbacks are: [1] There is already much available [possibly too much of inferior quality] so will your work be noticed? [2] It is unlikely to be professionally performed, although amateur performances at student concerts are possible, of course. And [3] it has to be easy to play, so you would probably have to adapt your style to a certain extent to cater for this limitation.

Film, TV and theatre work  does give your music a purpose outside of itself, but this particular area is notoriously hard to get into, usually a case of  “it’s not what you know but who you know”.

Politically influenced music is usually also concert music but with a “message”. The advantage is that you may draw in  those sympathetic to your views,  but you have to be prepared for those views to become outdated,  irrelevant or derided   with time, e.g. the left wing- influenced  music of Eisler and Henze may  not now have the impact and relevance that it had when written several decades ago.  The world is a different place now.

So, like it or not, the composer of serious work [or work that he/she would like to be thought of as serious] is left on the whole with no choice but to write for an audience. The biggest problem then is how to get that audience.

All composers in this group, and indeed many other creative artists have struggled with the perennial problem of  the production [and now, more likely, over-production]  of  work  for which there is no appreciable demand.  I can only speak from my own experience, but I am pretty certain it applies to many others, in  that I get ideas for works, produce them and hopefully try to interest, firstly, performers and through them possible performances and some sort of recognition by an interested section of the public. Then either the work is accepted for performance and most often for just one performance, or it gathers dust on my shelves!  Why have I done this for 50 years? I do not really have an answer. Perhaps for self-expression. But as far as that goes, is my “self” interesting enough to be expressed. Why should anyone else bother about it? Did Bach express himself, or his complete mastery of the art of music in his time? Do we delude ourselves that self-expression is a valid reason for composing?  A more pressing reason for my work is the rather pathetic desire to be remembered for something tangible and not to just disappear from human memory for ever. I am constantly haunted by this fear of oblivion even though on reflection I know that nothing on earth lasts forever. Everything returns to the void from whence it came. So why worry?

I now have well over 100 works on my shelves as scores. The vast majority of these are only potentially musical works. Until they are brought to life in performance [or at the least as recordings] they remain just ideas awaiting realisation.  As composers we tend to think of our works as living and sounding  in our minds, but in reality they are   for the most part dead and silent  things until given an audible presence by performers interested enough to interpret them.  I regard recordings of works as being half-alive in the sense that they have an audible form [we can hear them] but the sense of spontaneity and unpredictable-ness  that only live performance can give is absent.

One seemingly more positive feature of contemporary life as compared to 20 or more years ago is that there are numerous ways of getting a hearing outside of the concert hall via electronic methods of  the dissemination of one’s work. Sound Cloud, You Tube, and Musicaneo are just three of these platforms for music that come to mind. I use all three, and do  indeed get listeners and print-outs of works [bypassing the traditional and very slow-moving music publishers].  So, some joy there – but the drawback is that there is a huge amount of stuff already on these sites, which makes it hard to get much attention even if your work is good and deserving of a more prominent exposure. If you want the latter, you have to pay for it!

As for live performances, I do get them, if somewhat infrequently. They are usually billed as first performances of New Music by myself and other composers, all of us not [yet] well-known, and audiences are generally small, often being made up of just those other composers and their family members or close friends. So we seem to be writing just for each other…

In moments of despair at contemplating the plight of the artist, poet or composer in the modern world I wonder whether to be creative in these ways  is more of an affliction than a gift!

But, no. The urge to create overcomes this doubt and I am spurred on by the hope that I may be able to leave just something, even one work, of lasting value and interest that, even if it moves only one listener, has made my struggles worthwhile.

On re-reading these notes it seems that I have asked more questions than provided answers. This is because there are no answers to the main question which is “ Why do we compose?” But I can only hope to at least bring the problem to the attention of any aspiring [or even more established ] composer who is as yet unaware of the problems outlined above.

MJR 10/19

My Long Love-Affair with the Flute

My flute piece “Harmattan” from Desert Winds is  in the ABRSM Wind Syllabus 2019-21

The earliest surviving flutes, made from bones, date from between 30,000 and 40.000 years ago and were found in caves in Germany.  Thus the flute is so ancient as to be  more or less one of those “timeless” sounds together with drones,  bells, drums and, of course, the human voice.

The flute’s most characteristic voice, especially in its lower register, has to be that which depicts earthly delights and pleasures, with just a tinge of sadness that they, all too quickly, pass away. The sinuous chromatic solo flute melody that opens Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres midi d’un faune  is probably the best known example of this sensuous quality.

However, in its highest octave the flute can be shrill and even harsh.

We well know that the flute was Mozart’s least favourite instrument- even though he wrote work for it that is an essential part of the flautist’s repertoire.

 It is my favourite instrument and has been for many years- although I do not know why this should be, as I do not play it. My very first published works were for guitar solo and ensembles, but a little later some pieces for flute and piano- probably out of print by now- attracted the publisher of Arrendsdorff Edition. I remember meeting the publisher at some hotel in London and going through the proofs and the excitement of receiving the final printed copies. But I tend to avoid publishers now because they take so long to actually get anything in print. My last published work came about through the publisher actually contacting me first after hearing my work at a concert [or a recording of it].

Looking through my most recent list of works [2018] I note a total of  53 works for solo flute, flute and piano or that include the flute in ensembles [not counting wind quintet pieces] So, too many to list in detail here.  

However, there are just five unaccompanied flute pieces:  Meditation at the Summer Palace [1997], Chinese Suite [2004], 24 Preludes [2009], Chameleon [2015] and Little Jazz Etude [2018]

And for flute and piano: Canonic Preludes [1993, Arrendsdorff], Divertimento [2005], Desert Winds [2009, Emerson Edition], and Celtic suite and October Music [both 2011] Two Little Pieces [2003 rev. 2016] Two Pieces [c1980 rev. 2018]

Of the numerous ensemble pieces including the flute I will just mention Qi for flute and percussion [2002], Equatorial for flute, vibraphone & percussion [2003] and two sets of arrangements of Latin American dances for flute and guitar, and flute and harp [both 2007].

There is also a Concerto for flute and orchestra: A Breath of Highland Air, composed after a visit to the Scottish mountains in 2003.

When the time came for my daughter Zoe to start learning an instrument, the flute was our choice. She now has a diploma in flute, a B.Mus. degree, the course for which included jazz flute studies and performance and she now teaches flute in private practice.                                                       

MJR 10/18

Bach’s “Stream of Consciousness” Technique in the Chromatic Fantasy

 “…admirable works of genius arise in every period, and I have always taken my stand in the front rank of those who joyfully acclaimed the passing standard-bearers; and still it seems to me that of all these beautiful paths leading so far afield- none lead upward.”       Busoni

 The form which comes nearest to Busoni’s ideal of freeing music from the shackles of conventional structural procedures is the toccata as initiated by the 17th century keyboard composers, notably Frescobaldi, and continued into the 18th century by Bach in his harpsichord and organ toccatas, by C.P. E. Bach in the formal freedom shown in some of his sonata movements,  and by Mozart in a few works labelled Fantasia, e.g. the well-known examples in D minor K397  and C minor K475   in which a succession of seemingly unrelated sections are strung together in rhapsodic forms.  

 J.S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy has all the appearance of a written-out improvisation and for its date [c1720] is one of the most remarkable of compositions. In this work we may observe that, far from being the “old-fashioned” composer of counterpoint so often portrayed, Bach seems to be among the “avant-garde” of his era. It would seem that Bach in this unique work placed one idea after another in a kind of “stream of consciousness” manner. Rapid figurations, arpeggiando chords, a recitative and a final poignant descending melody, all seemingly unrelated, but all falling logically into place to create a memorable entity.

 As well as freedom of form the Chromatic Fantasy displays a notable and, for its date,   advanced use of chromatic and enharmonic harmony, the latter made possible by the use of equal temperament [e.g. m.49-50 where C# and A change to Db and Bbb]  and wide-ranging modulations [e.g. from the initial D minor we reach a very distant C# minor  by m. 62] Much use is made of the diminished 7th chord, both consecutively and  to abolish a firm  sense of tonality. We also note dissonances caused by suspensions, anticipations [e.g. m.46, the C added to the E major chord belongs to the following A minor chord] and bass pedal notes [e.g. m. 76-the end, the bass D]

 After being as it were, in the clouds with the fantasy we need to come down to terra firma with the fugue that follows and its expected reiteration of subject, answer and counter subject in the accepted academic manner of the time.


 Piano v. Harpsichord- a personal view

 My view is simply this: Most keyboard music before c1760, unless specifically for organ, was written for the harpsichord or other plucked keyboard instruments. To perform it on the piano is as incorrect as performing the viol consort repertoire on modern violins and cellos. Not only that, but especially in contrapuntal works, the harpsichord gives a much clearer resonance to each voice- particularly in the lower register.

 Sir Thomas Beecham remarked that the sound of the harpsichord resembled “a birdcage struck with a toasting-fork”. Yes, fair enough, but like it or not, that is the sound that was in the inner- ear of the composers of the early 18th century.

 However, I do realise that harpsichords, spinets, etc. are not common, and so accept the piano as a second- best.

 MJR 12/18



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