composition music

Recent Work

I have almost finished the final term of the first year of the Guildhall Masters Programme. Although we are still writing and preparing for performances I have written an account of the various pieces and projects that I have been working on over the last year.

I approached the projects that are part of the course with a particular goal: to write each work as differently to the last one as possible. I wanted to use the opportunity to try out different styles and to experiment with different ways of writing and working with instruments. For the first project, a piece for two Pianists and two Percussionists, I built the piece in a mathematically generative way, using an original melody as the base idea. It went through so many different versions, with cuts, re-instrumentations, and rewrites, that I started to lose track of the core of the piece, but in the end it seemed to boil down into quite a successful performance. The manic rush to the end, coming as it did after the resonant chords of the middle, was particularly energetic and effective.

For the second project I collaborated with a choreographer and dancers from the London School of Contemporary Dance to create a dance work. The process for this piece was made slightly harder by the ever-changing choreography and the difficulty pinning down the instrumentation and construction of the music. In the end I used a solo harp to accompany the two female dancers, using silence and impulse as the key musical drives, trying to create a quiet, intimate, and instinctive composition.

Of the remaining three projects, two of them are yet to be performed (although the pieces are completely finished), and the third is in the final stages of composition. The third project was another collaboration, this time with postgraduate singers and poets from Birkbeck. I wanted to try working with a limited palette of pitches and with palindromic structures that weave back and forth. This work also had the clearest idea of how I wanted to choose and use the instrumentation: use instruments based on tonal complexity rather than pitch, so that rather than having a female voice supported by lower harmonies, placing all the material in the same range but moving from a simple sound to a complex one. The poem by Dan Eltringham that developed in the process ended up being a very good fit for these ideas, and there were a number of happy surprises and coincidences that made this piece a pleasure to write.

For the fourth project, a duet for violin and piano, I again went in a different direction. I initially found the challenge of writing something new for violin quite daunting, as it seems as if everything has already been done for such an established combination. I started by listening to the type of violin music I find exciting, that of Stephane Grappelli jazz-violin and late romantic virtuosos, and tried to write a piece that had that level of energy and excitement. I ended up composing a fun 16 bar jazz tune in a Parisian ‘hot’ style, and using that as the foundation for the whole piece. Although this is the most diatonic work I wrote this year, the harmony moves so slowly that the tension can really build. I wanted to see how much I could get out of simple notes, rhythms and articulations, and found it great fun to build the piece from those rather than by relying on extended techniques, dynamics, or timbre. It has a raw, rough quality that I find exciting.

I am currently writing the final project, and although it hasn’t taken its final shape I am returning to ideas of procedurally devised music. For this work I am using simple processes to make the underlying pitch and rhythmic material, but then applying it in a slightly more flexible way. It seems to be the reverse approach to the first project. I have felt in previous projects that I gravitate towards a ternary or multi-movement structure, and so for this final work I am putting myself out of my comfort zone and trying to move from one simple idea to another, without changing direction or returning to what was written. I am also experimenting with looped modules, or mobiles, which requires a different way of thinking.

In addition to the projects that were part of the course I took on a couple of extra projects at the school. As part of an additional ‘Voiceworks’ project I set an Edgar Allen Poe poem for a postgraduate singer and pianist, and used the opportunity to experiment with some new techniques and to write very fast to a deadline. The larger project that I was involved with was as composer for the Acting departments production of Twelfth Night. This was a challenge, as it involved writing new versions of a dozen songs in the script, and working with the directors and cast. In the end I performed the accompaniment to the live performances and ended up with a collection of songs and cues that I am particularly proud of. I enjoyed the process of working on the play, and of working with other departments of the school, and hope to do more of it in the future.

As my confidence has grown as a composer I have started applying for competitions and contests, submitting pieces in a mostly fruitless parade of competitions. Aside from a shared win in the ensemble composition category of the Australia New Zealand Viola Society Competition I have so far met with little success, but I find the process of applying to be very helpful at consolidating my ideas, revisiting older works, and getting into the routines for a professional career. And perhaps one day I’ll win something! My plans for next year are still under formation, and depend on external factors (such as funding and opportunities) as much as they do on my own intent. I would like to embark on the second part of the Masters Program, and have applied to continue, although it ultimately depends on my aggregate mark, my application, and my ability to fund the year. If I am able to undertake the second part I would like to develop aspects of my writing, particularly with a slightly larger ensemble, write again for a play, and explore a wide range of styles to improve my technique. Collaborating with people from other departments, whether in performance or even drama or other arts disciplines, is a part of the school which I want to make the most of. If it is not possible to continue to part 2 I aim to find freelance work as a composer and take lessons privately in composition and conducting.

As I develop my career as a composer I am trying to keep as varied and practical approach as I can. Although I do tend to write for live performers I hope to write in a variety of styles and formats as the situation dictates. I would like to specialise in theatrical music, but also in arranging, orchestration and musical direction. I have been building these skills over the past year, and will continue to do so, and I am now starting to go for commissions, gigs, and work in a freelance capacity. Having the support that I have had over the last year has made an enormous difference to my ability to invest in my studies and my skills. I have been able to devote myself to developing my compositional skills and career without too much pressure to compromise. To be in the same position again would be wonderful, as I was able to fully commit to my first year and get the most out of the course as I could.


February Update

Well, here’s another update for all of you following my progress here in London (ahem). I’ve just gone through a month of intense busyness, as I juggle projects and performances, but things have eased off now, allowing me to focus on the compositions I am writing. I’ve also shifted my focus a little bit to start working on some career development, so I’ve been updating my website and CV, and will be updating my biography and photography over the next couple of weeks. I’ve also begun the process of applying for scholarships for the next school year, as I know I won’t be able to do the 2nd part of the masters unless I find some new sources of funds.   This seems like a good time to fill you in on what I have been doing so far this term,


I started this year by working on the schools production of Twelfth Night. This was an extra opportunity that fell into my lap and it proved very satisfying and exciting. My main role was to set the 8-9 songs that Shakespeare wrote in the text, and then to rehearse them with the actors. In addition to these I composed some incidental and background pieces, and ended up performing these as part of the show, mostly on a (vaguely jazzy) piano, but with some cello and a tubular bell at the more atmospheric moments. It was very interesting observing rehearsals and piecing together the incidental cues from the scraps of music I had composed. It was nice to play and perform again, especially after a couple of months of solid composing, and improvising music with the musicians in the cast was very enjoyable. I was playing as part of the action, so I given a costume, and asked to grow a moustache, which I feel was probably a mistake (see right).

The Twelfth Night Cast and Crew (that's me on the left)
The Twelfth Night Cast and Crew (that’s me on the left)

This term we have been working on our collaborative projects with postgraduate singers and poets from Birkbeck university. I’ve been busy trying out some new techniques in setting the poem that has been written by Dan, and I’m quite pleased with how it is turning out. I’ll send another update after it has been premièred at the Wigmore Hall. I’m enjoying playing with meditative materials and using the text in a fragmented way without breaking up the text into something not comprehensible.  We have also started working on a piece for violin and piano. I have decided to take this on in a very different direction, and am writing something fiery and energetic. We had a workshop last week, and I think the ideas I have are promising, as long as I maintain the focus of the piece. Last week we also had a workshop of the piece we started right at the beginning of the course, for two pianos and percussion, and although I thought the sections of the pieces worked, I have been reordering the piece to make the ideas clearer and less chopped up.

I had a lovely Christmas, the Family came to visit and we had a cosy European Christmas with friends. It was nice spending time with them, and I returned to college refreshed. A nice treat in January was the weekend of snow that we had. London has been pretty cold for these last couple of months (especially compared to Sydney  and there have been flurries of snow every couple of days, but there was only one weekend when it settled. We went to the park, made a snowman, and looked at the very confused ducks. A very European winter!


Until the next update.



Christmas Update

As Christmas approaches I felt it was appropriate to update you on my progress and activities this term.

Last weekend we concluded our contemporary dance project with two performances at the London Contemporary Dance School. Although it went through many revisions and rethinks over the 6 weeks that we worked on the project I ended up composing a score for a solo harp to accompany the two female dancers which my choreographer, Joseph Toonga, was working with. After the more raucous and energetic works of the first half (many of the other works used amplification or electronics, and had larger corps of dancers) we opened the second half with a very quiet and intimate piece which the audience seemed to appreciate. I could feel the audience listening perhaps more intently than they had for the louder pieces (apart from the gentleman in front of me, who had his mobile phone out), and the dancers felt that they could explore the relationship with the harp in a particularly intimate way. A video recording was made, although I won’t receive it until the new year, but an audio recording was made in the last rehearsal, and can be found on my soundcloud:
As well as the projects that are part of the course (we are now under way with the ‘voiceworks’ project, where we are collaborating with postgraduate singers and poets to create new works for voice) I am using this opportunity to take on a few additional projects. I am working on an additional song project, writing a new song for a master’s singer and pianist to perform, and am planning on setting a poem by Poe for them to perform. I have also started working with the Guildhall School’s drama department on their production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, for which I will be writing music for the famous songs, and composing incidental cues for the scenes and transitions of the production. This is very exciting, although rehearsals start on the 2nd of January, which means I will be very busy these holidays. I am also preparing submissions for several competitions, so I am facing a pleasingly busy month ahead.
I am looking forward to seeing family and friends again this Christmas  as the family is coming to London and we will be celebrating Christmas with old family friends, which will be a welcome time of calm after the hectic first term.

An Update

Over the last few months I have been properly settling into London and into music college and my degree. I moved into my flat three weeks ago, and have been busily getting set up with all the usual living necessities, as well as a digital piano so that I can compose at home whenever I need to, rather than needing to use a practice room for the trying out of ideas.
College is now well and truly underway, with many of the year’s projects starting in the last month or so. I am now busy writing a piece for two piano players and two percussionists for a postgraduate ensemble, in which I am experimenting with some of the more mathematical and procedural methods of composing. We have also started working with choreographers from the London School of Contemporary Dance to create a dance piece with live musicians from the college and dancers from the LCDS. It is very exciting to be working with the choreographer and dancers, and although I know very little about contemporary dance, quite a learning curve.
We have also just embarked on another collaborative project, this time with postgraduate singers and poets from the Birkbeck University School of Poetry, to create new song works for première next year at the Wigmore Hall.
In addition to the curricular compositions I have used the opportunity to get involved with a couple of extra-curricular and professional projects. I recently completed a collaborative intensive at the Young Vic Theatre company, and I have just started work on a similar project to the one above, working with singers and pianists to create new art songs. I am in all likelihood going to start working on the drama school’s production of Twelfth Night. In addition to getting into the conducting unit, I am currently preparing scores for competitions run by the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music and the BBC Concert Orchestra.
I am enjoying finally being properly settled in London, which is a very exciting city with so many different performances and events going on. It is also nice to be properly stuck into the business of composition and study. I am already trying to broaden my compositional style and stretch myself to try new ideas and ways of working.
Sunday Silliness

Kitchen Drums

This series (The Horne Section) is being repeated on BBC Radio 4 at the moment, and this segment was recorded as a video, probably because it is so visually and technically impressive. Transferable skills!

Enjoy, see you next week!

Around the Web

Learning Musical Styles with Transcription

This is the introduction to an excellent article on adopting new musical styles on The rest of the article goes on to set up some ways you can go about properly learning a new musical style.

Whether its true or not, Broadway music is largely seen as a derivative art form among the Broadway musician community. Look at shows like Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet, In the Heights – these shows showcase rock n roll, country, hip hop and salsa – none of which originated on Broadway.

The last thing you want to say, therefore, is that you learned to play R’n’B by playing a summerstock version of Dream Girls. Broadway wants authentic players that have learned music styles from the source, not from itself.

I really think this is true. I just don’t feel like you can learn jazz by playing musical theatre scores. You have to learn jazz by playing jazz.

And so, M.’s question to me was this:

I am classically trained and I personally feel any style other than classical has been learned from playing MT repertoire. I feel that I am very limited because of this. I feel intimated and do not know where to even begin learning these styles.

[Do] you have any advice on how to learn jazz, blues, gospel, latin etc…?

via Learning Musical Styles with Transcription.

Video of the Week

Music at the RSC

Two short but excellent videos from the Royal Shakespeare company about the composition and preparation for music for the stage. Enjoy.



What is diegesis?

Diegesis is a term used in film music to discribe the way in which the elements of film relate to the narrative the film is telling. In film music, it is  simple way of describing the function of music: if it occurs within the world of the characters (i.e. someone could hear it) it is diegetic, if it occurs in the world of the audience (but the characters cannot hear/see it) it is non-diegetic.

How can you use it?

It’s not a technique as such, rather a lens though which you can look at your music. Although the script will usually give hints as to the most obvious diegetic cues, you can shift this factor to make your work more interesting: rather than a standard piece of underscore, you could make it play from a gramophone or radio during the scene; or you could use on-stage musician (such as a string quartet in a restaurant) to accompany and set the tone of a scene.

Blurring the line

Of course, the most exciting use of this technique involves the blurring of the line between the diegetic and the non-diegetic. This is particularly easy to accomplish in films (such as Philip Glass playing the background of the Truman Show, or the entrace of the brass band in My Fair Lady) but it can also take place in the theatre. West Side Story has a famous scene in which a jukebox is turned on and plays a recording of the music to an earlier scene, this then segues into “live” underscoring played by the pit orchestra. However, we still believe that the music is ‘coming’ from  the jukebox (a consequence of Schitzophonia) albiet with a richer and more visceral style. This effect, the transition from one frame of reference to another, enhances the performance and gives the scene much more impact. Ironically, blurring or transitioning across the real/non-real line can make the performance seem more real by assisting or refreshing the willing suspension of disbelief.


Although not a technique as such, diegesis is an important factor in the construction of theatrical artifice. It can be used to change the perspective on a scene and to freshen an otherwise stale or unorginal cue, or to draw attention to or distract from a musical or theatrical element. Next time you are struggling with a music cue, think about whether you can change its position in the narrative frame to make it more interesting. At the very least this will give you some creative inspiration, at most an entire new way of presenting your score and sounds.



Who does what?

So, what does everybody do? When you read a programme you can see all sorts of music related jobs, many of which sound like the same thing. I’ve provided a brief outline of the most common roles below. Of course, many of these will be done by the same person in a smaller production, and you can even find one person doing the whole lot (although they don’t usually put that in the programme as it would take up too much space)

Music Director

In a musical or music-heavy genre of theatre the music director is the person who makes artistic decision and controls the artistic side of the musical output. They will often conduct (or band-lead) and generally acts as the main point of contact for all musicians during the performance. This person shapes the overall contours of the music and is responsible both for achieving the desired sound and maintaining standards in performance.

Music Supervisor

This is similar to the music director, but has a slightly more administrative role. These are often used with compilation and pre-recorded scores, as their main job is to select appropriate music, suitable composers, and decide (often in collaboration) where cues should occur within the score. This is still a creative role within the music department, even if there is less of a focus on live musicians.

Music Manager

A mostly managerial and logistical role, the music manager performs the important function of coordinating all musicians, equipment, scores, rights and composers/songwriters. They can also be the fixer (the person who recruits and engages musicians) or the orchestra manager (the band equivalent of the stage manager who works with the orchestra during a run of performances).


Composing involves the planning and writing of the music for the performance, but does not include the performance or recording of the music. The composer will often be present at rehearsal or recording to ensure that the music works, but is not necessarily a performer.


Sound designers decide how sound will be used in the production, and the role can vary from the construction of soundscapes and effects to the planning of live sound rigs and acoustic design.


Once the music is in rehearsals the performers (particularly on-stage actors and singers) are supported by a repetiteur, an accompanist, or other members of the music staff. Their main job is to familiarise and coach the performers with the music for the production, to ensure that they are prepared for the introduction of the band or orchestra.


These are the people who perform the music on the night. They may be instrumentalists or singers or electronic musicians, and may even be members of the above areas also. These are the people who interpret the planned musical input (the score, the sounds, the songs) and replicate and present it each performance for the audience. They may also perform in a recording session so that  the recording can be used for rehearsal or the performance itself (although this is frownedupon by musicians unions and performers).

Sound Design for Visual Media and Film Product...
A Sound Design Studio (Photo credit: vancouverfilmschool)

I hope this sheds some light on the various roles and positions within the music department for a production. If you have corrections or suggestions leave them in the comments.

Sunday Silliness

Sunday Silliness: Vuvuzela

People seem to have forgotten how big the vuvuzela was for the few short weeks in June 2010. I particularly loved this veideo because of:

  • The novel use of instruments in a musical setting.
  • The completely deadpan delivery.
  • The calibre of the musicians involved.