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.