Friday, 22 June 2012
Well, by some miracle I actually finished the opera, even though it involved quite a few 19 hour days, including one particularly horrible one where I realised that rehearsal marks didn't match up between the vocal and full scores. But it all worked out well in the end and seeing the published scores helped to convince me that it was actually done! Finishing something this big was quite a bizarre feeling and I felt without purpose for quite a few days. I always get that feeling but this time it was particularly pronounced!
Anyway, so almost immediately the rehearsals started (the singers had had their scores for a few months as I wrote the community participation sections and did the orchestration last.
To be honest, when I finished the score, the last thing I wanted to think or hear about was Amy Johnson! But my enthusiasm has been totally revitalised by being in rehearsals. It's SO amazing to see people bring what was in my (and Adam's) head to life. More on this later. Also amazing to see all the things other than the words and music - as I type this I'm watching the lighting being plotted, and over the last week, when I've been practicing (I have to play the piano for the Friday performances) I've seen the set taking shape (designed by Hannah Sibai).
The instrumentalists are great, and everything is taking shape really quickly, in no small part down to Jonny Lo, the fabulous conductor working on this project. It's a wonderful feeling as a composer to feel that you don't really have to say anything in rehearsal because the conductor understands exactly what you are aiming at, and this is definitely the case with Jonny. I've learnt to be pessimistic at the beginning of orchestral rehearsals - no matter how good the musicians are (and they are very good!) the music always sounds a little muddy in the beginning stages - but then as the musicians get to know each other, and the music, and 'get' the music, as it were, then it's like a camera lens gradually focusing. You hear all the little details that were clear in your head, and that's when for me it gets really exciting!
And of course there are the wonderful singers: Natalie Raybould, David Pisaro and Rebecca Lea. They are truly inhabiting the characters now in ways that I could not of imagined. Natalie just becomes Amy on stage and all are utterly utterly convincing.
More later about other things....just the guilt of not posting for a while finally got to me!
Finally, this is a picture of me helping to transport percussion earlier today...good to do something practical after using up all my brain cells on the music!
Wednesday, 30 May 2012
Monday, 28 May 2012
When I can bear to look at this computer screen again, perhaps tomorrow, I shall blog about it :)
I still have to put all the dynamics in the computer score, and there is still a lot of work to do, but, well, since the last post was entitled "Panic" I thought I should do this short update.
But first there is sun to be soaked up and perhaps a glass of wine to be drunk.
Monday, 14 May 2012
Sunday, 13 May 2012
Tuesday, 8 May 2012
Friday, 4 May 2012
Sorry for another hiatus in this blog. Basically I have been orchestrating pretty non-stop since 15th April when I sent off the scores to the singers.
The score is 288 pages at the moment and I still have 20 minutes of music to write....so somewhat daunting at this stage still! I am just about to print out the first draft score of the orchestrtated material so far.
Lots of considerations really when orchestrating something of this length - not to overuse certain sounds or instruments, whether instruments are associated with particular characters etc etc.
Sunday, 15 April 2012
This is fairly obvious I know, but, well, actually, the way I’m writing this opera is quite different from the way I write most pieces. Usually, although I know what’s going to happen in each part of the piece, I write it from beginning to end.
With this opera, it’s all been written in the wrong (but right) order. You start with the most important bits first, and leave the most incidental music until later. One of the last bits I wrote was a little section really quite near the beginning - a kind of recitativey passage for Amy. Writing this last, I was able to subtly refer to all the music that was going to come in the opera (which tied in very well with the dramatic purpose of the words in this section).
Anyway, that’s all I have to say about that really. It makes me wonder whether I should experiment with composing shorter, purely instrumental pieces in this way.
One of the things that I’ve noticed when writing this opera is that things keep fitting magically into place. I think I’m so inside the music now that my unconscious must be doing some fairly cool stuff. Or maybe I’m just seeing increasingly pertinent connections between things much as one does at the onset of some forms of mental illnesses. I don’t mean this flippantly at all: the research that I sat in on at the Psychiatry Department at Cambridge University when I was a Leverhulme Artist in Residence there a few years ago was looking at precisely this, and we had long discussions about the similarity of very early onset psychosis with particular stages of the creative process.
Anyway, what really struck me was how easy it was to compose a bit at the end, where three voices overlap. Two of these phrases have been heard much earlier in the libretto, and I wanted to keep the original melodies that I had written.
However, it was Amy’s text (that was relatively new, only having been heard in the preceding sections) that I decided to set first, and the idea for an accompaniment, which is a kind of irregular passacaglia (a fixed rhythm and a fixed choral melody, which have different lengths so it takes 5 quasi repetitions for the two to get back in synch again) came fairly easily.
I thought I’d have to alter things a lot to fit the other melodies in, but as it happened they slotted in without any alteration in one part, and only the tiniest changes in another part. This struck me as quite amazing as each of the three melodies had not been composed with the intention of fitting together (a bit of an oversight one might say, since they were layered over each other at the end of the libretto, but hey...)
The thing is a lot of things like this have been happening since I’ve been writing this opera - little snippets of melodies from other sections magically work when layered over each other, motives from other voices slip into other vocal parts when characters are trying to influence each other, or taking on each others characteristics, etc etc. It’s one of the real joys of composing for me - when you are so inside the music that you are writing that these things just work without much effort on your part.
Writing an opera is very tiring I find - just the long-haul-ness of it is psychologically draining, but, the other side of it is that, having lived with the music for five months now, I know it better than I realise, and the ease with which some ideas have come to me has been quite wonderful.
Apologies - these posts are somewhat jumbled in order. I’ve been keeping notes of what I should write about when I get the time/get online, but now some of the things I thought about to tell you are quite a way back in the past.
Anyway, this was something that was asked in the Leeds Opera Conference actually - whether you had to have a specific singer in mind when composing. I don’t actually think you do - I think you just need to have a very specific voice type in mind - but obviously if you do know exactly who you are writing for, and they exactly fit what you have in your head, then that’s even better.
So, up until the workshops, I was very much composing Amy with Amy in mind - imagining how she sounded (from descriptions of her speaking in her biography) etc. But after the workshops, and having heard Natalie put her own personality into the part (which of course is what you want!) I’ve started imagining what Natalie’s interpretation of Amy would be, and this I think has had an effect on the music. As I’ve said before I sing a great deal when composing, and whilst writing a bit of what is effectively recit., I found myself mimicking Natalie playing Amy. This really struck me, I don’t know quite why. I suppose that over the time of writing this opera I’ve developed an ear for the minutiae of vocal expression, and it’s wonderful to be able to actually put this into the music. Actually, that reminds me of another question from the conference yesterday - whether I felt I thought that I, rather than a musical director, should direct the rehearsals of the opera. And basically the fact is that I don’t necessarily think I should - one of the joys of hearing other musicians interpret your music is that they sometimes find other things in it after all. But really I feel one of the skills that one needs when composing is to really direct from the score. So that everything, most obviously the dynamics, tempi etc, informs the performer of your intentions. But I also think this can extend to the notes themselves. If a phrase is carefully crafted, especially when set to words, I think the composer can make their intentions very clear. I don’t know whether I’m right or not - I will have to let you know once the rehearsals start!
So, yesterday I came up to Leeds for the end of the International Opera Conference to do a brief round table with Adam Strickson and Lauren Redhead, another composer whom Adam has collaborated with. The whole conference looked to be absolutely fascinating and I was sorry not to have been able to attend more (I’m am literally doing only the things I absolutely have to do in order to be able to have enough days to compose. One of the hazards of composing to such a tight deadline is that it takes up sooo much time that you hardly listen to any other music (or at least music that isn’t associated/inspiring the opera) or really do anything else at all, and therefore you run the risk of becoming very dull). But I intend to remedy that once this opera is finished...
Anyway, so after the conference Adam and I met for what turned out to be about 3 hours I think. I played the opera through to him rather badly, and then we discussed the Prologue and Interlude, which until then I hadn’t thought about much, other than reading it through several times. Although after I sent off the scores, I arranged the text out on the floor of the kitchen (I literally do spread all the pages out, in order to get a kind of spatial awareness of the structure of a section) and realised I had so many questions that it would be impossible to start until I’d spoken to Adam.
The questions are all about timings basically - local young actors are going to be involved, and will be acting/speaking in these sections. Some parts will be partly improvised perhaps, so obviously this has great implications on the music - most specifically how long it should be. The other problem is that the stages in Leeds and Bridlington are very different sizes, so, sections of these sections will vary in length in each location. This is fairly new territory for me - I have written a semi-improvised score for a radio play, but with this, there was a great deal of silence. The music would come in for 30 seconds say, and then fade out. I want the music of these two sections of the opera to be constant, so composing a kind of music which isn’t totally inane (just endless repetitions) but that is also adjustable, not just in rehearsal but between performances in different venues, is going to be quite a challenge.
I’m sure once I get down to it things will become clear, and I already have quite specific ideas of the types of music that these sections will contain, but there’s always this sense of slight terror before beginning a new big section of work. Anyhow, it was great to talk to Adam because we were able to time each section (which although not exact at least gives you an idea) and to clarify a great number of things. Adam said it was very useful for him too, as he’d been very busy with other projects, and had not really thought about these sections lately, but with rehearsals for the choir and for the actors approaching, it was becoming a necessity.
I will try to blog about this properly, but, briefly, the Prologue is set in 1934, and the Interlude 2010. So, I’m basically planning to use influences from these two years in the music.
Basically (almost) my every waking moment has been concentrated on this opera. So, when I’ve been cleaning up or (on very rare occasions) cooking, I’ve been listening to either music from the 1930’s or from 2010. I downloaded every number 1 hit in 2010 the other day, and have been listening to them on loop (crikey there’s a variety of quality). But I’ve gradually been getting more and more inspiration, so that’s good. Obviously, these sections won’t simply be pastiches, but in the Interlude for instance, the young people come in with their iPods, listening to music, and the instruction is for music with a strong beat in the libretto, so, well, it would be fair to surmise that what they would be listening to. Anyway, more on this when I actually work out what I’m going to write and how I’m going to write it.
Hello, and sorry for the massive gap in postings. Two days ago I sent the full piano score off to everybody, all the singers, the repetiteur, conductor etc. So the main bit of the opera (e.g. the bit just involving the professional singers) is done! I still have about 30 mins of music to write, but a lot of this will be fairly repetitive/background music underneath talking/acting etc. Still a massive amount of work to do but the psychological relief of sending my 132 page, 62 minute score off was quite massive!
With something of this length, even ‘small’ jobs take ages - working out the metronome marks for the whole work took 12 hours, putting in dynamics another full day, and instructions (‘sadly’ etc) a good half day. It was strange, I found putting words to the emotions I had created in the music very hard - it’s almost as if I’d worked out so specifically exactly what I wanted in the notes, that it had gone beyond words. Either that or I’ve been composing so much that I’ve lost the ability to use the English language properly. I expect it’s a bit of both.
So, still a lot to do. Orchestrate, and write the material for the Prologue and Interlude, which, to be honest, is newish territory for me...I’ll explain why in the next pos
Wednesday, 4 April 2012
Tuesday, 6 March 2012
So, this week I went with my Mum to see David Hockney’s A Bigger Picture Exhibition. Although I was really looking forward to it I was worried about having a day away from composing, particularly as the day before I’d had to force myself to stay at my desk. For some reason some days I just really can’t be bothered to compose. Anyway, so I got a bit done but it felt like running through mud.
You can see details of the exhibition here.
But, the day off at the Royal Academy of the Arts did me the power of good, and I got a really good idea whilst in the exhibition! I think it’s something to do with the fact that when you’re in the middle of writing, everything seems pertinent or relevant. But as it happens many of the pictures in Hockney’s exhibition are of the area that Amy would have flown over (he lives in Bridlington now the majority of the exhibition was made up of painting of the lanscape in the surrounding area). One of the pictures (I wish I could remember the name) was almost like an aerial view of the local landscape - probably from the viewpoint of higher ground but it could have easily been the view from a low flying plane. This painted view of the fields from above, in vibrant colours gave me an idea for the harmonic structure of the last section of the opera, which could be said to be a hymn to the glory of flying.
So, anyway, I’m thrilled about this, as I’m just about to begin this section, and feel newly inspired.
You can see details of the exhibition here.
It got me thinking about perspective too - in the opera are we looking up at Amy and Jim flying, are we in the plane with looking down at the lanscape, or are we viewing them from the air (as if in a separate plane)? Well, I realised when looking back at the music I’ve written that it’s all three (at different times). I don’t know that’s that’s particularly pertinent, but it just struck me the other day...I suppose however that some of these things only occur to you after you’ve composed certain bits - and it’s amazing how structurally things seem to fit into place, sometimes unconsciously. I’ve been surprised how well some of my themes fit together - when, in for instance a coda, the text harks back to previous material and I’ve tried to bring back the melodies associated with that material too. It’s nice to have surprises like that.
More anon. I have to make myself start this section. So far today I have done every piece of admin possible, in order to delay starting...
Erm, I thought that I’d have some really interested things to say about how my plans altered, how I did something drastically different from what I said I would do in the last post, but, it pretty much went to plan. So, erm, that’s it for today!
Tuesday, 28 February 2012
On Saturday 25th February I got all the ideas for the Atlantic crossing. Days like this are great. I haven’t known how to set this bit for a while, couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but now, after weeks of putting it out of my mind and writing other bits instead, it finally all came together. Days like this are also great because one feels one does a tremendous amount of work with hardly any effort, which in my book is really the way it should always be but never is. Things click into place, things which were perplexing suddenly become obvious, and connections become apparent and tangible between things and other things that previously seemed totally unrelated.
As soon as everything came together I had to stop, as I had to go to a performance of a piano trio of mine the next day, and now as I type am on my way up to Leeds to teach. But I thought I’d put down on paper all my thoughts about how I’m going to compose this section first, before I actually write it, and then, when I’ve finished it in a week or so, I’ll tell you what I actually did.
The last section that I set involved Amy and Jim embarking on their joint Atlantic crossing. I think I wrote about this earlier in the post about Jim Mollison. The part that I was worried about was the section directly after this - where they start to run out of fuel and then crash.
So, it’s basically a section in two parts - they start off in England in the first part, run out of fuel over the USA and crash in the second. I wanted to represent the change of continents with a change in harmony - in simple terms from English pastoral to New York cool. So the first sections are based around E and F chords, moving in to F sharp majory/minory chords in the second (as they just ‘fit’ to me). The first bit is set to a sort of off-kilter waltz (see a few blogs back) and the second will be completely different - variable time signatures etc with very likely a constant quaver motion running throughout.
Thinking about pacing, this is going to move rather fast, and the rhythm is going to be repetitive but with ‘spluttering’ breaks in it that will increase due to the gradual failure of the engine (as it runs out of petrol). Harmony-wise, I spent an hour or so looking through Mark Levine’s Jazz Piano book, as I wanted to find jazz influenced harmony that would sound very ‘urban’: I think to Jim New York might be some kind of socialising mecca. The chapter on upper structure chords was what I was looking for, and in fact simply playing through the table of the 9 upper structure chords sounds really great on it’s own. In other parts of the opera the chords span a wide distance - sometimes in a five note chord each interval may be more than an octave apart. In this section I am going to keep the top and bottom notes of the chord quite close together - probaby under two octaves. This is partly just for variety, and partly because I want to use write chord melodies, with all the parts playing in parallel motion, going up and down mimicking the motion of the airplane as Amy continually urges Jim to get the nose higher and circle in order to lessen the impact of the crash. This will be more apparent if the chords are quite narrow in range as they will be able to go up and down over wide distances without going out of intrumental ranges. The vocal parts are going to be quite rapidly delivered - they are after all in increasing panic, so they may be quite recitative-like over the busy orchestral writing.
Well, I think that’s as good a place as any to stop for now. I’d better get on with writing it...
Monday, 27 February 2012
Hello, and apologies for the long break in this blog. I had a week off after the workshops, and, after getting over jet lag and now fully back in the swing of composing. I was a bit paranoid about taking a break but have learnt that sometimes one has to force oneself to have some time off from note writing, and the fact that I’m not longer something approaching a compositional corpse that has to bribe myself into composing a few more notes with regular 15 minute excerpts of Have I got News for You on iPlayer thankfully proves me right.
The workshops were really great and I’m so grateful to everybody involved. Jonathan Lo the conductor tirelessly rehearsed the music so that we were able to perform nearly all of it in front of an invited audience at the end of the second day. And I’m really grateful to the singers Natalie Raybould, Lizzie Marshall, Nick Watts and Edd Caine the repetiteur for singing and playing so brilliantly. And of course Adam for everything from writing the words to introducing the performed material to the audience while I tried to make myself as invisible as impossible behind the piano.
I can’t say there were any revelations from the workshop - I had after all heard what I’d written both in my head, and through my own play-throughs at home, many times. I think we changed a couple of word settings. But, after getting back from holiday, a few thoughts have come into my head that to be honest probably would have occurred to me anyway, but may have been hastened along by the workshops. But it was really great to hear my music performed live and I’m so grateful to everybody for working so hard both before and during the workshops.
I’m a bit worried about appearing a bit smug when I say “there were no revelations”. But the simple fact was that there just weren’t, as, when I’m composing, I take so long over it that by the time I do put pen to paper I know exactly what I want. That’s not to say I’m completely averse to changing things - Adam has suggested some cuts for instance and although I’m not currently totally convinced, he may well turn out to be completely right. It was really great to know that the vocal parts were well written though - I’m pretty confident writing for female voices but was slightly worried about the tenor writing. There were no problems at all though, apart from one note which was a bit too low, so, well, that’s reassuring!
Mainly I’ve been thinking about pacing. Looking back on what I’ve written, there are parts which in simple terms take quite a long time in relation to the amount of text set. Which I don’t want to change - just as I go on composing I’m identifying the sections which I want to ‘move’ faster. For instance I’m setting the Atlantic crossing at the moment, and in this scene, I want to in part recreate the panic of Amy and Jim’s crash with fast moving music: this section is not a time for a line of text to be repeated several times in order to create a mood etc.
In addition to the workshops we also held auditions for the singers and musicians. It was really great to finally nail down the exact orchestration for this opera - I’ve been writing in piano score (a necessity due to time limits and the workshop) with fairly-to-extremely accurate ideas as to what instrument will play what - but now I know exactly who is playing, I am starting to think even more orchestrally, which is great. I knew roughly the orchestration right from the beginning, but for instance, having it definitely confirmed that the flautist involved does own an alto flute, does make a difference to how one thinks during composing.
Tuesday, 7 February 2012
Despite the previous moan about just getting inspired and having to stop (which is basically how my work pattern generally seems to go) I was really excited about last saturday when Natalie Raybould, who is going to sing Amy in the opera, came to visit and sing through what I’d written so far.
To be honest at this point, I was actually not looking forward to the workshops that much, which are due to take place this week, as I was very happy in my seclusion writing writing and writing thank-you-very-much, and anything which doesn’t involve just sitting and writing becomes something of a bloody inconvenience. But hearing Amy come to life properly (as opposed to through my own, distinctly second-rate singing voice) was very excited, and now I am really looking forward to them!
Basically Natalie had completely got what I was wanting, which is mostly down to the fact that she is totally fantastic, but hopefully also in part to the fact that I’d been successful in imbuing the music with as much character as I could. I always find it difficult knowing how much to put in the score when writing for voices - I tend to put in a fewer instructions as a) the words suggest a lot of the emotion, and b) I’m not sure one can use so much of one’s brain to think about dynamics when singing (and in this case acting too) as when playing. Not sure about this. Perhaps it’s just because, in vocal music, due to the necessity of getting the words across as clearly as possible (which is very important to me for the vast majority of time) there are actually less dynamic variations in the melodic lines.
Natalie understood the influences of the music, whilst still kindly saying that it had retained my own voice. I said to her that I was really pleased about this, as over the last few months I’d spent a lot of time trying to really internalise, and then forget, music as diverse as Jack Hylton’s 30’s dance music and Lily Allen. I think that’s really quite important - to really get under the skin of a kind of music (if that’s what inspires your music), really get the feel of it and understand how it works, and then try and forget as much as possible and compose your own music, which can’t but help being influenced by the music you’ve got to know so well in some way or other. Seems to work for me anyway.
So, that’s where I’ve got to so far. I’m almost at Manchester and am going to sign off for a premiere at the Bridgewater Hall, with the fabulous Lawson Piano trio and pupils from Chethams School of Music, who are going to premiere an Olympic-inspired piece for double piano trio. Tomorrow there are two days of workshops at Opera North on the music that I’ve written so far. Typing that sentence just made me feel rather nervous so I’m going to stop now, and I’ll let you know how the workshops went in a few day’s time!
Sometimes one just seems to have a stroke of luck - I suppose it’s partly to do with being very open to suggestion when one is inspired (if that doesn’t sound hideously affected). You know, those times when you walk past a billboard with some crappy advert on it that nevertheless triggers off something that gives you an idea, or when you turn on the radio to catch something totally fascinating that ends up becoming a new piece twelve months later. I was very glad to have used Desert Island Discs as my procrastinatary tool of choice that morning.
When David told us about his third disc, it became obvious: a waltz was like the perfect way to set the Atlantic crossing! I think I actually said “aha!” in an embarrassingly declamatory fashion whilst throwing my arms up in the air at this point (another reason why I’m probably best off living alone at the moment).
Both Amy and Jim were the epitome of 1930’s glamour. The idea of a plane as a bird somehow tied in - the grace of a bird and grace of a dancer. The fact that they were working as a couple, swopping places in the cockpit (like whirling round on a dance floor). The outward elegance alongside the hidden sweat and muscle ache of top class dancing paralleled the elegance of the long distance flight, Amy touching up her makeup and hair before she touched down having not slept for several days straight and on the verge of collapse. The ability of the waltz to be both slightly twee, naive and comic at the same time as passionate and expansive (something that I really went for during Jim’s second statement of “Just you and me and the sky and the sea”). The ability to ‘off-kilter-ise’ a waltz by occasionally inserting a 5/8 or 7/8 bar (lengthening or shortening the 3/4 bar by a quaver so that the second “cha” of the “umm-cha-cha” rhythm is either slightly too short or too long, so as to represent the plane being buffeted by the winds, being thrown off course etc, etc.
I got very excited about this and wrote almost all of Jim’s material for this scene that day. The waltz pattern also allowed me to clearly present sometimes quite complex harmony - I had in my ear harmony for both England (the start point) and the New York (the intended end point) and wanted to play about with gradually moving from one type of harmony to the other (very simplified, England equated to pastoral e minors and F majors in my mind, whilst New York was full of sharp-9 chords and F sharp minor/major).
So, that was a great day, and I felt all re-inspired, just as I had to stop everything and start rehearsals for the workshops. Typical.
So, I was still stuck on the ‘how to set the Atlantic crossing’ section of the opera. It had to be both humorous, often even slightly clown-like (Amy and Jim bump into each other as they repeatedly swop seats) but also not belittling of their huge achievement (even though they did crash land). There was also the romance of the dual crossing to suggest, or at any rate, the working togetherness of the trip.
So in the typical ‘yes-I-meant-to-start-at-9am-on-the-dot-but-this-radio-programme-sounds-awfully-interesting-so-maybe-I’ll-just-listen-to-this-first’ style, I found myself listening to David Attenborough on Desert Island Discs.
And then he chose a waltz for disc number three, and my problems were solved.
Recently I’ve been setting more music for Jim Mollison. Until this point all I’d really written was his part in the aviation-term-seduction-duet, where for the most part he is indulging in innuendo-laden banter, and, well, this certainly only represents one side of his character.
There are some truly wonderful quotes about Jim in Midge Gillie’s biography of Amy.
ʻJim had developed a knack of squeezing the most pleasure and the least discomfort
out of any situation he found himself in...’
‘Jim was proud of his suede shoes and double breasted suits that quickly became
rumpled, giving him a ʻjust out of bedʼ look’’ and ‘his most common pose what that of one hand in his pocket, the other holding a cigarette between his thumb and middle finger. He rarely smiled.’
Like Amy, he would often dress up to the nines for aviation (in this I totally approve....I, erm, had my premiere dress organised for this opera before I’d written a note, and currently own three aviation-themed broaches, and probably will own more in due course (there are more than three performances of this opera, don’t you know...). The dress was 90% off in the Harvey Nics sale so was actually a compulsory buy. Fact.
Anyway, I digress. Jim’s nickname was ‘Brandy Mollison’, as he had a habit of taking flasks of brandy and other beverages with him in the cockpit, imbibing copious amounts on his record breaking flights. And by all accounts he was a terrible womaniser. Another great quote from the book about Amy and Jim’s relationship:
“Their relationship had always been tempestuous: now it fell into the pattern of their flight
across the Atlantic: short periods of calm followed by turbulence that finally ended in a
dramatic crash fueled by alcohol and overwrought emotions, before the whole process
started again with high hopes and replenished supplies of good will. Amy refused to
believe that the marriage could not be rescued.”
Well, she refused to believe that the marriage couldn’t be rescued until she found Jim drunk in a hotel room with a woman she didn’t recognise....
So, it’s pretty apparent that Jim wasn’t exactly ideal husband material and all that, being as he was an arrogant, womanising, heavy drinking man who resented Amy’s greater fame.
However, he still was a bloody good pilot who undertook some amazing, life threatening, courageous journeys, and in the opera, I really want to portray a little of this. This opera is very much about Amy, and Jim’s function is largely to help tell Amy’s story, but I still didn’t want to reduce him to a caricature, as if nothing else, he wouldn’t be that attractive and surely one has to be moderately-to-exceedingly attractive in at least one way to be a successful womaniser (God, I have the feeling this might be a hideously un-PC thing to say, but you know what I mean). Simply put, I wanted to be able to rather fancy Jim’s character in the opera, or at least see what Amy saw in him at points, rather than roll my eyes at what an up-himself berk he was.
Jim has the line “Just you and me and the sky and the sea” several times in the Atlantic crossing scene. I really like the mixture of naivety, wonder, courage, childishness and affection in this line (as amongst other things he’s obviously happy that Amy is with him). There’s a kind of faux charm about the line that is very simplistic, but when you think about it it sums up a variety of emotions from joy and freedom to terror (Amy hated flying over water). I wanted to set these lines in a way that would give us a glimpse into Jim’s pioneering spirit, and the fact that (at first, anyway) Amy and Jim were excellent, professional flying companions.
Anyway, this is all well and good but I was completely stuck on this for a few days.
There were several reasons for this. First, I’ve just been composing non stop for several months now (I’ve written 35 minutes of music in less than 6 weeks, way over my usual output) and I feel I am something of a compositional corpse (just as well I have a week of not composing coming up, which I’m slightly terrified about in one way but I think a short enforced break might be very good idea). Secondly, this was the last scene of the opera I had, as I hadn’t had the final third of the libretto from Adam yet. The Atlantic crossing scene is humorous, and I love it, but it came directly after the seduction duet which was also humorous. I was a bit worried by the fact that there wasn’t enough serious stuff in the opera to balance things out, put simply. But this was completely solved when I saw the final third of the opera, which is a wonderfully passionate, expansive aria for Amy. This reassured me that I could follow my instincts on how to set the Atlantic crossing, as there would be music of greater depth to provide contrast and balance in the remaining part of the opera.
So, that was that aspect of the problem solved. But I still didn’t really know how to set it, until David Attenborough came to my rescue.
I’ve been setting passages for the chorus in the last few days. The chorus features in the prologue and epilogue of the opera and is made up of local singers from Bridlington. As the chorus are of mixed standard it was important to write something that was singable and easy to put together but that also didn’t seem out of place in the opera.
At one point the chorus sing “Amy, Wonderful Amy”: a song by Jack Hylton that became very famous after Amy’s trip to Australia. Both Adam and I wanted to reference the song but not just whack in a carbon copy of it: we wanted an off-kilter version if you like. But when I actually came to write this bit I got really stuck, as any addition of “off-kilter-ness” would usually be created by the inclusion of strange intervals (augmenting a perfect 4th to an augmented 4th in the melody etc, making it sound a bit strange whilst still retaining the melodic shape for instance) or strange rhythms (a cheeky 7/8 bar nestling in between the 4/4 bars to just make you wonder what just happened). But it’s very hard to sing a tritone or a melody in 7/8, often even for professional singers, and I didn’t want the chorus to despise me, so this wasn’t really an option. I solved the problem by retaining the exact melody for the choir, but shifting it up and down so that at some points they sing in C major, at others in D major, and in many other keys. The accompaniment links the phrases in different keys and I was careful to try and suggest the new key centre very strongly in the preceding minim of each new phrase so the new key would be firmly planted in the chorus’s ear. I hit upon the idea of writing an extremely chromatic accompaniment (in the first phrase I’ve harmonised it with a bassline that descends step by step over almost an octave, as I’ll put this on bass with a slight glissando between each note, which will hopefully be reminiscent of the drone of aeroplane engines....)
Hopefully what results is a recognisable song that just occasionally takes you by surprise, or takes a corner you don’t expect, but you can’t quite put your fingers on what exactly happened. The opening scene is set in the 1930’s, and I quite like the idea of a song drifting over to us in 2012, occasionally getting distorted by the wind and/or the passage of time. There’s also possibly a suggestion that what will follow in the opera won’t necessarily always present the perfect Amy, dressed for pioneering aviation as she dressed for dinner at the Ritz, etc. etc. I hope. Anyway, this all added up to a very satisfying but very tiring day of creating layers of chromatic melodies and harmonic progressions. I was glad to move on to something else by the next day!
Apologies for the rather long holiday I’ve had from this blog. A mixture of being slightly ill and rushing to write as much music as I could for the workshops this week meant that I hardly exited my non-wi-fi’d house. I’ve got a lot of work done but feel slightly as if I’m on day release, heading up for a premiere in Manchester on the train today which seems to be full of overly sincere young business people discussing marketing strategies. I think I preferred my composer’s ivory tower (which has actually been very white in this recent weather).
Anyway. The following (or above, since this is a blog) is what I’ve been up to over the last week or so.
Sunday, 15 January 2012
I’m still putting music on Sibelius today, and filling in gaps in my sketches. There’s a bit in an aria that Amy sings that has an ascending chordal line in the orchestral parts, and (as I’m putting it all in piano reduction first (a necessity as there’s a workshop I’m preparing for on the 8th Feb and I have to have something to give the pianist - I’d rather write it in almost-full score straight away, or somewhere in between...)) the whole thing is littered with slurs and ties (notes will stack up on top of each other, so each note continues to be held under the next note when it comes in). It’s taking ages just making it look understandable, mucking about with stems going up or down etc.
I’m having to bribe myself to get a certain number of bars done before I can have a break. Sometimes it’s really satisfying getting everything down on paper but today it’s too much of a hassle. I want to get going on new material but I have to make this presentable for the performers and so I’ve filled in the bits where my sketches are complete and am egging myself on to close the gaps between these bits. It’s a pity I’ve already had lunch (ridiculously early in the name of “doing-something-other-than-working-out-what-goes-in-that-bar) as otherwise I could procrastinate over that. Perhaps I’ll just have to have another lunch...
On the other hand I could have probably filled in the gap I left to write this post in the time that I wrote this. Ah well. Time to stop whining and just get on with it.
I’m having great difficulty working out how to dictate the rhythms for Paula’s song today. It’s very frustrating. I’m not sure whether I’m playing an exactly notate-able rhythm, or whether it’s just a kind of swung rhythm over a sometime salsa beat, sometimes 7/8 time signature rhythm. It’s very bizarre, and something that I find quite often happens: when you’ve arrived at something through a kind of gradual building up of layers of improvisation (Bayesian improvisation?!?), the rhythms feel very natural, but as soon as you try and dictate it, the “having-to-find-the-beat-ness-and-time-signature-ness” of everything messes with your mind and everything starts to sound stunted and forced. Or maybe I”m just being particularly slow today...
Actually this usually means I’ve got to have a break - I end up not being able to see the musical wood for the rhythmical trees, as it were. So I’m going to give up and watch Sherlock Holmes. The “just give up and come back to it later” compositional technique always works surprisingly well I find....
....and it did. I’ve sorted the rhythms out. Proof that procrastination works. Sometimes.
Friday, 13 January 2012
I’ve got to the point where I feel I need to get some stuff put into the computer (I only ever use a pen and paper when writing). Psychologically it seems to provide evidence that one has actually done something, and that the pages and pages of scribbles do actually make some sense. So I’ve spent the entire day just inputting notes into the computer. This also means that if my house burns down, I won’t have lost the manuscript (yes, at this point in the compositional process, I also start to become slightly paranoid....)
Everything seems to be going right today. This is really quite unusual. My usual compositional practice involves an almost constant state of very low level frustration that I’m not managing to put down on paper what’s in my head, or what’s roughly in my head but not quite because I can’t work out what’s actually in my head, or could potentially be in my head if I could stop wandering off from the piano every five minutes to do something inane and pointless instead, and I spend the whole day clutching at musical straws just coming up with a pathetic copy of would be in my head if I could only reach it.
But today, everything is inspiring, and things just seem to be working, sometimes without any effort at all. I’m sure it’s just because my composing muscles are pretty warmed up now, and I think I’ve lived with the characters long enough to be able to instinctively know how they would think about something or express something.
I think I’d be quite annoying to live with today though. I’m behaving like some parody of a romantic poet and wandering around marveling at everything. A crow flying past, getting tossed about on the air currents, just gave me a really good idea for a phrase. Ah well, best just enjoy it as I’m sure it won’t last.
One thing that’s gradually been dawning on me to think about in the last few weeks is whether my characters actually know they are in an opera or not. And I’ve decided the answer is both, or at least, sometimes they are more aware of the theatricality of their performances than at other times. Or perhaps it’s always ambiguous, I’m not sure. I got to thinking about this when I was writing Amy and Jim’s seduction duet. Are they simply going over the top in a sort of over-the-top raunchy-Carry-On way that I have the feeling might of floated Jim Mollison’s boat, or are they deliberately camping it up for the audience or simply for their own theatrical enjoyment? It’s probably a bit of all three.
In Paula’s jogging scene, is she being herself, talking to herself, or perhaps getting the more motivated part of herself to talk to the lazy Paula, is she just proclaiming these promises to the Thames Estuary, or us in the audience?
I’m not really sure but I’m really enjoying playing around between the boundaries of these viewpoints. That last sentence makes me sound rather more cerebral than I actually am. To be honest I try not to think about this stuff too much and just spend the day singing and playing the piano, trying to create the most expressive and characterful phrases that I can. I have a slight fear that if I think too much my brain will fall out and it will all stop working, and I’ll suddenly be unable to write anything....
In the last week I’ve been setting a monologue by Paula, one of the three main characters in the opera. Without wanting to spoil the plot, I think it’s safe to say that there are several different time periods within the opera - that of the modern day, and that of the time when Amy was still alive.
Near the beginning of the opera we see Paula, jogging along by the Thames Estuary, thinking about how she wants to improve her life (“I will spend less time on Facebook”: how I identify with that line of the libretto....!).
Some parts of the text immediately suggest the way that they should be set, but with Paula’s monologue this was not the case: I found her character quite hard to pinpoint and got stuck for quite a while on this section. As Paula and Amy are in very different places in their life, and are/were living in very different times and cultures, I wanted to find some musical way to represent this difference. Also, I had the feeling that Paula, although she had the potential to really ‘live’ life, was at present rather trapped in a rather superficial existence, even though (whether she currently realised it not) she was searching for some kind of deeper meaning to life. But in the end, after all the sitting at the piano trying to think profound thoughts about musical character representation, well, the idea of how to set this passage came to me while I was jogging...
I’ve decided to set this song in a quasi pop-song format, with intros, bridges, choruses and verses. Paula repeats mantras to herself about how she will improve her life and herself, and I could imagine her saying these things repeatedly, and increasingly confidently on her jog, as she gets buoyed up by her endorphin-boosting run. Also, in harmonic terms, I wanted to start with something fairly straight, almost banal, and gradually add more and more harmonic colour as the song progressed, as Paula becomes more confident about enriching her existence and we see her potential to do so.
So, in the name of research again, I decided to crack open a bottle of wine and spend the evening plugged into my iPod playing along to Lily Allen songs all night. It was surprisingly enjoyable...
To be honest I didn’t think I’d gain a great deal from harmonic analysis of Lily Allen songs but I actually learnt quite a lot that I tried to musically internalise and then reproduce in my own musical improvisations later on that evening and the following day (I should say, I spent about 8 hours doing all this, before I even thought about setting any words. I suppose if I do something I decide to do it quite a lot...). For instance, the harmony in many of her songs is very repetitive, but (I certainly find that) one can easily get lost in the music and not realise quite how repetitive the music actually is: rather than getting bored you get lulled into a groove etc. (but I am the kind of person who will listen to one song repeatedly for weeks, so maybe this is just me). I think one of the reasons behind this might be a scarcity of Dominant 7th chords at the end of phrases or four-bar riffs, so there’s a lack of the question and answer type tension you get in classical music. One notable exception to this is at the end of the bridge before a return to a chorus for example, when that sense of return to something is desired. Also, and this I know is stating the obvious, but the chords are usually very simple. Adding any blue notes (which is basically all I do with my harmony) made my ‘pop-song’ sound too jazzy, and I didn’t want that, but using only major and minor harmonies just sounded too derivative. In the end I decided to use fairly conventional harmony (major or minor chords with usually only one or two, non-bluesy notes added) in unusual progression, and this seemed to do the job of referencing the music that Paula would probably be listening to at the same time as (hopefully) making the music sound my own.
One last thing to say is that all this listening also helped me to clarify how I’d treat the two women vocally. Paula’s vocal phrases are usually contained within a much smaller interval than Amy’s: e.g. the highest and lowest notes are usually less than a 5th. This both references a more ‘pop-song’ like way of singing but also sounds less formal, more chilled than Amy’s sometimes rather strained Joyce Grenfell-like utterances.
There’s a whole load of other stuff going on in this scene - plane noises becoming something else (not going to spoil the plot!), representing the setting sun with various harmonic tricks, and the whole section is loosely influenced dynamically by the fact that high tides in the Thames Estuary occur at 08:38 and 21:15 (well, they did on the 4th January, which is a few weeks out but that’s the best I could do). But I’ve run out of steam now, more another time...
Sunday, 8 January 2012
I recently moved to a little house in the middle of nowhere (there is one bus a week, so if using public transport you can either get out for 2 hours, or a week and 2 hours....) and decided to experiment with completely cutting myself off from the outside world. I find composing ridiculously difficult, even though I can’t imagine ever doing anything else for the rest of my life, and the more I do of it, the more difficult I find it. So any distraction is a temptation as a result of this, and in episodes of particular writers block I frequently end up in a pit of over-email-checking-induced self-hatred combined with an encyclopedic knowledge of every item on the Topshop website (often with too much of it arriving at my house several days later...). So, in this new place, I have neither phone nor internet, and a mobile that only gets reception if I sit on the kitchen windowsill. Quite how long I’ll keep this up I don’t know, but it seems to be working incredibly well for composing...
Anyway, on several days this week I’ve been particularly glad that I don’t share any walls with neighbours. I’ve been setting a rather steamy (and at times hilarious) love scene between Amy and Jim. As I’m sure every pioneering aviating couple do, they choose to seduce themselves in the language of aircraft parts...
So, most of today has been taken up with trying to first vocalise, work out the rough notes of, and then notate, different ways of saying “Oh Jim” and “Oh Johhnie” (Jim Mollison’s nickname for Amy Johnson) in a variety of sexually provocative ways that would be more than at home in a particularly saucy scene in a Carry On movie. I think the postman may think I’m a total nutcase. But let’s just say there are lots of different ways to say/sing these words, and some of them contain intervals as large as a 10th...
I’m setting this entire number as a somewhat deranged 30’s music hall number, with instrumental improvisational-like interludes which gradually get more and more overexcited and harmonically unhinged as Amy and Jim find more and more innuendo-laden airplane parts to use as euphemisms. I have been having the time of my life doing this and am wondering whether I’m wasted in the classical world and had better move into B movie sound track writing...
Anyway, more about the music that is currently inspiring the opera another day I think. There is still plenty of innuendo-laden text to set....”Yes, yes, yes you are my Tiger!”*
*(as in Tiger Moth.....)
I find starting a new composition terrifying. And the more I compose, the more terrifying it gets. Whether it’s a short piano piece or a large scale chamber work, I still devote much of my time and energy at the beginning of the compositional process to not starting. In fact one of the only times you will find my house in a tidy state is when I’m “starting” a piece. So as the prospect of actually having to write something huge actually became a reality, I decided by far the most sensible thing to do would be to block it all out and go and book a flight in a Gypsy Moth, the plane that Amy flew to Australia in in 1930. During this time I also read copious literature about blind flying (flying with only the instruments in the cockpit, necessary in low/zero visibility conditions), became an expert on thermal air currents and how to tell the different types from each other by examining the different cloud formations present, read a whole dissertation on David Beckham’s accent, transcribed lots of big band music, five Lily Allen songs, and watched a fair amount of 1960‘s BBC newsreader clips and several The only way is Essex episodes on Youtube, ALL in the name of research....
Although in part my insistence on understanding exactly how an “Artificial Horizon Indicator” works in a Gypsy Moth may have had something to do with delay tactics, in reality, really getting under the skin of what you are going to write about it vitally important. I’ll try to give a few instances to convince you below...
Unfortunately, when the day came to fly a Gypsy Moth, the wind conditions were too high, but my would-have-been instructor nevertheless took me out to see the plane in the hangar and let me climb inside. The most amazing thing about it was that you couldn’t see in front of you because the cockpit came above your site line, so, in order to see ahead you had to stick your head out the side! This was quite easy when on the ground...but at 80mph in heavy rain things would be very different...
Coincidentally I am the same height as Amy Johnson: a rather stunted 5 foot 4 inches, so I really could appreciate what it would have been like for her, stuck in that tiny cockpit for hour upon endless hour. This is something I’d not have really ‘known’ if I hadn’t experienced it, and that sense of not seeing ahead of you will be constantly in my mind when I’m writing the music to the scene where Amy and her husband Jim Mollison cross the Atlantic together. During the crossing they had to really put their trust in the instruments in the cockpit’s “dashboard” (I’m sure you don’t call it this but you know what I mean...) All those dials continually altering, and the skill in deducing the aircraft’s position through reading their combined data, will really have an effect on the musical fabric at this point in the work. For instance, when the plane is tossed about like a car on a bumpy road on the air currents, the altimeter would be varying by small-to-large amounts at a frequent rate. Whereas the compass would vary at a much more gradual, constant rate. The combination of these two types of movement, one erratic, one more constant, could be portrayed directly in the rhythm and melodic movement of, for instance, two of the instrumental parts. The way that all the dials come together to make some sort of sense, but are fairly useless individually, could effect the contrapuntal treatment of a particular passage (e.g. each part could be ‘incomplete’ itself, but add up to a coherent melody of texture when in combination with the whole ensemble).
Of course, one doesn’t need to take things so literally - this is just an example, and that sense of not being able to see out the aircraft will just be more of a ‘feelling’ that I keep in my mind whilst composing, which will very likely affect the harmonic and melodic choices that I make. But as I write this (and before I’ve tried it) I’m rather warming to that contrapuntal cockpit dial idea. Somehow that sense of individual elements (or instrumental parts) coming together to make more than a sum of their parts (as the altimeter, artificial horizon indicator and gyroscope can be interpreted together to give the pilot a very good or exact idea where they are in the world) seems rather appropriate both emotionally and compositionally. There’s something about subsuming the reality of what is inspiring the music into the compositional fabric of the music that seems to work, for me at least - not in order to make the audience think “Aha! that music represents the dials in the cockpit” - of course, that’s both impossible and rather inane, but, more specifically to recreate a mood or atmosphere that might help to conjure up the feelings that Amy and Jim might have experienced at that time in the minds of the audience. I don’t know. I’ll have to try it out....I’ll let you know how it goes...
But why David Beckham/TOWIE and BBC Newsreaders from the 60’s you ask? Well, each of the characters in the opera have very specific accents (Paula, a girl living near the Thames Estuary in 2010 has an estuary accent in my mind, whilst Jim Mollison spoke in very proper RP...), and in order to really get under their skins, I wanted to be able to really get as near to what would have been their voices into my ear in order to intuitively place these essentially-melodic vocal inflections into the music. Again, it’s not an exact copy I’m really after - this isn’t a big budget biopic where every gesture and vocal inflection of the lead role should be copied and perfectly reproduced after all. But our voices are so much part of us, and convey such a great deal of our characters, that it’s really important to me that I fully understand this before composing.
One specific example is Amy Johnson herself. I managed to find a ten minute clip of her which included quite a bit of footage of her speaking on Youtube. Even before she had touched down on Australian soil, Amy had become one of the first ever celebrities after being an unknown, underestimated pilot who many people thought should be occupying herself with finding herself a husband and cooking his dinner when she left Croydon airport at the beginning of her trip. One of the clips shows her being driven through the streets in an open top car, with a man supporting her elbow while she waves (as she was so exhausted after her flight that she hardly had the strength hold her arm up, but the public appetite for her was such that she was given hardly any time at all to herself to recover). She was a girl from Hull who had been thrust into superstardom, but in the video clips her slight awkwardness (or perhaps just exhaustion) is very evident. She tends to speak a little too fast, with fairly frequent awkward pauses where she struggles to think of things to say, and she has a tendency to place stresses on words which you wouldn’t usually stress. Melodically her voice is a fairly high monotone, with the odd much higher note when she says something like “I’m having such a wonderful time”. This overemphasis on the word “such” gives a sentence like this a kind of forced nature - a feeling of having to perform for the public and pretending to be oh-so-delighted see everyone - which perfectly conveys her situation at the time.
Amy said she felt more at home in the air, so one of my ideas was to let her sing completely fluidly and un-stint-edly when she was either flying or talking about flying, which would contrast to parts of the opera where she was talking about other aspects of her fame which she was uncomfortable with, whereupon some of the vocal traits noted above might come to influence the content of the vocal line. It’s amazing how an awareness of this has really helped me define Amy’s character and give her an identity in the actual musical material of the opera. And exactly the same goes for Paul with her estuary accent, and Jim with his plummy Queen’s English...
Oh, more about Lily Allen in a later post...