Sunday, 15 April 2012

An obvious post about writing things in the wrong order

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.

Everything fits into place

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.

Becoming Amy, or Natalie?

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!

The Prologue and Interlude

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.

Piano score sent off!

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

Quick Update


Sorry to have not blogged for so long. I'm really in the final stages of writing the piano score of the main bit of the opera now - probably about a day away in fact. Hope to write about it soon....but suffice to say things have been going well but I'm totally knackered! Opera writing is such a long haul and I don't think I've ever written so much music in this amount of time.

That's it for now, but hope to get back to this in a few days after I have got a complete piano score for the main body (i.e. not including the bits with spoken dialogue over them which the community groups will be involved in) in a few days time....

Do think of me over Easter as I shall be at the desk for all of it...must pick up some chocolate to see me through...