Forward Slowly

Three days after the recording of Piano Sonata No. 8, I received a first edit from an enthusiastic sounding Sound Engineer. Alex could not wait to hear what he had harvested at Wyastone. Mary then proceeded to edit the three Sonatas and Lo! the 24th December brought gifts of the masters of Sonatas 7, 8 & 9. My very own gold, frankincense and myrrh moment.

Shortly after, in January, Divine Art Records trailered and advertised the forthcoming disc. In its Future Releases section it predicted that the C.D. was to “make a splash”!

And now to the sleeve notes. I have known Dr. Scott McLaughlin for many years. Many are the evenings I have enjoyed his company as he has spoken so authoritively, comprehensively and beguilingly about matters musical. I very soon realised that I was insufficiently bright enough to not understand a great deal of what he said so it was most obvious that he should ideally be placed with the task of explaining Non Prescription and introducing the three Sonatas to the world. Despite being incredibly occupied with the demands of being lecturer in Composition and Music Technology, inter alia, at Leeds and Huddersfield Universities and being a most active and productive composer, he readily agreed to undertake this task. We met one afternoon in the gloom and chill of Huddersfield at the Music Department of the University. I was interrogated, my semi- articulate responses recorded, scores were handed over, hands were shaken. Scott fifteen minutes late for his next appointment.

Last week I received a first partial draft of his work in progress. A kaleidoscope of original thinking, references and insights. The script bursts with pregnant promise. I hope that Scott with his commitments of teaching, concerts and composition can maintain momentum and complete in the next few weeks so that Divine Art can then commence the assembly of the final product.

And Peter Vodden, the previously mentioned Data Analyst, makes yet another appearance, contributes to the narrative again. For several years Peter has produced digital art work based on fractal sources and patterns. He displays examples on his website petervodden.wordpress.com. I just knew I wanted this kind of art for the cover of the C.D. case. I asked. Within hours I was sent a most wonderful, gently-hued, nuanced , understated, minimalist, contemporary, cool image. No hesitation here. I immediately sent it on to Divine Art and Stephen Sutton approved.

My friend’s artwork on the cover, Scott’s comprehensive,authoritative sleeve notes and some wonderful photos of Mary recording at Wyastone taken by Alex to be included in the booklet. All contributing in their various different ways to Mary’s wonderful performances and realisations.

I am fortunate to be amongst such gifted, able, wonderful people.

Wyastone Revisited

Once again we converge upon Wyastone for the recording of Piano Sonata No. 8. It is a Saturday afternoon on a quiet M50 towards Monmouth. It is late autumn. The sky is a continuous thick low lying grey cloud which merges with the mist which blankets the surrounding countryside. The fields are supersaturated. Everywhere there are fallen leaves coalescing to make a heavy and lumpen carpet. The last vestiges of the autumn colours show. The world is grey.

In the cold and deep darkness of a rural night, Alex arrives, off loads and sets up his recording equipment ready for the following day. Mary arrives much later from London via Abergavenny and promptly soaks up a huge cup of warming tea. The troops are mustered, plans are laid.

The following morning we make an early, determined start. There is much to be done. The warmth and brightness of the auditorium make a welcome relief to the ever present pervading cloud and chilling mist. As always there are no problems. Wyastone is ready and waiting for us thanks to the efficiency of Paula and Amy who, throughout the last months, have offered limitless quantities of care and support. This, together with their ever prompt replies to my countless questions and queries has helped to make Wyastone a most pleasant experience for us.

Alex finalises his preparations. The mikes are placed in precisely the same position in relation to the Steinway as they were in September. Mary is limbering up at the keyboard. The stage lights form bright scintillations as they are reflected in the polished black wood of the piano. The auditorium becomes energised. Alex fiddles and twiddles, adjusts, taps keyboards, goes through his sound checks. “Ready?” from Alex over the intercom. A nod from a poised and distant figure dwarfed against the proximity of a huge Steinway.

Immediately there is a familiar tension as the recording begins. In the control room Alex crouches over the score and meticulously makes the first of hundreds of notes. Take after take. We slowly progress towards the best possible outcome. Hours creeping by until we take our first break to allow the piano whisperer, the ever reliable and dedicated Phil, access to the piano for the second tuning of the day.

In the afternoon work proceeds in our giant insulated brick bubble. We are self-contained and self-sufficient. The outside world a million miles away, forgotten. Mary working with consummate skill never faltering, ever enthusiastic in the search for near perfection. Alex listening with his incredible acute forensic senses. Me walking the length of the auditorium after each take to discuss and share with Mary ideas and possible alternative approaches. Complex webs of annotation spread across the 8 or 9 sheets of music attached to a huge cardboard music stand before her.

The last section proves elusive. Mary is almost running on empty but after a further discussion, a shuffle of the pages, a re-ordering, we find a solution. There is one last effort, one last take, another wonderful performance and we are finished. We have completed almost one hour of recording in just one day.

Peter Vodden was studying the score to TWELVE – however he was not perceiving it as music. He was recognising it as a stream of data superimposed on a grid or matrix. There was a long studied silence, and then, “I think that I would like to try something with this” and off he went to his favourite place, his shed, his digital greenhouse.

Great expectations had I none. As creative as Peter is (to discover how creative visit his website petervodden.wordpress.com) one cannot expect a person who has “little in the way of traditional music knowledge or training” – Peter is given to understatement – to produce, at a first attempt, a mature piece, a piece which exhibits high levels of musical integrity and artistic value, a piece which has a beguiling sense of flow and continuity.

Well, that is just what he did. After only two or three weeks I was listening to Peter’s electro-acoustic debut. I liked it immediately and, after many repeated listenings, I still do. It does not pall.

I am most pleased to include his realisation of TWELVE on my Performances page.

On Peter’s website you can find a more technical explanation of how the piece was constructed. Since then I have given Peter, at his request, several High Order Non-Prescriptive scores and he has successfully composed realisations of each.

Wyastone Concert Hall is an imposing, austere, monolithic structure.  High walled, red bricks and windowless, its purpose, its functionality is obvious at first glance.   Inside it has a spacious auditorium, a generous balcony.  The walls are adorned with large-scale colourful modern abstract art works.  Taking centre stage is an imposing recent Steinway which speaks with a bright sounding upper range and a sonorous rich lower.  Mary liked the instrument from the moment she commenced her warming up, her keyboard callisthenics.  Alex van Ingen began setting up his vast array of equipment both on stage and in the control room.

Two hours later the recording of Piano Sonata No. 7 commenced.  Take after take.   Mary and Alex working slowly to a perfection, an ideal, myself interjecting with some small advice, offering optional approaches to the ways the music could be played.  A short break for lunch whilst the piano was tuned again and then on into the late afternoon.  The meticulous, painstaking professionalism of performer and sound engineer never faltering.  Alex’s forensic ear always ensuring the best possible sonic qualities in the recording, whilst at the same time exhorting and encouraging Mary to yet higher levels of performance.  Hour after hour of unbroken focused attention to detail.  At the end of the day a quiet satisfaction with what we had accomplished.

Much the same the following day with the recording of Piano Sonata No. 9.  For the first few playthroughs Mary dallied with the lyricism and sonorities in the music.  Alex and I managed to reduce the duration of the first movement from 18 to 12 minutes although I sensed a certain reluctance in Mary to play at such an increased tempo.

The High-order movements were, at the same time, again a vindication of my Non-Prescriptive ideas and a platform for Mary’s incredible skills.  As we had planned some days previously when I visited her in London, Movements 2 and 4 in Sonata No. 7 saw her employing her extended techniques to amazing effect.  The Second Movement of No. 9 provoked several scintillating realisations, performance fireworks, a veritable tour de force.  It is a loss that the world will never hear these amazing performances, as only one can be selected for the C.D.

The editing I leave entirely to Mary and Alex as I do not wish to be further involved in determining the outcome, which of the countless takes are to be selected and included on the master.

A most rewarding, fruitful visit to Mary.  Each of the movements of Piano Sonatas Seven and Nine played and subsequently discussed and forensically examined.  Ideas, comments exchanged.  Alternatives weighed, tried and evaluated.  Some accepted.  Mary absorbing everything and reacting immediately.

Our allotted time together passed quickly.  We managed to accomplish what we intended.  And now, as Mary makes her final preparations, I find myself in a state of helpless suspension looking forward to what the midwife is to deliver this weekend at Wyastone.

Mary Dullea possesses incredible keyboard skills and specialises in contemporary piano music.  She relishes the challenge of playing cutting edge, ink-only-just-dried scores.  She comes with no visible ego and charms with a soft southern Irish accent.  What more could I wish for in a person to record my music?  Oh – perhaps a shed load of empathy and understanding of what I am attempting with my non-prescriptive techniques.

So, it will be of no great surprise that preparations for a second CD are now well underway.  It will be a double album as Piano Sonatas 7, 8 and 9 are all large scale works.  Between them they incorporate all three levels of my non-prescriptive compositional and performance techniques.  They are quite dissimilar and have been written to provide great contrasts in each of these disciplines.  Mary has realised this – “they give me a lot to do” – and has generously said that she is “really enjoying the sonatas”.  I take this as the first positive review of the album.

Mary, Alex van Ingen and myself will be recording at Wyerstone Recording Studios near Ross on Wye next month and in November.  The Directors and Trustees of the Nimbus Foundation have very generously awarded me one of their Gift Days which allows me one free day of recording at their studio.

Momentum is now established.  Mary is busy preparing the music.  I am looking forward to meeting her in London a few days prior to the first recording session when she will perform and discuss with me how she is approaching the realisations.

The Wire

This month’s issue of The Wire takes an edgy view of some composers’ egos and from this leads into a mention of “The Set”.  I have selected extracts from what is quite a substantial feature by Philip Clark which includes two other composers.  If you wish to read the complete article go here: http://thewire.co.uk/in-writing/columns/philip-clark_check-your-blind-spot.

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“Composers need to feel the love hard and often.  They need you to understand that their work is important and why. Paranoia and delusions of self-grandeur are an accepted occupational hazard.  The world of modern composition is like grubby party politics: a dirty, self-serving, are you with me or against me, self perpetuating racket that has sucked in more than in its fair share of unhinged egos, bores with nothing to say and narcissistic shits.

Being a recovering composer myself – what I had had to say suddenly didn’t seem worth saying and I’ve been clean since 2007 – I know the pressures.  Your desk becomes an isolating, reality-warping hellhole as your big idea doesn’t cut any ice in the wider world. Emails don’t get returned.  All the good gigs go to Thomas Adès and Mark-Anthony Turnage anyway.  You might be master of your own sonic universe but people’s apathy and indifference comes as a shock.  What to do?  Well, you go a bit George Galloway. You crank up the rhetoric of what little you have to say.  You analyse where you think you went right in earlier pieces and push those gestures to the fore, whether the content justifies it or not.  Your language is downgraded to a catalogue of maximum impact soundbites.  Sustaining your sorry existence as a composer becomes more important than music.  Creatively, you’re toast.  (Which is why composers who manage to negotiate a pathway through this minefield of careerist accommodation to keep their art somehow pure and decent deserve nothing but admiration.)…

…But there’s a difference between music that is hardly there and music that doesn’t even want to be noticed.  Some music allows itself to be composed only grudgingly – how did it come to this, you hear it ask; or, to put it another way, a certain type of composer holds composerly egos in such contempt that anonymity is the only avenue left open.  A recent release on the Metier label made little sense until I twigged that the composer of Set for Piano has tried to reduce his own identity to a footnote.  Eric Craven gives himself equal billing to pianist Mary Dullea – who ‘realises and performs’ his piece.  Set for Piano is an anti-title.  It is the pianist’s job to decide about tempo and dynamics; even in the final piece to shape phrase structures from out of Craven’s freeflow of notated material.  The music’s untreated, naked tonal gestures are oddly timeless, leaving you guessing about when the piece was written – questions that are left stubbornly unanswered.

Anonymous minds aren’t likely to give accounts of themselves and Craven’s motivation is left tantalisingly hanging….

…Flirting with anonymity can be a perilous business though.  Taken literally, it can become a powerful identity – ask Banksy or Eleh.  But the airs and graces, vanity and opportunism, self-obsession and sense of entitlement, of composers have been dragging music down for too long.  It could be worth taking notice of the music they don’t want you to notice.”

Philip Clark


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