Work in Progress

I have been working, almost exclusively, towards my next CD for some time. I first set pencil to paper before the release of the Three Piano Sonatas in September 2014 although ideas germane to what I was slowly edging towards, together with the inevitable associated doubts and uncertainties, had been ricocheting around my head for many years prior to this point in time.

This, at first sight, appears to be a huge amount of time to be invested in just one project. But it isn’t just about producing 70 minutes of music. In the September issue of Gramophone, in an article entitled “Radical Tonality”, Philip Clark has written that I am seeking “a new relationship with traditional harmonies” but that is only part of what I am working towards.

I am, as ever, writing music that extends and consolidates my Non Prescriptive methods of notation, composition and performance. This is my driver, my motivation. And this exploration, this experimentation, is why my progress is relatively slow. Thinking in terms of the unknown is, for me, often painful, difficult, forbidding and, quite frankly, the very undertaking of what I am attempting sometimes terrifies me. There are not too many reference points, no models, no beaten paths to follow. It is much easier to work within given, established boundaries than to push against them.

I have played some parts of the scores to a few friends who are talented musicians, players and composers. They constitute a most critical bunch, hard to please. They liked what they heard despite a performance courtesy of nine fingers and a toe-protector.

Peter Vodden, who created the fractal-based image for the case of the last CD has been enthusiastically at work creating a contemporary image for this project. I have never seen anything remotely like it, it is most original.

Dr. Scott McLaughlin, who wrote those highly praised sleeve notes for the last CD, visited my studio in Manchester and listened to a few, perhaps six, of the pieces. Sometime later, whilst walking and talking our way to the tram station, he volunteered to write the sleeve notes for this project. Scott teaches composition at Leeds University, he himself is a composer. He would not have offered his services if he had not approved of what he had just heard.

If I can maintain my present progress, sometime midyear 2016, when the Manchester rain is warmer, I will visit Mary Dullea with the completed scores and discuss with her the requirements, demands and complexities (and there are many) of what is involved in the undertaking of the performance of the music.

I apologise for not being more explicit, more open about the music per se. When I have assembled my incredible team and the project is underway I think that will be the time to enter into greater detail.

This blog has been visited by people from 76 different countries. Countries that are far removed from the UK, not only geographically but in terms of economics, politics and cultures. And, as I look at this long list, it is with regret and sadness that I see so many countries that are going through a period of tremendous challenge, change and uncertainty. We are living in a deeply troubled world.

As we approach the turn of the year we must hope that our political leaders will together work with an urgency and purpose to facilitate change. Change which will result in a more egalitarian, humane and compassionate global society. We have to hope. I guess that in some of the most desperate regions of the world hope is all that people have. May I offer a similar line of thought from Miguel Cervantes via the mouth of his alter ego Don Quixote, “Sanity may be madness but the maddest of all is to see life as it is and not what it should be”. It is with these thoughts and in this context that I conclude this last post of the year. I sincerely wish you all peace, good health, good fortune.

WordPress hosts my blog. It is very good. It offers copious amounts of data about how the blog is being accessed as part of the package. And from some of this information I see that many of you are going to the Audio Samples and Performances, some of which, for several reasons, are not too satisfactory.

However, Divine Art has placed some of the movements  of Piano Sonatas 7 & 9 on youtube.com and all 49 minutes of Sonata 8. You might not get the best from listening to them without reading about what I am trying to accomplish in these pieces by means of my Non-Prescriptive techniques, especially in the case of 8 which goes where no man has gone before. Some of the reviewers have written with great insight about this music in view if the fact that they have not been in possession of the scores. I have not got around to having them published yet. There is such a huge amount of time involved in this process that I do not wish to invest in this at moment. I am working on something that is taking all my energy and focus.

Could I recommend that you at least listen to Mary Dullea’s realisation of movement No 2 from Sonata No 9. You will be witnessing a compelling, towering performance. I only wish you could see her at the piano. When she played this at Sheffield University last year the audience was quite astonished at what this slim, slight figure extracted from the piano.

WordPress informs me that the blog you are reading is read in 76 different countries. It provides a global map and upon this chart illuminates which countries are viewing the blog on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly and all time basis. The all time map covers most of our planet. When I am having a bad day composing, when nothing is happening, when things are in reverse, I think of all you thousands of people who bother to find me, read about this amazing journey I am on and return for further reading. I am so fortunate to have you as my readers. I never anticipated anything like this when I commenced the blog nearly 4 years ago.

Now I must cease this love-fest at once! I am British and we don’t go in for this sort of thing! Please go and listen to Mary realise the data I supplied her with for the second movement of 9. If you care to submit a comment. I will put it up for the world to read.

And yes – I play it but not quite like that. I am not Irish, I am older and I have a bad back.



Since I first wrote the Introduction some 4 years ago I have developed further Non-Prescriptive techniques. In view of this evolution I have decided to update this section of my blog. I hope it is informative. It may be of interest to you to go to the reviews of my CDs and read how the reviewers and critics have themselves described these techniques. Some of them are exceedingly well written but I feel none is superior or more explanatary than Dr. Scot McLaughlin’s superb sleeve notes for my last CD.

Last week Stephen Sutton, CEO of Divine Art Recordings Group, emailed me to enquire about my next CD project “Is it to be recordings of Sonatas 1 – 6?” he prompted, encouraged I suppose, by the success of 7, 8 and 9. “Well, no Stephen, that’s going to be rather difficult. You see………………….”

In turn, this exchange, caused me to consider you, my readers. Many of you may well have possibly searched for these earlier sonatas. You will not be able to find them. They no longer exist.

Allow me some explanation.

Since I was a stripling of a lad, afflicted by the usual measles, mumps, whooping cough and grazed knees, I have written music. It seemed then, as it does even now, that this occupation was a hugely exciting thing to do. Putting notes (now data) onto an inviting blank sheet of manuscript was a magical and uplifting experience. Some refer to it as creativity. So, over the years, I wrote music. I absorbed much from analyzing pieces by Mozart whose music I was playing at the time and listening to his symphonies from which I learnt how to use sonata form. Sometimes I wrote for friends’ weddings, dramas, pantomimes, concerts, events.

But I never seemed to retain what I wrote. I either gave it away, misplaced it or destroyed it myself. I saw no reason to keep it in some unopened drawer. I placed no special value upon it. It was just what I did. The next piece was always the reason for me to continue. It’s all about moving forward, doing new things, development, experimentation, new ways of thinking.

I do have possession of an oratorio, some arrangements for big band and some jazz pieces. That’s about all.

So, what of 1 – 6?  1 and 2 have been destroyed long ago. I saw no reason to retain them. If anything they looked to the past and took up storage space. And the others, 3 – 6? They have also disappeared.

After having listened to me play them for her and knowing what a limited life-expectancy they were due, a friend took them away to safety. She was not prepared to see them destroyed. She was very insistent about this and I did not mind what happened to them. There was more to write. It was already in my head.

After the release last September of 7, 8 and 9 I suddenly realized that (notable) others were interested in the compositional techniques that I have been evolving over the years. If you care to look at my previous posts or the Google search pages you will see what I mean. I began to look at what I was producing through their eyes, not mine. For the first time my music was not only attracting attention, but receiving generous plaudits and recognition. I was, in fact, learning about my own music through the commentary of others who were indicating quite unambiguously that my work had some significance, some value.

So, because of this fuss, I visited my friend with the purpose of reclaiming the sonatas she had rescued from me with the intention of having them recorded and released. However it appears that, they too, have disappeared. My friend has no idea what has happened to them. They cannot be found. Some were quite different to 7, 8 and 9. Some I recollect were written in a non non-prescriptive style!

The world is a few piano sonatas the less. The world also has bigger concerns with which to occupy itself.  What do I do? Well, I go for long walks and I don’t sleep very well so I will utilize this time to think sonata stuff. Ideas will emerge and crystallize. They always do. And then I will get to sharpening my pencil.

Seven months have now elapsed since a moment of carelessness, a distraction, resulted in the loss of the tip of my little (fourth) finger on my right hand. For a pianist that is a most useful finger to possess. In piano music of any genre it is given a starring role, a major billing. It is usually entrusted with huge responsibilities. Imagine, for example, the “48 “and most music of the Romantic Period when the team is reduced to 9 players.

So, you are asking, how am I managing? The impossible-to-fully-accept truth is that I will never be able to play at the same standard that I was capable of before the incident. My Chopin Etude-playing days are over with the possible exception of No. 12 in C minor and I have always been able to perform the music that I write. Until now.

It’s not photon-sensitive any more but I am not able to press upon the piano keys without having to cover the tip of the finger with a thick gel toe-protector. The bone, the distal phalanx, which suffered multiple fractures, is now not protected by much flesh. It is quite near to the surface of the finger and, because of this, is sensitive to any impact and I guess that this situation will not change. I am stuck with it. It’s permanent. It’s often uncomfortably cold, even on warm days. I go around with hand stuffed into pocket, fist closed into a tight ball. Soaking in hot water helps. Will this condition worsen during the oncoming Winter?

When necessary I can try out what I write on the keyboard, that’s if the damn thing doesn’t fly off the finger and end up lying between B flat and C sharp as it so often does. I am still trying to come to terms with all this. I’m still in a period of adjustment both physiologically and psychologically. I remind myself that it could have been worse when I get angry and frustrated and that offers some (small) degree of consolation.

Lesson:  Do not take doors for granted. They can, under certain circumstance, bite. Be nice to them. Respect them. Acquire some kind of mutual understanding with them. Live in peace with your doors. Especially if you are a pianist.

Alex Van Ingham, sound engineer, cellist and intrepid motorcyclist, has sent me a review from this month’s issue of Gramophone entitled “Radical Tonality” by Philip Clark.

“Clark sifts through a selection of discs of piano-based works that seek out a new relationship with traditional musical languages” so goes the defining introduction.

Unfortunately I think that Mr. Clark has attempted the near-impossible by reviewing the works of five major composers – Finnissey, Fox, AMM, Feldman, Wolff and myself in one article.  The almost inevitable result is that he gets to say almost nothing that is insightful about what, collectively, is a significant, perhaps pivotal body of work which places itself at the forefront of contemporary thinking and which points in new directions.

He writes that “Christian Wolff and Moreton Feldman are elder statesmen, composers, who made Christopher Fox, Michael Finnissey and Eric Craven think hard about the direction of their own work”.  In my own case that is just not accurate.   Since before my unhappy, frustrating experience as a student at the RNCM and many years before I came into contact with the music of Feldman and Wolff I had a strong feeling that I wanted to somehow develop a style of composition that would suggest and encourage the performer to engage with the music in a way that could result in different outcomes; that the performer should assume a very different role  and become part of the compositional process.  My early experiences of both playing and listening to various styles of jazz – Brubeck, Basie, Lousier, and others – offered much greater freedoms of performance than the classical fixed scores of Bach, Beethoven and Schubert which amongst others constituted my then musical diet.

Philip Clark continues “The evolution of postwar music, we are persistently told, has been etched around the ideological clashes between tonality and atonality, but these discs prove that assumption to be a lame simplification – the rearguard action of composers foraging around in the harmonic fault lines has been important too.   Tides washing faraway tonal debris ashore.   The surface lushness of Eric Craven’s harmonic language is offset by the discreet volatility of his structures”.

I regret that Philip does not feel it necessary or does not have sufficient space to flesh out the thoughts of that last sentence.   He hints at something intriguing and perhaps germane to his thread but goes no further.   What a tease this man is.   And to which of the Sonatas is he referring?

“The Challenge, to divine an overarching structural logic from out of these free-floating modules.   And the rest is up not so much for grabs, but for allowing ears scope to zone inside the evolving tonal tapestry, fingers intuiting where best to lay the next panel”.

Here, he is referring to the MoNP technique I have extensively employed in Sonata No.8.   The “free-floating modules” (several hundred of them) are those very events which serve as catalysts for melodic, rhythmic and structural development.   Is there some further connection here with the improvisatory methods inherent in all kinds of jazz.  I guess so.  And, is Mr. Clark implying some kind of relationship between my employment of varying degrees of tonality and my use of different kinds of structures?   Was he, at this point, beginning to consider to what extent the one effects or determines the other?

I must here acknowledge Philip Clark’s egalitarian considerations.   He treats all the composers with the same sparseness of comment.   I am left with a feeling of frustration.   Would it have been more satisfying and rewarding for the reader if each composer had been allocated separate reviews?   I offer this comment in the light of a review he wrote of “Set for Piano” in January 2013.   This review is a great read.   You can find it in one of the earlier posts of my blog.   He is wonderfully expansive and self-deprecating in this article.

And the title of this post?   “We are making something new”, words of Ezra Pound in conversation with Earnest Hemingway c 1921.

July 29th 2015

News from Divine Art this month includes a list of their Top 10 selling albums in the U.S. from July 2014 through June 2015.

My piano sonatas 7, 8 and 9 (msv28544) are included on that list.

I am elevated to a distinguished, established, rarefied company.  Goldstone and Clemmow, John Caskin, Carson Cooman, Beethoven, Szymanowski inter alia.   This after only my second C.D. and having been in the public domain for such a brief time.

It is barely credible that my music, together with my non-prescriptive ideas, should make such rapid progress and gain this degree of acceptance.

My warmest thanks to all who have become sufficiently interested in my work to acquire the C.D.   I hope you are rewarded by what you hear.