Sunday, 12 October 2014

If I weren't the way I am, I shouldn't write my symphonies. [Gustav Mahler] - PART FIVE

As it's the end of National Depression Week I thought that I'd write a little about how things have been going in the last eighteen months since being diagnosed with clinical depression and starting on my medication. 

At first, I felt a tremendous relief that someone was finally taking me seriously and not simply telling me to pull myself together (I'd told myself that often enough) and that treatment was being offered. The preferred form of treatment is counselling (or talking therapy to use the modern jargon) but, unfortunately, there is a waiting list for this. My employer has been, on the whole, very supportive. I was offered counselling but this takes the form of one half hour session over the phone - if my problems were that easy I'd have sorted myself out long ago! So, the option quickly changed to medication and, being prescribed a Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor (SSRI), I became the Sertraline Kid. 

Whether it was the placebo effect, the relief at the diagnosis or the immediate support of friends but I started to feel better and more positive (probably aided by the diagnosis and treatment of my diabetes and sleep apnoea) and it wasn't such an effort to get out of bed in the mornings and to leave the house. I was started on the lowest dose but, within a few months, was gradually moved up to the maximum, where I have stayed.

SSRIs are not happy pills, they still allow one to feel happiness and sadness but they enable the depressed person to function and experience 'normal' emotions. During the past eighteen months, the Sertraline Kid has fallen off his horse several times and there have been very dark times when, if I'm to be frank, I've struggled to keep on going. Fortunately for me, there has either been a good friend around to pick me up or I've been conscious of the fact that I need to battle on as my Dad and the Labrador rely on me.

Although Sertraline allows me to function in everyday situations and to cope with the pressures and stresses of work, it does have a down side in that although it focuses my mind, it removes the emotional drive to compose. It's ironic that when I'm being ruled by the Black Dog I have an irresistible urge to express myself through music but I find it very hard to focus my thoughts to do it and that when on medication I have the focus but loose the urge. I found when writing "Bugles Sang" for the National Youth Orchestra of Wales that I was see-sawing between both states by taking and not taking my medication - abstaining for a few days to get the creative impulse and then restarting in order to focus enough to get everything down on paper. Those few weeks were a real roller coaster of emotions.

Having thought that the Sertraline wasn't working, coming off it was a revelation. It is only when one stops the medication (not to be recommended) that one realises how effective it has been. That said, it can only do so much and one has to accept its limitations. I've been a depressive, with seriously dark periods, for over thirty years and two little pills everyday are not going to change that completely.

I saw a quote the other day "Think you're depressed? What if your pills are really working and your life is just shit?" It's a flippant remark but one that has more than an element of truth in it. We all have our problems, stresses and worries; the depressive person simply can't deal with them nor get them into perspective. We are already predisposed to unhappiness and dark thoughts and sometimes fail to appreciate that we are justified in feeling low because, actually, something shit has happened. I have, after a little thought, identified several things in my life that, if they were to be different, would have a massive effect upon my mood and general outlook on life. All I need to do now is to have the courage to face up to them!

I have spent time in my own personal hell and have faced down some of my demons although others still torment me. We all have the desire to be liked and loved but the depressive person craves it and wants constant reassurance. I'm aware that I have become very narcissistic and want to be  constantly told that my music isn't shite and that it means something to the people that I like, love and respect. There is a persistent and pernicious need for approval and validation, to the point of being pathetic. Normally, if you hate someone or something you just keep away from them, what do you do when you hate oneself? 

Self-loathing is a major problem and very hard to overcome. When people are nice I tend to think it's because they pity me for being a failure and my response can be quite awkward. Everyone has a level of self-doubt, the depressive person develops this into an art-form.

So, the last eighteen months have been both difficult and enlightening as the Sertraline Kid has ridden the Ranges of Depression, frequently falling off his trusty steed and landing on his backside in the dust. I have learnt (and am learning) much about myself and also seeing the world in a different light. I think I'm becoming more tolerant having realised that we can never know what's going on in someone else's mind and what their troubles might be - as the saying goes "Don't judge someone else, you have no idea what their journey might be" - and, deep down, beneath all the bravado, we are all fragile creatures. 

Monday, 7 July 2014

BUGLES SANG - Article written for the Friends of the National Youth Orchestra of Wales Newsletter -

BUGLES SANG – commissioned by the National Youth Orchestra of Wales for their Summer 2014 tour.

For any composer, being asked to write a work is an honour in itself as it signifies a high level of trust between the commissioner, the performer(s) (if different) and the composer. To be asked to write for a performer or performers that one respects is an even greater honour and a privilege to be treasured.  So, for me to receive a second commission to write for the National Youth Orchestra of Wales is not only a great honour but also something very special in my career.

My first commission for the NYOW, Invisible Cities, was premiered in 1999 under the inspirational conductor Christopher Adey who has since become a close friend. I was very fortunate to be invited to take part in the course that year (having been invited to the 1998 course in order to observe the rehearsals and get to know the orchestra) and the experience has stayed with me ever since. Composition for me is not just about writing the piece in isolation but also about getting to know the performers and setting out to tailor the new work not only to their strengths but also, in some way, to their personalities.

In both 1998 and 1999, I had a fantastic two weeks with the orchestra which were informative, motivating and, above all, fun. Being Composer-in-Residence in 1999 allowed me to not only attend all rehearsals but to discuss my work with the players, work with them in sectionals, receive useful feedback from the course tutors, take part in some composition sessions with young composers and have long discussions, often into the early hours, with both the tutors and Chris Adey. My attendance on the course afforded me the unusual luxury of being able to try out different ideas, make alterations and even, at the suggestion of Chris, to write a completely new part for offstage brass band to utilise some players who were not originally involved in the piece – this actually made a major difference, for the better, to the finished work.

To be asked, fifteen years later, to write another work for NYOW is very stimulating, if a little daunting, and the opportunity to work with Jac van Steen, for whom I have a great deal of respect, is fantastic. Jac and I have worked together at the BBC National Orchestra of Wales where he has conducted three of my pieces, including the premiere of Furnace of Colours, the commission for which he was largely responsible for championing. Jac has been a great support and inspiration to me and Bugles Sang is dedicated to him in recognition of this.

Of course, there is a natural pressure to come up with a work as least as good as the previous one and this can make the genesis of the new work difficult. The tyranny of the blank page is the hardest thing to overcome, especially when one doesn’t want to fall short of people’s expectations nor to let down those who have confidence in one.

It was with all of the foregoing that I approached the composition of what was to become Bugles Sang, my nineteenth piece for orchestra and the first orchestral piece to be completed since Furnace of Colours, although it was to be some time before this title and subject matter emerged.

My original thoughts for title and subject matter ranged from Welsh folklore to Dylan Thomas to Shakespeare with initial working titles including Captain Cat’s Dream, Twm Sion Cati and The School for Witches. I finally settled for On Llareggub Hill, a description of a day in a provincial Welsh seaside town. I was less than 30 seconds into the piece before I became aware that there were several other pieces being written on the Under Milk Wood theme and that mine wasn't going to offer anything new.

So, back to the drawing board and more time thinking before committing any notes to paper (actually to screen as I do not sketch and work straight into full score on the computer – I’m too lazy to make more than one copy of the score! That said, I should point out that I do not use the playback facilities that computers provide; they are seldom accurate - particularly in balance – and I prefer to keep all the sounds in my head) and much pacing around, reading, talking to myself and coffee drinking.

During all this time, I had been making a conscious effort to stay away from my other passion, poetry. I have written a number of works that have been inspired by poetry including a group connected to the poetry of Welsh poet and contemporary of Dylan Thomas, Vernon Watkins. Finally I relented and, returning to my teenage years, started re-reading the war poetry of Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. This proved to be the solution to my problem with several poems suggesting a theme and a structure for the new piece. After a while, the ideas started to emerge from the mental mists and I settled upon the title of Bugles Sang.

Although the work is in one continuous movement, I conceived it as being in four sections which do not directly describe the poetry but do take it as their starting point. The first and third sections are a depiction of warfare and its horrors with scurrying semiquavers and explosive chords whilst the second section, an uneasy nocturne, forms the core of the work.

This nocturne is a tableau of the battlefield at night, an eerily quiet landscape that has been torn asunder by the ravages of warfare, calmly waiting for the horrors of the next day. My ideas when approaching this movement centred around two main themes - the stories of the thousands of men who marched through the Menin gate on their way to the carnage of the Battle of Ypres and how, with the exception of the years of German occupation in the Second World War, the Last Post is sounded there at every sunset. I have tried to allude to this without directly quoting this most distinctive of bugle calls although it is difficult to avoid comparison with its use in music relating to this period in our history.

The second idea came from the story that the Welsh soldiers, whilst in the trenches the evening before going into battle - cold, wet and fearing the worst - sang the Welsh hymn Cwm Rhondda and how the sound drifted across the silent battlefield. I have quoted the hymn in full, using the well-known Arwel Hughes harmonisation, but fragmented and at half speed in an attempt to give it a sense of other-worldliness, total weariness and foreboding. In addition, a solo violin sings out above the hymn, an evocation of the Angel of Mons looking down benignly on the soldiers.

The conclusion to the work presented another problem – to end it on a sombre note to reflect what we now know about the Great War and its horrors or to concentrate on what must have been the prevailing emotions of the time. After much thought I decided to go with the latter as, without knowing of the horrors to come two decades later, the carnage of the Great War would have been seen as justifiable and the conclusion of “the war to end all wars” would have been a triumph. There is, however, a slight allusion, in timpani, celli and bass, to the rhythm from Holst’s “Mars” from “The Planets” as a portent of the war that was to come twenty one years later.

The musical language of the work is derived from expanded tonality and contains a great deal of chromaticism but doesn’t use the idea of row rotation that I have used extensively over the past few years. I developed my own technique of row rotations as a way of moving on from the strict use of serial technique that I was using in the 1980s which, although highly logical, had led me down a compositional blind alley. Whilst I wouldn’t claim to have discovered the technique – it has been around since serialism began, I did adapt it (as did Alun Hoddinott before me) to suit my own compositional process within a tonal environment; Bugles Sang marks my departure from this technique and a return to free composition.

Another feature which Bugles Sang has in common with other recent works is that it contains a re-working of material from earlier works. It’s not necessary for me to identify where these are from as the influences behind the other works do not relate to this one, it is purely a continual working out of material. The Danish composer Per Norgaard believes that musical works have no beginning or end, we simply dip in and out of one musical continuum to create snapshots. In a similar, but much more simplistic way, I like to re-use and re-work material from my pieces in order to create a continuum between my works, as if they all belong to the same family.

I firmly believe that the process of creating a new work is a collaborative one between composer and performer(s) – I have tried to do my job to the best of my ability, I am looking forward immensely to the performances of Bugles Sang and can’t wait to hear what the talented players of the National Youth Orchestra of Wales and Jac van Steen make out of my scribbling.

Bugles sang, saddening the evening air;
And bugles answered, sorrowful to hear.
Voices of boys were by the river-side.
Sleep mothered them; and left the twilight sad.
The shadow of the morrow weighed on men.
Voices of old despondency resigned,
Bowed by the shadow of the morrow, slept.
Wilfred Owen

It seems that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."
"None", said the other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil boldly, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Miss we the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even from wells we sunk too deep for war,
Even from the sweetest wells that ever were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now..."

Wilfred Owen
Soldiers are citizens of death's grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time's to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.

I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.

Siegfried Sassoon

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There's none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth,
Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain.
Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,
And paid his subjects with a royal wage;
And Nobleness walks in our ways again;
And we have come into our heritage.

Rupert Brooke

Monday, 30 June 2014

"DAWN" : in Memory of Nurse Edith Cavell's Noble Sacrifice - written by Thomas Owen David (Owain ap Japheth), my great-grandfather.


In memory of NURSE CAVELL'S Noble Sacrifice

A cultured cavalcade of Death
Pass'd on to wend its tragic way,
All Nature sobb'd in anguished breath
That fateful morn at break of day.

The sombre radiance of the morn
Diffused its sympathetic light;
Grey clouds, as if to mercy born,
Look'd down and wonder'd at the sight.

Albion's fair daughter stood erect,
Arrayed in pity's noble mien,
And view'd the Kaiser's horde elect
Like a great early Christian Queen.

No thought of pomp and martial flame,
Ambition and world fleeting praise;
In mercy's uniform she came,
With Christ-like, tender, humble ways.

A sweet reflection of our Lord
Shone forth in that great act benign;
She died to save, and her reward
Is everlasting peace divine.

A stagger'd world gave forth a sob
Which rent its bleeding heart in twain,
That such a bloody deed should rob,
And leave an aching void of pain.

To lay one's life down for a friend
Is sacrifice beyond compare - 
'Tis God in man, through Christ a blend
Of Calvary in love and prayer.

A prayer in action so profound,
That through eternity of space
'Twill thrill to unknown worlds around
The essence of all saving grace.

The days of Saints are with us yet
In noble acts, great and sublime;
Nurse Cavell we can ne'er forget,
Her name will live to end of time.

Immortal acts like those now shine
Like Beacon Lights, through gloom of war,
In rays of glorious light divine
On cruel deeds which we abhor.
Oh! Martyr of our Country's call,
Death could not kill thy living deed;
Before thy shrine we humbly fall,
For liberty thy soul was freed.

The spirit of her brave pure soul
Will stimulate each British heart
To reach victorious freedom's goal,
And emulate her glorious part.

The sting of death could not appall
Her dauntless soul, She lives to reign
In hearts of Britons - one and all:
Her sacrifice is not in vein.

Her blood was shed on freedom's bier,
A woman's blood for you and me.
Through din of war, men, can't you hear
Her voice - the voice of Liberty?

Wake up! my gallant little Wales,
Come forth and gird thy armour on.
Like rushing torrents from thy vales, 
Sweep down, avenge those that are gone.

Arise! dear Britain, land of Freedom,
Let not this be to thy shame,
Smile the brutal hordes of Edom,
Strike for Justice, not for fame.

Fight for chivalry and honour,
For our women's hallowed place,
Fight 'gainst tyranny's oppression,
With the valour of our race.

Let us to the Holy City,
Climb the steeps of Zion's hill,
On to Galilee where Jesus
Whisper'd once His 'Peace be still.'

Oh may God in His great mercy
Once again those words repeat,
That the storms of War be silenced
In His peace be still complete.

Thomas Owen David
(Owain ap Japheth)

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Composer Speaks! (Well, mumbles somewhat incoherently)

Christopher Painter – interviewed by Peter Reynolds

What are your strongest musical memories from your childhood?

I’m told that my first musical experiences would have been pre-birth, which sounds awfully pretentious. My mother, who was confined to bed when she was in the last stages of her pregnancy, spent her time listening to Shostakovich’s symphonies. Apparently, when I was a baby, to get me to sleep they would play me recordings of his symphonies and then I would go to sleep! I’m still very fond of Shostakovich’s music and return to it frequently.

So you came from a musical background?

My mother was a writer, short stories mainly, and a journalist. My dad was a sportsman and worked for the railway, and later, the local steelworks. But there was always that Welsh thing about the importance of culture. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side, Thomas Owen David, was a poet and a composer. I still have some of his poetry but the majority of it and all the compositions were lost when my grandmother gave it away for war salvage.

There was an extraordinary degree of culture in rural Wales in those days.

Yes. My great-grandfather died very young and I can understand why. He would work in the steel works all day and then sat up all night writing poetry or music. He wrote in the English and Welsh languages (writing in a particularly elegant and grammatically correct Welsh) and was a member of the Gorsedd of Bards under the name Owain ap Japheth. There was an awareness that work was what you needed to do to get by but that culture was the important thing. There was also the Welsh-thing of always striving to better oneself.

So, was there much cultural activity in Port Talbot when you were growing up?

Oh yes. There was, and still is, a great deal of artistic activity – literary groups, amateur dramatics, brass bands, choral societies and artist’s groups. There was a lot of amateur music making going on and I was able to try out many things. We were very lucky in that we had free instrumental tuition in school – I tried out several instruments, including recorder, ukulele and violin. Fortunately, I ended up deciding I wanted to play the trumpet which was probably the best move I ever made. It brought me into contact with Walter White, from Ystradgynlais, who started out as my trumpet teacher and later went on to become my classroom music teacher. He not only pointed me in the direction of the local brass band (I still play in brass bands now) but encouraged me to take music seriously, I have a great deal to thank him for.

So is that how you began to compose, through that teacher?

Yes. There was a prevailing ethos that music isn’t in a vacuum. You don’t just play it or you don’t just write or talk about it, try composing and conducting it. We used to get pieces performed in school and this encouraged us to be adventurous. I wrote a lot of brass quintets and pieces for the local brass band that I played in. I’ve still got a Requiem that I wrote when I was about fourteen! Severely sub-Verdi!

So you were writing, really, from your early teens?

Yes. We also had a magical store cupboard in the music room which was full of recordings and scores and I remember taking records home. One could just help oneself. One was very privileged if told that you could just go there whenever you wanted to. One didn’t have to have permission and I remember taking records home. Also, we had quite a record collection at home. Again, we were fortunate in those days that there were a lot of local record shops. I don’t think there’s one classical record shop in Port Talbot, now. Or one shop where you could even buy classical records.

So you were obviously at a good school…

There was a very strong brass tradition, so my original influences were brass and one was encouraged to write. I was expected to conduct school assembly every morning, so I had the experience of actually having to get up and do it as well.

What kind of things were you listening to at that kind of stage?

I was heavily into Berlioz and started to find Stravinsky and Britten. I didn’t formally study for ‘A’ level; I chose double maths and physics and was going to be a civil engineer and actually got a place in Swansea to study civil engineering. Just before I left school, the economics teacher came over to me and actually talked me out of it - saying that he had turned his back on music for a 'safer' career and had constantly regretted it. That summer, I went on a brass band course at Marlborough College (I had been several times before) which was led by Edward Gregson. I had composition and conducting lessons with him and he reinforced the advice to follow a career in music. So I went back to school for an extra year, did my ‘A’ level and, on the recommendation of Walter White, went to Cardiff University, partly because in my third year I heard a lot of Hoddinott records and wanted to study with him.

So, in fact, it was Hoddinott being Professor at Cardiff that led you to Cardiff University.
What kind of Hoddinott pieces were you hearing before you came to Cardiff?

Walter White pointed me towards the orchestral works and I just loved the sound world. The most notable works were The Sun the Luminary of the Universe, Third Symphony and Variants, whilst the Fifth Symphony just knocked me sideways; one of the pivotal pieces. One could really hear the planning and the piece’s integrity.

And what did you get from Hoddinott when you went to him?

I didn’t get to study with Hoddinott until I returned as a postgraduate. My initial, undergraduate, study was with Timothy Taylor who went through the basics with us and then I spent two years studying with Richard Elfyn Jones who taught me to handle material more efficiently and economically and helped me to attempt extended forms. It was only after my B.Mus that I went on to study with "The Prof".

What kind of pieces were you writing as an undergraduate? Had they moved from your school days, or were you discovering lots of new things at that time?

I was trying everything and anything, to be honest. I was very lucky in the year I was in college, we had a lot of good performers and a lot of people wanted to play new music. I was lucky to have a number of friends who were good players and would come and say “Write us something”. So it was a chance to write for odd combinations, or for established ensembles.

Was postgraduate study a good experience for you? What did you get from your sessions with Hoddinott?

When I came to study with Hoddinott I had to think a lot harder to justify what I was doing and tutorials were very intense but also enjoyable. Hoddinott focused my mind on what I was doing and encouraged me to be much more critical of my work and to concentrate on the minute details.

So Hoddinott focused your mind on the integrity of the material?

And slowed me down, because I used to write very, very quickly; I was very fluent and I could write pieces easily but there was very little substance to them although they helped to develop my technique.

Alun Hoddinott himself was a very facile composer, in the best sense, but he worked it all out in advance. It’s interesting that he should have slowed you down.

Yes. Even when copying his music, I couldn’t keep up with him. In our lessons he’d comment, “Why have you put those notes here? If you can’t explain why they’re there, they shouldn’t be there.” And it was that process that slowed me down to condense what I was doing.

So that was actually a milestone, really, in terms of developing your technique?

He’d say, “Well, if you want to do this seriously, then you have to approach it seriously”. There was much more emphasis on the thought behind it. I think he believed, at that stage, that putting notes on the paper wasn’t difficult; it was the thought behind the notes which was important.

And the professionalism of being a composer?

Yes. If you take something on, you do it and it’s always done to the highest standards, and you behave properly. One of his maxims which has stuck with me: “There’s no such thing as a good or bad composer, there are just those who give up.” You keep at it. If you believe in what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter if other people say it’s no good, as long as your faith in your technique is good.

What happened after university, in terms of your development as a composer?

I basically sat in my flat and worked, and didn’t get a piece played for ten years. I naively thought “Right, if I start writing, people will start playing it” – I learnt a very hard and useful lesson there! There were at least thirty pieces, all now destroyed, I started but never finished. I just thought “There’s no point! Nobody’s going to be playing this!” I also, at that time, preferred the big form, rather than chamber music, so I was writing pieces that wouldn’t get performed.

What got you out of that cul-de-sac into writing again?

I had a very uncomfortable dinner with Alun and Rhiannon (Hoddinott). And I had two hours of brow-beating from the two of them about wasting my time, and “What the **** do you think you’re doing?” They challenged me to write a small work so I wrote a carol and that got me back into the swing of it. Also, a Lower Machen Festival commission also came in - the first thing I actually had performed publicly, for ten years.

How do you view things these days? Do you have a forward plan, or do you think in terms of responding to commissions as they come along?

Both, in a way, and they’re linked. In the past, I’ve tended to want to write big pieces. I’ve been trying to write big orchestral pieces and I’ve been lucky in the last three years: I’ve had two played. My big ambition was to get a BBC commission but I’ve realized that it is not the be all and end all. I'm not very good at getting out there and getting commissions and find the promotion side of being a composer very difficult. I either do very little or go about it in a very heavy-handed and clumsy way. I have a number of pieces that I want to write but no idea how to get them commissioned so I tend to wait until I'm asked and hope that commissions fit in with my plans. 

What about the composition process itself: how does a piece begin? Is the process a very long one, or does it actually happen quite quickly?

It’s a slow process. I find once I’m past the first page, it’s OK. I have a tendency always to want to write the big opening. I’m trying to consciously move away from that and be happy to write a slow opening, or a quiet opening. Just to write exactly what I think I should be writing, not what I think will please. I’m well along the road back from serialism, because I did get into total serialism at one point, which was useful at the time. It didn’t have a good future though. Once you’ve done it, I don’t think you can keep on being so prescriptive. So I use elements of serialism and adapting them.

But it does provide a backbone and way of moving notes around the page I suppose.

Since I’ve been teaching I can see students thinking in the way I used to. I used to have in mind who might analyse my music. I thought “You have to do the right thing, because somebody’s going to go through this and look at it” and then you get to a point where you think “I don’t really care who analyses it: that’s what I want to write”.

Are you influenced at all by external stimuli, or are they always purely musical ideas? I remember seeing a harp piece, I think, based on Lake Vyrnwy.

Yes. I got very hung up on Lake Vyrnwy and was influenced by its folklore. It’s a fantastic part of the world. I can understand how all the folklore has evolved up there when one sits in the forest there watching the birds, especially when it gets dark. There are also external stimuli in the piece Toward the Light which I wrote for the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama Symphony Orchestra here. It came out of a walk from Birling Gap to Eastbourne over the Downs along the edge of the cliffs past Beachy Head. It was a terribly foggy day and a boat that had been blown up onto the cliffs and smashed. That made a big impact on me, and the whole piece is this journey, really. Things like that affect me. Poetry and painting also affect me to a certain degree and I have been greatly influenced by the poetry of Vernon Watkins too.

What about writing a piece? Do you write for a set number of hours a day, or is the
process more piece-meal?

It’s become piece-meal through necessity. I originally started music copying as a means to be able to compose, but the hours required for copying meant that the composition time became increasingly squashed. The Britten thing of getting up at a set time and working set hours has always been an attractive idea of that, but it’s never, ever worked yet. I long to be able to devote long periods to writing and to plan my work schedule but, by necessity, I have to cram in the odd minutes and hours when I can.

Do you tend to through compose or do you need to sketch a lot to discover the structure?

I prefer to write straight into full score and rarely sketch. I tend to have a structure in mind before I start. But it’s not set in stone. I know roughly where we’re going. It’s just getting the balance right and as I go through I’m continually going back through the score and adjusting the structure.

We just talked about you going back over pieces. When a piece is finished and performed, do you go back and revise, or is it finished by then?

One thing that was said to me, certainly by Alun, and I seem to remember by Tim Taylor as well, was that the time it takes you to revise a piece, you could write a new one. So don’t get bogged down with continually revising. I do go back sometimes and look at things. But you could tinker forever, going back and forth.

And are you a piano composer or a desk man when it comes to composing?

A desk man: I can’t play the piano to save my life but I do try things out.

Verticals and things?

Yes, and just to see if things work. I forced myself very early on to hear things in my head rather than rely on the piano. This has, unfortunately, become more difficult since I developed tinnitus.

Do you ever play your score back on the computer?

I try not to. I got into a habit of doing it, and I suddenly realised I was destroying a lot of stuff that was actually going to work. I’ve started to preach to all my students: “Don’t play it back on the computer!”

Your music suggests a pre-occupation, to my mind with classical forms. Do these the classical forms of the past, the traditional form of symphony, concerto and so forth, play a big part in your music?

They have done. I had an e-mail about three years ago from somebody from an American contemporary music group saying they’d looked at my web-site, and they’d looked down my list of works and they said “You write sonatas and quartets. Are you sure you shouldn’t be dead!” Fair enough! There was a fairly heated exchange of e-mails, but I thought, “That’s charming!” I don’t agree with the sentiments, but part of the point was well taken.

Or are you one who has been trying to move away from those forms, in a sense?

I’m starting to. I think it’s a confidence thing. Again, when I first left college, I felt: “Well, you have to write a symphony, you have to write a quartet in the style of...” And if you’re going to call it a quartet, then you write the four movements. As time goes on, one starts getting more and more confident and one thinks “I can write a quartet but it doesn’t have to be a four-movement quartet with a scherzo and so forth. Logically, if you think of it that way: there is no reason to follow the form because no-one ever has. The form has evolved. I like the idea of sonata form. My ultimate preference is continual variations. I like the idea of: “I’ll start there, and that will evolve right through the piece”. You may not recognize it by the time you get two-thirds of the way through, but it is based on the original.

It’s like a bit of material working for you.

I love puzzles. I love working out puzzles. I love working out how things come together. To a certain extent, I approach composition like building a puzzle. You get your building blocks and you ask “How can I manipulate these to get me from here to there?” When I can really get down to doing that, I really enjoy it.

So, in a sense, it’s a bit more about manipulating material rather than that straight-jacketing that we were talking about as serialism and pre-plans of pre-composition, and so on.

That’s the part of serialism that I hated. The bit I like, and still use, are sets of row rotations. I use a lot of row rotations. I don’t do it strictly though and have my own way of doing it. But I end up with sheets of blocks of notes but then there’s no strict use of them. I can just use them when I want within a fairly fluid tonal framework.

It’s more like what the Americans call “Set Theory”.

Yes. It’s a set of notes. In one piece I ended up with 300 different sets that all inter-related and I could cut together. You could just pick one or two. If I write a big orchestral piece I tend to use those row rotations.

In terms of what’s going on in music today, how would you feel about the contemporary music scene? How do you see what’s been going on in the last few years?

I like the diversity. I like the fact that, for the first time, I can write what I like without worrying that it doesn’t fit in with some current trend. I have to say, I see some contemporary music as “Emperor’s New Clothes”. If a certain composer with a certain standing writes something, he’s always going to be regarded as good, and those ones that criticise him will be called “Imbeciles” for misunderstanding it. But there are those who can write what they like and it will be said “That’s wonderful!”, because it’s the thing to do, as it were. You’re perceived as being intelligent by supporting them.

How do you see the interaction between composer and performer? Do you like writing for any particular performers, and is that quite important in the way that it was for someone like Britten?

I think it’s great to know whom you’re writing for. I’ve been very lucky to be able to work with performers and find out from people what might work better or something that takes you down a really different route. I was Ensemble Cymru’s first Composer in Association and wrote a substantial part for the guitarist Craig Ogden as part of an education project. I’d never written for guitar before and I didn’t have a clue. But it was great, partly because he’s such a nice guy anyway, and took me to one side and said “This ain’t gonna work, but if you do it this way…” Not only did it work, but I went away and re-wrote the thing, and it completely changed the shape of it because that opened another avenue which I didn’t realise I could do. That’s how it should be.

How do you feel about the opportunities for composers in Wales, today?

There are a lot of positives and negatives. Performance-wise, there are a lot of positives but I think we have a problem in thinking we’re a little country. We don’t have much self-confidence. We’re not very good at telling the world how good we are.

Do you think there’s enough promotion done inside Wales?

Frankly, no; there’s a lot of promotion done by voluntary bodies and ensembles but our official bodies, who are charged with doing their day-to-day work, could do a lot more. There’s a lot of talk of new initiatives and we, as practitioners, are told that we should be innovative, but I don’t see much innovation or support coming out of the bodies that tell us to be innovative.

It also seems to me that notated music using classical musical instruments is seen as being a less and less of a priority these days.

It’s an awful phrase but “dumbing down” is an apt term for what we are doing. The kind of music I write is seen as elitist. That makes me furious. I don’t want to be elitist; I want everyone to listen to what I do. Rather than trying to raise the standards so that everyone can take part in so-called “serious music”, they want us to lower our standards then we’re accused of being elitist when we refuse. It’s not elitist, but if you want to play the piano, you have to be able to play the piano. You can’t just come along and open the lid, and expect it to play itself. It’s like anything. You wouldn’t call sport elitist.

No, and you have to reach very high technical standards to be a good sports person.

Yes. So there’s a disparity. There was an instance back last year where there was an issue about raising money to send sportsmen to the Commonwealth Games. I don’t see a lot of fuss being made about raising money to send musicians overseas, or to promote music in communities. We have the odd nod towards it, but people don’t start screaming and shouting that there should be more money going into music to encourage the “ordinary person” to get involved in music, whatever the “ordinary person” is.

But surely there are good factors as well?

There’s a growing confidence, and I’m very heartened by the number of ensembles that are working in Wales and who have a willingness to perform Welsh music. I was talking recently to a number of younger musicians starting out in their career who want to perform Welsh music. The more of that we get, the better, because I don’t think we’ve had a Welsh identity for years. In the past, people have not wanted to be seen as being Welsh and promoting their own culture; fortunately, that is changing.

Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff: 1.4.03

    Edited by Chris Painter: 30.12.13