A series of questions and answers from the 'Exchanging Notes' series by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (2005)
1 Where do your ideas come from? And, are there particular sources that reoccur?
This is a difficult question. They tend to start as non-musical ideas that give me an overall feel for the piece. Recent examples are a chapter from a book that describes a raucous festival in Spain, a poem about night by Kathleen Raine and the Apollo 11 space mission. I like to get an overview of the whole piece - almost seeing it from a distance and then getting closer up to it as I get more specific ideas. In other words from the vague to the specific. I don't have a sketch book or keep musical fragments. What doesn't get used in a piece goes in the bin. There are sources that recur probably because I write each piece in pretty much the same way. A lot of ideas tend to be visual. Musical ideas early on are always chords which get pushed around until something new comes from them like a short melodic idea or a rhythm.
2 Do your ideas normally start as musical ideas, or as extra-musical ideas?
I do have vague musical ideas, usually from listening to other people’s music. For example, I want to write a slow 6 -10 minute orchestral piece because of several pieces of this kind I've heard. Although I don't want to copy them, The 'genre' of such a piece interests me.
4 What form do your extra-musical ideas take? And, why were you attracted to them?
What attracts me to starting from non-musical ideas is that something like a text or visual image can give you a focus for a piece of music that you can return to. It's a good way of being able to put your finger on what it is you are trying to do in a piece without being technical. This is particularly useful if you get bogged down with detail or get stuck. I'm also attracted to non-musical ideas as I just find them exciting. It can be a way of collaborating without actually having to! They are a good way of erecting scaffolding before you've written any actual music so giving yourself a frame within which to start writing. And beginning is always the most difficult bit. Having said this I am starting to write more without non-musical ideas behind the music as I'm finding that different pieces are starting to do the same things in different ways (like generating fast music or similar structures) which I'm interested in pursuing.
5 How do the extra-musical become musical ideas?
The first movement of the ‘Three Pieces’ is based on a chapter from 'Joseph', a novel by Julian Rathbone which describes a raucous Easter Festival in Burgos, Spain in the early 19th century. The chapter moves quickly from one scene/image to another. The music does the same, 15 or so short sections are placed back to back with no transitions or links. The music doesn't literally copy the narrative of the chapter but hopefully captures something of the chaos and festivity of it.
6 Do your extra-musical ideas determine/generate structure? How do they do this?
Sometimes the music can start to suggest it's own shape/structure which always feels more natural to me.
7 Do you compose at the piano or not? Why do you work this way?
I don't have a good ear and need the piano to hear chords and check things. I think it would be a good idea to write away from the piano more and am trying to do it. I'm also trying to use Sibelius more as a tool for composing rather than just typesetting.
8 What techniques do you use to develop musical ideas/material?
Polyrhythmic planning, heterophony, repetition, number patterns, pitch and chordal rotation (as in late Stravinsky), transposition. Anything I can think of!!
9 How do you make decisions about which ideas to keep and which to discard?
Time is a good natural selection process that does it for you. It sometimes feels better to get rid of something than create something and can be quite liberating.
10 Many Composers talk about setting themselves challenges which they work through in a piece. Do you identify with this?
Absolutely not! I don't believe in making anything more difficult than it need be and certainly not setting myself challenges.
11 Is there a set way you approach the process of composing?
No. If I did have a set way of writing, I'd get bored of doing it.
12 What is your working practice?
I only work when I know I have at least 2 hours free, When I'm actually composing I tend to work for no longer than 30/45 minutes at a time without stopping for a few minutes. I can only really work in my study at home.
13 What do you do when you are stuck?
Stop and get depressed. Going out is helpful. Just setting foot out of the front door can help sometimes.
14 What is the best piece of advice a composition teacher has ever given you?
Olly Knussen - "If you get stuck trying to write something try and do the complete opposite".