Do people still break up for the summer these days or do we simply log off? Either way, the Parliament Choir did one or the other (or possibly both) last night at our final rehearsal before the recess, running through all the chorus parts for The Dream Of Gerontius before going our separate ways for a while.
In a large work such as this, being able to run everything in a single span marks a kind of watershed moment, not just because it means that all the notes have been covered, but also because it is the first time that the singers can put all that they have to sing into context. For the first time the architecture of the work becomes apparent, and the proportions come into view.
Something very similar happened when we sang The Apostles a few years ago, a work which requires the singers to weave in and out of the texture in a decidedly fragmentary fashion, but one which makes perfect sense in the context of the whole piece. That top-down view, even if it does not change anything about the notes themselves, alters the state of mind about a piece, and that is critically important.
In large-scale works, in which category I include the Dunstan cantata, there are moments in the compositional procedure when I am sure that even the composer has very little idea about how things will turn out. At least in these cases there is the text to hang on to, but the way that themes work, the give and take, the proportions of the whole thing, these all change on the fly.
The trick is to make it all feel inevitable in the end, to hide the joins and the doubts and to make everything feel logical and smooth. At some point it all begins to make sense, and that is when momentum really begins to kick in.
It was a busy week last week in all sorts of areas, hence the relative lack of bloggage, but things carried on apace, most importantly the Dunstan cantata which continued to gain material and should within the next few days have more or less the entire text covered. This should give me a solid head start when it comes to filling in the other areas around the chorus and soloists, so I am still happy with the way that this is progressing.
Otherwise there were various other things to get done, such as the Anghiari introductions, which are now written but yet to be translated, and a couple of composition submissions, which took more time than expected. I seriously doubt that this last thing will have been worth the time I spent on it, but one never knows, and I keep throwing in the applications, just in case.
We were also out and about for other matters as well, such as an audition on Tuesday, and time in Bath on Thursday with lunch at our very favourite eaterie and a visit to a friend’s exhibition in Frome on the way home. We got a little caught on the way back in the traffic for the NASS Festival, which (briefly) made the front page of the BBC website in the midst of all that clickbait and those hedging quotation marks.
I actually went up to NASS on the Friday night with a friend, not usually my scene, I must admit, but I had an enjoyable time, despite being very definitely the oldest person in our particular venue. The atmosphere was interesting, quite different from rock gigs both in intent and camaraderie – rockers tend to shout out every word at the tops of their voices and nod grudging approval at each other, while the NASSers wave their hands in the air (like they just don’t care), bounce up and down and fist bump total strangers.
I have never been part of that scene – skateboards, BMX bikes, drum and bass – but variety is the spice of life, and you never know when some of those experiences might come in useful. For the weekend, though, it was back to boring old me and church playing, but it was capped off with a romp through Bach’s Prelude & Fugue in a minor, a fine piece with which to end the week.
For all the big things that happen in the world, much of change occurs quietly and incrementally, and usually when I am looking the other way. Yesterday, though, I heard the clear alarm of a gentle but fundamental shift as I attempted to buy lunch for me and my brother and was told politely that, no, they did not accept cash.
I know that this is entirely legal, but it did still trigger a desire in me to get down (see, 70s jargon) to the local charity shop, don some flares and pay for a bundle of Rick Wakeman 8-track cassettes with my Green Shield stamps. The cynic or realist in me – delete as appropriate – says that card payments are a pretty nifty way of tracking where we are and what we are buying, so cash will remain my preferred option, at least until Green Shield stamps come back into fashion.
It is probably a tenuous link, but I often feel that my composing is a little like that, a few notes here and a few notes there until an idea comes into shape that suddenly changes and recasts what has come before. Just like yesterday’s unexpected fumble for plastic, one never knows quite when that moment will arrive.
Until then I plough on, and I spent a couple of sessions of yesterday adding notes to the cantata, getting more text allied to some kind of music or other. I am still at the stage of hacking large blocks off the edges of my raw material, but I know that the finished piece lies hidden there in the fabric of the paper, in the pixels on the screen, and I just have to keep working at finding it.
I am back home now for a few days, and will continue with the cantata as well as the Anghiari introductions. There are also one or two other musical engagements to be getting on with, some of them rather left-field, but I shall leave those for another time.
A three day stint in London feels quite extended these days, even if it was pretty much par for the course last year. A couple of baptisms to play for on Saturday, a day at the organ bench and teaching on Sunday, and rehearsals today before heading back to the wilds of Somerset for an interesting week.
I have been working on the cantata over the weekend as well, getting initial ideas down for the last of the five movements. At the moment I am still very much in that first stage of throwing ideas down where and when they appear, so it will take a while yet before the true critical process kicks in. Even so, it is well worth getting as many notes down as possible.
As the process has become more clear it seems that the first thing I am trying to do is to get as much music down for the text as possible. Other moments, such as interludes, introductions, can go in later, and at least I will know where they should lead or what they should follow.
I am about to begin tackling the Anghiari introductions as well, hoping to get these finished by the end of the week so that there is time to deal with any changes that might happen. It also gives me the opportunity to listen to a large amount of new music, which I always enjoy, whether I end up liking the music or not.
There are a few social things to be done during the week as well, and I think that I am coming around more and more to the fact that I am living something like a mosaic lifestyle, where each day is different from the last and I just need to slot in my work in small units where and when I can. In Mitcham things were different, but there is just so much more to do in Somerset, quite the opposite of what I expected.
I do enjoy this particular fortnight, the breeze coming through the cottage, a glass of something civil in hand and the sounds of upsets and endeavour from SW19 filtering through the speakers. Time was that when they pulled the covers over I had five minutes to get the washing in, but now I live a little further away.
Against that soundtrack I managed to forge head substantially yesterday with the cantata, to the extent that for once I do not have to talk about ‘tinkering’ or ‘sketching’. Instead I reached that stage in one particular movement where material begets material and suddenly (well, after a couple of hours) the clouds began to clear, the journey ahead just a little less obstructed.
I totted up the sketches I have – one of the five movements is yet to be started in anger – and found out that I already have over half of the length of the cantata sketched, which, at this stage, is very heartening indeed. The plan is to continue to add raw material until the end of this month and then to use August to prepare the piano score so that it is good to go in September.
Of the four movements that are in progress I would say that three of them certainly have enough material in situ to prevent too many difficulties as I go on, which should clear up time to work in depth on the fifth. Things could change, of course, but I am reasonably happy in my ability to be able to write myself out of a corner with enough application and thought.
There has been the smallest bit of detail work to be done on the book over the part week, and the Anghiari introductions remain to be written, but otherwise the cantata is certainly going to be my main focus of the coming days. Well, that and the tennis.
I worry just a little that this blog’s entries are turning into “did some work on the book, did some work on the cantata” and little else, but that is the way that my life is running at the moment. There are still many other things besides, such as listening, playing, walking, exploring, and so on, but the main thrust of my work is following the book/cantata route at the moment.
Still, I impressed myself yesterday by fixing my car’s mirror all on my own. The vicinity of a car is not my natural habitat by any means, and I find myself among that crowd that gets gently chastised by the folks at the local garage when I take my vehicle in to be serviced. I think that they labour under the misapprehension that I view my car as an extension of my ego and self-worth whereas in fact I see it as a means of getting from A to B, a point of view they seem to find baffling.
One of my father’s many unsuccessful businesses was a garage, so something should really have rubbed off on me, but maybe the fact that I spent so much of my childhood in cars in states of disrepair was a more permanent influence – the Mini with the hole in the floor, the Talbot Samba with the engine that had broken free of its mounts, the Toyota Carina whose fifth gear had to be held in by the driver’s knee.
– Forget Proust and his madeleines, for me it’s the oily smell of a 412.
There was the occasional bit of exotica as well, such as a Lancia Fulvia in the mid-70s, but mainly the smell of my childhood is of the oily insides of a Moskvich 412, a car renowned for being more likely to injure its driver than a passing member of the public when it collided with a pedestrian. Quite how I survived into middle age after so many hours of being run around in one of these antediluvian machines is a mystery, although its suitability to Russian climes meant that it was ever toasty in winter.
My father’s final car, which my brother and I gave away to one of his friends who was so kind to him in his final months, turned out to have a mouse living in it, although we never quite worked out where, so he clearly kept that strange relationship with his machines going right to the end. At least where music is concerned I know that my tinkering is reasonably well-informed and unlikely to leave me stranded by the roadside, and, upon reflection, I think that I can live with that decision.
I was only up in London for the single day yesterday, travelling up on Sunday night in time to hit the post-Glasto glampers’ return, and found it difficult to get going on Monday morning. I did my usual things of the moment, some work on the book, some sketching on the cantata, and took the Parly Choir rehearsal in the evening, which, portraying the demons in Gerontius, was suitably fiery.
There has been more of the same this morning, dealing with what appears to be my usual beginning of the week admin, added to which is the need to get the wing mirror on my car seen to, a helpful bus (most likely) having taken it off at some point yesterday. Still, needs must and all that, and at least I am not driving something ridiculously exotic.
I popped on some Zelenka this morning to listen to while dealing with emails and book amends, and I find myself drawn ever more to his curious and individual voice, the more so as he fell almost completely between the cracks of time for two hundred years or so. Find yourself on the list of composers admired by JSB and you can give yourself a pat on the back anyway, but Jan Dismas is the real deal, and no mistaking.
He appears to have continued to write despite all manner of discouragement, the second lowliest paid member of the orchestra at Dresden, passed over for promotion time and time again, yet his manuscripts were protected and kept secure, for which read “hidden away”. No portrait and only the shadowiest of information about him as a person makes for an intriguing mystery.
Continuing in the face of adversity is what builds character, though, and examples are everywhere in music history, as well as in general history. On the days when I find it hard to get going I remind myself that every little helps, that each step is important, and the rest is just noise around the signal.
Into July we go, half the year done and half to go until I retreat to the rural wilds for a bit and go quiet. It is also the month of the Anghiari Festival, so it is time to get cracking on the introductions and do all that lovely listening of inspiring new repertoire as well as revisiting old favourites.
Apart from the drama of one of the cars in the neighbourhood going up in flames on Thursday night, said vehicle belonging to the local purveyor of illicit substances, said fire therefore on the suspicious side, it has been a fairly quiet weekend made up of the usual things. I added some more notes to the Dunstan cantata, tinkered a little more with entries for the book, and sheltered from the sun when possible.
When the wind was in the right direction we could also hear the distant thunkathunka from the Glastonbury Festival because, as we know in our part of the world, Shepton is actually the nearest town to the site, even if the name is less glamorous. The celebs flew in overhead by helicopter and the traffic was well managed, the local supermarket responding to the occasion by giving out free tasters of the local cider, of course.
I also received a couple of intriguing offers of work, offers that I had to turn down but which held out the possibilities of new avenues to be explored. Maybe next time, I told myself.
This week I hope to get the book and the Anghiari introductions finished, because it is more or less time to shift up a gear in terms of work on the cantata. It is still running to schedule, but I think that I would like to forge ahead and make sure that there as few distractions as possible for next week and beyond.
I’ve been a little quiet on the blogosphere over the past few days, but that does not mean that I have not been busy. More work on the cantata alongside some arrangements for a colleague’s concert in a few weeks time, so the notes have certainly been going down onto paper.
I have also returned to an area of work that I have not touched for nearly fifteen years, thanks to a request from another colleague. I would rather not say quite yet what it is, because I am as rusty as can be, but it has been fun over the past week to try to apply some of my knowledge to myself and see if I can fix what has lain long unused. Physician, heal thyself!
I have also had time stolen from me by the shenanigans of a parcel delivery company who were booked to collect on Saturday and then cancelled. Rebooked for Monday they cancelled again, but I was entombed in the depths of the chapel in Parliament, so by the time I emerged blinking into the light and found out I could only rebook the collection for today.
Bizarrely (or, perhaps, utterly predictably – take your pick) a courier turned up yesterday, unsummoned, to take away two parcels. It was the wrong day and twice the correct number of parcels, but I was not prepared to look this gift horse in the mouth, so thrust my offerings into his hands, but I am curious to know if anybody is going to turn up today, and for how many boxes. Maybe I have stumbled into some kind of hellish infinity loop of parcels.
All that technology, all that joined up stuff, is meant to save us time, but spending an hour on live chat rarely gets you any further than you are able to get on your own and, in my experience, the chatters, often through no fault of their own. are as bereft of any useful information as we, the intended recipients, are. Once upon a time all this automation was going to set us free, but it turns out that we work just as much as before, probably more. For all its faults, at least Sibelius still stands as a shining example of something that knocked days off a project when it first appeared, more when one considers that it is no longer strictly necessary to send parcels of scores via courier any more.
Yesterday was far less dramatic than Tuesday, thank heavens, and I caught up on various nuggets of work here and there, sending off some revisions for the book and also adding in the timpani part to Tu Es Petrus, recasting the full score accordingly. I also snuck in a couple of sessions of work on the Dunstan cantata, getting more rough ideas down.
We also ambled up the High Street to a new cafe that has opened up, and while I must admit that we are probably above capacity in terms of coffee houses for a small town, this one certainly seems likely to succeed. We have the big chain up at the top of town, the family run place that seems more like walking into somebody’s front room than a cafe, the cozy venue that sells knitting paraphernalia, the coffee house in the shopping centre and many others besides, but this one comes with its own bakery, and a proper one at that.
While I enjoy being busy, the travelling and especially the writing, there is something very special about those days when I can get up, tuck my work in before midday and then tinker here and there in the afternoon between one peregrination and the next. A little bit of scribbling in the morning and a couple of sessions in the afternoon is just about right, and all helps to keep the wheels spinning. If I can get up the road for a coffee and poke my head around the doors of a couple of nearby locales then it all feels suitably domestic and comforting.
Today looks likely to bring more of the same, emails, organisation and writing and then a slow and gentle relaxation into the evening’s gaming, wine and something soothing on the iPlayer. Watching something from one of the commercial channels does, however, hammer home how much I detest adverts, and I stick to the view that if a product is truly outstanding then you do not need to come into my front room to shout at me about it. Or knock at my door or cold call me, for that matter.
Still, whoever first thought of advertising – essentially exaggerating how good your product is in order to get somebody to buy it – was a genius, but I keep a mental hit list of brands I will not touch, based on the frequency and shrillness of their histrionics, and the shabbiness of the celebs who turn up for the cash and prizes. Besides, I always like that thing about the advertising guru knowing that fifty percent of their budget was wasted, just not knowing which fifty percent. Turn off those cookies and keep them guessing, I say.