Sunday 21 March 2010

Two compositions

At some stage I will probably stop thinking of my life in terms of "since I finished at Trinity", but for now it's still such a change that I'm quite regularly struck by how different life is.

One of the joys of having more control over my time is that I have been doing more composing. I have half a dozen things unfinished at the moment, but I've also written three pieces since December. One of them is not quite finished, though it was performed on the occasion it was written for; there are some harmonic issues I'd like to sit down and sort out properly before posting it here.

The first of the others is A Marriage Blessing. It's the first time in many years that someone has asked me to write a piece of music, and the last time, I was about fourteen years old, so I was a bit worried that this would miss the mark. It's based on traditional Celtic texts, and meant to be sung unaccompanied, though I don't see why an accompaniment on appropriate instruments couldn't be improvised if desired. I wasn't at the wedding, but I'm told it was performed con lacrime and went down very well.

The second piece, Crux fidelis, is a setting of the English translation of the text of the same name. In thinking about music for Holy Week at St Andrew's, Leytonstone, I happened across the King John of Portugal setting, which beautiful -- but which we do not have the resources to sing. I thought a simpler work for soprano and organ might be welcome, perhaps with an optional alto part, and this is what I ended up with. There is a MIDI file of this, but as with most MIDI files, it sounds like R2D2. It's the first time I've done any writing for the organ: all of my choral music before now has been SATB or TBB a cappella.

Both works are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license.

Wednesday 3 March 2010


Good rehearsal today with the other members of the Brigantia Consort -- we looked at some new repertoire, rehearsed stuff we've been working on for performance probably this summer, and did some improvisation.

We recorded some of the rehearsal, and it was interesting to hear the results. Two things, to my mind, really stood out.

The first is that we do talk rather a lot between playing. Of course this is necessary to an extent and good conversations about the music now can make for much less work later on.

Some of the talking, I think, is because we don't have fixed repertoire, very tight limits on rehearsal time or any concrete engagement to work toward. We have some idea where we're going, but because there isn't a huge amount of urgency in getting there we have the flexibility to take the time to discuss things properly. Another factor is that as our instrumentation is non-standard (various combinations of voice/recorder, violin/recorder, horn/serpent/voice) and our repertoire rather eclectic we do have to approach each work from a few different angles. Baroque bow or modern? Vibrato or not? Should that line be played on the recorder, or sung on a relevant syllable? Do we need to scratch this arrangement and write our own, or can we swap the voices around to make it work better? Are the instruments being faithful to the stresses of the language if there are words? That does take a lot of talking through!

It's a great luxury to have rehearsals that are laid back enough that we can burst out laughing, explain things in detail or go off on the occasional tangent; on the whole I think we are reasonably focused. But listening to a recording, it's amazing just how much chattering we do, and how little playing. Perhaps we would be better off making more notes and fewer words.

The second thing, and one we all noticed, is that the improvisation was superior to playing from sheet music in just about every way. It wasn't just that we had warmed up by then; if anything I was getting tired, mentally if not physically, from lots and lots of C basso transposition. It is partly that improvising freely as we did today gives us the option to play to our strengths and avoid technically challenging passages. The biggest difference, though, is that without the dots in front of us we are forced to listen. Intonation and timing immediately improve, because we're not worried about playing or singing a "wrong" note, but instead listening to one another and really playing together, really creating something that none of us could create on our own.

We are learning what we need to do to rehearse better. As far as focus and use of time are concerned, we've started jotting down a rehearsal plan at the beginning of every session. That sounds like an obvious thing, but most of my chamber rehearsals have had such a limited repertoire that the schedule would sort itself out quite simply, and most larger ensembles have been led and planned by someone other than me. In this group we do need to spend time surveying repertoire together, sight-reading together, and improvising. Each having more than one possible instrument, and having to adapt our repertoire accordingly, also requires a different sort of rehearsal than just going in and learning the music. There are also administrative tasks, and we're still figuring out who is best in which role as far as paperwork is concerned. In order to keep track of all this I think the best thing is going to be to start a notebook, much as I have for each of my music students, and jot down not only a plan for each rehearsal but any comments on pieces and secretarial tasks.

The other thing I think will be useful is to start each rehearsal differently. Today we started by singing a piece we know reasonably well, then launched straight into sight-reading. It was useful, but given how much the improvisation changed our playing, I think it would be good to incorporate that into the beginning of the rehearsal. I know that with choirs and other larger ensembles, some sort of warm-up routine does seem to make a difference not only with the quality of each individual's playing and singing but with people's ability to listen to one another. It would make sense, then, rather than just doing our individual instrumental warm-ups (if any) and having a quick tune, to do some kind of communal warm-up. I think this will need to be fairly flexible but it would make sense for it to include some sort of improvisation.