How the heck do you write a piece of classical music?

Writing new music: ivory towers and eggs

Welcome to the first of a series of six blogs I'm writing in the run-up to a concert I'm conducting on 30 October.  In that concert we will perform a new piece of mine: Another Lie.  It strikes me that the business of composition is something very few people know about, so here I am about to attempt to explain my perspective on the matter - and to relate that specifcally to this new piece.

I realise that some people may not even have read this far, thinking that what I will talk about will be rarified, ivory-tower stuff, with no relevance whatsoever to the price of eggs.  Now I don't disagree that that could be a problem - and indeed has sometimes been a problem with new music (and not only of the classical kind).  However, my brief (to myself) is twofold: explain how composing happens, and explain how music matters - even new music.

I'm actually going to start with something I wrote about composing about 10 years ago - it was on the sleeve of my first CD Speechless.  There's a fair bit in it, so I'm going to let it stand alone for today, without further comment, and next week I will use it as a strating point for my investigations.  Do I agree with my 10-years-younger self?  It will be interesting to find out!

On Composing (2011) - from sleeve notes to my CD Speechless

Composing is one of those esoteric things that sound akin to alchemy.  Certainly there is an unknown element: why (for example) does my tune sound right ending one way and not the other way?  That's the inspiration bit ... something to do with the sum of your experience and your heritage but with an indefinable element.  But there's also the preparation part - for example you have to know the grammar of music, and you have to understand the instruments and voices you are writing for.  And for me composing is a slow process.  Uttering the phrase "Oh, there's only another 2 minutes worth of music and then this piece is finished" seems only to lead to that 2 minutes worth taking me another week to complete!  Then there's what I would call the common sense bit.  The point of composing music is to have it performed, so what is the use of composing music with dozens of percussion instruments, three pianos and an organ?  Or of writing a piece with new and 'fascinating' instrumental techniques?  Who will ever play such music?  The London Sinfonietta is not cheap to hire!  Far better (IMHO) to write for the people and places around you.  So I've written music for no more than a medium-sized orchestra, using standard notation and standard techniques.  I've tried to avoid making it particularly hard to play (but also avoiding making it very simple).  And then there is the audience (sometimes ignored by composers).  I want to give the listener hooks into the music - I don't want my music to be difficult listening - but at the same time I will throw out a few aural challenges!  And I certainly don't want it to sound like music that I've recycled from somewhere else.  Only you can judge the success of what Ive written, so I'd love to know what you think about it.