Writing music: a preliminary step

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This is a piece that I'm working on, a kind of guided improvisation.

This is a piece that I’m working on, a kind of guided improvisation.

I’ve wanted to try my hands at a spot of composing for a while now. It’s hard, because as a committed flute player I can’t dedicate an awful lot of my time to thinking about writing music, and on top of that I happen to have a particularly thoughtful composer around me nearly always – I don’t want to do a half-assed job, it just wouldn’t stand up to my own ideals or to the work I see Liam putting into his music. But at the same time, just about every time I hear the work of a performer composer – especially wind players – I think to myself, “I could do that. And I’d probably do a better job too…”

When the opportunity came up to do a short solo recital as part of the East Brisbane Community Centre music arts festival (this coming Saturday, 4-10pm at JWC) I thought a lot about the program I would present. My general criteria for Kupka concerts seemed relevant here too, that is: the inclusion of at least one work by a female composer, and at least one Australian work. I also really wanted to play Carter’s Scrivo in vento again, and given the space (the shopfront) I think Takemitsu’s gritty, violent Voice would be quite striking. Australian composer Andrew Ford won that spot with his Female Nude for alto flute (to be performed with clothes on, the title is in reference to a Mondrian painting). And for the female composer, vocalist Luara and I are going to perform the first movement of Kate Soper’s Only the words themselves mean what they say – the whole of which we’ll be playing in the Kupka’s Piano concert on November 29.

Which leaves a 10 minute slot to be filled. There were other works I could have played, but given that the festival is a mix of experimental jazz and contemporary classical streams I wanted to be a bit creative – it’s a good environment to try something new! And so the idea came to me for a kind of guided improvisation, something that I worked on with Liam as an initial step into composition.

The process itself just kind of happened, but it worked very well. I have been scheduling my practice into 10 minute blocks, setting an alarm and just working on one thing at a time. I set aside one of these blocks in a practice session for improvisation, with only the scantest idea of what exactly I wanted to play with. Each new sound I came up with that I liked I noted down (see the notebook page above). After one successful session I tried two more, and then just elaborated on the material I found only slightly. Liam and I then spent about an hour going through this raw material and talking about how one set could develop and flow into the next.

Now with this blueprint in place I’ve just been working on two sections at a time, securing my ideas and the tissue between segments. I’m planning on performing the work with a stopwatch running to bolster the strength of the structure. Each section is very much sound-based, with less focus on pitch/harmonic development, although I think a bit of a rough, intuitive theme still runs through.

This has been a (pleasantly) surprisingly useful process, and in fact Liam and I are thinking we might propose to the whole KP gang that everyone gives this kind of thing a go. It’s extremely good I think for the performer of modernist art music, as we are often so consumed by learning other’s notes we lose touch a little with the sounds and effects we most enjoy playing. In addition, it’s great for Liam, as he gets to hear sounds that he might not otherwise have been able to conceive in his own ear, and the extension of the possibilities and limitations of the instrument.

Oh yeah, and new look blog! Maybe this signals a new direction, but I’m not entirely sure what that might be at this stage.