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12th September 2011, Hamburg

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
An' ev'n devotion!

Robert Burns To A Louse

Standing in Kampnagel at the Bauprobe today, surveying the crowd of designers, carpenters, electricians, sound recordists and publicity people who are involved in my latest outpouring, I experienced a strong urge to hide. Lovely people, every single one, but so many of them. It is popularly assumed that an opera composer must be a megalomaniac. That would be fun - and would make my life more comfortable on occasions like today's - but alas the truth is more prosaic and a great deal more timid. True, Wagner was an aspirant world-dominator of epic proportions but if you examine the lives of most people who connive at the unnatural business of singing as a person goes about their daily business, you will find that they are quiet souls.   It is a strangely intimate trade, well suited to the introvert - except for those times when it isn't, and when it isn't it really isn't intimate at all.  I have never become used to the contrast between sitting silently, pinning ideas to the page with a pencil point like some untidy friar in his cell and the huge public fuss which surrounds the public display of the work.  There are never any surprises about the sound of the music (nor should there be), but the impact of something that grew inside one's head hitting a hall can be a shock.  It's not so bad in concert works: I was a bit taken aback by the physicality of Malebolge but that was simply because I'd imagined a less muscular string section than the one provided.  In general it was as I expected and the only thing that was unpredictable was the audience reaction.

Writing for the stage is another matter, because stage means people and people are devious - especially made-up ones.  In order to invent music for a character, I have to know the person pretty well; that involves mentally seeing, feeling and even smelling them as well as hearing.  Like an actor, I have to get the walk right or the character won't sing to me.  It doesn't matter if the realities of production differ from what I see in my head.  I'd imagined Mukhtada as a physically vast brute of a man, whereas the singer we've cast is compact and athletic.  I always thought of Djemaal as a hollow chested little squirt but in reality he will be as imposing a presence as I am.  It will make the spectacle of him being bullied by a man half his size twice as funny.  (As to the set, I'll say no more for now but what has been designed is utterly enchanting and a million times better than the mental pictures that generated the score all those months ago).  The important thing is that there should be a relationship between composer and character, one which is close enough for the composer to experience a process that novelists describe, where an imagined character starts making decisions for the writer and not the other way round.  

Given this necessity, it is easy to imagine that you fully understand the relationships and the people you have invented, even perhaps that they are expressions of yourself.  Of course to some extent art is the consequence of a life lived, but experience shows that there are distinct limitations to one's omniscience; the independence that imagined characters possess is real.

When people ask me what I do for a living, I often reply "geography teacher" or "shipping clerk", not least because I know that if they know the truth, fairly early on they'll say something like how wonderful to be able to express yourself.  How to reply?  It's not expression, it's concealment, at least in my case it is, and very often the hard work of making something that works gets in the way of the wider picture of what one is building.  I suppose it is creativity (a word I roundly detest) but it feels like a cross between gardening and rough carpentry.  "Playwright", like "shipwright" and "wheelwright" is a splendidly apposite title: they make things that have to hold together properly. If my trade had a name it should be "operawright".  The fact that havoc is generally also said to be "wrought" is psychologically pretty exact too.

During rehearsals for The Secret Agent I had a pretty good row with the director about the psychology of one character, the suicide bomber who so luridly concludes the piece by murdering the audience: she saw a childish neediness in him but I was convinced he was just shallow and wicked.  She wisely ignored me.  Seeing the staging of the character's main scene for the first time, I found it necessary to make a discreet exit from the theatre: the unexpected confrontation with whichever personal demons of mine had, all unasked, found their way into the scene was too much of a shock.  There was one heck of a lesson to be learned from it: don't assume that just because you wrote it, you understand all the implications.  Because very often the deftest concealment is from oneself.

 

Sunday 4th September 2011.  In the Chapel of Unrest

Tand ist das Gebilde von Menschenhand...

Being at the messy stage in a new piece, I often find Theodor Fontane's famous malediction crossing my mind as I survey the heap of bescribbled, multicoloured and coffee-mug-beringed papers on my desk.  Just as well I don't smoke or there'd also be a dustbin full of dog ends next to the brimming wastepaper basket.  Truffaldino took more than its share of 2B pencils and Paracetamol to finish and I hope that this very odd set of songs will be less painful.  It doesn't look that way, alas, and I suspect that Art is about to be a bugger again.

Today we have naming of parts and naming of names and translating of names of parts.  Tand... When I was writing Die Brück am Tay I fretted a lot about this word.  Most dictionaries translate it as either "knick knacks" or "dross" and leave it to the context to decide which suits best.  In the case of Fontane's three Shakespearian witches contemplating the mighty, doomed Tay bridge, neither equivalent comes close to working.  The heft of the word is both showy, attractive but worthless: I found a Victorian dictionary which came up with the splendidly archaic "trumpery stuff" but I suspect I may only like this because at so great a distance of time it has lost its vernacular overtones and I'm just reacting to the sound of it.  Look beneath the phony Tand of Hollywood and the real Tand will be revealed.  Does that work?  I've no idea, and once again I find myself needing a paragraph in which to fail at translating a single, moderately emotive word.  Growl.  Talking over Smells in its early stages with KF, 18 months ago in Leopold Hawelka's, we got stuck over the matter of insult, whether hau ab, Papi, du Arsch (her preferred rendition of Amina's "bugger off Father") was, she said, stronger than hau ab, Papi, du Arschloch.  It is all most unnerving and in the end I changed it to the rather timid "I hate you and I wish you were dead".  And then it was decided we didn't need a German version anyway.  Good:  Confucius he say man who try to understand idiom in anything other than his mother tongue is bloody fool and as usual Confucius is right.

Germans generally have trouble with my somewhat knockabout way of using the English language.  Something in the rhythm of it, or my choice of words or, if we've met, the fact that I don't look serious makes them seek a humour that most if the time isn't there.  This causes havoc with programme notes: many places are scared of letting the composer's words hit the pubic without the intercession of a third party, usually a dismal musicologist, who is employed to rewrite the programme note so that it no longer makes sense.  Musicology is, in essence, the art of missing the point in as elaborate a manner as possible and when it is combined with translation the results can only be calamitous.  Thank goodness dear old NDR have agreed to translate my Smells note unadorned: yet another reason to love them.

All this was preying on my mind this afternoon as I contemplated the potential horrors of the Ubertitel.  I think surtitles are a daft idea at the best of times.  Opera is like cinema: you don't tell the story with the words and if I ever have enough clout to get it put on, I would like to write one with a libretto full of Schwitters-esque nonsense and not a single comprehensible sentence.  But there's no point in starting a fight  you know you can't win so I acquiesce in the flickering distraction above the stage.  I do so in fear and trembling and with good reason: when No Country for Old Men was newly released, I went with a couple of Viennese chums to see it in the little cinema on the Schubertring two stops away from the Opera.  The soundtrack remained in English and there were German subtitles: so far as I could tell, the translation was faithful but someone, somewhere, had failed to grasp the tone of the thing, and I was treated to the surreal experience of watching that most sinister of movies surrounded by the procession of guffaws and gurgles that every third line seemed to elicit.  The cinema might, I suppose, have been full of lunatics but I doubt Vienna has that many of them (it would be a better place if it had) and we must blame subtleties of emphasis.  Faced with such potential for error, what hope has my little cake opera, with its rapid swerves of sentiment and tone and at times, frankly, bonkers dialogue?  Visions of an audience sitting stony faced through the funny bits, laughing at broken hearts or, worst of all, just not getting it started to flit before my eyes: a severe case of art being a bugger if ever there was one.

And suddenly, out of the blue, there arrived the most wonderful surprise.  Luzern's splendid Dramaturg, CK, has commissioned a translation of the Stolen Smells libretto from a lady in Hamburg and dammit it's perfect.  Friends tell me that my original reads a bit like the brothers Grimm rewritten by Galton and Simpson (dream on, for they are titans).  That, I would have guessed, presents too much of a linguistic challenge for even the most fleet-minded but it is not so.  The rhymes have had to go, of course, and the scansion, but it's a very musical translation, the mood is spot on and at times the language is deliciously inventive.  I suspect that many translators faced with this outburst from Mukhtada would simply find a nice high bridge and jump off it:

Sly scrimshaw scarecrow!
Salivating snotgobbler!
Put your greedy teeth away
Or I'll kick your backside to a jelly.
Them as wants to eat must pay.
A full purse, a full belly.

Not this one: you don't need to be a German speaker to appreciate the splendid spitting spleen of the translation:

Du gerissene Fischbeinvogelscheuche!
Sabbernder Rotzfresser!
Nimm deine gierigen Zähne da weg,
Oder ich trete deinen Hintern zu Mus.
Wer essen will, muss zahlen.
Volle Börse, voller Bauch.

Thank you Andrea Kirchhartz.  I owe you.

18th August 2011, Hamburg

The secret of great comedy is timing, so they say.  Today was supposed to be the Bauprobe for the cake opera.  It was cancelled owing to illness, but not until I was already in the air; or, to be precise, not until 30 seconds after I turned my phone off to get on the plane.  Growl.  In the end, it was far from a disaster; a pleasant morning at NDR with a legal officer, discussing learned things such as Internet streaming and Grand Rights and other abstractions that for all their lack of pizzazz nevertheless  keep the poor old composer from starving.  The lack of disagreement was astonishing, and the whole business was followed by a recce of the venue.

Few places of entertainment present a less promising first impression than Kampnagel, which from the outside still looks like the factory it once was - complete with rusty cranes - but inside the performing space is friendly and beautifully designed.  I said in my Orkney blog that I'd rather do a concert in a tram shed than an arts centre: this place gives me the best of both.  It's one heck of a contrast after the pretty 19th century proscenium at Luzern; just as well equipped but decidedly industrial and, critically, lacking an orchestra pit.  It's a big orchestra to put to one side of the stage but that's what we'll have to do, and adjust for balance accordingly.

This whole thing is starting to feel disturbingly imminent and I still haven't learned my own score thoroughly enough.  I must get a move on: it has to be done with the same discipline as with a piece by someone else - otherwise you end up conducting the penultimate draft.  And in the Bash Street Kids ethos of the average professional orchestra, that is not a thing you want to be doing.
11th August 2011

It's rare for an incidental music score to be bad enough to ruin a play for me, but the other night it happened and it was only fascination with some rather fine acting that kept me in the building.  It was a lazy-minded nightmare - fussy, unfocused and written with no sense of what the human voice is or can be.  Worst of all, it was unable to decide whether it wanted to adopt the ingratiating tone of a West End show or conform to the weary orthodoxies of the English "avant garde" (which is as lacking in avant-ness as were Albrechtsburger and Guilmant in their day and is as strident in its professions of creativity as was the DDR of its democratic principles - and for much the same reasons).   What is so bloody difficult about listening to voices and instruments and reading scores until you understand what is possible with a focused mind?  The answer is twofold: it's hard work and we have a teaching machine that is scared of skills and lacks the simple maturity to realise that all disciplines liberate.
Alexander Pope said True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, as those who move easiest have learned to dance.  It applies as much to this trade as to his.

12th July 2011, Dusseldorf

If variety is the spice of life, my existence is a vindaloo.  Scarcely has the Tarragona dust been brushed away from my little blue suitcase than once again I am asking myself how Easyjet managed to persuade William Hague to record their safety announcement.  If it is not he, then it is his laryngal twin, right down to the aspirant unsupported ends of sentences.  Someody get that Secretary of State a medicine ball before he expires.

No wonder that words and their delivery are preoccupying me.  Today's journey was a punt based on a few pages of typescript, an unfinished libretto for a children's opera, emailed by a stranger on the recommendation of an acquaintance.  After reading it once, I could not help but get on the plane.  So many operatic enterprises founder on the words: the literary conceits of poetry swim in different currents from the needs of a composer.  Ask a poet (or worse a Hampstead Literato) for an opera and they turn not to masters like da Ponte or Montagu Slater for guidance (and Heaven forfend that they should read the Verdi/Boito corrrespondence or the revelatory one between Strauss and von Hoffmansthal).  Instead, they plunge in and weave as dense a verbal skein as they can, not once asking themselves whether the singers' lips, teeth and tongue will dance or congeal on their lines.  We've come a long way from Se vuol ballare, Signor Contino (I love the rage in that poisonous diminutive) or We cannot have you living only on your excellent reputations.  My favourite unsingable line from the English canon is When shall the usurer's city cease?  but it cannot be long before this monstrosity is overtaken by something worse.  I was wondering whether to approach a movie scriptwriter (I still may) or even Pam Ayres, when this came along.

It shimmers.  It does not tell, it shows, and it has that indefinable quality of space that a script has when every single word is doing a job.  The husband and wife team responsible for it are easy company and despite my improvisatory German (I have a horrible feeling that to a native speaker I sound like a Mel Brooks character ) we covered the whole project in a frantic, hilarous day.  Everything for the past two years has been huge - Zurich, Munich, even Orkney, and I realise I shall never know just how many hundreds of people will work on The Stolen Smells.   This is different - a story for children, dealing partly with death and loss but without preaching about it, all to be performed by a tiny touring company.  Much as I love the big firework displays like Malebolge, at this moment I need the discipline of something small and jewel-like.  And I won't completely keep my hands off the words: I'll make an English libretto in the interests of getting it round as many places as we can.  The German state machinery is very good at getting things originated, less so at pushing them round the theatres.

A lot of the tale is funny, in a childlike irreverent way.  The last act, Unser Gasse at once made me think of Heinrich Zille. 

Heinrich Zille - Vor dem Milchladen

I have a poster from the much-missed Zille Museum in Berlin (did Friedrichstrasse really need yet another cafe?) on my studio wall:

Zille - Druecken Musste

It stops me getting too gloomy and obsessive.  Well, sometimes it does.  Zille McGill...they almost rhyme and I once heard Zille described as the Donald McGill of Germany.  Poppycock, but symptomatic of a mentality that says if you can do humour, nothing you create can possibly be wholly serious.  McGill is fun,

McGill - postcard museum

But I do not believe he had the eyes or the stomach for the sort of clear looking that you find in Zille.

Mother and three children

It's the insistence on jocularity that keeps Mc Gille in a box as a commercial artist, and yet it is the good humour and affectionate eye that, to me at least, makes Zille a better illustrator than Grosz, who is simply too angry.  Or am I doing a Schönberg and justifying my own position post facto?  The sadism at the end of Smells - albeit sadism in a major key - has bothered me ever since the piece was finished; maybe I'm looking for words to justify the balance of childish lunacy and adult harm. 

In any case, this next project will be, if no less complex psychologically, a piece of fewer extremes and since the words are by someone else I can devote a bit of energy to looking as splendid as Herr Zille.  I'm not there yet but every man needs a role model:

Zille

22nd June 2011, Orkney

On the ferry from Orkney to John O'Groats

Confucius he say man who drink too much Highland Park the night before rough sea crossing is bloody fool and as usual Confucius is right.  Let us hope scribbling in the black book will take my mind off it.  Cranial ringing and furred tongue to one side, I prefer the overland route and do not regret dithering about coming until all the planes were full.  The return journey may well occupy more hours than the composing of my little Caliban piece but wotthehell archy.  

Last time I was here it was as a humble bone player with the Fires of London.  We played The Lighthouse in an old cinema, the Phoenix, now sadly demolished.   That performance 25 years ago was a resonant and disturbing evening; last night's event in a new shiny hall was in most senses an improvement but I have to confess that a bit of me enjoys the ramshackle and improvisatory and would rather do a concert in a tram shed than an arts centre.  Looking around me at the oily waters and minatory landscape it is easy to see how the long, sinister prelude to that piece turned out the way it did. The water when the wind is low is glassy yet seems ever ready to boil, as though creatures are thrashing unseen below the surface.  Crossing the island to Kirkwall you pass Scapa Flow.  Most of the scuttled German fleet had been raised and melted down by 1939, but a few hulks remain, corpselike things that manage to shock in that pale island light.   When the foghorn starts in The Lighthouse  one of the characters calls it the cry of the Beast across a sleeping world; one day that cry will be answered from the deep.  Would it be a rusty broken response?  It seems credible to me, or maybe I'm just short of sleep and sanity.  Short?  Bereft more like.

There were four composers at the concert, unusual outside the squeaky music scene, among them PMD.  I was tempted to respond to his latest media pronouncement by leaving my phone on but given the complete lack of signal it would have been the hollowest of gestures. We have a fight on persuading the world that serious music (all of it not just the contemporary music bubble) is for everyone and querulous ain't the way to achieve it. Caliban's Boogie?  Don't ask me; I wrote it and therefore automatically dislike the the thing.  Ben and the players did a very good job; a slight slackening of tempo fixed a great many sorrows and I find I still like writing an emotional trajectory that ebbs from violence to quiescence.  I'll leave it alone for a bit but it is a shape worth revisiting.  As is this place, but next time I venture so far, I'll lay of the Highland Park.

18th June 2011
A CD arrived from Wales.  I'd more or less forgotten about Corpus Christi but here it is, very nicely played and recorded thank you.  No recollection of the writing process and not sure if I like its wanton untidiness or not.  Strange that a piece written when Stolen Smells was still lingering in the air like cordite fumes should have so little to do with it.  Whether or not I like the thing (as I usually dislike my own pieces it's a silly thing to worry about) the general toys-out-of-pram wildness of it is healthy.  The sheer violence of Malebolge concealed from most people something that worried me; a certain tidiness in all the counterpoint and structural unity that, though perfectly OK in itself is at variance with my own nature.  I think the Elbe piece is going to need some plank-loosening before I put it on the page.
12th June 2011

MIDI is actually the work of the devil.  Smells was written the usual way - straight into score with a pencil - and made its way from brain to page without distraction.  Once copied, the score looks like a slightly alien thing which is all to the good - it'll make me study it all the harder before December.  For all sorts of technical reasons a MIDI version has to exist for the production team, but I do rather wish I hadn't listened to any of it.  The inane inflexible plunking that is the true voice of a computer diminished it to little more than a 100-minute ringtone and briefly shook confidence.  The worst of it is that the machine can't distinguish foreground and background and invariably brings the part with the most notes to the front.  It's as gross an error as disregarding accidentals would be.  Listening to a lot of contemporary music, I am regularly struck by the poor management of the weight of voices (and thickness, which isn't quite the same thing) and I wonder if this has its origin in using computers at an early stage.  It might also account for the number of notes written.  The moment when Djemaal walks into a wall of perfume is a thickly-voiced string chord that swells.  On the MIDI, it was just a jingling thud followed by silence! 

I wonder what we'd think of a poet who revised his work by listening to it on a voice chip?

27th May 2011, Jaipur

Even hotter but this trip has proved the restorative that I hoped it would be.  This town has more animals  wandering the streets than an average farmyard.  Cows of course, camels disdainfully refusing to reveal the 100th name, the odd elephant and some distinctly unfriendly pigs, one of whom took exception to me earlier today.  And monkeys, hundreds of them.  Macacques I think.  In Trinidad I never got used to bananas growing as weeds in hedgerows; I have the same delighted sense of inappropriateness at the sight of so many feral monkeys.  One of the temples nearby has been colonised by about 5000 of them and once the surprise of sitting by the tank while their family lives and territorial disputes unfold around one, it is surprisingly peaceful.  The sacred cow stalking continues and I am beginning to suspect that I will write a piece about one.  Cow as cantus fermus?  I've done stranger things.  Perhaps a tone poem Ermintrud Kuhs Lustige Streiche.  That way madness lies though whether for me or for others I am unsure.

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