23rd May 2011, Delhi
Tes orfal hot.  47 degrees I am told, which translates into 116 in old money.  Amazingly not the hottest I've been (a row with a taxi driver in Qatar resulted in a long walk when it was over 50) but it'll do.  The mayhem of this place brings with it a peace of sorts.  I suppose the sensory overload that is so common in India distracts one from introspection.  Greater quietude ensues from having met all my deadlines and having come here without a single piece of Ms paper.  I really should grow out of following sacred cows round the streets but it pleases me and is infinitely preferable to the bore of conventional sight-seeing as well as being safer than pandering to my Tuktuk addiction.  They are rather pretty beasts though as antisocial as fleas, lying down in the way of things, shitting everywhere and perennially cross.  At least some of the market traders use them as waste disposal units which I suppose mitigates some of their less appetising activities.  And yet...Thoreau writes of tasting milk from Cape Cod cows that have been fed on fish carcases and which reeked of old seafood.  Maybe I'll give the lhassi a miss at lunchtime.
11th May 2011, Luzern

We are out of the closet and the press at last has all the details of Smells.  I remain delighted with the organisation here, surely the easiest (and funniest) lot I've ever had to deal with.  Wheeled out twice to tell the story of the piece, once for journalists and once for a cohort of Abbonament-holders.  Rather touched at being stopped twice in the street the next day and asked intelligent questions about the piece.  Wouldn't happen in the UK.  I hope the "bewildered grey bear blinking in the footlights" act (except I have a nasty feeling it isn't an act) continues to reassure people that just because the composer hasn't died, you can still listen to the music without needing counselling afterwards.  You can't blame any theatre for taking that line though I sometimes worry that it might inadvertently imply that the work is bland and bland is  good (and this is one edgy little piece).  And yet...we really have become terribly lost if survival requires us to think that way.  Is it audiences seeking music that feels safe or is it the self-indulgence of composers caring more about programme notes than about clarity?  Hanged if I know; I think this is a what people think about you isn't your business moment so I will sit by the lake and be windswept and interesting for an hour.

More important than this contemplation of my unlovely navel is the fact that I am now officially so Helvetified that I have acquired a Swiss Railways half-price Bahnkarte.  This being Switzerland, that admirable piece of plastic gives a discount not just on railways but on paddle steamers and cable cars as well.  This pleases me far more than it has any business to; proof that I haven't yet grown up and therefore some, if not all, is well.

12th April 2011, Szcezin, Poland
Life is never dull.  It was a noble idea to start a youth orchestra for kids from all the former Soviet republics (no Russian we don't like them).  A nice bunch as long as you keep the Armenians and Azerbaijanis apart, some very good people and one of the bone players is a major if oddly directed talent.  I realise that it's passivity that wears me out, not demand.  This lot would be at me all night if I let them and it's just fine.  A novelty to be trotting out the usual things about playing in my stupendously faulty Russian.  Goodness me that 1973 O-level has served me well over the years!  I find the trick I used in Kazakhstan when I couldn't remember the word for "heavy" (still can't), which was to call them "agricultural" (a splendid eight-syllable word in their language).  It has the same positive effect here as there.  What the hell were they doing teaching teenagers in Hampshire the Russian for "agricultural" in 1973?  I know there was a cold war on but even so...am I the only almunus of my class to have put the endless tales of Lyudmilla who will leave the collective farm to study as an agronomist to practical use, I wonder?  Sometimes art isn't just a bugger it's bewildering as well.
25th March 2011, In the Chapel of Unrest
Another year older and deeper in debt.  Celebrated last night by conducting the dreaded Ubu Ensemble.  A concert of Varese, Boulez, Adams and Zappa.  A hit, I think but it's strange how stiff-shouldered such stuff leaves a body, especially FZ.  His stuff is much easier to conduct than Adams and less overtly corrosive than Varese, but doing it gives me a pain in the neck - literally.  Having grown out of the dreadful screwed-up unhappiness of his rock music, I find I can respect pieces like Perfect Stranger but somehow the core personality remains there, burrowing like a mole.  It's not the language, it's the intent and the sooner I stop fretting about my own vocabulary the better.  More productive to wonder why a man like me, looking like a cross between Rasputin and a Goya nightmare should be quite as prone to wistfulness as my tunes suggest.  Best performance of the evening was by a gang of wonderfully gung-ho American string players, who burst into flames with Questi Cazzi di Piccione, though I was quite proud that I introduced the piece without the title causing any fainting among the more timorous souls in the audience.
28th February 2011, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A career first: chops are fine but my back is sore from bending to make so many mute changes.  Bit of a panic here with someone ill so I jumped into a telephone box and emerged not as Superman but as the same crumpled down-at-heel creature that went in (pity the declining freelancer).  Sightreading the dress rehearsal of the new Joby Talbot Alice ballet was a bit of a strain on the old brain, but we survived.  I think I like the score; far more percussion than I'd have used but the cartoony style suits the story and, from what I could see from the pit, the designs as well.  Wish I could see what on earth Simon Russell Beale is doing onstage but alas have a tune to play when he's on.  Whatever it is he's up to, I doubt it's a reprise of George Smiley.

16th February 2011

Is courage really the only virtue one possesses as a matter of choice?  The piece is so damn simple in places it scares me silly.  In The Secret Agent I remember fussing about the wisdom of a mute central character, but the story demanded it.  Now I've gone one further; the climactic aria of this thing (Sheherezade's betrayal, if betrayal it is) HAS to be unaccompanied but it's one hell of a risk, as well an alarming thing to do to the singer.  When I told J about it she just looked very hard at me and said well I'm glad I won't be singing it.  I will not erect a self-defensive barrier of complex obscurity but there are times when I want to cry "just a little back, to about 1983" instead of "back to 1600" which is the source of my present fear.  Art is a bugger and so is E minor.

7th February 2011, Reznicekgasse, Vienna

Sore head, sore feet, don't care.  Went to the opening of Zwischenfalle at the Akademietheater and was riveted.  A parade of short sketches, each with its own point and integrity, some realistic, some dadaist, some sinister enough for Kafka, all amounting to a rather uspetting meditation on insecurity, belonging and all the other neuroses of normal life (as if I knew anything about normal life).  Too much to drink at the party afterwards, managed to avoid Sinister Soup Eating Man who is often at these events (I prefer him to Sinister Miniskirt Wearing Granny who was mercifully absent) talked a lot of bloody nonsense instead, missed the last tram and walked back for devilment all round the Schottenring and up Porzellangasse of evil memory, borne up on wings if not of song then of  irony and paranoia.  Now I suppose I'd better try and be a genius.  Sore head, sore feet, don't care. 

2nd February 2011, Reznicekgasse, Vienna

The surroundings are harmonious, the quiet absolute, there is no phone signal and WIFI is as absent as it was when this place was put up in the 1600s.  The perfect place to break the back of this damn opera.  The 9th Bezirk is an unglamorous quarter near the bizarre Hundertwasser-designed city incinerator, but I like it.  A friendly, characterful place and if you need a fix of Habsburg ponderousness it's 20 minutes away by tram, down Porzelangasse of evil memory.  I haven't felt the need though I expect Cafe Leopold Hawelka will be getting some of my money later in the week.

Being a contrary creature, I am completely out of sorts and jitterbugging exasperatedly in the midst of this idyll.  It's productive I suppose.  The trigger was a pleasant evening with a theatrical friend 2 nights ago.  In the midst of conversation about something else, she spoke eloquently about the current disease in German theatre of placing too high a value on statement and none on character.  A self-evident truth, but with a bang I realised that my stuckness with the trial is a libretto problem.  Solomon has been allowed to become a plot cypher not a man of flesh and blood, and it was messing with everything else.  So, back to the play and fix it.  That means making him a bipolar ditherer, a diversion that instantly creates the need for Kadayif to be a more dangerous pillock than he already was.  I'm really pleased with the resultant twists but I've had to throw away 20 minutes of music and start again.  Art really is a bugger sometimes.  Growl.

30th January 2011, On the train from Zurich to Vienna

It is a magic carpet that runs on time to the second,  The fare I paid for this transcontinental voyage between two expensive countries was less than a full-price commuter ticket to London on my local line; setting aside all the usual gripes about home counties trains, they just don't got the views.  Five hundred miles of snowy Christmas card, viewed from the comfort of a dining car run by garrulous Hungarians (is there any other sort?). I last boarded this service at Feldkirch, during preparations for The Secret Agent.  Preoccupied with similar issues to the ones that bothered me then, I waved to the station as we passed through.  James Joyce conceived the conclusion to Ulysses on the platform there, while en route to Trieste.  There should be a blue plaque but there isn't, and I suspect that if they tried to fix one on, it would slide off all the chrome and glass that has replaced the old station.  Would cantankerous old JJ care?  I doubt it and nor should he.

I am in an uncantankerous frame of mind after last night.  Zauberflöte in Luzern was a reassuring delight, simply because the regie was so good.  The same director will do Smells and as I watched the gentle mixture of humour, authentic feeling and real respect for the music that he brought to the Mozart, I felt the lassitude over finishing my own piece fall away.  There are so many opera directors who try to make themselves the star of the show, usually by laying a spurious commentary over a work that doesn't need it.  How nice to be in the hands of one who actually understands!

24th January 2011, Guildhall

A most diverting time with RB, exploring the resonance of hub caps, brake drums, obscure African things and random fire extinguishers, occasioning much hilarity but little in the way of a conclusion.  All this effort in pursuit of just the right sound for the moment in Stolen Smells where the market peoples' coins fall into the great bronze cauldron.  Why not try dropping a coin into a bronze cauldron?  Because when  I tried it, the result was an uncharismatic "plunk" that didn't sound at all like a coin falling into a great bronze cauldron.  Art is a bugger sometimes.

22nd January 2011, Henry Wood Hall, London

Art is a bugger sometimes, and on this occasion the irk comes from recording Christmas carols in January.  I suppose it's so that things can be got ready in time for the start of the next Yuletide shopping spree in May, but however sound the reasoning behind it may be, it feels like eating a whole turkey while lunch still lies heavy on the stomach.  I shouldn't grumble (except that I LIKE grumbling); the music comes under the heading of Mostly Harmless, is well written and amiably directed.  With a jolt I am forced to recognise that there are aspects of musical language that I share with John Rutter, but of course it's not the language that is significant, it's the intent.  It is hard to imagine him wanting to engage with all the grotesque horrors that inform and fascinate my art, and therein lies the real difference.  Tell that to a musicologist and they'd understand not a word, which leads me to wonder if I can compose a torture scene that some critic describes as Rutterish.  A worthy challenge, methinks.  And being in the throes of a murderless opera I find my bloodthirsty tendencies crying out vainly to be heard...Tarantino with tunes, now there's an aspiration!

8th January 2011

I've become rather sick of the Arrest scene.  It's a big structure - I think it'll come in at about 25 minutes which is longer than Malebolge and though the material is fine, the emotional progression isn't; it lurches too much and it needs to feel like a single span: not an architectural one because in the best Verdi tradition I'm not repeating, just going from one block to the next.  No, what is missing is a believable sequence of feeling from pastoral gentleness to outright lynch mob.  I've either got the temperature of something wrong or a segment is in the wrong order.  I usually find that going away for a day or two will give me the answer so it can fester on a shelf till next week while I attend to the gaoler.

He's a dramatic necessity: we need some stability at the halfway point and some low jollity rather than the somewhat grotesque, angry humour of the piece so far will come as a relief.  Very unusually, I found myself without an idea in my head so, seeking  for further amusement rather than inspiration, I took myself off to Tate Britain, which was open late.

Oh dear.  There was a bash associated with the Turner Prize in full swing with music turned up beyond the threshold of pain, rooms in darkness (why darkness in an art gallery?) and people talking drivel in loud voices: the mating cry of those who think art is a substitute for life.  I was tempted to wonder why people at modern art events always look outlandish, then caught a glimpse of my own reflection in a glass door and decided upon humility.  Such rooms as were open were too noisy for a man to pay undivided attention and I was soon in a thoroughly cantankerous mood.  I think I should add a new word to the language: moronity.  Growl.

The fourteen chickens in Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match lifted my mood a little.  I suspect that this tally may be a record for non poultry-specific paintings from the 18th century though I am no art historian.  As usual, I wanted to punch Colonel Mordaunt, dreadful vain man in his skin-tight white suit, and found the Indians more interesting than the stiff British.  (I think I need a dose of India soon though not till Stolen Smells is done with).  Still, fourteen cockerels, however entertainingly painted, was poor reward for the journey and I found my mind wandering back to arrest scenes and gaolers without themes, which was not the idea at all.  Kenneth Armitage is always pleasing, and I smiled at People in the Wind before once again failing to remember that the slab in the next room is called Diarchy and not, as was once suggested to me People Defined by their Protruberances.

Then good old Stanley Spencer provided the necessary vaut le voyage moment.  A lovely painting, The Wool Shop, was the perfect example of his belief that you should do what you're doing wholly and undistracted.  You can smell the wool and feel the texture of the houndstooth skirt that the woman wears over her stocky limbs.  The experience of the wool, completely so, but not a terribly interesting composition of the place.  It doesn't need to be, in fact it would be a distraction if it was.  This was the help I needed with the gaoler.  His scene is less a shift of mood than of texture, from urgency and hunger to contentment.  The point of the character is that for the first time we see a person who's going nowhere and doesn't see why he should.  His static quality is serene, for all that it is in a dungeon.  And the lesson from Stanley is that I need to think less about the notes here and more about the colours.  Well, orchestral colour is well within the comfort zone.  I sat in a corner, scrawled a dozen lines of doggerel for him (like my romantic lead Djemaal I am a very bad poet) and in a couple of hours in the Chapel of Unrest we had the proper mix of sergeant's mess primness and amiably complacent brutishness that the character needs.

At the moment The Wool Shop  hangs opposite the more famous The Artist and his Second Wife with its body-hatred, sexual abasement and celebrated joint of raw meat.  One could say more clever things (moronities?) about it than its neighbour, and to be fair it is as disturbing  as anything by Francis Bacon.  Probably the Turner Prize ranters would pay it more attention, but for me the purpose of what I do is to focus hearts and minds on the small potent detail, and it was the skeins of wool not the generalised angst of that foul second Spencer marriage that did the trick.

Tate's photo has none of the vibrancy of the original but at least you can see it here:


11th December 2010, Munich

I think we're going to be all right.  With the last proper rehearsal out of the way I can feel my stresses easing.   Lordy but this is a good orchestra and what a string sound!

No surprises for me about the sound of the piece; well there damn well shouldn't be.  However, gauging the impact of a work when it comes out of the confines of my head into a big space always involves a few changes.  That's where the German approach to rehearsal really helps: they evolve a reading of a new work in the most beautiful exploratory way and you can painlessly tweak an accelerando or discover that a section will take a revised tempo (the passacaglia works best when played a good deal slower than I expected).  It's all very different the British approach, which is a good-natured  Tiggerish pounce and all the notes nailed and ambiguities removed in no time flat.  In this situation, with what amounts to a full-blown symphony to rehearse, I prefer what happens here. As usual, the bits people liked best were the bits I don't like at all (that's just me being me).  I was worried that I might have miscalculated the brass balance but they've changed the seating and now it's just fine.

If I'm honest with myself I might marginally have under-imagined the potency of a bass section as good as this one.  I think one or two of them were irritated by the preponderance of Bartok pizzicati: it's not an effect I'm particularly fond of but I needed an inhuman sound and it works here.  Sorry guys: bloody composers. In the interests of balance I will omit the effect from my next seven pieces.  

The woodwind especially have found things in Malebolge that I didn't know were there: I think their first oboe may be the best player of the instrument that I've ever heard and what he does in the coda of the piece would make stones weep.   What a lucky devil I am: a great orchestra, nice people and all there is to complain of is the weather, which is vile - cold dark and wet snow.  Still, I have a warm apartment by the hall and it is quiet enough for The Stolen Smells to evolve in peace.  The Best Baker In Baghdad can make an idiot of himself while the blizzards blow outside.

We've done all we can do: what the public thinks of it is something nobody can predict and I won't be as relaxed on Monday night as I am now.  I hope it touches a few people; it's what I meant to write and a bit of me found its way in. 

And maybe, just maybe, I'll sleep tonight.

5th December 2010

You write opera in many dimensions.  There's the music of course, but also the physical space, allowing time to perform actions, seeking the necessary boldness of gesture for everything to be clear in the confusing environment that is an opera performace.  And there's the damn characters telling you what to do; that's the hard part.

I compose without a keyboard, much les a computer, pinning ideas to a yellow page with the point of  a Staedtler 2B pencil.  It's not good for your mental health but there's something agreeable about this monastic trade: it forces you to make silences in your head so that the music can come - though for some reason the easist place to do this is often a train.  All the crazy stimulations and distractions in the outside world that, for me, are part of the writing process, get pushed into corners to ferment into something  and the score is a sort of petri dish where the spores get cultivated.  Then the damn characters intrude.

I can't write for a character unless I can hear them, and I can't hear them unless I can see them in my mind's eye.  It doesn't  matter if subsequently the production proves me visually wrong: in The Secret Agent the idiot Stevie, whom I had imagined as a ganly tall adolescent turned out to be 5'3" and the oldest member of the cast but what was important was the image I held at the time of writing.  I have a drawing pinned on the wall in my studio that I did of Amina shouting at her father: she's small and slender, he's portly with a walrus moustache.  (we can't do much about portly given the number of references to his backside but I suppose the baker's daughter may be big as well).  It's not a good drawing but it helps.  Once the dramatis personae are lined up in my head, there's a honeymoon when they stand  in a line and don't bother me.  Then they start having opinions of their own and refusing to sing certain things, insisiting  on darker shades to their natures that must be accommodated by the poor old composer.  Its no wonder people go mad in this job.

And my resistance to them is low because a bit of me is fretting about Munich.  The first rehearsal of Malebolge is on Thursday evening and of course I worry.  All week, little messages from dear old Thomas have been appearing in my phone Good old boy, do you think the 2nd oboe G sharp in bar 337 should be tenuto?   Delightful, humbling and slightly alarming to realise that he'll know the score better than I do by the time he comes to conduct it.  Probably vastly better, because I finished it in May, and other figments of my imagination have overlaid the memory of the characterisations and anthropomorphic tunes, that, if you're me, fill even an abstract work. 

The anxiety isn't rational fear of having written a dud (though that is there) or  of bad reviews or of being booed: I've done all of those and though they aren't fun, I'm still here.  It's a more elemental thing: having a piece performed is a form of public nudity and I am sure that were I ever to do the deshabille for real, my thoughts would not be will I look good like this but rather  O my Ghod I'm about to be nude in public.

And  with that unappetising thought I return to my cake conspiracies and my dough designs and the realisation that  opera buffa is a dangerous enough trade even to take my mind off the perils of Dante's Hell.

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