Thursday 7th March 2013. Penarth, South Wales

A student at the Guildhall, a gifted composer and player, asked how do you manage to combine performing and composing?  If I'm doing gigs my imagination seizes up.  I don't think my answer was much use to him; something about the two activities using different bits of the brain and the one providing a rest for the other.  I'd honestly never thought about it before and though my cup of over-strong PG tips is a vital part of the switch from instrument to pencil, I am such an inveterate potterer and fiddler with things that I'm not sure I can sustain an image of myself as a man of tidily separated hemispheres. 

If I lock myself away in the Chapel of Unrest and devote myself to composition, the work that I do will never be as good as things scribbled in bandrooms or in hotels on tour. Of course, sitting and listening in a rehearsal will teach you more about orchestration than any amount of seminars, and there is no doubt that when you conduct, solving practical problems in other people's work improves you as a composer, but I can feel myself constructing a specious case as I type; the truth is messier.  The other day I heard a  radio talk on concentration by Steven Connor, in which he contested its value on the grounds that all thought is unconscious and we do our best thinking when we leave the mind to get on with it.  He talked about sustaining cloudy vagueness until the very last moment.  Of course: my diary is full of turning points in pieces, reached when I should have been doing something else. I even composed a section of Die Brück am Tay on a plane to Vienna and I think the music I wrote and the solo in Bolero that evening both benefitted from the distraction.  This tells us very little new about the creative process but I think there's a lesson for instrumentalists that is often overlooked: the role of vagueness in performance.  A large part of a conservatoire teacher's time is spent in overcoming student inhibition and fright, and in our deterministic age the urge to combat these by seeking certainties is strong.  Nah; take your mind off it and accept that you know what to do.  Recently someone showed me an American website for pale perfectionists called The Bulletproof Musician. Guys, there aren't any bullets and you don't need your kevlar waistcoat, just a bit of vagueness and a lot of no worry. How else you going to understand them flaky composer dudes?

Saturday 2nd March 2013 St Albans

Monday's Ubu concert will be a cracker. The new Steve Martland piece is physically tough on everyone - even me - but the sheer energy of the thing helps us get through. So many people write in the minimalist idiom, but very few have the guts to use it in the raw, relentless style that suits it best. One of the players has created a Facebook page for the event. If you're anywhere nearby, don't miss it!


Saturday 23rd February 2013 St Albans

I've written very little about composing these last six months.  It's been going on all the time but is an increasingly private affair.  There has been such a lot of exposure in the last two years and all of it in big places that my view of my own voice has become much clearer.  I like making a lot of noise and take a certain innocent delight in the racket that a piece like Malebolge causes; but rereading the score of The Secret Agent  for the first time in a years brought me up short with the realisation that I am at my best if what I say is gentle.  That piece is unfailingly so, and the sadism that informs every bar is the stronger for it. 

The Doppelkonzert has given me nightmares because the contradictory impulses of my nature have fought so hard over it.  My head knows perfectly well how to write for the cello but my instincts lie with the violin and i think I want to write a fiddle concerto.  It is a bit like preparing a beautiful meal with the most perfect Italian ingredients fresh from market and knowing that you have to include a couple of Bratwurst.  They are actually the best and most gloriously seasoned Bratwurst that were ever made, but whereas I understand pasta and such things with my vital organs, the Bratwurst is a thing that I merely respect and enjoy; I don't want to sleep with it.  The first part of the piece is just violin.  In fact it starts with a violin cadenza and is very thinly scored; shards of colour from the orchestra and a deep 12/8 throbbing chord that is a ritornello; starting as quite an uncomfortable dissonance it gradually transforms into something like a kiss, very gentle.  The cello then gets about five minutes to itself, a long soaring melody, more...what is the word...concrete than the violin music and as it dies away the violin gets going on the cadenza again and eventually they are going to dance together.  It is all quite operatic really and getting those two solo instruments to cooperate is quite a task for an old bear.  But it will finish, soon.  Otherwise I shall go quietly mad, announce that I am Napoleon and have done with it
Monday 11th February 2013 St Albans

I am glad to see that a pattern has broken: I was it Italy when each of the last three popes died (and in Rome for two of them) so it is a bit of a relief that I was merely fulminating at my unruly garden in England when Ratzinger decided he'd had enough.  When his predecessor left us I was in Abruzzi,  dining with friends.  Our hostess came out of the kitchen, announced e morto il Papa and the sudden grief among the Italians present was visceral and disconcerting, as though a family member had died.  The party ended then and there, and as I tottered home I remember thinking that though Italy is something of a spiritual home, it remains a very foreign country and becomes more so the longer I spend there.

I was supposed to be working on The Secret Agent but was blocked, quite horribly stuck on the character of Chief Inspector Heat.  Conrad's character is a stolid, decent fellow and stolid decent fellows are the very devil to bring to life on stage.  I'd decided he was a baritone but he wouldn't sing to me, I couldn't see how he walked and my temper, never good when I'm composing, was edging towards the foul.

The papal death led to all sorts of public events being cancelled.  But it’s an ill wind... we were invited to the doctor’s house the following night  and after dinner a young Spanish tenor, suddenly rendered unemployed by the cancellations, sang a couple of Tosti songs.  He was very good and it set me thinking.  Maybe if Heat were a sinister tenor, the character would start to work for me.  This Spaniard was improbably short and for all the nobility of his voice he retained the small man’s strutting manner.  I saw the walk!  Instead of the lugubrious, heavy copper that the libretto implied - very much Conrad’s Heat -  what about an edge-of-hysteria martinet?  For some reason this made me think of trilling, of flurries.  What an economical motif a simple trill would make!

And so I rewrote Heat's music and character and the thing just flew - with plenty of trills every time the copper appeared.  In a rather nice postscript we managed to cast our Spanish tenor in the role.

I like very few things about this job, but the sheer messiness of it is one of them.

Thursday 7th February 2013 Laugharne, Carmarthenshire

The cheap voice chip on my satnav has trouble distinguishing between the pronunciation of "road" and "route" and turns simple things like Park Lane into something out of a theological tract in Hungarian.  It didn't like Rhydargeau one little bit, balked at Cwmfelln and once it hit Bwlchycorn it just gave up and sulked. 

I had a damascene moment on a gig the other day and realised that I don't have a single decent slide on any of my vast collection of instruments. Hence the journey. You see, people who can really fix a trombone slide are rare and know that though they build their house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to their door.  The best practitioner of this dark art (which is like straightening bicycle wheels only more obsessive) hides on a hillside in west Wales. The sight of my trusty old hooter produced much sucking of teeth and head scratching; decades trotting round the planet have taken their toll, as has close daily contact with the clumsiest man on Earth.  Faced with a 5 hour wait while sense was made of the ancient pipes, I set off even further west, to a village that I last visited in adolescence.

Laugharne, in common with every other town in this part of the world, has an ancient fortress and looking at it I noticed that I was feeling more than usually like an ancient mariner.  There being no wedding guests in evidence to distract me, I set off along the shore.  I do not miss the faux-poetic wisp of a youth that was my teenage self when Iast I was here.  I think he may have been rather tiresome, but my stiff old pins might envy the ease with which he managed the terrain all those years ago.  He was never to grow old; the me of 2013 is more akin to old Grandpa Thomas, pausing like a prophet on Llansteffan bridge on his way to be buried.

The first sign of my destination was an old green garage, where Dylan Thomas sat and wrote and escaped domesticity, looking out where Afon Taf flows to the sea, past the village called St Ishmael, patron saint of white whales and people with a bee in their bonnet about something.  I think my writing space is nicer but I must concede that his has the better view.

The boathouse where he and Caitlin lived and fought while he was writing Under Milk Wood is a little further along the coast.  Last time I was here it was derelict and windowless.  Now, alas, a sign boasts that it has become a tourist attraction complete with tea shoppe, themed bookshop and audio visual presentations.  No doubt the spectre of Health and Safety lurks unseen in corners.  Still, having come so far I ventured in.  It cost me four quid and I offered to pay twice since I got in for free in 1972.  Nice people told me this was unnecessary and my chilly old bones and still chillier soul were much mollified by a good cup of tea.  Visually, the interior is interesting, well organised and sensitively done but why the bloody hell is it necessary for a tape loop of Dylan reading to blare through the place all the time?  I was grateful that it wasn't Emlyn Williams but why in this of all places must silence be banished?   Why must we cling to the notion that being adjacent to something is the same thing as experiencing it?  Read the poems already, don't have them shouted at you while you're trying to read something else.  If you think poetry works this way, you should keep away from it.  I doubt the poor old house is singing in its chains like the sea and though I think I have grown out of Mr Thomas the poet, I hoped his shade had remained in a bar in Manhattan and not ventured back to this racket. I fled back past the unpronounceable villages to the hillside, to find that the presiding genius had transformed my old workhorse into a new instrument. It appears I can still play it without the muck and dents, but persuading the satnav to find our way home was a far greater artistic challenge.

Wednesday 6th February 2013 Cardiff

WNO's production of Lulu really is rather good.  The staging seems motivated entirely by the desire to tell the story with clarity and the visual flow matches the musical currents with some skill.  The carnival elements seem natural and the Ripper scene is genuinely shocking, making me think of Francis Bacon and his meathooks.  Why is this sort of intelligent staging so rare? Why are so few directors afraid of the direct statement and obsessed with silly spotty commentary on works that don't need it? I'm willing to bet it's because they don't really understand the music.  I have no idea how many can really, really read a score but I'd be wiling to bet it's nothing like 100%.  It's not a difficult skill to acquire and if a person isn't interested enough in opera to learn to do it, I wonder what motivates them to climb the greasy pole to director-dom?

Saturday 12th January 2013  St Albans

Well, it was time to do it.  Ubu has a following and our last couple of projects have been fun rather than terrifying: that's not what we're about so...I took a deep breath and programmed Le Marteau Sans Maitre.  It is a score that has to be committed to memory even though it would be idiocy actually to conduct the thing without a score.

I tend to like art (and people) that are unambiguous in their desires.  Though working on the first performances of Prometeo with Nono all those years ago was unremittingly bloody, there was a certain pleasure to be derived from the utter lack of compromise in the work.  Marteau bears not a shard of resemblance to Nono's damp chilly universe yet it is to  Prometeo that my mind strays when it wants to shy away from Bourreaux of Solitude and suchlike.  It is the utter conviction that informs both works that makes the connection for me.  This is an art too deep to be any sort response to the rantings of that little pustule Adorno and his Treens and I can only marvel at the courage required to make such a thing.  We live in a fearful age that is a mite too interested in composition as career rather than vocation and though Uncle Pierre was never a slouch in furthering his position in the world, we don't seem to have produced anybody with his capacity for saying "yer tis now get on with it".  Irrespective of style, that seems to me to be the noblest sentiment for an artist.

Wednesday 2nd January 2013 Cardiff

Let me put my aversion to Swissness to one side and concentrate on the music.  Why does Ernest Bloch bring me out in such a rash?  Certainly no complaint can be made about the splendid performance the stuff is receiving and the stuff is well enough if fussily constructed.  The best I can come up with is that I feel as if the composer is telling me how to feel at any given point, and that is a bombastic thing to do and a damned impertinence.  I might want to feel nothing at all, or meditate on polenta as I listen.

Monday 3rd December 2012 Lisbon

A desire named streetcar.  A creaking shack on wheels, the no 28 tram careens down narrow streets and savage gradients, making its fast walking pace feel like the edge of the sound barrier.  If a carelessly parked car bars its way, the motorman dismounts and courteously remonstrates.  I privately wonder if they have a quota of wing mirrors that they are allowed to knock off before they are asked to cool their buckaroo ardour.  I realise that the Lisbon tram is a sort of inanimate Sacred Cow: it makes cross noises and doesn't care whom it inconveniences. It is all vaguely reminiscent of San Francisco, but without the selfconscious quaintness or those maddening bells.  In California I hang off the side of the streetcars; in Lisbon such recklessness would cost me a leg.  Since relations with my damaged left pin are at an all-time low I am not sure how much this would upset me - but the blood would spoil the cheerful yellow paint on this latterday Baba Yaga's hut and so I will restrain myself and stay on my bench.

Sunday 2nd December 2013.  Lisbon

Tirato co la fune, diritto 'nfatto,
'ncielo se va.
Se va comm' 'à lu viento a l'intrasatto, guè, saglie sà!
Jamme, jamme 'ncoppa, jamme jà,
funiculì, funiculà!

D is happy as he interferes with a Funiculì, Funiculà. J and I are indulgent and find a bar.  There is no stopping an Italian with a bee in his bonnet.

Strolling round town trying not to annoy my quietly deteriorating leg, I stumble upon a minor tourist attraction advertised as the Sexiest WC on Earth.  I do not venture in.  Why is it that whenever real inanity is required, people lapse into English?

Wonderful, troubling Jose Saramago has a Fundacion here and so he should.  The building is, in some indefinable way, troubling as well and seems to express his mixture of the lyrical and menacing very well.

They take ceramic decoration very seriously here.  The mosaic pavements look as if they should be slippy but they aren't.  At their best I find ceramics moving and they are probably the one art form that I could consider collecting, but am the first to admit that they are not at their best in figurative or narrative art. Here is St Rodney, (I surmise) whose glazed portrait suggests that he might be the patron saint of foot sniffers.  Also known for his generosity in giving weapons to donkey-abusers.

I am struck by the magnificently odiferous cheeses offered for sale and by the fish skins hanging from shop ceilings all ready to go into the stock. Me, I'll have the pasta. But before dinner there is the small matter of the Weihnachts-Oratorium.  Of that I have nothing to say except that it was the best performance of my favourite work by the best composer.  Douglas Adams was right: if you know how to listen to Bach, you don't need a psychiatrist and I fancy I am marginally less potty as I leave the Gulbenkian hall.
Saturday 1st December 2012.  Lisbon

I suspect that Havana looked like this before it fell down. The air is every bit as full of music as it is in Cuba but unlike there it is X-Factor influenced monotonous dross.  There used to be an old woman by the harbour who sang and accompanied herself on the triangle but she must be long gone.   My spirits were lifted by a small knot of people who seemed actually to be enjoying themselves as they played, so much so that I didn't notice when someone picked my pocket.  Last time that happened (on the Paris metro) I boxed the little dip's ears for him: it gave me closure even though he did manage to break my grip and get away. This was just limp and vexing. Growl.

I am staying in a rather eccentric and down at heel part of town; I was barely out of the Metro when propositioned by a ladyboy (do I really look the type?). But I have a slight fondness for lively seedy places so I am content.


Home     earlier blogs   later blogs    back