for two violins
for cello and piano
A 'Snappy Opera' for young performers
for solo piano
Four hands at one piano, 8 minutes duration
Variations on a Theme of Cole Porter
for solo piano
Trans-Atlantic Flight of Fancy
for NOW ensemble
A Fountain Sealed
An opera in two acts with a prologue
As Chants Would Have It…
for large orchestra
The Ascent of F6
Incidental music and songs for the play by Auden/Isherwood
When I tell people I am composer, I am often asked about the mechanics of producing a musical score. Do I still write with a pencil and paper? Do I have a publisher? How do you produce the graphics of a musical score? So I hope it will be of interest to include here some information about how music is actually published.
Firstly, I am self-published – although I engage a professional printer and binder to produce the actual scores, I typeset all my own music using desktop software called Sibelius. (There are lots of musical notation software programmes – for a more detailed discussion on the merits of Sibelius, its counterpart Finale, less well-known programmes like Lilypond, and the ‘new kid on the block’ Dorico, hang around a student bar near one of the music colleges or university music departments after a new music workshop. Discussions can get quite heated…!)
But personally speaking – and it is a very personal thing – I only typeset my music having written the large majority of it, if not every single detail, with pencil and paper. I suppose I am quite old-fashioned in this, but then again writing down a piece of music is quite old-fashioned anyway – certainly in the global musical context of 2020, when most music creators would consider a finished piece to be an audio track rather than a piece of paper. But zoom out a bit further in time and writing down music can be seen as a very modern thing to do, only really being widespread in the last few hundred years, and then only in the Western musical tradition, with music-making of all kinds and in many other cultures having flourished with very limited recourse to notation for thousands of years prior. It seems likely that our current emphasis on the aural, rather than printed, sharing of music is just a return to common practice, and gradually we shall look back on the period of c.1700 to 2000 as a bit of a historical anomaly when composers actually wrote things down.
Anyway, I digress… The point is I have to write music by hand, on paper – and not because I am used to it and can’t keep up with more modern ways. The use of a static physical space – the blank piece of paper – is central to my creation of the transient medium of music. When one writes music on paper there is a sense of manipulating physical shape and space, rather than sound. This sense is heightened by the physical touch of a pencil – although again not for the obvious reason, as I never rub anything out, and when I do scribble over something the aim is not to delete it permanently but rather indicate that I believe it does not work at this particular juncture or in reference to the particular issue at hand.
‘Sketch’ is an interesting word to use with reference to music, and it is what composers nearly always say with reference to the early stages of composition. But the term seems to me primarily linked to an artistic or visual activity. And that is absolutely how I sketch music – visually, spatially, using the paper as a canvas. The process is certainly much less to do with sounds and notes than it is to do with time and shape. Actually that is a massive understatement – when I sketch I almost never think about notes at all – its all gesture, shape, and making connections. I’m going to end up manifesting that through notes, but the decision of which notes those should be is almost never uppermost in mind during those initial deliberations.
So why can I not do this on a computer programme, like I am typing this straight onto a keyboard? Well, if you are writing text, you can write ‘A’ with a pencil, or you can type ‘A’ on a keyboard, and either way the shape ‘A’ will appear on your respective media. But the process of doing that in notes is not, for me, composing music, but rather transcribing it – and while no doubt there were many composers (Mozart the most infamous) who wrote down music already conceived in their heads, I don’t write my music like that. So as I play around with shapes and ideas, the physical action of going up and down on the stave, feeling the contour of the notes go up and down, the effort and tension of moving from one pitch to another – these are all engendered in the act of writing the pitches with your hand, whether in pitch (up and down) or in time (left and right).
My sketches range in format from A3 or occasionally larger sheets of paper to a notebook or musical memoranda on backs of envelopes, and have become deft at whooshing five parallel lines on any blank piece of paper which comes to hand. I veer with depressing frequency between trying to keep my sketches systemised, collated and dated, to trying to hide from my own consciousness in a chaotic mess of ideas. Either way, after a certain period of time – it can be days, months, or even years – one ends up with a huge number of pieces of paper which look something like this:
Nothing which could actually be defined as a piece, or even a section, or even (quite often) a sound. I often write words – about what I want the piece to be, or not be. But it is with these materials that I can begin to discover what the piece is, as an object in itself, a series of events and not just a jumble of ideas or intentions.
What I do not do at this stage, which I perhaps would have done a few years ago, was to try and make a ‘fair copy’ by hand. I now start putting it straight onto the computer, and then go back and forth between moulding it on screen and making additions on paper. At some point there is a sort of framework to the piece – although that can of course change, and usually does – but its always with a sense of ‘arrival’ when one prints off a more or less complete piece, however many details may still be missing. I can then start to annotate by hand on the printed score as well. That often looks a bit like this:
Gradually these ideas are sifted through and migrate to the printed score. And you’d think that would be the end of it, but sadly it isn’t – the really tricky part is how to make the score as clear as possible for the performer. The whole interface between composers and performers is, like the written score, a very strange thing, an anomaly in world music as a whole, and I still have an enormous amount to learn about how best to communicate my ideas via the printed score. And as all composers approach the creation of music differently, so do performers understand what is on the score in as many different ways. My touchstones are to be consistent, and when in doubt, subtract rather than add something.
Even when the piece has been performed I may touch up and change my mind for ever and a day until eventually I stop. Its seldom I consider a piece ‘finished’ – its just the way it is at that particular time, and one might change it some other time. The main reason I stop tinkering is when I make a revision which I think has improved something, only to realise I’ve gone back to an older version. And if I haven’t got a specific reason to do one thing or the other, you might as well accept they can be merit in more than one conclusion.
Then its off to the printers. If you go back to the top of this page you can click on individual works to browse completed scores – and order them if you wish – as well as learning more about the pieces and hearing performances of them.