A familiar phrase in many households, but is it people with clashing sets of musical experiences? Is it that music coming from another room or through the joists of a building is annoyingly incomplete? Are our musical experiences fixed at a certain point in time, never to develop further? Does it take time to accept and appreciate different musical ideas? Do we become set in our listening habits and new ideas are too difficult to understand?
One of the most constructive aspects of working at the doctorate is being able to spend time examining my portfolio of work, created during the past thirty-five years, and contemplate the changes and developments that I have assumed as well as other influences that have amended my approaches to composition. This delving and questioning of my own methods has exposed an assortment of techniques, approaches, schemes and systems that I have used and has generated a set of questions that could quantify an individual’s compositional process. What is the deadline? What did I want? What did I think the audience wanted? What (if anything) was I comparing the work with? What was the commission for? What did I believe? Why was I composing? Was I satisfied with the final work? Did I find the work exciting? Where too next? Many of the questions above may be N/A (not applicable) to many composers or to some compositions but as a point of reference they are a starting point for future reflection. When the composition is in progress, often these questions are normally answered in seconds, relying on instinct and experience to endorse the musical output as appropriate to the brief or original thought.
As an example, the next paragraphs are a reflection on the composition I was producing between 1979 and 1983, what was being written compared with what I was listening to and experiencing. In 1979 I completed my Leeds College of Music course and embarked on a career as a musician. I was competent at reading music, some call this sight-reading but in many ways it is recognising shapes and phrases and having a rehearsed muscle memory that performs the notes so the brain can concentrate on the interpretation and relationships within the ensemble.
I had composed over thirty works for a variety of ensembles, from soloist with accompaniment to brass band and jazz orchestra. My listening tastes were contemporary British jazz (Johnny Dankworth, Evan Parker, John Surman, Alan Skidmore and Colosseum), Joni Mitchell (“Hejira”, “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” and “Mingus”), Duke Ellington (“Sacred Concerts”), Earth Wind and Fire (“All’N All” and “I Am”), Gil Evans (“Where Flamingos Fly”), Egberto Gismonti (“Folk Songs” and “Frevo”) and the Pat Metheny Group (“American Garage” and “Offramp”).
When I analysed my compositions from the period, the obvious influences were Malcolm Arnold, the popular xylophone solo repertoire, traditional British folk melodies, Gordon Jacobs and Arthur Sullivan. All these influences had been experienced years before in school concerts, brass bands and amateur operatic society performances and the listening of the time (above) had not yet influenced the composition. It is now evident that I needed time for my brain to assimilate, refine and then fashion these influences into my own work alongside the dictates of jobs and projects. The compositions from the mid to late 1980s have elements from all the composers above, combined in my individual way but also very much influenced by my perceptions of what my audience(s) wanted. At the time I was composing and arranging for a diverse public; Palm Court, contemporary jazz, ska and sixth-form college audiences.
[Examples on SoundCloud http://soundcloud.com/music-54-4/ from this period, “Scarborough Fair” arrangement commissioned by Max Jaffa and an extract from “Humberside Suite” for a promotional video.]
When I hear the annoying sounds travelling through the joists, I try and get to the source and give it my full attention. There may be some sounds in the music that will inspire the next composition, or inspire some music in ten years time, and I would hate to miss it.