Advent Calendar: 1

This month I have masses to do. Not merely lots, but masses in an almost geological sense. Apart from the usual Christmas things, I also have to:

  • Write a 5-minute piece for orchestra
  • Write an 8-10-minute piece for large (and odd) ensemble based on Anselm Adams photographs
  • Write… something for my Art & Music class in response to an exhibition I haven’t yet seen
  • Prepare an experimental piece for forces of my choosing (I’m leaning towards improvising pianist and tape)
  • Start thinking about a piece for organ
  • Keep working on the string quartet
  • Dash off a quick Christmas carol for my tutorial next week, and
  • Work out exactly what I want to do for my personal project so I can have the proposal ready to hand in in January.

Most of this stuff isn’t actually due in till January, but once term starts again I’ll once again find I have barely any time to compose, so the back of all these pieces needs to be broken over Christmas. So I’m starting A Project. I’m going to work and blog every day (probably not Christmas Day though!) in December. I’m hoping it’ll keep me on track, help me to sort out what is likely to be a massive seaweedy clump of ideas, and provide a record of what goes on in an intense block of work like this. It’ll be like Creative Pact, only this isn’t going to be any side project: this is the focus of my life for the next four weeks… I’m calling it my Advent Calendar 🙂

And so, to begin: today I actually haven’t composed a note! Now, there’s a great start! Heh. Instead I’ve spent the entire day at Queen Mary, London University in Mile End at the London Chamber Orchestra’s ‘Inspired by Digital’ study day. I signed up mostly because I was curious to see what they’d have to show us and because there’s a project you can put in a proposal for but only if you went to the study day. Because I don’t have enough to do, obviously.

It’s been a great day – really interesting and useful. I’m not sure whether I’ll put in a proposal or not – I suspect that rests rather solidly on how far I get with all the Christmas projects, but it’s been really inspirational for the other pieces I have on the go right now and has presented a few new ideas to explore in those.

I’ll just talk about a few of the bits I felt I could use, otherwise I’ll be babbling for hours and will miss the start of The Mikado, which would be very sad. The day was structured so that the morning was presentations on specific technologies which are up for grabs to be used in the proposals: B-Keeper adaptive backing track/click track software, MuSA.RT real-time key detection software (available for free download on the Mac App Store) and the Magnetic Resonator Piano. In the afternoon we heard presentations from four composers about their own work with tech and their ideas for how these three technologies might be used in proposals.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Eduardo Miranda both talked about compiling arrays of chords to use in their compositions and Cheryl’s method of laying out various chords in all their possible inversions and transpositions was especially appealing to me. I’m going to try this out for the quartet – Stephen wants me to have a plan of harmonic progression through the piece and I think a matrix like this could be extremely helpful in moving from one area to another and in discovering new chords I might be able to use that I otherwise might not think of, my harmonic thinking being as vague as it is.

Lisa Bielawa, a US composer and singer, gave an absolutely fascinating presentation on her work and I was particularly taken with what she had to say about long glissandi and about using programming logic in live pieces (well, she didn’t put it like that, she used the term ‘human circuitry’ but it’s essentially programming logic from what I could see). I think these could be helpful in finding a way into the orchestral piece.

Finally (although it was talked about first) Elaine Chew talked about the relative aural distance of intervals in her MuSA.RT presentation, which I think is a concept worth exploring. She was taking about how a minor 2nd, in spite of being physically close on the keyboard, sounds like the notes are quite far apart, while a perfect 5th or octave sounds close together, in spite of the physical distance between them. It made me wonder whether there’s something in this that could help in my eternal quest to find more space in my music.

And the Magnetic Resonator Piano: wow! What an amazing instrument! Basically it’s a piano that can sustain notes, create dynamic envelopes on a single note, do vibrato and pitch-bending… on a standard acoustic piano! The sound is somewhere between a piano and an organ and absolutely delicious. It’s digitally manipulated but all the sound is acoustic – no loudspeakers involved. Go and look it up! This one really got me thinking about what I might want to do with this organ piece I’m starting for Errollyn in a way that thinking about organ repertoire hasn’t. Fabulous!

So that’s the summary. Now I’m off for a spot of G&S!