I wonder where other people actually write their blog posts? My current “office” is my local Krispy Kreme doughnut cafe. There are worse places to spent your time – and I find the words flow incredibly well over a mocha and a doughnut!
Old fashioned as I am, I always write long-hand – and always in pencil – in a little notebook. Being a touch typist with a prowess of sixty words per minute this is quickly transferred to the laptop.
This friendly, local cafe has also become a place where I do creative work and think about the structure of new compositions. Novelists and writers of all kinds have long been known to write in cafes and restaurants, J.K. Rowling being a prime example in recent times. So if it’s good for novelists it must be good for composers too!
The film “Boyhood” will never so much as enter the top forty of my favourite films – it was too long by a least one third of its running time and the storyline lost its way and went severely off-piste of me around half way through the proceedings. The music choices, however, were clever – and one real musical gem was the song “Hero”, which propelled the band “Family of the Year” from relative obscurity to well-deserved fame.
The subject matter – the burden of responsibility faced by someone growing up and reaching maturity – was almost too perfect a fit for the film. The emotion expressed in the song is very direct and emotional.
But of course I’m listening with the ears of a composer who hears things in terms of construction and technique. Quite apart from the obvious beauty of the melodic line and its accompanying harmonic progressions, what, for me, makes the song so successful in building and maintaining tension and momentum is the interesting fact that it doesn’t use what we call a “perfect cadence” even once in the song until right at the end – after the singing has finished. Every verse ends on an imperfect cadence – or, in the language of the layman, sounds unfinished, as though wanting to move on rather than finish. I would love to know if this was intentional on the part of the song writer. I suspect not, and that it was pure serendipity, growing organically from the feelings expressed in the words. But I think that maybe this element of the song’s construction turned what might have been merely a nice song into a really great song.
We’ve all heard of the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”, but few of us know the true meaning behind the words. The first published record of the song dates back to 1744 but there is also reference to a square dance bearing the same name in a 1665 publication. The longer version of the rhyme conjures up an image of 16th and 17th century London where each district is synonymous with a particular trade. For instance, St Clement’s was associated with the nearby wharf where merchants landed citrus fruits – hence, oranges and lemons. Money lending is also at the heart of the rhyme – or, more pointedly, those who are indebted to others and are unable to pay (“When will you pay me say the bells of Old Bailey”). The rhyme ends with the chilling words: “And here comes a candle to light you to bed, And here comes a chopper to chop off your head”. The great tenor bell of St Sepulchre’s Church, near the Old Bailey, would toll at 9am on a Monday morning, signalling the start of any hangings due to take place that week.
I decided that I wanted to compose a piece about the little song which would incorporate the sounds of the bells of St Clement Danes, in London – but if I were to do so it would have to use an actual recording of the bells themselves, and this is exactly what you hear in the extract below.
The recording of the bells has been manipulated and transposed as desired and the bell sounds are interspersed with over-lapping chords which create poly-chordal harmonies. This over-lapping of chords and the resulting poly-chordal harmony has become an important feature of my newly acquired compositional style which is always still developing.
I hope you’ll enjoy the extract from “Lemons; St Clements”, below. If you’re on a laptop this music is best heard through either a good set of speakers or through headphones in order to really appreciate the intricacies of the sound:
In a recent post, entitled “Work In Progress”, I included a link to an extract of a recent piece of music I’ve been working on. In order to show just how different my new way of working is from my old style I’ve uploaded a track which starts with a short extract of a piece from the past for clarinet and string orchestra (composed in my old traditional style) which then cross-fades into a piece I’m working on at the moment. The result is a complete sea-change; a total paradigm shift. In the old music melody is a crucial part of what drives the music; the new music has an almost total absence of melody (in the true sense of the word). The old music uses traditional orchestral instruments; the new music is entirely electronic. There are similarities also. The old music is driven not only by melody but by harmony. Harmony, in its widest sense, is actually a common denominator between the two styles. It stands to reason, that because I am still the same person, with the same brain and the same way of thinking about structure and texture, there is going to be some continuity despite the obvious differences in musical vocabulary. Also, the way texture is used in the new music is informed by years of practice at orchestrating music for traditional instruments. I think the biggest difference is the extent to which one, as a composer, is in control of the final outcome. The electronic composer who writes music which is saved as a digital file for posterity is totally in control of what present and future listeners will hear. He is, in fact, a control freak. I will readily admit to that! The acoustic composer is at the mercy of the performer in terms of the performance outcome, for good or ill. Have a listen to this track and hear the difference in the two styles of composition: