Reunited in Music

I have a rather nice nineteenth century carriage clock which sits on my mantelpiece and I often wonder about the history of its ownership; for whom was it originally made, through whose hands has it passed  –  and if only it could speak, what stories it would tell one of the past; the trials and tribulations of its owners and of the world at large.

The possessions of the Romanov Imperial family, including many fine objects made by Carl Fabergé, have also had an interesting history.  Since the chaos of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the seizure and sale of these items by the Bolsheviks in subsequent years, some items which were intended to be kept as a set became separated.  This was certainly the case with the Diamond Trellis Egg and the hidden “surprise” which was originally contained within it.

An announcement was made in October of last year that a small automaton elephant, originally made as the surprise inside the Diamoned Trellis Egg (made by Carl Fabergé and commissioned by Tsar Alexander III in 1892), had been discovered at Buckingham Palace by Caroline de Guitaut among items of the Royal Collection Trust, of which she is curator.  An excellent example of the lapidary work of Carl Fabergé, this little elephant is indeed a treasure.  The elephant has a small gold tower on its back which is decorated with rose-cut diamonds and the sides of the elephant are covered in precious stones.  The superlative workmanship employed in the making of this little toy certainly pointed to it being the work of Carl Fabergé and the maker’s label confirmed this to be the case.  To Caroline’s delight the mechanism of the toy still worked  – they wound the key and the elephant started to walk and nod it’s head for the first time in many decades.  You can see a video of the moving elephant at the bottom of this  news report.

The tiny elephant, by all accounts, was acquired by King George V in 1935.  The Diamond Trellis Egg itself, originally a gift for the Empress Maria Feodorovna, was looted during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and eventually found its way to America where its now remains on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science at the behest of its owners, Artie and Dorothy McFerrin.  It would be fascinating to know the exact details of the egg’s journey from Imperial ownership to its present day location.  Like countless objects of beauty and vertu it has its own story to tell which reflects the turmoil of the world around us and the varying fortunes of its owners.

How wonderful it would be if these two treasures could be reunited once again, if only for a short time, and put on display for the benefit of all those who love the work of Carl Fabergé.  The diamond Trellis Egg has been separated from its surprise for anything up to a hundred years.  But I have attempted to reunite them here in music in the next movement of my little Fabergé Suite.  In this piece of music I have attempted to reflect the strange, other-worldliness of the semi-translucent pale green jadeite used to make the egg as well as the gently shimmering rose-cut diamonds with which it is lined.

Listen out also for the toy elephant which is wound and brought to life as the track progresses!  As always, listen with headphones if you are using a laptop, since the sound is far superior.

Painstaking Work: Carl Fabergé, Mark Rothko and Me

To say that it’s a while since I last updated my blog is a drastic understatement.  I last piped up during the gloomy month of November.  It’s now February.  It’s still gloomy and it’s still raining.  But as to the reason for my apparent absence  –  I could talk of Christmas, of trips to Abu Dhabi, of the pressures of work at the inception of a new term  –  but all these would pale into insignificance as compared to the main issue at hand, which is far more interesting and far more artistic in nature.

Since resolving, almost exactly one year ago, to leave behind my old, score based, traditional, tonal and essentially Romantic style of composition for a new, fresh sound, realised exclusively using a digital/electronic format, I have found that the compositional process is inordinately slower and more time consuming than ever before.  Before, if you had asked me to complete a movement for full orchestra in the space of 4 weeks, I would have met the deadline with relative ease.  The tried and tested ways of working would have been immediately employed and put to work.

I think this familiarity with one’s own method of working, together with the structure of sonata form, which imposed a kind of helpful discipline upon composers of the Classical period, aided the proliferation of copious works in a short space of time by these composers.  The removal of these structures, strictures and “familiar friends” (as an artist friend of mine calls them) leaves the composer somewhat at sea  –  possibly with only a map and compass instead of radar.  There is almost total freedom nowadays  –  except one now has to chart one’s own course!

The other reason for my failure to produce work quickly is explained by the procedures which I now employ in my compositional work.  The music is essentially comprised of the layering of sound; the overlapping of chords and sounds which cross-fade in and out of one another, producing new and interesting harmonies as more layers are added.  These layers themselves are somewhat complicated and intricate and are comprised of further layers within them.  Needless to say, the work is slow and complex.

In the world of art, I liken this process to the painstaking work undertaken at the workshops of Carl Fabergé, where his legendary enamelling work necessitated the layering of several coats of enamel  –  a delicate and highly skilled process which few other makers mastered.  This created the beautiful iridescent effect for which Carl Fabergé’s enamelling became famous.

Another example is the so called “colour field paintings” of Mark Rothko in which he used several original techniques which he kept secret even from his own assistants but which UltraViolet analysis now reveals not only the various layers of the paintings but also the techniques and materials used.  This is a good example of art which appears simplistic to the untrained eye, yet belies an inner complexity and mastery of process.

Despite the pressures of daily life as well as the time consuming processes involved in my current compositional work, I have now managed to complete another short movement in my series of works inpsired by the Imperial Fabergé eggs  –  this time dedicated to the Diamond Trellis Egg.

I am currently adding the final touches to this and will let you hear it very soon.

Pictured below:  White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) by Mark Rothko; Green enamel cigarette case by Carl Fabergé

The Tsar, Fabergé and the Russian Rebel Spirit


A little while ago I said that I wanted to compose a suite of pieces inspired by some of my favourite Fabergé eggs. I have now completed the first movement of this suite which is based on the Imperial Coronation Egg  –  arguably the most famous of these eggs, commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and made by Fabergé in 1897.

The Imperial Coronation Egg is one of the most sumptuous and unapologetically luxurious eggs made by Fabergé. The egg itself is made of gold and decorated with translucent lime-yellow enamel on a guilloché field of starbursts. The decoration is in reference to the cloth-of-gold robe worn by the Tsarina at her coronation. The egg is trellised with bands of greenish gold laurel leaves mounted at each intersection by a gold imperial double-headed eagle enamelled in opaque black and set with a rose diamond in its chest. This pattern is also drawn from the coronation robe worn by the empress. A large portrait diamond is set in the top of the egg within a cluster of smaller brilliant diamonds.

As we all know, the Fabergé eggs always contained an enchanting surprise within. The “surprise” in this case is an exact replica of the imperial coach which carried the Tsarina Alexandra to her coronation at Uspensky Cathedral. Made in gold, platinum and strawberry guilloché, it is crafted in intricate detail.

I am predominantly inspired by the visual qualities of this most beautiful work of art. The coalescence of a superlative quality of workmanship together with the use of the most expensive and luxurious materials of gold, platinum and diamonds make this, for me, both a feast for the visual sense as well as an inspiration in terms of musical texture and sound. I have attempted to replicate in sound and musical texture the resplendence of this egg and the surprise contained within it. I have enjoyed experimenting with sounds which are new to me with such evocative names as “Orbital Pad” and “Glacier Point”, often dovetailing the sounds as one would do the flutes and clarinets orchestrally.  I have also experimented here, as I did in my last composition, “Gold I”, with a sort of micro-canon produced by layering a Sibelius audio file with a midi file placed into Cubase. The Sibelius audio file begins playback a split second later than the midi file, creating a sort of micro-canon which creates a texture I like somewhat. Central to the composition is the quotation of fragments of a melody from music that most is recognisably Russian – the opening bars of “Pictures at an Exhibition”, by Mussorgsky.

Although predominantly inspired by the visual beauty of this egg, one cannot cast totally from one’s mind the historical and political context in which these eggs were made and gifted. It is no accident that these eggs were made of the most expensive materials known to man and that so much expense was lavished in their creation. The Fabergé eggs have, for many people I think, come to symbolise the obscene wealth of the Romanovs and of the prevailing social inequality of the time.  The opening music in this composition alludes to an impression in my mind of the coronation procession itself. In my mind’s eye I see the coronation coach and the crowds lining the streets (listen out for the sound of horses hooves, used incidentally as much for their rhythmic properties as their representational value). The music is suggestive of imperial power but also has an undercurrent of discontent and a hint of the eventual downfall of the tsar. Who could have foreseen that not twenty years after this coronation procession revolution would break out on the streets of Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) and Tsar Nicholas II would be forced to abdicate his throne? Further still that the entire Romanov family would be executed a year later, in 1918?

The Russian Revolution of 1917 is an example of what historians in this field refer to as a “bunt”. A Russian bunt is basically defined as social pressure not relived by peaceful actions, finally triggering a self-destructive revolution. It is said that Tsar Nicholas II missed opportunities to prevent his downfall because he allowed the tsarina to blind his judgement and paralyse his will. One timely gesture from the tsar might have saved Russia and changed the course of history. The time came when even the tsarina herself saw “the writing on the wall”, so to speak” – but it was too late. As Rodzianko, president of the Duma, said himself at the time, “It is too late to talk concessions; it is time to abdicate.”

The Russian revolution of 1917 has been the only opportunity in modern times for this kind of “bunt” – but one wonders about the eventual fate of President Putin.  There is a history in Russia of high approval ratings for leaders until suddenly, without much warning, the leader is quickly brought down by revolution. There is a theory that the reason Putin has avoided this fate thus far is because he himself, in his actions on the world stage, has taken on the persona of the Russian rebel, with such moves as the annexation of the Crimea, thus subduing the rebel spirit of the people which might otherwise express itself in more self-destructive ways.

All these thoughts feed into this first movement of my Fabergé Suite, thus making it as much an expression of thought about the present as of the past. But I think it is also important to say that, despite the association the Fabergé eggs have with the extreme wealth of the Romanov dynasty and the inequality of the time, I think we can allow ourselves, in 2015, to enjoy their aesthetic beauty in abstract from their historical context.

My next challenge is the composition of the final movement (the inner movement will be composed last) inspired by the Trans-Siberian Railway Egg, and I am working on this now.

Back to School

It’s eight o’ clock on one of those chilly September mornings reminiscent of that “back to school” feeling of bygone days.  I’m sitting, once again, in my Krispy Kreme “office” watching the grammar school boys pass on their way to school, glad in the knowledge that I’m not among them (I hated school!).

Time seems to have accelerated during these final weeks of holiday from my piano teaching, and whilst I’ve enjoyed my time away from the pressures of a rigorous timetable, progress on the compositional work has been somewhat slow.  Ironically, it’s only now that I’m back to work that my creativity seems to have been jump-started into action.  Incredibly, I’ve also now started work on my annual accounts  –  a task which is never embarked upon without considerable procrastination.

There seems to be a perverse “law of time” which says that “the more you do, the more you do”, or conversely, “the more time you have available the less you achieve”.  I have noted this “law of time” in action over years of teaching adults to play the piano.  The students who achieve the most by far are the CEOs, the surgeons, the business men and women.  Those for whom time is in generous supply rarely progress as far as they themselves would like.

With such an industrious start to the autumn term I can be sure of making good progress with my compositional work in this latter part of the year.  I have begun the composition of a small suite of pieces directly inspired by the beautifully ornate Fabergé Imperial  Easter eggs.  I have chosen five of my favourite eggs and a short movement will be composed for each.

The first of these is possibly the most famous  –  the Imperial Coronation Egg.  I am currently in the midst of completing this first movement and I shall reveal the results of this quite soon.

Taking Stock (and advice from Grayson Perry)

It has now been six months since I embarked on this journey from “Romanticism” to relative “experimentalism” in my compositional life  –  and almost six months since I began writing this blog which documents my thoughts and feelings about the process.  The time has come to take stock of my progress in order to determine my course for the next part of this ongoing journey.

I have to say that it has been many years since I have enjoyed composing quite so much.  The decision to throw caution to the wind and let my metaphorical “hair” down has been artistically liberating and has opened up a world of possibilities to me.

But what, in a technical sense, have been the hallmarks of this new, ever developing style since the beginning of the year?  In bullet points below I have identified some characteristic elements involved in the creative process as well as the audible outcome:

  • Digital music which is not intended to be performed by live musicians but is produced by the composer in his studio and presented as the finished article   –  working much like an artist.
  • The use of digital/computer based sounds not intended to replicate traditional orchestral instruments.
  • Music which is inspired by art to a great extent.
  • Fragments of music or musical motifs scored in Sibelius software which are then saved as sound files and edited in Cubase software, manipulated in various ways and used to create a collage of musical sound.
  • Poly-chordal harmony as well as the layering of chords and the use of cross-fades between chords which also create new and interesting harmonies.
  • The use of micro-canon and delay effects.
  • The use of cluster chords
  • Some use of layered fourths and quartal harmony.

One noteworthy aspect of the bullet point list is the recurrence of words such as “harmony” and “chords”.  It seems that even if I wanted to discard everything from my previous compositional incarnation, this just isn’t possible  –  you take yourself with you on the journey!  Somehow one simply cannot shake off one’s essential nature  –  in my case a certain lyricism and English Romanticism.

I don’t see this as a failure, however.  Nor do I feel that a composer working in the 21st century need deploy completely atonal techniques in order to produce something new and to contribute to artistic progress.  I think it is true to say that when Schoenberg invented his twelve-tone system of composition he opened the floodgates of musical possibility.  Serious music (for want of a better expression) in the 20th century was dominated by his discovery; in the 21st century we are liberated by his contribution but not ruled by it.

I have spoken many times in this blog about my love of art, and one of my favourites at the moment in the world of art is the very colourful Grayson Perry.  He seems, to me, to be a wonderful example of someone who manages to combine perfectly the old and the new  –   the established media of pottery and embroidery used in new, zany ways, and used to say something very individual.  Grayson Perry is quoted to have said: “…as an artist, my job is to be as much “me” as possible”.  Good advice for creative people working in any era!  Grayson Perry appears to have achieved this in life as well as in art, his work being as much an exploration of his inner life as an expression of it.

It seems to me that we need, as composers (or artists of any kind), to be as much ourselves as possible.  My job now is to continue on my journey of self discovery and to express myself without censorship.  It occurs to me that this is true of us all, whether artists or not.  It also seems to me that the extent to which society allows us to be fully ourselves as well as the extent to which we allow our own true natures to shine through in our work and in our lives is a measure of our collective and personal success.  To be fully ourselves and to really know the purpose of our existence as individuals is surely our highest accomplishment  –  nothing can be more important than that.

My Golden Phase

The Lady In Gold

For the benefit of those who have not followed this blog in its entirety, the main purpose of these weekly (and sometimes twice weekly) scribblings of mine is to document the artistic and intellectual journey I make as I discover a new, more avant-garde voice for myself as a composer.  Until recently my music could only be described as traditional with a capital “T”.  Melody was of paramount importance and the underlying harmonic progressions would not have raised the eyebrows of a conservatoire Professor of Harmony in the early part of the twentieth century!  It’s not that I want to run down my own music; much less, criticise those who choose to continue to compose in a traditional, tonal framework.  My current feeling however, is that I want to branch out and discover new ways of working for myself  –  and new ways of expressing what I have to say.

One piece of music I have been working on recently is my musical response to the famous Klimt painting, “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (pictured above), thought to be the culmination and crowning glory of his so-called “Golden Phase”.  This is now complete and an extract of the piece can be heard below.

The piece, entitled “Gold I” (implying that a second piece may follow), is an entirely digital score  –  the medium with which I am currently choosing to work.  I have to emphasise at this point (as I have already done so) that I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in reproducing standard orchestral sounds which could be done better by a live orchestra.  I am only interested in producing sounds which orchestral instruments cannot.

When I compose these days, I see myself very much as an artist, painting a canvas of sound.  Like any artist I choose my palate of colours before I begin work and then I begin to paint a canvas of colour for the senses  –  the only difference being that I am catering mainly for the auditory sense (though I hope that my work will provide fodder for the visual sense also  –  if only in the “mind’s eye”).

The starting point for this composition was the digital sound of a long-held C major chord which I borrowed  –  okay, stole  –  from a piece for string orchestra by a famous composer and played by a famous orchestra.  The sound of this chord is now so highly disguised that I would defy anyone to identify either the piece or the composer!  I need not have disclosed this theft at all.  There is no artistic theft involved since the chord is simply an ordinary C major chord.  But I am disclosing this fact as a sort of artistic statement about the current state of the music industry where digital data can be copied billions of times  –  and every copy is as good as the original!

The sound of this C major chord was then thickened by adding various synthesised sounds (not string sounds, I hasten to add).  Some of these synthesised sounds were then altered in pitch very slightly.  The effect of this is to create a much bigger, much more luxurious sound.  The seventies pop group, ABBA, were well-known for using this device, as well a number of others.  A fast moving, pitched percussive motif is added to complete the sound of this chord and the result is a richly textured, intricately complicated “wash” of background colour which is intended to represent the shimmering gold leaf we see before us in this painting.

A series of five chords is super-imposed on this, and new, interesting harmonies are created in the cross-fades which I use between the various chords.  The painting is highly symbolic and I try to reproduce in sound some of the visual symbols represented in the painting.

You can listen to an extract of “Gold I”, here.  This music is best heard through a good set of speakers, or by wearing headphones, in order to experience the intricacies of the sound.

Programmatic Music and Extra-Musical Stimuli

A little while ago I said that I wanted to compose a piece directly inspired by the famous Klimt painting, “Adele Bloch-Bauer I”, re-named “The Lady in Gold” by the Nazis who stole it, and the subject matter of the recent film “Woman in Gold”.

I’ve already mentioned that I have a particular interest in art and that art inspires a lot of my work nowadays.  It is particularly important for me, however, that if I say I am writing a piece directly inspired by a work of art, that my own work tries to directly convey what I see visually  –  not just what I feel emotionally.  I feel that too often nowadays composers will attempt to attach their work to some subject or other in order to gain the interest of a particular audience (or even more likely, to attract a commission).  The result, however, is often highly subjective at best  –  and at worst displays a disconnect which mystifies the audience.

Of course, the result of such a project is always going to be subjective to some degree  –  but if, hand on heart, I can say that I have attempted to stay close to my chosen inspiration, in form as well as feeling, then I can be happy that I have done myself (and hopefully, the artist too) justice.

Musical compositions need not have any extra-musical stimuli or programmatic qualities at all, of course  –  music can be “music for music’s sake”  –  but increasingly this does not seem to be the case.  One only has to look at the list of new music composed for the 2015 BBC Proms to see that composers are taking  extra-musical inspiration from a wide variety of sources.  The old standard forms of the sonata and the symphony as used by the great masters of the Classical era and then developed by the composers of the Romantic era, have, to all intents and purposes, run their course and have been discarded by modern day composers (though not exclusively).  These have not been replaced with new standard forms for the present day and this possibly explains the need of composers to attach their work to some extra-musical stimulus or other in order to develop form.

Given my genuine interest in art, as well as my particular liking for modern art, I feel that my work is much more closely inspired by, and much more intrinsically related to my chosen subject matter than might otherwise be the case. My composition, inspired by Klimt’s “Adele Bloch-Bauer I”, is now complete, and I will post an extract of this piece later in the week.