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.

The Hands of Time

Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend the Patek Philippe exhibition of luxury watches at the Saatchi Gallery in London.  The security presence was intense, as this collection of beautiful timepieces (which were mostly made of gold or platinum and many encrusted with diamonds and jewels of all kinds) represents considerable value.  We were also given an insight into the workmanship involved in the making of all the intricate parts of these watches, as well as the time and skill required to do so.

I’m very glad to say that I have no photographs to share with you from this exhibition.  The clicking of smartphones was irritatingly continuous and I’m sorry to say that the smartphones often got a better view of the objects on display than did I.  The joy of experiencing  and appreciating things in the present, with one’s own eye, seems to have now lost out to the desire to “share” things via social media after the event.

Nonetheless, I feel very privileged to have visited the exhibition and to have seen these watches at close quarters.  It also rekindled a desire on my part to compose a piece based on the idea of the passing of time and how we are made acutely aware of this by the timepieces around us.

However, this idea will have to join my ever increasing wish list.  Some posts ago I said that I wanted to compose a piece about the Klimt painting “Adele Bloch-Bauer I”, which was the subject of the recent film, “Woman in Gold”.  I’m pleased to say that I’ve been working on this piece and will be ready to unveil this within the next week or so.

The “Office”

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!

Hero – Family of the Year

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.

Oranges and Lemons


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:

Control Freak?

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: