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

One Memorable Day

I think most people would agree that however glamorous one’s life may be (or may not be), one day really does roll into the next for the most part.  But then there are those days which one will remember forever.  I had such a day yesterday.  Given my current fascination with the work of Carl Fabergé it was a rare privilege to be invited by Geoffrey Munn (of the BBC Antiques Roadshow) to see items of Fabergé he has at the London shop, Wartski.  Wartski has been famous over the decades, not only for supplying beautiful things to the rich and famous, but also for being the main dealer in England for important and rare items of Fabergé.

Naturally, I was shown quite a number of beautiful objects of vertu and every item I saw was exquisite in its own way  –  but there were highlights! One was a large aquamarine and diamond brooch (pictured below), an engagement present from Nicholas II to Princess Alix of Hesse, and known to have been taken from the Empress just before she and her family were shot on July 17th, 1918.  I held it in my hands as Geoffrey recounted the brooch’s illustrious heritage and its place in history.  Another was one of the treasures Geoffrey showed me which was not by Fabergé  –  a splendid tiara, set with a number of large sapphires and numerous brilliant diamonds (pictured below).  This was a gift from Prince Albert to Queen Victoria.  Queen Victoria is even pictured wearing this very tiara (or coronet, as she referred to it) in a painting by Henry Richard Graves of 1874.  I held it carefully in my hands for as long as five minutes, spellbound by the knowledge that I was touching a very special piece of history as well as an extremely beautiful object.

Geoffrey was kind and generous  –  and gave me his undivided attention for a whole hour.  Days like this are never forgotten.  My visit to Wartski has also re-doubled my passion for Fabergé and I am now working full steam ahead on the next movement of my Fabergé Suite, dedicated to the Diamond Trellis Egg.

Diamond and Aquamarine Brooch

Queen Victoria Sapphire Coronet

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.

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!

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/04/working-best-at-coffee-shops/237372/