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  • Writer's pictureJoe Martin

Reflections on composers workshops

Originally posted on the 22nd of May 2021


In this week's post I thought I would write about the experiences I have had workshopping two of my compositions with two different ensembles this month, and the takeaways I have from them.

The opportunity to write for the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) had been presented at the start of my university course in October last year, and so I began drawing together ideas for a piece. The ensemble available to write for was a wind quintet, consisting of flute (optionally doubling piccolo and/or alto flute), oboe (optionally doubling cor anglais), Bb clarinet (optionally doubling bass clarinet), horn and bassoon (optionally doubling contrabassoon). I wanted to grasp this opportunity to work with such a prestigious ensemble and, given the current climate with the pandemic, to be in a room making live music again.

Part of my compositional process when it comes to generating ideas is to always make notes on whatever could kickstart a possible piece, whether that be a book I'm reading, an article I saw online, a painting or a poem. Building up this bank of ideas is incredibly useful in getting the actual writing process started, and this is what helped me with the piece I ended up writing for the BCMG. I had recently come across the Maya Angelou poem 'Caged Bird' - its heartfelt and heart-breaking description of freedom, and the subtextual implications of what freedom allows, is what moved me to write a piece inspired by it.

The ‘free bird’, daring to ‘claim the sky’, represents the importance of liberty in aiming for and achieving one’s goals, whilst the ‘caged bird’, with clipped wings and tied feet, is left to stand ‘on the grave of dreams’. The following comes from the programme note of the piece:

Purity of sound and harmony was the main focus of this work. The piece grew from the exploration of sonorities throughout the ensemble, rather than from a pre-planned concept of structure or thematic development. Much like the story of a person’s life, the piece grows from the early material and moves onwards, but the sounds explored in the early stages are crucial in developing the music and ultimately taking it to where it ends.

Despite the rather unusual circumstances of the workshop itself (socially-distanced, masks, and being unable to have many observers in the room), the session was incredibly productive and valuable. Perhaps the relative simplicity of the composition itself allowed for a smooth workshop, as there were no complicated or convoluted notations used in the score requiring lengthy discussion and interpretation, allowing us to focus on getting the piece into shape in a relatively short space of time.

The other piece I workshopped earlier this month was a piano trio, written for the critically acclaimed Amatis Trio, titled Chaos Theory. This piece was submitted in December 2020 as the first of four pieces making up my postgraduate portfolio. The main idea behind this piece was to harness my chaotic thoughts and feelings I was experiencing during the nation-wide lockdown late last year, and develop them into sounds consisting of underlying patterns, connected materials and repetition. The opening and closing sections of the piece are strongly influenced by minimalism and impressionism, though with plenty of Henry Cowell-esque gestures in the piano contrasting with the more thematic material in the strings. The extensive use of the inside of the piano meant the writing experience was more like that of a quartet than a trio, allowing for a certain creative freedom when it came to manifesting my musical ideas.

I included a number of extended/contemporary techniques in this piece, and for many of these there are no standard forms of notation, which meant that I had plenty of choices to make as to which would be most effective in conveying my intentions to the performers. I used square noteheads to indicate scratch tones in the strings, 'X' inside noteheads to indicate air tones, and slanted rectangular noteheads in the piano showed where strings of the piano should be slapped using the palm of the hand in the approximate pitch indicated.

Overall, the composition of this piece was a learning curve in terms of writing creatively for common instruments in unorthodox ways, as I normally gravitate towards writing in a heavily thematic/melodic manner.

As for the workshop, despite being held virtually over a Zoom call, it was hugely rewarding to, firstly, work with such fantastic and dedicated musicians, and, secondly, to hear my experimental ideas interpreted by others. The performance of this piece was not as straight-forward as that of my BCMG piece, as this was far more ambitious, but I learnt a great deal about the possibilities and capabilities of the violin and cello (neither of which I play), and the opinions of a professional pianist on what is possible and what can be problematic when switching between playing on the keyboard and playing inside the piano itself.

This piece has acted almost as a gateway for me to continue writing more ambitiously and creatively for 'conventional' instruments, as there is so much that can be explored and tried out. The possibilities are endless.

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