Article on Composition for the BTS, 2018?
In 1972, the BBC held an Open Competition to write the theme tune for the forthcoming Winter Olympics. Age 5, I sent, in red felt pen, an attractive helter-skelter of hemidemisemiquavers, for no particular instrument, with the accidentals after the notes they referred to.
So the creative bug has always been there. This later exasperated my school music teachers every week, when they’d set a homework exercise – write an appropriate answering phrase, or harmonise a melody in a particular style – and I found it impossible not to do it my way, in my own style instead of fulfilling the demands of the exercise. In the end I did 2 lots of homework every week, one to satisfy my own expression, and one to (sometimes) please the teacher. I know you have to learn the rules and the basics, but I do also think that natural unrestraint can produce results that strict guidelines wouldn’t discover. One of the most popular and innovative chefs in Paris is self-taught.
By the time I got to college, I noticed that I’d already written more music than I could lift. At Guildhall, I was brought into line by Simon Wills, and suddenly found myself surrounded by brass players, and pieces and arrangements emerged fairly regularly. Perhaps of greatest interest to readers will be the Trombone Concerto, written in 1987 for my friend Ed Tarrant’s Final Recital. Rather trivially, the motif for the First Movement is his name, the notes E and D. Well, you’ve got to start somewhere!
The years after college were increasingly spent earning crusts as a trombone player, but I did manage to put together a few pieces over the years. One long hot summer, still as a fledging freelancer, I had nothing to do, and something had to give. One afternoon I suddenly wrote about 15 new tunes, in stage Musical style. They flowed so quickly and seemed so familiar that I was convinced I’d pinched the lot. But none of the people I showed them to over the next fortnight recognised any of them, so I knew they were all original, and turned them into 2 Suites called Bones on Broadway.
The trombone is such a versatile instrument. If it was capable of the speed of a violin or clarinet it would be the perfect instrument to write for. So we concentrate on its wonderful sound, its very tromboneness. Exploit the qualities of any instrument you’re writing for. Composition is a beautiful thing, and the more I learn about it by doing it, the further away its boundaries get. All musicians should try it!
There was another flurry of tune writing in 2005 when over the course of about 3 weeks, I wrote 72 on the tube. These are now (published as) three sets of 24 Sight-Reading Studies. I would say I’m fortunate when it comes to melody writing, though of course the initial inspiration almost certainly isn’t the finished product, and needs work on shape, balance, direction and so on. Nowadays I find the technical process of composition almost as interesting as the creation of the music itself. And sitting in the BBC Symphony every day, with its modern repertoire where there’s a huge range of new sounds, ideas and effects, there’s a lot to learn from. But I’m more traditional when it comes to my own stuff; I really believe a piece ought to be immediately accessible, with that old-fashioned ingredient, a tune. Or at the very least a hook, a catchy phrase or memorable section. I often feel that the right piece writes itself; it’s just up to me to discover it. There’s already a great piece out there, I just haven’t found out how it goes yet.
There are many more pieces in boxes that I can’t lift, and several projects on the go right now. And that’s only the trombone stuff…