My mentoring sessions with Graham Fitkin have now come to an end. The feedback I’ve had, I firmly believe, will result in me writing better music in the future. Graham did not criticise my overall style (phew!), and he was complimentary about my ability to notate and orchestrate (phew!). This I was pleased about, because poor, unclear and unhelpful notation for performing musicians is a real bugbear of mine. But neither did he say: ‘Wow that’s great, this is the most amazing new music I’ve ever heard!’ Or even: ‘I wish I’d thought of that’. Well, let’s be honest, I didn’t expect him to and wouldn’t have believed him if he did. If you go for a lesson and you’re told everything is brilliant you may feel you’ve wasted your time. I wanted to be criticised, I wanted to be pushed and I wanted to be challenged. And I was.
So what have the results been for me?
· I now think even more analytically about what I’m writing (i.e. what note should there be here? Do I need to thin out the texture here? Could I make this note longer or shorter?)
· I now think even more carefully about the overall structure of the music.
· My Tŷ Cerdd commission ‘(A Touch of) Djinn’ would have been very different without Graham’s input. After my initial sessions with him I re-worked the beginning, a bit of the middle and the very end. You can hear the finished product here: https://soundcloud.com/tycerdd/lenny-sayers-a-touch-of-djinn?fbclid=IwAR2cc6GmQZhNgDDUxor6QKsgkkzskVrBzVC8wtXnOFrpYvXY7ga0JwHg-Mo
· I am even more firmly convinced that I still have a lot to learn.
For the final session just before Easter I was set the task of writing a solo piece for bass clarinet. This I did, only just finishing it two days before my visit. I called the piece ‘solo’ because I couldn’t think of a better title! It was an interesting task – I was writing for an instrument I was very familiar with, and I wrote it at the bass clarinet rather than the piano. I wanted to write something that was non-virtuosic and quite slow with long phrases. Why? Because this is quite difficult on the bass clarinet for breathing and control (like those marvellous but exhausting solos in Wagner) and I knew I’d be able to use the piece as a study with my students. Similarly, I find writing slow music with long phrases more challenging, so it was good thing for me to do. I aimed to keep my ideas simple and concise, and I think I achieved this, but the piece still needs some tweaking.
On my visit to Graham’s house (in deepest darkest Cornwall, a 4.5 hour journey by car from Cardiff) I took my bass clarinet along and performed the piece for him. This was interesting because it felt like a lesson, but if I played a wrong note it wasn’t my bass clarinet playing that was being focused on. When I played one section of the piece for a second time he told me he’d changed his mind about it – he wasn’t sure it worked on the first hearing. I then admitted that that was because I hadn’t played it right the first-time round…
One of my aims of the piece was to utilise the high registers of the bass clarinet more than is usual for the instrument. I hope that Graham found this useful as he told me that he wouldn’t have been confident writing such high notes - the highest note I wrote is a concert Bb two octaves above middle C – well into the red zone on Sibelius, but perfectly playable. I wouldn’t necessarily write it in an ensemble if you want it to be bang on in tune, however! The bass clarinet has a 4-octave range, and few composers use it fully (except people like Mark Anthony Turnage. To be fair Graham also writes very well for the bass clarinet!)
The next time I see Graham will be when the BBC National Orchestra of Wales perform his work ‘Metal’ in the Vale of Glamorgan Festival (Saturday May 18th). I really admire his music, and I now feel that I have a better understanding of how he composes. I hope one day to be able to write something myself that I feel is as good as one of his pieces.
If you’re interested, you can hear Graham Fitkin’s excellent writing for the bass clarinet on Spotify. This is a recording of his work ‘Vent’ for 2 clarinets and 2 bass clarinets from the album ‘Knotwork’. On it I am playing the 1st bass clarinet part: https://open.spotify.com/track/62FMKpZdOAB2kgh3WEcqAF?si=DARlZx19QwaIb8kuiobOsw