Mar 14

What do I do next? Some reflections on my meetings with Mark Bowden.



Throughout my meetings with Mark Bowden, we have been discussing a wide variety of issues pertaining to being a composer. At the heart of this were the various projects that I would like to work on moving forward. I realised during a year where I took a break from education that to be a composer requires one to have projects to work on even when there are no deadlines to act as an ‘inspiration’. Therefore, I should push towards creating my own projects and not be afraid to search for funding and jump into any possibility that arises. My current state as a composer is that of being reactive: working on projects organised by others. While this is a great state to be in, I can’t plan for this always being the case. Therefore, I have been setting my sights towards a large-scale project in the future. During my first two meetings with Mark, we discussed how I might go about this project. This included discussing potential platforms for the project to be performed, funding bodies that I could apply to and who I could ask to perform. While this project is in its very early stages of planning, Ensemble X.y. has expressed an interest in performing.


Another topic that we discussed was what I might do following the completion of my Master’s degree. Currently, I am studying in Aarhus, Denmark and am considering staying there for another two years to pursue a postgraduate diploma. One huge benefit of this course is that it concludes with a large-scale project that I must organise alone. Another option would be to pursue a PhD. As a professor at Royal Holloway, Mark had some great insight around what I need to consider when looking for an institution. Originally, I was thinking of studying at a Conservatoire but I have reconsidered this following our discussions. We also discussed what options there are available as a composer in terms of employment prospects. While this may seem like a somewhat boring topic, it is very important in terms of how I can fund my future projects! This was one of the major reasons for reconsidering where I may study for a PhD: Whether one studies at a university or conservatoire at PhD is much less important compared to Bachelor and Master level education and is much more dependent on which supervisor you would like to work with. Furthermore, universities give provisions for allowing students to teach which are seen as a great boon over a conservatoire student. Working as a lecturer would be one of my ideal positions in the future so going for a university course would likely be more valuable. Another avenue that is attractive to me is to work within event planning and curation for contemporary music festivals. As part of my course in Aarhus, we have just had a four-day contemporary music festival; Panorama festival which is run entirely by students. While the festival is essentially collaborative, I had the role of being the first point of call for everyone and was therefore incredibly busy. Despite being a very stressful week with lots of problems that had to be sorted out on the fly, the festival was a great success! All the concerts went well and without any serious technical failures. I am still riding the high of pulling it off and enjoyed the experience immensely and would therefore be very happy to find myself within a curation and organisation role.


For our last meeting, I was able to sit in on a rehearsal of Mark’s music theatre piece The Mare’s Tale prior to a performance in Cardiff at the end of February. It is always interesting to sit in on a rehearsal, both to see how the performers response to performing contemporary music and also to see how the composer interacts with the musicians. As The Mare’s Tale is propelled forwards by an actor’s dialogue, this makes the rehearsal somewhat different. The actor, Eric Roberts recounts a narrative inspired by artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ memories of seeing a Mari Lwyd procession. In this regard, the music must follow the narrative set up by the text. The title is a reference to Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, a work that also has narration. As my own idea for a project will have some theatrical elements, it was great to see a different approach to how to combine the two mediums. I look forward to my final meeting later this month!

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  • 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: · 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:
  • My latest mentoring session with Tansy Davies during her visit to Cardiff for Composition Wales has proved extremely enlightening, and taught me a great deal, about myself! We talked about the importance of knowing what my work is, being my own brand and understanding my ‘product’. Through examining existing, recent and current pieces we came to some surprising conclusions: It turns out I’m something of a traditionalist (at least at heart). My work is acoustic, diatonic and has a tendency towards conventional instrumental combinations. I have an ear for popular culture, reflected in some of my textural and formal languages and I find myself, stylistically, at a sort of cross-roads of minimalism and modernism. Developmental cyclic forms demonstrate this, often paired with an economy of musical means and an ear open to more exotic performing techniques. Some of this, I think, stems from my previous work as an oboist as much as my current work as a composer and perhaps, on some level, a performer's mentality is still more of a part of me than I know or realise. Learning what my music is feels, in a way, like a weight has been lifted and my homework from Davies (to write an essay about my music), although something I felt uncomfortable starting, seemed, in the end, to come quite naturally.
  • My recent mentoring session with Tansy Davies during her visit to Cardiff for Composition Wales has given me a great deal to think about. We had met once previously, when BBC NOW workshopped and performed my Concerto for Orchestra, Concentrations, during their Composition Wales project last year. As we looked at what I have written since and talked we touched upon an apparent disconnect (of sorts) between my music and my character. Talking about mining the personal, being your brand and making my work a truer reflection of me has given me a great deal to think about in terms of trying to fuse my academic background, my (somewhat) lad-about-town character and the popular culture I like. Thinking on this I anticipate a change in direction, facilitated (in part) by my most recent piece, a trio for sax, bass and piano. Written for first performance in the gin lounge at St David’s Hall, this less formal location and more modern instrumental line-up seems to chime with Davies’ advice; especially as the piece’s textures were inspired by those heard in the work of acid jazz group Red Snapper. I now find myself re-considering the work's title, to introduce my personality into it. Having written quite a lot of small scale (and especially solo) works Davies thinks I might need to turn my sights to a larger project, something to get my teeth into and I anticipate a great deal more thinking and re-evaluating of my working methods going forward.

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