The actual question Graham Fitkin asked me in our first CoDI mentor session was ‘what do you want to do with composition?’ -
which is a slightly different question to ‘why do you compose?’ - but that very question (essentially ‘why am I doing this?’) is a familiar one for me. As a musician it often goes through my head, especially in slow afternoon rehearsals in the orchestra, and now I was pondering it again. And this was not just because I’d just driven nearly 250 miles, a day after flying back from Beijing, to spend an afternoon with Graham Fitkin in his house in Cornwall. I have often asked myself why I compose music when I have a successful career as an orchestral player - which is, without a doubt, my main identity as a musician - when composers are often considered with suspicion by my colleagues (although, admittedly, not as much as conductors). I certainly don’t do it to make money! And, here’s another difficult question to answer: am I any good at it?
Presenting compositions to colleagues is a bit like laying your soul on the line. You are inviting judgement on something which is deeply personal and has involved a great deal of emotional effort to create. I admit that the wish not to upset my colleagues means I often shy away from taking risks or being too adventurous. And composing is a self-indulgent, often lonely pursuit – (mostly) unlike being in an orchestra. But if I didn’t believe that the music I write is enjoyable to play and enjoyable to listen to I wouldn’t do it. Whether I succeed in this is, of course, very subjective. If I’ve learnt anything after working for seven years in a professional orchestra that plays a lot of contemporary music, it’s that it is impossible to please everyone!
And so here I was at Graham Fitkin’s house about to invite judgement from a successful and established composer who I have admired for some time. I have performed Graham’s music, and even recorded his work ‘Vent’ with the clarinet quartet I used to play with. We had met before, but this was the first time that I was talking to him as a composer and not an instrumentalist. I’ve never actually had formal composition lessons, and I know there is great deal I can learn from others. This is why I applied for the CoDI mentor scheme in the first place. My wife is a music therapist, a profession where you are expected to have regular supervision. Performing musicians don’t often do this, certainly not after completing formal studies, but I’ve always found ‘supervision’ from fellow professional musicians useful – once I get over the usual paranoia of being ‘found out’ for the fraud I suspect I am...
So, perhaps it’s about time I take myself a bit more seriously as a composer? And so I find myself at a respected composer’s house after travelling for a half a day to get there with a piece called ‘A Wibbly Wobbly Waltz’. Oh well.
‘A Wibbly Wobbly Waltz’ is a piece for orchestra with audience participation involving parts for swanee whistle, siren, duck-call, cuckoo, party hooter and kazoo. It is my latest work for the BBC NOW Family Concerts (https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/evfxp6), for a performance in 24th March in Cardiff and 31st March in Llandudno. It epitomises the reason I compose because it is a piece of pure entertainment (carefully constructed, if I don't say so myself), involving a great deal of silliness, and with any luck will give some children an unforgettable (hopefully positive) experience of making silly noises in front of a live orchestra. Not exactly Graham’s usual genre, but he was able to give me a few very useful pointers on my orchestration - which I have now re-worked as a result.
I would like to reassure anyone who may still be reading this that I do write ‘serious’ music. I have a Tŷ Cerdd commission I’m currently working on, for Duo Bayanello (accordion and cello) for a performance in Cardiff on Feb 26th (https://www.stdavidshallcardiff.co.uk/whats-on/contemporary-nightmusic/duo-bayanello-trio-anima/). This is ‘serious’, and Graham and I will concentrate on this in our next session in early January.