It’s nearly two in the morning and the place is finally quiet. I can’t do early mornings like I reckon he does. Even a half-past nine start is difficult for me. So it has be this way round. I called Mum tonight and she was her wonderful, always supportive self, but I hear through the ‘you’ve done so well to get on this course’ stuff and imagine her at her desk working late with a pile of papers waiting to be considered for Chemistry Now, the journal she edits. I love her study and one day I shall have one myself, but with a piano and scores and recordings on floor to ceiling shelves . . . and poetry and art books. I have to have these he said when, as my tutorial came to a close, he apologised for not being able to lend me a book of poems he’d thought of. He had so many books and scores piled on the floor, his bed and on his table. He must have filled his car with them. And we talked about the necessity of reading and how words can form music. Pilar, she’s from Tel Haviv, was with me and I could tell she questioned this poetry business – he won’t meet with any of us on our own, all this fall out from the Michel Brewer business I suppose.
This idea that music is a poetic art seems exactly right to me. Nobody had ever pointed this out before. He said, ask yourself what books and scores would be on the shelves of a composer you love. Go on, choose a composer and imagine. Another fruitless exercise, whispered Pilar, who has been my shadow all week. I thought of Messiaen whose music has finally got to me – it was hearing that piece La Columbe. He asked Joanna MacGregor to play it for us. I was knocked sideways by this music, and what’s more it’s been there in my head ever since. I just wanted to get my hands on it. Those final two chords . . . So, thinking of Messiaen’s library I thought of the titles of his music that I’d come across. Field Guides to birds of course, lots of theology, Shakespeare (his father translated the Bard), the poetry and plays of the symbolists (I learnt this week that he’d been given the score of Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande for his twelfth birthday) . . . Yes, that library thing was a good exercise, a mind-expanding exercise. When I think of my books and the scores I own I’m ashamed . . . the last book I read? I tried to read something edifying on my Kindle on the train down, but gave up and read Will Self instead. I don’t know when I last read a score other than my own.
I discovered he was a poet. There’s an eBook collection mentioned on his website. Words for Music. Rather sweet to have a relative (wife / sister?) as a collaborator. I downloaded it from Amazon and thought her poems were very straight and to the point. No mystery or abstraction, just plain words that sounded well together. His poetry mind you was a little different. Softer, gentler like he is. In class he doesn’t say much, but if you question him on his own you inevitably get more than the answer you expect.
There was this poem he’d set for chamber choir. It reads like captions for a series of photographs. It’s about a landscape, a walk in a winter landscape, a kind of secular stations of the cross, and it seems so very intimate, specially the last stanza.
Having climbed over
The plantation wall
Your freckled face
Pale with the touch
Of cold fingers
In the damp silence
Listening to each other breathe
The mist returns
He’s living in one of the estate houses, the last one in a row of six. It’s empty but for one bedroom which he’s turned into a study. I suppose he uses the kitchen and there’s probably a bedroom where he keeps his cases and clothes. In his study there is just a bed, a large table with a portable drawing board, a chair, a radio/CD, his guitar and there’s a notice board. He got out a couple of folding chairs for Pilar and I and pulled them up to the table.
Pilar said later his table and notice board were like a map of himself. It contained all these things that speak about who he is, this composer who is not in the textbooks and you can’t buy on CD. He didn’t give us the 4-page CV we got from our previous tutor. There was his blue, spiral-bound notebook, with its daily chord, a bunch of letters, books of course, pens and pencils, sheets of graph and manuscript paper filled with writing and drawings and music in different inks. There was a CD of the Hindemith Viola Sonatas and a box set of George Benjamin’s latest opera and some miniature scores – mostly Bach. A small vase of flowers was perilously placed at a corner . . . and pinned to his notice board, a blue origami bird.
But it was the photographs that fascinated me, some in small frames, others on his notice board, the board resting on the table and against the wall. There were black and white photos of small children, a mix of boys and girls, colour shots of seascapes and landscapes, a curious group of what appeared to be marks in the sand. There was a tiny white-washed cottage, and several of the same young woman. She is quite compelling to look at. She wears glasses, has very curly hair and a nice figure. She looks quiet and gentle too. In one photo she’s standing on a pebbly beach in a dress and black footless tights – I have a feeling it’s Aldeburgh. There’s a portrait too, a very close-up. She’s wearing a blue scarf round her hair. She has freckles, so then I knew she was probably the person in the poem . . .
I’ve thought of Joel a little this week, usually when I finally get to bed. I shut my eyes and think of him kissing me after we’d been out to lunch before he left for Canada. We’d experimented a little, being intimate that is, but for me I’m not ready for all that just now; nice to be close to someone though, someone who struggles with being in a group as I do. I prefer the company of one, and for here Pilar will do, although she’s keen on the Norwegian, Jesper.
Today it was all about Pitch. To our surprise the session started with a really tough analysis of a duo by Elliott Carter, who taught here in the 1960s. He had brought all these sketches, from the Paul Sacher Archive, pages of them, all these rows and abstracts and workings out, then different attempts to write to the same section. You know, I’d never seen a composer’s workings out before. My teacher at uni had no time for what she called the value of process (what he calls poiesis). It was the finished piece that mattered, how you got there was irrelevant and entirely your business and no one else’s. So I had plenty of criticism but no help with process. It seems like this pre-composition, the preparing to compose is just so necessary, so important. Music is not, he said, radio in the head. You can’t just turn it on at will. You have to go out and find it, detect it, piece it together. It’s there, and you’ll know it when you find it.
So it’s really difficult now sitting here with the beginnings of a composition in front of me not to think about what was revealed today, and want to try it myself. And here was a composer who was willing to share what he did, what he knew others did, and was able to show us how it mattered. Those sheets on his desk – I realise now they were his pre-composition, part of the process, this building up of knowledge about the music you were going to write, only you had to find it first.
The analysis he put together of Carter’s Fantasy Duo was like nothing I’d experienced before because it was not sitting back and taking it, it was doing it. It became ours, and if you weren’t on your toes you’d look such a fool. Everything was done at breakneck speed. We had to sing all the material as it appeared on the board. He got us to pre-empt Carter’s own workings, speculate on how a passage might be formed. I realised that a piece could just go so many different ways, and Carter would, almost by a process of elimination choose one, stick to it, and then, as the process moved on, reject it! Then, the guys from the Composers Ensemble played it, and because we’d been so involved for nearly an hour in all this pre-composition, the experience of listening was like eating newly-baked bread. There was a taste to it.
After the break we had to make our own duos for flute and clarinet with a four note series derived from the divisions of a tritone. It wasn’t so much a theme but a series of pitch objects and we relentlessly brainstormed its possibilities. We did all the usual things, but it was when we started to look beyond inversion and transposition. There is all this stuff from mathematical and symbolic formulas that I could see at last how compelling such working out, such investigation could be . . . and we’re only dealing with pitch! I loved the story he told about Alexander Goehr and his landlady’s piano, all this insistence on the internalizing of things, on the power of patterns (and unpatterns), and the benefit and value of musical memory, which he reckoned so many of us had already denied by only using computer systems to compose.
Keep the pen moving on the page, he said; don’t let your thoughts come to a standstill. If there isn’t a note there may be a word or even an object, a sketch, but do something. The time for dreaming or contemplation is when you are walking, washing up, cleaning the house, gardening. Walk the garden, go look at the river, and let the mind play. But at your desk you should work, and work means writing even though what you do may end in the bin. You will have something to show for all that thought and invention, that intense listening and imagining.