the cmrc blog
I composed ‘Rough Cut’ for solo violin in response to the CMRC national call for works, but it probably wouldn’t have been written at all had I not suffered an ice-related cycling accident (broken shoulder, cracked collarbone, two broken fingers…) in early February, which resulted in several weeks laid up at home and an unexpected free time bonus.
Before the accident I had recently completed the ensemble piece ‘Strike’ and was considering several possibilities for the next project, but because I’m combining study with full-time work I tend to plan my composing over longer periods – typically four or five months – which generally rules out composing new pieces especially for competitions or opportunities such as this. But thanks to the aforementioned ‘cold snap’ I suddenly had an opportunity to produce something to submit. A violin solo wasn’t the piece I thought I would be writing at that time and it certainly wasn’t the outcome of rigorous pre-compositional planning, instead it drew upon two practices I sometimes revisit, namely ‘self plagiarism’- borrowing material from my own earlier pieces – and structural transfer, in which the architecture of another art form (in this case, film) has a direct input into my work.
Should I feel guilty about copying from myself? I remembered Martin Suckling presenting a composers’ seminar in which he exposed similar practice in his own music as if confessing a dark secret, and can still recall studying Stockhausen as an undergraduate (In Richard Orton’s Trans practical project) and considering how important it was for Stockhausen – and others in the heady days of high modernism – to re-invent themselves afresh with each new piece. But there were also composers who frequently quoted themselves even then: Birtwistle provides the most clearly evident examples, such as the identical harp chords which conclude both ‘Melancholia I’ and ‘Silbury Air’, and the extended repetition of the note E in several pieces in his ‘Orpheus’ phase. A little later Wolfgang Rihm has plundered existing work; his piano solo ‘Nachtstudie’ draws extensively on the piano part of his concerto ‘Sphere’ which is in turn a re-composition of material from his orchestral ‘Ins Offene…’ For me, the stolen object is usually a starting point, something to trigger the creative process and that clearly demonstrates that there isn’t just one correct way of developing an idea: a musical idea usually has multiple potentials which can’t always be fully expoited within a single piece. So ‘Rough Cut’ takes the obsessive repeating motif from the beginning of ‘Strike’, transfers it from piccolo to violin and then leads it in a completely different direction. Sometimes this new line encounters other moments from ‘Strike’ but always in fresh contexts and building new relationships between the various musical components.
When I talk about film in relation to my own practice I always try to make it clear that I’m not especially interested in film music or in providing music which is descriptive or programmatic. Where my preoccupation lies is in exploring how far it is possible to transfer the techniques and processes of film making into musical terms and to apply them to composition. This might include different types of transition, for example, or adopting ‘visual’ approaches to managing pace, perspective or timing. In film editing a rough cut is the second stage of the process, following on from the initial assembly of scenes but before the final cut is produced. At this stage the basic narrative may be evident but the transitions between scenes will not be smooth, the film may appear unfinished and possibly even a little crude at times. In making the rough cut the editor will play around with the material, moving blocks into different arrangements to find the best sequences and will experiment with timings and durations of scenes to find suitable proportions, to control the pace, create or release tension and maybe start to build up sections of montage to suggest simultaneous streams of activity. This process closely mirrors my approach to building musical structures during composition and the sudden, unprepared transitions, interruptions and bumpy ‘gear changes’ in ‘Rough Cut’ are integral.
I’ve long been impressed by the energy and commitment that Peter Sheppard-Skaerved brings to his playing – and in fact to everything he undertakes! The workshop was a model of good practice with participating composers sitting alongside Peter to explain and develop understanding as he played. Each of his scores was fully marked up and it was clear from his detailed knowledge of all the pieces that this was not a project he has taken lightly. So I was delighted when he chose to include ‘Rough Cut’ in his evening concert at the NCEM and am grateful that Peter is keen to collaborate and to develop the piece further – we’ve already begun to discuss how it could be programmed around other solo repertoire and to consider refinements of some aspects of technique and notation. I can’t wait to hear him play it again!