Thursday 2 November 2006

I wish...

When listening to contemporary music it is not infrequent for me to come across pieces that I admire or that I like; the two are not incompatible and some piece I admire AND like. But there is another, much smaller group of pieces; these are the ones which I wish that I could have written.

Most pieces that I like and admire, such as Thomas Ades's opera The Tempest are so far from my compositional obsessions (and technical ability) that not only could I never imagine composing them, but I can find no reason to. For me, they don't scratch the compositional itch, that piece of the unconscious where ideas for pieces are created. It is hard to describe this process. Of course, it is different in all people; for some, composition is a very technical process. But for me, a piece begins with an idea or a shape; I have often thought of composition as being like archeology, where you are excavating, trying to discover a piece's natural and essential form. When it works you create something that feels right, as if it had always existed and just needed to be discovered. I once saw a film which included a scene of someone scraping away at a bank of sand, to gradually discover a statue. For me, discovering a new piece of music is like this. Sometimes the process is complex, and the first go does not work.

Just occasionally I come across a piece of contemporary music which appeals to this part of me, which scratches this particular itch. Not only do I like and admire it, but it feels right; I wish I'd written it. There is a wonderful motet by James MacMillan called Tremunt videntes angeli which fits into this category. I first heard it on a disc by the choir of St. Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh and was bowled over. I heard it live at the BBC Singers concert in St. Giles Cripplegate as part of the BBC James MacMillan weekend. I was bowled over again. It's not a piece I could reasonably expect to have written but Oh Boy, do I wish I had.

I was similarly affected this summer at the Edington Festival when the Nave Choir sang 3 movements from James Macmillan's Mass. As we overheard the rehearsals for this, over a span of a few days, we came to know the music well before the performance; at the service, its effect was overwhelming. Now I have finally bought the CD of the work recorded by Westminster Cathedral Choir, for whom it was written. Listening on disc, I am similarly affected by this wonderful work. What I want to do next is hear it live in Westminster Cathedral.

I imagine that part of the explanation for the effect of music on me is MacMillan's use of plainchant and his own sense of the sacred. But there is an indefinable something more. Something which, when you try to put it into words sounds a bit ridiculous.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:17 pm

    I know what you mean about hearing a piece of music and wishing that you had written it. As an aspiring composer, I have had that feeling. And as I reflect on it further, that feeling is also accompanied by (or perhaps tempered by?) the knowledge that this piece, this musical statement with which I resonate so deeply, HAS in fact already been written. And in that there is for me, perhaps strangely, some sense of resolve and release. The piece that I am thinking of is in fact another MacMillan work, his "Seven Last Words from the Cross". For me, this work strikes a perfect balance of intellectual/musical substance and spiritual/emotional impact. I could only HOPE to compose a piece of music some day that is equally beautiful.

    You may be interested to know that James MacMillan recently joined the Honorary Board of Directors of an organization that I both direct and love, Soli Deo Gloria, which you might enjoy checking out some time.

    Thanks for sharing, and best wishes in your compositional pursuits.

    Chandler Branch, Exe. Dir.
    Soli Deo Gloria


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