November’s Artist in Residence David Roche talks us through the creative process behind his favourite composition ‘My Mind Directs My World’.
When I was roughly 12 years old I wrote a very, very naff piece of music for orchestra. I was made to say that it was about the turning on of the Christmas lights in Tredegar (it definitely wasn’t about that) and I felt very proud of myself for composing it, particularly because it was packed with grace notes and triplets which I’d just figured out how to input on Sibelius. Although I have now cast this masterwork of naffness in to the ocean, never to be seen again, it still persists in my mind as a starting point for what became a very serious desire and drive to write orchestral music. Over the last two years I’ve written pieces for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Orion Orchestra, Cambridge Graduate Orchestra, and London Graduate Orchestra. My orchestral piece Young Countries won third place in the Senior Category of the 2017 International Antonín Dvořák Composition Competition and in total I’ve written at least 10 pieces – of varying quality – for orchestra. That is to say I am really, really into writing music for orchestra.
In this article I am going to focus on a piece I wrote for the London Graduate Orchestra titled ‘My Mind Directs My World’. This composition was created as part of Sound and Music’s Portfolio program and was developed over the course of two workshops and two rehearsals. You can find out more about the scheme by reading online articles here and here. The work was performed in September 2017 at Shoreditch Church, conducted by Claire Lampon.
‘My Mind Directs My World’ was written in a few places; in the home of two of my students, on Orkney, a bit in Cardiff, in a converted barn in Cornwall, on a riverboat bar in Prague, and then back at my home in Cambridge. These places made me think about the piece in very different ways (especially the riverboat bar). Hopefully I can give you some insights in to the changing creative processes that led to ‘My Mind Directs My World’. Let’s begin!..
I wrote the opening gesture – the quintuplet figure in the first bar – while I was teaching a piano lesson. I was sat at the piano talking about legato playing, played the first 5 notes of a C major scale in both hands simultaneously, and just started noodling about with the material. So I had a new idea and didn’t know what it was going to be used for – always handy. About 3 days after I came up with the opening idea I found out I was shortlisted for the Sound and Music Portfolio scheme so I sat down in Downing College Chapel at the University of Cambridge and improvised as much as I could. I still have the recording I played in the interview for the scheme, see below:
Upon finding out that I’d be selected for the scheme (alongside Emma-Kate Matthews – go and listen to her stuff!) I decided to book some more time at the piano to improvise using my new idea. The joyful gesture made me think of when I first started learning an instrument; it was a lot of fun, it wasn’t that structured, and a lot of what I played was improvised. It also made me think of how a lot of these opportunities are not in place for people born in to a similar sociological situation as myself. I wanted these mixed feelings of joy and resentment to be part of my piece.
My extremely clever and over-the-top plan was to record myself playing this piece 20 times, following my nose (possibly also my ears) each time and tightening the structure as I went along… however, not only I am not a pianist but trying to do 20 improvised performances of a six minute piece of music is exhausting. So I ended up doing 5 or so, 2 of which I have pasted below.
Following on from this initial period of composition, I began to arrange the piece for orchestra. The whole time I was writing I was thinking of Judith Weir’s The Welcome Arrival of Rain and John Adams’ Common Tones in Simple Time. Both of these pieces are crisp, clear, and bright sounding and I wanted my piece to be the same. Unfortunately I’m not allowed to share the recording of ‘My Mind Directs My World’ at the moment but I can link you to an Instagram video (I’m very hip, here’s another) in which you will be able to hear the similarity between Weir’s fantastic piece and ‘My Mind Directs My World’. The most notable borrowing that I make is with the use of diatonic clusters. In my composition I am using them to emulate the sound of a piano with the sustain pedal depressed – lots of open strings alongside the first 4 notes of C major.
The next big changes to the piece came while I was studying on Orkney and, later, in Cornwall. During my time on Orkney I created a sheet of 12 and 24 note chords that I wanted to test out with the orchestra (you can check out the scores I gave them here). These chords made it in to ‘My Mind Directs My World’ in a modified form. You can see them on the very last page of the score and I think they the sounded awesome. The chords are motivically linked to the rest of ‘My Mind Directs My World’ through their pitch similarity to earlier material. A lot of the composition is built out a cycle of fifths movement – you can hear me playing an early version of this in the improvisations – and the chord at the end of ‘My Mind Directs My World’ is generated from a cycle of fifths split in half exactly so that every interval of a fifth is filled in with a microtonal note. I picked my favourite sounds from this huge chord, toyed around with the voicings and dynamics, and scored it for strings. This was strongly influenced by the music of Lutosławski; in a lot of his later pieces he used different 12-tone chords to create musical interest. Here’s a piece of his worth checking out:
After Orkney I went to live in a barn in Cornwall for a week, it was great! During my stay in I started writing sections consisting entirely of scalic writing (bars 18-21). This was very important to the work but it wasn’t until I spent some time in Prague competing in a composition competition that I came to develop these sections in to really substantial musical events. I was sat on a riverboat bar one evening having a few beers and jotting down ideas and I started thinking about where I would like the piece to go after bar 21. I thought it might be interesting if I wrote a big cadence with some unusual syncopation, so I started penning ideas. This idea eventually grew in to the music heard at bars 22-98 which led to the melody starting at bar 96, which was spun out and developed in bars 179-204. The photo below is the sketch I drew on the boat – it’s only a tiny idea but it grew in to something absolutely massive for the piece!
The changes that followed on from the second workshop were mainly relating to orchestration and the general flow of the piece. It was a very fast turnaround; I was working at the piece pretty relentlessly and by the end of the project I felt really happy that I had pushed myself. ‘My Mind Directs My World’ is a favourite of my own compositions and I hope that the recordings of the preliminary ideas have whetted your appetite in advance of the release of the actual recording. I am very grateful to Sound and Music and the London Graduate Orchestra for making such awesome work out of something I am so very proud of!
(Title photo courtesy of Tim Hillel)