Acclaimed composer, musician, and former Wales Arts Review Artist in Residence David Roche writes on his latest commission for Psappha, Practice Patience, exploring how his South Wales roots – and relationship to music – has shaped his career to date.
My name is David Roche. I’m a Welsh composer based in Cambridge and, on the 27 May 2021, my piece Practice Patience for string quartet, double bass, accordion, piano, and percussion will be performed by Manchester-based new music group Psappha. It’s going to be awesome.
Psappha are one of the UK’s leading new music ensembles and I’ve been lucky enough to work with them on 3 separate occasions. My first experience with them was as part of their Composing For Piano program (if you don’t know what this is then click here). Shortly after being selected, I started work on my piece Ten Acre Riots! – this composition proved to be one of the most important stepping stones in my career and opened the door to a long string of opportunities, including the chance to write pieces for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Orion Orchestra, and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. More pressingly, it also led to two further commissions for Psappha (No Steel Leaves), and my latest– the subject of this article – titled Practice Patience (read more about this commission here). Practice Patience is Psappha’s inaugural Larner Walker commission and it’s all about my relationship with the music I love. Throughout the piece I draw relentlessly on the rock and metal music I grew up with – evoking a sense of determination, intensity, drive, and desperation. All things I associate with South Wales – the place where I learned to make music.
Here’s a video of Psappha playing my No Steel Leaves:
Most of my musical training up to the age of about 19 was related almost exclusively to rock and metal music. I started playing electric guitar in primary school and eventually, around the age of 12 or 13, began practicing much more aggressively. Music magazines were much more common back in those days, and I cut my teeth on the frequently very good, sometimes quite bad transcriptions of Total Guitar and (a bit later) Guitar Techniques. They published the practice routines of the ‘great’ electric guitarists and most of them were almost exactly the same. The ones by Steve Vai, John Petrucci, Joe Satriani, and Tom Morello contained the same sets of exercises – verbatim… which I did… on a loop… for years. I’d sit down for hours and hours, practicing these to a metronome. Perhaps not the best way to practice, but I think this experience fundamentally shaped how I approach and play music. I hear everything through the context of a strong, controlled, metronomic beat. I measure everything to an internal metronome and I really like the sound and feel of music that is created with this in mind.
Check out John Petrucci’s bumper musical exercise video Rock Discipline:
This type of metronomic playing was not just considered good, but an almost essential requirement when playing with bands. Everything was recorded to a metronome, local drummers gradually began playing with metronomes in live settings, and everyone wrote and recorded to metronomes. The production of metal and rock was becoming more and more digital – everything was quantised, sampled, and made perfect. So, this kind of beat-driven music, the prioritisation of beat driven music, was absolutely drilled into me from a young age. It sits completely at the core of all of my playing.
On top of this, lots of the music in South Wales was politically minded and local music tied in with ideas relating to heritage, self-worth, bleakness, and determination. This became enormously important to me and my friends from a young age. Much of what we were listening to was political, aggressive, ultra-confident, and Welsh (specifically from poorer, valleys areas – think of The Manic Street Preachers). So, my entire conception of beat-driven music was tied in with this angry, sociologically-minded type of local music from South Wales. This is still enormously important to me.
Finally, I was also a brass player (cornet, not a great student). Brass bands have a comparable ethos to the musical communities I mentioned above, especially in Wales. There is an extreme technicality, a strong culture of rehearsing to perfection, and a large focus on relating community and heritage to performance (I received free education and used to play around care homes at Christmas – I’m also from a mining town). So, my earliest musical experiences link composition and playing to a really particular type of community-minded, beat-driven music. As I said, this is really important to me.
It’s also worth noting that these were all loud ensembles. Loudness is definitely a key feature of the music I compose. Smashing out a massive E chord through a 4×12 still gives me life. I think what’s important about all of the music I grew up with is that it made me sit up and pay attention to what was going on around me. It actually made me care about what was going on – it made me feel good.
Here’s a video of Tredegar Town Band:
All of this background stuff is important because Practice Patience is about embracing who you are. For me, there is an air of inevitability in the music that I am currently composing. I am excited about it, I know where it must go, I know what needs to happen next. I want to write it – now – and all of this has grown from the music I wrote as a teenager. It feels inescapable and I love it.
I think the most interesting thing in a piece of music is when a person exerts their personal judgement fully and totally on the musical material they’re using. Be hyper-personal. Do something immediately personal, something that’s you, literally do what you like. Being open-minded is very important but being confident and personal is essential. After babbling about all of this – what does Practice Patience actually sound like?
Check out this video on my Vale of Glamorgan Festival Commission for the BBC NOW:
Practice Patience is exhilarating, rhythmic, and riff-based. The whole thing is built on the types of repetition common to a lot of rock and pop music. The idea of a constant quaver line with accompanying chords is a trope of rock and metal (think of this song, this song, this song, and this song). The entirety of Practice Patience is developed out of a constant quaver line heard at the opening of the work – just 2 bars. This is spun out over the course of 10 minutes in a variety of ways; slightly altered and rotated repetitions, truncated repetitions, with sustained notes highlighting certain parts of the main riff – always (almost always) keeping the strong sense of metronomic rhythm.
Check out this video about my Prayers of Method for more information on how I do this:
I think one of the things I’m really trying to do in writing music is just ignore any pressure to do something a certain way. There’s often talk of ironizing simpler music, obscuring pulses, and altering direct, clear music to make it come across as more in line with what we think contemporary music should be. I don’t think contemporary music should be anything. For me, nothing is off the table. I’m trying to relentlessly and aggressively compose music that I like. I feel like it’s the only authoritative type of judgement I can make – only I can say what I like.
Psappha have a strong commitment to working in-person with composers (by this I mean that they spend time working with composers on their music). For Practice Patience, I was lucky enough to be able to have 2 workshops (one online, one in person) and throughout this process I wrote and re-wrote Practice Patience from the ground up on 5 occasions (50 minutes of music in total – quite hefty). A big part of this was because of the pressure I’d placed on myself to make something that I really loved (there’s a lesson to be learned there) but a larger part was in response to workshops. I’d hear my piece, decide that certain elements weren’t working in the way I thought they would, and want to change them. This is a problem as old as time, of course, but the advantage of working closely with performers is that you can needle at what the solution might be. I want this sound; how do I get it? If I write this, what will you do? I try to be honest, I try to avoid being precious. These performers can play anything – I want to respect their ability and time by giving them something worth hearing.
In my time teaching and working as a composer, I find that the bigger issues in pieces almost always relate to simpler problems; fundamental or basic misunderstandings about interpretation, balance, or performing. I think composers must let go of how good they think they should be and accept the reality of what is happening in a performance or rehearsal. There’s no substitute for being in the room with performers and hearing the music (where possible). Write for the ensemble, experience the sound, and make something that works on your terms. I feel confident in saying that I pushed myself as fully as possible in working on Practice Patience, I am enormously grateful to Psappha for giving me so many chances to write for them, and I can’t wait to hear the piece.
To finish, I’d like to leave you with this lovely ukulele piece too: