Among those teachers to whom I owe gratitude is the late Ken Naylor. His teaching career was largely at the Leys, Cambridge, where he taught for 27 years, but the autumn of his career was spent at Christ's Hospital where he was manager of the Arts Centre. This was a terrific boon to the Music Department: Ken was a superb additional organist to the community, but he was also a wonderful arranger. I understand that he provided the fledgling King's Singers with some of their early arrangements; it was the elaborate, many-voiced arrangement of 'Lullaby of Broadway' which became a favourite with our close harmony Male Voice Choir (a curiously named ensemble in - as it was then - an all boys school!). I was very fortunate to have Ken teaching me the History of Music when I was in Year 12 (or the 'Deputy Grecians' as we were known in C.H. lingo). It was only when life had moved on and I was into my career that I first came across Ken's wonderful tune 'Coe Fen' which he wrote to John Mason's hymn 'How shall I sing that majesty?'. Choosing Eb major and triple time is always a good start for a hymn tune, but Ken was on top form the day he wrote this tune: the way the highest note of each phrase creeps ever higher until the top Eb at the start of line 7 (after an exquisitely prolonged last note of line 6) is masterly, and there aren't many hymn tunes that start their second half on a half diminished 7th! The finest hymn singing I have ever heard was by Downside School at the memorial service for their Christ Hospital educated Director of Music, Chris Tambling: Coe Fen in truly monumental guise, and a wonderful tribute to a special man. Now that composing has become my own career, I was asked to work on a hymn for communal singing during a local church event. With this occasion and Coe Fen in mind, it seemed to me that the one thing that Ken Naylor's great hymn tune lacked was a thrilling descant. So I set to work. http://www.coefen.org/ It was only on completing my attempt and sharing it with other Coe Fen admirers that I discovered that Ken had written a descant to his tune. Had I known this, I would not have trodden upon such hallowed ground: it seems like disrespect, even at this distance down the years. I requested that the master's own descant be scanned and sent to me. At least there was some affirmation: like my descant, Ken had started his in bar 2, imitating the congregational tune one bar later at a higher pitch; but then, shock! I realised that Ken had committed one of those grave sins of good part-writing: on beats 2 and 3 he had his descant moving in parallel octaves with the bass line! Perplexed, and - if I'm being honest - a little smug, I shared this discovery with a musical colleague. A day later he returned to the topic and gently pointed out that in my descant beats 2 and 3 moved in parallel 5ths with the congregational tune. Time for a quick revision and a portion of humble pie… Download score here - How shall I sing that majesty
I recently composed a piece called The Elephant and the Mouse. The title appears in a specimen examination paper of ‘Briefs’ in the new A’ level specification from AQA, and my piece is intended as an example of how a candidate might go about the challenge. [soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/275736868" params="auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /] It took me back to my early piano lessons with the wonderful Vera Crawford-Phillips. A typical piano lesson (as I remember it) would end with her saying ‘Now dear, I’m just going to write what you need to do in your practice book, and whilst I do that, why don’t you play me what an elephant sounds like’ and – as a happy 6 year old, gloriously losing myself in the moment, I would go thump, thump, thump in the bass, the connection between the slowly lumbering beasts I had only ever seen in Bristol Zoo and the sounds I was making being (to my mind) patently clear. When, next week, the challenge was to play like a mouse, my hands would stretch in the opposite direction and go scurrying around the upper keys. Children today typically spend far more time looking at a screen than I ever did (there was only grainy black and white television). It concerns me how an invitation to compose is met with an almost instantaneous desire to sit in front of a computer and have the focus of their brain dominated by the visual impact of the illuminated screen. The frame of the screen seems to imprison the reach of the imagination, and more often than not the only place to insert notes is on the stave (perhaps we need a NSPLL – a Notational Society for the Preservation of Leger Lines). It is as though they compose visually. Yet children in their creative play, be it outdoors or on the stairs, are just as imaginative as they ever were. I used to dream of playing cricket for England, flying to Mars with my teddy bears or constructing elaborate mazes. And my wonderful piano teacher took that imagination and encouraged me to respond to it with musical invention. Of course the elephants went thump, thump in the heavy tones of the bass whilst the mice scurried lightly around the tiny strings at the top of the piano, but she made my brain make that connection and be delighted (as only a 6-year old could be) in the results of my creativeness. So when I compose The Elephant and the Mouse today, little has changed. I now know that elephants can ‘trumpet’ – the ones in Bristol zoo never did that – so the trombone takes the elephant theme, but the bass still thumps in the cello, and the scurrying mouse is portrayed by the piccolo. Yes, I have more technical know-how these days, but that imagination is key, and I am so grateful that my piano teacher turned it on for me. I believe we should be doing far more to encourage today’s young children to be thinking in similarly imaginative ways, not because the results at GCSE composition will improve (though that would be welcome) but because it is such a vital skill to ‘think outside the box’ – the box of the computer screen. Oh, and we do not need to assess and measure the results with all the trappings of targets, assessments and statistics, we just need to encourage them to be imaginative. Who knows what then they might be able to imagine in whatever area they subsequently gain the technical know-how, musical or otherwise.
I had the pleasure recently of re-visiting ‘La Serenissima’ – Venice – for the first time in many years. Staying in a wonderful bed and breakfast near the Rialto, it was difficult to avoid posters for the frequent (seemingly nightly) concerts of Vivaldi. And so, one evening, I found myself in La Chiesa de San Vidal listening to the Interpreti Veneziani. It was not difficult to enjoy: a stunning Venetian church, some fine playing by a small group of vibrant string players, and an almost exclusively Vivaldi programme. One of the things that struck me was just how full was the church. Presumably, this must be the case night after night. Of course, it would be possible to rail against this: the commercialisation of fine music, packaged to furnish the tourist industry. The conversation of two ladies in the row behind me after the final piece tended to suggest a different mindset to mine: ‘I rather enjoyed that – very good value for money, I thought’, ‘Yes: they played a lot of notes’. Reflecting on the experience, I thought differently. Where else but Venice would you be able to perfom a concert of Vivaldi to a full house, not just as a one-off, but night after night, giorno dopo giorno? This points to some of music’s wonderful truths. In our globalised world, with our homogenous high streets and plagiarised television, music still offers individuality, and away from the synthesized sounds of commercial music, we are the inheritors of so many unique ways in which music has reflected societies and people through the centuries and across the world. What could be more Venetian than Vivaldi? In this unique place, one of the best ways the tourist can escape the usual perspective of looking at other tourists looking at Venice, is to sit and listen to those sounds that were first heard in that city back in the first half of the 18th century. Those fresh, eager ritornelli, those excited rising sequences, those incisive chords on the harpsichord. Whether it’s Vivaldi in Venice, or Tango in San Telmo, let us delight in the extraordinary kaleidoscope of unique musical styles – a kaleidoscope that merely reflects the myriad styles of society and types of people that we meet in life. Let us steer away from globalised homogeneity and encourage, through our music, diversity, authenticity and mutual respect and acceptance.
Driving into Trevelin the day before, the sign had said ‘Bienvenidos a Trevelin. Croeso I Drefelin’. It is a small town of bilinguality: Spanish and Welsh. The story of Welsh settlers in Patagonia will be known by some. 153 sailed on the Mimosa in 1865 from Liverpool to the Chubut valley: a place now called Puerto Madryn. In 1891, one of their sons, John Daniel Evans established a flour mill at Trevelin. Here I spent Easter Day. Much of the day was spent taking in the stunning scenery of the Parque Nacional Los Alerces, its crystal clear lakes and Andean backdrop. Back in town at the end of the afternoon, it seemed time to take tea in one of the ‘Galles’ tearooms. Scones, cakes and fine tea – very reminiscent of Sunday afternoon tea of my childhood. The tearoom had various display cabinets of the town’s Welsh forbears: school photographs, birth registers, teacups. It occurred to me to ask the waitress where one could find the nearest Welsh Chapel. ‘Ten blocks down the main street, turn right, three blocks and behind the school’ she said. And so it was. There, in the middle of an open piece of undulating ground, incompletely fenced off, was a brick building with pitched red roof. It is not the original chapel of the Trevelin people, but it has stood there for over 100 years and must have witnessed so much of the Welsh community’s comings and goings. Behind was the old welsh school – a cottage dwarfed by the mountains behind. Of course the chapel was locked and it was not possible to look through it windows, three on each side of the building, as they were set too high in the walls. It felt a little anticlimactic: missing some spark of connection to bring story of the pioneers to life. It was then that a figure appeared from a house to the side of the chapel land. I wondered whether he was about to say visitors were not allowed there. I could not have been more wrong. The man was Ellis Williams, a true Patagonian Welshman, senior in years, bringing the chapel key with him. Sadly, I had no Welsh to share with him, but he was only too delighted to unlock the door. Almost the first thing I spied inside was the harmonium, and Ellis was quick to find another key to open it up. And so it was on Easter Sunday evening I sat down to play Ar hyd y nos in a Welsh chapel in Patagonia. My limited Spanish, even my native English, cannot explain how the music filled the small chapel, the way Ellis produced books of music from yesteryear for me to play, or how it felt to be one of an unknown number that have sat and played hymns in that humble chapel, and – alas – I have no Welsh at all. But this I know: music has a unique power to change the ambience of a room and connect past and present. In those chords on that harmonium Ellis and I became friends.
The Musical SketchbookIn order to trigger your imagination, you may like to try one of the following approaches:
- Imagine a piece you might play on your instrument
- Imagine how you might express a mood you have been thinking recently
- Imagine how you might capture a non-musical thing in music; animals, places, weather conditions, times of day, etc. are all good potential topics for music
- Imagine how you might explore a musical journey of opposites: quiet to loud, low to high, slow to fast, etc.
- Imagine how you might put a poem or set of lyrics to music
- Imagine a pattern of notes that could be used repeatedly and also imagine how the pattern might gradually change as it is repeated
- The energy level of the music
- The tempo of the music
- The dynamic of the music
- The instrumental and vocal sounds required for the piece
- The register of the music
- The rhythmic feel of the music
- A sense of the texture of the music
- A sense of the tonality required
- The rise or fall of a melodic line
- A melodic shape
- A bass riff
- A chord progression
- A rhythmic groove
- A distinctive texture
- Continue the idea with enough continuity to make a sentence
- Sustain the essence of the idea further but with some changes to create a further sentence (or several)
- Retain some aspects of the idea whilst introducing a more significant change to create a further paragraph (or two)
- Create the start of a new chapter with a contrasting idea, whilst keeping enough consistency of style and substance to prevent the contrasting section from sounding as though it should be in a totally separate piece.
- Listening to silence
- Sketching some ideas
- Thinking how ideas can be extended, developed and explored
- Composing the piece - thinking of the structure of phrases, sentences, paragraphs and chapters.
The Blank Canvas
An analogyIf you were about to get creative in a visual way by painting a picture, you would at this point be looking at a blank canvas: a two-dimensional empty space. It is highly likely that you would spend some time contemplating the empty space: its dimensions, its orientation, and its emptiness. Onto this canvas you would begin to imagine the picture you are going to paint: whether it is to be figurative or abstract, whether it is going to have strong or blurred outlines, which colours you are going to need. You would also start thinking about the process you were going to need to follow: which parts of the project would be best to put in place first, which colour paints you are going to need to have ready, which brushes and other apparatus will be required. We have a turn of phrase for this, we say things like ‘I can see in my mind’s eye…’ In your mind’s eye you advance your picture far beyond a simple sketch of outline; you have a clear perception of what you are aiming for with your new painting. This image, which is known only to you until the painting is completed, can be inspired by a wide range of different things:
- A desire to capture in art something you can see: a view, object or person
- A fascination with some specific shape: stripes, geometric designs or flowing patterns
- An interest in a particular colour or contrast of colours
- An experiment with some aspect of painting technique or technical aspect of the artist’s materials
- A wish to make an artistic statement with an image, maybe something political or the expression of a particular mood you are feeling
- An intention to deliberately mimic a particular work or the style of another artist in order to improve your own artistic understanding and facility
- A commission from a patron that you have accepted in order to earn money