Next week sees the culmination of a year’s work – the premiere of ’Hands’ my new concerto for electric guitar and orchestra which will be performed by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra with the great American guitarist Rick Peckham This will be the fifth piece I’ve written for symphony orchestra and the third concerto, (the other two were for violin and piano respectively), and hopefully I’m getting better at it!
I remember the first piece I wrote for the orchestra in 1994 and the incredibly gauche orchestration gaffes I made (what, string players need to have bowings written in!?) and how I sat up all night after the first rehearsal adding in hundreds of dynamic markings and slurs and bowings in an effort to a) not be as humiliated as I was the day before, and b) to get closer to what I was hearing in my head. I’ve never had any formal training in orchestral writing or composition and I’ve learned on the job, in the same way as I did in the jazz world. But discovering things by trial and error is often a deeper experience than having someone show you something – the act of discovery seems to deepen the experience, one is actively learning rather than passively receiving. Having said that I wouldn’t have minded receiving some basic orchestration lessons and being spared the agony of that first orchestral rehearsal!
In music, (by necessity rather than desire), I’ve always been an autodidact and have had to figure out different ways to get to where I wanted to go in terms of musical knowledge, technique etc. In the case of orchestral music, courtesy of my father who raised us all in an environment of great music, I am very familiar with the classical tradition and how an orchestra should sound, but I had no idea how to achieve those sounds. So I read some orchestration books, including the wonderful ’Orchestral Technique’, by Gordon Jacob, a crash course in orchestration in less than 100 pages recommended to me by Noel Kelehan, a great Irish jazz pianist and arranger, in response to my cry for help upon receiving my first orchestral commission and realising that if I was to keep the money I’d actually have to write some orchestral music...... I also checked out some orchestral scores, studying them closely while listening to the recordings, and making notes in a little book in which I would reference things that particularly caught my ear, and note the place they occurred in the score so that I could access this information later.
Over the years my orchestral writing has become more confident and competent and I don’t worry so much about orchestration any more, but relish the opportunity to work with that Rolls Royce of the musical world - the symphony orchestra. On setting out to write this new piece I decided to keep a series of video diaries of the process and make them available to anyone who might be interested.
Here is the first episode in which I describe my way of working and my plans (and hopes) for the piece
My first step of the actual writing of the piece took place in March last at the beautiful Tyrone Guthrie Centre, an artist’s retreat in Ireland where I was able to work for a week, undisturbed by everyday life. As you can see from this episode of the video diary, I met with both success and difficulties...........
One skill I've never aquired is conducting, and even if I had, I don’t think I would have got it to the level of being able to conduct a symphony orchestra. And of course the conductor is such a vital part of the interpretation of a symphonic piece and speaking as a composer, a conductor can make or break you when it comes to having your orchestral piece performed. With my pieces, rhythm and feel are vitally important, and getting 90 musicians to play together with a particular rhythmic feel, or even cohesiveness, are among the hardest things to achieve with an orchestra. To have any chance, you definitely need the right guy on the conductor’s podium.
So I was lucky to have the wonderful Scott Stroman to conduct the piece. Scott is adept in both jazz and classical idioms and is vastly experienced as both a conductor and composer. I know Scott very well too, so I was able to look forward to the performance of the piece without the necessity of that first meeting with an unknown conductor where you find out if the he (or she) ‘gets’ what you’re trying to do. In June I was working with Scott in London and took the opportunity to meet him and have a chat about the piece.
Later in the same month, I did an interview with the Contemporary Music Centre in Dublin and talked in a more general way about composition. You can see the interview here
In August I was in Boston and met the soloist Rick Peckham at his home, and we talked pedals and general guitaristic stuff.
As the final interview in the series, I met some of the orchestral players who would be playing the piece. Oftentimes in classical composition, the orchestra is seen by the composers as some kind of impersonal machine whose job it is to reproduce what the composer hears, but of course an orchestra is comprised of individuals too and it makes sense to talk to them about what they like or don’t like when playing new music. We had a really great chat and I hope we can do it again soon.
The piece itself comes in at around 20 minutes, is in three movements, and has an improvised cadenza that will connect the first and second movements, as well as some spaces for improvisation for the guitar in the first movement. I know Rick's been experimenting with different sounds for the piece, so I'm really looking forward to hear what he comes up with.
We have two performances of it next week - an incredible luxury - a kind of workshop/preview on Tuesday (17th) at lunchtime at the National Concert Hall in Dublin and the official world premiere on the following Friday as part of the full symphony concert, alongside music by John Adams and Shostakovitch - no pressure then!
Here's the final segment of the video diary - I hope some of you who are in Dublin can make it to one of the performances