100 Days Redux – BERLIN NIGHTS – Final Day

I’m leaving sunny, delicious Berlin and heading back to dull, dreary Ireland in time to sing with Resurgam’s live soundtrack to a screening of Amadeus, which will make a nice change from sitting in front of my laptop all day! I have almost completed my arrangement of The Morningstar for CCI, and might yet complete it before I head home, which would be nice, as it’s based on a Lutheran chorale. This blog’s going to go quiet now for a while.

Peace out.

100 Days Redux – BERLIN NIGHTS – Night 5

My time in Berlin has come to an end – tomorrow night, I go home.

It’s been an extremely fruitful week here. Today, I completed the edits on the final two movements of Amra Choluim Chille. It comes to a total of 50 minutes, 179 pages, and 1,066 bars of music. It began in March of 2017 with the 3rd movement, then there was a good bit of time before I sat down to work out how the rest of it would go. There were times when music simply poured from me as though I had an infinite supply to draw from, and times when I threw out over a week’s worth of writing. Today as I completed the final edits, Berlin was engulfed in thunder and lightning – I felt as though I was in a Brontë novel.

After I finished, I went to a local gluten free pizza place – this was at about 10 pm, local time. When I got there, I noticed that everyone – staff and customers – seemed to be on first name terms, which I took as a good sign. I wasn’t wrong. It was an excellent pizza.

On the way home, I listened to Berg’s Violin Concerto. The piece lasted from the moment I left Cielo di Berlino until I reached the front door of the apartment block on which I was staying. It has been a few years now since I listened to that piece, but listening back, I was reminded that it was this piece – and also Berg’s opera, Lulu – that set me on a new course of composition back in around 2011 or so. I had been thoroughly invested in the so-called avant-garde approach to composition – throwing out the baby with the bath water, re-working masterpieces by the likes of Ligeti and Stockhausen and pretending to be a great innovator. Berg’s Violin Concerto awoke me to a new approach to composition. One in which nothing is thrown out, but everything technique and style carefully examined and appropriated in a respectful manner. The Violin Concerto seeks to reconcile the twelve-tone, serialist approach to composition – pioneered by Berg’s teacher, Schoenberg – with the older, diatonic approach to organising sound, and it is wholly successful in so doing.

Amra Choluim Chille doesn’t contain any truly serial techniques – in the 5th movement a series of 5 chords in an extended tonal language cycle around under very-much modal slip-jig, but that is the only concession (and it wasn’t consciously done) to the 2nd Viennese school. The rest of the movements contain some extremely dissonant – and occasionally almost atonal – sections, but the thread of tonality is always running through the whole thing, binding the piece together and giving the listener something to hold on to.

I don’t wish to sound as though I don’t see the value in the music and sound creations of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Some extremely interesting and culturally valuable things were brought about by people like Stockhausen. But I’ll never forget the day during my Masters when I brought in a relatively conservative piece (though it was based on 2 interlocking modes of limited transposition) and my then supervisor told me to “stop writing like dead, white men. Try to be more like Stockhausen, Messaien or Ligeti.” When I pointed out that those 3 great composers were also dead, white men, I was met with a stunned silence. The orthodoxy of this so called avant-garde goes so often unchallenged in academia. I have been very lucky to find in Phillip Cooke a supervisor sympathetic to my idiom and to my approach. He’s certainly never slow to challenge me on any and every aspect of a piece, and I’ve never worked so hard to properly end a piece of music in my life (although I still haven’t read A Sense of an Ending – sorry Phill!). But whether I bring him the big atonal passacaglia at the beginning of my final movement, or the extremely tonal string quartet sections in movements 5 and 6, he’ll never dismiss it as simply an imitation of ‘dead, white men’ but the living work of living me. It is something we need a lot more of in our composition teachers, if we can ever expect our music to be appreciated by people other than other composers.

100 Days Redux – BERLIN NIGHTS – Day 4

I met up with a friend who lives in Berlin yesterday, after having written my blog post, and we went for coffee, and then we went for Spätzle and Schnitzel in the same place as yesterday, and may also have had 2 beers, and I don’t know if it was the coffee or the Schnitzel or the beers but I felt a lot happier about my 3rd movement than I had in the morning. Yes, it’s probably one of the weaker movements of the 7, but it’s still good music! Then I changed my house style halfway through editing the 4th movement (7 pages of almost exclusively choral music, which took about 10 minutes to fix up) so I spent the evening going back over the previous 3 movements and tweaking a few things. I actually then managed to get all the on-paper edits of the 5th movement done (including the addition of 5 tom-toms and a snare drum) before bed so all in all quite a productive day yesterday!

I’m currently in the middle of the laptop edits of movement 5, which includes figuring out the actual drum notation. This has always been a weak point for me. I love percussion – always have, and I love writing for it, but for some reason I always second guess my notation choices. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading Samuel Z. Solomon’s How to write for Percussion and it’s given me a lot of confidence in this field, but I still have it sitting open beside me on the relevant pages. I’ve also discovered some more optimal ways to make sibelius lay out the percussion parts, so that’s helping me along too. Basically I’ve learned to go with my instinct.

I think part of the problem is that percussionists tend to be extremely easy going, so whenever I’ve asked one a question about something, they just go “sure, yeah, we’ll read whatever”, and – like the sith – I prefer to deal in absolutes, at least where notation is concerned.

I don’t think there’s much work left to do on the 6th movement, so I may well finish 2 movements today, leaving me with only the final movement to complete. If this is the case, then I’ll spend tomorrow playing a Zelda game, before finishing the final movement on Monday, and maybe also my carol The Morningstar, which is, after all, based on the a Lutheran chorale. It would be wrong to finish it anywhere other than in Germany, while I have the chance.

100 Days Redux – BERLIN NIGHTS – Day 3

Completed the edits on movement 2 yesterday, and celebrated with schnitzel and spätzel and beer at a 100% gluten free cafe mere minutes from the flat I’m staying in.

Today, I began the edits to movement 3. I’m more or less happy with this one, I keep saying, but I’m starting to feel a bit ambiguous about it. It’s the first movement of the piece that I composed, and I think you can tell. Structurally and thematically it’s all ok, but it just doesn’t have the same power as some of the movements I wrote more recently. I’m half trying to think of ways to spice it up a bit, but to be honest I think I’ll leave it. It’s only 3 minutes out of a total of 50 and could be a nice little pallet cleanser after the very somber and intense second movement.

100 Days Redux – BERLIN NIGHTS – Night 1

Welcome to part 2 of my 100 days blog. I’ll only be doing a few entries this time around – one every day for until next Monday, so just under a full week, detailing the completion of the first draft.

I have come to Berlin to complete this work. I had been going to go to Cork, but when the opportunity arose to come somewhere much more foreign to me, where I have fewer distractions, and a new cat to meet, I simply had to take it! I spent much of today walking around beautiful Kreuzberg, investigating the GF situation – there’s a cafe less than 10 minutes away called Glutanada which is very promising, being entirely Gluten Free. I didn’t go there yet as I wanted to make sure I had groceries and so on, so that if I need to be holed up for my entire stay, I can be.

This evening, I got to work on the first complete draft of Amra Choluim Chille. What this entails is going through the work, movement by movement, and checking that all the notation is correct (harp glissandi, string harmonics, multiple stops, divisi etc.) and that all the underlay is correct too. Then I go through it and put in all the expression, which is ironically what I find to be the most tedious part of composition, for 2 reasons.

1) I already know how the expression should go, and on a score that’s 32 pages long (per movement!) thats a whole lot of stuff to write in (and to forget to write in).
2) I’ll change my mind about it as soon as I hear it, and every single time I hear it, until death, or until I’m barred from rehearsals of my own work.

There’s a famous story (who knows if it’s true) about Debussy when rehearsals for La Mer were underway. One day, Debussy came up to Camille Chevillard, the conductor, and told him that he was taking the piece at the wrong tempo.
”But Mr. Debussy,” Chevillard replied “this is the tempo at which you told us it should go yesterday!”
”Ah Mr. Chevillard” Debussy replied “that was the tempo I wanted yesterday.”*

So it is with me and tempos, and expressions, and everything about a piece. There comes a time in the composition process when I simply have to decide that the piece is finished. Usually I change my mind about this during the first performance and make revisions. I have a rule that I don’t make revisions after the second performance, but I’m sure I’ll break that rule some day.

Anyway, today I ‘finished’ the first movement of Amra Choluim Chille in first draft, and I have sent it off to my supervisor, Dr Phillip Cooke. There will inevitably some changes to make after he’s seen it, and I haven’t decided yet if I’ll add a harp part to the final 30 bars. It may or may not need it, but the harpist doesn’t do anything else in this movement after a few decorative swirls in the first 30 bars, and I’d hate for a gifted harpist to have nothing to do but listen to my music for the best part of 10 minutes! There’s quite a lot for harp in movement 2 though, so we’ll see.

I may ‘finish’ 2 more movements tomorrow, depending on how much of the 3rd movement I decide needs re-writing. The harp and string parts certainly need enriching, but it’s basically there already, so it might take 30 minutes and it might take the whole weekend.

*I am paraphrasing

100 Days – Day 100

Well well well!

Well well well well well!


100 days are up. I haven’t finished my PhD yet, or even Amra Choluim Chille, but it’s been an interesting experience documenting it all, and the end is definitely in sight. ACC1 still needs a bit of polishing off, but I’ll definitely be well able to finish my first draft this weekend and in Berlin, to a fairly high level of ‘finished’.

At the moment, it comes to 50 minutes, and about 200 pages of music for Choir, Strings, Harp and Percussion. There were times when it felt like an insurmountable task, and times when it felt like I’d finish it in days. Times when what felt like extremely busy and productive days resulted – on closer examination – in fruitless labour that had to be discarded. I’ve learned a lot about composition, and about my process, and about time management – in fact, how to manage lost time. In addition to my PhD, I’ve managed to complete a Christmas Carol, start 3 more Christmas Carols, complete a little prayer for Notre Dame that was downloaded over 4,000 times around the world. There have been times (and are still times) when I feel on the verge of tears, simply because I can’t quite believe that it’s all coming to a close. When I look back at where I was when I decided to start this thing 3 years ago, I can’t understand where all that time has gone. It feels like it’s been only a few short months, and yet I have so much work to show for it – next big thing is to submit it all to the CMC, which I’ve been shockingly lax in doing, only because I’ve been loathe to submit anything to them that might be considered un-finished or in development.

I’ll be taking Sunday evening, Monday and Tuesday off composition entirely, for Dominica’s birthday, and to travel to Berlin, so Saturday’s set aside as my day to try to get as much of this final movement to a place you’d call finished. All the ideas are there, I just need to refine them, re-order some of them, and stick some of them together in a better way. Easy work on one hand, boring work on the other. But I might risk buying my ritual half bottle of Marks and Spencer Pink Champagne that I’ve been having at significant points in the work since the beginning of July. One bottle marked the completion of ACC2, which was the first movement I completed since I completed ACC4 at the beginning of last year. Another marked the completion of 5, 6 and 7 over the course of 3 short but hectic days. The completion of 1 is taking longer than I thought it would, but the music I’ve written is also significantly better than I ever thought it would be.

To those of you who’ve followed me on this journey, thank you for reading. There’ll be more of this kind of thing in the very near future, with 100 Days Redux – Berlin Nights 1-6* next week but after that I’d imagine the blog will go quite for a short while.


The climax of  ACC1 , which took longer than I thought it would, but is better than I thought it could be.

The climax of ACC1, which took longer than I thought it would, but is better than I thought it could be.

100 Days – Day 99

Wow. It feels like the last 99 days have absolutely flown.

After my post yesterday, I stayed up quite late and wrote a lot of music – 9 part string polyphony, under a monophonic “pillar” inspired SATB texture. More music than I thought I needed to! The problem now is that that music is a bit raw, and needs a bit more work than I have time left to do within the confines of the 100 days. It also necessitates a bit of a revision of the middle of ACC1 (the connection between the 2nd bit and the new 3rd bit) and a lengthening and development of the very ending, which at the moment is, I think, excellent, but just doesn’t quite fit onto the end. After the big slow build up of the 1st section, the little fugal passage of the 2nd, and the quite monumental 3rd section, the original 4th section just feels underdeveloped.

I’m going to compose sans blog this weekend, and try to get those bits done, and then when I go to Berlin next week, I’m going to begin a 7 days type thing. I might try a Japanese Video Game-style naming convention and call it 100 Days Redux – The Berlin Chronicles – Day (1-7)

Either way, I won’t finish within the parameters of the 100 days, but I’ll still finish before the end of August, which is still on time in terms of the meta-schedule. And the reason I won’t finish tomorrow is because I came up with an excellent idea which just needs a little more time.

100 Days – Day 98

Well well well, the time is nearly up!

The good news is that the piece is nearly finished. Not in its entirety (I will still need to go through it with my red pen and make sure everything is where it should be) but all the notes are very nearly there. I still have a little bit of the first movement to complete but that’s tomorrow’s work.

Day 100, by sheer coincidence, will be a day of rehearsal with CCI so there’s unlikely to be a celebratory day 100 post, but my plan is to go back and count how many of the 100 days couldn’t be composition days, and do a sort of “100 days redux” series, detailing my editing process, my write-up and submission process, and the completion of the remaining 3 CCI carols. I’ll also set a post aside to discuss administrative bullshit that we all have to put up with as part of the PhD process… I’m very fortunate in that any time administrative bullshit rears its ugly head, I get an almost instantaneous email from my extremely supportive supervisor, saying simply “leave this with me…”

100 Days – Day 92

Very slow day today. I still have basically 2 lines to set of ACC1. I spent today mostly tweaking the fugal passage I wrote yesterday. The temptation to try to develop it is very real, but I don’t think it would fit in the place where it is if I did so.

The lines I have remaining are as follows:

Go saoraidh Dia ar an múr tine mé,
Ar bhuanpholl na ndeor!

Which translates as

The great God is my protection from the fiery wall,
The everlasting pit of tears

I think I’ve been focussing on the fiery wall too much. I want to make the strings a bit fiery, but if the poet is being protected from said fire, then the singers need to be doing something more tranquil. But maybe something a bit more on edge too? I had a very clear idea for it at the beginning, but I just don’t think it works well enough.

I’m going to Belfast on Saturday so I’ll have 2 days off. Something might come to me then. Or it might come to me tomorrow. Who knows?