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.