I’m very lucky to have been selected to take part in the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik scheme next year. I’ll be writing a three-minute work for full orchestra early next year, leading up to a public workshop and performance in March.
Writing for orchestra is a wonderful opportunity. My current musical voice was shaped by writing an extended orchestral piece, London’s Other Bones. I wrote it independently, for no specific purpose, alongside a Masters, running Filthy Lucre and teaching in 2015. I was knackered, sad and receiving essentially no performances of my work. Writing it was a middle finger up to practicality: if my work wasn’t getting played, I might as well write the piece I wanted to, even if it was very difficult to ever put on.
Looking back, it feels like the first piece I wrote that successfully combined a riff-driven composition logic with a robust long-form structure. Crucially, writing the work turned me towards microtonal harmony. I can pinpoint the exact place: the trumpet part, bars 42-3. I had heard the melody very clearly, but couldn’t work out why it didn’t sound right on the piano. I shifted the piano down a quarter tone, and suddenly everything fitted. That small moment influences the rest of the piece: you can hear it particularly in a passage at Y (10’44” in the MIDI recording), or at a moment at E1 (14’08”) that I remain rather pleased with.
Unsurprisingly given its scale, the piece has not yet been played. This futility, however, also gave me the freedom to not think too critically or self-consciously about the resources the work demands. Orchestral music is ruinously expensive, a relic of a period where works epic scale were supported by the conspicuous consumption of the upper class, consumption that came at the direct cost of Europe’s working classes and its colonies. Now, of course, orchestras are supported by a heady mix of public money, donations from our new upper class, and the National Lottery. (The latter is supported primarily by working-class participants.) This prodigious and inequitable expense is very much on my mind as I prepare to write an orchestral work that, this time, will actually be performed. How can I justify the musical scale at which I’ll be writing?
Last Saturday I saw a piece that hasn’t left my mind since; I’ve woken up humming its tune most days since I saw it. Neil Luck’s Regretfully Yours, Ongoing is an astonishing work that uses the scale of orchestral music as a constituent element. The work began with fucked-up orchestral scrunches and Neil speaking into a microphone at a table – the words were well-crafted disintegrations that deal with suture, coalescence and decay. As the piece progressed, its hysteria increased, with soloists reaching points of failure and protest (often screaming “no" at one another), while a video showed physically uncomfortable clips of foundering performers in mundane public settings. This discomfort was somewhat offset by humour: a mannequin being pushed down the stairs got a good laugh.
At this point, I was not fully convinced. Performance works centred on physical discomfort are familiar and the scale of resources used didn’t yet seem integral to the work. But then it took a new path: a be-gowned diva appeared on a mezzanine and unctuously invited us all to sing along. A full-bodied tune emerged, a kind of twisted glam rock melody with strange words. The effect was remarkable: I have never seen an audience engage as fully. As the tune caught on, pretty much everybody got to their feet and joined in. An over-the-top guitar solo joined, the orchestra scrunched along, and the work ended with this unique combination of crowd singing and orchestral howling.
There is so much to say about this final transformation. It centred the absurdity of the work’s scale, hitting a parodic level of grandiosity, but it did so with words that spoke of collapse and disintegration. It was a genuinely excellent melody, catchy but not cliche. The absorption of the audience into the work made us all complicity in the farce, attaching us to it, giving us the thrill of making music, but in a context that had highlighted failures and collapses in music making. For me, the work both acknowledged the dumbness, the fucked-ness of life and invited us to experience that together and thus transform it, at least a little. That is an affect that can only be performed at scale, that intrinsically relies on mass, on an expenditure of energy to achieve its ends.
Fuck: I can’t take the same approach; I’m a pretty note-y composer. I’ll have to give real thought to what it means to write orchestrally. But as a starting point, I think I need to put the scale of the resources at the work’s centre. I don’t know exactly how much my participation in this scheme costs, total, but I'm sure it is thousands of pounds. If I’m going to burn through those resources, I’d better make a very pretty bonfire.