Last night you had a glittering, magnificent dream that swirls around you and makes your heart burst, full of wonder. The next day you go to the cinema and they are playing your dream on the big screen to you and the audience.
That’s how I describe, when asked, what it’s like being a composer.
I write “contemporary classical” music: I transform imaginary sounds into instructions - my imagined, hopeful-to-be-real sounds which are plucked from the air and scratched onto pages using arbitrary symbols. Those instructions are then reproduced into real sounds, often by musicians I might never meet.
I also imagine and build computer code that will extend these sounds into new, exquisite forms. I love computers: they manipulate sound in ways that physics can’t. And I love the orchestra - its archaic idiosyncrasies consumes my imagination. But this isn’t an easily-shared process: the stereotype of the self-isolating composer isn’t wrong. I’m not sure of the truth when I say the words “I have to be alone to write”. Perhaps I really just have to be alone.
3 months ago: A melodic fragment has been chasing my thoughts. The melody first belonged to a native bird species that flutters around me in the summer and now it belongs to me, too. By writing it down these notes now have a mind of their own. They merge and and disperse at will through hundreds of permutations and I ask myself, is there a story here?
2 months ago: I finalise the instrumentation, chasing a rumour I may get invited to have this work performed by an ensemble I admire. For a new work, the most important part is getting a performance. Without that, it remains an unshared reverie.
1 month ago: The sketch has exploded into a mess of pages spread across the floor, my desk, the piano: but I have a story now. I take my favourite pen and scribble representations of what I want to hear. To someone else I imagine these scratchings look like a meaningless collection of lines, erratically fine and delicate or thick and coarse. With this “plan” I can pin it to the wall - it starts to look like a police procedural with arrows and ripped pages and crossings-outs. I can now go over the narrative in my mind without having to hold all the details in my head, an impossible task except for Mozartian geniuses.
2 weeks ago: Performance is confirmed. Pressure! No longer writing at leisure, I am forced to decide on hundreds of details: I’m unprepared. I make mistakes, I write and rewrite entire sections. I begin to shake, begin to believe I’m a failure. I am completely unsure of myself and what I’m trying to say. What if it just sounds awful? Here is note that I wrote to myself when things weren’t going well:
“this process is painful and it’s near-impossible to get right. why do i try to have my thoughts etched in time?”
Tonight: a rehearsal (I’m writing this letter while I’m waiting for the rehearsal to start in 30 minutes)
5 minutes ago: The rehearsal was beautiful in ways I wasn’t expecting. The surprise of this always catches my breath. Something I imagined that was once a ghost of an idea now takes lyrical form. Abstract sounds coalesce into congregations of harmonics, rupturing outwardly into delicate lines. Then, on to series of crescendos and decrescendos: articulations of tremolos, trills, glissandi. A beautiful, strange, playful visceral mess of notes.
Next week: performance. All that’s left is to decide which dress to wear to the premier.
The South Pacific