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Coming Together: The Right Time to Collaborate

Some months back I went to a meeting of administrators, connected with the commissioning of new works. One speaker said something which I have given a good deal of thought to as on reflection I think it was a very important point. It was said, ‘there is a right time to collaborate’. Certainly true, but putting it a slightly different way, ‘there is a right time to write a work’, and it was the latter that has kept me thinking.

This is because, for me, when considering what to write, the background to the work plays an important role, particularly if a new work is to be inspired by a contemporary event. This in itself requires particular consideration as almost every day there are events that might be a suitable inspiration to a piece of music, but it is essential that the event has some broader significance, a longer legacy than just its temporary impact.

My first string quartet, under a subtitle of Robben Island, was an ideal inspiration, because what lay behind it, the breakdown of apartheid, seemed to me to hold much longer significance as well as being one of the few political events that I felt worthy of celebration. The opening notes of the new national anthem them of South Africa had already been referred to in two early pieces, one published, one a student work. The references were small, somewhat hidden, I remember interweaving a little within a second subject while having half an eye on Mandela leaving the prison on Robben Island. Why then incorporate it throughout a string quartet? Important for me was that for those who don’t like or have an interest in classical music, a string quartet can look the stuffiest of ensembles, one that the majority of the population will not come across. So, for a string quartet to have a contemporary relevance, and a contentious one, seemed significant, and surely, ‘classical music’ has to move with the times.

But now that the events are well passed, does it lose its significance compared with a work entitled Sonata No. ?, or Variations on a Theme of Whatever. Perhaps so, but as far as the quartet is concerned, I was always clear that Robben Island itself was a piece of land, longer lasting than ‘man’ whatever he did to it and/or used it for. A relevant example at this moment in time must be Britten’s War Requiem. Will it be less relevant once the 100th anniversary of the war is completed. I think that most would argue not, it is an essential reminder, as well as a brilliant piece of work.

I, like many others, are drawn to writing before anniversaries, A piece to be released on CD in 2017 is Age of Wonders, a long work that was written to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. This particularly attracted me, not only because my first degree was in Zoology and Botany, before changing immediately to music, but because I liked the evolutionary idea in a piece of music. Beginning with the simplest of musical structures, this piece evolves from violin and piano, through string quartet and string orchestra, to complete as a work for full orchestra. The anniversary of Darwin’s birth was in 2009 and in the context of this blog, has the importance of that anniversary passed? My impression is very much that it hasn’t, and will not as contemporary attitude to religion alter and science makes more and more discoveries about ‘beginnings’, the universe and time. A few weeks ago I followed an auction where a postcard written by Darwin was on sale. Thinking it would be wonderful to have I was soon put back to reality, it sold for a few thousand pounds.

But of course, the original comment, that there is a right time to collaborate, was more I imagine intended to indicate the right level of a composer’s writing compared with who he or she is writing for. I quite understand that, while the level of the UK orchestras is of the highest standard, most composers probably get little opportunity to write for one and so that opportunity is to be treasured and used to its full. But what is also interesting is that does one definitely know when the right time to collaborate is, when does someone write their best work? And just because a work is more sophisticated than what would have been written 20 years before, is it as fresh? I couldn’t write now the equivalent of my first piano trio, I couldn’t right with that simple desire and naivety, perhaps even pleasure. I have recently put down a few sketches for another trio but I wouldn’t like to bet that it will be a better one, whatever that is, although it will certainly have more sophisticated craft and construction. In other words, what creates a good collaboration and therefore what makes a good piece is not that easy to define. Is it a richer use of harmony, more intricate rhythms, a better shape to the whole work, or on a more personal basis is it because it was written in a more settled, or more anguished time of one’s life? I don’t know, and then just to complicate it further, you can finish a piece that you wrote and think, ‘that’s the best I can do’, trouble is in a years time you know’ it wasn’t!

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