A Chip off the Old Block
I’ve just completed a fanfare which is to be played at the investiture of York St John University’s new Vice-Chancellor, Karen Stanton, in York Minster on 17th October. Unfortunately it is very unlikely that you will get to hear it, as these events are always ‘sold out’ long in advance.
However if you’ve heard one of my ‘Minster fanfares’ before you will have a fair idea how it will sound: the trumpets will be spaced out around the nave, and they will play each play a short phrase before playing a strict canon which will fill the whole, vast building with sound. Yes, every time I have to compose a new fanfare to be played in the Minster I recompose an old one. I now have a sequence of fanfares dating back to the last century, all of which have more than a strong family resemblance to one another, yet none are ever quite the same. One year I used saxophones instead of trumpets, another year featured an added part for timpani and yet another year finished on an outrageous triad on the submediant. They are all different and yet they are all the same.
If I understand him correctly, Theodore Adorno wanted each and every piece of music to stand alone, independent, self-reliant and self contained. A new piece had to innovate and find different directions, exploring novel techniques and bravely pushing forward the progression of music. Unfortunately my mind doesn’t seem to work that way, and that certainly isn’t how I experience life and the things around me. As I look at York Minster it remains fundamentally unchanged from one day to the next. However as I walk towards and around the building from different directions I experience it from a seemingly infinite number of viewpoints, angles, perspectives and contexts, and every day I discover something new. Sometimes I catch a momentary glimpse of a small part of the Minster between other buildings, or a part that has been covered by scaffolding is revealed; sometimes the quality of light changes the colour of the stone or throws some detail into shadow, sometimes I very consciously examine a particular aspect of the building but at other times I am only generally aware of its presence…and so on. Put simply, there is no single, all-embracing view of the Minster which erradicates the need ever to look again from other angles. The recurring features in my music play a similar role, recognisably the same but always changed by context, environment, instrumentation, tempo and dynamic to offer something recognisably the same but different, and no one piece will ever capture the entirity of an idea.
I have a perpetual sense that I am always occupied in the writing of a larger, overarching piece, one which can never exist as a single entity, and with each new work I write I am trying to capture something of the essence of that bigger piece more completely than before (although that is probably an impossible task, rather like seeing the whole of a three-dimensional object in a single glance). Each new work adds an additional, hitherto unforeseen dimension to something much bigger. And it’s like that with the fanfares: each one represents a different aspect of a single ur-fanfare, revealing a different part of something out there which is fixed and which is too large to see all at once. All we can do is glimpse a part of it and allow our memories to complete the picture.
I should add here that this isn’t laziness, falling back on the soft option of rehashing some old stuff rather than creating something fresh! In many ways, writing something new and ‘self sufficient’ would be much easier and I’d never have to concern myself with looking back to previous work or forward to the next one. In spite of all of this, there is lots of genuinely new material in my work, and I’m never short of ideas! Whilst Herr. Adorno might well be turning in his grave, I will be looking up at the Minster once again and marvelling at something I’ve never noticed before.