I first met Peter Sheppard Skaerved in the 1980s, when I was RVW Composer in Residence at Charterhouse and he was a rising star of the contemporary music scene – although he has always been much more than a performer of new music: his creative energies know no such limits. I’m sure that I would have promised to compose a piece for him at that time but neither of us could have imagined how long it would take to materialise!
The Kreutzer String Quartet – of which Peter is leader – had had just ended their period of residency at the University of York when I began my PhD, but he kept in touch with the department and regularly returned for workshops and performances. And it was for one such workshop that I composed ‘Rough Cut’. Peter liked it and performed it during his recital that same evening, and on February 14th 2016 it received its official premiere at Wilton’s Music Hall in London.
I probably wouldn’t have been written ‘Rough Cut’ at all had I not suffered an ice-related cycling accident (broken shoulder, cracked collarbone, two broken fingers…) in early February 2015, which resulted in several weeks laid up at home and an unexpected free time bonus. Before the accident I had recently completed the ensemble piece ‘Strike’ and was considering several possibilities for the next project, but because I was combining study with full-time work I plan my composing over longer periods – typically four or five months - which generally rules out composing new pieces especially for competitions or opportunities such as this. But thanks to the aforementioned ‘cold snap’ I suddenly had an opportunity to produce something to submit. A violin solo wasn’t the piece I thought I would be writing at that time and it certainly wasn’t the outcome of rigorous pre-compositional planning, instead it drew upon two practices I sometimes revisit, namely ‘self plagiarism’- borrowing material from my own earlier pieces - and structural transfer, in which the architecture of another art form (in this case, film) has a direct input into my work.
Should I feel guilty about copying from myself? I remembered Martin Suckling presenting a composers’ seminar in which he exposed similar practice in his own music as if confessing a dark secret, and can still recall studying Stockhausen as an undergraduate (In Richard Orton’s Trans practical project) and considering how important it was for Stockhausen – and others in the heady days of high modernism – to re-invent themselves afresh with each new piece. But there were also composers who frequently quoted themselves even then: Birtwistle provides the most clearly evident examples, such as the identical harp chords which conclude both ‘Melancholia I’ and ‘Silbury Air’, and the extended repetition of the note E in several pieces in his ‘Orpheus’ phase. A little later Wolfgang Rihm has plundered existing work; his piano solo ‘Nachtstudie’ draws extensively on the piano part of his concerto ‘Sphere’ which is in turn a re-composition of material from his orchestral ‘Ins Offene…’ For me, the stolen object is usually a starting point, something to trigger the creative process and that clearly demonstrates that there isn’t just one correct way of developing an idea: a musical idea usually has multiple potentials which can’t always be fully exploited within a single piece. So ‘‘Rough Cut’’ takes the obsessive repeating motif from the beginning of ‘Strike’, transfers it from piccolo to violin and then leads it in a completely different direction. Sometimes this new line encounters other moments from ‘Strike’ but always in fresh contexts and building new relationships between the various musical components.
When I talk about film in relation to my own practice I always try to make it clear that I’m not especially interested in film music or in providing music which is descriptive or programmatic. Where my preoccupation lies is in exploring how far it is possible to transfer the techniques and processes of film making into musical terms and to apply them to composition. This might include different types of transition, for example, or adopting ‘visual’ approaches to managing pace, perspective or timing. In film editing a rough cut is the second stage of the process, following on from the initial assembly of scenes but before the final cut is produced. At this stage the basic narrative may be evident but the transitions between scenes will not be smooth, the film may appear unfinished and possibly even a little crude at times. In making the ‘Rough Cut’ the editor will play around with the material, moving blocks into different arrangements to find the best sequences and will experiment with timings and durations of scenes to find suitable proportions, to control the pace, create or release tension and maybe start to build up sections of montage to suggest simultaneous streams of activity. This process closely mirrors my approach to building musical structures during composition and the sudden, unprepared transitions, interruptions and bumpy ‘gear changes’ in ‘Rough Cut’ are integral.
Wilton’s Music Hall was the perfect setting for the premiere. Hidden away down a narrow street in the historic East End of London, it is the oldest surviving music hall in the world but until 2015 was neglected and virtually derelict. It remains undecorated so the fabric of the building can be appreciated; it has warmth and character and the perfect acoustic for chamber music. Unafraid of innovative programming, Peter programmed ‘Rough Cut’ as part of a series of concerts in which he played all of the Mozart Sonatas but it did not seem out of place in such lofty company and the sell-out audience apparently welcomed the change of style, responding well to Peter’s meticulous yet spirited and energetic reading.
The next step is for me to compose an expanded version of ‘Rough Cut’ in a new musical context, for violin with nine solo strings, with Peter’s approval. (Berio did something similar with several of his solo Sequenza works which became larger pieces in a series he called ‘Chemins’). My original plan was the violin part would remain intact, but I’ve since admitted additional rests in the soloist’s part so that the other nine players are not necessarily always playing subsidiary material. Watch this space!
‘Rough Cut’ is published by UYMP and is available for sale from Musicroom, priced £5.95