It’s always good for an artist to refresh their practice, and for a couple of years now I’ve been thinking about taking a ‘composer’s holiday’: emphatically not a break from composing but somewhere I could retreat with like-minded individuals in order to concentrate on my craft for a short while, develop my network and expose myself to new ideas.
After some research I booked a place on Gavin Bryars’ programme at CAMP France. I have admired Gavin’s music since my own student days and had been delighted when he agreed to act as my PhD external examiner back in 2016; musically we seem to have a lot in common, so this seemed a natural choice. The course was held at CAMP’s premises in Aulus-les-Bains, high in the Pyrenees, a two-hour drive south of Toulouse. Determined to reduce the time I spend on planes, I made the journey by rail, which entailed a night in Paris on both legs of the journey: I took full advantage of this with visits to three of my favourite places (Sainte-Chapelle, Montmartre and the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages) during my short time there. Then there was the long train journey between Paris and Toulouse on the very impressive French rail network, watching the changing landscape as we headed south; as a student of medieval history it was fascinating to pass through Angouleme, Bordeaux, Aquitaine and Gascony, once the domain of English kings Henry II and Richard I.
The timing of this programme was very good for me, in that I had taken on several different compositional projects in the last few months and was starting to worry about falling behind. I took three of those pieces to France with me, each at different stages of completion, and relished the time to immerse myself in their development. The first of those was a piece for cello and piano which, on the one hand, looked complete, and yet I had reservations about some aspects of the structure and the relationship between form and duration: it is cast in a development of the ‘montage’ form I first used in ‘Grotesques’, all carefully planned and realised, yet it felt about 30 seconds shorter than it needed to be, and there were aspects of the musical narrative that didn’t quite work as well as they ought to have done. When Gavin Bryars saw the score he picked this up too, and also brought to bear his expertise as string player, suggesting several techniques to reinforce the cello’s sound and add to the resonance of its tone at some points in the piece. The structural issue to a little while to resolve: it turned out to be a question of balance in that an idea which I deployed quite extensively in the first half of the piece needed to be developed further in the second, rather than condensed. ‘Canzone Sospesa’ will be performed in Italy in the autumn. As the name might suggest, it is a compositional study of our perception of time passing, something of an obsession of mine at the moment – see below!
The second piece is a setting of Dylan Thomas’ poem ‘The force that through the green fuse’ for tenor and piano. When I arrived in Aulus-les-Bains I had completed the first of four stanzas, which gave me a template for the remaining text, but not a real sense of the architecture of the song as a whole. The words – one of Thomas’ best-known lyric poems – deal with man’s relation to nature, and the effect of time passing: whilst the forces of nature/time lead us to maturity they also bring us closer to death. I spent most of my week in France working on this song, and under Gavin’s watchful eye I was able to develop the vocal line in a way that best captured the structure and meaning of Thomas’ text, but also to become more adventurous in my piano writing, using the full range of the instrument and a wider range of textures than in previous piano accompaniments. Strangely (to my ears, anyway) the church clock in Aulus-les-Bains chimes the hour twice, once on the hour and once a couple of minutes later, apparently for the benefit of farmers working in the mountains who might have missed the sound of the first bell. So my mind was full of the sound of chiming bells as I composed music dealing with the passing of time, and certainly the piano part includes both bells and the sound of ticking clocks. ‘The Force that through the green fuse’ will be sung in York in November as part of a programme to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the poet’s death.
The third piece that travelled to France with me is a piano solo for Matthew Schellhorn, which only existed as a few scribbled notes as I travelled to France. I’ve discussed with Matthew the idea of composing something motivated by the life and writings of Bede, cleric, scholar and historian, who is buried in Durham Cathedral. Bede theorised extensively about time and how it is measured: he was possibly the first to use the BC/AD dating system, and he was seriously preoccupied with the method of calculating the timing of Easter each year (at a time when parts of the Catholic church celebrated Easter on different dates). On my walks around Aulus-les-Bains I was able to devote some thought to the architecture of the piece and how to find parallels between the legacy of Bede and my own creative efforts, so although I left for Paris still holding little more than a handful of sketches, I have begun to develop a clearer understanding of how they might all fit together.
My week in Aulus-les-Bains was hugely beneficial, both in terms of having time to think and write, and for the inspirational support and guidance of Gavin Bryars. The company was great too: a fabulous bunch of (very different) composers from around Europe and the US, all of whom shared their work at the end of the project, and we ate well (and consumed a significant quantity of vin rouge) which clearly helped the creative juices to flow.