I must confess, I thought this would be easier! Composing, for me, is generally a solitary practice, and whilst I love collaborations of all kinds, ultimately I work alone, sitting in my office/studio tearing out my remaining hair, sobbing quietly or wondering where all the time has gone. I like to talk through ideas and plans with performers (choreographers, directors etc) but there comes a point where I need to sit down alone to get the work done. I prefer longer expanses of time for composing, if possible; from experience, it’s not something I can squeeze into in the odd ten minutes between other jobs (although that’s sometimes where the best ideas originate). So the government-enforced lockdown at first appeared to be an unexpected bonus, with a seemingly endless stretch of high-quality composing opportunity, reaching into the unmeasured distance.
But of course, that is not how it has worked out; it isn’t easy, and a significant number of artists have all complained that they are struggling to work under these strange conditions.
The first thing which struck was that all concerts were cancelled. Whilst I am not performing very much at the moment, that did mean that all performances of my pieces have been cancelled or postponed. It turns out that a great deal of the energy and impetus that I find for composing comes from hearing my pieces performed - after a good performance I’m really buzzing, but it isn’t long before I am looking forward to the next one - and through interaction with the fantastic performers I get to work with. Suddenly, composing became an even more lonely occupation, and it did not take long to realise that a great deal of the motivation for composing comes from others; bookshops and art galleries also closed, cutting me off from other sources of ideas and creativity.
With no performances, I found that commission deadlines soon disappeared, and those deadlines are crucially important in bringing a sense of order and certainty to my composing life. There’s a fairly standard routine for completing pieces to deadlines, which allow performers to learn and rehearse pieces before a first performance, but I prefer to set my own deadline a few weeks before the ’official’ one so that there is some capacity for delay; I also like to spend time with the pieces, performing them for myself to make sure they’re as complete as they can be before posting them.
When lockdown was first announced, I imagined that I’d have more time for composing, but the reality was that it takes much longer to do my university work from home than it does on campus. Online meetings, students with a wide range of genuine concerns, colleagues with significant childcare needs and an immediate need to redesign our teaching delivery and assessment, all contributed to a very demanding workload; Easter holidays were cancelled – there was nowhere to go in any case – in order to make sure that students could successfully complete the academic year. If anything there was a reduction in the time available for composing, nor was there very much of that necessary ‘thinking space’, away from the studio where ideas are sometimes more fluid and unrestricted.
So it was with some sense of trepidation that I considered how to respond when Harrogate International Festival got in touch with a really great idea…