Composition Thought

two years

It is strange to reflect that it has now been two years since the first lockdown measures were introduced by the UK government. Strange too is the sense that so much of the last two years has happened outside of normal time, in some other existence. As current events, all too harsh and disconcerting, seize the discourse of the moment, the fracture from the recent past seems all the greater. That time and all that preceded it seem a very foreign country indeed: their chronology has slipped and twisted, even as their threads have unwound.

As time goes, it has been both productive and immobile, time-escaping and ageing.

In 2020, a member of Calmus Ensemble contacted me to ask if I would be willing to write a short piece for their Mozaik project – a musical postcard from the age of the coronavirus. What emerged was ‘all our numbered lives’, a short, anger-inspired requiem for the lives lost to a disease that – had humans been able to acknowledge mistakes, to collaborate, to co-operate, to look beyond the day-to-day scraping by of business and economy and political chicanery and national (or personal) pride and playing the game – could have been entirely stopped.

For all the lessons we, our leaders, could have learned, about the value of compassion and care in human affairs, there is anger still at the failure to do so: national (and personal) pride stand us on the edge of total war; politically motivated parsimony will cast millions into unwarranted poverty; and, the four horsemen will continue to stalk amongst us for the sake of those who would be our leaders’ desire to win whatever games they deem important. Games in which people’s lives are tokens, numbered and counted and drawn into forecasts, charts, infographics, arbitrary borders, and imagined communities; games in which humans are weighed without humanity.

And so, here still, and still more relevant than I could ever have imagined, ‘all our numbered lives’.

Memory Poetry

leaves fall

Leaves fall 
   like rain -
   like tears on the deathbed of summer.

– 23.10.2015

Composition Memory

2019 … 2020 I: Harvest

A year ago today, a Sunday, I caught a train from Oxford to London to conduct my choir, Côr Dinas. A few hours later, we were singing for the Harvest Festival service at their home, Capel y Borough.

In the previous weeks, I had been a little unsure what we should sing for the event, how to plan for the term. I am often uncertain of such things, particularly at the beginning of a year or term and until I get into the swing of rehearsals. Having failed to find much harvest themed material that really appealed to me, I jotted out a simple tune for the words of an old Welsh hymn, and harmonised it for upper voices. There was something agreeably straightforward about it, as an act of composition – an hour or so’s work, focussed, functional, and well-rewarded.

Along with another piece, we sang it publicly for the first time, that Sunday. After the well-attended service, the choir and congregation retired to the Chapel’s basement for a meal.

Leaping forward a year, the country, the whole of society, has been rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the choir has been unable to meet for seven months. Like so many other groups, we are unsure when we will meet again. At a similar time to last year, I am asking myself what we should do, what we should sing, and trying to plan for a slightly more than usually uncertain future.

And yet, without being remotely religious about it, remembering it is Harvest, we give thanks for what we have. No, we cannot meet and sing together, but technology enables us to get as close to that as we can. Each week, we gather online, we exchange experiences, we sing together in time, if not in space, and that is an extraordinary thing.

Memory Photography

a fallen leaf

A fallen leaf, University of Exeter, 4th October 2020.

I took this photograph whilst sitting outside the Forum at the University of Exeter on a chilly, slightly misty morning, with a filter coffee from Pret à manger. I had recently started work at the University, and was trying to settle into a routine of arriving early, drinking a leisurely coffee and absorbing the world a while before beginning the day. Maintaining that routine got harder as the Winter drew on and the weather turned wetter, but the early dry days of Autumn were filled with the colours of falling leaves.

Composition Memory

factum est silentium

Ten years ago, to the day, I was in London for the first public performance of my choral piece, Factum est silentium, at St. Paul’s Cathedral. As I wandered, taking in the atmosphere, the Shard was gradually stabbing higher into the sky, still under construction.

A black and white photograph showing St Paul's Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge seen from the South side of the Thames. The sky is clear, and bright sun falls on the bridge and the cathedral.
A photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge seen from the south side of the river. Taken by me in September 2010 using a Pentax ME Super with a 50mm prime and Ilford film.

I have been writing music since I was thirteen, choral music since sixteen; some of those early compositions are recognisably mine, but Factum est silentium marked a significant departure for more contemporary, and, to my mind, mature sounds – not just in the colouration of the chords, but in structure, tone and counterpoint. It was the first piece I entered, rather doubtfully, into a new music competition; to my still unending surprise, after being shortlisted, it won.

The text, in Latin, is short and sharp:

Factum est silentium in caelo dum comitteret bellum draco cum Michaele Archangelo.

Audita est vox milia milium dicentium: Salus, honor, et virtus omnipotenti Deo.


Antiphonal response for Michaelmas.

In English, it can be rendered as something like

Silence fell in heaven when the dragon and the Archangel Michael made war.

A voice was heard, a thousand thousand crying: Salvation, honor and virtue to almighty God.


My own, rather idiosyncratic, translation of the above.

Written for double choir and organ, the piece takes an almost visually representational approach to the mythic struggle between Michael and the Dragon: the opening sets out a glittering parallel world, the scene of the drama; after a pause, contending sections of the choirs take the parts of Michael and the Dragon as the boys compete in an effort to rise above the clamour, to be heard as a single, jarring voice; eventually, the singers coalesce into brutally declamatory chords before the whole shimmers away in an echoing ‘alleluia.’ Like the story itself, the piece was never intended to seem part of a human soundscape; rather, it was intended to evanesce like the stirring flames of clouds as they open and close about the sun.

It was performed by a select ensemble at the final of the competition, held in the Crypt of St. Paul’s earlier in the month for an audience of judges, composers, and invited guests; I remember both a sense of mild embarrassment at finding I knew some of the other competitors and their cohorts and the tense, compressed excitement and nervousness of hearing the piece for the first time, the bone-gnawing uncertainty about whether it would work or not, aloud.

The piece’s first public performance, at a Michaelmas evensong for the Worshipful Company of Musicians, was an opportunity to hear it in less tense circumstances, in the space intended, and sung by the choir and organ it had been written for; a chance to find out if it really could fill the cavernous vastness of St Paul’s. Sat in the Mayoral stalls, I listened and watched the service from a position of rare privilege, both distant and involved.

After the service, I was taken to meet the choir; the boys were disbanding for the evening in a flurry of excitement at the end of their long day. Andrew Carwood, the Director of Music at the Cathedral, asked one of them in passing what he had thought of the piece: ‘It rocks,’ he blurted, as he dashed by. As feedback on my work goes, these two syllables never fail to make me smile.

Composition Memory

strange resolutions

In the Summer of 2004, I received my first commission for a new piece of music – a fanfare to launch that year’s Arts Festival in Tenby, Pembrokeshire. My patron was my former organ tutor, John Harrison, who was arranging and directing the concert. The fanfare was to be played by a group of surprisingly dauntless young musicians from the area, rehearsing over the first few weeks of the school term.

Over the Summer vacation, I put the learnings of my first year at University to work, including the one about running to the wire by arriving at the first rehearsal with freshly printed parts. What had emerged was a five-minute lip-bruiser of a piece scored for six trumpets, tam-tam, timpani and organ that I enigmatically titled Strange resolutions. It combined traditional fanfare elements (interlocking ascending fourths and fifths, and so on) with some fairly intricate counterpoint and a disconcerting alternation between C minor and B major.

A few weeks after the first performance, still glowing with pride at my creation, I set it in front of my new composition tutor at college, Tim Brown; for his part, he looked at me in perplexity and sent me away to write something that made some sense. Some months and a number of rather unsuccessful (and unfinished) pieces later, Tim came to the conclusion that I was very good at making it seem as though I was writing something coherent when, in fact, I was assembling numerous ideas into one piece without really developing them. He addressed it directly with my next exercise, saying, to paraphrase, ‘This week, allow yourself one interval, and let that set the entire tone of the piece; when you choose the next note, it should reflect that interval. None of this one-idea-after-another nonsense. Just one idea.’

Strange resolutions still makes me smile and I quite like its many foibles and grandiose gestures, if largely for the fun of them; whatever the ins and outs of that subjective enjoyment, though, Tim was entirely right. Alongside old chestnuts like ‘10% inspiration, 90% perspiration’ and ‘write the music that you want to hear’, his advice was, and is, by far, the most important thing anyone had, and has, ever said to me about my own writing.

Each time I write, which is never enough, I thank him for it.

Here is Strange resolutions, by the by, in all its youthful quirkiness and over-enthusiasm …


echoing life

Over recent years, I have come to the conclusion that many of my interests revolve around the echoes of life.

Music is an all too obvious example: composition, distilling thought and response into sound; performance, creating sound in space and time, leaving traces of it behind in memories, recordings and ephemera; research, trying to piece together when and what music was, and how it was experienced.

Research, of history, culture, ‘the digital’, the tracing of sources and thoughts to understand how the world is experienced through the echoes left behind by human activity, trying to make sense of them, critiquing them, and tracing their patterns to create ideas and theories.

Photography, that ever more convenient effort to capture moments of particular beauty or strangeness or meaning, or the mundane, and preserve a fragment of presence for a future in which there is absence.

And all of the other things, like poetry, writing, reading, responses to current events, my own experience. Those too are echoes of life.

Here, then, is a space for the echoes and amplifications of my own experience and my own thoughts.

My life. My echoes.

I have made numerous attempts at ‘blogging over the years, and have always found it to be, at best, a sporadic activity. I begin, lose confidence in the process, make everything private, and leave it a year or two before I begin, lose confidence in the process, make everything private, and leave it a year or two, before I begin, lose confidence in the process, make everything private, and leave it a year or two, before …

Shall we see if this time is different?