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Notes from a composer, Part 6 - Venice Once Again

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Michael Zev Gordon Michael Zev Gordon | 15:04 UK Time, Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Image of J M W Turner: The Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, 1843

J M W Turner: The Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, 1843


Composer Michael Zev Gordon is writing a new piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Here's his sixth post explaining the process and his thoughts along the way.

Venice has always obsessed me. A dream city, an impossible city, a city of impossible beauty. Rising out of its waters, sinking back into them, the waters somehow the container of its history.

This, the third movement of my set of seven, is already the fourth piece I've composed connected with Venice - and so by now there is a kind of personal history there too. And I've come to feel all this in terms of different layers, one thing upon another, one thing emerging out of, submerging into, another. And at the heart of this, the image of water, lapping, ebbing, dark yet glinting. At the same time - and this is the danger - I've known that I could end up with a piece that has too many layers, too many twisting tendrils, too rich - where water becomes mud.

As I write this, I'm still wrestling with this central issue, searching to keep the image of rich layeredness intact, but in a way that stays resonant and translucent. And I realise that in a more general way, this is always my problem, whatever the material: how to control my expressive urge, and not let the material I produce overrun and spoil the vision.

I've just come back from a few days in Holland, some of it in another watery city - Amsterdam - where I spent happy hours with a composer friend, Andries van Rossem, discussing these things. And I studied in fact in Holland too, long ago, with Louis Andriessen, where I came face-to-face, as the rather Romantically-inclined young Brit I was, with ideas about objectivity - how to control and limit my materials, how to focus on clear images. Yet I know I will always be in the spirit of Turner rather than Mondriaan, if you like - and so will always have to strive all the harder to keep my material reined in than my more coolly-oriented Dutch colleagues.


In this Venetian case what I've been focussing on is one tiny little musical pattern - a short-long rhythm at various different speeds. And I had the idea that when very slow this would be like deep waters, when very fast more like the glint of light on the surface. But I also wanted to put the figures together, have depth and surface simultaneously - and I had the idea that brief, more melodic material with gondolier-song dotted rhythms should push through this ebbing material. As I've written more and more of the piece, melodies have persistently wished to push through, and the piece has reached a big, clashing climax - much bigger than I had originally intended.

So what have been my solutions to allowing elaboration and richness and not getting totally clogged down by it? Often in the act of composing, things feel very 'hand-made', and one feels vulnerable because of that. But looking even from the distance of this blog, the principles are a little clearer. From the point-of-view of rhythm, I've countered complex moments with simpler ones - and so there is a kind of drama of rhythm; with texture I always try to remember Rimsy-Korsakov's golden rule of having more space in the lower regions of the orchestra, so following the natural harmonic series; with pitch - much the hardest thing - it's a continual search for a balance between the rich expressive chromatic and the sweeter, gentler diatonic, looking for sounds that hover or push on depending on the moment, to be guided by one's ears.

But what does it mean to be guided by one's ears?! I think for me it's spending much time listening in to what the 'deep' harmony of a piece is. In this case it's the realisation that only came as the piece slowly came into focus, that the piece was made of many kinds of 3rds - major, minor, augmented, diminished. I had to stick with these - Dutch-like - to maintain the image, but give room for unpredictable change too - to allow my Romantic tendency to expand.

There are indeed two other Romantic sources here:  the sounds of the harp accompaniment (also 3rds and 6ths) from the start of the Adagietto from Mahler's 5th Symphony. However imaginary, the sound of that music in Visconti's film of Death in Venice will always connect it to me with the city and with a marvellous feeling of loss and nostalgia. And then, three short quotes from the start of a Baroque oboe concerto - by the Venetian composer Benedetto Marcello. Not stylistically Romantic, but absolutely in its spirit - and full of extra expressivity for me because I once played the piece in my oboe-playing youth, and because of the effect it has in a very unlikely place - in Werner Herzog's film of Woyzeck, just when Woyzeck drowns himself. This piece is even a kind of self-quotation, as I extensively used the piece in my Oboe Concerto.

So - many layers! But as I refine again and again - I still am - trying to give room for lightness too. For at all costs, music must breathe.



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