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Notes from a composer, Part 9 - Staying Light

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Michael Zev Gordon Michael Zev Gordon | 17:40 UK Time, Thursday, 1 December 2011

Edgar Degas: Two Dancers Resting (pastel)

Edgar Degas: Two Dancers Resting (pastel)

Composer Michael Zev Gordon is writing a new piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Here's his ninth post explaining the process

Fast and light is very difficult to maintain. As a performer, the bow is easily too heavy for a moment, the breath loses its constancy, the urge to shape creates over-emphasis. It’s just the same for the composer. A phrase sags, buoyancy is lost, and most of all the music can so quickly get overrun with too many notes. How right Schoenberg was, in his composition manual, to warn against letting the ‘smallest notes’ take over!

As I battled my block of the last few weeks, perhaps as much as anything it was this that was stopping me in my 5th movement, On Gossamer Wings. Not that I had too few notes - but too many. And I’ve found the danger of ‘over-writing’ especially hard to resist in composing for large orchestra. Perhaps it was a particularly difficult challenge to set myself. For the image I had in mind was of something up in the air, as if flying – as weightless as possible, untrammeled, continuously on the move. And to make 80 or so musicians try to do that felt at times almost contradictory.

There are of course many examples of perpetuum mobile-type movement in the repertoire, and the symphonic scherzo is in the background to my piece. But most of these are earth-bound dances rather than heaven-directed flights. Orchestral lightness instead normally seems to come with spaciousness and stillness. But there are exceptions of course – Mendelssohn for example, Berlioz at times, and when I’ve thought particularly of the second movement of Debussy’s La Mer, I’ve been suitably inspired and humbled. How extraordinary the way the music rises and falls, somersaults and floats: water is as good an extra-musical trigger as air.

So what have I learnt from Debussy? And how did I break the block?! For a start  - and it’s a big and basic one – orchestration, even of loud music, can be made delicate in all kinds of ways. One instrument or group can trigger or overlap with another, an illusion of lightness can come from the speed of change of the sonic palette rather than simply from the turnover of notes. Then there’s a very careful ear given to register: high notes immediately lighten the sound, but subtly placed low ones, or cushions of sound can give spring and lift. The interplay of particular rhythms, their lilt and flux, adds to lightness; and the careful avoidance of downbeats or over-emphasis of metre is terribly important. I’ve thought too of what Ligeti said about his Piano Concerto: he wanted to achieve ‘lift-off’ there through his use of poly-metric layers.

And then there’s the image of waves. Debussy’s full of it of course. But so is music in general – from Bach to Berio. And what freed me up in the end was finding a way to pull back rhythmically and in terms of harmonic movement at a certain point in the piece, only then to be able to allow the music to ‘break out’, or fly higher, later on. But I had to be careful to reduce things down without losing momentum, and I did this by decreasing the number of notes, but increasing the layering of different pulses. This way, I hope, the music stays buoyed up, expectant, energy-full.

Well, the metaphor has moved from air to sea! But talking about music is often most expressive when using metaphors. And so here’s another of sorts. Last weekend I went to the Degas exhibition at the Royal Academy and was especially struck by one late painting called Two Dancers Resting. There they are, the dancers, appearing to do nothing – and yet the colour of the pastels, the mixture of definition and blur, is doing everything. The painting is marvelously poised - between vivid textural richness and the restraint of the subject. It’s as light as a feather. Here’s hoping my piece is that too.

  • Find out more about Michael Zev Gordon here.
  • Read his eighth post: In the wilderness
  • Read his seventh post: Still centre
  • Read his sixth post: Venice once again
  • Read his fifth post: Found Objects
  • Read his fourth post: Lost Worlds
  • Read his third post:Time Travel.
  • Read his second post: The composer's dilemma, what to call the piece?
  • Read his first post: Composing as it happens.
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