Until I sat down to write this, my first 17 Days blog, I didn't quite realise how difficult it was to write about my own music. There's a sense that I don't want to look too closely at my creative process in case I break the spell. But at the same time, I would like to use this blog as a way of telling you a little about how I am approaching this vast new piece for Crouch End Festival Chorus and hopefully to shine a light on the kinds of exertions and mental assault courses I have tackled and continue to tackle in the creation of 17 Days. After all, composing is a pretty unusual thing to do with your time. The very idea of trying to imagine an original musical language and structure and then trying to write it down on manuscript paper is, frankly, nuts.
But the creative process fascinates me. I'm actually a bit of a nerd when it comes to discovering little details about other composer's working processes like: what grade of pencil do they use? Do they sit at a piano? Do they use Sibelius? etc. I guess that I'm really looking for confirmation from a peer that the way I create music myself is in some way valid. In practice, I find it useful to constantly shift perspectives on a composition as I'm writing it. Like a painter moving around the room to see their canvas from as many different angles as possible, I find that I'm pretty much in a constant state of flux moving from the piano, to the computer, to composing in my head (usually whilst cycling). But for 17 Days I've tried to impose a modicum of discipline on this approach. And so the music often begins in my head. This happens very consciously, I don't dream musical ideas (at least not ones I can remember) and I rarely find that music sneaks up on my without me knowing. Instead I have to make a conscious effort to imagine what the music would ideally sound like to fulfil a specific function in the piece. It can often take many hours of this kind of purely cerebral composition before the music starts to take on a concrete form.
The next step is to start trying to find the notes at a piano. It's usually at this point that the original conception of the piece dissolves and distorts to meet the capabilities of what my fingers can conjure at the piano. So it's absolutely vital for me to avoid slipping into comfortable hand-shapes at the keyboard, over-used gestures that will tether the free-flying music too firmly to the ground. I do this in a number of ways: by crossing my hands over to find chords, moving the piano stool up and down the keys, standing up, closing my eyes, anything, in fact, to avoid slipping into anything too comfortable. If I negotiate this particular obstacle with an acceptable degree of success I will then write the music out completely longhand (with a black fine-tipped pen, in case you were wondering. Although I'm pretty sure you weren't). I will then copy the music up into Sibelius. Which is when some real enemies to genuine creativity loom out of the darkness like a swarm of thirsty vampire bats. But I'll get back to that another time…
17 Days is a work in progress for large chorus, children's choir, brass ensemble and percussion. The 17 days in question are those spent by a group of 33 Chilean miners and their families in August 2010 when a substantial section of the San Jose mine in Northern Chile collapsed, trapping the men 700 metres below the ground. The initial concept for the piece came from David Temple and immediately I could see the dramatic potential of the scenario. Coincidentally, the idea was originally discussed the night before the miners started emerging from the mine in front of an audience of billions. That all seems like such a long time ago now. I've passed through so many different creative directions, dead ends, rewrites and mass deletions that I must have written over four hours of material that will never be used. And there is still a fair old distance remaining to travel. As it stands today, the piece is 29 minutes long and it will be 39 minutes before it's finished and rehearsals can get underway. Which, of course, is when the fun really begins.