Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Sea Breeze - getting a new work to its first performance

Be nice to composers! Composing music is hard work, and I have the greatest of respect for those who do it. It is a kind of creativity I just don't have the talent for and have never developed the techniques for, but without composers, performers (both professional an amateur) would have nothing to play. We need composers and we need new composers to create new music.

A painter can create an entire artwork unassisted, and present it to the world only when he is satisfied it is entirely complete. A composer is dependent on others to show off his work, and does not know how the performers will make sense of the work, and whether they will be able to communicate that sense to the audience. It is tremendously hard work getting a new piece of music ready for its first performance!

For the St Clements Wind Ensemble concerts this summer I persuaded Christopher Irvin to compose a wind ensemble piece for us. I first came across Christopher when playing in the Boots Orchestra in Nottingham. In November 2008, the Boots Orchestra gave the first performance of his suite "Love Child". I very much enjoyed it, it is very much in the tradition of British light music as exemplified by composers such as Eric Coates. So on the basis of "nothing ventured nothing gained", I asked him if he would be interested in producing something for wind ensemble. I said I was pretty sure I would be able to get it performed, and described a bit about St Clements Wind Ensemble.

And Christopher did express interest. I sent him a recording of the arrangement I had made the previous year of the Brahms Serenade No. 1 in D, which I had arranged for 13 wind instruments (2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 horns, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon). We exchanged a few emails about what sort of instrumentation would be appropriate, and we settled on a double wind quintet - 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons. I suggested that he could if he wished use any of the conventional doublings - e.g. flute doubling piccolo, oboe doubling cor anglais, or clarinet doubling bass clarinet. In the end he chose to use just one of those - and had the 2nd flute play piccolo for some of the time.

To my astonishment a package arrived in the post only a few weeks later, containing a full manuscript score of "Sea Breeze". I'll let Christopher Irvin take up the narrative in his own words.

SEA BREEZE was conceived as an orchestral concert piece. I wrote it during June and July 2008 - not much in August, and completed it in September (first draft dated 6 September 2008).

From roots in Hebden Bridge, I helped form a theatre company with Freda Kelsall (TV writer, playwright and theatre director) originally to produce locally. Very soon we were touring, and accepting commissions to write and produce for nearby areas. A new piece MR PUNCH AND THE PIRATES was a commissioned family entertainment presented at the Venn Street Arts Centre, Huddersfield for Kirklees Council for Christmas 1989. It contained all that a Local Authority might think suitable for a Christmas entertainment. Only ours was to be a little different- set on the end of a pier where the arcade characters come alive and save their workplace through a series of madcap adventures. It provided excellent possibilities musically. A revised version was produced as part of our summer repertory season at Sheringham, Norfolk in 1991. We expected to stay a year or so, but ended up doing twelve seasons.

After such a long period, the tunes I could still remember vividly from this show were the ones deserving development. A printed vocal score produced at the time also helped. This was one of the first of my efforts in composition to find its way into print. To have what is essentially a short-score to hand was a great boon. Starting from absolute scratch can take forever.

On a manuscript block I created a one-line medley, with chord symbols and some immediate orchestration ideas. These primary ideas are often the best.

The whole piece was then framed on landscape-sized manuscript paper in 2B pencil . A ruler and eraser are always to hand. A one-line allocation of parts is then made. Once this has been achieved there is a moment when the task at last seems a distinct possibility.

And then the real graft begins! A page at a time is orchestrated- usually no more than two, or possibly three a day. With a vocal score as a guide, harmonisation is less arduous, except that I can't resist tinkering with my original. It might seem that more pages a day could be possible - but a some point the mind cuts off. On a normal day there are the usual e-mails/ business calls and the like to field. Occasionally I have the house to myself for a day or two and progress is more sustained.

I take the photocopied manuscript with me to Southwell in November, just before a rehearsal of my new Concert Overture LOVE CHILD to be premiered by the Boots Orchestra, Nottingham. I sing it through to the conductor, John Sheppard, who suggests I work up the jaunty hornpipe (which opened the second act of the musical play).

At the rehearsal later that evening, I'm asked by the first horn, Jonathan West, if I have something suitable for his London-based wind ensemble.

I find myself later that week with my brother and his wife in Warwickshire. They're out at work all day, so I sit at the piano thinking how to proceed. And, as if by magic, a NEW little tune materialises, with chromatic shifts, that fits in perfectly. The piece is now ready for re-scoring. I beaver away and present John with the manuscript of DECK DANCE after the premiere. John subsequently gives me the go-ahead to have the piece set. This complex task (score and parts) is done in the new year by my publisher and editor Robin Gordon-Powell.

With the expanded hornpipe it is now necessary to re-format the original SEA BREEZE manuscript. Quite a task.

Jonathan gives me some pointers as to the format required for his group. Thinking the full orchestral version of SEA BREEZE will otherwise atrophy, I decide to arrange it for the St. Clement's Wind Ensemble as a double-wind quintet (or decet). This is a relatively straightforward task, although allocating string parts to wind is a challenge. I find the bassoons are playing far too much. And as an oboist I have to resist giving the oboes all the best melodies! I sign the piece off on 9th December 2008.

The manuscript is photocopied and comb-bound, and sent to Jonathan West who acknowledges safe arrival on the 13th.

This was far faster than I had anticipated, but even so, it posed something of a problem. Christopher works using pencil and paper, but if we were going to be able to produce parts from the score, it really needed to go onto the computer. So I set to the task of transcribing the score (all 64 pages of it) onto computer using the Finale music editing program. I had limited time available - I have a day job and other musical activities, so this took me a few months. But eventually it was finished in June of this year, and I sent him back a PDF of the score and a MIDI file so that he could have a listen. I warned him that there may well be several misprints in the computer version, either from my own mistakes, or from the fact that the staves he was writing on were rather small and sometimes I couldn't quite tell whether a note was intended to be on a line or in a space.

On listening to the MIDI file myself, I was sure the piece would work - it had an end-of-the-pier feel to it, a sound that reminded me of the organs that are frequently on fairground merry-go-rounds. I was looking forward to having a chance of playing it. It would instantly bring back childhood memories of seaside holidays for just about any British audience that heard it.

Time was now getting short. If we were going to put it on in Edinburgh in August we would have to get a move on with editing. I got a list of necessary changes from Christopher and then sent the score on to our conductor Michael Round. At this point, we made the decision that we would definitely perform the piece in Edinburgh in August. The decision could not be delayed as programmes and publicity material had to be prepared for the concerts - you don't do a world premiere of a new work and not bother to put it on the publicity material!

Michael is a very experienced professional pianist, musician and teacher, and has done several arrangements for SCWE in the past. He identified a number of playability issues and also further misprints which Christopher and I had missed. But August was approaching, so I was very busy entering all the corrections onto the computer. But at some point we had to call a halt so that I could make a set of parts from the score and send them out to the players.

In principle, creating a set of parts is simple, you just tell the computer to split the score up, and it is done. But in practice it is not as easy as that. For wind players, you have to consider page turns. Wind players all need to have both hands on the instrument when playing, and so page turns have to be made to coincide with at least a couple of bars rest. I managed to do that for most instruments, but there was one point at which it turned out that the bassoons were playing without a rest for about a page and a half, or about 150 bars, and there was no remotely convenient place to turn. In the end I set the page turn at a pause, and told Michael that in the performance he might have to make the pause a bit longer!

This is always a potential problem when arranging a piece for a smaller group than it was originally written for, and I had had similar issues when arranging the Brahms Serenade - the bassoons end up playing the viola and cello parts and have no rest at all.

Michael continued to make edits to his copy of the score, and we finally all assembled in Edinburgh on August 11th for the first rehearsal of the piece together. The first part of the rehearsal was spent making pencil markings in the parts of further changes that Michael had made, correcting further misprints and giving individual players a few bars tacet here & there to make it easier to turn pages and to catch breath and recover their lip. Although Michael is a pianist, in the time he has spent conducting SCWE he has grown wise in the ways of wind players!

We had 2 days of rehearsal, on the 10th and 11th, to prepare 4 concerts, on the 12th, 13th and 14th of August, plus rehearsals on the day of the concerts themselves. We spent about half a day on the 11th on Sea Breeze, and some time in the afternoon of 13th at St Marks Unitarian Church prior to the performance.

In total we did 4 concerts. On 12th August, we did a concert of quintet music at St Marks. On 13th August we included the larger pieces in the programme, the first performance of Sea Breeze, the Mozart C Minor Serenade, and an arrangement for wind ensemble of the Mozart Fantasia for Mechanical Organ.

On 14th August we played two concerts in Canongate Kirk, a lunchtime concert where some members of the group played solo pieces with piano, and an afternoon concert where we repeated the programme from the previous day, including the second performance of Sea Breeze. Then, tired but happy, we all repaired to the pub for a well earned drink and then off to a restaurant for a celebratory meal.

But the work on Sea Breeze was not yet finished. To make it ready for publication, we still needed to incorporate the latest changes and corrections to the score and generate a new corrected set of parts from it. This was finally completed on 1st October.

You can listen to the concert recording of the Canongate Kirk performance. The acoustic in Canongate Kirk is very resonant, and this is reflected in the recording itself. But it is the best we can do so far!

If you like it, you can buy a copy of the score and parts from here.

I think it is a delightful piece, and I'm sure SCWE will put it on again sometime. Thank you Christopher. We all really enjoyed rehearsing and performing it!

1 comment:

  1. Jonathan - Have just gotten around to having a good focused listening to this piece and it's really well done, and as you say, delightful. It sounds as if it's really fun to play and that enjoyment by the players comes through the music. I haven't heard this particular combination of players before and it allows for wonderful timbre colors and voicings of chords. Congratulations on helping it come into being.