As a small child, I was intent on trying to copy the sounds that I heard around me. I created patterns of whistled melodies that I linked together in different combinations. Eventually, when I received flute and piano lessons, I began to create pieces on these instruments. I was keen to improvise using sounds in an attempt to capture feelings and experiences in the moment. I thus considered that my composing was a mirror of my experience and thought, like philosopher Immanuel Kant, who regarded art as a reflection of life. Kant wrote that ‘art can only be termed beautiful, where we are conscious of its being art; while yet it has the appearance of nature.’ Unless a piece of music copies an actual sound, it is an abstract art form. However, it is possible for a composer to associate certain sounds and sequences with meanings. I consciously create sounds that represent emotions, ideas or characters in my works. I believe that this helps me to convey meaning and may aid the listener to recognise pattern and structure in the work.
Two composers who have influenced my approach to composition are, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934–2016), and Edgard Varèse (1883–1965). I have performed Varèse’s solo flute piece, Density 21.5, many times. The music of Varèse introduced me to a sound world that appealed to me – music that is melody-led, imitates sounds from the environment, features wide intervals and appears, initially, to be rhythmically free. My solo flute piece, Tantrum, features the same components. It attempts to portray the raw emotion of a small child who is angry and inconsolable.
The consideration of pieces of music that have left a powerful impression on me has led me to realise that I particularly value works that have to invent a new language in order to express what needs to be said. I endeavour to write each of my pieces with an open mind as to the requirements of pitch, form, rhythm and harmony. Certain melodic fragments seem to recur - although they are rarely identical. For the most part, I am content to work within the confines of equal temperament and regular (but constantly changing) time signatures. My music is eclectic with regard to tonality in the sense that I like to mix diatonic, modal, chromatic, and atonal sounds as well as those from other cultures. I do not feel the need to unify my material by being exclusively wedded to one school of thought or historical fashion. I experiment with sounds that are held together in a collage-style piece with something other than a diatonic harmonic structure. Edgard Varèse also built chords around pitches that did not relate to functional harmony, often using pitches that related to the overtone series or sounds chosen for their timbral effect rather than their relationship to a particular key.
I have written a number of pieces that focused on patterns of melodic intervals or motifs. This has led to thoughts about repetition and experimentation with pieces that used phrases reminiscent of previous material in the same piece that were similar but not identical. This way of working with melodic development was a result of an interest in the form of shakuhachi (Japanese flute) music. The aurally transmitted collection of music played by the Honkyoku school was possibly created as long ago as the twelfth century. Many of these solo pieces have a basic phrase that reappears several times with more tones, effects or ornaments added as the music progresses. I similarly enjoy working with a process of continual transformation as ideas return but are always changed.
Hifumi Hachigaeshi - played by Katushi Matama is one of the Honkyoku traditional pieces for solo shakuhachi.
Many of my works have a back-story and are sometimes about a particular time and place. I admire many of Maxwell Davies’ compositions that convey a strong sense of time and place and take a story for their inspiration. This can be overt in pieces like Eight Songs for a Mad King or act as a backdrop in a composition such as the Second Symphony. Musical symbols can become part of the storytelling function of a piece. For example, my string trio, Betrayal, tells the story of two Viking earls who ruled jointly. One was jealous of the other and ordered his assassination. My music describes the horror of the recognition of betrayal and knowledge that death is imminent. This trio is part of my opera, The Story of Magnus Erlendsson which premiered at the St Magnus Festival in 2017.
I hypothesise that a satisfying piece of new music creates symbols that each listener can attach meaning to even though the sounds and structures of the piece may be unfamiliar. I have explored this idea more fully with my found sound electronic pieces that have accompanied sculpture installations. Found and The Fabian Strategy
were created in collaboration with sculptor Craig Ellis. I have recently set up a bimonthly series of inter-disciplinary performances called The Experimental Music Project with a view to promoting events that remove boundaries between different art forms and allow audiences to be more inter-active.
© Gemma McGregor, 2018
Dr Helen Thomas