Tuesday, 22 January 2008

The Principle of Terrestrial Mediocrity

The title of this piece comes from Martin Amis's The Information:

“The history of astronomy is the history of increasing humiliation. First the geocentric universe, then the heliocentric universe. Then the eccentric universe – the one we’re living in. Every century we get smaller. Kant figured it all out, sitting in his armchair. What’s the phrase? The principle of terrestrial mediocrity.”

This provides a kind of programme for the piece - not a literal story, but a narrative of ideas perhaps. Essentially the piece is based around the Copernican realization that we are not in the center of the universe. The beginning of the piece attempts to build a harmonic world centered around D, which gradually becomes untenably complex despite desperate (and almost religious) assertions to the contrary. By pulling away this complexity a much simpler and more stable system is revealed underneath, as Copernican cosmolgy was in fact already contained with in the old, heliocentric Ptolemaic model. A flat, which has been present from the start, becomes a much more viable center of the work's universe. However, by the end, shifts of perspective and scale start to undermine that too and the Earth's D has moved even further to the margins.

I was fortunate enough to get to spend a great deal of time working with the fantastic San Francisco based pianist and composer Christopher Jones on this piece, and this is a studio recording he made of it in 2004. It is also available on CD Innova 635.

Sunday, 13 January 2008


Ficta means 'false', and in a musical context is usually applied to the addition of accidentals to the fixed modal 'gamut' of much medieval and renaissance music (notes which are false within the mode). On one level, that is what this piece does - moving from modes to chromatic and micro-tonal saturation. However, the 'falsification' runs much deeper here, and the whole piece is really a ficticious version of all sorts of aspects of music from between about 1100 and 1500. The games with style and parody - although never quotation, all the music is mine, and often created using methods that would be completely alien to a C14th composer - are something I've never returned to quite as obviously, but the practices of early music are things which continue to fascinate me and have informed my way of writing enormously.

For 9 players divided up into 3 trios, this is a rather long piece, in 5 movements, with the 4th being the longest, and the only one which uses all the trios at the same time. Here, however, you can hear the 2nd and 3rd movements, which are interconnected and the most playful and strange. This performance was at Stanford in 2002, with the ALEA III ensemble conducted by J.Karla Lemon.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Line Study

This piece was something of a departure for me. Much of my music has been concerned with the superimposition of many elements, both on top of each other as layers and in strings of very intricate objects. Here, instead, I wanted to explore a single thing - basically just a melodic line. The piece becomes a study in moving in and out of melodic and rhythmic unison, something which has often made up one layer of my work, but here instead heard on its own.

This performance is from the BMIC's Cutting Edge series, in September 2004, with Claire Edwardes playing the vibraphone, Sarah Nicholls the piano and Carlos Galvez the bass clarinet.

Broken Frames

When writing pieces for duos, I tend to find myself thinking about what kinds of relationships the two instruments can have. Here I started by reducing them to the most basic categories I could think of - they can play the same thing, they can play something different to each other, or they can play on their own. These almost sterotypical interactions provide 8 brief fragments (3 the same, 3 different, a little solo for each) that are repeated cyclically. As these cycles develop the walls separating the various fragments gradually dissolve and much richer, more fluid, relationships start to evolve.

I hope that this kind of form can mirror and model human social interaction - in this case, we dance around each other in rigid socially conditioned ways but as these rituals continue we establish something more unique and personal. My music is rarely straightforwardly optimistic in these things, though, and the ending re-casts the initial materials in a collapsed, limited, way.

The performance is by Dirk Beisse and Ernst Surberg, from Ensemble Mosaik, at an SWR Ars Nova concert in Ravensburg (the home of the jigsaw puzzle!!), June 2007.

A cello piece at Rational Rec

Last year, I was lucky enough to write a piece for the wonderful Rational Rec, a monthly event devoted to new arts in all mediums, and held at the bizarre yet perfect Bethnal Green Working Mens' Club. The whoel event was filmed by the BBC for the series Classic Britannia, and some of my piece found its way - in 5 second segments - into the programme. The bits for cello are by me, from The Fountain and the Garden, played by Kwesi Edman.....


I am a composer, pianist and teacher, based in London. My music has been played at events such as the Cheltenham Festival, the London Sinfonietta State of the Nation Weekend and the Cutting Edge series, at venues ranging from Carnegie Hall and the South Bank Center to the Bethnal Green Working Mens' Club, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and the German SWR, and recorded on the American Innova label. Recent collaborators have included the Berlin-based Ensemble Mosaik, San Francisco group Earplay, pianist Zubin Kanga, soprano Natalie Raybould and the cellists Lucy Railton, Kwesi Edman and Severine Ballon. Upcoming projects are a duo for Lucy and the violinist Aisha Orazbayeva, a new piece for Earplay's 2010-11 season and a work for the Dutch Ruysdael Quartet.

From 1998 to 2004 I lived in California, where I studied and taught and the University of California, San Diego, and Stanford, completing a doctorate supervised by Brian Ferneyhough. Before that I was a student at the Royal Academy of Music, where my teacher was Michael Finnissy, and an undergraduate at the University of Exeter.

I'm a now a full-time lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music, where I teach analysis and music theory. I also teach piano and, rather improbably, write a monthly review column on rock and pop music for Clash Magazine.

Outside music, I enjoy reading both classic and modern fiction - Middlemarch, Anna Karenina and Gravity's Rainbow are particular favorites - support Arsenal and the England cricket team, and pursue a near-obsessive interest in (mostly French) food and wine.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

The Shaggs

I'm surprising myself by wanting to write about pop music again on what is supposed to be a site about my compositional work, but The Shaggs, a truly bizarre and unique band, are having a curious and inescapable effect on my writing that has left me needing to say more about them.

Regularly called - quite wrongly in my view - the worst band of all time, what is most often talked about is their strange and sad story, centered around a small town in rural Massachusetts, and culminating in their only album, 'The Philosophy of the World'. This was retroactively discovered by, amongst others, Frank Zappa, who compared them with Ornette Colman and included it in his 5 greatest records of the century. More about their lives and history can be found in this lovely article by Susan Orlean: Meet The Shaggs .

I'm a bit more interested in talking about the music itself, however. To that end, here is perhaps my favorite song of theirs, "I'm so happy when you are near":

Now, by any rational, objective, standard this is surely astonishingly poor music. The guitars are out of tune, the vocals don't really belong in a key at all, on the rare occasions the drums are in time with the guitars the pulse is wildly unstable (check out the jump at the end of the guitar solo), and the links between the verses sound like an - unsuccessful - attempt to retune the guitars. And that's without even mentioning the lyrics, which sit in a strange grey area between inane and insane. All these things are undeniable, but I think there are aspects of absolutely genuine musical quality and creative originality that far surpass the superficial incompetence.

Firstly, the singing is quite extraordinary. The two girls may be singing out of time and tune in terms of equal temperament and 4-on-the-floor rhythm, but they are consistently together and in tune with each other. The odd intervals that make up the vocals, sitting uncomfortably between a diatonic and a whole-tone scale a lot of the time, seem shared between them; an entirely internalized, if untheoretical, tuning system of their own. There are also nods to more conventional harmonic practice that break out in a wonderfully surreal way - especially the (exquisitely flat) leading tone that's left hanging at the end of the last verse, and whose expected resolution to G is evaded by the unaccompanied E minor chord that follows. I love the way that opening and closing progression - E min, C maj, G maj - is simultaneously obvious and entirely non-functional: does the last chord feel like a tonic? Realistically, those chords are probably there only there because they are amongst the very few she could actually play, but to me they are damaged, broken, pillars, trying to tell us where we are but undermining it at the same time.

I also love the structure and pacing of the song, which is almost a cliche of the 2 minute pop song. But everything seems to happen exactly where I want it to, they know exactly what they want to say and just get on with it, there is no excess or unnecessary complication. The way the guitar solo more or less replicates the vocal melody reinforces this beautifully - give me this material relationship over 3 minutes of screaming irrelevant shredding any day...

What I'm doing here, obviously, is hearing this music with ears that have been conditioned by something quite alien to The Shaggs own experience, and I'm sure my analysis would be as foreign to them as their music is from their own imagined influences - The Monkees, Hermann's Hermits (although they found that a little racy). That's what really fascinates me about the whole issue of 'incompetent' art, though - if they'd 'succeeded' and managed to accurately emulate their late 60s low-brow pop models, it would have been totally uninteresting and formulaic. Instead, through the prism of naivety and lack of technique, comes the fresh and remarkable.

Another question is what does this have to do with my own music? The simple answer to this is that I don't know. However, there are certain things I find in their sound that I've been interested in and drawn to for far longer than I've known their music. The most obvious of these is the distorted unison, both in pitch and rhythm, which is obvious in pieces like Line Study and Broken Frames. Another is the combination of tonal materials with intervals which aren't equal tempered and their 'wrong' usages. In Ficta, for instance, that flat leading tone and the delayed resolution is everywhere! Now, though, I'm perhaps finding ways to engage with this sound world more directly.

So, despite the glaring aesthetic and cultural gulfs between the Wiggin sisters and myself, I really feel this music is both authentically valuable and has much that relates to what I'd like to do as a composer.