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Thoughts on Playing and Composing

From my earliest musical encounters, I have been fascinated by combining instrumental sounds, observing how they interact with one another. I always wondered how a single line in a polyphonic piece of music could have its own contours and identity, but assume a new dimension when sounding in relation to the other lines composed around it. For both composer and player this means perceiving lines to "intertwine", rather than "run in parallel". Perhaps this is part of what Celibidache meant by "reduction" - striving towards a perfect integration of disparate musical lines, to arrive at a single, unified musical force.

Brought up in a family where practical music making was an integral part of the musical experience, and linked to my later activities as instrumentalist, I have a predeliction for chamber music. In performance there is a subtler, livelier, more immediate communication among a small number of players. From the composer's point of view, musical form, indispensable for the conveying of a piece's "emotional" or "expressive" content, needs to be laid out all the more transparently and clearly, without the welter of orchestral sound to define the structure. In a chamber ensemble, agogic alterations and details of phrasing may be far more differentiated. My music aspires to appeal to the imagination and musicianship of the performers to bring it to life - a vital factor for the expressive and communicative impact of a piece.

I have also been drawn to the challenges of writing for a solo instrument, i.e. "melodic" instruments rather than keyboard instruments. Deprived of the usual connotations of harmony and counterpoint this stretches one's compositional resources and the result can be music the more technically challenging for the player. Recently, the renewed wish for "inter-reaction" with the solo cello has prompted my turning to the combination with the spoken word. Whilst each element, i.e. poetry and the musical composition, may be perceived separately, together there is a "dialogue", or a "chemical bonding" where each relies upon and enhances the other.

Celibidache's advocacy of vertical and horizontal awareness is relevant both to player and composer. Just as the player must be aware of his continually changing function within the musical whole, involving a "global" awareness of aspects of form, tonality (static or in modulation), phrasing, timbre and balance, so too the composer has simultaneously to maintain control over many different parameters whilst writing. The composer also has to handle different time-spans. Whilst inspiration, the invention of musical material, may be momentary and contained within a fleeting, unforeseen instant of lucidity, the construction, logical development and working out of the material calls for concentration over a far longer stretch of time.

I try to write bearing in mind the specific characteristics of the instruments and indeed, if relevant, the performers-to-be. One constantly imagines in one's inner ear how intervals and figurations will have a different sound and energy and which will best suit the expressive potential of a particular instrument. If one can capture the innate voice of an instrument, this too can enhance the spontaneity and impact of a piece of music. Musicologists have referred to a delight in "virtuosity" as a recurring trait of British music since the days of the 16th century Elizabethan composers; also a certain predeliction for the forms and tonal structures of the European music tradition, albeit seen through a "detached" and possibly slightly "satirical" gaze. I find myself drawn to both these characteristics - possibly part of the "English" traits in my work - curious perhaps for one who has spent such a long time living and working so far away from his country of birth.

The germs of the musical argument should ideally burgeon and grow as a cell or tiny organism undergoes change and development in Nature. One hopes for a natural unfolding of the musical discourse within a piece. The goal for every piece is that in performance it assumes an autonomous life and identity of its own, progressing/moving in time and space as if under its own momentum and energy. When this happens, these are precious and uplifting moments, and ultimately the reason for spending the time and patience in creating new works.

Graham Waterhouse – 2009

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