How to start? That’s always a good question.
I’ve been composing music since I was eight or nine years old, doodling on my Grandma’s old piano. Since then I have made up quite a few pieces, none of which are famous. But I carried on anyway because it was fun. And it still is today more than half a century later.
I don’t usually start at the beginning of the piece, but work on the bits that first come into my head. I go back and compose the start when I have plenty of ideas already planned. My latest work is one of my most ambitious yet. It is called A Derbyshire Suite and is a collection of movements, or sections, loosely based on songs and dance tunes from Derbyshire, the county where I was born and where I still live.
What do I do to a short tune to create a seven or eight-minute piece? To my mind I just play around with it but that doesn’t tell you much about the process of composing. The first part of A Derbyshire Suite is almost finished. It just needs a little bit more detail, mainly a little more colour. No, it’s not a painting. By colour I mean the sound of different instruments. There is a wide choice in an orchestra.
The first part is based on a short dance tune called Black Boy which was included in a book from Ashover in the late 1700s. It is slightly unusual for a dance tune because it contains more “classical” ideas than most country dance tunes. It starts with an arpeggio or broken chord then changes key (it starts in G major and moves to D major). There is a rhythmic feature called syncopation where the beat is disrupted, then some more key changes and more syncopation.
Music is mainly made up of rhythm and melody. The melody usually comes in short phrases which can be repeated or extended. I like to chop up the original melody and make extended phrases out of the chopped-up bits. This is often a process of experiment and revision. Bit by bit the piece grows. At times it seems to me like discovering a piece that already exists in the cosmos, but which hasn’t been brought down to earth yet. It is all great fun and very, very entertaining. I sincerely hope other people like the piece too, and I hope that one day you might get a chance to hear it. But the fun for me is building it all in the first place. Or should that be discovering it?
First of all I sketch out a version of the piece just for piano. I then have more fun by choosing which instruments will play which bits. Then there is a choice of texture. Will the tune be on, say, flute or on flute and clarinet together? Will the string section have long notes for the harmony or a more rhythmic way of playing their notes? Will the tune be accompanied by any harmony at all? Should I use plain chords or more colourful and exotic ones. I usually use standard chords of three or four notes but sometimes the music calls for something else. For example, the opening of the second movement is a chord built up from the first two notes of the song Hugh Stenson and Molly Green. I build this up in layers and there isn’t a name for the resulting chord! It is dramatic though and sets the scene for the sad story which ensues.
As an orchestral player in the past I remember being annoyed when I sometimes had to sit there with hardly a note to play. So I always try to keep all the players reasonably busy; but at the same time I have to include some contrast – it would be very tiresome for the listener if I had all the players playing all the time.
I hope I have given you some idea of why I find composing a piece like A Derbyshire Suite so much fun.