I’ve sometimes thought that it is more difficult to write for an instrument that you play, than one that you don’t. Over the years I’ve written for almost every instrument, but I can hardly play any of them. Whenever I write for an instrument that I don’t play, I do try to understand how it works, and how the player lives with it, and this informs the way that I write for it and the musical ideas that I have.
But the instrument that I grew up with was the piano, which has been my constant companion ever since, and I often compose sitting at it. The danger of doing this, of course, is that one’s fingers move towards shapes and patterns that they are used to playing, and possibly towards actual pieces learnt in the past that the fingers still remember. And, although when I was a child and teenager I often wrote for the piano, for much of my life I tended to avoid writing for solo piano on the whole, though of course I wrote for it all the time as an accompaniment or ensemble instrument. It was writing educational piano music, perhaps around the turn of the century, that brought me back to writing for the solo piano, and then later more advanced pieces too.
There is perhaps a stylistic issue here, too. I’ve always delighted in the rich romantic character of the piano – the ability to create a wide range of textures, pitches, and moods, and I think I am perhaps happier now to reference the past in my own music, in a way that was really unfashionable when I was younger, and I’ve gained more confidence in doing that. So during this century I’ve been continually writing piano pieces, some of which I’ve collected into sets, like the two books of preludes, and some of which are just sitting on my desk awaiting a home. During lockdown I started to write some pieces influenced by the twelve-bar blues chordal sequence, and put a small group of them together – and these, then titled ‘Shades of Blue’ were performed by Maria Marchant at a virtual concert broadcast on social media in a series called ‘Seven Notes in Seven Days’. Then, a little later, I added some more pieces, revised the earlier ones, and, now renamed Aspects of Blue, they are published by Editions Musica Ferrum.
As the pieces developed, I realised that my purpose was to create a set of pieces that referenced different musical styles – the blues, obviously, but also baroque, classical, romantic, and more contemporary styles. But the thing that links them is that they are all based on the twelve-bar-blues chordal sequence. This, actually, is a very ‘classical’ sequence, using the three chords which underpin most classical music, and so it has the simplicity, and therefore flexibility, to be used in many different ways. Thus the set begins and ends with two very different movements (‘Deep Blue’ and ‘Electric Blue’), but both of them responding to aspects of the twentieth century American blues tradition. In between these, there are pieces largely in the seventeenth / eighteenth century classical tradition (‘Stately Blue’) and in the nineteenth and early twentieth century romantic tradition (‘Blue Sky’ and ‘Light Blue’). A more rhythmic and relatively contemporary style is found in ‘Bluetooth’, and ‘Blue River’ is a song-like suggestion of musical theatre style.
PS, following my last week’s post, ‘He will speak peace’ was beautifully performed by The Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, at their Service of Remembrance on 12 November. You can see and hear the service here: