One thing leads to another…

Today has been one of those bitty days when I can’t quite settle to anything. A twitter chum of mine had a comedy exchange with a twitter chum of his, which resulted in this:

While dead in sin and error’s way,
My soul was troubled greatly.
My grief o’ertook me night and day,
Pain was all I did see.
The light of the Gospel grace did shine,
My darkened soul arose.
Made anew,
Baptized, too,
By water and the Spirit now a-living.

(by Revd Alex Klages)

I like odd metres. I like Lutheran chorales. So instead of tidying up I seem to have written a melody… here it is, played by a robot guitar:

Harmonisation to follow, and if I get appropriate permission I’ll put it on CPDL.

It has caused me to reflect slightly on my composing process. When I wrote Sweet Spirit Comfort Me I sat down and wrote pretty much the whole thing without touching a keyboard, then put it into Sibelius and cleaned it up a bit (not much). That’s my usual style when I compose for a capella SATB. But writing this tune (as yet unnamed*) my instinct was to secure the melody line and then sit at the piano to work out the other bits. I realise I used the same method for When you made this planet. It just feels a little odd, because in all my years studying keyboard harmony I rarely actually played my harmonisations on any sort of keyboard instrument — usually because I was finishing them in the aural skills class before they were due — I just relied on my ability to hear all the notes at once, as I do with a capella writing. Piano compositions (none online), on the other hand, were always done by noodling around at the piano and then writing down the results.

How odd. I’m pretty sure this is something to do with playing at least five hymns per week for the last couple of years: hymns are now as much something that I play as something that I sing.

*all serious and some tongue-in-cheek suggestions considered.

New music for Pentecost: Sweet Spirit Comfort Me

St Paul’s Cathedral had another composition competition. I only found out about it around ten days before the deadline but decided it was worth at least looking at the suggested texts and having a go at writing something.

The result? Three verses of Robert Herrick’s “Litany to the Holy Spirit”, set for SATB. It’s a bit mournful perhaps, but so is the text. Each verse is set differently, so adding further verses isn’t straightforward.

You can hear robots singing it here (MIDI file), and the sheet music is available here, both from the Choral Public Domain Library.

I’ve uploaded robot flutes playing to Soundcloud, too:

If you’d like a more cheerful setting, Dr Francis Roads has written one, available from his website under the title “In the hour of my distress”.

A bit about why I use the CC licenses I do.

When I write music I release it under a Creative Commons license. I usually use a CC BY-SA license, known as Attribution-ShareAlike. This means people can use it, without first asking me, as long as they give me attribution and any derivative works they make are shared under a similar license. If I am using CC BY-SA then they are free to earn money for derivative works, but since they have to release those works under a similar license they are not going to be in a situation where they have a monopoly on the work. For example, a musician might get paid for recording one of my compositions — this is a commercial use of the work — but as they must allow others to use the recording they are not going to end up being the only supplier of it. The CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike ) license is more restrictive, and I rarely use it these days; I believe the drawbacks outweigh the benefits of restricting copyright in that way.

The reason for “giving my music away for free” is something I’ve been through a number of times, but a short summary is that it is more important to me that the music is heard and used than that I make money from it. People are not queuing up to pay me to write music and the writing I do is little enough, and sufficiently esoteric by mainstream standards (mostly choral music, mostly for use in churches), that I’m unlikely to make much money from it anyway. Like the majority of musicians throughout history, I earn more money from teaching and performing than from composing, publishing or recording. When I do write something, and someone uses it, I’m delighted. It would be great if they could chuck a fiver my way, but a lot of people are in the same boat I am, with little or no sheet music budget, so I’m not going to worry about it too much if they don’t.

So, why do I use Creative Commons licenses rather than simply adding a preface to work saying that people are free to use it?

One is that the license information is easier to include on the work itself, so that in the event that it gets separated from the preface my intentions are still clear. (See Christ Has No Body Now On Earth But Ours for an example — that work is four pages, but it wouldn’t have been hard to include the license information on all of them, and anyway one page of it isn’t that useful on its own.) This isn’t a big deal for short pieces, but if I were to publish, say, a booklet of psalms for Advent, it’s quite likely that some people would want to use — and print — only one or two pages from it. It makes sense to have licence information on all of them, rather than expecting people to remember where the music came from and come back to find it again.

Another reason is that the people at Creative Commons have done the research to make sure that their copyright statements are legally valid, whereas a simpler text statement may not be considered binding (particularly in areas of international jurisdiction). I’ve seen lots of plain text copyright statements that aren’t absolutely clear whether, for example, an organist playing for a wedding which will be recorded is allowed to use the work if they are being paid. While I’m alive this isn’t too bad, as people can contact me (I try to include an e-mail address on most paper copies of my work too), but after I’m dead if there is any lack of clarity people will have to wait seventy years for my work to become public domain. So there’s a lot to be said for using a standardised license that others will be able to interpret and which has been formulated by people who understand the full legal implications.

I use a Creative Commons license because I want to give my work away and I want to do it with a minimum of fuss for myself and for others.

Your Commission, Should You Choose to Request It

An experiment:

I would like to write more music, particularly choral music. I would prefer to do this on commission, for a whole bunch of reasons. But my music is not well-known, and so I don’t attract attention from people who have serious money to pay for commissions, on the whole. So far, every note I have ever written has been for free.

What if the money for commissions isn’t quite so serious?

For £30, I will set up to 50 words of English for SATB, with or without a simple organ or piano accompaniment. I’m willing to do more complex compositions, or simpler ones, or other languages, but please do contact me about it — Latin is easy, Russian much harder! You can see (and in some cases hear) examples of my other compositions by using the look what I made category on this blog. That isn’t a full list (I’m working on it; processing works that pre-date this blog is another thing that is easily pushed aside!), but it’s something.

Your chosen text must be in the public domain, or you must have permission from the appropriate sources for me to set it. The copyright of the finished work will remain with me but I will release it under a CC BY-SA license, meaning that others can use it freely in derivative works, even for commercial purposes, as long as they acknowledge my work and share it similarly. So if you commission a choral work from me, you won’t just be contributing to my livelihood, you’ll be contributing to a body of publicly available art.

Any takers?

Words, words!

When I write music, I struggle with the words. As a child I was a decent poet, I’m told, but at some point I lost the habit of writing poetry in a notebook in spare moments. I think it may have been around the time I took up playing the horn and got a paper route and somehow seemed to always be out at one rehearsal or another! These days, most of the words I write are typed directly onto a screen and unpoetic at best.

But I do seem to compose better with words than without. So, I try to find others’ words that say what I want to say, words that inspire or words that I think will be right for the context for which I’m writing. Invariably, I run into trouble with this. Anything that’s still under copyright is a massive pain; sometimes it’s possible to contact the author and ask for permission but often attempts to do so are simply ignored, and in some cases it’s hard to find out who to get in touch with in the first place. As I often struggle to find the right words in the first place (it took me several months to choose the words for Christ Has No Body Now on Earth but Ours, and even then I wasn’t sure until I sat down to write; In Commendation of Music was similarly fraught, though for very different reasons), the bother with copyright is a significant hurdle.

Lately I have been enjoying Thomas Thurman’s poetry. Eventually I summoned up the courage to ask, since Thomas seems a churchy type, whether there might be any psalm paraphrases I could use. I was pleased that there are two of them, and possibly more to come! One of those is more Christianized than I’d be happy to use as a psalm in liturgy (more on that in another post), but would definitely stand well as a hymn on its own; perhaps it was that comment which prompted Thomas to point me at this hymn text, which can’t be used with the tune it was written for due to copyright issues (see? it isn’t just me that has trouble with this stuff!)… Thomas also writes software and so is familiar with and happy about Creative Commons and other open licenses.

It’s not exactly a time of year when I ought to be taking on new projects, but the other Friday I had a long-ish train journey to a rehearsal (Zone 5, south of the river, there’s no way to do it without at least two changes and as I wasn’t cycling to London Bridge it was three this time). So, I printed out the words, chucked some manuscript paper in my bag and decided to see what I could make of it. It was a delightful tune to set to music: all the word stresses line up beautifully from verse to verse, and though the meter is somewhat non-standard I do now have a tune I’m reasonably happy with. As, for once, I’m not working to a deadline, I’m leaving it in a drawer for a month before doing some editing, so you don’t get to see it yet. But I’m pleased with it so far, and really happy to have access to some newer words which I’m allowed to put to music!

The Lord Bless Thee

I wrote this for the King James Trust 2011 composition competition. I had intended to enter both categories but failed to get my act together in time, so this was thrown together rather hastily. However, I do like it for what it is: short, sweet, simple. It should work well with either organ or piano. If you had a flute or another instrument, it would lend itself to a descant based on the keyboard part or, for a more advanced player, a skilled music director could write a more complex descant.

The MIDI robots play this just a bit too slowly, I think, but there is a MIDI file here and a PDF file here. As usual I’ve used a Creative Commons license.

Muse musings

I seem to composing better for people and occasions than for competitions. Maybe I haven’t entered enough competitions to gather accurate data from which to draw such a conclusion. However, despite putting a lot of work into it, I wasn’t really happy with my entry for the St Paul’s competition in June. The last few weeks I’ve had in mind the King James Bible Composition Awards, which I scrape in as being young enough to enter. But despite taking time to select texts that are important to me and putting in a lot of effort, I just wasn’t getting anywhere with that, either.

On Thursday, I happened across a text that had a specific memory attached, with particular people involved, though they probably don’t remember same details I do. It’s a fond memory, and thinking about those words and how they (or another translation of them) were used on that occasion, I found myself composing quite easily. I think it unlikely that I’ll win this competition based on what I’ve written, but it’s worth a try, and I feel positive about the music as something that will be useful in a liturgical setting. I won’t post it online until I know the competition results, since that sort of publication could disqualify me.
That said, the process of writing a piece for someone or for a special occasion is also one that can be quite fraught. Until I’ve found the right words, I worry frantically about whether I’ll be able to find them in time. I try to keep texts in reserve, I often make a few false starts before finding something that’s just right. So perhaps my problem is not that I write for people better than for competitions, but that inspiration is not something I can control, just something to which I can try to remain alert and open.
Next up, I’m meant to be writing a Mass setting to use at St Andrew’s. Watch this space…

Music for St Michael and All Angels

Today I’ve been to St Paul’s Cathedral for Evensong, to hear the winning entry in the recent New Music Competition. There were 58 entrants, out of which one was chosen for the £1000 prize.

Andrew Cusworth chose the same text as I did for the competition, one previously used by Richard Dering in this gem (YouTube link). It was interesting to hear the difference in our approaches to it. I like to think that there are some similarities, and of course I can’t make a fair comparison having heard his piece once and knowing mine rather better than that, but I think his is the better composition, both in terms of technical polish and in terms of suitability for that cathedral. So congratulations to Andrew Cusworth!

I struggled over my submission, trying to be faithful to the idea of angels as strange and terrifying beings, but also to stay within strict limits — SATB + organ, under 4 minutes — and keep the piece suitable for use in a liturgical setting. In the end I knew I hadn’t quite managed the latter; what I wrote was too exciting, too dramatic, and too ragged round the edges to fit into a stately Evensong. I did start over several times with several versions of the text in English and Latin, and each time it seemed to demand such a treatment. Eventually I gave up, tidied up what I had and submitted that.

It doesn’t look like Andrew’s version is online. So, here is my version: Factum est silentium [PDF] [MIDI]. Of course, the midi version sounds like robots rather than angels, but that’s always the way of these machines! As always this is released under a CC-BY-SA license. Perhaps in a different building with a different choir it will work better, or perhaps someone else can take my ideas and develop them.

It was while I was researching the Revelation-based text of Richard Dering’s “Factum est silentium” that I happened across a blog which eventually led me to Dust, a blog I’ve been trying to keep up with and very much enjoying the last few days as its author has been to a very shiny conference. (He quotes Christopher Smart in his subtitle, too.) My own research into psalmody has mostly consisted of reading a lot and doing some singing, and is much less advanced; I expect that much of the Oxford Psalms Conference would have been beyond my grasp. Nevertheless, I’m really glad to have found this rather random connection, which I might not have otherwise stumbled upon.

Give Us Grace

Earlier this year, Rev Kathryn Fleming asked me to write something for the patronal festival of St Matthew’s, Cainscross, which was this Tuesday. It needed to be something fairly simple, a round perhaps, something the congregation would be able to pick up quickly and sing at the service; it needed to be relevant to the occasion but useful for other situations as well.


I was happy to make an attempt, of course.

I found writing a round an interesting exercise. I’ve written one before, which I released anonymously, but that one was not something I set out to write, just one of the little ditties that turns up sometimes. Keeping melodic interest while not writing too many harmonic crunches was a challenge, especially at one point when I got a deceptive (that’s interrupted to you Brits) cadence stuck in my head.

Give us grace [PDF] [MIDI] is the result. As usual, I have released it under a CC-BY-SA license; you are welcome to use this music, as long as you attribute me appropriately and as long as any derivative works are released under a similar license.

The Week, er, Behind

On Monday I posted about all I have to do this week.

Things are some things that didn’t get done. I still haven’t rescheduled my dental appointment, and there are a few other phonecalls that have piled up, which isn’t so good. I fought with the piece for the St Paul’s competition but still I don’t have a rough draft I’m happy with, so I’m having to consider whether I’ll submit anything at all. I didn’t get around to finding recordings for the choir at St Andrew’s to listen to, and I didn’t get to the recitals at Trinity that I wanted to attend.
There were some good things, though. The choir rehearsal at St Andrew’s yesterday evening went well despite my rather shallow preparation and only having two people there. It’s quite hard work to sing with so few people present and those who did turn up worked hard and did well.
Also yesterday I met with Rev Kathryn Robinson, the newly-appointed Performing Arts Adviser for the Barking Episcopal area. It was good to meet her and to talk about some of what I do, what’s going on at St Andrew’s, and some of the collaborations that might be possible.
The Brigantia Consort rehearsal on Thursday night felt efficient and useful, despite all of us being rather exhausted. We’ve managed to share out the writing of programme notes in a way that I think makes sense, we made some decisions about clothing (always difficult if you decide you don’t want to just wear black), we narrowed down some of the repertoire for the concert on 11th July and oh, yeah, we rehearsed some music. I don’t want to speak too soon — it definitely needs more work — but tuning between serpent and violin does seem to be improving.
At Quire on Wednesday night I did not completely disgrace myself at playing a rather tricky bassline on an instrument with a turning circle the size of an elephant, and as usual I enjoyed the rehearsal immensely.
Teaching on Monday and Tuesday went well. It was the first week of trying out some new timing for Tuesdays, which looks like it’s going to work a lot better for my students as well as meaning I get home a good 45 minutes earlier. Hooray! The long-term viability of making the journey from Leytonstone to North London two days a week has been weighing on me recently; the later nights on Tuesday definitely weren’t helping. I was still too tired to do as much psalmody-related reading as I would have liked, though.
Today has been a Day Off, except that writing this post probably counts as work, oops. Tomorrow will be mostly church and another attempt at some composing, and then a look at what lies ahead next week.