As part of Royal Holloway’s VOTE 100 celebrations, I was asked, along with eight other composers, to write a piece for solo instrument about civil and human rights activism since the passage of (partial) women’s suffrage in the UK (1918 was when the first women in the UK could vote, 1928 was when women had equal voting rights to men). My piece was to be written for solo viola, and I chose to base it on the speech ‘All the little things’ (2014) by Rory ‘Panti Bliss’ O’Neill, an Irish drag queen and LGBTQ+ activist.

‘All the little things’ is an incredibly powerful speech, detailing the ways in which queer couples often do not feel comfortable showing affection in public, how their relationships are feared and demonised. O’Neill details how even holding hands is not something taken lightly by queer couples; the situation must be assessed and even when they feel it is safe, queer couples still can be the target of ridicule and homophobic abuse. O’Neill also explores the causes for this abuse and how in their own personal experience, they are fed up with how there are still those in society who would deny LGBTQ+ people rights.

For my piece, I drew on O’Neill’s experiences discussed in ‘All the little things’ as well as my own. I decided to use the various strings of the viola to my advantage, using an open D string with the same note stopped on the G string to illustrate a queer couple holding hands. Around this, I built anguished music, showing the calculating decisions and internal struggle caused by these simple acts of public affection. However, I wanted the piece to end with a hopeful tone; when the final “hand hold” comes, the motif is surrounded by a “halo” of natural harmonics and open strings. I hope that this ending shows the future, one in which queer couples may express themselves freely in public without fear or ridicule.

I hope you enjoy A Small, Intimate Gesture.

Alongside my composition studies, I also have to do a bit of musicology. One of our classes is Music in the Art Tradition since 1900. For this, I had to write a short blog post about a musical movement/composer/work of my choosing. I chose to write about Grand Pianola Music by John Adams. I’ve put a link to the blog below, and also while you’re there, you should check out some of the other posts done by other students on Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Stravinsky, and also composers that don’t being with an “S”! Hope you enjoy: http://musicsince1900.blogspot.co.uk/2018/03/an-american-beethoven-on-acid-john.html

Music, especially composition, can be seen as a system of sound organisation. What that system is has differed throughout time: church modes, fugues, tonal harmony, dodecophany, total serialism, chance music etc. These systems show us how composers have approached the issue of “sound organisation”;  in other words, composition. These systems are still alive today, and all can be used by the modern composer in varying degrees. How a composer sets about putting these tools to use is a unique process that each composer has to grasp themselves. Some will use manuscript until their desk is covered in scraps of paper, some will go straight onto composing software, and some have completely abandoned scores all together, in favour of electronic and electro-acoustic music.

However, many young composers, especially at a school/university level, often worry about the “right” way to compose; there must be a magic solution that covers all their needs and creates perfect music every time. This is the cause of a lot of stress among composition students, myself included. But I am here with a message of hope, and here it is:

There is no right way to compose.

Composition is all about trial and error. If I went back and saw the first drafts of some of my works, they would nothing like the finished product (even though I would argue that a piece is never “finished”, but that’s a different story). Whole sections had been added where I felt an idea needed more space, new timbres are added when the ones I already had weren’t working, time signatures have been changed, and pitches moved around, all to better achieve my compositional vision. My composition process is unique and tailored to how I approach music. Once I have an idea, I get it down as quickly as I can, normally onto software such as Sibelius. This musical fragment often comes with a vague structural outline already, as well as the ensemble I see it for. For the past six months, I’ve even been working with MIDI composition, removing the need for a score all together, and exploring a totally new sound world. I also have a review process; at the end of each day, I write down everything I’ve done in all my pieces so that I can see my progress.

What works for me however, won’t work for everyone. My tips for finding a composition process would be:

  • Work out you shape your ideas – on software/manuscript/recording etc.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave a piece if you get stuck on a section. Just make sure you go back to it once the issue is fixed!
  • First drafts are just first drafts. They are not the final piece.
  • If you’re not sure if something works, ask. Singers and instrumentalists will nearly always know more than you about what the voice/instrument can do.
  • Have a review/tracking process – notebook/spreadsheet/wall charts. Anything that can show you what you’ve done while composing.
  • If the way you compose isn’t working, change it! If it works, then keep doing it!

It takes time to find that balance between music making and music “organisation”. If someone suggests a way of approaching music, try it. If it doesn’t work, try something else. Composing isn’t an exact science, there is no right or wrong way to do it. Just give something a go; you never know, you may find the perfect way for you.