Tuesday, 19 April 2011

To everything in its season

Two days ago I finished my trio for flute, bassoon and piano. It has been very hard work. Up at five every morning to get those precious early hours when you can be alone with your music and only the birds for company. And they are wonderful this year in our garden! Of course we don't use any chemicals on the soil. And so we have no pests - apart from legions of rabbits and Muntjac Deer. Gardening here is a constant battle against the little loves - as any countryman will confirm. Anything precious has to be protected by rings of hawthorn clippings.

The trio has been slow, very slow. It has taken two years to emerge. I have pages of rejected ideas to bear witness to the struggle. And yet the finished work seems to flow with the ease of a limpid stream, in its best moments. Finding that simplicity is the hardest task for any artist. If you see and hear a forest of notes going nowhere, that's a sure sign that you have lost the thread.

I am very fortunate that the trio has been already earmarked for performance in July by a very talented group of local musicians. Their encouragement and belief in me have been a real strength in those dark moments - and there have been a few - when you wonder if you will ever compose again.

At 21' and with three movements, it is a substantial piece. The starting point for me were the wild and watery marshlands near Acle and Wickhampton. I love these places, in the grandeur of winter, the stillness of summer and the throbbing energy of spring.
The last movement is a sort of Aubade. I shall never forget, as a boy sailing up the river Deben in Suffolk at dawn, with the curlews and the redshank flying over. It was magical. This music is an attempt to catch that feeling of awe at the beauty of nature.

As Gerald Manley Hopkins, my favourite poet, put it:

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


Harvest time is finally here again. The great wheat field behind us throws up clouds of dust as the machines reap and bind.

This is the best time to be in Norfolk, in my view. Long lazy days of sun and intermittent showers; the occasional plunge into the North Sea, breakers and all; magical nights of moon shadows across the lawn.

After the exhilaration and relief of finishing the first movement of the Trio in April, I have been taking stock of my output, revising and editing old works, and writing short pieces for a CD of 'mood music' which a local composer and friend is publishing. I know I should finish the trio. I will.

With trepidation I listened again to 'For the Fallen'. I hate listening to old pieces in case I find I don't like them any longer. But I was left determined to do everything in my power to get this piece, of which I am still very proud, to a wider audience. I don't want to look back on my life at eighty and think, if only I had tried harder. Stuck out in Norfolk it is hard to network and make the connections so essential to raising one's profile in the world. Thank God for email and the internet. Long may it stay cheap and available to all.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

New arrivals

The simplest and most touching signs of spring are the flowers that suddenly appear unexpectedly, like these small bright yellow daffodils all along the old field hedge at the end of the back lawn. Maybe they were over-shaded by the hawthorn, or perhaps they were under-nourished. Whatever the reason they came up blind year after year and have now all come into bloom.
Nature never gives up hope, not even with all the muck we heap on her.

My trio for bassoon, flute and piano is coming along slowly. It has got past the intensive care stage: out of the incubator. Most of the writing goes on in my head when I am walking around doing anything else but composing. When the ideas are at the stage that they are distracting me to the point that I have to write them down, I do so. I know it is not the way composers are meant to work. How many of us have that inspiration on tap constantly, waiting to be summoned for four hours every morning?

Monday, 21 December 2009

A Christmas present from my muse

I have written a short chorale prelude for organ on the traditional carol In Dulci Jubilo.
It was quite unexpected, a gift from my muse. I think of her as a person, rather like a guardian angel.

As I was driving over to Witton last Wednesday to practise the organ for the carol service on Friday, I asked her rather plaintively to help me. I have completed only one short piano piece in over two years. Not since I left Cambridge in 1980, disillusioned with my composing efforts and set on a career as a concert pianist, have I found it so hard to write.

And when I had all but given up hope of composing again, I found the germ of an idea while improvising on a reedy old country organ.

My new organ prelude breaks no new ground. It asks no deep questions. It is an occasional piece and does what is required of it. But at Witton on Friday, as the church-goers chatted with their mince pies and mulled wine in the flickering candlelight, I knew I had come home. Christmas is about becoming a child again, as God did.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Send these roots rain

The apple trees are bent over with their burden like people carrying bags of shopping. Damsons fall noiselessly onto the sparse dry grass, carpeting it with blue. In the hedges, blackberries are small and hard but sweet. Nature's bounty is overwhelming: the feeding of the five billion.

It could be. Although we have had no real rain for two months the harvest is in and it is a good one. Surely this island could support itself if we had to, as in war time? If money were spent on developing ways of desalinating seawater to irrigate the world's deserts and using the abundant power of the sun, the wind and the waves, we could live in a world where hunger was like the memory of a bad dream and droughts and floods were rare events.

Instead we spend trillions on vain wars and rescue packages for banks.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

The tears of Mother Nature

An eerie image. We see faces everywhere: in clouds, in the moon, in rocks and trees. But this one has a resonance and a deep aching sadness.
I have been to Svalbard, where this breaking glacier lies. It is one of the saddest and strangest places on earth. I shall never forget the cold August sun rising over jagged ice and rock at Magdalenafjord, and the stones marking the graves of a dozen or so lonely whalers on a beach. Their lives must have been indescribably harsh. Or Barentsburg, that haunted far-flung outpost of the old Soviet empire. The inhabitants were brave people.

Sunday, 31 May 2009


I woke at six this morning and went out to water the lettuces. As I filled my watering can from the outside tap, I carelessly let it overflow and water poured onto the pavers. I peered down. An ant was trapped on an island of dry stone, running round and round to find a way out. He would approach the meniscus, then bravely broach the wall of water, wade in for a few millimetres before turning back and trying some other spot. There was only one possible escape route. He ran along a tiny twig, first one way then the other. Both ends led to more water. Then he spotted a rose leaf a short jump from the twig. Across the narrow ford of liquid he plunged, reaching the safety of the leaf, where he would no doubt wait until the temporary flood subsided.

How important our own lives seem to us. How little we know of the rest of Nature.