New Composition for Flute and Cello: Elements

This is my third composition this year. It is a suite of four duet pieces for the standard “C” concert flute and cello, with optional B footjoint, lasting about 14 minutes in total, so a fairly substantial piece.

All the pieces should be regarded as true duets, rather than a set of flute pieces with cello
accompaniment. The suite borrows quite a lot from the baroque genre of instrumental suites, and should retain that flavour in performance; but with a modern twist, as they use some contemporary special techniques for the flute such as air sounds and tongue pizzicato.
The four movements are named for the mediaeval concept of the four elements of air, earth, water and fire, which fortuitously each capture something of the nature of the movement.

You can find it here, on Sheet Music Plus.

Suite for Flute and Cello

The Jubilant Flute

The Jubilant Flute

I  recently finished a new composition for flute and piano, called the Jubilant Flute.

It is available here on Sheet Music Plus .

The piece is written for the standard “C” concert flute, plus a piano accompaniment, and should be played in a lively and vivacious manner. As the title suggests, it is a happy piece, designed to show off the brilliant and bubbly nature of the flute. (The word “jubilant” comes from the Latin word “jubilare”, which means to shout for joy). The total duration is about 4 minutes. The piece should be playable by a student of good standard.

It is a bit of a surprise to me to have completed several compositions this year, it was not really expected, but all the more welcome for it.


I have been uploading some of my old recordings to Soundcloud

They are mostly of me improvising on the flute.

Generally they sound better than I remember. It is almost impossible to be objective about one’s own creative endeavors – I find that I tend to hear and focus on every little mistake, without hearing what is good about it. The passage of time makes it a little easier, because my imperfect memory makes it possible to be surprised.


Music Versus Silence


The BBC has been experimenting recently with what it calls ‘slow film’. It included a series of films showing various craftsmen making: a knife, a chair, and blowing a glass vase. Each was made by hand, demonstrating exquisite skill.

Also included was a real-time film of a trip along the Kennet and Avon canal by boat, from Bath to Dundas aqueduct. This is a journey that I know well, having cycled there in the past, and taken a few boat trips. I can testify that it is indeed lovely.

I loved these films. Beautiful to watch, and as a musician myself, I particularly enjoyed the lack of background music. I strongly dislike the way music is abused these days in film-making, even in documentaries, as if the viewer cannot possibly be allowed to hear silence, in case their attention would wander away. On the contrary, the often silent soundtrack composed of natural ambient sounds of these films really drew me in.

I do hope to hear (and see) more of these.

I am referring to the way that music is plastered like wallpaper over so much film, I suppose because it is easy to do. I am all for the intelligent use of sounds whether naturally occurring or composed, instrumental or ambient. It just doesn’t happen very often. It is very much in evidence when you listen to old tv and film, by which I mean about pre-1980, just how much less music was used, and how much more effective that made it. An example was Smiley’s People, which was repeated recently on the BBC, and which remains a brilliant piece of TV. It had just the right amount of music, that is, very little.

One of the things that I particularly dislike about background music is that it tries to tell you how to feel. It is as if a rather bossy person were sitting next to you and nudging you every so often and saying: “right, you’ve got to feel sad here. Go on, feel sad.” I find it annoying when it is intrusive. If the drama is good enough, I don’t need anyone telling me how to feel. And if it is not, why am I watching?

I remember reading somewhere that one of the things that makes a composer great is that they know when to use silence. I think that the same could be said of film-makers.

Writing for the String Quartet

A close up of my cello

A close-up of my cello

I attended a very inspiring workshop this weekend, organized by Chris Lawry and Andy Glover of the Open College of the Arts. In case you don’t know, the OCA is a fine institution that offers distance learning in arts subjects including music. It is the only one that I know that actually offers practical courses in composition. It is through them that I studied music composition a few years ago. Luckily they kindly still allow ex-students to attend some of their specialist study workshops.

This weekend focused on writing for the string quartet and for flute and piano,and we were encouraged to submit pieces and have them played by real musicians. I have been interested in writing for strings for some time, and have been doing my best to understand the intricacies of string techniques – which can be pretty complex and baffling to the uninitiated – maybe even to the initiated too.

So it was a great chance to have my writing played (and critiqued) by a tame string quartet ( the Take Four quartet, thanks to them). It was a relief to find that I must have been working along the right lines, because they seemed to understand what I was on about.

The assignment was to compose  a set of variations based on the ‘La Follia’ theme popular with many composers in the baroque period.

When writing my piece I came to the conclusion that the number of possible variations of the theme is probably infinite. I found it quite helpful to think about what I wanted to preserve, which was some hint of the rhythmic shape of the sarabande, with the alternating pattern of stresses on the second and first beats of the bar.

The piece explores a variety of string techniques, including legato, detached, staccato, saltando and sul pont bowing.

You can hear a computer realization of my piece below.



Since the original posting I have revised the piece, and have made it available on sheetmusicplus:

Playing the Violin

Another pictures of my violin

I am enjoying playing the violin now. For a while I had really got bogged down in trying to understand various staccato bowing techniques – really not easy. It had begun to feel a bit sterile, it was difficult to find the motivation to practise.

So I decided that what I needed was to just play some tunes. I dug out a book of Irish session tunes that I used to play on the flute and whistle, and have been very much enjoying it. I have always felt that Irish music makes more sense on the fiddle, particularly the ornamentation. So suddenly I feel like I am playing the violin rather than just learning it, which is a much better feeling. And I don’t sound too bad (I think).

Also I have been playing a bit more in higher positions. Until recently I hardly ever left first position. Actually I don’t find playing in higher positions too hard, it is mostly just muscle memory. If you are used to playing in tune in first position then extending it to higher positions seems fairly natural.

So now I am starting to feel like I can actually play the violin a bit. I mostly took it up again because I wanted to get more insight into string technique for my composing, but it would be nice to be able to produce something approaching music. There is a pleasure in playing a musical instrument like nothing else, I have missed it because I have been concentrating on composition.

I have found a particularly useful site at – lots of examples of violin technique.

On Harrowdown Hill

On Harrowdown Hill

This is my entry for the ENO’s mini opera competition (see , it is a soundtrack composed for the script ‘On Harrowdown Hill’ by Shaun Gardiner, based on the story ‘Death of a Government Inspector’. I chose this particular one because I loved the poetry of the script, and the way that it captured the sense of loneliness of a man driven to take his own life. It is of course based on the death of Dr David Kelly, a story which makes a terrific choice of subject for a modern opera.

My score was written in a great hurry (I only found out about the competition a week ago), so has many flaws. However I think there are advantages to writing quickly, you just have to go with your imagination, there just isn’t time for self-censorship. I deliberately chose are very spare instrumentation, the main instruments are the viola (which represents the inspector), piano, choir, bassoon, three horns and percussion. Although it is computer generated I think it could be played live (with the addition of a few electronic noises). I have used some subtle long delays on the piano and viola to give a dream or nightmarish ambient background. The sounds at the beginning are actually a recording of bird song slowed down.

When a Lozenge is not enough

Anyone who attends classical music concerts on anything like a regular basis will be familiar with the phenomenon: the rousing chorus of coughing that breaks out at the end of a movement (and occasionally in the quiet bits during a movement).

This is not often discussed (that I am aware of) and it does puzzle me somewhat. Normal coughing is a reflex action occuring as a result of the build-up of phlegm in the throat, and it difficult or even impossible to control. This cannot be the explanation for the coughing that occurs during a concert, which is generally carefully timed. Since it is not something that I do myself I cannot say definitely what motivates those who do. I assume that it is a way of relieving the nervous tension of being required to sit still and silent for several minutes on end. Perhaps a course of meditation would help regular perpetrators, or perhaps each audience member could be issued with a lozenge before the concert.

Still it probably wouldn’t help eveyone. My father spent some time working in Germany, and during that time he was a regular audience member for the Berlin Philharmonic. On one particular occasion he was sitting right in the front row of a concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma, when he (my father) broke into an uncontrollable coughing fit. That’s what I call doing it in style.

Folk Song Fantasia – a New Rendition

I’ve been experimenting with getting a better computer rendition of my Orchestral Fantasia. The results are below.

Orchestral Fantasia Based on 3 Folk Songs

(Beware it is quite a big file – nearly 27MB)

The rendition was created using Cubase as a sequencer, with the Garritan Personal Orchestra as virtual instrument. The original score was exported from Finale as a midi file, and imported into Cubase, and then it is just a question of assigning the instruments.

This seems to give much better results than the rendition generated by Sibelius or Finale, even when using GPO in place of the standard sounds. I don’t understand why this is, but the results are clear. The instrumental parts in particular are much clearer. To hear the comparison I posted a version generated using Finale in a previous post.

There are other orchestral instrument libraries available. The one by East West probably has nicer sounds than GPO, but is eye-wateringly expensive. Chris Lawry very kindly made a version of part of the same piece using the East West library (again with Cubase as the sequencer), I have posted it here for comparison:-

Orchestral Fantasia using East West Instrument Library

It is pretty remarkable what can be achieved on a laptop these days in terms of generating a reasonably realistic orchestral sound.

Still I think it will be a long time before a computer can replace a real orchestra, and personally I hope that day never comes. I don’t believe that humanity will have made a step forward.