Re-opening the composers’ workshops!

Posted on May 20th, 2023 by

Robert Saxton – Sketch for his major new work ‘Reflections in Time’ May 2023


  I have been friends with the marvellous composer Robert Saxton for many years. This began in my early twenties, when a conversation began, about music, writing, art, politics, well everything really, which has not abated. Curiously, and perhaps this was selfishness on my part, most of the outcomes of our collaboration have been private. My quartet is dedicated to his wonderful quartets and has recorded/is recording them. The 4th is, indeed, dedicated to us. And there is one tiny solo piece which I premiered, dedicated to our dear and much lamented friend, the American composer Elliott Schwartz. Here it is.

But, since long before the years of the Covid-19 lockdowns, Robert and I have been talking about the possibility, the ideas, the inspiration and the materials for a major work for violin alone. But until very recently, this was like a dark secret: we would meet with paper and pencil, for lunch, coffee, whatever, and the foundations were discussed. I even managed to document Robert sketching out some of the building blocks for the

The composer’s hand. Robert Saxton demonstrates how he builds material in my notebook 2017

piece. The picture at the left was taken over five years ago, during lunch in London, while the composer drew some of his ideas for how this piece would work and evolve. But up till now, that was all there was (on paper anyway!).

In the course of our discussions, over the years, Robert revealed that he felt that my paintings and drawings would be crucial spur for the piece. A number of composers have used my graphic work as inspiration, starting points, or perhaps, as a ways of scrutinising who I am, getting inside my skull. This has resulted in cycles and individual pieces, from Sadie Harrison, David Riebe, Michael Alec Rose, Nigel Clarke, and others.

I had a feeling, that the works of mine that Robert was most interested in, were my landscapes, or more to the point, my waterscapes. Robert and I both hail from East London, and both regard our relationships with the tidal Thames, which I live right next to, as fundamental to who we both are.

Full tide. Heavy Swell, Wind 6mph NNW, High Tide, Late Nantucket & Bon Accord Wharfs. Wapping 6 7 19

My forbears worked on and by the river, a few minutes walk from where I am writing this: at Billingsgate (Fish) Market, which is between the Tower of London and London Bridge, and next to St Magnus the Martyr (one of the wo two historically Viking Churches in the Square Mile).

What it means to live next to and around a great river would take and book in itself. However, I can say that, seen, heard, smelt and felt , the moods and timbres of the Thames, find their way into one’s system. At the very least the ebb and flood (the Thames has an 8 metre-plus ‘spring’ tide where I am writing), to a greater and lesser extent, the ‘circulation of the lymph’ (T S Eliot) of one’s own body and imagination.

So I am surrounded by geological and historical souvenirs from ‘our’ beach, just down an iron ladder near our front door, and right now ( I am writing this) at 9 am), I can feel the slackness of the river emptying itself out (low tide is in about one hour. And I have been drawing and painting this stretch of river for decades. It is, to a greater or lesser extent, who I am.

Part of the process of study, learning Robert Saxton’s piece, will be to unearth more about how how ‘Thamesis’ has found its way into his bones and imagination. But for now, all the investigation, all the learning has to focus on fine detail, which is the same as broad principles ( will return to this). For yesterday, Robert sent me a bundle of photographs of the working materials, on his desk. At midnight last night, I got to work on three pages of this music, violin in hand. As much as possible, as we move towards first performance(s), I want to accompany, shadow, stalk him on his journey.

The title that Robert has given the piece is integral to its nature, or so it seems to me, as I work with the violin:

‘Reflections in Time’

He wrote me a note, a few days ago, insisting, ever so gently, that I take careful note of this moniker:

‘Reflections (plural) in Time….everything that goes forwards is ‘reflected’ non-literally in reverse…….don’t take my word for it!!!!!’ (E -mail Robert Saxton to PSS 18 5 23)

Now, in music, this could imply a number of things: Reading Robert’s instruction (especially ‘don’t take my work for it’), this is likely to be as fluid as the river itself. But at the very least palindromes and reflections are likely to be present in the music on a micro and macro-level. There are many precedents:  Haydn’s 47th Symphony has  a “Minuetto al Roverso”, and consequently the work is sometimes called “The Palindrome”. In the  third movement, the second part of the Minuet is the same as the first backwards, and the Trio is also written in this way. Now, the sharp-eyed and eared will cry out. ‘al roverso’ means ‘upside down’. And of course, you are not wrong. If you play something backwards’ not only does a melody reverse direction, but necessarily movement upwards becomes movement down and vice versa. Indeed when Bach returned to fugue theme in his giant C major Fuga  for solo violin, he wrote:

‘al riverso’

… today, would be ‘al reverso’, or ‘al rovescio’ – ‘in reverse’, and of course, the tonal realisation of the theme (gagfefgadfefgfe), is (dbcdedcfededcdedcb) is very much ‘upside done’, and in order to still be in C major, starts on the supertonic, not the dominant of the scale as the theme had done. It’s all shook up.

The tide goes in and out. From where I am sitting, that’s right and left. And the water rises and falls. And the wind shifts. And the fish stop biting on the ebb. My point being, the substance and the meaning change:

‘Madam, I’m Adam’ is a classical example of meaning and substance morphing – the comma, spinning into the contracting apostrophe is the least of it.

Last night, after guests had left, conversation ebbed away, and the dishes were washed and packed up, I spread out two of Robert’s variations on my practice desk and started my violinistic explorations. What would I find, and how would it relate to that ‘upsidedownunder-ness’ that I was neurosing about. And writing was on my mind: after all, yesterday Martin Amis died – and all night, I was thinking about his ‘Time’s Arrow: or The Nature of the Offence'(1991) which is written in reverse Time. The reader and the narrator experience the chronology of the story in reverse. However the events do not happen backwards, and nor no the characters live  backwards, like Merlin, or how Einstein wanted to… . As T.H.White explains, in character as ‘Merlyn’:

“You see, one gets confused with Time, when it is like that. All one’s tenses get muddled for one thing. If you know what is going to happen to people, and not what has happened to them, it makes it difficult to prevent it happening. If you you don’t want it to have happened, if you see what I mean? Like drawing in a mirror.”/The Wart did not see, […] )(The Once and Future King/The Sword in the Stone Page 29)

I feel as confused as The Wart. So for now, I will watch and listen, to see what Robert’s score tells and teaches me. I have a feeling that, not unlike the 16-year-old Albert Einstein, I might, ‘observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest.’, which translates into ‘see the world as if I were riding on a beam of light’. Or that is how I remember Jacob Bronowski putting it.

So here we go: Here’s the result of a few hours work at dead

Saxton’s sketch for his 4th variation, with technical notes by PSS – overnight 20-21/5/23

of night , violin in hand, on Robert’s (apparently) 4th variation. What did I focus on. Just a specious observation: this bit of music looks like, is, a wave. It falls-rises-falls-rises. The  material is predominantly dyads (two-note chords). but there are single notes, some of which might not immediately be apparent, as they are notated as ‘artificial’ harmonics (which require the touching of two nodes on one string), and have resulting pitches notated above the stave (so they can look like three-note chords).  Straightaway, I start asking the question – what is the relationship, the balance between the single notes and the dyads – should a single note have the weight (expressed as

Designer Jonathan Levien (Nipa Doshi behind) in their studio on Columbia Road

volume, emphasis or meaning) of a chord, or is it half the worth? I don’t have an answer … yet.

But a conversation earlier in the evening was beginning to help me. Our guests at supper were our dear friends, the visionary designers Nipa Doshien and Jonathan Levien. Jonathan and I settled into a discussion about sailing (we are sailing next week), the challenges of wind and tide,, my recent excitement about the voyage, and near disaster of the Belgica into the Antarctic ice in 1897, the relationship between cloud-reflected light and the water … which drifted, most appropriately, into a conversation about drawing, which is so important to both of us.

Jonathan noted, that, what was exciting him, at the moment, about drawing, was the relationship between people, the human figure, and formal space, architecture. Naturally, this slipped into a conversation about how all designed space was defined by the human form and dimensions, and our shared wonder at the beauty of people (on the tube for me, how they relate to each other in space for him).

But, before I make breakfast, I will leave this here. The fundamental argument that Robert’s piece seems to be reflecting upon is the human presence, experience of huge and minute forms – the sailor on the ocean swell, the wash of fluids through the body, the blood-brain barrier,  the osmoses, real and figuratively, through the epidermis, from that which is witnessed to idea… and in my case, through the vast ocean of Robert’s imagination.

“O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small” – old Breton fisherman’s prayer.

At this moment in preparation, or should I say pre-preparation, it is helpful that I find my way into the composer’s particular headspace (for this piece – as opposed to what I know/expect from decades of playing their music). One of the reasons for this, and here I am a broken record, is that I passionately believe that bespoke technical means must be created for each individual piece, to complement and counterpoint the special challenges which a composer has set themselves in writing it.

So here’s a clue to what I will be aiming at, from an E mail that Robert sent me, last week:

‘Have been going like the proverbial clappers today on the 3rd movement/piece of the 5, and dealing with some tricky (to write, hopefully not to play) enharmonic cadence ‘areas’. I WILL send some bits asap…..but don’t want you to get ‘wrong’ impression (ie: that it’s more exciting than it is). Each movement is some sort of non-literal palindrome but, unlike ‘proper’ non-tonal ‘stuff’(!!!) I have to work through consequences of modal/tonal shifts so that the ‘spotlight’ changes…….’ (RS to PSS 19 5  23)

So, I find that it is a good idea to ask some questions, about how this compositional challenge needs to be matched, mirrored, or even opposed in the resulting technical procedures. The first thing to say at this point, emphasising what I wrote a minute or so ago is that there is never any point in generic technical solutions. If I am honest, this is something that I owe to two great violinists, my most-loved teachers, Ralph Holmes and Louis Krasner. The two came from completely different ages, and Ralph (who was over 30 years younger) died some years before I met Louis. But they share one notion, which was that there was a strict ethical element in the selection and developments of technical apparatus to answer particular musical conundra: that is, that there was simply never any excuse, or use, in taking the easy route. I remember Louis saying:

‘Violin playing is like mountain-climbing, but it only means something if you are hanging on by your fingernails!’

So, to go back to what Robert Saxton has revealed, there is an interesting question when composition is using what he describes as ‘non-literal palindrome’ (I refer you back to Amis’s Time’s Arrow above). The majority of technical procedures are, to a greater or lesser degree, teleological, or put crudely, ‘goal-orientated’. They get from here to here, with particular processional and resultant consequences. How does our thinking, and our approach, shift, when we know that the composer is thinking forwards and backwards at the same time. Should our problem-solving reflect that?

By way of an oblique answer, think about how we move around the violin, vertically. It is clear to me, that there is an analogy, in all the arts between movement up and down and from past to future (and backwards). After all, thing of the great 3 octave Bflat-Bflat”’ leap in the first movement of the Siblelius concerto ( a piece I don’t like or play, whilst admiring certain gestures!). If this is not a leap into the future,

Where should the hand go? Saxton, up close

expressed in space, then I don’t know what is.

If you look at the passage ringed on the left here, you can see that the composer has been thinking about this problem, very carefully. I I invite you to observe the ‘progress’ of the note ‘D’ in the chords where it occurs (in the crude red ring). As you can see, from the Roman numerals, Robert has moved between the D(III)string and the A(II) string, thus D-AA-D. At a micro level, we are looking at the palindrome system he is describing, expressed in the vertical space, or axis of the fingerboard (laterally) and between the used fingers 4-11-4.  Snaking around that is (one possible melody) GEABflatED, played on the following strings GAEEAD. Now the arc of this melody retains an element of the palindrome but the technical and musical shape is an evolving arch, a sort of Tonic-to-Dominant (I know, I know). So any technical solution (and here he has pretty much obligated one (44, 1 or 2, 11, 12, 2 or 1, 14) reflects the balance between the verticalised palindrome and the small-scale teleology. He has made it very clear, with the succinct technical requirements included even at this stage of the score evolving, that he is thinking about the instrument in an enormously sophisticated way.

Which means, that so should we. Here’s another glimpse of the emerging material. Inspiration for this continuing journey!

Another glimpse of the working materials of Robert Saxton’s amazing, emerging ‘Reflections in Time’ 22 5 23

Shortly after writing this, I ran into Robert Saxton on the street in Greenwich and we had an excited conversation, which was further illuminated by his thoughts about what we are exploring, in an E mail, which awaited me on my return: Here’s an extract.

‘Peter Maxwell Davies once made it clear to the Dartington class (I was his assistant in the early 1980s there) that a palindromic arc (as in the 2nd movement of Berg’s Kammerkonzert) is nothing to do with Time being perceived backwards, but a structural conceit at various levels (he was not being judgmental). He explained that, if you want the listener to hear Time/events in reverse or, more realistically, in a Proust-like manner to do with memory, then you have to compose this in an utterly different way (eg: a film run backwards is wholly dissimilar to a director (re)-‘composing’ events during a movie in terms of editing etc….)’ RS E mail to PSS 22 5 23

Now that is profoundly brilliant, and goes far beyond my fumblings for the truth above. He also made some particular observations about

There is really no escape! Chance meeting with Robert Saxton in Greenwich today, after writing about him this morning. He says he’s off to audition for the part of Nelson (he has just had eye surgery,tba) 22 5 23

the variation that I was exploring above. This, perhaps, a better explanation of what I was reaching for (but remember, in my defence, he is writing, from the inside, whilst I am hunting for clarity looking in!):

‘The reflections in No IV is/are around a vertical axis as regards a transposed Ground, and a horizontal axis as the harmonic groups (rather then chords) reverse in terms of interval content.’ RS E mail to PSS 22 5 23

I am aware that this is pretty technical, so let us back up a little bit. As a player, I have a number of motivations for digging deep into the music that I study and perform. These are complicated when that happens in the building stage of the material.

The first and simplest of these motivation is a practical one. If a composer ‘lets me in’ to the ‘making process’ then, I hope that I can been helpful beyond merely being curious. One of the great privileges of my working life is that many of my collaborators have welcomed me into their workshop in the early stages, and that, sometimes, I have been able to be of use. At the very least, I have been privileged to watch, to learn.

In some cases, and I am not alone in this, my work with composers has been entirely behind the curtain, not resulting in any material ‘for me’ at all. In the decade running up to his death, it was my pleasure to work extensively with Peter Maxwell Davies, who Robert mentioned above, in precisely this way. Peter would send me scores, and I would make

With Peter Maxwell Davies 2006, break in recording session for solo violin works

suggestions, some of which would be taken up, some not. For one major work, my ideas were completely rejected (that’s another story, which I can’t tell, yet), on other occasions, my small contributions became part of the score.

The great Danish composer Poul Ruders has another way of working. When we were talking in detail about complex contrapuntal writing for the violin, he sent me ‘exercises’ – not for me, but for him. These were possible exemplars of how he was thinking of writing for violin alone. I worked these up, sent him notes and recordings of this ‘not pieces’ and they gave him the material he needed to proceed.

Discussions with composers about what they are doing; how and why they are doing it, and what else we might do, are a constant for me. I need to allow myself a quick rant at this point. Today, I ran across an interview with a starry, or shall we say, starrier colleague (who I spent a lot of time arguing with when we were a lot younger).. the interviewee made some remarks about playing and appreciating new music, in a recent interview, which got me going, somewhat. To jump to the end of my rant: we don’t play music by living composers as some kind of adventure, or because it is more exciting than playing Beethoven or Mozart. We do it, because music is always being made, in the present, and we have a duty, which is a joy, to engage with the making of music, constantly, not as some kind of special adventure, a sort of naughty treat. I will leave you to work out who I am talking about…..

But back to the nitty gritty – I have been diverted/distracted from the detailed work on Robert Saxton’s material, over the past 24 hours, by other music, other composers – Sadie Harrison, Mozart, Bach, Michael Finnissy, Priaulx Rainier, Eleanor Alberga, David Matthews, Michael Alec Rose and Jim Aitchison. If there’s a side-benefit from working in detail with a living composer, it is that it enables us to dig deeper into our dialogues with composers we can’t get on E mail, have a coffee with, or ring up on the phone. Yesterday, my quartet have been working on this piece. After the rehearsal, I posted the rehearsal recording anonymously on YouTube, with a challenge: can any listeners venture a guess as to who wrote it and when?

If you are reading this, I can give you the answer. Those on Twitter and Facebook alone can just toil in the vale of un-knowing. It is a single movement quartet written by the 19 year old ‘Ivy Rainier’, then a violin student at the Royal Academy of Music in London. ‘Ivy’ later changed her name to ‘Priaulx’ and the rest was history. I will not get into my continuing astonishment that this work was written in 1922.

However, what is exciting and useful, is that this score is not completely finished. There are no clear tempo markings, and the middle section, which is a sort of quartet recitative/dramatic episode, is not as clearly demarcated on the score as it might be. The form of the piece is

Viola solo (landscape music) – Dance – Drama/Recit (enfolding a memory of the viola solo/landscape) – Dance 2.0 – Viola Solo (lanscape) 2.0

Without going into enormous detail, I can say that, as a group, Neil, Clifton, Mihailo and I use the tools we have resulting from working with (and for Mihailo, being) a composer/s, to help unpick, resolve some of the ambiguities, which a score like this presents. There are a couple of bars where beats don’t add, up, and very much a feeling, that this work was ‘finished’ in the rehearsal room, and that the outcome did not find its way onto the page. In some ways, this is the case, to a greater or lesser degree, with all scores. This is not a matter of precision, or lack of precision, but rather owing to the fact that music is a living, breathing thing. I might work with a composer, for months, leading up to the premiere of a new piece: then after the performance, there may be revisions, and over the years, such revisions, whether large or small, will come at different levels of detail. A composer might decide to return to a score after years, and rewrite it, as Brahms famously did with his first piano trio, or Hans Werner Henze did with his 1978 Solo Sonata. Or there will be an ongoing conversation between performer(s), composer, and materials, about the shaping of materials. There is always going to be a question at this point as to whether these ‘shapings’ find their way into the performing matter, or whether they are, quite literally, temporal. By way of example, look at these bars, from a relatively recent piece by David Matthews, who has been writing solo works for me for over two decades.

Digging deeper into David Matthews’ ‘Dancing Shiva’ which I premiered in 2022 Here no the practice desk 26 5 23

Having premiered this work about 6 months ago, I am now preparing for a recording (my third disc of Matthews’ works for violin alone). I won’t deny, that when I am getting ready to record a work, and especially a work written for me, then I dig deeper into the question, of ‘what is permanent, and what temporary?

Last summer I did a considerable amount of work with Matthews, at his desk, exploring the colour and shape of this piece. Here we are/were, hard at work.

Composer David Matthews at our shared work desk , London 10 9 22

I think that it is fair to say, that the outcomes of those sessions, running up to the first performances last year, where both compositional and performative. I don’t talk about interpretative issues, as I really don’t understand what that notion means ( I am not alone in this, however much critics and musicologist blather on about it). Let me clarify: as I tried out each phrase with the David, we would either say ‘that goes in’ or, ‘no, that’s just a personal issue for the player’. The divide between those two notions is very particular: every composer will have a different notion of where it stands, as well as every collaboration.

But, if you look at the technical work on the passage illustrated above, you will note that a number of my revisions, and reevaluations, which are personal, tip into the compositional area-particularly when it comes to questions of shape and syntax. I am, clearly now, however unconsciously ( I never actively ask myself this, alone at my desk), bringing the experience of the work, on stage, in a number of different size, acoustic and configuration of concert halls in the US and UK, to bear on phrasing and voice-leading. How much should be in the authoritative score, or not? I don’t know yet – it’s too soon to tell.

Every composer, like every writer, finds their way into their material in a different way.

One of the exciting questions for me, is what do I learn from seeing the process at different stages. The scores produced by my dear friend and colleague Mihailo Trandafilovski are painstakingly presented, extraordinarily clear, and thought out in enormous detail. Here, however, is how one of these scores looks, in progress, or process. The exciting thing for me, is the relationship between the feel, the look of this working score, and the focus, the blazing intensity of Mihailo’s

Mihailo Trandafilovski is sharing the working manuscript of his new work for me, inspired by the work of our dear friend and collaborator, Joanna Jones


I think that I can confidently say, that I can’t imagine a musician not being inspired by this. Whether you are a player or not, I think that you can imagine how seeing this might inspire how the bow goes on the string, the left hand approach the fingerboard. Whether it is intentional or not, a glimpse of the composer’s hand, offers clues, hints at what we might be aiming at.

Beethoven Op 30 No 3 Piano Violin Sonata

And it can be exciting, inspiring, to put a working score like Mihailo’s alongside Beethoven, right in the thick of it, working at, revising, his wonderful Op 30 No 3 Sonata. Both these wonderful pages access into both the technical and conceptual worlds of the composers (both of  whom are equally alive to me). And the ideas which I get from one (such as Beethoven’s blotchy emendations to the dynamics here) can give me a window into what is going on in Trandafilovski’s imagination and personal workshop. You will find the Beethoven at I hr 14 minutes in this live performance with Roderick Chadwick

The diversion to Beethoven’s Op 30 manuscript affords me the chance to mention something which should be obvious, but often doesn’t seem to be. I think that it slots into the eternal conversation (amongst performers) as to ‘whether or not you are a new music player or not’. It’s worth mentioning, that if the answer that that enquiry, is ‘Yes’, the, in about 25% of cases, and I speak from long experience, there will be an attendant assumption that you 1. can’t, 2. won’t, 3. don’t, 4 shouldn’t play music from the past; that you will do something unpleasant to i

Schuppanzigh, Ignaz; Foto n. Zeich. v. Joseph Danhauser

t, or that the only reason that you are working with living composers is because your performance of Schubert is so execrable. Because of this assumption, which is very real, one of the most interesting side-benefits of ‘opening the composers’ workshop’ is ignored: looking at the living process of creation and collaboration gives us a tool to understand what we can see in the past. Put simply, by examining my dialogue, say, with Robert Saxton, and the resulting materials, I can look at a page of MS where Beethoven has been working with ‘his’ violinist Ignaz von Schuppanzigh, and have more of an idea of what is going on there. Even if you don’t like, or sympathise with the music of our time, then this would be a tool I presume that you would like in your box.

I should remind myself, that every composers working method, their materials, their figurative pen and paper, is  different. Here’s an example of the workshopping, sketching, process, finding its way across media, from idea, to paper, to instrument, to space, to light and air, then to camera and mobile phone, and back onto the page, into the composer’s creative alembic.

Earlier this year, I spent some time with the composer Jim Aitchison in a couple of spaces made by the great American artist, James Turrell. I won’t go into my long fascination with Turrells’s work, but rather explain what you are seeing = hearing. In preparation for the day that Jim and I planned to spend at the Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, in West Cornwall. the composer sent me some sketches of ideas for Turrell’s ‘Skyspace’, which is the highlight of the collection. I studied these sketches, recorded them at the desk, and then, wove them together – if you like, my pre-imagining of what we, I would find, might do in the space, when I got to Cornwall. Here’s what I did – my musings on the composer’s sketches.

Now I don’t mind admitting, that the moment that we began to explore the spaces and the art, to talk and work, in situ, my noodlings with Aitchison’s material were forgotten. I have never spoken with the composer about them. However, they existed, and I had found my way into the materials, thus. So there was some usefulness.

Once were in the Turrel Skyspace, we turned on a couple of filming devices. and then I played Jim’s materials and then started improvising, guided, if you like, by the composer in the room. This, became, an unspoken workshop: whenever I improvise for a composer, it is inevitable, that I am guided by their presence. It’s not that I try to do what they want; but it is completely obvious that they will have an effect. In the case of Jim, and dare I say it, the powerful presence of Turrell, this led my improvisations. Put bluntly, they shuttled back and forth between the material which Jim had put into my mind and hands, our conversations that day, and the guiding spirit, both conceptual and quite literally, lucid ,of Turrell’s imagination. We didn’t speak about what had happened, but then Jim went away and took the recorded materia, and played, composed with it, or in the true sense, gave it some composure. Here’s the result.

This is still not the piece. In fact, it is not any piece at all – but it is material, and also the workshop, between the space, and the imagination, and the hands, and the manuscript paper, and then the hands and space – in the future, again!

The day after I wrote this, I found myself sitting on the train north east out of Liverpool Street to play two quartet concerts at the Aldeburgh Festival. Which meant, that I had the opportunity to quiz Mihailo Trandafilovski-see above-about a couple of aspects of his work as a composer. I wanted to ask him about the route from sketch to finished score. Or, perhaps to put it better, where does sketching end. Fascinatingly, he revealed that once he decides to move from the very elaborate, and dramatic-looking, handwritten materials as you can see above, and render this into an engraved/computer-set score, the work is all done:

‘I don’t make any changes to the music at this point. Now, all of my attention goes into making sure that the score is as clear as possible, that it is laid out in the best way possible, that the bar-lengths are even, that everything looks beautiful and works well. You know that I am very careful about that!’

My working score of Mihailo Trandafilovki’s
‘Chaconne’ 2022

Now there’s an irony here. On the left, you will see my working (performing) score of a wonderful piece which Mihailo wrote for me last year, his Chaconne (LINK). You will see that, it is beautifully presented – a world away from the fervour of the composition process evident in the score above. But, in order to play it, I then start to interfere with the material to include the technical information I need to perform it. Many composers have said this to me: ‘I do all the work to get a score as beautiful and as clear as possible, and you do THIS to it’! Or words that effect.

But it is worth noting that every performer marks up a score in different ways. My scores are, in some regards, heavily marked – but not in others. I notate every fingering, and bowing. On top of that, I have a colour-coding system for a second level of detail which I won’t belabour here. However, you will notice, even on the left, that I don’t use verbal instructions (except reminders when to turn pages). Many young players will have music which has been written on by teachers, often full of encouragements and exhortations. We treasure those scores. Some performers never get out of that habit – for some it remains necessary for their engagement with the score (Yehudi Menuhin never broke the habit, begun by his first teacher, Louis Persinger). However, I don’t need the documentation of how I study a work on the MS – just the material in addition to the composerly detail that I find vital as aid-memoire.

The reason that I mention this takes me back to the conversation with Mihailo: He noted that at at certain point, he knows/feels that he might be stepping too far onto the ‘performers’ land’. So that is the cut-off point for his elegantly detailed instructions. This, of course, and I speak from experience, is to where the performer will often ‘reach in’ with their technical mnemonics. And of course, there’s sometimes some crossover.

One other question that I had for Mihailo was to do with ‘non-musical’ gestures. All music is filled with silent rhetoric – that which is seen and not heard. So I asked him about how movement figured in his composing imagination. He noted that, yes, for him, a quotient of what he imagines, as a composer, inseparable from the sonic outcome, are certain movements from the player. Now this is indeed going to be different with every composer, but in every instance, to a greater or lesser degree, composers will have in mind a fascinating dysphoric interweave of sound and sight, consciously and unconsciously. Naturally this moves to the fore in moments of silence (whatever that is), and raises all sorts of fascinating, even troubling, questions as to how directly with communicate with our audience (interesting that we use a word which still stresses listening (late Middle English: from Old French, from Latin audientia, from audire ‘hear’). In the 19th century, musicians travelled to Paris to hear the extraordinary trained/rehearsed orchestras that were the legacy of the founding of the Paris

An early image of Ludwig Spohr, whose career dominated the 19th century

Conservatoire, and the ‘Orchestre de la Société des concerts’. The shock for visitors, was that the bowing of the strings was coordinated – that there was now a visual choreography in the orchestra. Richard Wagner was most impressed by it, and curiously, by the second half of the 1800s, it was the orchestras of the German states who were most renowned for visibly organised bowings. This, combined with the new profession of non-playing/instrument-less conductor, following the example of Ludwig Spohr let to a new attention to the orchestra as a watched organism/organisation, and inevitably, scores which, increasingly  counted on the resulting visual tropes. I will return to this.

But for now, I would like to return to the practical aspects of the collaborative process. Over the past 48 hours, I have returned to the extraordinary solo writing of Edward Cowie, who is 80 this year. Much of what I have been talking about in this post so far, pertains to the questions which performers and composers ask each other, the ideas that that they exchange, as pieces are conceived, and built. It’s worth noting that, along the way to a performance or recording, versions of this process, continue; questions and suggestions continue to be asked and made, and this will continue, in my experience, long after the first performances, or documentation of a new work. Music is not, should not be a static thing.

But there’s also a delightfully prosaic aspect to this works, which is itself, just as fundamental, just as creative. And that is the editorial, part of working with a score. Over the past 30 years, the number of ‘steps’ from composition to publication, the number of intermediaries, the people who have eyes on the material, has been winnowed away. This is not confined to composition: for writers, the role of editors has been lessened (many writers’ agents now work as their editors). In addition, a sizeable proportion (in my experience, nearly 50%) of composers write directly into the programme which

Edward Cowie and MihailoTrandafilovski

produces the finished, ‘engraved’ (though it’s not anymore) score. Most of the composers who begin with pencil and paper, do the hard work of working this into a computer score. Remember, Beethoven worked with an editor (who could understand his ever more expressive hand) and then there was another stage, working with the engravers at Artaria, Breitkopf, whichever publisher was bringing out his works. Now it is clear that the move to publication remains a useful hurdle: a few days ago a composer noted to me that their (new) publisher was demanding ‘millions’ of tidyings up and clarfications. However, in general, the process is much slimmed down, which means the that collaborative process has (in my experience) increasingly incorporated work which might be described as proof-reading. I know that, if I make the mistake (!) of sitting down next to Nigel Clarke for a long train or plane journey, he will pull out whatever giant score he might be working on, and ask me to hunt for mistakes: and he is not alone.

To get back to Cowie, the work this week is on a piece which has not yet been premiered. However, the score is at a highly refined state of preparedness. It is extremely clear what the composer wants, the colour and drama that the piece demands. So the questions that I ask are an ill-defined mish-mash of artistic suggestions (which might be defined as ‘cosmetic’ -and won’t become ‘part’ of the score-defined piece_ and editorial notes (questions about possibly missed out slurs and ‘spelling’- in chromatically complex material, even the most eagle-eyed will need a second, or third person to see the inevitable lacunae, when for instance, enharmonic shifts have to happen – Imagine going from D flat Major to E major via D flat minor/C sharp major in fast linear passage work, with chromatic passing material and you will, I think, see the challenge of correct ‘spelling’!

Here I am playing a great Cowie work, at full stretch, earlier this year.

Here is an extract from the online/E mail to-and-fro that Edward and I are having about the new piece. Edward’s comments are in bold. I have added a layer of commentary in italics.

Performer – Composer E mail workshop (with commentary in italics) Peter Sheppard Skaerved and Edward Cowie 14-15th June 2023

Page 3        Bar 56                I like to begin the outburst ricochet, and then to controlled staccato love that idea Performer’s suggestion that MIGHT become textual

Page 4         Bars 57-58         Lower semiquaves slurred yes please implicit in the material – just needed clarification

Page 4       Bar 59                This B flat- C seems to beg a portamento agree this simply reflects similar directions the composer has used for related use of this gesture
Page 4      bar 74                   Last dyad is missing  D flat yes it’s D flat this an example of fine detail resulting from the chromatic complexity noted above-just proof-reading on my part
Page 4      Par 76                  Last pairof semis in the 7s missing a slur (A-E flat) in my sketch they aren’t slurred here the composer gently sets me down. Very politely, but firmly ‘No, I meant that!’
Page 6         Bars 115, 116      Tremoli sound best with a tight ‘in the hand ricochet’ ah yes! this links to texture I suggested at bar 56
Page 7         Bar 151                Trills semitones? Whole tone please to clash with flats arrival. this is fascinating – I had presumed on a non-tonal, tight chromatic trill, and Edward points out the function of the trill as a wide (full-tone) gesture, which is closed off by the following gesture. Now I understand better the nature of the gesture – a brilliant lesson in looking harder
Page 8        Bars 170 on            ‘Flageolet’ – you mean the colour, not harmonics, of course? Yes sorry about that the score completely clear, but the colouristic instruction can also have a technical meaning (play harmonics) in earlier music. So I checked, although the answer was never in doubt. 
Page 9        Bar 191                     Just checking the notes here – Bsharp, B natural, F , C  D as written yes an example of the enharmonic/chromatic challenges mentioned above. The score is perfect, but I needed reassurance.
Page 10     Bars 218- 221            I find that this shapes better with some agogic re-slurrings I agree totally! at this point, the slurs were a little long for me (closer to phrasing), so I have asked to break them up according to the shapes of the lines. This wouldn’t result in editorial change
And then a reminder from the composer, about our earlier communication
You made a suggestion about the very ending I think? Something about floating even higher?
I had forgotten that I had suggested that the last note – a very high C sharp, float an octave higher. Edward had agreed, and then I had forgotten to mark it in. Thank goodness for the sharp memory of this great artist!
Now to the next stage, which is to work out the ramifications of this interchange, instrument in hand. In any structure, adjusting one grain of sand, one musical gesture, can have small or LARGE outcomes!
It’s worth taking a moment, at this juncture, to talk about something, which I think is important.
It seems to me, that among performing musicians, there a split in the perception of the importance, and the function of the practice desk (by which I mean the literal/figurative place where the player works). Is is a place that we go to learn in order to ‘get things right’? Or is it a place of creation, of research, where we hunt for understanding. So I must come clean: I don’t understand the first option. And there’s a simple reason, which is – if you use the practice desk, space, room, whatever, in the second manner, the first option is a natural outcome. The reverse is not true. If you extend the comparison to the collaborative process with a composer: if this process is a ‘getting things right’ exercise, it will not lead to understanding, creativity or understanding, whereas the reversed option has a positive effect.

There are unlimited possibilities of how we might seek for understanding, enlightenment in the building work of composer and performer. Sometimes, I find, that I need to take a somewhat tangential option in order to move. Yesterday (Saturday 17th June) was a case in point, and I am not quite sure why it happened. Most likely, the reason is prosaic: the viola. This coming week, I will be recording new and old works for viola by David Matthews and Edward Cowie. In addition, a conversation is building with my colleagues at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, about my involvement in an exhibit about the 10 (11-ish) surviving Stradivari violas. So clearly something was on my mind, and, also, a slight hankering for the 17th century. So, over the course of 36 hours, I found myself working on a little ‘Chaconne’, originally for

Working score – viola version of Sainte Colombe ‘Chaconne’ 17 236

Bass Viol, by the wonderful and rather mysterious Jean (?) de Sainte-Colombe (c.?1640 – c.?1700). This, of course, is not viola music, but over the past ten years, I have indulged my love of 17th century French string music, by reworking many works by de Machy, Marais, and Sainte-Colombe, for ‘my’ instrument. Here’s just part of my version.

From a practical point of view – in order to render Bass Viol works on the viola, it’s necessary to conflate the tessitura (the 7 string instrument Sainte Colombe  used offered roughly an octave lower than the bottom of the viola). From a visual point of view, this means reworking a score written in three clefs (C and two movable F clefs) to two (C and G)-which can be seen here. I find that – in common which much 17th century music, I will consider alternative ‘scordaturae’ (tunings), and in this case, it works very well if the low string of the instrument is raised to D, from its normal C. The writing-out process is done, instrument in hand, so it is both playing and scribbling. In this respect, it’s very close to the detailed method of practice that I use – except, as will be immediately apparent from the example here – the result is not a technically detailed playing score, but a relatively ‘bare’ working score. If you scroll upwards to the interchange with Mihailo Trandafilovski about making a score, it should be obvious that these two processes are linked – my process of adaptation has produced a similar (at least on the surface) outcome to his compositional/rendering process.
And of course, the most overwhelming similarity is the instrumental one. Whenever a composer makes a work for a specific instrument, however much the work has been conceived for that instrument, there will be practical adjustments, ranging from those the composer will make, using their deep knowledge of the particular instrument’s capabilities, through to the collaborative – working with a player/players. I find that, in the process of the arranging a simple work like this, I find benefits and opportunities in both methods: sometimes thinking ‘away’ from the viola/violin will result in ideas which would have not appeared instrument in hand, and sometimes, the instrument will reveal new ways forward. And I also know that entering into the dialogue with the unavailable (dead) composer, enriches and informs my ever-blazing conversations with the living. Here’s yesterday’s outcome.

Soon after writing this, I returned to details work on the Cowie viola piece, and made an ‘at the desk recording’. This enabled the practical

How Breughel saw ‘whatever happened to Icarus’ – with a Partridge (‘Perdix’ means ‘sister of Daedelus’ – so Icarus’ aunt is watching from a pear tree?! and of course – the flemish love of puns – ‘Perdix – Perdition ….’ get it? BUT!! as Malene, my wife, reminds me, it’s actually Talus, Icarus dead older brother. Daedelus was afraid that Talus would outdo him in ingenuity ( Talus had invented the saw, and the potter’s wheel), so he threw him down from the Acropolis/into the sea – and Athena turned him into a Partridge. It was for this crime that Daedelus was condemned, by the the Areopagus/Boulos and felt to Crete. And the next tragic history began there….

A dialogue with Cowie (see above) to continue. But, watch closely: this is now the composer responding to my reading, making observations, and my responses. It’s the reverse of the process notated above – there I was asking unvoiced/unplayed/unrecorded questions about the score, and the composer was clarifying. We are, quite literally, around the other side of the ‘handover’ process here;

E-mail discussion Edward Cowie to PSS 19 6 23
‘Bar 1 begin with huge vib if possible? 
    will do
Bar 16 great that you picked up on the missing non vib sign here..
    written in now
Bar 35 the semibreve missed I think?
Bar 125 just a little slower on the triplet in the bar..
    I had missed the written out rit ‘5s,4s,4s)
Bar 156 and all points with this same-note figures…I love the way you give it a sense of stretto…push as much as you like in these!
    that seemed natural/explicit in the music!
Bar 165-168, is it possible to join the grace notes so there’s no mini hiatus between them and the note they decorate?
    yes – I will make them less defined, more flighty – mine were galumphing!
Bars 181, 182, 185, 186, it’s probably my fault for dotting the two non harmonic notes so can you make them a little fuller so that the harmonic doesn’t sound a little isolated from them?
       That’s really helpful
Bar 194 Brilliant sense of hopeless despair….
        I am pleased you are happy with this ‘la chute’
Bsr 235 con sord until 261…I couldn’t quite be sure you’d muted that sequence…
        Well noticed!!!
Bar 248-252, a tricky passage …my hope is that it can sound fragile, drained and vulnerable…so that the ethereal at bar 252 appears like a transcendent’song’…as though a kind of ‘spirit flute’ playing…
        My version too literal at the moment – curiously, it needs I think to be less grounded, more unsure
Your playing to the end is nothing short of pure genius!
This is so helpful! Hope you didn’t mind my feeling that the end is an apotheosis! ‘
Here’s the crudely made recording we were discussing. Made 18 6 23

Which all brings me back to Robert Saxton. On the 28th June, the full musical text of Robert’s ‘Sonata’ arrived. Of course, in the majority of cases today, music does not arrive in the post (although David Matthews is a great believer in a parcel of music with a postcard – I have hundreds from him!). So the score arrived as a pdf file attached to an E mail. I am so impatient, waiting for a piece like this to spool out of the printer, and to get it all onto the desk and really start work. Which I did last night.
To be honest, I was not really expecting to be up to this, as yesterday, I had a dramatic wisdom tooth removal, and am feeling beaten-up and a little drugged, as a result! However, my enthusiasm for the new piece, its beauties and challenges has carried me through, and X hours (I really am not sure) later, I have completed a complete technical overview, at the practice table. The photo on the right was taken when I was about 4 hours into this, so as you might be able to see, only about 1/3 of the piece has been marked. But, by now, I have worked out, and marked up, the fingerings and bowings for every note of the piece, and started asking some of the questions which have to go back and forth between composer and performer (see above). At this stage, to be honest, they are mainly editorial/proof-reading. From the outside, they will feel very dry – here’s an example, just a segment of an E mail that I wrote Robert this afternoon.

‘Movement 4 -Page 9 /LInes 2, 3 and 8 the  ‘o o’ doublestopped natural harmonics are not agreeing over format. I would suggest stacked vertically above the dyad in each case/Line 7 bar 2 last beat – the grace note is missing its slur to the dyad/Line 7 Bar 2.  Can you clarify the placing of the ‘>’?’ (PSS E mail to Robert Saxton 28 6 23)

But this process is very much ‘violin in hand’. In order to really get at the marrow of the music, sonically and imaginatively, I have to be sure that I am absolutely clear what everything means. In my experience, freedom comes with attention to detail.

At this stage, the technical work is fairly specious. Whilst hundereds of fingerings and bowings have been worked out and marked in, the real grounding work for these follows- the system of annotating the precise position of the hands and arms (using fifth notations and open string/resonance indications). This vital, total ‘choreography’ of the body and violin/bow is what will lead me to a fuller relationship to the musical text; its substructure and outcome.

This question, of the relationship between the ‘choreography of the hands/body’ at the violin came up again on the 6th July, in a one-to-one workshops session I had with Mihailo Trandafilovski, on his new piece. He pointed out that, in the piece, there is a direct relationship between the movements necessary to play the music, and the movements of the painter Joanna Jones (at work), on whose canvases this piece is based. Listen here: