Phillip A Cooke: On trying something different...

by Phillip A Cooke

When we look at composer’s lives and their works, we often like to divide their lives into nice, discrete chunks which adhere to pre-existing notions of what a great artist’s life should have been: early-period (searching for a style; obvious influence of acknowledged masters), mid-period (‘mature’; success; stylistic conformity; natural balance between inspiration and technique) and late-period (dissonance, discontinuity and difficulty). This works surprisingly well with many composers – it’s the Beethoven model, but it also works well with others - Stravinsky, Britten, Walton…the list goes on. I don’t necessarily see a problem with this, and this model helps to shine light on many composer’s oeuvres, though often with the helpful guide of retrospect and hindsight. But do composers who are actually alive and working feel like they are part of this model – are they aware when one period finishes and another begins? Are they making conscious decisions to move their style from one to another? I only ask this rather spurious question as I think I’m currently weighed down by this decision – I think I’m having an existential crisis about my work and what I’m doing!

In February of this year (2015) I finished my most substantial work to date – an hour-long choral/orchestral work, Noah’s Fire that will be premiered in Chester Cathedral in November. I only mention this information (not as a plug!) as it provided me with an apposite moment to assess my work, my ‘voice’, my oeuvre – what I had achieved so far, and what I might like to do next? Noah’s Fire is such a summation of my work of the previous decade that I just don’t think I could do anything like it again. All those mannerisms, those gestures, those phrases and cadences – all the weapons in my compositional armoury are laid bare - to mix my metaphors – the cupboard is empty (or maybe it should be the armoury?). What should I do next? How should I go about it? What should it sound like?

Well, if I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t know. I’m currently in a ‘try-before-you-buy’ period! I’ve written a handful of pieces since Noah’s Fire and I’ve tried something different in each – not always something drastically different (I don’t want to throw away the baby with the bathwater just yet!) but always including something that I wouldn’t have done previously, something subtly different, perhaps pointing towards new pastures and greener grass (I am stacking up the metaphors and clichés here…). Whether this signifies the move from early to mid-period is not for me to say, and I think I would have to be an awful narcissist and egotist to be able to make such a judgement (announcing it on social media…I have begun my mid-period…). But I am aware that there is something different in the water at the moment, something has changed – maybe I feel more ‘mature’…I am 35 and I am constantly aware of my own mortality (not that you need to know that)…

By far the most substantial of these post-Noah’s Fire pieces is By Reason of Darkness, and this piece really is a departure from my previous work. When commissioned to write a work for community choir I wanted to do something that would put a real marker in the sand (I’m keeping the clichés going, admirably, I think) – something that didn’t sound anything like my other works. I had never written for community choir, and never really interacted with other works for this medium – I had carte blanche…tabula rasa…an empty canvas…this seemed like a good time to try something different.

I don’t want to give too much away about the work, anyone who has heard some of my previous work will still hear that same voice, but maybe now from afar, mingled with other voices, other concerns and opinions. By Reason of Darkness is a step into the unknown (though others may have been there before…), it is a challenge to myself and to the composer I have been, and maybe to the one I want to be. I can’t say with any certainty that I’ll ever write a piece like this again, but I’ve tried, and it’s important for composers, for artists to keep trying something new – isn’t it?

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