Thursday, March 1, 2012

Dreams of a composer

Some self-indulgent reflection inspired by my 50th birthday

From a very early age I have had a huge passion for music, greatly encouraged by my parents who created an environment where I and all my brothers and sisters were involved in making music in one way or another. It must have been quite a noisy household as all 5 of us would compete to get time on the piano; I being the 2nd youngest had to fight for my place against my older sisters who were already accomplished pianists. At the age of 8 or 9 my mother took my older brother and I to the local music shop and picked out two scores for us: 'First Year Handel' and 'First Year Haydn'. It was quite random who got which book but to my delight I was given the Handel. Handel quickly became my favourite composer as I pounded my way through arrangements of the Messiah, and his famous Largo. As long as I can remember I would get completely absorbed by music, whether listening or playing, and often at the cost of those around me! To illustrate the point: when I was 10 a close school friend of mine was returning to the States with his family, they having spent a sabbatical year in my home town of Oxford England. On the eve of their departure my friend invited me to walk back with him to his house one last time, but I turned down the invitation because I was itching to play the piano. After a few minutes at the instrument, with my friend walking the mile back to his house for the last time, alone, the callousness of my action suddenly hit me and I rushed out of the house after him, but it was too late, he had long gone. The next time I saw him was nearly 20 years later.

Around the same time I was singing regularly in various church choirs, including the choir of Pembroke College Oxford. It was there, at the age of 9, that I first discovered the music of Bach, when we sang his beautiful chorale from the St Matthew Passion, ‘Oh sacred head, sore wounded’. It made a very deep impression on me.

[Pembroke College Chapel Oxford, where I was first introduced to the music of Bach:]

[J.S. Bach: O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded, Kings College Choir Cambridge, David Willcocks, 1973]

At the same time I anxiously showed off my own composition to the Pembroke College organ scholar; it was a Sonata in C for piano, one of my earliest pieces, written when I was 9, the manuscript destroyed, I'm sorry to say, by my own hand a few years later!

I continued with both my singing and my composing and at the age of 11 wrote my first choral work, a setting of Christina Rossetti's Christmas carol ‘Before the paling of the stars’. I still have the manuscript – for some reason this piece did NOT get destroyed! It was first performed by the choir of St Aldates in Oxford and I also incorporated the carol into a lengthy semi-improvised composition for choir and organ which was also performed on the same occasion.

Around that time my piano skills were dramatically improving and at the ripe old age of 12 my piano teacher suggested I might consider becoming a concert pianist, such was my enthusiasm for performing even then. I was so excited by her confidence in me that I remember skipping all the way home after the lesson singing to myself "I'm going to be a concert pianist, I'm going to be a concert pianist". For the next few years I continued composing mainly piano pieces, most of which tended to me of a virtuoso nature, culminating in a 30 minute three movement piano concerto (which I also orchestrated). Though these are obviously juvenile works when I look at them today I can see they showed promise. Below is an early (undated) recording of my improvisation on themes from my Piano Concerto (one has to feel sorry for my sister whose bedroom was directly above the piano room - in those days most of my composing and playing was done early in the morning before I went to school, beginning at 5.30AM!).

[Gibbons: Improvisation on themes from Piano Concerto (1976) (undated early recording)]

Unfortunately my psyche at the age of 13, when I wrote my piano concerto, was not what it is today. After I completed it I decided it was all rubbish. At the same time I was becoming aware of some of the less savoury trends in 20th century classical music, including the work of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, and I became very self-consciously aware that the music I was trying to write would not be considered acceptable (the brain-washing had already begun). Consequently I experimented very briefly by writing a couple of semi-atonal pieces. Thankfully the experiment was unsuccessful, but the psychological damage of this new self-conscious awareness would have far-reaching and very negative consequences.

Finally, at the age of 14, I made a ridiculously dogmatic decision to completely stop writing music. I decided my skills lay in performing, not composing, and that I should devote 100% of my energies to improving my piano playing.

By the time I went to music college at 15 these views were even more cemented in my mind. Though I studied composition as well as piano at college I didn’t take my composing seriously anymore. My own sense of self-deprecation was reinforced by my composition professor who, upon examining my youthful piano concerto, declared it to be completely worthless ("what gets me is why you bothered to finish it" were his actual words, forever burned into my memory as he flicked through the pages). So that was that, the decision I had made at 14 to stop composing was given the stamp of approval at college. But here’s a strange thing: notwithstanding my self-doubts, when I played the music written by my contemporaries at college I felt sure that had I stayed with my composing I would have written something better myself, yet oddly this still wasn't enough to push me back into composing. I was in a hyper-critical phase (composers such as Beethoven and Mozart didn't escape my criticism either!). I now realize how wrong I was to make that ridiculous decision at 14, how bad the advice was I received from my professor, and how badly let down I was by all my music teachers at the time. If I could return as my own composition professor it would be so easy to offer the advice and encouragement I so badly needed then. It would be so simple to point out what was good and what was bad in my music, and to show myself how I could fix things and develop what was good – my enthusiasm for music would have made me an excellent pupil. How I would have enjoyed studying carefully the works of the composers I loved (as opposed to the ones I didn't), and I might have been surprised to realize that even the greatest of them had serious doubts about their own abilities.

In my teens and early 20s my prospects as a concert pianist continued to improve with each new success, but all the while, as I grew older, I felt something important was missing. I continued to reassure myself that I just didn't have the talent for writing music. Even so, I started to write down and record any musical ideas I had – what I intended to do with them who knows, for they were just shoved all the way to the back of a cupboard. But one day all that changed: facing a serious identity crisis, I took the plunge and started writing a song. It was my first serious attempt at composition since my 1976 piano concerto 25 years earlier. I took a Christina Rossetti poem ‘Remember Me’ and started trying to fit the words to one of the ideas I had scribbled down and pushed to the back of my cupboard but which always seemed to be in my head. While writing this song something dramatic happened which struck me like a lightening bolt: the more I got into the poem the more I felt I could express the words in my music. I began abandoning my initial idea and just started freely composing. In particular, at the passage that begins at 5:44 on the video below, I suddenly had this extraordinary feeling that the sky was the limit, that I could write ANYTHING. It was just like Elgar had said: “My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require”. This was the trigger that changed my life forever.

[Gibbons: Remember Me Op.12, first performance, February 2001]

But then another momentous event happened. Shortly after completing this piece I was very nearly killed in a serious car accident (in March 2001). If I had died, ironically, this one song of mine would have made a perfect epitaph!

[Newspaper cutting, Oxford Mail, March 2001]

During the long recovery process, when I was unable to play the piano, I became consumed with the urge to continue composing. I launched into song after song and many of my songs from Opp. 15-29 stem from this time, the summer of 2001, including this one.

[Gibbons: The Bourne Op.27, composed June 2001]

Once I recovered from my injuries I resumed my performing career. I was extremely fortunate to be able to return to piano playing considering the severity of my injuries (thanks to the superb treatment I received from the doctors and nurses of the British National Health Service). But now I had a new obsession and a constant desire to get back to composing. I was aware it was a bold, even foolhardy, thing to harbour the thought of abandoning a successful performing career in favour a very uncertain composing career. It didn't help that I still felt very much a novice when it came to composing, with 25 year lost years of not honing my craft! Now my stubbornness, which had been so destructive to my creativity at the age of 14, was working in my favour, as I was determined to write music whatever the cost. And ‘cost’ was certainly something I was forced to consider, as I happily let my earnings disappear in favour of my new found dream. But with every new composition I gained increased confidence, and more and more felt I was making the right decision and moving in a direction that I should have been in 25 years ago.

A few years later another very fortunate turn of events played a big rôle in the direction of my music. While visiting Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia in May 2010, performing an all-Gershwin concert on behalf of a Highlands Scholarship initiative at D&E, part-financed by philanthropist Doris Buffett, I had a series of conversations with the staff of the college. I talked about my ambitions to stay in one place and devote more time to writing music, and to my astonishment the president of D&E, Buck Smith, asked on the 2nd day of my visit if I would consider becoming the college's artist-in-residence. Taking the position would mean an even bigger change of direction in my life: now, in addition to my performing, I would also be expected to write music, which is a very different kettle of fish to writing music when you 'feel like it' (the president had been very taken with some of my own pieces which I had included in my concert at D&E, and was anxious to provide me with an environment that would inspire me to write).

So here I am now, sitting in my study in Elkins, West Virginia, with a beautiful view of the Appalachian mountains from my window, just down a lovely tree-lined road from Davis & Elkins College, which itself has a most scenic and inspiring campus, set in the hills and woods of Appalachia.

[The campus of Davis & Elkins College, Elkins, West Virginia]

In front of me on my desk are page after page of musical ideas I have been accumulating for the composition of a mass, which I very much hope the D&E choir can one day sing. Unfortunately also in front of me is my waste paper basket, filled to the brim with rejected music sheets. Right now I am staring at an ominously blank page of manuscript paper, and finding other things to do to distract me, such as writing this blog! But it's a great privilege I find myself in now, and one I am determined to make the most of with the production of good music. Only time will tell whether I have justified all the faith that has been placed in me, but I am gradually building a portfolio of compositions, many of which would not exist but for the faith and optimism shown me by the D&E College president Buck Smith. Below is one of those pieces: my Ave Verum Corpus Op.90, written for the 2011 West Virginia Governor’s School for the Arts, an important annual event for encouraging the arts in the youth of West Virginia, which is being held at Davis & Elkins College for the three years 2011, 2012 and 2013.

[Gibbons: Ave Verum Corpus Op.90, West Virginia GSA Choir, first performance, July 2011]

I still feel I have a lot to do to catch up, with all the lost years when I wasn’t writing music. My inexperience seems daunting at times. I often think I need to recalculate my age in terms of years spent writing music, which would make me a young and inexperienced 25 year old composer, rather than an aging 50 year old! Of course I know that nothing worth having or achieving in life is free or comes easily, and the things one works at the most have a wonderful way of rewarding one the most. Reading constantly about composers as I do (I have been enthralled by the lives of the great composers ever since I read my first book on the life of Mozart when I was 11) one thing that I come across again and again is description of just how hard they all worked, even to the point perhaps (in Mozart's case) of working themselves into their graves. Johann Sebastian Bach is quoted as saying: "I was obliged to be industrious; whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well" (quoted in the earliest biography of Bach, written by Forkel). Chopin’s addiction to work is mockingly described by George Sand in one of her letters when she talks of Chopin not feeling he is working enough unless his back is breaking. Elgar's daughter Carice, writing about her father's life, emphasized just how hard her father worked, a point that she felt many people did not fully appreciate. I truly believe that the difference between the output of people like Bach, Chopin and Elgar and the rest of us is not the result of some magical inspiration from the ether, but largely a matter of perseverance, dedication, and hard work. One only needs to study Chopin’s sketches, those that survived his massive censorship, to see how a seemingly crude or unpromising idea could be gradually transformed into something of great beauty (just as a rough piece of unformed marble is gradually transformed by the wonderful hand of Michelangelo into a breathtaking Pietà). Studying Chopin’s drafts and seeing how he was able to transform his first sketches into great masterpieces has taught me more about composition than anything else I have ever done. It's about not accepting anything you’re not happy with, and never giving up. Of course there is a negative side to this method: if one is not careful one might never finish a single piece of music. Bach and Mozart lived in a different age where people were much less concerned with posterity. Mozart in particular had a laissez-faire attitude and if a piece of music did somehow escape his critical eye he wasn’t one to agonize over it once it was written – he simply moved on to the next piece. That's also something I am trying to learn from, as I pull music sheets out of my waste paper bin and wonder if I should have thrown them away so quickly!

[A playlist of some of my compositions (in reverse chronological order)]

Visit the website of Davis & Elkins College, Elkins, West Virginia


Steve said...

Interesting post Jack. Beats me why those who have the gift to write music don't just write music that they enjoy and hope others will also like it.
Happy birthday!

Moments of Being said...

So moving...

Leonard said...

Mr. Gibbons,
You composed music that is, to say the least, moving and substantial (the first attribute is perhaps a tad more important?). Reading your earnest and inspiring reflection makes me think of how much music has given me in my life, and how all of us wandered in the course of how lives, not knowing we might be able to truly pursue our dreams.
Thank you very much for your sharing and I hope you will continue to write music, especially when you have already contributed so much to piano performance!
Leonard (Hong Kong)