Learning is always about accepting the new, and trusting that it is good.
By the time I reached my teens I had decided I wanted to be a composer. Not only that, but I wanted to do it outside of the establishment, refusing to study at university, or become a “jobbing composer” – I was going to be a famous and successful composer, writing whatever music I wanted to and being adored by a vast audience, just through the force of my own creative genius, just like….er… and that was the problem. The composers whom I liked and whom I assumed made their living composing, actually made their money teaching.
wanted to and being adored by a vast audience, just through the force of my own creative genius
I don’t think any of them made the bulk of their cash from composing. Maybe Glass and Reich, I don’t know. They were basically rock stars in their eras though.
Not for the first time, deciding that I didn’t need a map and could find my way through unknown territory by instinct would be my undoing. My decision to bypass university was also a fateful one. At school I’d been regarded as a talented but awkward music student. My teachers knew that I could pretty much ace any musical task given to me, but that I was quite elliptical in my methods and reasoning, and I had an overwhelming sense of mischief. I don’t envy whoever had to mark my homework. I was the best and worst student you could ever teach – talented but frivolous, and given to making silly things instead of serious things.
What they did realise, though, was that I’d taught myself how to write for the tuba.
I remember being asked to write a duet. A short piece for two instruments, I’m guessing the idea was that it could be played in class and therefore heard and discussed. Quite a practical assignment really.
I wrote a piece for two tubas. No one in the class played the tuba. It was about ten minutes of droning discordant, clashing notes, followed by a short but insanely happy, cheesy tune (not a million miles from the current GMTV theme tune, for those unemployed Brits reading). I liked (and still like) the idea of a terribly morose and slow piece, ending with something really light and forcefully upbeat.
The teachers asked me what the second tune was influenced by, and I said “daytime tv and gardening shows”. They didn’t even bother asking what the first section was about. What they did realise, though, was that I’d taught myself how to write for the tuba. I had not learned that in class – I’d researched and figured it out myself. In a quite bizarre turn of events for a fourteen year old, I actually had a publisher contact me (one of my teachers meddling perhaps?) about the piece I’d written, as surprisingly there are not many duets for tuba in the catalogue, but there are lots of tuba students. And they often use the same music schools and teachers. There is a market for tuba duets it seems.
I liked (and still like) the idea of a terribly morose and slow piece, ending with something really light and forcefully upbeat.
At this point I recognised – but ignored- the opportunity to write for groups of instruments that are uncommon in the concert-hall, but an everyday occurrence in music schools. But by this point my focus had changed. That set the tone for the next 15 years. After being rejected from various composition competitions – a piece for brass band called “Blow It Out Your Brass”, and an amazing concerto for choir, where in each movement a different voice was the soloist, and the other voices the “orchestra” – and being rejected by music agencies, schools, ensembles, orchestras, agents, audiences, friends and girls, I decided to move into the the popular music arena.
I did not connect my rebelliousness with my lack of acceptance by “the establishment”. All I could see was that my supposed talent was going to waste in the “classical” arena (despite the fact that it had opened it’s arms to me and I had rejected it repeatedly).
You might be able to learn the lesson here that I could not! Anyway, I figured that my badass composing skills could tear dance music a new one.
Good lord did I do that. But I had no way of knowing just how peculiar a path I was stepping on to…
Make Better Music is updated every Tuesday. For previous articles search for ‘Dave Graham’
David Learnt composition (harmony, counterpoint and orchestration) to degree level through studying Schoenbergs Fundamentals of Musical Composition, the classic text on twentieth century harmony by Vincent Persichetti, Henry Mancini’s Sounds and Scores, Rimsky-Korsakov’s excellent books on orchestration as well as studying any scores that intrigued me. He is a founder member of two bands, avant pop duo Cnut, and orchestral doombience outfit Regolith, and have performed across Europe with them.