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Composer's diary | One war concerto with loop-station euphonium coming up

5:49, 2nd December 2015

Twelve months to go
Thanks to a chance meeting on the London to Leeds train, I have a commission to write a euphonium concerto. Unbelievably, it’s the second time that I’ve met a conductor colleague by chance on that journey and managed to get them drunk enough to give me a commission. I’m going to visit my parents more often. Euphoniums are pretty much my favourite thing in the world: in any brass band, your star soloists are your principal cornet and euphonium. It has a warm baritone register like nothing else and a wonderfully seductive, clear octave from middle C upwards. Good players, and boy, have I got one of those on my hands, will take them right the way up to the top line in the treble clef. The soloist is Manchester-based Luxembourger virtuoso Philippe Schwartz, who plays for the Grimethorpe Colliery band. The orchestra is the Skipton Building Society Camerata, a thriving professional chamber orchestra based on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales that has been built up by the fearlessly entrepreneurial conductor and former BBC music fellow, Ben Crick.

Nine months to go
‘If you can make it into a concerto for a First World War remembrance concert, we’ll programme it in November.’ Right you are. One war concerto coming up. Also on the programme is The Lark Ascending, in its reduced scoring, which means that the instruments at my disposal are as follows: single woodwind, one French horn, strings. It’s a wonderful combination to write for, and thinking of it as ‘strings plus six soloists’ is giving me the vapours. I manage to negotiate a timpanist, and, getting completely carried away, announce that I’ll create my own brass section on the day by getting Philippe to use a Loop Station.

Five months to go
I am getting completely bogged down by the practicalities. Do I want to loop the entire band or just the soloist? How do you even notate what is happening? How do you integrate loops into a conducted piece of music? Do I need to use a click track (please no). Thinking about the actual dots on the page brings me to a deeper crisis – ridiculously, writing something that’s nice to listen to seems disrespectful. I don’t think that remembrance should be cosy and fun. Better to play back recordings of people screaming, and layer it with distorted sound files of old draft songs and hope that the whole thing makes people feel appalled and uncomfortable.
I get in touch with a regular collaborator, poet Chris Jackson. He says that he’s had a vision of Steve Jobs and there’s an opera in it. I ask him for a verse of war poetry to help me out as inspiration for the concerto. He’s a proper writer, and sends me back something quickly, a poignant verse about visiting the battlefield and seeing ‘perfect bodies of the undead, pacing towards me, each telling their stories’. Now we’re talking. I feel like I can artistically cling on to the idea of a nostalgic ‘march of the zombies’, however disrespectful.

Eight weeks to go
I type ‘How long does it take to learn a concerto’ into Google and hover over the ‘search’ button. I minimise the window, and go through my online displacement routine for the hundredth time:
1 Listen to my favourite bits of Philip Wilby’s euphonium concerto (basically all of it)
2 Watch a YouTube clip of a well-lubricated Steven Mead playing Czardas on a muted euphonium in a hotel room in the middle of the night
3 Read Matt Tropman’s ‘Euphonium Assassin’ blog.
The Loop Station has trapped me – it’s demanding that I write rounds. I think of all the beautiful orchestration options I’m forgoing in order to do this, not to mention the ‘not repeating the same chord sequence over and over again’ options. I write a Facebook status about being like ‘Philip Glass without the RSI’, which as a phrase has more artistic merit than the last three minutes of loop sketches I’ve produced.

Six weeks to go
The discovery that, using the majestic Roland RC-50 Loop Station you can reduce, as well as add, loops in the texture has been a great help. Plus, by varying the length of loops and other parameters, I’ve managed to get the repetitiveness of the texture to around the level that I would normally work with, electronics or no. Philippe – a truly class act – is being patient and giving great feedback on the material I’m providing. I have produced a ‘crossover’ style middle movement, based on the word patterns of Chris’s poem. It came very quickly and is nothing like the material I think I should be coming up with, especially in response to such a vivid, clinical bit of verse. Deep down though, I know that it’s something I really wanted write, despite being worried about overdoing the sentiment. And, even though it’s cutting it fine, I’ve started a ‘perpetuum mobile’ final movement. Now that I’ve opened the emotional floodgates, I’m using the themes from a piano piece called Wakey Wakey that I wrote when my son was born. If all goes to plan, it’ll knock their socks off.

Thomas Lydon’s euphonium concerto Lest we forget will be premiered by Philippe Schwartz and the Skipton Building Society Camerata on 8 November. The concert, which takes place at Christ Church, Skipton, will be conducted by Ben Crick

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