Writing and composing

by Ian Wilson

In the half term break, my wife and I were faced with the problem of how to get a seventeen-year-old to take a family holiday with us. We hit on the idea of a trip to Manchester so that we could look do the university tour and consider the music department as a place for him to study. Wandering around the campus together, we were congratulating ourselves on our insight into teenage psychology when my wife noticed this plaque:

Blue Plaque to commemorate Anthony Burgess - writer

My first reaction was one of surprise. Who knew that the writer of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was also a composer? When I got home I decided to explore his work. To my astonishment, I discovered that composition was Burgess’s first love and that he’d written well over 250 works. Apparently, he spent much of his life unsuccessfully trying to gain recognition for his music, only managing one-off, unrecorded performances at literary events. I thought I’d have a nose round the internet to see if I could find something to which I could listen and found he’d written ‘A Manchester Overture’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5Jo-4AlOaY) to celebrate his time in the city. I was struck by its invention and the quality of his orchestration. Why wasn’t this music better known?

This made me think about whether it is possible to be a successful polymath. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Omar Khayyám notwithstanding, most famous people are only recognized in one field. Does our need to pigeonhole people prevent us from appreciating their broader contribution to culture? Or is it that we are too narrow in our understanding of creativity?

I have been a composer for some time (http://www.thechoralagency.com/composers.html) but it has only been in the last year that I have turned my attention to writing. Trying to put a young adult novella together has been a steep learning curve for me and has made me consider the similarities and differences between the process of writing and that of composition.

The most important similarity that I’ve found is the need to constantly revise my work. I find it so easy to settle on an idea before I have had the chance to consider other possibilities. At one song writing workshop that I attended, the leader stressed the need to write lots of potential verses so that the best ones could be selected for the final lyrics. I have often used internet forums to ‘road test’ initial versions of my songs so that I can get extra pairs of ears on them before honing them to their final forms. When I wrote a song cycle for the Dunblane Chamber Orchestra, I had to revise the work considerably after the first performance because they found it so hard to play, as you will hear if you follow the link (2 mins 11s into the video on the front page of http://dunblanechamberorchestra.org).

It is a great comfort taking the same approach to the ‘terrible first draft’. Author Anne Lamott claims that her first drafts are so bad she worries about getting into a car crash and dying as she’d never want others to see her work before she’s had a chance to revise it. I used the Beta Read service from Eagle Eye Editors (http://eagleeyeeditors.me/beta-reading/) to get someone else to sample my writing efforts. Alison DeLuca, an author of young adult novels, read my book and gave helpful feedback which I am now trying to apply.

The second similarity that I have found between writing music and writing fiction is the need to develop your themes. At university I was taught how Beethoven explored simple ideas (such as the ‘knocking on the door’ theme from his fifth symphony) to the full limit of their potential. In my writing, I am trying to achieve the same clarity of expression, ensuring that I know what central ideas I am following and how they might be developed coherently.

Am I labouring in vain, like Anthony Burgess appears to have done when wearing his composing hat? Almost certainly, but I’m having a lot of fun on the way.


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