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"I enjoy writing music that is about more than just one thing, and I’ve come to view a composition as the end result of a learning process"

Ben Gaunt explains the way he thinks about form when composing

Ben Gaunt - Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind

“ has often been claimed, especially since Kant, that music is an art of time, if not the art of time.” (Philip Alperson)

I don’t know the extent to which this quote is true for other composers. Actually, I don’t really care the extent to which this quote is true for other composers. It is, however, very true for me. My obsession with time and structure as an essential, mathematical, proportional, compositional endeavour began as a result of writing a few long, boring pieces (about five years ago) and simultaneously encountering this famous quote, attributed to Stravinsky:

“Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end”

I was mortified; I figured my music, flabby in form and lacking in direction, had posthumously irritated one of my heroes. My PhD, amongst other things, was an attempt to correct this flaw in my compositional technique. I devised a way of thinking about form, and coined the term ‘singular structure’, of which there are two types:

  • Transitional – a section or a piece of music with one or more parameters that change as the piece/section progresses e.g. De Snelheid by Louis Andriessen (which begins slowly and increases in speed), The Pines of the Appian Way by Ottorino Respighi (which begins quietly and increases in volume).
  • Static – a section or a piece of music with no audible change in any parameter e.g. The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer by La Monte Young

A large portion of my doctorate was devoted to exploring singular structures and time proportion as compositional tools (to mixed success). As a consequence of this, I developed a number of curious habits – for example, I tend to know exactly how long each piece is going to be (often to the nearest second, or fraction of a second) before I begin working on the notes themselves. I use mathematical principles and patterns to work out the durations of sections (even the durations of bars) and will often use Sibelius (the notation programme) to create manuscript paper, bespoke for each piece, with double bar lines and time signatures already printed. I typeset my work on an almost daily basis, print it out, and then handwrite on the printout.

After my doctorate, I developed the singular structure method further and explored the possibility of devising pieces using superimposed singular structures, each made up of shorter singular structures. The clearest example is present in the first movement of my trio, 16th Century Horror:

The movement begins in a gentle, fragile manner and gradually becomes more strident and forceful as it progresses. It is, therefore, a transitional singular structure in its own right; however, each of the instrumental parts are also constructed using singular structures (both transitional and static). The flute part is comprised of three 70-second sections; the first a static ‘weak’ section, the third a static ‘strong’ section, and, in between, a transitional section that begins weakly and ends strongly. The other instrumental parts function in a similar way (five 42-second sections for piano, seven 30-second sections for oboe).

I suppose the point of all of this is that I retain control over the duration, pacing, events, climaxes etc. but, by superimposing, I blur the lines a bit and make the nuts and bolts harder to hear.

16th Century Horror is about the films of David Cronenberg, the art of Salvador Dali and Rafael, mutations, exploding heads, and a book of hymns from the year 1520. I enjoy writing music that is about more than just one thing, and I’ve come to view a composition as the end result of a learning process; I delve into something, read about it, talk to people about it, think about it, and then write about it.

An old composition teacher of mine once gave me a piece of advice (and I am paraphrasing): “Sometimes it’s nice to spend all day thinking about a piece, and to let it consume you. Other times it’s good to write something quickly, and not to worry too much about it.” When I was his student, I was an advocate of the latter sentiment. Now, I’ve converted to the former. I spend months writing even the shortest solo work: selecting and combining extra-musical stimuli, testing mathematical patterns, producing countless sketches and endlessly doubting everything I write and rewrite. The process is fraught and frantic, and often unpleasant – I ended up experiencing (somewhat terrifying) chest pains when planning my ensemble piece, Carina’s Observatory, and went to hospital as a result. Thomas Adès describes something similar during the composition of Asyla: “I was hyperventilating and thought I was having a heart attack”.

When I was selected to write a piece for members of the London Symphony Orchestra (as part of the wonderful LSO Soundhub scheme), I decided to take things further and write about a topic I knew well: karate. Rather than merely read, talk, and think about it, I was able to inhabit and internalise it; I am a black belt in karate, and possess an understanding of what performing this martial art feels like (something I wanted to translate into music).

Ben Gaunt - Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind

I wrote an extended programme note, which might help explain how the music and movement are related:

I am very pleased with the end product, but the music did not come easily. I remember on one night, probably around 3am, I was writing the first movement and struggling to understand what the sound of somebody kicking their palm feels like it should sound like (or sounds like it should feel like?). So I walked to my nearest park and spent about an hour performing the movement. My palm hurt. My brain hurt. But I figured it out (ascending viola glissandi and crescendo, combined with a clarinet slap tongue). When watching the video, I noticed the camera at that particular point (0:44) was focused on the players and not the karateka. Oh well.

As part of the LSO Soundhub scheme, I was mentored by Harrison Birtwistle (who cooked me the best lamb I’ve ever eaten... sorry mum!) and he gave me a piece of compositional advice that I am still mulling over:

“Make it more like what it is.”

My future pieces will, in part, attempt to deal with making what they are more like what they are.

[Find the first and second articles in the series HERE and HERE, and the introduction to the series HERE.]


Ben Gaunt 

Ben Gaunt (born 1984) studied at the RNCM, Manchester Metropolitan University,

and The University of Sheffield where he recently completed a PhD. He has been

taught by Dorothy Ker, Harrison Birtwistle, Michael Finnissy, Alwynne Pritchard,

George Nicholson and others. Ben's music has been performed by the London

Symphony Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Ensemble 10/10, Icarus Ensemble, York

Late Music Ensemble, Christopher Redgate, Oren Marshall, Sarah Nicolls, Sounds

of the Engine House (which he co-founded) and Size Zero Opera. Ben's music has

been published by University of York Music Press, premiered at HCMF, and

released by NMC. He is a senior lecturer at Leeds College of Music, and a tutor

at the Open College of the Arts.

'How I Compose' Series - III - Ben Gaunt