Musical frameworks and the imagination. What conditions are needed to spark new musical ideas?

Composer Judith Weir, whose music displays many critical resonances with literature and history, argues that one cannot write music simply by mimicking other soundworlds.

I'm constantly out hearing this or that piece of old music. But when I am composing, I really am in a different world. I'm not really thinking about style at all... I wouldn't want to hear a piece that sounded like a historical pastiche. I'd think, I'd rather be hearing the real work[1]


But this is not about pastiche revival, called neo-classicism in music: it is about a deep and active engagement with past treasures. By this I mean the 'distant voices' of long-gone composers and musicians, 'heard' through the core legacy of western music which is, of course, its scores; but importantly the idea that this engagement may produce something that is new and distinctive, for our own time. Composers I know who revere western notated music - and we are talking about a tradition that is more than a thousand years old - engage with it through a process of listening, reading and re-reading that is ultimately transformative and dynamic. As the composer Robin Holloway has remarked about his own reimagining of Bach's Goldberg Variations, "even in a place where arrangement was the only goal, 'interference' crackled the transmission".[2]


A nice effect is sometimes obtained when distant voices speak through new music. It answers a related problem that composers face - how can you be at once original and authentic? How can you be novel, and also what the composer Shirley Thompson has called 'grounded'?


Increasingly I think that fundamental musical gestures inform composition of many kinds. Not stylistic imitation - rather a deep sense of the general historical compositional 'voice' speaking through the musical langauge of today. If one cultivates that sense of a framework, it may release one's language to develop at the 'subconscious' level, as the artist Jane Tippett has said, which is what is needed.

[1] Interview with Ed Hughes, London 27 November 2018

[2] Robin Holloway, Gilded Goldbergs, The Micallef-Inanga Piano Duo, Hyperion CDA67360; CD liner notes

Ed Hughes