After the Midnight Hour: Music, Painting and Poetry

26 Apr 2019

By RPS Composer Grace-Evangeline Mason

Often shrouded in a degree of perceived mysticism, the creative process of composing a new piece of music varies widely between composers. For me, after some crucial consideration of the available instrumentation or possible concert themes, the process begins with an inexpressible feeling that I can imagine and wish to create in sound alone. Composers frequently avoid characterising their own work, but I would propose that my pieces, or at least my composition processes to create them, are usually focused on the pursuit of encapsulating an atmosphere. I have a longing to write works that take my listener on a journey to experience a particular sound-world and envelop them within it, even if only for a brief moment. If I were explaining this in front of you right now, I would become overly animated in my attempt to demonstrate this concept by raising both my hands together in the air as if I am holding a sphere and I would invite you to peer at it with me; the globe of my imaginary, yet seemingly amorphous, sound-world. It is the idea of actualising this sound-world in music that drives me to write each piece. Therefore, to enable me to create the atmosphere that I wish to conceptually surround the listener with, I must first capture it for myself. New Music, for me, is simultaneously a means of private expression as well as a wider community that everyone can contribute to and experience.

My work is often inspired by extra-musical sources such as contemporary artwork and early twentieth century lyric poetry. I enjoy going to art galleries and reading to search for inspirational material. When I feel that I have found art that ‘resonates’ with the sound-world that I want to create, I will often use it to help form the conceptual basis for my new piece. The extra-musical source acts as a quasi-bridge between the personal sentiment I experience and the more substantial external form. I will also use the poetry or art within my compositional process to produce a more intrinsic connection with my new work later on. I derive inspirational material for pieces from almost the simplest of things that I find a connection with; daily life becomes a rich tapestry of potential moments of wonder. After creating the conceptual basis, the ever-important title and the overall structural trajectory of the work (often consisting of a timeline scribbled on a scrap of paper), I will embark on the creation of the musical material. This always starts by improvising at the piano and jotting down notes on manuscript paper with a pencil in a rather rudimentary fashion. My compositional process does not rely on specific, organised methods but it is instead extremely intuitive. Perhaps a more consistent aspect of my setup is simply that I often like to compose after the midnight hour when all is quiet, with a lamp and the obligatory soft toy cat I have that sits atop the piano for company.

Before I develop the fragments of musical material derived through improvisation into the ideas for the main body of the music, I like to further embed myself within the concept of the work. The medium I use to achieve this is painting. An activity I initially did simply for enjoyment and relaxation, painting with watercolours and alcohol inks enables me to create a more tangible image to engage with whilst writing the work. Starting with my orchestral work entitled ‘KINTSUKUROI: (Golden Repair)’ (2016) that was inspired by the form of Japanese pottery art of the same name, I began using the paintings I produced to make the cover artworks for my pieces of music. I am not a self-described artist by any means, but I am delighted that I have found a further use for the images I paint beyond using them abstractly as an aid within my compositional process as well as the pleasure I feel whilst painting them.

At this point, after collecting source inspiration and thoroughly engaging with the concept of my new work, I return to the musical fragments I created to develop the piece. Exploring the concept so intensely before starting to write the work enables me to feel a deeper connection to it; almost as if I am completely alone with the piece and free from all outside distractions as I watch it slowly emerge before my eyes. I am then, hopefully, one step closer to capturing within the work the nebulous sound-world that I am chasing.

Currently, I am writing my new RPS commission entitled ‘Midnight Spires’, which will be performed in the 2019 Cheltenham Music Festival by the Castalian String Quartet. The piece is inspired by my time in Oxford, the city I have recently moved to, in the late hours under the shadows of its spires and stars, and the warm, yellow glow of its streetlamps. This time the atmosphere that I want to convey is, itself, far more tangible than simply a feeling alone and therefore I have not utilised an extra-musical source conceptually. I am sure, however, that I will be in search of a poem to aid the direct compositional process later. I have mused over the mood of the piece, painted a depicting scene for the accompanying artwork and simply lived with the work as a concept for long enough that it has formed in my mind ready to be developed into the music itself. My process before composing may be rather lengthy, encompassing a variety of expressive means in different art mediums (I sometimes even write poetry), but it means that I can be intimately connected with each work that I write. I am really excited for the premiere of ‘Midnight Spires’ in July and I’m looking forward to seeing how the piece develops after I finally set it free.

Grace-Evangeline Mason is one of seven RPS Composers we are proud to be supporting this season. Her piece receives its world premiere at the Cheltenham Music Festival on Tuesday 9 July at 11am. To book tickets, click here.

To keep up to date with her news, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @G_E_Mason.