Killing My Darlings: Meditation No. 3 (1994)

by 5:4

i’ve been thinking a lot during the last couple of years about what it means to be a composer. One of the unexpected personal side-effects of the pandemic was that it made my compositional impulse shut down entirely (it only began switching on again late last year). For the first time since i was at school, i wasn’t composing anything, and my reflections about being, or not being, a composer have been an inevitable consequence of this. As part of those reflections, i’ve been considering whether certain compositions of mine need to go on existing. This isn’t a new line of questioning: i’ve always been matter-of-fact regarding my own music, and have never been an especially nostalgic person, so destroying pieces is not something i have a problem with. Hitherto, this has usually been directed at peripheral works and juvenilia, the kind of stuff that doesn’t amount to much in the bigger scheme of things, but more recently i’ve realised the time has come to start dispatching some of my music that i had once considered more meaningful or significant.

i don’t use 5:4 to write about me; i hate talking about myself, and i’ve never wanted to be in anything remotely resembling a spotlight. But i’ve realised that i didn’t want the death of these pieces, regardless of their broader insignificance, to go entirely unnoticed: they existed, they were performed, some people actually heard them, a few might even vaguely remember them. So: Killing My Darlings will be a very occasional series on 5:4 where i pay a short tribute to a composition of mine as it passes out of existence. Think of these articles as being like little obituaries for obscure individuals who made minimal impact on the world and only had one or two friends. They are, of course, an indulgence, and i expect that many of my readers will want to just ignore them completely. That’s all fine and good, all the more reason why the darlings should be killed; they can hardly be missed, as they were never really known in the first place.

Meditation No. 3 was an 8-minute work for solo organ that i completed on 19 December 1994, and was once motivated to describe as my “Opus 1”. Its title suggests two predecessors, and indeed there were: Meditation No. 1 for flute and strings, composed in 1993 as a piece of A-level coursework (its première in September that year was the first proper public performance of my music), and Meditation No. 2 for cello and chamber orchestra, composed in the summer of 1994 (but never performed) and which ultimately got incorporated into a never-completed Cello Concerto.

The idea behind all three Meditations (plus an abandoned fourth, for strings, the following year) was an exploration of ways that material can be heard multiple times – and thereby, in a sense, ‘meditated’ upon – but never repeated verbatim, sounding different on each appearance. To that end, the Meditations were based on rondo structures, with each return of the principal idea modified in some way. Meditation No. 1 explored an increasing range of embellishment for the soloist together with different accompanying harmonisations. i can’t honestly remember what i did in Meditation No. 2 (that darling was killed many years ago) but it was no doubt something equivalent. With Meditation No. 3 i wanted to explore this in a much simpler, more reduced way: the piece used a fairly basic ternary structure (A-B-A), and the only real difference when the original idea returned was that it would be twice as slow. Here’s an excerpt of the start of the piece, showing how the main theme began:

Meditation No. 3, bars 1-13

That theme is already pretty slow as it is, so returning at half speed it became positively glacial. To my ear, it worked; the theme certainly didn’t sound the same, but was transformed into something other while being recognisably related. The contrasting episode in the middle of the piece was more overtly melodic rather than harmonic, with a big messy crescendo at its climax.

Meditation No. 3, bars 51-54

Meditation No. 3 had an uneventful life. It was composed for the assistant director of music at the local cathedral, but while we got together for a couple of workshop / play-through sessions, he never ended up performing the piece. Strictly speaking, its first performance was actually given by me in June 1995, performed at the end of my father’s funeral. It was eventually given a proper première 18 months later in June 1996 by an organist friend at music college, and had two further performances by a different organist in August 2000. Despite the shortcomings of the piece, they were excellent performances by caring, sympathetic performers, and i’m grateful for them. As far as i know, Meditation No. 3 has never been played again since.

It turns out that i destroyed the original handwritten score, along with all related sketches, paperwork and physical scores, in my last round of oeuvre carpet bombing in July 2021. Therefore, all that remained of Meditation No. 3 was a folder on my hard drive containing: the score (Sibelius file and PDF), a text file of the programme note, and an audio file of the second of the August 2000 performances. All of these have now been deleted: Meditation No. 3 is no more.

Meditation No. 3, bars 64-71

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Chris L

Simon, I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that further instalments in this series will be accompanied by sound files, so that, particularly for the benefit of those of us not blessed with perfect pitch, your darlings can have one final flutter in soundwave form…

Tom Armstrong

A very interesting post, Simon, that raises all sorts of points. I think it is crucial to think about what being a composer means and perhaps especially if, like me (and many others), you are not represented by a major publisher or agent and your career doesn’t have a self-sustaining momentum. How do we define success, how much of our time should we devote to composing, should we be ‘churning out’ endless new pieces or reworking/reconfiguring old ones to suit different projects? For me, as long as I’m still hustling for performances then I’m still in the game even if I may not be writing as much music (and composing as often) as I’d like. But I was also interested in your approach to old pieces – it’s certainly a brave one and I’m not sure I could do it myself although I may have a clear out of some sketches soon. I am certainly thinking of cannibalising and recycling old pieces though – ones that have had shorter lives then Meditation No. 3 – seeing if I can use their materials in quite literal form without any disguise. I look forward to future articles in this series.

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