Jo Shapcott Settings

Here’s a little blog interview with the N/A Ensemble talking about two of my Jo Shapcott Settings: Pig and Watching Medusa that they are premiering in Toledo, USA this weekend!

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Writing words, tools for composing

IMG_1266I write words as part of my composing process. Some one asked me recently how the two disciplines of writing and composing combine in my practise, so I’ve had a go at listing what goes on in my notebook…

  1. An initial spark for an idea.

I write down any inspiration or a thought about a new idea so that the first moment of a new piece is captured – so that I don’t forget it, primarily, and also so that I can track back to that very first moment when I am further on in the piece and might need to return to the original stimulus (which can sometimes get forgotten or lost in the mix).

2. Verbalising a problem.

If I get stuck and feel I don’t know what I should do next, I write to help determine what the next step should be. I write down what it is I have done so far, and what I perceive the problem to be. Then through this process of examining what is there, usually the next step emerges. This process is extremely helpful. At the beginning, I will be feeling confused, frustrated and at a loss as to what I should do. Through writing the situation down, the wall I have hit tends to disappear, just evaporate, focussing on thinking about what one thing I can do next to move forward. If I can’t find anything specific I encourage myself to take some time to relax, rest and move away from the problem for a little while. Sometimes a whole list of things emerges, which can be a bit overwhelming. When that happens, I look at the list and decide which of these things should be done first, and aim to do that.

3. Celebrating an achievement.

When things have gone well I like to document my feelings. This can be very reassuring when I hit the next sticky patch. I like to reread my notebooks occasionally, and finding an entry celebrating a high reminds me that there is a cycle: of hard work, not knowing, seeking solutions, more hard work and eventually some reward. Sometimes the rewards are unexpected, and often they come a very long time (…decades!) after the initial work was done.

4. Speaking the truth to myself.

When I am really struggling emotionally I write down what I am thinking and feeling physically. Tuning in to my body in detail and noting how it is reacting has been a helpful thing to do, to honour and express what is going on physically. This is a more recent way of using writing that I have developed, inspired by listening to Tara Brach’s talks on RAIN – recognise, accept, investigate, nurture. It is very personal and helps me to dig deeper down into myself. It helps me acknowledge what is there and helps me understand myself in a different way. It has helped to unlock things. It has helped me to give uncomfortable feelings a voice.

5. Noting something cool.

If I read, see, hear, learn about some amazing thing I like to write it down, either just a title or name, which is enough, or my thoughts about it as well. Sometimes I write in detail so I can relive the experience more vividly in the future. Sometimes I might find a new word or phrase to incorporate into my work somehow. I like to copy out significant bits (lines, paragraphs) from books I read. When I revisit them I have often forgotten all about it and am delighted to rediscover them.

6. Creating poetic texts.

Sometimes I find it useful to work words into a poem form. The poems are not necessarily very sophisticated, but for some reason it helps me to do this, I find it entertaining. And occasionally a good idea comes out of it that will either become a poem or a song or something else. No pressure.

7. Seeking the reflected image.

Since 1999 I have deliberately sought out reflections of my intended goal, rather than diving straight for it. This is inspired by the approach of Italo Calvino in his fascinating book about writing: Six Memos for the Next Millennium. One of the ways of seeking out reflections as a composer is to use another form of creating, e.g. writing, drawing, movement, colour, daydreaming. All of which I savour.

So what happens to all these words? Sometimes I share them when talking about the gestation and creation of a piece of music, sometimes I keep my words private. 

I find it reassuring to have my notebooks as a catalogue of the ups and downs of being a composer. Especially as every time I start a new big project I wonder how I ever created anything before.