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David Bruce - Composer
News and information on the composer David Bruce
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In Part 3 of this altogether brilliant post, Peter Casey talks about the power of not stating what you're singing about. He's talking about sex - how there's a much more useful tension for the actor and director to play with if we all know what the character wants, but they sing about something completely different; but the theory applies elsewhere too.

One of the first times I felt I'd accomplished something that made a genuine artistic statement was with a mini-opera I wrote for Tete a Tete back in 2002 called Has it Happened Yet? It features three very elderly ladies in various states of decrepitude who are wheeled out by their perky nurse to watch a solar eclipse. It's unclear to the audience whether any of them are in any state to take it in, and as one of the glories of nature rolls by in musical interlude, the old ladies stare out at us, saying nothing. Then one of them repeats the line she's been saying throughout - "has it happened yet?" - and the piece ends.

That piece had emerged out of a chat director and librettist Bill Bankes Jones and I had had when developing the piece, when he asked me for some favourite moments in opera. I straight away mentioned the scene in the field in Wozzeck where Wozzeck and his companion are gathering mushrooms and Wozzeck somewhat deleriously sees disturbingly meaningful patterns in the way the mushrooms lay on the ground. The music swirls with comparable musical puzzles and codes - so beloved of Berg - and the whole thing gives me the almighty shivvers every time I hear it.

But I guess the reason it gives me the shivvers are largely of my own invention - they tap in to some sense I have of the power of nature and the mystery of life, it's what I, the listener have supplied that makes it powerful to me. Or rather, Berg has allowed space in the meaning of his piece for me to bring something to it, and when that happens in art, I think that's when we feel the most powerful reactions.

Bill and I never explicitly said what the point of Has it Happened Yet was, but reflections on mortality, on the mystery of nature and more all floated around in the air for the audience themselves to discover. The absence of their direct statement created a tension comparable to what Peter Casey talks about in his post.

Another nice example of this I would suggest is Thomas Ades's brilliant Powder her Face. How brave, I've always thought, of a composer who is renowned for his surface glitter to write an opera about someone who is glamorous on the outside but hollow inside. Talk about turning your potential weaknesses into strengths - you can't help but fantasize that the young Ades (he was 24 when he wrote it which is frankly obscene) looked at himself with the jaded self-loathing eyes of a prodigy and thought, yes, I'm like her, let's write an opera about that! As a result, Powder her face seethes with this dramatic tension - what is the piece saying? What should we admire in this world where everyone seems pretty awful? I've read numerous different interpretations of what the work is about, and essentially all of them are valid, because the piece offers the space to allow them.


All of this is by way of introducing my newly completed opera Nothing, co-commissioned by Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House, and premiering in Glyndebourne in February 2016. It was John Fulljames from ROH who first proposed the book - a young adult novel by the Danish author Janne Teller and just from the synopsis I knew it was fruitful operatic territory.

In the story, Pierre Anton (just Pierre in our version) stands up in class on the first day of school and says Nothing Matters - it's all meaningless, it's all pointless. He goes off and sits at the top of a plum tree for the rest of the opera, pouring scorn and plums on anyone who comes within earshot. The rest of the class are somewhat perturbed by this and set out to prove him wrong. They collect personal possessions they feel have 'meaning', and when this proves to be insufficient, they agree to nominate each other for the items they must give up. This soon spirals downhill and leads them down a very dark path with grotesque and gruesome consequences.

What I particularly admire in the book is that the whole question of 'Meaning' - whether there is any, and if so, what it is - is left completely unanswered - it is left to the reader to make up their own mind. Is Pierre actually correct - an uncomfortable but possible interpretation, particularly since the actions of the rest of the class are, by the end of the story, clearly misguided to say the least. Or is there a third option somewhere in between - or a fourth or a fifth?

I knew from my experience with Has it Happened Yet? that in such ambiguities music could usefully flourish, saying so much more than words could ever say, and allowing thoughts, emotions and ideas to blossom in the mind of the listener.

2 months ago | |
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Visitors to the Young Vic in London will know of the wonderful little arts book shop that sits opposite the theatre on The Cut. With half an hour to kill before a meeting, it was there, some years ago, that I stumbled across the obscure-sounding Sonnets by the 19th Century Roman poet Giuseppe Giaocchino Belli. Sounds dry and dusty right? You flick through a page or two in these virtuoso translations by Mike Stock, and to your surprise you come across lines like these:

Just listen to a mother talking crap:
the brat she drops has barely hit the ground
before she's bragging he's the best around,
and if you disagree you get a slap...
...To mum, the gruntings of this tit-mad junkie
surpass the sweet songs of a West End name.
The mothers of this world are all the same.


So having read the Gospel, there and then
that good and learned father plonked his rear
against the altarpiece, and - crystal clear -
explained the mysteries of faith to men,...
...In short, and from this sermon that we got,
to sum it up, to say it how it is,
it seems that mysteries are mysteries

or the infamous 'Philiosphic Caf? Proprietor':

The people of this world are much the same
as coffee beans inside the grinder's mill;
one's first, one's later and one's later still
but all are going down towards one doom..

The sonnets are written in Romanesco, a dialect spoken apparently by the original inhabitants of Rome, and still spoken today, it's the language of the street and Belli's project was to capture it in it's raw unadulterated form. The poems feel incredibly modern, in their observance of the minutiae of every day life (the nipple pain of a breast-feeding mum); their unabashed rudeness (a whole sonnet to different names of what my son would call 'privates'); a Jerry-Springer-the-Opera-approach to blasphemy (descriptions of the best confessional booth to grab an intimate moment); and their black-humour cynicism (as the coffee grinder excerpt above testifies).

But reading the brief biography of Belli that comes with the poems, it's fascinating to see what a compromised character Belli himself was. The bulk of his sonnets come from a period in his life in which he was lucky enough to find himself a wealthy wife, from which position of luxury he could afford to undertake the radical and daring work - brazenly criticizing authority and corruption, openly exposing society's most hidden and uncomfortable truths - that the sonnets represent. But when his wife died and he was forced to earn a living, he quickly turned coat and cosied up to the establishment, even re-joining and eventually becoming president of a the fusty writer's association "Accademia Tiberina" from which he had once flamboyantly resigned "for ever". He wrote strongly against liberal causes he had once subscribed to; and turned his back on his Romanesco project to the extent that he very nearly burned the entire collection.

But the biographer argues that it is Belli's compromised character that allowed him to see the frailty in others.

"it is the morals culpability that Belli shares with his targets, his lack of angst in the face of moral contradiction, that endows him with the power to portray the compromised people of Rome and capture their complex humanity"

This confirms one of my many slowly-developing pet-theories, that in some cases at least, the work for which an artist is best remembered emerges from a part of the artist, with which the artist themselves is not entirely comfortable. I guess there is an element in all art that shocks - if something is a truly new vision it will take society a while to adjust to it; but this takes that idea a stage further - it is the idea that the vision is a shock to the artist themselves. How are we, as artists, supposed to reconcile these opposing voices within ourselves, and to recognise that our best work may sometimes be that which we are most tempted to guiltily consign to the flames?

4 months ago | |
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I like what Glyn Maxwell says in his book On Poetry (discussed here) that he had 'nothing to say' until his mid-30s and instead spent his time 'playing with words'. For composers as for poets, I think there's so much technique to learn, it's not even worth thinking about whether you have anything to say for a considerable period - and for me that was definitely well into my 30s as well. I've no idea how my 'career' seems from the outside, but even now, in my mid-40s I feel I'm only starting to be on top of how to handle all the instruments, and all the combinations of instruments - and looking back, I recognise the feeling that I had all through my younger years, that it didn't really matter what I was trying to say at that stage - I was still nowhere near having the tools to even think about saying anything meaningful or coherent. I've now finally had two big orchestral pieces premiered, which allowed me to start wrestle with that particular demon, and pleased as I am with the results, I still feel a long way from what I think I should be able to achieve. That's probably the way most artists feel, even when they're 100.

I don't want to get into commenting on the success or otherwise of particular composers and their aesthetics here (being a judgmental composer, I can find huge gaping holes even with some of my favourite pieces and/or pieces that have exerted a huge influence over me), but what really makes me happy and inspired listening to my colleagues' work is when I sense someone achieving amazing things in their control of the instruments. Three pieces have made me feel that way in the past couple of years:

  • Stuart Macrae's Ghost Patrol which I caught at ROH Lindbury. Just a spell-binding use of instrumental colour and technique.

  • Thomas Ades Totentanz, which whips up an awesome array of deathly sounds

  • and most recently, Andrew Norman's Play

    What's interesting is all three use standard orchestral instruments (actually Stuart managed an equally impressive integration of some electronics into his score), but find new ways of using the old 'avant-garde' techniques that make them sound fresh and exciting. I love exploring these territories, finding new sounds, but I do usually opt for a fairly tentative approach - for example, I did use a hand-slap on the Tuba mouthpiece in Night Parade - and loved the effect - but Andrew Norman uses a whole ensemble of them in Play (the score is, by the way, viewable online here - how marvelous that publishers do this these days), as well as some great "air sounds" and much much, more besides - what's really refreshing about it is, unlike some of the old scores by Penderecki et al which use these effects and can seem a bit stuffy these days - Norman's piece is really witty. I suspect, like Ades and Macrae, Norman was way-too-gifted way-too-young - he's apparently 35 now, so I guess I can just about forgive him (-: But how exciting to see what what these composers can achieve with their incredible techniques in the coming years.

  • 7 months ago | |
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    Jahja Ling, Gil Shaham and David Bruce

    Just back from a thrilling world premiere of my Violin Concerto Fragile Violin with Gil Shaham and San Diego Symphony under Jahja Ling. What can I say about Gil, he is everything everyone says he is - the most charming, humble and sweet man, combined with the most extraordinary musicianship and tone. I was shocked when I spoke with him on FaceTime (v.21st Century) a few weeks beforehand to realise that he basically had the whole piece off by memory. In the end, he did take the music on stage for the performances, but several times I saw him turn several pages in a row as he'd clearly not been looking at it. That kind of committment from somebody as in-demand as him really tells you something about the man.

    As with the previous performances of Night Parade and Cymbeline, the orchestra showed a genuine excitement and enthusiasm to tackle a new work, with a great readiness to take on board suggestions, and a willingness to accept my endless 'tweaks' up to and even beyond the premiere. They gave a tremendous performance, and I'm really happy with the finished piece, which I think may be one of my best yet.

    The 'white noise' which I mentioned in my previous post forms the very end of the piece, and although it seems to have a certain 'shock factor' at first (Gil himself asked if he could play it on harmonics until I insisted this was the effect I was after), it really is quite gripping in the closing stages of the piece to hear the music drift higher and higher, higher than you think can be humanly possible. In all three performance I literally felt myself stop breathing at this point as it gets so quiet and so high you daren't move a muscle. Note to self to take more 'risks' like this in future pieces.

    There were some great responses in the press, and I particularly enjoyed this wonderfully eccentric reviewer who seemed to have some kind of life-changing experience during the piece, which is very gratifying.

    Now back to opera work, of which, more very soon....
    8 months ago | |
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    I'm currently in what it one of the most enjoyable and rewarding - if exhausting - parts of the creative process. The piece I'm working on is the new Violin Concerto I'm writing for Gil Shaham and the San Diego Symphony (the premiere is in December). My working process, such as it is, seems to be to work on the essential details first, until such time as I have the entire piece in this bare bones structure. I do think of orchestration from the outset, so I will often know that a particular line is on a particular instrument, but more than anything, what I am thinking of is harmony, texture and energy. The flow of the structure, moments of surprise. If I'm carving a form in stone, this is the outline general shape. Decisions taken at this stage are ones that count and are pretty irreversible without throwing the whole thing away.

    This first stage is by far the hardest, it's the real moment of creativity, where you're trying to create a shape- and somehow a significant and meaningful shape - where there is just a lump of rock. It's a real strain, and it's the time when I would most appreciate a log cabin I could retreat to for a couple of weeks to be alone with my thoughts.

    But once that outline shape is in place it's all about the detail. From that zoomed out view you are suddenly spending a week poring over a couple of bars which will wizz by in less than a second. But this work, intricate and infinite as it is, is pure pleasure, I'm playing with musical toys.

    You sometimes hear composers talking about 'taking risks' - I think 9 times out of 10 this will be referring to orchestration, or things that occur within this 'details' period. When you are trying to create a fresh and interesting texture, sometimes you just have to try an approach that has never been tried before. But you sure can hear in your head the voices of the players ridiculing you "You can't play that on a violin!"

    For example, just at the moment I'm considering a sound I wanted to make, which is a sort of 'white noise'. Now, if you get high enough up the violin, if you play so your bow is right next to the bridge and your left hand finger is right next to the bow, it does create a sort of pitchless 'shum' - I had the idea, what if an entire section makes that noise. And then what if you get them to give that shum a bit of life by gently glissando-ing it up and down a little. How would that sound if a whole section does it,each one moving independently. That's an example of a 'risk' - I don't actually know how it will sound, because I've never heard it, but I have a suspicion it might be interesting. In the next couple of weeks I will have to decide whether the suspicion outweighs the risk.

    1 year ago | |
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    I spent a delightful few days in Savannah, Georgia, courtesy of the wonderful festival set up there by Rob Gibson.

    First up was the US premiere of The Given Note, re-worked since its premiere in Germany a couple of years ago. The performance featured some wonderful musicians, including Daniel Hope on violin, and the brilliant Spanish clarinettist Jose Franch-Ballester (photo (c) Frank Stewart)

    Later in the week Avi Avital and the Dover Quartet gave a spell-binding performance of Cymbeline in one of the oldest synagogues in the US, congregation Mikve Israel. There was a golden light throughout the building which really brought out the sun-related themes of the piece to perfection.

    It was also a real treat to hang out with mandolinist Mike Marshall and the extremely talented students on the 'Acoustic Music Seminar ' - a composition and performance workshop of sorts, the like of which I've never heard before, with some really gorgeous sonorities emerging from pretty much every piece. The whole week was inspiring and nourishing in the best possible way.
    1 year ago | |
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    Next week my dear friend and collaborator Avi Avital comes to Carnegie Hall's Weill Hall for his debut Carnegie recital. It's of course a big event for Avi, not least because he's using it as a chance to show of his chops on the Bach Violin Partita No. 2. I'm very honoured that Avi has chosen to include Cymbeline, the piece I wrote for him (mandolin plus string quartet) - joined by the excellent Enso String Quartet.

    Avi has been giving a series of short introductory videos via the Carnegie Hall blog, and in this one he talks about his own joy of collaborating - including here, with none other than my other great pal Bridget Kibbey.

    Like Avi, I find mandolin+harp a beautiful combination. I remember that Avi and Bridget met for the first time during rehearsals for my opera A Bird in Your Ear at Bard College. One free afternoon, while the stage was being set, Bridget and Avi spent the entire time busking away together. It was such a delightful sound, anyone who walked past just stopped and lost themselves for a while. It's amazing to hear in the video above that the sound of this combination was part of Avi's own childhood - it sounds to me, like he had an exceptional happy one!

    1 year ago | |
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    Cut the Rug features on the Silk Road Ensemble's 'Playlist without borders' and I'm pleased to report that this week the album made number 1 on the US Classical billboard charts. Strange feeling!

    1 year ago | |
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    I'm delighted that The Firework Maker's Daughter has been shortlisted for this year's British Composer Awards

    My old prof. George Benjamin is also on the shortlist for his Written on Skin, which I wrote about here after attending a dress rehearsal for George's masterpiece during rehearsals for my own show.
    1 year ago | |
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    Rehearsing with San Diego Symphony

    October has been a trully amazing month for me, (and it's not over yet!) It started in San Diego with performances of Night Parade by the San Diego Symphony. I arrived at the first rehearsal with some trepidation, as orchestras can be a bit surly when it comes to composers, but there was a great atmosphere from the beginning and a real sense of enthusiasm towards getting their teeth into a new work. One of the players even thanked me for not being 200 years old!

    Attempting and failing to surf in La Jolla

    It was also a big deal for me, as this has been something I've been gearing up for for some time now - a main season orchestral commission; only this wasn't just main season, it was the first piece of the season, and the first ever notes the orchestra will play at Carnegie Hall (later this month), as well as in Beijing as part of their first ever tour.

    (Strictly speaking it may not be the first notes they play at Carnegie, as during the San Diego performances, the evening began with the Star Spangled Banner in a powerful new arrangement. I enjoyed the anthem, but it certainly doesn't lead to the ideal atmosphere in the room to plunge into a new piece, especially one with a mysterious and atmospheric opening like Night Parade. It made me think it would be fun to try to write a piece in a series of movements, each of which destroyed the atmophere for the next. The whys and wherefores of how and why music does this are more of an art than a science, and a large part of what makes a good concert programmer. For example, on the other side of the coin, one of the best pieces of programming I have seen in recent years was the Britten Sinfonia's concert under Thomas Ades, featuring his Violin Concerto amongst other things earlier this year. The concerto is a wonderful, but fairly intense and disonant work, but we were led up to it, like a series of circles spiralling inwards, via Couperin's Les baricades misterieuses, followed by Ades's delightful arrangement of the same work; onwards to Ravel's lush Le Tombeau de Couperin (with heavenly solos by Nick Daniel); round to the more quirky and pointilist world of two lesser known Stravinsky pieces before finally arriving at the Concerto. I have never felt more successfully primed and in the right mood to hear a piece.)

    But digressions over, the orchestra knocked Night Parade out of the park, and I can't wait to go back and hear them in the great Stern Auditorium at the end of the month.

    On stage with San Diego Symphony

    The '5', full of mid-Californain emptiness

    Next I took the long drive up to Berkeley (a drive of supreme contrasts, miles and miles of clutter and mess in LA, followed by miles and miles of absolutely nothing in the plains of mid-California) where Kelley O'Connor and Robert Spano gave the premiere of That Time with You. I thought of Kelley's rich, dark and luscious voice when writing the songs, and together with Glyn's extraordinarily poignant and beautiful lyrics, we seemed to find ourselves well matched and in a good place. It was also great to meet and work with Robert/Bob, although none of us enjoyed the evening before the premiere, when momentarily leaving his bag on the street outside the home of composer Gabriela Frank, Bob returned to find it had been stolen, complete with all his music and fingerings for the concert. Some heroic Kinkos work from the two leading ladies (Jessica Rivera was also performing in the concert) was all that separated us from disaster.

    Rehearsals with Kelley O'Connor, Jessica Rivera, Bob Spano and Gabriela Frank

    As I mentioned last time, this piece also comes to Carnegie, to Zankel Hall on exactly the same day as Night Parade. Post-Berkeley and for purely artistic reasons, the order of the recital has now changed meaning it should be comfortable for me to listen to the Symphony performance, before joining the recital downstairs for the second half. Fingers crossed! Details of Kelley's concert here

    A blurry shot of the Berkeley concert


    Next I headed to the East Coast to hook up with the Silk Road Ensemble and Yo-Yo Ma, as they geared up for their 15th anniversary celebration concert at Carnegie, where it was my privilege and honour to close out the show. The 'preview' took place upstate in Wheaton College and was one of the most intense and exciting concerts I've been to in a long time. The Silk Road Ensemble is pretty epic and full of energy in any event, but put them up close in an intimate little new England church, and pack that church with an extremely enthusiastic and excited crowd....well, it really did feel like the roof might come off. This was followed the next day by my debut at Carnegie's main stage which was everything I could have hoped for.

    The Silk Road Ensemble at Carnegie Hall

    The heart of the Silk Road Project is of course Yo-Yo himself, and I got to spend a little time with him in a way that perfectly summarises why he is such an inspiration to so many people. Our first chat, during a rehearsal in Wheaton led us almost instantly to discuss the very heart of the issue of what the purpose of my/our music is - is it 'personal' - to which at first I said no, I don't write a sad piece when I'm feeling sad; but then after some discussion realised yes, to the extent that it is an expression of my 'world view' with all the thoughts on connecting to nature and physicality that I go on about in these pages. Speaking of which, how nice to get some recognition of this in the NY Times review which said
    "the physical and spiritual worlds..collided, to vibrant effect, in David Bruce's "Cut the Rug"

    The idea of the physical and spiritual worlds colliding is pretty much exactly what Yo-Yo and I were discussing, and are a lovely way of expressing what I try to achieve - so for once, the review was bang on!

    But when he's not being movingly thoughtful, provocative and engaging, Yo-Yo really knows how to goof around. He must be one of the world's leading experts in putting people at their ease. He is overall, a great reminder that passion and laughter are two sides to the same coin.

    With Yo-Yo Ma and clarinettist Kinan Azmeh

    1 year ago | |
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