Sometimes, solutions come from the most unexpected places.

I’ve just finished a set of compositions called ASTRAL MINIMALISM, which were originally intended to be just that, strict minimalism.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the term, Minimalism, (as nicely defined by is “a reductive style or school of modern music utilizing only simple sonorities, rhythms, and patterns, with minimal embellishment or orchestrational complexity, and characterized by protracted repetition of figurations, obsessive structural rigor, and often a pulsing, hypnotic effect.”

Some examples of this type of composition can be heard in Steve Reich’s “Drumming” (1970-1971),

or “Six Marimbas” (1986)

I had finished composing a half-dozen pieces that were based on this, the changing relationships of material gradually moving out of sync with itself.

For example, the first piece in the series began with a pulsing ostinato on a single pitch, lasting four beats and repeating constantly. 


This was joined by a repeating nine-note violin figure.


These two motifs were next accompanied by a low mallet figure (sounding 8vb)


which repeated eight times and then expanded to four notes


and then to five (after another eight repetitions), and so on.

This was joined by a twelve note figure, made up of two six-note motifs with a different concluding tone (sounding as written)


As you can see, after the first statement of each motif, every bar of music would have each note of each of these ideas in a different relationship to one another due to each motif being different lengths (Technically there may a point that the motifs resynchronise if the piece continues long enough, but in a practical sense the act of them doing so wouldn’t be noticed by the listener or SEEM LIKE SOME DESTINATION OR CONCLUSION OF ANY KIND).

For some reason, even though this should’ve been a completely acceptable point to reach, the pieces all seemed as tho they were missing something..

Perhaps the material itself wasn’t interesting enough, or perhaps it was because minimalism has been explored so effectively throughout the past half-century that these results, even after substantial manipulation and reorchestration, just weren’t satisfying.

Just at the point that I thought this was destined to be another worthy but unsuccessful experiment, the unforeseen presented itself.

I was listening back to one of the pieces and left the room to answer the phone where it turns out the stereo had been left on. For one moment in the hallway, I could hear this heterophonic piece of string music playing over the static minimalist piece.  And suddenly, through this happy accident, it all become quite clear.

I had the opportunity to study composition and orchestration with 
Dr Hugh Hartwell at McMaster University (who had studied with George Crumb), and one day (in the 1990’s), when we were talking about serialism and my opinions of its value, he offered his approach on the subject, which was : to make the dodecaphonic matrix

and then generate some material, lots of material,  based on its permutations, and play around with it for a week or so, until you’ve truly dug in, explored the insides and outsides of what it has to offer…and then to throw it away and write a piece of music, flooded with the influence of the material generated by the rows, but making instinctive artistic decisions and not checking with a piece of paper to confirm that you’re doing things correctly.  This has always been an idea that has stuck with me, and it seemed as tho this was the answer I was looking for.

(Back in 2014) I quickly went back through all the pieces (I don’t think I bothered to answer the phone), and listened to each only once – every time I felt that one was losing its effectiveness, I instantly marked the point and used that as the basis to apply any and all traditional methods of composition to them.  Static harmony changed in some cases, obsessive structural rigour stayed in some instances, remained partly in others, and was abandoned completely in a few.  I’d say a pulsing effect overall is all that’s remained.  At this point the doors of clarity were open and I quickly composed four more pieces.

Perhaps in the future I could find the passion to compose something in a scrupulous and precise minimalist form.  But in this case, creating something that I personally could feel passionately about and be truly satisfied with involved putting artistic instinct over pre-arranged structural demands.

Of course, it’s just as easy to be accused of laziness or lack of strictness – there are a great many schools of thought based on the idea that true freedom can only be achieved through intense self-disclipline, and perhaps I’ve simply failed at doing that (Strangely, I’ve always loved writing fugues, and still do from time to time, without any problem sticking to all the 18th Century rules to do so).

I prefer to think that sometimes you can’t plan things out too carefully in advance, and this was an occasion where it was necessary to abandon the preconceptions of certainty to reach the desired outcome.  It wouldn’t necessarily work in baking, but it seemed to here.