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Blogger in Residence: Rory Johnston

Rory Wainwright Johnston is a conductor and composer from Bradford-on-Avon, based in Manchester. He joined ORA Singers as our one of our ‘Bloggers in Residence’ in 2018, eager to share his experience of choral writing, singing, directing with the next generation.

About Rory...

Rory is a composer and conductor based in the rainy city of Manchester. Having just finished his Masters in Composition, he is gradually forging a path in the professional world of music.

Growing up within the English choral tradition as a treble at Bath Abbey, Rory’s musicianship was formed by composers like Howells and Byrd. Luckily having been played plenty of Radiohead and Manic Street Preachers on cassettes in his parents’ car as a kid, his taste broadened to encompass more than just the classical sphere. Nowadays, Rory enjoys listening to Renaissance polyphony and contemporary art music alongside R&B and 90's hiphop.

Rory is passionate about encouraging people to engage with contemporary music, opening their ears to new possibilities and sound worlds. He admires the ORA Singers for their commitment to new music and is thoroughly looking forward to working with them.

Writer's block

I am currently sat in a coffee shop, trying to plan out a piece of music for a commission I have coming up. I’ve had this commission for a while, but every time I attempt to put flesh on the bones, I come up short. This is a feeling I’m sure many artists/creators can empathise with. I don’t think there’s much worse than knowing you must do something, write something, create something, but not having any inkling as to which direction to head in…

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Over the course of the time that I could realistically call my compositional ‘career’ – from mid-teens to my, now, mid-twenties, I’ve met this hurdle many times. It can be something small, such as whether a section should end a certain way, or whether the harmony should move to this location, or that. Or it could be something as substantial as what the piece itself is based around, or what instrumentation to settle on. In whichever case it never gets easier, but I have, at least, found some techniques to get the old brain going again.

The most common problem I face is one of the bridging the gap between ideas. I will often have the idea for the climax or focus of a piece, as well as an idea of the opening or some section early in the music, but will then struggle to figure out how to get from A to B. My normal solution to this is to take a step back and look at the material I have for the initial part and figure out whether it is material that is to be developed, or, whether it is material to be used in juxtaposition. I can then make a decision as to whether to spend my time figuring out ways of manipulating the material I already have, or creating new music all together, depending on which I’ve settled on.

Oftentimes I’ll come up with a good idea for a texture and projection for it, but not have any idea of what how the harmony should go. It’s very easy at a stage like that to just sit down at a piano and keep bashing until something fits - something I have done many times in the past. Recently though I’ve often found it more efficient and effective to sit down and find maybe three or four chords that I like, whether they are functional or related to each other is all dependant on my plans for that music – eg. if it’s going to be a harmonic progression, or just a harmonic area for the music to inhabit. I will then try to manifest the music with the restriction of just that predetermined harmony. This self-imposed restriction focuses me on what the idea is calling out for and allows me to hone in on the pure idea with much more precision. From there I can go back over the music and elaborate and finesse the chords as I see fit, potentially even reworking phrases entirely. An important thing I learnt during my time studying composition at university was that a change in any parameter is not something to be taken lightly; when done effectively even the smallest of changes can be tremendously powerful (go listen to some minimalism if you don’t believe me).

My current hurdle is one of text (perhaps you can see why my last blog entry was so fixated around it – this has been playing on my mind a lot recently!) and the decision of what to set, or even to set a text at all. The piece is meant to be based around the idea of a meditation, and so I’ve been searching for a text that reflects the oeuvre that I have in my head of serenity and a sense of infinite focus and direction without any sense of narrative. The problem I’ve been having though, is that I can’t find anything I’m happy with.

The video posted by ORA Singers just last week featuring Suzi and her conversation about text resonated massively with me. In it she says: ‘they’, referring to seasoned choral composers she’s talked to, ‘need something to really inspire them from the text’. And that’s where I sit at the moment: I am yet to be inspired for this piece and even with all the ideas in my head I’m struggling to manifest anything concrete.

I currently have two options open to me: I could set a text that I’m moderately happy with, see what I come up with and move on from there; or I could push forward with the creation of the music without a text, utilising some of the ideas I have already for texture, timbre and harmony, and see what direction that leads me in.

The first could be a useful exercise, but in the end I could find that a text I am uninspired by might lead to music that doesn’t reflect the meaning behind the words, or worse is itself an uninspiring, boring piece of music.

The second is essentially a process of sketching, and I could write bars and bars of music only to still find nothing that fits or have to shoehorn in a text that ends up being just a redundant set of superimposed phonemes.

It’s funny, but one of the things I’ve found as I’ve written more and more music - choral music especially – is that often a point of frustration can turn into inspiration in its own right. Even just writing this I am formulating a solution to my problem: If the text is such a problem, why not have no text at all! For my current idea, that could be an effective solution – in a piece about meditation and serenity text could, in fact, detract from the ultimate aim of the music, so why not just get rid of it? In all work as a creative you have to be ready to start something and be happy to scrap it if it’s not working, so I’m going to forge a route forward without the text (but crucially without a text and not planning for the musical material to accommodate for one) and see where that takes me – it might be the bin, or it might be the printers... I’ll endeavour to keep you updated on my progress!


What I’ve been listening to this week:

Memoire, horizon - Jurg Frey

Geistliches lied - Johannes Brahms

Lineaire from Metabole - Henri Dutilleux


Written by Rory Johnston

ORA Singers