The story of a new work #3

“I’m working to write something that embraces the tone and philosophy of the group as much as it does the instruments themselves…”

by Kym Dillon, 2022 Continuo Composer on November 30, 2022


Greetings, Continuo Community! Here’s my next update on my ongoing Continuo commission, for Croissants & Whiskey. 

When I first saw this ensemble perform live I was struck not only by the sound of their playing but also their individual personalities; how they each played off one another. This sense of personality seems inscribed into the very core of their group, from the name ‘Croissants & Whiskey’ to their promotional photos. To me they’re pretty much a band (in the contemporary sense of the word), and I’ve been realising how much this side of things is also playing into my compositional process. I’m working to write something that embraces the tone and philosophy of the group as much as it does the instruments themselves, and in considering the upcoming movements of the piece I’m thinking about how they will ‘play’ visually/dramatically as much as how they’ll sound.

For the last few weeks I’ve been chipping away at the first movement. I often find this part of a piece the hardest (and the slowest) to write, as for me it’s like constructing a foundation which will ground and give momentum to all of the material to come after it. This movement will be the very first thing the audience will hear, it will set up the state of mind with which they will experience the rest of the piece, so pacing and structure are everything. A lot of weight rests on this opening, but once this movement is completed it will give me the energy to sail into the rest of it with a strong wind at my back… 

As there is a long lead-time for this substantial piece, my aim is to finish a draft of this first movement (which will likely be a good 5 – 7 minutes long unto itself) before Christmas, then let the ensemble play around with it a bit, do a rough recording, which I can then use to inform my writing going forward. This kind of process will be necessary so that I’m getting a helpful feedback loop with these instruments and players, hearing what works and what could work better, then adapting accordingly as I continue to write. It’s a large challenge which I believe will pay off at the end of it! 

Since this is a new palette of sounds for me I’m being very careful to take the time to hear what I want in my head, rather than rushing into using software. As such, I have been sketching out large sections by hand first, and then, when I’m ready, transferring them to the software I use for fine tuning.  Software is almost a necessity for composers these days but is something that, for me, works against one’s creativity if used too soon! I find that pencil and paper creates the least resistance to one’s imagination.

You can see here a photo of the first page, which I was mostly testing out at the organ. This is because the organ allows me to hold multiple sustained notes at once, has a less defined sense of attack than a piano, and also felt suitably baroque to get me in the right frame of mind. You can also see the many ‘notes to self’ that I scribble around the edges, as I think through things, react to things I’ve done, reclarify what I’m wanting to make out of a given moment, and more. In this way perhaps the handwriting process is a bit like journalling! 

Fun fact: as everything this ensemble does is tuned at A415 rather than A440, it essentially means whatever I play on has to be transposed down. Luckily my electric organ can do this, as well as a digital piano I’ve also been using — writing in this way is yet another new experience for me! 

I look forward to giving an update just before Christmas when I (all things being well) have just sent the ensemble the first movement…