An uncertain hour or two along the way

Ever wondered what goes on in the mind of a composer? Annette Morreau did and taped Simon Bainbridge at work writing a major song-cycle
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The Independent Culture
I recently eavesdropped on a conversation between Sir Alan Bowness, ex-director of the Tate Gallery, and the composer Alexander Goehr. The question at issue was whether it was more difficult to write a piece of music or to paint a picture. The matter was left unresolved; and since detailed accounts of the creative process are rare, comparisons between the work involved in two such different artforms - the capturing of time or the capturing of space - are probably not too rewarding.

When composers of the past have written about the creation of their works, it has tended to be in terms of aesthetics rather than a blow-by-blow account of the "process". Indeed, the process may even have been seen as a matter of private concern - little more than a craft, an acquired ability to express musical thought. Yet, in the latter half of this century, taste and fashion in contemporary music have in reality revolved around the question of "craft" - serial, tonal, minimal or aleatoric - albeit dressed up as "aesthetic".

It was in an effort to expose and demystify the act of composition that I invited the composer Simon Bainbridge to keep an oral diary - for subsequent editing into five 20-minute radio programmes - while writing his latest work.

Commissioned by the BBC for its "Fairest Isle" season, Ad Ora Incerta: Four Orchestral Songs from Primo Levi is a large-scale song-cycle scored for mezzo-soprano, bassoon and symphony orchestra. Almost Mahlerian in conception, it may well prove to be Bainbridge's "landmark" work.

Bainbridge began recording his Diary of a Composition last April, talking to his pocket DAT as the mood took him and creating his own "fly on the wall" account of the compositional process, as well as of the trials and tribulations of ordinary life.

Romantics (and directors of biopics) would have us believe that composers sit down, usually in a garret, clasp a pen (usually quill), gaze up to heaven, and the notes come pouring out. As this diary shows, nothing could be further from the truth.

It begins, for example, with the composition of the first song, "Buna". But, by October, "Buna" has become the final movement and what began as settings of seven poems has crystallised into four. Logic is present, but the creative process constantly churns ideas, throws up new solutions.

The piece began life in 1990, at a Summer School in Yorkshire, when the American bassoonist Kim Walker asked Bainbridge to write her a concerto. And it might have ended there if Bainbridge, who felt uneasy at the idea of writing for bassoon, hadn't discovered that the distinguished mezzo- soprano Brigitte Fassbaender, then directing at Opera North nearby, was a friend of Walker's. And so the idea for a "double concerto" was born.

It took some time to find a text. In the end, Bainbridge was drawn to Levi's sombre writings (which he sets in the original Italian) for several reasons: the need to reflect the sonorities of bassoon and mezzo, the memory of a day spent at Auschwitz, a wish to engage with the darkness of Mahler's world, and Levi's feeling for landscape.

Bainbridge talks a lot about landscape. His father was a painter and, as a child, Bainbridge discussed with him, in a generalised way, the process of getting pictures on to canvas. This pictorial sense remains: Bainbridge recalls that both "Buna" and "Il canto del corvo" (which now opens the work) were prompted by strong pictorial images - "like being at the other end of a camera: I saw a shape."

The composer's diary reveals as much about the man as about the technical processes. As one of the late John Lambert's most gifted students in a group that includes Oliver Knussen, Robert Saxton and Jonathan Lloyd, Bainbridge has perhaps not received the attention he deserves. Works like his Viola Concerto (written in 1976 for Walter Trampler) and his Fantasia for Double Orchestra (1983-84) show extraordinary confidence in their sensuousness, power and lyricism. Yet how often are they ever performed?

If the diary reveals an anxious personality, it also reveals a man of patience. Faced with the possibility of not being allowed to conduct the premiere of his own work, anxiety rather than anger comes to the fore. And even when Brigitte Fassbaender, the mezzo for whom the work was "tailor made", pulls out just 10 weeks before the premiere, Bainbridge remains sanguine, if puzzled and deeply hurt.

Ad Ora Incerta is a big work, of some 35 minutes. Bainbridge has expressed his joy at having the challenge of writing for large orchestra, with its awesome variety of colour - and his regret that this opportunity has come his way too infrequently in the past. Things may be changing: he has a new Horn Concerto to write for Michael Thompson and a project with Evelyn Glennie, but neither, this time, will have their inner workings exposed on radio.

n `Ad Ora Incerta': world premiere Wednesday 7.30pm, Royal Festival Hall, London, and live on Radio3. `Diary of a Composition': Mon-Fri evenings Radio3 (times vary)