Search this site
I've never believed in composer's block
John Robert Brown
"My parents are folk musicians. I was always going to folk clubs. That's how you learn about live music on a semi-pro circuit when you are a four-year-old. When I was six or seven, my parents thought it would be a good idea for me to learn the piano. My mum's a pianist. So piano lessons came along, but I wasn't interested in pieces given to me; I tinkled around doing my own thing. I have friends who are incredible musicians, but who missed an important part of their childhood. They make up for it now, in their mid-thirties.
"I wasn't all that interested. In fact, I don't play at all anymore. I played piano and double bass, being one of those players who had to practise to keep up. I guess I was around thirteen or fourteen. We had a keyboard at home. I started writing basic pieces. I got it hooked up to the computer so that I could create multiple parts, to compose what I wanted to compose. Sibelius software was around, but at that stage you had to own an Acorn computer.
Meechan went to Nuneaton Technical College when he was sixteen, doing first-study piano and violin. "Can you believe it?" he asks. "You're good at something, and it has to be the violin, rather than football! Judy Norden ran the music at Nuneaton. She said: 'Why don't you take up the double bass?' We had the North Warwickshire youth band. There were no double bass players. 'You'll get up to a good standard quickly,' she said. 'You'll have gigs; you can take it further.'
Teachers Ben Markland (double bass) and Simon Hall (bass trombone) introduced Meechan to British and Dutch contemporary music, to composers such as Louis Andriessen and Steve Reich, as well as the American jazz of Miles Davis. "The first time you hear Kind of Blue is a defining moment," he says. "I know it sounds daft to talk about, but it really is a moment when you think: 'Wow; this is incredible.'
"The other big influence was Bitches Brew," he says. "Remember, we were in North Warwickshire. Students were coming from Atherstone, from Polesworth, from Coventry, all arriving on the buses in the morning. We'd get in bands, we'd play that stuff, we'd copy it or do our own things. A lot of the time, what we did would have been rubbish.
"We did music technology 'A' level at the same time, recording everything we did. I think a lot of us were held back by our technical limitations rather than our imaginations. But then, that applied to Miles Davis as well!" He laughs. "That's simply another step that leads into composing."
"Putting that all together, by the age of seventeen I was starting to write pieces. Nothing of the complexity of Bitches Brew, or Andriessen, or anything like that, but I was interested in how music was put together. For me, the writing of music was more interesting than playing it. I don't like performing. In fact, up until 2003 I used to get so petrified about hearing my own pieces that I wouldn't even go into the hall when they were performed.
"My graduation piece was a soprano saxophone concerto, which was with symphony orchestra at the time, but is now accompanied by wind band. Robert Buckland played it. He did a fantastic job; I sat there shaking. One of my best mates at the time said: 'You're not leaving. Sit here and listen to it!' That was in 2002. I had a Euphonium Concerto premiered in 2003, around a year later, at Boston Stump, in Lincolnshire. By that time I was better.
"So I was never a performer. I don't like conducting even now, though if I have to, I'll do it. I don't like pushing myself; it's horrible. Americans seem to be naturals at it. I went to the Mid-West Band Clinic in Chicago last year. An American will introduce himself: 'Hi, I'm Jack Smith. I'm great. You'd like to play my music.' But he's saying that to everyone he meets, which seems wrong to me. You can't get by without doing that, but it's un-British, isn't it?
"By 1997 a few bad things had happened. My grandmother became seriously ill. She had a stroke. I found her. A terrible experience, something that stays with you for ever. I flunked a chemistry exam a couple of days afterwards, a practical exam involving potassium, magnesium and water, which all went bang! Because I'd failed, there wasn't going to be a chance to re-take that particular module for two years. My hand was forced. I had to look at my options. So it was suggested to me to consider music college. I'd never thought about studying music seriously. Composition had always seemed to me to be something that one didn't study. I'd done a bit of teaching. You say to a student: 'Why have you come to this way of doing it? Aren't there other ways of doing it?' In a similar way, a football coach won't teach a footballer how to kick a ball, but he'll teach him that he took that decision to pass there. The process is about opening the eyes to possibilities, I guess. So the idea of being taught composition was always a funny one. Until that stage it had pretty much taken place over a pint in a pub. You'd chat about it, you'd get an idea, you'd go home. You wrote the piece, came in three days later, showed your teacher, who went through it with you."
Meechan needed two 'E's to get in to college. He applied to Birmingham Conservatoire, the Guildhall, and the Royal Northern (RNCM). "I didn't know anything about Manchester," he says, "I came up to the open days. There was something about the place, the atmosphere with the students was magic. It's not any more, they've changed it. Eddie Gregson [a former RNCM principal] went out of his way to make sure that it no longer stayed magic! And the city - it's a great city. I've lived here for eleven years. Even if I left the country for a couple of years, I'd come back. Manchester is home.
"I remember my dad looking in a musical directory and, seeing the name of Tony Gilbert [who was to be Meechan's teacher], he said: 'There's not a lot about him in here'. The other guys had pages written about them. At that stage we didn't know that you could pay to have an entry in such reference books!" Meechan entered the RNCM in late 1998.
"Tony Gilbert thought that everyone should write in a contemporary voice. I don't agree. Everyone should write in the voice that they choose. Fergal Carroll was a first year postgraduate at the time I was a first year undergraduate. He's a fantastic wind band composer, who writes in a style similar to that of John Williams. Meechan and Carroll had strong enough personalities to resist attempts to impose attempts to influence their compositional style.
"You were encouraged to write things for unusual combinations," says Meechan. "Two violins, double bass, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet and Hungarian nose flute. If that's what you want to write for, that's fine. If that has merit, then that's also fine. But you had to arrange performances of these yourself, so you'd get one performance - if you were lucky. For me, it's all about confidence as a composer. You only get confidence, you only learn, from hearing what you've written. So, after a couple of years at the RNCM, where I was only an average student at best, I wasn't getting to hear much of the music I'd written.
"That was frustrating, because during the two previous years in Nuneaton I'd write a piece for the jazz quartet - which could be experimental, and would be different - but I could do it, and develop it. So I'd gone from that wonderful scenario to the one in Manchester where I'd go into a composition tutorial with nine bars of music, but not even get to the seventh bar because I'd had an argument about something that went on in the fifth bar! That saps your confidence, it drains you. I've never believed in composer's block, but that was the nearest I've ever come to being unable to compose. When you are constantly trodden on, you don't really want to write.
"As a composer, you can always write a piece. It might not be your best piece, but you've got technique, you've got ability, you can always compose something. At this time of the year (autumn), you'd go into the RNCM at seven in the morning. The weather would be pitch black and raining. You'd go into the composition rooms, which were boxes without windows. I always think if it's not going well, work harder, so I'd be in there all day, apart from going to the refectory to grab some lunch. No windows there, either. Go back to the composition room until seven or eight o'clock at night. You come down, it's dark again! You'd have a couple of beers.
"In the bar would be the brass players. They'd say: 'Write us a piece if you're fed up. We'll play it. Write it for unaccompanied euphonium, or write it for trumpet and piano.' So I started writing pieces for brass, which was frowned upon. Writing for brass doesn't have the artistic credibility that you would have if you wrote for the instrumentation of, say, the London Sinfonietta. But it meant that I could hear things, that I could improve.
"That led to a two-year period of writing where I reached a good standard. The saxophone concerto was my graduation piece. I didn't have a lot of confidence as a composer, but I was writing music. Three or four pieces from then are published and performed. I look back and think: 'That was good.' But it was hard. There were seven or eight people in the department, more in the final year. Of all those that were there, only a few are still composing.
"Maybe it's survival of the fittest, because some of them are definitely more talented than me. But they'd prefer to be a music teacher, or they'd rather earn money. You don't make a lot of money as a composer. I completed my four years in 2002. They say, 'Thanks very much, there's your degree'. You have to pay council tax the next day. There's no student loan coming in. It's a difficult time, for which you are not prepared in the slightest!"
Meechan had to find a job. He worked for Somerfield as a shift manager. "I enjoyed that, to a certain extent," he says. "Though I didn't enjoy being paid four pounds an hour. But without doubt it was good for me. There have been other stints that have been minimum wage jobs, because there were no commissions, or I had no teaching. That's the way it goes. If you want to do it, you have to tough out the bad times. That hasn't happened now for three or four years.
"I've had teaching at the University of Salford, and at the RNCM. My wife, Julie, is a music teacher. She brings in a decent wage. I self-publish all but three pieces a year. That's starting to take off; the orders keep my Sky Sports subscription going!
"Commissions range from one where you'll say to a mate that you'll write a piece, to someone ringing you up out of the blue to say that they've got so many pounds or dollars and they want you to compose a piece. I'm writing something at the moment for marimba and euphonium. I've written a lot of music already for euphonium. I wanted to write something completely different, so I'm doing a set of five or six one-minute pieces. That's different from everything else in their repertoire, because it's for a marimba/euphonium duo. But of course, they ask the composer to write a piece for marimba and euphonium, and get the marimba doing all the rolls, and the chordal stuff, and give the euphonium a soaring melody over the top. I thought it would be fun to try and do something different. You give yourself a brief. An idea for a sixty-second piece only needs to be three notes, and you're away."
Recently Meechan completed a piece for Kew Wind Orchestra. "They kindly recorded a piece of mine, Macbeth, last year," he says. "The agreement was that they would record Macbeth for me if I wrote them a piece in return. The word 'commission' immediately makes young composers think: 'How much do I get paid?' But that should be the least of their concerns. I could write what I wanted. The piece, called Epitaph, was premiered at the BASWBE Festival in October. I didn't necessarily write a lot for every part. If it's a band from America, or especially a brass band piece, they want everyone to be busy.
"I compose in lots of different ways. I use Sibelius version 1.4, because it's the equivalent of the composer's blank sheet of paper. It lacks the extras that get in the way, but lets me put the notes where and how I want them. For parts, I use Sibelius version 4. I have pages of notes, or sometimes a tune, or a chord progression. I still use manuscript paper; sometimes I use the piano. In terms of actually writing a piece, it all depends on the commission.
In October Meechan completed the portfolio of compositions for his PhD. "In March next year there's the College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA) Conference at Reno in Nevada," he says. "My piece Macbeth is being played by one of the university wind bands, Redlands. So I'll head out there for that. During July I'll be in Australia for a performance of my trumpet concerto by Jens Lindemann, the Canadian trumpet soloist and instructor now based in Los Angeles. He'll be playing at an International Trumpet Guild event in Sydney. That'll be a lot of fun."