Michael Taplin's Ebbing Tides

2014 Panufnik Composer Michael Taplin received the 5-minute commission after his workshop with the LSO back in 2015. He has been expanding his piece Ebbing Tides from the 3-minute work that was played at the workshop, and the finished work receives its world premiere at the Barbican Centre on Wednesday 14 December 2016, conducted by Fabien Gabel. Here he explains how he goes about constructing his music:

It is usual when reading programme notes to find a description of the music one is about to hear but not the musical conversations a composer has with themselves or their colleagues whilst creating a new work. Having listened to and sat through many premieres and read the associated notes, especially those of young composers, I frequently wonder about the concerns of the composer in making a particular piece. Was the work an aberration from their usual habits? Was there a certain musical characteristic the composer was trying to develop in their own style? What models did the composer use when writing the piece, if any? This kind of self reflection is not usually something an audience is privy to, therefore, in this blog I thought it might be of interest to discuss some of the musical paradigms I negotiate whilst composing.

The initial concept for Ebbing Tides began with a piece entitled (K)NOT. (K)NOT was written in 2014 when I was first accepted onto the LSO’s Panufnik Scheme and was a response to a comment by Oliver Knussen whilst in rehearsal for SHARD, a piece which was written and conceived on the Britten Pears Contemporary Composition Course (a composition summer course run by Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews for young composers) in 2013. 

SHARD (https://soundcloud.com/michael-taplin-2/shard-1) is a short explosive work which essentially explores the extremes of register of an ensemble. After listening to several rehearsals of SHARD, Olly Knussen made the comment 'I wonder what your music would sound like in the middle.' This thought stayed with me and consequently when the opportunity arose to write a short piece for the LSO I saw this as the perfect opportunity to find 'my music in the middle.' After a number of failed starts, a soft, warm, gentle music inexplicably entered my mind one evening whilst sitting in my work room looking at a blistering red sunset and suddenly I found my way into the piece. This subtle type of music was something I had not written before which led me to think in depth about the balance between introspective and extrovert characteristics in my music.

The balance between varying characteristics in music is a consideration I feel every composer, consciously or unconsciously, grapples with. The terms 'introspective' and 'extrovert' are peculiar to certain qualities I am attempting to achieve in my own music. In summary, introspective music generally is soft, warm, gentle and reflective whilst extrovert music is muscular, energetic, sometimes violent and on occasion explosive.

There are several composers I feel are excellent models for negotiating between these different characteristics. The most famous example is Beethoven’s in his Fifth Symphony. The end of the third movement demonstrates the juxtaposition of the two characteristics in their most concise form. At the end of movement three there is tension building but the music is contained, quiet and introverted almost until the very moment it explodes into the beginning of movement four. Beethoven’s music is volatile and the way he juxtaposes different musical qualities is masterful and a great lesson in pacing and constantly subverts one’s expectations.

Some modern masters who I feel achieve similar success in balancing introspective and extrovert music include George Benjamin in his piece Palimpsests. The piece begins with a gentle song on three clarinets (introspective in character) which is abruptly interrupted by a fierce brass jab. This opening sets up the musical dramaturgy which pervades the rest of the work. Another modern example is Rocaná (Indian Sanskrit word meaning “room of light”) by the Korean composer Unsuk Chin. The piece explores the way sound moves around a large orchestra. Sudden dramatic outbursts are tempered with calm, mediative sections in varying proportions during the course of the work. Even when one knows the piece well it still manages to surprise.


In contrast to Benjamin and Chin, there are composers whose music is heavily reliant on one particular mood, the best example being Morton Feldman. Feldman, I believe, requires the listener to hear into the music. Once accustomed to Feldman’s style one can find lots of anomalies and subtle changes of texture which beguile and unsettle the listener. Feldman is the perfect example in which to introduce my next musical paradigm, repetition versus invention.

Repetition is a key component in music. Over the last fifty years many experiments have been made which either try to eliminate repetition from all the elements in music or focus solely on a single idea which is reiterated again and again. Personally, I feel both extremes do not work. If one tries to eliminate repetition of any kind it gives the listener, in my view, very little to invest in. Excessive repetition numbs the senses and either sends the mind into to a trance (if it is successful) or very quickly becomes a tedious ennui.

My aim in music is to write works which inspire thought. The best way to achieve this aim, in my opinion, is to make the music as direct as possible. This quality is something I admire in all the composers who have influenced either my way of thinking about music or my style. If one can find material which has a strong identity, it is possible to create an infinite variety of transformations and journeys for the listener. In Ebbing Tides, subtle variation is one of the key facets of the work. Each repetition of the core rhythmic cell is varied according to all the elements (timbre, harmony, rhythm etc.) throughout the piece. One of the main criticisms I have of works that I either feel dissatisfied by or that didn’t reach their potential given the strength of the material is a lack of invention. Invention can be the key to success or failure. The reason why I see invention as being inextricably linked to repetition is that all too often a piece fails because a restatement of a certain facet of a work is used where a creative transformation could have unleashed new life into the music. This is why it is so important for a composer to have the time to think, reflect and consider all the possibilities (of course time constraints do not always permit this luxury).

Another key component which is vital to the success or failure of a piece is structure. Structure is something I spend a lot of time considering when creating a new work. A lot of works which are structurally unsuccessful in my view are because either they allow themselves to become too predictable due to the composer being wedded to the pre-compositional plan or render the piece meaningless because the composer does not follow through with their ideas. For me, it is vital that I have a framework to construct my work around. To make a piece exciting to create I have to allow myself room for spontaneity. In Ebbing Tides, I created a visual representation of the general structure of the piece.

michael taplin sketch 500

This sketch is for a piece entitled Lambent Fires written earlier this year for eight players from the Philharmonia Orchestra, commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society. Audio: https://soundcloud.com/michael-taplin-2/lambent-fires-fragment-1-opening

I jotted down key textural ideas which provided me with a strong foundation for the work I was trying to create whilst also allowing me freedom to decipher how a certain section would come to fruition. Providing oneself with clear reference points is very important in order to not allow the music to descend into chaos.

I hope this short blog elucidates to some extent the considerations I took into account when writing Ebbing Tides. The issues I raise are points of discussion and do not offer definitive answers. In each new work I create I will continue to grapple with these matters, consciously or unconsciously, to try and find a solution to each of the above points.

Michael Taplin's Ebbing Tides will be premiered by the LSO at the Barbican Hall on Wednesday 14 December 2016, conducted by Fabien Gabel. Click here to buy tickets.

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