Archive for the ‘music’ Category


Out of season

December 23, 2014

It’s the week before Christmas, and I’m working on a new piece which sets to music a dark, pained, brave poem called ‘Collects for Lent’, by Stephen Romer.  I’m really enjoying digging deeper into its melancholy and its resolute honesty as I work on my setting.  I would be enjoying this anyway, but it’s highlighted by the contrast between the sentiments and the season of this poem and the inescapable jingly jollity of Christmas as encountered in the shops, on the tv and the internet – in fact, everywhere.  Not that I have a Scrooge-like disdain for Christmas cheeriness, not at all.  But it does feel good to emerge from all that for a time each day and touch on something different, on feelings that run through this period as through any other but simply get blotted out for a brief while – at least, on the surface.

dark-sea-and-cloudsIt’s a poem that confronts loss, and the difficulties of dealing with it and finding a way forwards.  It’s a very personal poem, a meditation, almost a confession; left to my own devices I would probably have set it for one singer, who would become the ‘I’ of the poem.  However, the commission required a piece for a group of six singers, three women and three men, to which I have added an alto flute and a harp.  The six singers did not seem an obvious choice for this poem, at first, but I decided to try sketching something out and seeing what happened. If I then found that it just wasn’t going to work I could always suggest looking for a different poem.  But in fact, writing for the six singers has opened up my approach to the poem in various interesting ways.  Sharing out the lines to different voices immediately spatialises and dramatises the poem’s monologue – it forces you to consider the different roles already contained within it.  At the other extreme, some parts of the poem are not shared out but are sung by all six singers together – but this also changes the dynamic: a personal confession, clearly emanating from an individual suddenly becomes the collective, almost ritual utterance of a chorus.

The piece is being written for Vox’Sing, a vocal sextet based in the French city of Tours, who will perform it there in a festival of music and poetry next May which will include several other pieces of mine too.  I’m currently a little more than half way through the piece, and finding the poem’s darkness very fulfilling.  This is one of those perennial philosophical puzzles – why does poetry, art or music which treats sad things, give us pleasure, and strength?  It’s a curious effect; I hope my music will in turn get drawn into the same virtuous circle.


Ouija in Romania

November 23, 2014

PellayEvery time Ouija is performed it’s a bit of an adventure for me, because of the way that the solo violinist takes the expressive ideas of the piece and reshapes them in their own way, differently every time.  The piece is ‘about’ discovering unknown voices and listening to what they can tell us, and in some ways that’s true of what happens with the soloist himself.  Peter Sheppard Skaerved has played it lots of times now and it’s amazing the way that he is always totally creative with it, never repeating himself.  In a different way, it’s always fascinating hearing the piece played by a different violinist, because every player has a different personality, and that always comes through very clearly when the piece is performed.

409px-Nicolo_Paganini_by_Richard_James_LaneSo I’m really looking forward to going to Romania next week to work with a fantastic young violinist Radu Dunca, who’ll be playing Ouija in Cluj on Thursday 4th December and again in Bucharest on Saturday 6th, in concerts by the AdHoc Ensemble.  Radu plays with great spontaneity, feeling and virtuosity.  See Radu playing in a rooftop concert.  Radu’s been rehearsing the piece from the score, and it’ll be interesting to see if the score actually communicates the ideas that I want to put across – in the case of this rather unusual piece which gives a big creative role to the soloist, it was hard to decide how much to specify in the score, and at what point to back off and leave it to the soloist to decide what to do.  Radu and I will have one rehearsal together on the Wednesday, and then he’ll be performing the piece (in a slightly shortened version) the next day.

The first concert is in the Sala studio, Music Academy “Gheorghe Dima”, Cluj,  on Thursday 4 December, at 19.00,  and the second is in the ISCM Festival Meridian in Bucharest at 19.00 on Saturday 6 December, in the “Aula Magna” of the Cantacuzino Palace (Uniunea Compozitorilor and Enescu Museum).  


Quiet Songs

November 2, 2014

I’ve been writing some songs for the Hermes Experiment – who have been making some very interesting music with their unusual combination of soprano, clarinet, double bass and harp, and their imaginative and open-minded programmes. It was a hard combination to write for, at first; in particular, it took a while to find a way to integrate the bass into the overall sonority. Uncertainty about what words I would set added to the confusion, too, as I dabbled tentatively with various different texts.  ncOP5e8In the end I found things took off the quieter I got, the more I explored delicate, translucent sounds. And finding that delicacy, a kind of musical water-colour, coincided with trying to set a wonderful little poem by Yves Bonnefoy.  Once I had sketched out this song I felt that the character of the music was coming into focus.  But I also felt that the song was too little and fragile on its own, and it needed to be part of a little group.  In the end I found two other short poems from the same collection, and in ways that I couldn’t predict, even after I had chosen the poems, the other two songs found quite different ways to compliment the mood of the one I wrote first (which ended up going second).

I’ve mentioned Bonnefoy before, a couple of years ago, when I discovered a long, searching poem which wouldn’t let me go, and I ended up writing a ‘setting’ of it, but just for instruments (flute and piano).  The music was very closely entangled with the words, line by line, but there was no singing or even speaking so the poetry remained ‘invisible’, but there was no singing (or even speaking) so the poetry remained ‘invisible’, unheard, even while it shaped the music at every moment.

rain_mediumThese new songs felt very different from that.  The three short poems date from nearly thirty years later, and are both modest and breathtaking in the way they evoke the trace of touch and thought through the slightest and most innocuous of impressions.  The instruments were all different, now (and therefore, the basic texture of the music, too) but even more importantly, the words here are actually sung, literally present in the performance of the music.  -Which is normal when poetry is set to music, but after working with Bonnefoy’s poetry as a kind of unspoken spirit, hearing it sung out loud felt strangely vivid and unexpectedly larger than life. Last week I heard a rehearsal, and it was fascinating hearing both the sounds and the words take on a real ‘live’ presence.  I’m very much looking forward to the premiere, in Limewharf, London, on November 15, where there will also be new pieces by Giles Swayne, Kim Ashton and Aleksandr Brusentsev. [ see Sound and Music blog ] 


Orion returns

October 29, 2014

images-4What a pleasure to hear my horn trio from four years ago, Orion, given such a bold and committed performance on Monday.  The piece is full of counterpoint, which makes for a strong surge of adrenaline when composing and when playing, too, asserting your own part against the impacts and rebounds of the other players’ lines.  It was wonderful to hear the clear, impulsive energy of the playing, by three outstanding players in a SCO lunchtime concert at the Perth Concert Hall.  Wonderful too to hear Schumann’s fantastic Adagio & Allegro, and Brahms’ Horn Trio played on the natural horn as the composer originally imagined it. Orion will have another outing next February, in Glasgow; I hope I can be there.


Letting go the lighthouse

September 7, 2014

orford_ness_eadt_no_permissionOrford Ness is an extraordinary place.  A strange peninsula, reachable only by boat and very much like an island in feel, it was formed by the combined effects of silt from the river and sand and stones washed in by the tide.  It’s a unique habitat of vegetated shingle, and is not really solid land at all – the whole shape slowly waves and twists over decades and centuries under the pressures of the tides.  Right next to Aldeburgh, Britten’s town on the Suffolk coast, it lies directly in front of Orford Harbour, which was busy and important port until the Ness grew for miles across it, blocking off access from the sea by all but the smallest boats.

It offers a strange and memorable combination of rare, delicate wildlife and flora alongside dilapodated and sinister buildings left by the Ministry of Defence, who used the site for experiments on weaponry (including H-bomb detonators) from the 1920s to the 80s.  It’s been memorably described by W.G Sebald in The Rings of Saturn, and also by Robert Macfarlane in his wonderful book The Wild Places.  


But why I am talking about it here?  The ness has been the site of numerous lighthouses over the centuries, the last and most impressive of which was built in the 1780s.  It’s a strong and sturdy structure – but the coastline in front of it has been eroding very fast in recent years.  It won’t be long at all before the base of the lighthouse will be literally standing in the North sea, and once that starts decay and dereliction will quickly follow.  This is why a couple of years ago the decision was taken to decommission the lighthouse and allow it to be gradually reclaimed by the elements.

It seems to me that this is a historic moment.

Looking-over-Orford-ness--001It’s obviously a big change for the people of Orford Ness, who no longer see the beam scanning over the waves, and know that the sea is drawing ever closer.  But to me it also feels like the turning of the tide in a much bigger story.  Orford lighthouse dates from the Enlightenment, when a combination of rationality and idealism gave people the confidence and the means to begin to shape the world in the way they wanted to.  The lighthouse warning ships away from a treacherous coast is just one small example of how men set about subjugating nature, sometimes with laudable intentions, sometimes in thoughtless greed.  Everyone knows now that that story has got us into a perilous position, and that the environment’s power over us and our futures has turned out to be far greater than our power over it.  And now, without in any way abandoning our efforts to use science and technology to make the world a safer place to live in, we’re having to show a much greater humility.  Our engineering capabilities may be a hundred times greater than they were in the 1780s, but the fact is that where they chose to intervene and to build, we today are forced to withdraw and abandon.


So I was hugely excited when I heard of plans to mark this turning-point with a series of arts events to celebrate the story of Orford, its people and its history, and to think over the significance of the present moment and contemplate the future.  Thanks to novelist Liz Ferretti, who has been a prime mover in all this, I’m now writing a new piece inspired by this unique place and by the lighthouse’s past and future. What will the new piece be?  I’m still turning over lots of ideas, so that will be the subject of another post.  But it’s an exciting project: there could be no more contemporary issue than this.  

Photos gratefully acknowledged:  EADT; Orford Ness National Nature Reserve; Matthew Guilliatt.


Sometimes mysteriously

August 19, 2014

This is the title of a free-verse poem by the poet Luis Omar Salinas, and it’s also the title of a new setting of the poem I wrote last week.  It seemed like a good title for this post, because while the decision to compose the next piece can be well planned – often a response to a commission, or an aim that has taken shape over a long time ( and ideally both of these things at the same time!) – there are also times between bigger projects when I cast around for an idea and try out things almost at random, on a whim.  Very often they don’t take off, and I don’t mind if they don’t: they still serve as a way of shuffling my ideas and impressions and turning over the soil, so to speak.  But occasionally, they take hold and make me keep going til they’re done.  Sometimes, mysteriously.  That’s what happened with the poem by Salinas, who is often called the leading figure of Chicano poetry (Mexican-American).

Luis_Omar_Salinas_PictureIt felt a bit like a tight-rope walk, because I wrote it for solo soprano, and almost immediately I started to feel the lack of other singers or instruments: the lack of big textures, harmonies, counterpoint, contrasts of timbre, none of which were available here, except through suggestion and subtlety. The poem itself sets out like a kind of intimate confession, vulnerable and bare, so the challenges and limitations of the one-voice medium felt appropriate.  And in keeping with this I kept the musical ideas extremely simple, not so far away from when someone hums a tune to themselves.  I’ve used the musical structure to lengthen and exaggerate this tight-rope until it ended up 10 minutes long – a long time for one performer to hold the audience alone on stage.  But that intimate, sustained communication on a personal level is very much what the piece is about.  There’d be absolutely no point in playing this piece through on a piano: if it has any interest or power it will be when a singer performs it, takes on the persona that the words gradually unveil and takes an audience with them all the way across the tight-rope.


Commission from St John’s College, Cambridge

July 2, 2014

The choir of St John’s College, Cambridge needs no introduction from me.

chapelRenowned across the world for its rich sound, beautiful blend, vivacity and virtuosity, it is a world-class ensemble.  I feel very excited to have been commissioned to write a new piece for them, which they will sing during Evensong in 2015 under the direction of Andrew Nethsingha.  Much to think about!  What words to set?  How best to enjoy those voices?   I’ll post again when the new piece is taking shape.  Incidentally, somewhat off at a tangent (because though I like them very much, I don’t think I’ll be setting them to music), I recently came across these lines from George Herbert’s poem Even-song:      Thus in thy ebony box / Thou dost inclose us, till the day / Put our amendment in our way, / And give new wheels to our disorder’d clocks.