chamber music | orchestral music | piano music | wind band | organ music
After seven thunders for clarinet in Bb, violin, cello, piano (2022-23). 14 mins.
Writing this piece to go alongside Messiaen’s Quartet for the end of time, I went back to the scene from which he drew inspiration, in the book of Revelation: an angel clothed in clouds, rainbows and fire stands astride land and sea and announces the end of time. This hallucinatory vision evokes a landscape where the troubles and chaos of the world have risen to apocalyptic extremes which bring about a wholesale reconfiguration of the world, its processes, and our place in it. To Messiaen, in a freezing and overcrowded POW camp in the winter of 1940-41 with the world in flames around him, this resonated powerfully. Those circumstances are not ours, thankfully, but our own fears are also well-founded and the Revelation vision is no less resonant for us today. Before the angel speaks there are seven thunders, so my title evokes this moment of global watershed, but I have not sought to depict the vision’s specific images: there are no trumpets, clouds, rainbows, angels, not even thunders…
The piece opens with a series of bold, simple gestures which feel a little like those striking shapes carved by wind and weather that stand out starkly in certain rocky landscapes. These gestures recur at various points throughout the piece, in different lights and perspectives. In between there are moments of quiet, introspective ‘song’, a wild dance of destruction (perhaps for the god Shiva, who both destroys and creates), the dying down of old ideas, opening of new spaces, stirring of fresh breezes.
Slow tide for two pianos and four percussionists (2022). 13 mins.
Some years ago I lived in a house right next to the sea. Though that experience is now well in the past, I suspect it may have left something of its rhythms in the opening piano dialogue, where the two pianists’ interlocking phrases sweep forward and tug powerfully back. Another tidal aspect of the music is the grand unhurried pace, in which each wave takes its time, but their insistently renewed movement creates an inexorable and weighty process of change. The four percussionists also
engage in a dialogue with each other which evolves slowly, and their sounds permeate the spaces left by the pianists between each wave.
The piece has its roots in an earlier work, commissioned by David Christophersen and first performed in West Rd Concert Hall, Cambridge, in December 2009. Later I extended and recast the piece for piano, electric piano and electronics, the latter taking the ‘ambient’ role of the percussionists. This work was premiered in the Schumannhaus, Bonn, in May 2012 by Jeremy Thurlow, Camilla Koehnken and Joe Snape (live electronics/ sound diffusion) and also presented at the Cambridge Music Festival.
Understory (2021) for string quartet. 5 minutes. Premieres: Echéa Quartet, July 2021, Alinea Quartett, January 2022.
By way of the roof (2019) for cello and piano. c. 12 mins. Premiere: Tim Gill, David Gompper, Voxman Music Building, Iowa, November 2019.
Elephant of the clouds (2018), for mixed sextet (fl, bs cl, vn, cel, pno, pcsn) and recorded voice, c. 14 mins. Premiere: Dr K Sextet, Holywell Music Room, Oxford, April 2018.
In 2016 I had the opportunity to work with excellent Raga musicians from Kokata, devising some new songs with them and playing on the harmonium. Afterwards I asked the singer to do something rather unusual – to record for me some of her own beautiful and distinctive singing as an unaccompanied line, with neither the customary drones of the tanpura nor the fascinating underlying rhythms of the tabla. Normally this combination of sounds makes a complete musical ‘ecology’ to which nothing needs to be added; on its own, however, the singing can be woven into a quite different soundworld to create something new. This is what I have attempted to do in my piece Elephant of the clouds.
The music for the six instruments follows its own path, arriving from time to time in a place where – unexpectedly – the singer’s voice suddenly emerges. I did not follow any particular programme or story, but in the course of a little background reading I came across Airaavatha, the white elephant ridden by the powerful Vedic god Indra, and was struck by one of his honorary names, ‘Elephant of the clouds’. As a title this opened up enormous spaces for me to explore – between height and depth, weight and lightness, density and void, mind and emptiness.
Memory is the seamstress (2016) for string quartet. 16 mins.
Six highly contrasted movements, fleeting, lapidary – written for the Kreutzer Quartet, who so quickly grasped and loved the twists and turns. The piece’s design was prompted by a marvellous passage from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: ‘Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case; nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence, has further complicated her task and added to our confusion by providing not only a perfect ragbag of odds and ends within us—but has contrived that the whole assortment shall be lightly stitched together by a single thread. Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind. Instead of being a single, downright, bluff piece of work of which no man need feel ashamed, our commonest deeds are set about with a fluttering and flickering of wings, a rising and falling of lights.’ And this line too: ‘For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand.’
1. Leggierissimo 2. Sostenuto 3. Molto vivace 4. Tremulous 5. Allegro, clear, carefree 6. Adagio, molto delicato
Sea-cradling (2016) for string quartet. 17 mins.
I find writing for string quartet very special: the four instruments open up a beguiling and endless world of possibilities, like a beautiful maze. The music for this, my second string quartet, was begun without any particular image in mind, but took on a rocking, cradling motion which has become the lapping of waves, the pull of the tide, the swell and undertow of deep waters. So I’m calling it Sea-Cradling. The new piece is dedicated to Juliet Abrahamsen..
Blithe Wine (2016) 24′
for bassoon and string quartet
A character portrait of the poet John Keats, in the form of a new piece for bassoon with strings? Yes, it’s an eccentric plan. Keats didn’t play the bassoon, but there is an account of him imitating one at a rather drunken party when he and his friends decided to make an impromptu ‘orchestra’, each acting out a chosen instrument at the top of their voices, all at the same time. John Cage would have surely loved it.
There are many fascinating sides to Keats’ character, and my piece explores seven different strands of it in its seven (mostly brief) movements. He was wonderful company: ebullient, charming, lively, good- looking; he could be the life and soul of the party, as we hear in the first (and longest) movement. Following this, A living orrery imagines him in his schooldays, gradually learning to discover meaning and beauty and exhilaration in almost everything, from science to politics to literature. His school was an inspiringly enlightened and imaginative place, and the music borrows its plan from a monthly lesson where the boys were taken out into the garden to enact for themselves the orbits of the planets around the sun.
The third movement evokes Keats’ romantic yearnings for the love of his short life, Fanny Brawne (familiar to film-goers from ‘Bright Star’). Keats spent several years training as a surgeon – after qualifying, he gave it up for poetry – and in the fourth movement we glimpse him assisting at the operating table. Then follows the zany and drunken ‘concert’ mentioned above. Keats also suffered from bouts of deep melancholy – in today’s language, depression, perhaps – which takes grip in the sixth movement. Poetry was an urgent imperative for Keats – throughout his life he refused to let distractions and disasters keep him from his work because he knew he had something unique, inspiring and important to say. So the seventh and last movement ends the portrait on a visionary note. Blithe Wine is dedicated to Robert McFall and Peter Whelan.
Eine kleine Ludwigsonate (2015) 8′ (13′), for violin and piano.
My sketches for ‘Beethoven plus’ overflowed the brief for a single movement of five minutes’ length. So after fulfilling the commission with Mehlschöberl I went on to write two further offshoots from Beethoven’s violin sonata (op. 30 no. 3). Bagatelle continually spirals in and out of Beethoven moments, teasingly. In complete contrast, the Tranquillo is a still and calm distillation of Beethoven’s bustling finale. Together they make a little two-movement sonata, a design fascinatingly explored by Beethoven in several of his piano sonatas. (They can also form a three-movement sonata, by adding Mehlschöberl as the first movement).
Mehlschöberl (2015) 5 mins. For violin and piano.
Mehlschöberl was written for Krysia Osostowicz’s Beethoven Plus project, as a companion to Beethoven’s eighth violin sonata, the delightful op. 30 no. 3 in G major, a piece whose effervescent energy once earned it the nickname ‘Champagne’. The name for my piece comes from a letter of Beethoven’s to a friend, written a couple of years before the sonata, which he signs off ‘A kiss from your Beethoven, also known as Mehlschöberl’ – which is a kind of light Viennese pancake or soufflé, eaten with beef broth. It seemed to me (more than Champagne) to be a perfectly Beethovenish token of teasing and fun (with a hint of meatiness too). The eighth sonata is a special favourite of mine for its endlessly cheeky, subversive energy and charm. There’s a particular spot about a minute and a half into the first movement with a strange, devilish texture, twisting quick and sharp but also dark and momentarily sinister. Whenever I hear or play this bit I always feel that it’s Beethoven at the piano – in a cheeky mood, but with an undercurrent.
Set in a slightly broader tempo than Beethoven’s Allegro, my first movement moves from vigour and sparkle to darker moments which probe into Beethoven’s fleeting shadow for a little longer.
Orchid (2015) 5′
for eight cellos
The orchid embodies a unique combination of qualities – luxurious, fragile, sultry, scented, sensuous, delicate, extravagant, subtle. I can’t explain the logic, but it seemed exactly the right thing to evoke in a piece for eight cellos. This short piece was written specially for Cellophony, and for the Cambridge Summer Music Festival.
Self-ablaze (2014) 14′
for violin and piano
In the ancient tradition of shan-shui, artists living in the mountains of China admired and revered the unconfined energy of the wild, its continuous coming-into-being. To this quality of aliveness they gave the name zi-ran, which might be translated as ‘wildness’, ‘self-thusness’ or ‘self-ablazeness’.
Steeples’ Eclipse (2013) 17′
(piano trio no. 2)
As you approach the village where I live, just north of Cambridge at the edge of the fens, there’s a moment when you see two church steeples straight ahead in the distance. In fact, one of them is in my village and the other in a different village a couple of miles further away, but the flat fen landscape undoes any sense of perspective and it looks as though they simply stand side by side. As you continue up the road, the two spires slide smoothly towards each other, closer and closer, til they touch, and then with a silent ‘snap’ become identical, a single spire, crisp and clear. Then the image begins to blur again, and slowly the two steeples separate and slide apart. It’s a simple effect, easily explained, but magical when it first catches you, unawares, and still magical if, as I sometimes do, you deliberately slow down and look out for it. The exact point of union is a moment of freedom, of suspension; you don’t breathe. You’re poised on a perfect straight line running through the two steeples, and for as long as you balance on that tightrope gravity has no hold.
The commission came with one special proviso: the piece needed to incorporate some elements of improvisation for each of the three players. I’ve found this very hard (as I did with another recent improvisatory piece, Ouija for solo violin, which works in a very different way) and I spent a long time trying to find an idea that would ground the new trio. Eventually I realised that the steeples were what I was looking for: at various points the piece slides into a moment of ‘eclipse’, and one or more of the players finds themselves free and weightless, improvising. When I first saw the spires I was vaguely aware of but hadn’t actually read a well-known passage in Proust’s novel Swann’s Way where Marcel sees two spires shifting and glinting, suddenly joined by a third. Unlike my fenland spires they don’t touch, but even in their slow hovering dance Proust finds a kind of awakening, an epiphany.
Steeples’ eclipse was written for Tom Poster, Tom Hankey and Guy Johnston of the Aronowitz Ensemble, and was given its first performance at the Cambridge International Summer Festival 2013.
Virelai (Dame, vostre doulze viaire) (2013) 3′
for flute and piano
This piece sets the melody from a song by Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377), a virelai for which he wrote both the verse and the music. The piece re-presents the melody, and evokes the spirit of the verse too, perhaps, on anachronistic instruments (modern flute and piano) and refracted through a vastly different, twenty-first-century sensibility.
Piano Trio (no. 1) (2013) 9′
When possible I like to give my pieces specific titles, poetic or visual; they can be valuable catalysts for the listener’s imagination. But what I’m doing remains, ultimately, a musical thing, and sometimes the axis of musical ideas which emerges doesn’t suggest to me any particular image or phrase, so I reach for a generic title, such as Piano Trio. In this piece the first gesture (which is where I started) repeats, unfurls, expands, before quite soon leading to something quite different, with a definitive, summarising, conclusive quality, the opposite of unfurling. The overall shape emerges from working with these two very different kinds of material. After completing the piece I was reading through some poems by John Burnside, a favourite poet of mine, whose language is so clear and translucent, and yet finds an extraordinary weight in the simplest of things. And I found this (the first line of the book): ‘The trick is to create a world from nothing.’ This is a lovely poetic encapsulation of both the idea of unfurling, and of the endless possible relations that can be teased out between two or three simple ideas. But it seemed too grandiose to take as an epigram for the trio. To create a world: one might claim that of the Ring cycle, of a Mahler symphony, but the unfurling in my trio, all nine minutes of it, is rather more modest.
Plus avant que l’étoile (2012) 16′
for flute and piano
In the summer of 2012 I came across a hauntingly beautiful poem by Yves Bonnefoy, and found myself wanting to write a piece in response to it. Rather than ‘setting it to music’ in the traditional way – that is, setting the words to be sung – I wrote an instrumental piece: the words, though very much present for me as I composed and also present for the musicians since the lines of verse are written into the score, remain silent and are not performed, except in so far as the music might evoke them. As I began to explore the images and energies of each stanza I soon realised that taken as a whole the poem offered too much, and would overwhelm me. Entitled Deux Couleurs, it falls into two halves which are explicitly separated by a dotted line, and I decided to base my piece upon just the first of its two parts. This first part offers a dramatic shape of its own: radically different from the shape of the poem as a whole, of course, but (it seems to me) strong and satisfying in its own right. Since the two colours of the poem’s title really emerge in the second part and its relation to the first, I had to find a different title for my piece, and took it from the poem’s first line. A distinctive challenge in writing this piece (and one I have never attempted before, outside of vocal music where the text is sung) was to try to reimagine in musical terms the detailed course of the poem, stanza by stanza and sometimes line by line, rather than responding to the overall mood or to a broad narrative sweep as in certain kinds of programme music.
In performance, the verses may be read directly before the piece is played – this is perhaps preferable to printing them in the programme, especially if the venue encourages an intimate relation between performers and audience, as is ideal for this piece.
Ouija (2012) 20′
for solo violin and tape
During the 1930s the wonderful Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Aranyi used to hold séances to communicate with the spirits of the dead (she ‘spoke’ with Schumann and her great-uncle Joseph Joachim among others). When I discovered this curious fact I realised it could give me a wonderful focus for the piece I was working on, and a way of bringing to life the two challenges specified in the commission: creating an electro-acoustic element, and finding ways to channel and integrate improvisation within a carefully composed dramatic design.
Ouija is conceived as a kind of séance in which the violinist, like a spirit-medium, makes contact with a host of invisible ‘voices’ emanating from spaces unseen. In five contrasting movements the soloist explores different ways to engage with these intangible ‘violin-spirits’, as if communing with generations of violinists past. In the second and fifth movements the soloist sings her own song and finds herself in the company of a vast shoal of other voices. The third and fourth movements the air is filled with echoes of the violin music of Paganini and Bach: in Sprite the violinist becomes the plaything of some mercurial intelligence, while in Under the shadow of wings she becomes enfolded within the innumerable voices of all those who have played and loved Bach’s music, and adds her own voice to the throng.
Quicksilver (2011) for violin and vibraphone. 7 mins.
Miró’s Ladder (2011) for solo recorder. 7 mins.
I wrote this piece in May 2011 after hearing recorder-player Robert de Bree perform at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. Somehow the ideas came out ladder-shaped, and became tangled up with some paintings by Joán Miró, who was the subject of an exciting exhibition at Tate Modern at the time and who provided me with the title too. The result is a solo recorder piece of about 6 minutes, a bit like a game of snakes and ladders: a labyrinth-like musical space structured entirely in terms of ascent and descent between different levels, sometimes effortful, sometimes slippery and involuntary.
for violin, horn, piano
This was the first time I’ve been asked to write for horn trio, and the musical ideas started to take shape as soon as I began to picture the three instruments, each so full of character and so different from one another. At the beginning horn and violin present their ideas separately, with bold horn calls followed by cascading figures from the violin; later these ideas return in various energetic and tight-knit combinations. Between-times there are scherzo-like passages in which the three instruments dance intricate patterns around each other, and from time to time a lively, swaggering theme for horn and violin together.
Searching for a title, with these ideas were well under way, I suddenly thought of Orion, the mythical hunter – a figure who seemed to encapsulate many of the music’s ideas, from the primal hunting calls and often wild energy to the pared-down, abstracted lines of certain sections (thinking of Orion’s rather minimal, schematic representation in the stars).
These elements form a vigorous movement which drives towards the final reappearance of the opening horn and violin themes, presented by all three instruments in fortissimo counterpoint. The sustained energy of this music needed a foil, and so following this climax there’s a slower, calmer movement which unfolds over a backdrop of soft, widespread piano harmonies. The violin sings a long, lyrical melody, with brief lullaby-like refrains from horn and violin: perhaps one can imagine Orion shining down from the soft darkness of the night sky. The piece ends with a memory of the opening horn-call. Orion was written in summer 2009 for Alec Frank-Gemmill, Florence Cooke and Daniel Tong.
I had circled warily around writing a string quartet for some time – such a weight of precedent and achievement was intimidating – but when I finally jumped in it felt like coming home. There’s nothing to hide behind; but equally, nothing gets in the way: the four instruments make a perfect medium for exploring musical trains of thought and feeling, and can turn in a trice from the drama of four individuals in conversation, or in conflict, to a unanimity which breathes as one.
The first movement of my quartet was composed in 2003, as a tribute to a supporter of music in Cambridge. By happy serendipity, another homage offered on the same occasion by poet John Kinsella chimed beautifully with my piece, so much so that we agreed to link them together at the first performance:
The growth of ancient stone at twilight
is sensed by one whose sight
is honed by the pulse of the river,
math of bridges, microcosm of pasture.
The piece was premiered by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, who were kind enough to ask for more.
I soon developed a shadowy image of three movements, all different, with the original piece as the first. But it wasn’t til earlier this year that I turned these vague imaginings into reality. The second movement is driven by a seething energy, occasionally interrupted by the strains of some fantastical bucolic knees-up. Kept well in the background in the first two movements, matters of pain and conflict come urgently to the fore in the third, which ultimately manages to work through the crisis and regain some of the music’s earlier serenity.
The complete quartet was premiered by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet in the Maverick International Music Festival, Woodstock, New York, in July 2008 and has been given several times in the UK.
Wheels within wheels
for cello and piano
Some ancient Greek astronomers imagined the heavenly bodies to be controlled by a large wheel rotating around the earth, on which a smaller wheel also turned, though at a different pace and in a different alignment, and on this another wheel, and so on. Fixed onto the rim of the smallest wheel, whose rotations are themselves turned in various planes by the larger wheels, a planet’s path serenely traces several distinct cycles simultaneously, and a return on one level may be a departure on another. This notion provided many of the ideas for this piece, in which various aspects of the cello’s largely placid melody are transformed and ultimately, each in their own time, return. Similarly, the piano follows its own cycles, and in each instrument different kinds of music continually emerge and evolve. The somewhat dark tone of the ending was a surprise to me as I wrote it.
Wheels within wheels was commissioned by David Christophersen.
for mixed ensemble
Conceived as an encounter between a variety of characters, Ultradian rhythms groups the instruments into two pairs of woodwind players who stand on either side of the ensemble, the six string players (who mostly stick together), and a few individuals. The interactions between these different ‘tribes’ could be characterised variously as proud, antagonistic, serenely indifferent and anxiously impressionable. In the second half of the piece, after a brief ‘stand-off’, a kind of communal lyricism develops and some of the boundaries begin to dissolve. Though the groups have their own distinct kinds of music, in their different ways all of them are driven, like living creatures, by the medium-slow cycling of underlying ‘natural’ or biological patterns. Ultradian Rhythms was composed towards the end of 2007 and first performed by Ensemble CB3, conducted by Michael Downes, on 25 January 2008.
Man-cockerel meets the donkey-bird
for clarinet, violin, cello, percussion & piano
1. Man-cockerel meets the donkey-bird
2. Potion in the acorn-cup
4. Riding the wildman
5. Fox-doctor’s diagnosis
6. Snail attack
The idea for these tiny pieces came from an exhibition I saw over the winter at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Among the many treasures on display I was particularly struck by a book known as the ‘Macclesfield Psalter’, whose Latin Psalms are liberally adorned with minutely detailed illustrations of the most bizarre and eccentric scenes. The pictures show a reckless freedom of imagination, and are not in the least inhibited by the texts that they accompany. All but one of the titles above derive from these pictures, but as far as the music is concerned they should not be taken too literally: several were added after composition, and the pieces are not so much trying to reproduce specific images as to emulate their exuberant sense of fantasy.
Man-cockerel meets the donkey-bird was written for the Curious Chamber Players, Stockholm, and premiered in the Kunstakademie thanks to a commission organised by Malin Bång and Jim O’Leary. Recently it was performed in Symphony Space, Manhattan, by Sequitur.
An innocent abroad
for clarinet, bassoon and piano
The main challenge in writing this was to find a sound-world for which these three instruments would be the ideal medium. The piece pits the simple against the unpredictable: at times the melody is knocked off its stride; at other times it falls into a new, more complex kind of equilibrium.
Ancient Stone at Twilight
for string quartet
Around springtime in 2003 the poet John Kinsella and I were asked to write something for the Fitzwilliams to play at a concert dedicated to a mutual friend. The plan was that having agreed on a general sense of style and mood we would write our pieces separately. I was about three-quarters of the way through my piece for string quartet when John’s poem arrived, and it seemed to go so well with what I’d been writing that I decided to make another version of the piece, weaving in brief snippets of the poem sung by a soprano. Tonight’s performance presents the music as I originally conceived it, for string quartet alone. The poem makes a good starting point for listening to the piece:
The growth of ancient stone at twilight
is sensed by one whose sight
is honed by the pulse of the river
math of bridges, microcosm of pasture.
for wind sextet
3. Fight or fly
I have always enjoyed the strongly individual character of the different wind instruments, which seem to me almost like different animals, each with their distinctive quirks of behaviour and their own repertoire of habits and sounds. This is especially evident in the wind sextet, a delightfully heterogeneous ensemble so unlike the consistent and unified string quartet. This piece does not attempt to portray any actual real-life animals, but it does imagine in musical terms a number of different creatures, each with its own particular style and mannerisms. The three movements each explore a mode of behaviour: the first imagines an array of everyday activities, perhaps foraging, preening or playing, with only occasional squabbles. The titles of the second and third movements speak for themselves.
Animals was specially written for the Aquilo Wind Ensemble and for their performance in the 2006 Cambridge Festival.
Earthquake in the soul (2020), for chorus and orchestra, with soprano soloist, after Brumel and Hildegard. c. 30 minutes.
Manfred Reimagined – a new version of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony (2020). c.37 minutes. Large orchestra.
Château Barrière – concerto for piano and orchestra, after Mozart. (2020) c. 17 minutes.
Crooked consort – concerto for natural horn and strings (2019). c. 15 mins. Premiere: Alec Frank-Gemmill, Arco Baleno, Koninklijk Conservatorium, Ghent, Belgium, July 2019..
Upon height, upon hollow (2017), concerto for flute, strings, harp and percussion. 17 mins. Written for Abigail Dolan and Shelley Katz. It takes flight from some searing lines by Swinburne.
Oracle (2017), concerto for trumpet and chamber orchestra. 15 mins.
Written for the wondrously expressive and agile trumpet playing of Bede Williams. I imagined the trumpet as a prophetic voice, a musical ‘speaking in tongues’ – sometimes urgent and visionary, sometimes gnomic and mysterious.
Tread softly (2017) for full orchestra. 7 mins.
‘Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams’. (The Cloths of Heaven, W.B. Yeats). Dedicated to Johan Farjot, who conducted the premiere in the magnificent theatre of the Conservatoire des arts dramatiques, Paris, where Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique was first performed.
Search engines for full orchestra. 13 mins.
For me, those two words side by side – search / engines – conjure up powerful images. There’s not only the vision of new machineries, but also a sense of aspiration, of deep enquiry. In the background are legendary forebears: Stevenson’s Rocket, Babbage’s Calculating Engines, the Hubble space probe, among many others. ‘Search engine’ is an artful choice of name for today’s explorers of the worldwide web, and resonates with the imagery found on many web browsers –glimpses of the infinite recesses of outer space; search beams scanning across the darkness, probing the myriad pinpoints of distant light.
Together, the two words suggest voyages of discovery, pioneering and even heroic, through territories at once spatial and mental, technological and imaginative. It’s these evocative images that form the starting-point for my piece.
Flare for chamber orchestra. 4 mins.
Flare: a bright, hot flame; an urgent signal, born of emergency; a rocket.
Soft-born measureless Light
In 2012 I was asked by pianist David Christophersen to write a solo piano piece which would complement two big, tough sonatas he was planning to play in a recital in St John’s Smith Square, London, works whose vicissitudes reflect something of the terrible upheavals of the mid-twentieth century. David asked for something contemplative and reflective to place between them, which would offer respite without sentimentality. It was a difficult challenge!
Looking for a title and an image, I came across a beautiful line – The gentle, soft-born, measureless light – from Walt Whitman’s elegiac response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. So with this piece my title came first, and then from the image it presented to me gradually I found the music, keeping all three elements of the title very much present in my imagination as I composed. I have tried to gather and shape resonance and sonority in a way which feels to me suggestive of the kind of light Whitman’s line so movingly evokes.
The Will of the Tones
In this piece I tried to recreate in modern terms the Romantic notion, which I’ve always found exciting, of music as some kind of living organism, animated by the inexorable drive or ‘will’ of the sounds which make it up. The idea resonates with more recent thinking, too, about the way that genes blindly but powerfully shape the development of the bodies of which they are part. The piece begins with the whole body of the piano being stirred into resonance by a series of bright, strong, single notes, which gradually multiply and evolve into something both fluid and weighty, with a life and an energy entirely its own. This is virtuoso music, and it’s conceived on a grand scale, even though in fact it’s only about 10 minutes long. The Will of the Tones was written for Matthew Schellhorn, who gave the première in St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, in November 2004.
Strangers on a shore
This was the first piece I wrote after moving into a Scottish fishing village some years ago. I was fascinated by the rocky shoreline, with its strange shapes and folds, and when I’d written the piece the title of the old standard Stranger on the shore came to mind. There’s no musical connection, and even the scenes suggested are very different, at least as I imagine them, for my piece is not a Romantic reverie so much as a chance encounter between strangers who will never know each other.
My secret music remembers me
This piece was written in memory of Paul Jorets, a delightful, kindly man of wide-ranging knowledge and enthusiasm whom I got to know while in Antwerp for two days at a conference. A little later I heard he had been killed in a car crash. This is a tribute offered on the basis of an all-too-brief acquaintance.
A singing line wanders through the piece, and each note of the melody trails fleeting wisps of harmony, which vanish as soon as they can be grasped. At times this melody gives way to a solemn lament, which wells up out of the background.
Tout abus sera puni
This short piece is a meditation on oppression and control. The idea came from a phrase I happened to see in a trivial context (a sign on the Paris metro) and which I found very striking. It’s only a routine bureaucratic regulation, but to a foreign eye the words taken literally seemed to encapsulate an expression of totalitarian power, impressive and terrifying for being so absolute, all-encompassing and monolothic.
The musical ideas follow a harsh course, with any more delicate or personal utterances quickly stamped out. But as the piece developed, I found myself increasingly unwilling to go along with this, and towards the end, despite everything, something quite different manages to blossom.
Music for strings and hammers
Commissioned by spnm and fuseleeds06 for performance as part of Rolf Hind’s Artistic Season 2005/06, this six-piano piece was originally a single movement written for Many Hands, a multi-piano concert which took place as part of the FUSE Festival in Leeds in May 2006. Excited by the grand spaces and many levels of the Leeds Corn Exchange for which the piece was written, I began what is now the second of two movements with the idea of a single grand piano building up a groundswell of slowly pulsating harmony on one side of the stage. Against this background, the uprights in the centre strike up a sharp-edged, snappy conversation, joined in due course by the honky-tonk. Slowly, a deeper background dialogue also begins to evolve between the two grand pianos on opposite sides. Throughout, the two grands proceed at their own majestic tempo, independent of the busy central group. When the celesta enters later on it introduces yet another layer, though gradually it begins to engage in the uprights’ conversation. The piece ends with the whole ensemble in a riot of sonority.
For the second performance of the piece, in Cambridge the following year, I composed a new movement whose quiet calm acts as a foil to the energy of the main piece, which it precedes. Scored for only(!) four pianos, it explores gentle, affectionate disagreements in dialogues across wide spaces, and at contrasting tempi.
Swings and Roundabouts
My starting point for this piece was a rather zany assortment of short, cheeky ideas, which led me to think of toys and children’s games. The ideas are brightly coloured, and often have a mechanical feel, going round and round, or swinging to and fro, hence the title. As they build up through the opening section they might suggest an imaginary toyshop – perhaps a rather sinister one, as some of the toys get out of hand. Lyrical woodwind melodies interweave in the second section, and then dissolve into a gentle pattern-making which I thought of as daisy-chains. Outdoor percussion brings back an insistent beat, setting the scene for a counterpoint of jazzy lines, almost a fugue. From here on more and more ingredients are gradually stirred in, including a brass chorale, the lyrical woodwind tune, and the clockwork figure with which the piece began.
Swings and Roundabouts was written in the spring of 2008 for Brandon Green and the Zephyr Ensemble, who gave the first performance in May of that year.
Lob sei Gott
Bach’s jewel-like chorale preludes known as the Orgelbüchlein were originally planned as a larger collection – his notebook also contains many blank pages headed with the titles of preludes that he never got round to composing. It was William Whitehead’s brilliant idea to commission new preludes to fill these gaps. In mine, a Christmas hymn in the pedals is woven into the interstices of a quirky, jerky dance. The premiere was given by Gregory Drott in Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
Dry-Stone Wall &
The music of Rising Dough is conceived as a mass of seething transformation, a ferment of active ingredients welling up from inside and continually recombining. This image of organic flux is explored within a framework of entries and episodes, as in the middle section of a fugue (that is, after all the voices have entered). Following the opening crescendo, three subjects (with three very different contours: falling, rising and undulating) are introduced simultaneously. At each subsequent ‘entry’ they reappear not only in a different arrangement one above another, but also in a different combination of relative speeds.
Rising Dough is a virtuoso showpiece, setting great challenges for player and instrument alike. It was written for Mark Hindley, who gave the first performance in St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh in 1998. More recently I added a short companion-piece, first performed by David Goode. Dry-stone walls are found across the north of England: formed entirely of natural stones with no cement, they are beautiful, and building them is an ancient art. As its name suggests, Dry-Stone Wall is put together as a simple mosaic of different-shaped sounds. Complementing the organic with the inorganic, it serves as a prelude to Rising Dough‘s ‘fugue’, and also as the calm before the storm.