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vocal music

Programme notes: music for solo voice | choral music

Music for solo voice

Light – dark – sea  (2015)  15′
for soprano and ensemble

Written to mark the decommissioning of Orford Ness Lighthouse in June 2013, as part of the HLF-funded project ‘Touching the Tide’, at its premiere Light – dark – sea concluded an evening of music celebrating and contemplating Orford Ness’s unique and historic lighthouse and coast.  I feel that the changing fortune of this lighthouse stands as a powerful symbol of a much larger change in humanity’s relation to the elements.  The text is taken from nautical notices and maps of the region.

Quiet Songs  (2014)  6′
for soprano and instrumental trio (clarinet in Bb, harp, double-bass).   A stone  /  White-out  /  Rain  (on French poems by Yves Bonnefoy).   1)  I move a stone with my foot; from underneath, scurrying in all directions.  But soon, disappearing back into their lives without memory.  A beautiful evening – I scarcely know if I exist.    2)  A single whitening out – desiring, taking; almost the same weight – to be, not to be.  This path, or that one, as the rain on the grass evaporates.  Scents, colours, tastes, all one dream; doves in the elsewhere of their cooing.   3)  Summer morning rain, unforgettable lapping like a first frost on the dream’s windowpane, and the sleeper feels with bare hands, through the rain’s din, for the other body still sleeping, its warmth.  Noise of water on the roof, in swells and gusts.  The storm has invaded, lightning springs from a shout, short and strong; the thunder’s riches spread across the sky.

Sometimes, mysteriously  (2014)  10′
for solo soprano, with optional electro-acoustic track.  Setting the poem by Luis Omar Salinas.

Unbidden Visions  (2008)  9′

In March 1818 Keats was haunted by a nightmare. His thoughts and moods were invaded obsessively by sudden visions, in brilliant and unwanted clarity, of the remorselessly savage cycles of the natural world – what Tennyson later called ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’. I chanced across Keats’ ruminations on these terrifying and melancholic visions in a strange, rambling verse letter he wrote to his friend J.H Reynolds, and soon found myself wanting to set them to music.

Some time later came a request for a new piece for tenor, horn and piano, a combination firmly stamped with the hallmark of Benjamin Britten, and for that reason initially somewhat intimidating to write for. But once I had found the first musical idea, I was able to forget about this and found myself plunging back into Keats’ nightmare vision. The piece was written in August 2008, and first performed by John McMunn, Alec Frank-Gemmill and Matthew Schellhorn at the Cambridge International Music Festival, November 2009.

The Pedlar of Swaffham
for soprano and ensemble

A few years ago I wrote a setting of a Croatian folktale about a She-Wolf who turns into a beautiful woman. I took it as a challenge that the music would not merely illustrate the story but maintain a dialogue with it, and often dance to a different tune. It was such fun that I soon wanted to do another, and tonight’s commission provided a perfect opportunity. I’ve taken a different approach this time, not least because of the quite different character of the tale. The story of the poor pedlar who dreams of good news is an English folktale, and this particular telling of it comes from the diary of Abraham de la Pryme, a 17th-century cleric who knew Pepys and Newton, among others, and had a delightful way with words.

The She-Wolf
for soprano, cello & piano

My piece is based on a Croatian folktale about a she-wolf who turns into a beautiful woman for a few hours each day. One day a young man decides to watch her, secretly…
I wanted to play with the suspense and the intrigue of the story-telling and its far-from-straightforward relation to the music, which sometimes illustrates the story, but often dances to a different tune. The disconcerting wit and strangeness of the story is given a further twist in the musical setting.
The She-Wolf was given its first performance by Marie Vassiliou, Owen Gunnell and Karl Lutchmayer in Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, in an alternative version for soprano, percussion and piano, thanks to a commission from the Fenton Arts Trust.

Ancient Stone at Twilight
for string quartet with soprano solo

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, and then see if we could marry them. 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 bring his words into the performance of the music, occasionally weaving in brief snippets of the poem set for soprano voice. 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.

Black Suns
for male alto and organ

This is an inscrutable setting of an inscrutable but powerful poem by John Kinsella. The organ weaves strange and implacable counterpoints around the voice, which sings of ‘the orchard, canker-bound and fading – Australian gothic…’.

Choral music

Lucis largitor  for choir (SSAATTBB).   Setting a hymn to light by St Hilary of Poitiers.

Over the frost  for six voices (S, MS, A, T, Ba, B) with alto flute and harp.

Setting Stephen Romer’s Collects for Lent, a cycle of introspective and lapidary poems.

I got me flowers    for unaccompanied choir SSATBB.

A short anthem for Eastertide, setting George Herbert’s beautiful poem.  Dedicated to Tim Brown and Robinson College Chapel Choir.

Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (The Caius Service)   for choir SATB and organ

A grand and large-scale setting of the canticles, written for Geoffrey Webber and the choir of Gonville & Caius, Cambridge.

Magnificat  (The St Catharine’s Service)   for girls’ choir SA,organ, and electro-acoustic track

What could be more paranormal than the visitation of the Angel Gabriel to the young girl Mary, and what could it possibly have felt like to her?   This setting was written for the Girls’ Choir of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge and their conductor Edward Wickham,  for their service of Luminaria.

Exultation is the going   for unaccompanied choir

Though I’ve enjoyed reading Emily Dickinson I’ve never thought of setting her words to music, but last year I was brought up short by a poem read at the memorial service of a dear friend. Though simple, it’s a haunting text, vividly conveying the exhilaration of a great challenge, and at the same time, courage in the face of mortality. Shortly after this the opportunity came to compose something for the BBC Singers, and I knew immediately that I would set these words: 24 strong, vibrant voices seemed to me the perfect medium in which to respond to Dickinson’s bold vision. I have opened up the tiny, self-contained form of the original poem (two short stanzas) by combining it with verses from two other poems. In writing the music I have tried to evoke both the changing moods of a real seascape and something of the poetry’s emotional charge. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Jo Campling.

Strange Light    for choir SATB, organ and solo horn

Setting dark and searching words by R.S. Thomas, this contemplative anthem is suitable for Remembrance Sunday and also for Lent.

Of noblest Cities   for choir and organ

The words are a beautiful Victorian translation of a Latin hymn by Prudentius, which meditates on the story of the three Wise Men. Each verse is set to the same melody, in an increasingly rich counterpoint inspired by the wonderful sound of Tudor choral polyphony.

Flos florum   for solo flute and double choir

This setting pits the austere purity of modal polyphony against the ardent, erotic fervour and devotion suggested by the words (a medieval Gradual in praise of the Virgin) and here embodied by the solo flute. Beginning as polar opposites, the two kinds of discourse become increasingly intertwined.

Fearfully and wonderfully made  for choir and organ

The psalm I chose to set (no. 139) is a hymn of praise, contemplation and wonder. I wished to capture the feeling of an act of worship, with a whole group of people each contributing their own thoughts and inspirations; they use a variety of different images and ideas reflecting different views and points of emphasis, but are united in their attempt to approach the same central mystery. Their words ebb and flow, sometimes crowding on each other and overlapping, at other times emerging from silence after the previous ideas have died away. The singers are divided into a main group and two semi-choruses, who sing (respectively) a ‘straightforward’ modern translation; a version in the familiar and beautiful language of the Book of Common Prayer and the ‘King James’ Bible; and the Hebrew name of God, originally too sacred to be spoken. The choir is essentially unaccompanied, although there is a mysterious and almost independent part for the organ pedals. The piece was commissioned and first performed by the New Cambridge Singers, and was originally entitled ‘A Psalm in Praise of God’s Ominiscience’.

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