Posts Tagged ‘Flute’

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spirit of the air

September 19, 2017

Earlier this year I was commissioned to write a new flute concerto for the wonderful Abigail Dolan and Symphonova (about which more in the next post), I was only in the earliest stages of imagining the piece.  But by good luck I fell quite quickly on some lines from Swinburne

But I, fulfilled of my heart’s desire,


Shedding my song upon height, upon hollow,


From tawny body and sweet small mouth


Feed the heart of the night with fire.

… which I loved, and Abigail loved too.  Now (even though very few notes had been written at this stage) the soloist of my concerto became a spirit of the air, wild, passionate, unsentimental, fierce, burning bright.  I suggested a title –                           Upon height, upon hollow – which went into the publicity, and I was committed.

A bird is in many ways an obvious theme for a flute piece – the flute is high and agile, it can soar above the rest of the ensemble.  It can also imitate birdsong, although that was a possibility I chose not to explore – partly because Messiaen has done this in his own very distinctive way, and I’ve been immersed in a lot of Messiaen recently; and partly because to do this well I would need to greatly improve my knowledge and recognition of birdsong (which is something I love to listen to, but in a completely ignorant way).  89127756e595ffde2c65089f7145351eThe Swinburne lines invite me to compose the bird’s song – but (perversely perhaps) I did not try to make this sound like real birdsong – rather, just the song of this free aerial spirit – where ‘song’ is conceived specifically and wholly in flute terms.

I was also attracted by the movement of the bird – the way it is at one with its element – air, currents – the effortless control and easy play of its swoops and turns and dives.  Swinburne suggests this obliquely, perhaps, in the way his bird sings, and swoops, we must imagine, from height to hollow, across the full gamut of the sky’s spaces and depths.

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Winter’s journey

May 28, 2015

cill-rialaig

eternity / is the sea / with the sun / gone away

Stephen Romer’s poem Collects for Lent is an intense and searching meditation.  Images of wintry rivers, grey seas, monastic ritual, birds and signs of the year’s natural cycle are sketched in tiny phrases that are as pithy and dense as they are simple, and drawn together in a chronicle of pondering, mourning, endurance, ending with a glimpse of possible rebirth.

Setting these words to music was a wholly positive experience; despite the darkness of the text and the suffering from which it springs, I found it a source of energy, direction and clarity.

The full score was completed and sent off to the performers – the French vocal group Vox’Sing, together with two fine instrumentalists from the Tours Conservatoire – at the end of January.  Both Stephen and I coached them in the pronunciation and the poetic import of the words, and after an intense period of rehearsal they gave a wonderful first performance in a beautiful restored Grange in the countryside outside Tours.  In an earlier concert violinist Liza Kerob played In a quiet room with a poise and depth of feeling that was very moving.  I am sure these will prove to be the first of many happy collaborations.

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Old wine in new bottles – 21st-century Machaut

April 26, 2013

This is a little piece I wrote on a whim.

poemI needed something very short to round out a programme of music based on poetry, for flute and piano.  All the best ideas were too long – I only really had 3 or 4 minutes to play with.  I thought it might be interesting to take a song of Guillaume de Machaut, the great 14th-century French poet and composer, who wrote both words and music for his songs.  Many of them are polyphonic, in 2, 3 or more parts, but the one I decided on in the end is a monody: some modern recordings add a drone, while others sing the melody completely unaccompanied.  Part of the beauty of the line comes from the delicate shifts of accent, as well as the elegant twists and turns of the melody, which at times has an almost arabesque quality.

The modern flute is not all that much like the instruments of Machaut’s time, and the modern Steinway still less so: this helped me, because I wanted to present the melody refracted through a vastly different, twenty-first-century sensibility.  I set it twice: first half-hidden in the piano, beneath gentle swirls and strands of languid counter-melody in the flute, and then plain and up-front, offset by crystalline chimes.

The premiere will be given by Sara Minelli and Roderick Chadwick at a concert in Cambridge, given in honour of a visit from the great French poet Yves Bonnefoy next month.

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Beyond the reflection: an encounter with Yves Bonnefoy

August 2, 2012

bonnefoyphotoA friend’s gift of a book of poems by Yves Bonnefoy ended up taking hold of me for a significant part of the summer. Bonnefoy’s mysterious, elemental, almost shaman-like immersion in the presence of nature and of place is both intoxicating and (conversely) thought-sharpening. I found some of the earlier poems hard to penetrate but soon became absorbed in an amazing collection from 1976 called Dans le leurre du seuil (literally, ‘in the snare of the threshold’).

As a composer, reading poetry also involves a parallel activity, which is usually inadvertent and even unwanted – this is a kind of tasting and testing which continually tugs towards the question ‘could I set this to music?’ Very often, if I am really excited by a poem, the answer ‘No!’ quickly comes to the fore. What I’m excited about is perfectly achieved in the poem, its words, that play of sound and rhythm which is a poem’s ‘music’ and which usually has no need of, and would be destroyed by, the addition of actual music. But occasionally my experience of a wonderful poem doesn’t only centre on the poem’s own perfection but also leads outwards, conjuring a new space where something different might take shape, something inspired and shaped by the poem but artistically new and distinct. Typically this might be a song.

Something like this happened when I read the poem called ‘Deux Couleurs’ – a haunting conversation between the poet and some water he scoops in his cupped hands, and in which he sees reflections, and beyond them in its small depths a whole kingdom of new life, full of marvels. But while I quickly knew that I wanted to write music from this, I also quickly knew that it would not be a song. In fact, it almost immediately announced itself as music for flute, with piano. No doubt French music invoking water, reflections, and the conversation of the duo itself all helped to make this decision seem right and inevitable. Soon I made three further decisions, these more deliberately. The poem is in two halves, separated by a dashed line; there was already more than enough to carry me away in the first half, whose shape was itself already full and satisfying, and feeling the danger of being overwhelmed and submerged by the whole poem I decided I would work with the first half only. Second, I would ‘set’ the poem, following the play of sense and timbre and weight and depth as closely as I could, but without actually putting the words to a musical line. And as this quickly proved a vast and bewildering task I then made my third decision which was to write a series of eight short movements, each one corresponding to a verse of the poem (sometimes following line by line). To begin with I could concentrate on the movement in hand, but the further I proceeded the more I also started to think about how the eight movements would weave together and create a single span, as they do in the poem. It was an unusual way of composing for me, with both the advantage of a richly stimulating ‘source’ to respond to and the weighty obligation of the beauty and complexity of the original frequently preventing me from going off on whatever tangents had (lazily) sprung into my mind. Quite a number of draft movements made some sort of musical sense but had to be discarded because as I pursued them I realised that their link to the poem was superficial and shallow, and could not be sustained.

Some pieces come relatively smoothly, others are a struggle: this was one of the tougher struggles. But (at risk of sounding very glib!) also one of the most rewarding. I don’t have a performance of this piece in view at the moment – the idea came and there was no particular commission I could pair up with it – but I am very much looking forward to hearing this musical world brought to life. Perhaps I’m dreading it, too – it feels very intimate, and intensely associated with the magical lines of poetry that it grew out of. But when it’s performed I can’t expect everyone to have already immersed themselves in the poem before the music starts. So the piece will have to function on some level even when the poem falls away, as it will do in performance for everyone except perhaps the performers (who see the lines written out throughout the score). I won’t give the audience the whole poem, because reading it is demanding of concentration and time, and they would miss the piece almost entirely, and also because of the grave danger of turning the listening experience into a kind of train-spotting experience – aha, that must be the star, this is the cupped hands, etc. So at the moment it feels exciting to have finished it, but also vulnerable.