Posts Tagged ‘music’


A London adventure in Leeds

June 11, 2016

a-london-square-in-winterVirginia Woolf & Music is a fascinating series of concerts and discussions exploring the rich relationship between Woolf’s writing and thinking, and her experience of music and musicians.  I was delighted to be asked to write a short setting of some of Woolf’s words for voice and piano, to be premiered during the 26th Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf in June 2016.

Setting prose to music is a strikingly different experience from setting lyric verse.  Perhaps some of Woolf’s more ‘musical’ passages, such as the poetic and lyrical refrains of The Waves, might have lent themselves more immediately to this kind of treatment – but I didn’t want to tear a short passage out of an intricately interwoven progression that spans the entire book.  Woolf’s Diaries and Letters were suggested to me as good places to look – and certainly, they are bursting with life and quick sharp perceptions.  But in the end I settled on a passage from an essay, ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’.

I’ve called it A London street in winter.  It begins

How beautiful a London street is in winter, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley.

A deeply evocative scene, in which we both do and do not stay – for Woolf’s imagination is quick to burrow behind the vivid and immediate sights and scents and take us on unexpected journeys, even if in the end she checks herself, and asks to ‘be content with surfaces only’.

I tried to keep my setting clear and unfussy, so that rich and complex sentences can still be understood, and words are given space to resonate.  And I tried to make musical clarity and unfussiness leave space for mystery, suggestion, the unspoken and the half-thought.

A London street in winter will be given its first performance by Annelies van Hijfte and Lana Bode at 7.30 in the Clothworkers’ Centenary Concert Hall, Leeds University on Friday 17 June.


Winter’s journey

May 28, 2015


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.


On the joy and anguish of titles

March 5, 2013

In my book titles are a good thing. I mean titles offering some specific, memorable, poetic or visual image. Whenever I can, I like to give a piece this kind of title: it can be a valuable catalyst for the listener’s imagination. Occasionally, the phrase or image of the title was actually my own starting point when I wrote the piece: I found the phrase or image and decided that I would try to write a piece in response to it. More often what happens is that I start writing a piece, gradually its musical character coalesces, and then, either part-way into the process or sometimes right at the end when it’s finished, I think of a title that feels apt and helps to crystallize some aspect of what I’m doing.

fern unfurlingBut what I’m doing remains, ultimately, a musical thing. The title may help to fire a listener’s imagination, but what that imagination really works with is the experience of listening to the music. If the imagination works with that experience in a direction entirely different from what the title seemed to suggest, that’s fine. And sometimes the axis of musical ideas, relations and sensations of a given piece doesn’t suggest to me any particular image or phrase, so I reach for a generic title, which might situate the piece within the particular history and expectations of a genre – Nocturne, Fantasia – or merely delineates the ensemble it is written for – Trio.
The piece I wrote last month is one of these. It is a Piano Trio – for violin, cello and piano – and I wrote it for two musicians with whom I’ll be giving the first performance in Valenciennes, France later this month. Perhaps the preceding paragraph suggests that it’s completely abstract, but it’s not really. I can find words which hint at what the piece seems to mean to me, but they’re not words that I’ve been able to develop into a convincing title.

I started with an idea, or perhaps a gesture might be a better way to describe it. For a while this gesture repeats, unfurls, expands, before quite soon leading to something quite different, which has a definitive, summarising, conclusive quality. It does not unfurl, it asserts and stops, and that left me, only one minute into the piece, in an odd place. From the beginning up to this point the flow of events seemed right, necessary, but the place this led me was one which for a long time I could not escape. Or rather, I could escape – I wrote one draft of the following section quite quickly, at some length, and then another, quite different – but in both cases, I found that having escaped I could find nowhere compelling or worthwhile to go next; all the escape routes seemed to run into the sand. It took quite a while of being stuck before I found a way out that seemed to pick up the narrative energy of the piece and tempt me (and the listener too, I hope) to go on. (In the end it turned out to be a version of the second of my two failed escape routes, whose beginning I had always liked – it was the continuation which proved tricky.) The continuation works with the new idea (the ‘escape’) for some long time before eventually arriving at back the opening gesture, changed of course by its new context. And from there on all three of the main ideas continue to reappear, with an increasing sense of ‘unfurling’, opening out.

All this could be applied quite precisely to my trio, although I admit that in a general way it could probably be applied to thousands of other pieces of music, too! So the ideas that I would have liked to encapsulate in a title included the idea of unfurling, but also of leaving something alone and chancing upon it later, and and finding that it has unfurled in the meantime, without our being aware of it. And also, the feelings of implication and causality that can so quickly spring up between two or three initially quite unrelated ideas, and the endless possibilities of play that they offer. You can see how I failed to find a short phrase that would hint at all this.

Often, when looking for a title, I leaf through poetry, and look at paintings and pictures. When I had finished this trio I read 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 things. And I did find something that seemed relevant in a way – the opening line of the wonderful poem Koi, and in fact, the first line of the whole 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 either a title or an epigram for the trio – to create a world: one can claim that of the Ring cycle, of a Mahler symphony, but the unfurling in my trio, all 8 minutes of it, is rather more modest.


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.


Ouija, Celadon, Messiaen, Magnificat, Slow Tide II

April 8, 2012

This is a quick news post with dates of some upcoming performances:

First up, Celadon will be played in two concerts given by the distinguished Korean musicians Kyung Sung Cho, Hyo Young Kim and Seungmi Suh during their visit to Cambridge this month – at 5.30pm on Wednesday 25 April in the Recital Room, University Faculty of Music (West Rd), and on Saturday April 28 at 5.00pm in Robinson College Chapel.

Next, I’m writing and presenting a programme in BBC Radio 3’s long-running Saturday morning series Building a Library on Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie; it’ll be broadcast on Saturday May 26th at about 9.30am.

Ouija will receive its first performance at 8pm on May 23 in Sidney Sussex Chapel, in a recital by Peter Sheppard Skaerved which also includes the premiere of Sonata Sospesa by Poul Ruders, and Bach’s G minor sonata and D minor Partita.  Full details and tickets available from Cambridge Summer Music Festival.  This is the piece conceived as a kind of séance, in which the violinist seeks to communicate with unseen spirits (see two earlier posts here and here).  Sidney Sussex Chapel will be a wonderfully atmospheric setting.

There will be further performances of Ouija at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford on November 2nd, and in London (details still tbc).

Later that week Gonville & Caius Choir, with senior organ scholar Annie Lydford and their director Geoffrey Webber, will give the second performance of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis I wrote for them (the Caius Service) – this is on Sunday 27 May at 6pm in Gonville and Caius Chapel.

And in June I will be giving a concert in Bonn, which includes performances of a newly revised version of A Sense of Touch (originally for four pianos: here in its alternative version for two pianos and tape) and the first performance of Slow Tide II.  This is a rethinking of the music of Slow Tide, a piece for two pianos and two percussionists, keeping most of the harmonic and melodic material, but radically rethinking the sonority and texture, and recasting the piece for piano, MIDI keyboard and tape.  The sounds of the MIDI keyboard and the tape are being realised by Jo Snape in The Hague.  The programme will also include more of my piano music.   This is on Tuesday June 12th in the Schumannhaus, Bonn, with the support of the Institut Français.

[Image: Celadon ceramic art, Korea]


a visit from Korea

March 29, 2012

A little while ago I was asked to write a piece for three fine Korean musicians who are visiting Cambridge in April to play and discuss traditional and contemporary music.  They play three beautiful and fascinating instruments – Taegum, a kind of flute with a fine membrane that adds a subtle buzzing quality to the sound; Saeng Hwang, a kind of mouth organ in which the pipes stand up vertically, rather an amazing sight; and Keomungo, a kind of zither.

I was told that I can also include one or two Western instruments.  Initially I thought I would avoid piano, because it carries such strong memories of a repertoire (19th-century, above all) and all that comes with that repertoire (perhaps this is because I’m a pianist myself). But in the end I decided to use it after all, and try to find a way of writing for it which would integrate with the sounds of the three Korean instruments.  I’ve also added a percussion part for two bells, and temple blocks.  It’s very interesting to write for instruments from another culture, not only because of the different sonorities and idioms, but also because I had to think about how to conceive and notate the music in a way which would engage the players’ own very refined sensibilities, allow them to bring their own imagination and expression to the music, and not merely try to get them to fit into a Western-style straitjacket.

Sometimes youtube can be very useful!  Gyewon Byeon, who invited the players to the UK and will be giving a seminar on their music, lent me an extremely informative book describing the instruments in great detail, by Keith Howard.  That was essential, but of course actually seeing and hearing the instruments is irreplaceable, and here youtube came into its own…

I’ve just finished the piece, which I’ve decided to call Celadon – it’s a kind of delicate jade-green ceramic perfected by artists from Korea around a thousand years ago.  The scores have been sent off, but of course with a situation like this the rehearsals are not merely practice, but a vital chance to find out how these musicians make music, and see how I can shape my ideas so that they can make them their own, and bring the piece to its final form.  I’m looking forward to this process, and to their two Cambridge concerts, at the end of April!


Song of Simeon

January 18, 2012

Last winter around Christmas I wrote a Magnificat: it was strange, and in the end quite exciting to immerse myself in words I’ve known very well for years and years but haven’t ever set to music before (see a post about this).  In England, the vast majority of occasions when a choir sings a Magnificat are Choral Evensongs, so it really made sense to follow up that piece with a Nunc Dimittis, setting the words of the old man Simeon when he sees the infant Jesus.  At some point last year I mentioned to composer Robin Holloway that I’d written the Magnificat and was now thinking about a Nunc Dimittis, and he said  – you’ll enjoy it: the Magnificat is an awkward text to set because it’s all chopped up into short separate sentences, but in the Nunc everything flows on in a single unfolding vision.

Looking at the two texts I can see exactly what he means, but strangely, I ended up finding the Nunc much harder to set.  I got stuck just once in the Magnificat, and found a way through that within a few days.  In the Nunc I made only a very uncertain start, and then got stuck for several months; later attempts in the summer to make a fresh start did little better.  It could simply be that it wasn’t a top priority, but at any rate, the musical ideas wouldn’t come.

The next thing that happened was that Geoffrey Webber offered to give the first performance of the Magnificat with the fantastic choir of Gonville & Caius College – but it was agreed of course that I’d write a Nunc Dimittis to go with it.   And then, once Christmas was done, there actually wasn’t a huge amount of time left in which to write it.  The sticking point (‘For mine eyes have seen thy salvation…’) didn’t open up straight away, even then, but when it did, what turned out to have been the crucial issue was rhythm.  It was only when I found the right rhythm, and with it momentum, flow, that the melodies and harmonies came, and then they came very easily.  All the earlier attempts went nowhere because they weren’t in the right underlying tempo, metre, groove.

So it’s done now, and I’m really looking forward to hearing the first performance, at Evensong on Sunday 5th February – it’s a superb choir and I’ve no doubt they will do it proud.  It’ll be an exciting service, with a new set of Responses by Robin Holloway and an anthem by Cheryl Frances Hoad.

And now I’m beginning to have an idea for a completely different setting of the Magnificat…

(to hear some of my other choral music, go to >listen/voices)