Before the end of time

Writing a new work 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 – After seven thundersevokes 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. 

It’s been a pleasure rehearsing the piece with three excellent players, Poppy Beddoes, Henry Chandler and Tim Lowe, and also a interesting experience playing the piano in one of my own chamber works. I’ve done this a few times, but in between I always forget, and am surprised again, how complicated and intense it feels during the rehearsals, being inside things as a player but at the same time trying to listen to and survey the whole as if from outside, as a composer.


56 durées-couleurs

The final movement of Messiaen’s Livre d’orgue, ’64 durées’ has a grand and ambitious design: an ingenious presentation of 64 different ‘durations’ or note-lengths, the whole set presented in two simultaneous layers, one the reverse of the other, while a third layer decorates with birdsong-inspired arabesque. Messiaen was intrigued by the idea that just as different harmonies or instrumental timbres each have their own distinctive quality which can be known and loved, the same could be true of rhythmic values (‘durations’). This is easy enough to feel when comparing, say, a semiquaver, quaver and crotchet, which can be measured against each other in simple, familiar ratios (1: 2: 4); it is much harder to discern and feel the distinct ‘rhythmic qualities’ of, say, two notes in the ratio of 61: 62). Nonetheless, Messiaen felt that if the first example is easy to recognise, the second is at least theoretically possible, and this piece offers a chance to see what it feels like to try. This is certainly ambitious and perhaps utopian, but listeners may feel that it’s an interesting idea and worth experiencing.

The extreme lengths to which Messiaen takes this experiment (he might, for example, have explored the different qualities of eight or ten different durations rather than sixty-four) combined with its complete abstraction have been much commented on, and so has the aural character of the resulting piece, which has been memorably described by Dame Gillian Weir as “chilly, bleak”. It’s often implied, whether explicitly or implicitly, that the bleak sound and ‘feel’ of the music is a consequence of the abstract and uncompromising numerical plan. It’s easy to conclude that while the notion of trying to hear and feel the different qualities of a large array of subtly different durations may be an intriguing one, actually doing so is extremely daunting and not terribly enjoyable.

I believe, though, that there is a short-circuit in this logic. Listening to and getting the feel of different musical durations is not in itself an innately harsh or bleak experience; the quality or colour of that experience comes to a great extent from the kind of sounds and musical materials that occupy the different spaces. In Soixante-quatre durées Messiaen fills the durations with dissonant, never-repeating combinations of held notes in opaque and rather gloomy sonorities, while taking care that his freely decorative arabesques never sound in sympathy with any of these held notes, thus further raising the dissonance level and keeping it consistently high throughout the entire movement. This was by no means the only way that he might have realised his duration scheme. Indeed, one of the most distinctive things about Messiaen’s music (in general) is his extraordinary gift for vibrant, sensuous, alluring harmonies. These had been a hugely important part of his music until just a couple of years before writing Livre, and rich harmonies would return to his music only a few years later and remain an immediately recognisable fingerprint to the end of his life.

If Messiaen’s original piece may be described as a thought-experiment, it was pondering the questions raised which led me to create this new piece. This is not really a composition of my own, and certainly not in my own voice. Rather, it’s a re-composition of Messiaen’s idea, using his own distinctive and highly colourful harmonic vocabulary. I hope that if the basic sound-world is reminiscent of the beautiful harmonies of many of Messiaen’s other works then attending to the durations may already be a more engaging experience. So rather than harshly dissonant, austere, atonal note combinations (arising from never-repeated reconfigurations of the twelve notes), in the new piece the chords are formed from Messiaen’s colourful ‘modes of limited transposition’, and are more filled-out (usually four notes in the right hand and three in the pedal) so as to give their modal colour more definition and vibrancy. At times the right hand and pedal traverse different modes, at other times they come together in the same mode. Very few listeners share Messiaen’s precise colour-sound synaesthesia but most agree that these kinds of chords feel ‘colourful’, distinctive and vibrant.

I have called the piece 56 durées-couleurs, in hommage to Messiaen. I recently heard it played through for the first time and found that, while the underlying concept is very much the same as in Messiaen’s original piece, the sound and feeling is very different. Listeners may prefer one or the other – or find both interesting in different ways – but I’m glad that my experiment has not resulted in a mere duplication or re-run: a fresh and distinct experience awaits. Harrison Cole will give the first performance in Trinity College Chapel at 9.30pm on Tuesday 1 March, along with an exciting programme featuring music by Jeanne Demessieux, Claire Delbos, Jean Langlais and movements from Messiaen’s Livre d’orgue.

Of noblest cities

Following their performance of Lucis largitor in the autumn, Trinity College Chapel Choir sang another of my choral pieces, Of noblest cities on Tuesday 25th January. It’s a meditation on the Magi and their journey to Bethelehem by 4th-century poet and mystic Prudentius, beautifully translated by Victorian poet Edward Caswall. You can hear Trinity Choir’s glowing performance, conducted by Harrison Cole, here.

Light’s glorious giver

Lucis largitor is one of the oldest Christian hymns in existence – a radiant poem by Hilary of Poitiers, composed in Latin. In its awe at the natural power of the sun one can feel resonances of other, ‘pagan’ faiths. On Sunday my setting of these words, written a few years ago for unaccompanied choir, received a stunning performance from Trinity College Chapel Choir and Stephen Layton – watch it here.

Lucis largitor splendide,
cuius sereno lumine
post lapsa noctis tempora
dies refusus panditur,
Light’s glorious giver, blest with whose serene rays,
when night her measured course has run, spreads out anew the widening day
Tu verus mundi lucifer;
non is qui parvi sideris
venturae lucis nuntius
angusto fulget lumine.
Thou art the world’s true morning star; no lesser orb in distance viewed whose clear but unsufficing beam foreshows another’s plenitude
Sed toto sole clarior,
lux ipse totus et dies,
interna nostri pectoris
illuminans praecordia.
No: outshining this created sun, essential day, essential light, the inmost reaches of our hearts
thou with thy splendour makest bright.

Discovering David Jones

The extraordinary David Jones is impossible to pigeonhole, and perhaps – despite being judged one of the major figures in 20C literature by T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, no less – that’s why he remains so little known.  But already I have pigeonholed him.  He was also a powerful and original painter, with an all-embracing vision.

My own discovery of David Jones is only just beginning, and follows an inspired tip-off.  Earlier this year I mentioned to a friend a new anthem I’d been commissioned to write for St John’s College Choir.  I was impatient to get started, but couldn’t find a text that I wanted to set.  With an instrumental work, if you want to get started, you get started – or at least you try.  But a vocal piece like this there’s little point in sketching if you have absolutely no idea what the text will be; without it, you can go nowhere.

I was delighted when the friend sent me a photocopy of a single page from Jones’ long, unfinished and wonderfully strange poem The Sleeping Lord.  And it was brilliant of her to send me that particular page, too.  If by chance I had found the poem myself, I would certainly have found it fascinating and unusual, but would quickly have dismissed any idea of setting it – certainly for this anthem.  However, the passage singled out for me, while absolutely typical of the ruminating, deep-digging, long-ranging quest pursued across the poem’s 30+ pages, also encapsulates it in something that has the jewel-like precision and crystalline form of a sonnet.

At the root of this poem is the idea of Christ as somehow dwelling in the modern landscape, indeed, being the landscape, bodily – with all its scars as well as its beauty.  If you’ve read a little of the poem and have felt the way Jones identifies body and land contours so vividly, it’s almost impossible to view the picture above without seeing the same vision, though it was painted decades before the poem.

This was excitingly vivid, thought-provoking and unusual imagery to work with, and from then on writing the anthem was a great pleasure.  I look forward very much to hearing the first performance from the magnificent choir of St John’s conducted by Andrew Nethsingha, next year.

A London adventure in Leeds

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.

Exotic blooms

Pink-orchidsMy first encounter with the 8-cello group Cellophony was via their website, where I heard their amazing performance of the prelude to Tristan and Isolde.  It is so rich, so full and so completely satisfying in sonority and expression that you start to wonder what other highpoints of orchestral music ought to be arranged for cello octet.  See if you feel the same…

So I was very excited to be invited to write a piece for them for their concert in the 2015 Cambridge Summer Music Festival.  Still reeling from their Tristan recording, my thoughts floated the direction of something sensual, perfumed, exotic, and soon I had a title, Orchid.  (This was one of those times when the title and the general ‘feeling’ came before the actual music.)

The actual music followed fairly quickly and without too much struggle.  I was keen to explore the extreme delicacy and fragility of an orchid, as well as the heady scent and langorous curves.  The cello is an instrument of almost unlimited range, in terms of notes, of intensity or loudness and softness, of texture and timbre…  So it was fun to write, and I soon found that 8 cellos is enough to do almost anything – it does feel a bit like writing for an orchestra.

Cellophony play at the Cambridge Summer Festival on 1 August at 3.00pm.


Winter’s journey


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.

Out of season

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

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).