Posts Tagged ‘news’


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.


Discovering David Jones

August 12, 2017

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

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.


Exotic blooms

July 6, 2015

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

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.


time out

January 1, 2015

I’d like to thank readers for their patience; these posts become very intermittent between January 2015 and May 2016 (because of health difficulties with my eyes during this period).  I am retrospectively adding a couple more posts (backdated) to document some of what I composed during that time, and aim to resume normal service from June 2016.


Out of season

December 23, 2014

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.