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.

SONG – new album from the hermes experiment

Following the brilliant success of their first album Here we are, the Hermes Experiment are now following up with SONG, a typically original, delightful and surprising selection of brand new music. I’m delighted that it includes my Quiet Songs, settings of tiny, exquisite poems by the wonderful French poet Yves Bonnefoy.

Song will be released by Delphian Records on 22 October.


The first programme of Strings in the Earth and Air was filmed in July by the Echéa Quartet. It was a thrilling programme including new music by John Woolrich, Louise Drewitt, Harrison Birtwistle, Freya Waley Cohen, Eleanor Alberga and myself.

The whole programme will be released on Youtube later this year. In the meantime, here’s my piece, Understory, receiving its first performance. The main idea was originally sketched out for a solo singer, in a piece inspired by a poem by Luis Omar Salinas. I was pleased to discover the word ‘understory’ halfway through writing the piece. An understory is a lower layer, covered over, close to the ground; it also suggests a story, probably a private, personal one, and there’s a hint of ‘underdog’ too.

Strings in the Earth and Air

Strings in the Earth and Air is a festival of brilliant young string quartets from the UK, and a celebration of new music composed for string quartet. Curated by John Woolrich, Jeremy Thurlow and Tim Watts, it features music by a kaleidoscope of composers from the brilliant and pioneering Ruth Crawford-Seeger to living minotaur Harrison Birtwistle, from Freya Waley-Cohen to Philip Cashian and from Louise Drewitt to Eleanor Alberga.

We’re thrilled to present the Echéa Quartet, the Ligeti Quartet and the Benyounes Quartet in three artfully shaped programmes full of power, intimacy and surprise. Two threads run through the whole series: Woolrich’s recent ‘Book of Inventions’, and the music of Harrison Birtwistle.

My own contributions are two very different pieces. First, my response to the searching, teasing exploration of character and aliveness in Virginia Woolf’s amazing Orlando, in the form of a quartet in six strongly contrasted snapshots – Memory is the seamstress.

Second, a new piece, Understory, a song of forgotten places and marginal voices, written for the Echéa Quartet and receiving its first performance.

Originally these programmes were planned as concerts, but after postponing twice due to Covid regulations we’ve decided to film them and then release them online later in the summer. Watch this space!

Virginia Woolf’s Ring

The opening of Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves feels suspended, unreal. After a mysterious sunrise, there follows a series of incantations. We feel that a spell is being cast, processes are being set in motion. In 2018 I set these incantations to music, writing very simply for choir with piano. While the piano creates a circling, always-returning wave-like motion, the choir sings Woolf’s phrases whose verbal rhythm ‘breaks’ and ‘tumbles’ across this regularity. (She wrote of her rhythms breaking and tumbling in the mind, in a letter to Vita Sackville-West).

The phrases are sometimes descriptive and sometimes symbolic. Many of the symbolic ones are almost certainly echoing, and radically reimagining, tropes from Wagner’s Ring cycle. Perhaps it’s good that I was unaware of this when I wrote my piece, because the sound-world I was aiming for was pale and understated, very far from Wagner’s rich and powerful brew.

I see a ring was written for the Tsuru University Chorus and first sung by them in Tokyo in November 2018. And I’m delighted that a recording of the piece by Cambridge-based vocal consort King Henry’s VIII will be broadcast on Radio 3 in the Breakfast Show with Petroc Trelawney on Friday 16th April. (And after Friday morning it can be heard on BBC Sounds).

Following this, Riding the Waves on Sunday 18th at 6.45pm, also on Radio 3, is a fascinating exploration of how Woolf’s writing and thought continues to touch and inspire artists today.

I see a ring, hanging above me…

I see a ring is my third musical entanglement with Woolf’s words, and in its simple lyricism it’s quite different from my two earlier Woolf-based pieces, A London street in winter (voice and piano) and Memory is the Seamstress (string quartet), where I responded to the restless polyphony of her thought with music more changeable and kaleidoscopic. (See the fascinating series of concerts, talks and films organised by Woolf & Music, who commissioned both these pieces.) Memory is the seamstress will be played by the Ligeti Quartet in the upcoming Strings in the Earth and Air – an online festival of young string quartets, to be launched in the late summer. (More on that later….)

Designing the voice-box

Voice box is a fascinating project, a collaboration between a poet (Ollie Evans), a singer (Sarah Maria Sun), a composer (myself), as well as thinkers, sound engineers and IT researchers from Harvard, Amsterdam, Cambridge and elsewhere, all coaxed and coordinated by Lea Luka Sikau.

I’ll write more on this anon – it’s developing week by week. Right now, if I had to give a quick sketch, I’d say –

You go into an antechamber, a Zwischenraum. An unseen voice asks for a sample of your own voice, which you give. You proceed to a larger room, where you hear singing, two voices. The words are dense, teasing, addictive. In the music, you hear the speaking voice sing. As you move around the space you discover that your movements affect the quality, the ‘personality’ of the first voice. The voice is in flux: it changes in depth, in timbre, even, it seems, in gender, and this is in direct response to you, and how you move.

To be continued…