Posts Tagged ‘organ’

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Ceci n’est pas une pipe

March 19, 2014

Trahison-des-imagesA little while ago I was asked to write a new piece for organ with live electronics.  I’ve written for electronics before in pieces such as A Sudden Cartography of Song, the Magnificat for St Catharine’s College and Ouija.  But all the electro-acoustic tracks in these pieces are prepared and assembled in advance; the live processing in this organ piece will be something new for me.  It’s something I used to feel wary of, ever since seeing an excellent performance of a new piece by Philippe Manoury performed by a team from IRCAM, the state-of-the-art research institute in Paris blessed with fabulous resources and almost unlimited funding.  Even they ran into a glitch a few minutes into the piece, had to stop the performance while their boffins emerged blinking into the daylight and tapped away at computer keyboards for 10 minutes or so, before going back to the beginning and starting again.  (As I say, once we’d got past that, it was excellent!)  This was a few years ago, and at that time live processing had a justified reputation for running a very high risk of things going wrong. But of course technology has raced on, even in the few years since then, and everyone advises me that there’s no longer any great need to worry.

It’s important to me that if the sound transformation is live, it should sound like it’s live.  That may seem obvious, but to be honest, quite often, it’s not at all obvious to a listener that it’s live – similar effects could perfectly well be produced by preparing the electro-acoustic element in advance.  Telling the audience that the sounds are generated in real time raises expectations of a kind of flexibility, spontaneity and in-the-moment drama, but even when these qualities are felt in what you hear, it’s also the case that a well thought out system of cueing prepared material can achieve an equally spontaneous, dramatic, responsive.

I’m only starting to develop my ideas for this piece, but I think incorporating some very free, improvisatory rhythms and shapes into the live organ part, and then making them determine the shape of whatever is transformed electronically – in an audibly similar way – will probably be crucial to making the ‘liveness’ as immediate as possible.

I needed a title, and was thinking of how electro-acoustic treatments of live performance can have (often in a good way) a feeling of the magic trick or the illuisionist about them.  By chance I had been talking with a friend a few days earlier, about Magritte’s famous picture La trahison des images (The treachery of Images), better known by the words written at the bottom of the picture – This is not a pipe.  The aim of my new piece is that it should be full of intriguingly, ‘magically’ impossible transformations of familiar pipe-sounds, but that it will also be very upfront, unmysterious, about what it’s doing. If a little of Magritte’s mischievous sense of humour rubs off on us too, so much the better…

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Alien visitation

November 14, 2012

Last year, after putting it off for quite a while, I finally faced up to words which are incredibly familiar to anyone who’s sung in an English church or chapel choir – the Magnificat – as I said in my post about it, they were so familiar and so inextricably associated with the musical settings they’re sung to, that it took considerable time and effort to leave all that behind and find a way to approach the words afresh.

girl sky angelAnd now I’m setting them again, but this time I have something completely different in mind from the rather austere, timeless ritual quality which I tried to evoke in my first setting, which gave the words to the whole choir (men and women) all together, so that they were taken up as if by a whole community, joining together to enact a ritual as one.  This time I wanted to concentrate on the more personal and particular aspect of the scene – a young girl, alone, suddenly visited by something supernatural, inexplicable, indescribable.

I’m writing my new setting for the choir of girls’ voices at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge – which is made up of girls between the ages of about 7 to 16.  I can be fairly sure that the music will be different from a traditional Anglican setting because I am basing it around an electro-acoustic tape part created from the sounds of girls’ and women’s voices raised in laughter, shouts and song.  The actual girls of the choir sing in unison, strongly, with a kind of fierce joy, and their voices and the organ are immersed in the swirl of sound from the tape.

The choir will give the first performance in their final Luminaria (a beautiful service of based on one of the old monastic rites) of this term, on November 27th at 6.30, conducted by Edward Wickham.

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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)

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Stone and dough

June 8, 2008

Two performances coming up this Friday:

Virtuoso organist Kevin Bowyer plays a pair of organ pieces, called Dry-Stone Wall and Rising Dough, on Friday 13 June in Glasgow University. I won’t go into the titles here, as it’s all explained in the programme notes (scroll down to the end). Dry-Stone Wall has been thoroughly revised – though the basic idea is the same, the notes are quite different, and much better! – and this will be the first performance of the piece in its new (and final) version.

And on the same night, Friday 13th, The Fitzwilliam String Quartet are playing Ancient Stone at Twilight in the Late Music Festival in York: 7.30 in the Early Music Centre. They played this piece beautifully in a recent concert in Cambridge, in its version with soprano solo. Now they play it in the version for string quartet alone. This piece is incorporated as the first movement of my new three-movement String Quartet (the other movements are brand new) and the Fitzwilliams are giving the premiere of the whole thing next month in Woodstock, NY – see maverick music festival.

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Messiaen – La Nativité / CD review

March 21, 2008

With this year being the 100th anniversary of Messiaen’s birth, there’s lot of Messiaen in the air, and one of the most interesting things I’ve been asked to do recently is present Radio 3’s CD Review ‘Building a Library’ feature on the first and (in my opinion) the greatest of Messiaen’s organ cycles, La Nativité de notre Seigneur. The programme will be broadcast on Saturday 31st May, and can also be heard on the Radio 3 website for the following week, using ‘Listen Again’.