Posts Tagged ‘soprano’


Quiet Songs

November 2, 2014

I’ve been writing some songs for the Hermes Experiment – who have been making some very interesting music with their unusual combination of soprano, clarinet, double bass and harp, and their imaginative and open-minded programmes. It was a hard combination to write for, at first; in particular, it took a while to find a way to integrate the bass into the overall sonority. Uncertainty about what words I would set added to the confusion, too, as I dabbled tentatively with various different texts.  ncOP5e8In the end I found things took off the quieter I got, the more I explored delicate, translucent sounds. And finding that delicacy, a kind of musical water-colour, coincided with trying to set a wonderful little poem by Yves Bonnefoy.  Once I had sketched out this song I felt that the character of the music was coming into focus.  But I also felt that the song was too little and fragile on its own, and it needed to be part of a little group.  In the end I found two other short poems from the same collection, and in ways that I couldn’t predict, even after I had chosen the poems, the other two songs found quite different ways to compliment the mood of the one I wrote first (which ended up going second).

I’ve mentioned Bonnefoy before, a couple of years ago, when I discovered a long, searching poem which wouldn’t let me go, and I ended up writing a ‘setting’ of it, but just for instruments (flute and piano).  The music was very closely entangled with the words, line by line, but there was no singing or even speaking so the poetry remained ‘invisible’, but there was no singing (or even speaking) so the poetry remained ‘invisible’, unheard, even while it shaped the music at every moment.

rain_mediumThese new songs felt very different from that.  The three short poems date from nearly thirty years later, and are both modest and breathtaking in the way they evoke the trace of touch and thought through the slightest and most innocuous of impressions.  The instruments were all different, now (and therefore, the basic texture of the music, too) but even more importantly, the words here are actually sung, literally present in the performance of the music.  -Which is normal when poetry is set to music, but after working with Bonnefoy’s poetry as a kind of unspoken spirit, hearing it sung out loud felt strangely vivid and unexpectedly larger than life. Last week I heard a rehearsal, and it was fascinating hearing both the sounds and the words take on a real ‘live’ presence.  I’m very much looking forward to the premiere, in Limewharf, London, on November 15, where there will also be new pieces by Giles Swayne, Kim Ashton and Aleksandr Brusentsev. [ see Sound and Music blog ] 


Sometimes mysteriously

August 19, 2014

This is the title of a free-verse poem by the poet Luis Omar Salinas, and it’s also the title of a new setting of the poem I wrote last week.  It seemed like a good title for this post, because while the decision to compose the next piece can be well planned – often a response to a commission, or an aim that has taken shape over a long time ( and ideally both of these things at the same time!) – there are also times between bigger projects when I cast around for an idea and try out things almost at random, on a whim.  Very often they don’t take off, and I don’t mind if they don’t: they still serve as a way of shuffling my ideas and impressions and turning over the soil, so to speak.  But occasionally, they take hold and make me keep going til they’re done.  Sometimes, mysteriously.  That’s what happened with the poem by Salinas, who is often called the leading figure of Chicano poetry (Mexican-American).

Luis_Omar_Salinas_PictureIt felt a bit like a tight-rope walk, because I wrote it for solo soprano, and almost immediately I started to feel the lack of other singers or instruments: the lack of big textures, harmonies, counterpoint, contrasts of timbre, none of which were available here, except through suggestion and subtlety. The poem itself sets out like a kind of intimate confession, vulnerable and bare, so the challenges and limitations of the one-voice medium felt appropriate.  And in keeping with this I kept the musical ideas extremely simple, not so far away from when someone hums a tune to themselves.  I’ve used the musical structure to lengthen and exaggerate this tight-rope until it ended up 10 minutes long – a long time for one performer to hold the audience alone on stage.  But that intimate, sustained communication on a personal level is very much what the piece is about.  There’d be absolutely no point in playing this piece through on a piano: if it has any interest or power it will be when a singer performs it, takes on the persona that the words gradually unveil and takes an audience with them all the way across the tight-rope.