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…

A hybrid creature

 I’ve been thinking about how architects often have to work among the half-surviving remnants of much older buildings; they leave them visible, but what they fit into the spaces left in between is completely new and usually totally different in every way, even if it ‘harmonises’ with the old remnants.  Many wonderful new buildings have come about in this way, including the place in the photo below – Château Barrière.


I wondered about building a new piece like this.  I think I was prompted by the experience of taking part in a rehearsal for a Beethoven piano concerto back in February: the first orchestral rehearsal, before the pianist arrived.  It was fascinating in the solo sections to hear all these empty spaces, clearly defined and laid out by little orchestral prompts, but essentially empty, waiting for music to fill them – and also fascinating how every now and then a tutti section would arrive and the music would spring to life fully formed for maybe 20 seconds, and then become an empty shell again.  
From there I got the idea to take a Mozart piano concerto, strip out the piano part completely, but leave in the strings, whose parts are enough to define both the tutti sections and the bare framework that shapes the solo sections.  I quickly decided not to mess with the great, famous concertos, and go back to one of the early ones where it’s much easier to play around, try new things – and settled on no. 1.  Written when he was 11, it was perfect for what I needed – a distillation of typical classical manouevres and clichés, with odd glimpses of later genius but plenty of room for other ideas too.  In my new piece the strings play 100% original boy-Mozart (some of this material, in fact, he borrowed from other composers of the time).  I’ve written a completely new, not-at-all-classical, solo piano part and new non-classical wind parts, using a typical 18C orchestra.  The result is a three-movement concerto lasting about 16 minutes, built around and on top of the Mozart, which is always there in the background and occasionally bursts into the centre stage.  

By way of the roof

In the early stages of composing a piece for the wonderful cellist Tim Gill and pianist-composer David Gompper I chanced across a book of verses by the mystical Sufi poet Rumi (13th C). Among the many beautiful images I found there I was especially drawn to these lines 

If the doors of repose have been barred to you,

Come, let us go 

By way of the roof and the ladder

and was attracted by the restless compulsion to move on, to escape, regardless of obstacles and prohibitions, and the unexpected pathways opened up.

I think of the cellist here as a mystic, continually chasing after a state of exultation, following where body and spirit lead, through dance, song and ecstatic prayer.

By way of the roof is dedicated to my good friend Harold Meltzer. Tim Gill and David Gompper will give the first performance at the University of Iowa, on November 20th, and then bring it to Cambridge UK for a concert on December 5th, also featuring music by Tom Ades, Richard Causton, Zoe Martlew and David Gompper.

upcoming concerts

I’ve just heard that Symphonova’s concert on January 20th, including the premiere of my new concerto for Abigail Dolan Upon height, upon hollow, has now sold out.  It’s great to be playing to a packed hall.  Sorry to anyone hoping to come who hadn’t got their ticket yet – a return concert later in the year is a real possibility, so watch this space.

Meanwhile, I will be accompanying the wonderful mezzo Lucy Taylor in Schubert’s Winterreise in Clare Hall on February 10th at 4.00.  This is a huge adventure, inspiring and compelling (and a little intimidating too!).  Seats can be reserved by emailing music@clarehall.cam.ac.uk

The following week Stephen Romer’s words will lie at the heart of an interesting concert in Trinity College Chapel.  Six singers perform two settings of Romer’s verse – my Over the frost, and a new work by Piers Kennedy – together with pathbreaking, passionate, but rarely heard madrigals by Monteverdi. Trinity College Chapel, February 17th, 8pm.  http://www.tcms.org.uk/

And I’m delighted to have a slightly older piece, Ultradian rhythms, revived in a concert of new student works on February 28th.   Pulse and a kind of unspoken drama of confrontation and seduction animates the music of groups of woodwinds on opposite sides of the stage.   9.30pm, Robinson College Chapel, February 28th.   Free admission.

 

spirit of the air

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

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.

Wine, women, fighting and song

Two glimpses of John Keats, described by his friends:

‘He was called by his fellow students ‘little Keats,’ being at his full growth no more than five feet high. . . In a room, he was always at the window, peering into space.’

‘Keats was in childhood not attached to books. His penchant was for fighting. He would fight any one–morning, noon, and night, his brother among the rest. It was meat and drink to him.’

My new concerto for bassoon with strings is a character portrait of this man. Yes, it’s an eccentric plan. Keats didn’t play the bassoon, but there’s an account of him imitating one at a drunken party when he and his friends decided to make an impromptu ‘orchestra’, each acting out a chosen instrument at the top of their voices, all at the same time. John Cage would surely have loved it.

There are so many fascinating sides to Keats; my piece explores different strands of his character in seven (mostly brief) movements. He was wonderful company: ebullient, charming, lively, good-looking; he could be the life and soul of the party, as we hear in the first movement. Following this, A living orrery imagines him in his schooldays, gradually learning to discover meaning and beauty and exhilaration in almost everything, from science to politics to literature. His school was an inspiringly enlightened and imaginative place, and the music borrows its plan from a monthly lesson where the boys were taken out into the garden to enact for themselves the orbits of the planets around the sun. The third movement evokes Keats’ romantic yearnings for the love of his short life, Fanny Brawne (who may be familiar from the film ‘Bright Star’).

Keats spent several years training as a surgeon – after qualifying, he gave it up for poetry – and in the fourth movement we glimpse him assisting at the operating table. Then follows the zany and drunken ‘concert’ mentioned above. Keats also suffered from bouts of deep melancholy – in today’s language, depression, perhaps – which takes grip in the sixth movement. Poetry was an urgent calling for Keats – throughout his life he refused to let distractions and disasters keep him from his work because he knew he had something unique, inspiring and important to say. So the seventh and final movement ends the portrait on a visionary note.  Blithe Wine is dedicated to Robert McFall and Peter Whelan, who will be giving the piece its premiere at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, before taking it on tour.