Exotic blooms

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…   http://cellophony.net/

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.

 

Two steeples and a trio

As you approach the village where I live, just north of Cambridge at the edge of the fens, there’s a moment when you see two church steeples straight ahead in the distance. In fact, one of them is in my village and the other in a different village a couple of miles further away, but the flat fen landscape undoes any sense of perspective and it looks as though they simply stand side by side. As you continue up the road, the two spires slide smoothly towards each other, closer and closer, til they touch, and then with a silent ‘snap’ become identical, a single spire, crisp and clear. Then the image begins to blur again, and slowly the two steeples separate and slide apart. It’s a simple effect, easily explained, but magical when it first catches you, unawares, and still magical if, as I sometimes do, you deliberately slow down and look out for it. The exact point of union is a moment of freedom, of suspension; you don’t breathe. You’re poised on a perfect straight line running through the two steeples, and for as long as you balance on that tightrope gravity has no hold.

distant-spires-suzette-broadNot long ago I was trying to get going on a new Piano Trio (strangely, my second this year, though I’ve never written one before in my life but have often thought of doing so).  As with the violin piece Ouija which I wrote last year, the commission challenges me to find some way of drawing out improvisations from the players, within the composed design of the piece.  But it’s different from Ouija, partly because I’m determined to approach the problem in as different a way as possible so that I don’t repeat myself, and partly because the challenge is different – in Ouija there was one solo performer improvising, and my means of shaping and guiding the player were both the score and the electro-acoustic tape part (which is a powerful way of guiding certain kinds of musical direction without words, almost subliminally) .  Here in the trio there are no electronics, so everything must be prompted by the score.  (Of course, it’s also shaped by our work together in rehearsal, and this will affect the resulting piece significantly.  But in the end, I’d like it to be possible for sympathetic performers to realise the piece in their own way from the score alone, in my absence.)  The other important difference is that now there are three performers, so the relations between soloist and tape in Ouija, complex as they are, start to seem simple by comparison with the three-way interactions between three musicians all thinking, reading, listening and playing together in real time. I had got stuck on how to ‘compose’ improvisation with Ouija before I eventually solved it, and I got stuck again trying to find a different answer to the problem with this piece.

Eventually I realised that the steeples were what I was looking for.  I began with fully composed material which reflects a scene at subtly shifting points of perspective, perhaps a little like Monet’s serial studies of rocks or haystacks, or Rouen Cathedral.  But then the piece slides into a moment of ‘eclipse’, and one of the players finds themselves free and weightless, improvising.  After this I abandon any literal idea of steeples but retain the idea that double images in shifting perspectives move at various important moments into synchronicity and coincidence, and when they do, someone is freed to hover, suspended, in improvisation. When I first saw the spires I was vaguely aware of but hadn’t actually read a well-known passage in Proust’s novel Swann’s Way where Marcel sees two spires shifting and glinting, suddenly joined by a third. Unlike my fenland spires they don’t touch, but even in their slow hovering dance Proust finds a kind of awakening, an epiphany.

25My trio, Steeples Eclipse, was given a marvellous first performance by Tom Poster, Tom Hankey and Guy Johnston of the Aronowitz Ensemble a few days ago, in the Cambridge Summer Music Festival.  It was fascinating working with these three fantastic players on it, hearing the improvisations take shape, and trying to find the right balance between explaining the kind of thing I envisaged, while leaving them as much room as possible to do it their way, and make it their own.  The performance was wonderfully intense and I was delighted by the way that the composed parts led seamlessly into the improvisations and the conviction and spirit with which these were brought to life.  I look forward very much to hearing the same group give a second performance in Oxford in the autumn (date tbc) and after that, in London.

Ouija, Celadon, Messiaen, Magnificat, Slow Tide II

This is a quick news post with dates of some upcoming performances:

First up, Celadon will be played in two concerts given by the distinguished Korean musicians Kyung Sung Cho, Hyo Young Kim and Seungmi Suh during their visit to Cambridge this month – at 5.30pm on Wednesday 25 April in the Recital Room, University Faculty of Music (West Rd), and on Saturday April 28 at 5.00pm in Robinson College Chapel.

Next, I’m writing and presenting a programme in BBC Radio 3’s long-running Saturday morning series Building a Library on Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie; it’ll be broadcast on Saturday May 26th at about 9.30am.

Ouija will receive its first performance at 8pm on May 23 in Sidney Sussex Chapel, in a recital by Peter Sheppard Skaerved which also includes the premiere of Sonata Sospesa by Poul Ruders, and Bach’s G minor sonata and D minor Partita.  Full details and tickets available from Cambridge Summer Music Festival.  This is the piece conceived as a kind of séance, in which the violinist seeks to communicate with unseen spirits (see two earlier posts here and here).  Sidney Sussex Chapel will be a wonderfully atmospheric setting.

There will be further performances of Ouija at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford on November 2nd, and in London (details still tbc).

Later that week Gonville & Caius Choir, with senior organ scholar Annie Lydford and their director Geoffrey Webber, will give the second performance of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis I wrote for them (the Caius Service) – this is on Sunday 27 May at 6pm in Gonville and Caius Chapel.

And in June I will be giving a concert in Bonn, which includes performances of a newly revised version of A Sense of Touch (originally for four pianos: here in its alternative version for two pianos and tape) and the first performance of Slow Tide II.  This is a rethinking of the music of Slow Tide, a piece for two pianos and two percussionists, keeping most of the harmonic and melodic material, but radically rethinking the sonority and texture, and recasting the piece for piano, MIDI keyboard and tape.  The sounds of the MIDI keyboard and the tape are being realised by Jo Snape in The Hague.  The programme will also include more of my piano music.   This is on Tuesday June 12th in the Schumannhaus, Bonn, with the support of the Institut Français.

[Image: Celadon ceramic art, Korea]