My 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.
Wheels within wheels is the second piece I’ve been commissioned to write for cello and piano duo Oliver Gledhill and David Christophersen (the first was When the Magus reads the Night Sky, which they premiered in 2003). It picks up an idea I started on a couple of years ago, where the different instruments trace melodies which turn and return on various different levels, at different rates, all the time, like some kind of musical planetary system (to be precise, like the system of ‘epicycles’ put forward by Ptolemy, which assumes Earth to be at the centre, and accounts for the planet’s complex pathways with remarkable accuracy. See a demonstration of how it works on youtube, or try Ptolemy meets Homer Simpson).
It’s an inspiring idea, but difficult to realise without getting tied into cycles and schemes which can go stale when you’re halfway through them. After a promising start two years ago I got thoroughly stuck, and put the piece away. The request from David Christophersen prompted me to get the piece out again. It took a while to disentangle the threads and to find a way forward that wouldn’t lead back into the same dead ends that I’d been staring at before, but in the end I found another direction to go in, and from then on things went with a swing. The piece is largely serene, but runs into a very sombre ending which was not at all what I was expecting; when it came to it, the turn towards darkness suddenly seemed necessary and unavoidable. The first performance will be on February 25 in West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge.