Last October I found the idea for a new violin piece, reading a book by Robert Macfarlane called The Wild Places. The book tells of his own personal attempt to get close to the wild, to feel it, think about its history and its value and the various ways in which we have related to it through human history.
At one point he writes about an ancient tradition called shan-shui: these artists, living in the mountains of China admired and revered the unconfined energy of the wild, its continuous coming-into-being. To this quality of aliveness they gave the name zi-ran, which might be translated as ‘wildness’, ‘self-thusness’ or ‘self-ablazeness’.
I was thrilled to discover this idea and make it the focal point of my new piece. At the same time, with the busy-ness of termtime and then a bout of illness around Christmas, it was a long time before I managed to make any real start on it. No doubt at some level ideas were brewing at the back of my mind, but they were far from being specific musical ideas, just some vague sense of what the whole thing ought to feel like. As time passes, the fact that it feels like a very powerful, inspiring idea also starts to become a pressure: if you’re going to tackle an idea like this then you have to come up with something worthy of it… Finally, in early March I was able to make a start, and (luckily, and quite unusually) once I’d got going the piece flowed with remarkably little hesitation. I’ve now had the pleasure of hearing Peter Sheppard Skaerved and Roderick Chadwick, the violinist and pianist for whom I wrote it, give a truly barnstorming first read-through, which was very exciting. I’ve rewritten just one part, where I felt the music slightly lost track of the central idea, and am now looking forward very much to the premiere on Sunday 27 April in Kettles Yard.
I’ve been reading Robert Macfarlane’s fascinating book The Wild Places, which is both a meditation on the meaning, value and history of the wild, and a search to find the few remaining truly wild, untamed places in Britain.
I was especially struck by one passage:
“There is a history that tells of wildness as an energy both exemplary and exquisite. … Such a love for the wild can be found in the Chinese artistic tradition known as shan-sui or ‘rivers-and-mountains’.
Shan-shui originated in the early fifth century BC and endured for two thousand years. Its practitioners lived in the mountain lands of China, and wrote about the wild world around them. Their art sought to articulate the wondrous processes of the world, its continuous coming-into-being. To this quality of aliveness the shan-shui artists gave the name zi-ran, which might be translated as ‘self-ablazeness’, ‘self-thusness’ or ‘wildness’.”
And: “the wild proceeds according to its own laws and principles … acts or moves freely without restraint, … is unconfined, unrestricted.”
At the same time that I was reading this I was starting to think about a new piece I’ve been asked to write for Peter Sheppard Skaerved, the extraordinary violinist who has given a whole series of amazing performances of Ouija since I wrote it for him last year. And immediately I read this I knew I had found a starting point. Not yet a musical idea, but an idea nonetheless, a vivid and powerful one.
The new piece will be called Self-ablaze. The concert is at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, next April (27th), and will be given by Peter with Roderick Chadwick on piano (who played piano in the first performances of my flute-and-piano piece Plus avant que l’étoile, beautifully), so my new piece will be in very good hands!
It was a huge honour to welcome the great French poet Yves Bonnefoy to Robinson College, Cambridge, last week, to give a reading of his poetry and to hear a concert of music inspired by poetry. Bonnefoy is unquestionably a major figure in poetry worldwide and his reading drew enthusiasts from far and wide. He read with extraordinary straightforwardness and simplicity, and within this there was a striking dignity and solidity to his words.
Last year I wrote a piece closely based on one of Bonnefoy’s poems. At the time I owned a book of his but had no expectation of ever meeting him nor of his ever hearing my piece. But, through a chain of extraordinarily lucky chances, I ended up putting on this concert in which my piece was given its second performance in front of the poet, alongside other music based closely on specific poems, and with the poem in question read immediately before the music. (This was a fun programme to devise – Richard Causton’s Sleep (based on Seferis); Debussy’s Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air (Baudelaire); Machaut/JT: Virelai ‘Dame, vostre doulze viaire’; Cheryl-Frances Hoad’s Bouleumeta (Euripides); Dutilleux’s De l’ombre et de silence (no poem for this one, but it was perfect at this point in the programme) and finally my piece Plus avant que l’étoile, based on Bonnefoy’s poem Deux Couleurs.) These pieces were beautifully played by Sara Minelli and Roderick Chadwick.
M. Bonnefoy was extraordinarily receptive and generous towards the music, and wrote an appreciation of my piece which I shall treasure. I was lucky to spend much of the following weekend with him, which was full of warmth and lively conversation. He has suggested that we take a similar programme of poems and music to perform at Tours next year; it would be wonderful to be revisit and continue what was a truly magical weekend.