Beyond the reflection: an encounter with Yves Bonnefoy

bonnefoyphotoA friend’s gift of a book of poems by Yves Bonnefoy ended up taking hold of me for a significant part of the summer. Bonnefoy’s mysterious, elemental, almost shaman-like immersion in the presence of nature and of place is both intoxicating and (conversely) thought-sharpening. I found some of the earlier poems hard to penetrate but soon became absorbed in an amazing collection from 1976 called Dans le leurre du seuil (literally, ‘in the snare of the threshold’).

As a composer, reading poetry also involves a parallel activity, which is usually inadvertent and even unwanted – this is a kind of tasting and testing which continually tugs towards the question ‘could I set this to music?’ Very often, if I am really excited by a poem, the answer ‘No!’ quickly comes to the fore. What I’m excited about is perfectly achieved in the poem, its words, that play of sound and rhythm which is a poem’s ‘music’ and which usually has no need of, and would be destroyed by, the addition of actual music. But occasionally my experience of a wonderful poem doesn’t only centre on the poem’s own perfection but also leads outwards, conjuring a new space where something different might take shape, something inspired and shaped by the poem but artistically new and distinct. Typically this might be a song.

Something like this happened when I read the poem called ‘Deux Couleurs’ – a haunting conversation between the poet and some water he scoops in his cupped hands, and in which he sees reflections, and beyond them in its small depths a whole kingdom of new life, full of marvels. But while I quickly knew that I wanted to write music from this, I also quickly knew that it would not be a song. In fact, it almost immediately announced itself as music for flute, with piano. No doubt French music invoking water, reflections, and the conversation of the duo itself all helped to make this decision seem right and inevitable. Soon I made three further decisions, these more deliberately. The poem is in two halves, separated by a dashed line; there was already more than enough to carry me away in the first half, whose shape was itself already full and satisfying, and feeling the danger of being overwhelmed and submerged by the whole poem I decided I would work with the first half only. Second, I would ‘set’ the poem, following the play of sense and timbre and weight and depth as closely as I could, but without actually putting the words to a musical line. And as this quickly proved a vast and bewildering task I then made my third decision which was to write a series of eight short movements, each one corresponding to a verse of the poem (sometimes following line by line). To begin with I could concentrate on the movement in hand, but the further I proceeded the more I also started to think about how the eight movements would weave together and create a single span, as they do in the poem. It was an unusual way of composing for me, with both the advantage of a richly stimulating ‘source’ to respond to and the weighty obligation of the beauty and complexity of the original frequently preventing me from going off on whatever tangents had (lazily) sprung into my mind. Quite a number of draft movements made some sort of musical sense but had to be discarded because as I pursued them I realised that their link to the poem was superficial and shallow, and could not be sustained.

Some pieces come relatively smoothly, others are a struggle: this was one of the tougher struggles. But (at risk of sounding very glib!) also one of the most rewarding. I don’t have a performance of this piece in view at the moment – the idea came and there was no particular commission I could pair up with it – but I am very much looking forward to hearing this musical world brought to life. Perhaps I’m dreading it, too – it feels very intimate, and intensely associated with the magical lines of poetry that it grew out of. But when it’s performed I can’t expect everyone to have already immersed themselves in the poem before the music starts. So the piece will have to function on some level even when the poem falls away, as it will do in performance for everyone except perhaps the performers (who see the lines written out throughout the score). I won’t give the audience the whole poem, because reading it is demanding of concentration and time, and they would miss the piece almost entirely, and also because of the grave danger of turning the listening experience into a kind of train-spotting experience – aha, that must be the star, this is the cupped hands, etc. So at the moment it feels exciting to have finished it, but also vulnerable.

Stone and dough

Two performances coming up this Friday:

Virtuoso organist Kevin Bowyer plays a pair of organ pieces, called Dry-Stone Wall and Rising Dough, on Friday 13 June in Glasgow University. I won’t go into the titles here, as it’s all explained in the programme notes (scroll down to the end). Dry-Stone Wall has been thoroughly revised – though the basic idea is the same, the notes are quite different, and much better! – and this will be the first performance of the piece in its new (and final) version.

And on the same night, Friday 13th, The Fitzwilliam String Quartet are playing Ancient Stone at Twilight in the Late Music Festival in York: 7.30 in the Early Music Centre. They played this piece beautifully in a recent concert in Cambridge, in its version with soprano solo. Now they play it in the version for string quartet alone. This piece is incorporated as the first movement of my new three-movement String Quartet (the other movements are brand new) and the Fitzwilliams are giving the premiere of the whole thing next month in Woodstock, NY – see maverick music festival.

Fitzwilliams in America

This July the Fitzwilliam String Quartet will be giving the premiere of my new string quartet in Woodstock, New York, in the Maverick Music Festival. This is an idyllic setting for chamber music; the concert is on Sunday 27 July at 4.00 and also includes Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Full details at www.maverickconcerts.org

The new quartet incorporates one movement which has already been heard – a piece called Ancient Stone at Twilight. The Fitzes have played this quite a few times over the last few years, and gave a wonderful performance in Cambridge last month, with soprano Suzana Ograsenjek. In a version without the soprano, this piece is now the first movement of the new quartet. The other movements are entirely new and will be heard for the first time in Woodstock in July.

Swings, Roundabouts and Wind-bands

Next month the Zephyr Ensemble will be giving the premiere of a new piece for concert-band, Swings and Roundabouts, which I’ve written specially for them and their conductor, Brandon Green. Zephyr is the wind-band of the Cambridge University Musical Society, and they’ll be giving the premiere on Tuesday 17 May at 8.00 in West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge. It’s quite a zany piece! I’ll post up the programme notes soon, which explain the title.

Music by Jeremy Thurlow.

Messiaen – La Nativité / CD review

With this year being the 100th anniversary of Messiaen’s birth, there’s lot of Messiaen in the air, and one of the most interesting things I’ve been asked to do recently is present Radio 3’s CD Review ‘Building a Library’ feature on the first and (in my opinion) the greatest of Messiaen’s organ cycles, La Nativité de notre Seigneur. The programme will be broadcast on Saturday 31st May, and can also be heard on the Radio 3 website for the following week, using ‘Listen Again’.

Un-sticking the wheels

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.