SONG – new album from the hermes experiment

Following the brilliant success of their first album Here we are, the Hermes Experiment are now following up with SONG, a typically original, delightful and surprising selection of brand new music. I’m delighted that it includes my Quiet Songs, settings of tiny, exquisite poems by the wonderful French poet Yves Bonnefoy.

Song will be released by Delphian Records on 22 October.

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.

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.

Winter’s journey

cill-rialaig

eternity / is the sea / with the sun / gone away

Stephen Romer’s poem Collects for Lent is an intense and searching meditation.  Images of wintry rivers, grey seas, monastic ritual, birds and signs of the year’s natural cycle are sketched in tiny phrases that are as pithy and dense as they are simple, and drawn together in a chronicle of pondering, mourning, endurance, ending with a glimpse of possible rebirth.

Setting these words to music was a wholly positive experience; despite the darkness of the text and the suffering from which it springs, I found it a source of energy, direction and clarity.

The full score was completed and sent off to the performers – the French vocal group Vox’Sing, together with two fine instrumentalists from the Tours Conservatoire – at the end of January.  Both Stephen and I coached them in the pronunciation and the poetic import of the words, and after an intense period of rehearsal they gave a wonderful first performance in a beautiful restored Grange in the countryside outside Tours.  In an earlier concert violinist Liza Kerob played In a quiet room with a poise and depth of feeling that was very moving.  I am sure these will prove to be the first of many happy collaborations.

On the joy and anguish of titles

In my book titles are a good thing. I mean titles offering some specific, memorable, poetic or visual image. Whenever I can, I like to give a piece this kind of title: it can be a valuable catalyst for the listener’s imagination. Occasionally, the phrase or image of the title was actually my own starting point when I wrote the piece: I found the phrase or image and decided that I would try to write a piece in response to it. More often what happens is that I start writing a piece, gradually its musical character coalesces, and then, either part-way into the process or sometimes right at the end when it’s finished, I think of a title that feels apt and helps to crystallize some aspect of what I’m doing.

fern unfurlingBut what I’m doing remains, ultimately, a musical thing. The title may help to fire a listener’s imagination, but what that imagination really works with is the experience of listening to the music. If the imagination works with that experience in a direction entirely different from what the title seemed to suggest, that’s fine. And sometimes the axis of musical ideas, relations and sensations of a given piece doesn’t suggest to me any particular image or phrase, so I reach for a generic title, which might situate the piece within the particular history and expectations of a genre – Nocturne, Fantasia – or merely delineates the ensemble it is written for – Trio.
The piece I wrote last month is one of these. It is a Piano Trio – for violin, cello and piano – and I wrote it for two musicians with whom I’ll be giving the first performance in Valenciennes, France later this month. Perhaps the preceding paragraph suggests that it’s completely abstract, but it’s not really. I can find words which hint at what the piece seems to mean to me, but they’re not words that I’ve been able to develop into a convincing title.

I started with an idea, or perhaps a gesture might be a better way to describe it. For a while this gesture repeats, unfurls, expands, before quite soon leading to something quite different, which has a definitive, summarising, conclusive quality. It does not unfurl, it asserts and stops, and that left me, only one minute into the piece, in an odd place. From the beginning up to this point the flow of events seemed right, necessary, but the place this led me was one which for a long time I could not escape. Or rather, I could escape – I wrote one draft of the following section quite quickly, at some length, and then another, quite different – but in both cases, I found that having escaped I could find nowhere compelling or worthwhile to go next; all the escape routes seemed to run into the sand. It took quite a while of being stuck before I found a way out that seemed to pick up the narrative energy of the piece and tempt me (and the listener too, I hope) to go on. (In the end it turned out to be a version of the second of my two failed escape routes, whose beginning I had always liked – it was the continuation which proved tricky.) The continuation works with the new idea (the ‘escape’) for some long time before eventually arriving at back the opening gesture, changed of course by its new context. And from there on all three of the main ideas continue to reappear, with an increasing sense of ‘unfurling’, opening out.

All this could be applied quite precisely to my trio, although I admit that in a general way it could probably be applied to thousands of other pieces of music, too! So the ideas that I would have liked to encapsulate in a title included the idea of unfurling, but also of leaving something alone and chancing upon it later, and and finding that it has unfurled in the meantime, without our being aware of it. And also, the feelings of implication and causality that can so quickly spring up between two or three initially quite unrelated ideas, and the endless possibilities of play that they offer. You can see how I failed to find a short phrase that would hint at all this.

Often, when looking for a title, I leaf through poetry, and look at paintings and pictures. When I had finished this trio I read through some poems by John Burnside, a favourite poet of mine, whose language is so clear and translucent, and yet finds an extraordinary weight in the simplest things. And I did find something that seemed relevant in a way – the opening line of the wonderful poem Koi, and in fact, the first line of the whole book: ‘The trick is to create a world from nothing.’ This is a lovely poetic encapsulation of both the idea of unfurling, and of the endless possible relations that can be teased out between two or three simple ideas. But it seemed too grandiose to take as either a title or an epigram for the trio – to create a world: one can claim that of the Ring cycle, of a Mahler symphony, but the unfurling in my trio, all 8 minutes of it, is rather more modest.

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.