Discovering David Jones

The extraordinary David Jones is impossible to pigeonhole, and perhaps – despite being judged one of the major figures in 20C literature by T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, no less – that’s why he remains so little known.  But already I have pigeonholed him.  He was also a powerful and original painter, with an all-embracing vision.

My own discovery of David Jones is only just beginning, and follows an inspired tip-off.  Earlier this year I mentioned to a friend a new anthem I’d been commissioned to write for St John’s College Choir.  I was impatient to get started, but couldn’t find a text that I wanted to set.  With an instrumental work, if you want to get started, you get started – or at least you try.  But a vocal piece like this there’s little point in sketching if you have absolutely no idea what the text will be; without it, you can go nowhere.

I was delighted when the friend sent me a photocopy of a single page from Jones’ long, unfinished and wonderfully strange poem The Sleeping Lord.  And it was brilliant of her to send me that particular page, too.  If by chance I had found the poem myself, I would certainly have found it fascinating and unusual, but would quickly have dismissed any idea of setting it – certainly for this anthem.  However, the passage singled out for me, while absolutely typical of the ruminating, deep-digging, long-ranging quest pursued across the poem’s 30+ pages, also encapsulates it in something that has the jewel-like precision and crystalline form of a sonnet.

At the root of this poem is the idea of Christ as somehow dwelling in the modern landscape, indeed, being the landscape, bodily – with all its scars as well as its beauty.  If you’ve read a little of the poem and have felt the way Jones identifies body and land contours so vividly, it’s almost impossible to view the picture above without seeing the same vision, though it was painted decades before the poem.

This was excitingly vivid, thought-provoking and unusual imagery to work with, and from then on writing the anthem was a great pleasure.  I look forward very much to hearing the first performance from the magnificent choir of St John’s conducted by Andrew Nethsingha, next year.

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.

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.

 

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.

Out of season

It’s the week before Christmas, and I’m working on a new piece which sets to music a dark, pained, brave poem called ‘Collects for Lent’, by Stephen Romer.  I’m really enjoying digging deeper into its melancholy and its resolute honesty as I work on my setting.  I would be enjoying this anyway, but it’s highlighted by the contrast between the sentiments and the season of this poem and the inescapable jingly jollity of Christmas as encountered in the shops, on the tv and the internet – in fact, everywhere.  Not that I have a Scrooge-like disdain for Christmas cheeriness, not at all.  But it does feel good to emerge from all that for a time each day and touch on something different, on feelings that run through this period as through any other but simply get blotted out for a brief while – at least, on the surface.

dark-sea-and-cloudsIt’s a poem that confronts loss, and the difficulties of dealing with it and finding a way forwards.  It’s a very personal poem, a meditation, almost a confession; left to my own devices I would probably have set it for one singer, who would become the ‘I’ of the poem.  However, the commission required a piece for a group of six singers, three women and three men, to which I have added an alto flute and a harp.  The six singers did not seem an obvious choice for this poem, at first, but I decided to try sketching something out and seeing what happened. If I then found that it just wasn’t going to work I could always suggest looking for a different poem.  But in fact, writing for the six singers has opened up my approach to the poem in various interesting ways.  Sharing out the lines to different voices immediately spatialises and dramatises the poem’s monologue – it forces you to consider the different roles already contained within it.  At the other extreme, some parts of the poem are not shared out but are sung by all six singers together – but this also changes the dynamic: a personal confession, clearly emanating from an individual suddenly becomes the collective, almost ritual utterance of a chorus.

The piece is being written for Vox’Sing, a vocal sextet based in the French city of Tours, who will perform it there in a festival of music and poetry next May which will include several other pieces of mine too.  I’m currently a little more than half way through the piece, and finding the poem’s darkness very fulfilling.  This is one of those perennial philosophical puzzles – why does poetry, art or music which treats sad things, give us pleasure, and strength?  It’s a curious effect; I hope my music will in turn get drawn into the same virtuous circle.

Ouija in Romania

PellayEvery time Ouija is performed it’s a bit of an adventure for me, because of the way that the solo violinist takes the expressive ideas of the piece and reshapes them in their own way, differently every time.  The piece is ‘about’ discovering unknown voices and listening to what they can tell us, and in some ways that’s true of what happens with the soloist himself.  Peter Sheppard Skaerved has played it lots of times now and it’s amazing the way that he is always totally creative with it, never repeating himself.  In a different way, it’s always fascinating hearing the piece played by a different violinist, because every player has a different personality, and that always comes through very clearly when the piece is performed.

409px-Nicolo_Paganini_by_Richard_James_LaneSo I’m really looking forward to going to Romania next week to work with a fantastic young violinist Radu Dunca, who’ll be playing Ouija in Cluj on Thursday 4th December and again in Bucharest on Saturday 6th, in concerts by the AdHoc Ensemble.  Radu plays with great spontaneity, feeling and virtuosity.  See Radu playing in a rooftop concert.  Radu’s been rehearsing the piece from the score, and it’ll be interesting to see if the score actually communicates the ideas that I want to put across – in the case of this rather unusual piece which gives a big creative role to the soloist, it was hard to decide how much to specify in the score, and at what point to back off and leave it to the soloist to decide what to do.  Radu and I will have one rehearsal together on the Wednesday, and then he’ll be performing the piece (in a slightly shortened version) the next day.

The first concert is in the Sala studio, Music Academy “Gheorghe Dima”, Cluj,  on Thursday 4 December, at 19.00,  and the second is in the ISCM Festival Meridian in Bucharest at 19.00 on Saturday 6 December, in the “Aula Magna” of the Cantacuzino Palace (Uniunea Compozitorilor and Enescu Museum).  

Quiet Songs

I’ve been writing some songs for the Hermes Experiment – who have been making some very interesting music with their unusual combination of soprano, clarinet, double bass and harp, and their imaginative and open-minded programmes. It was a hard combination to write for, at first; in particular, it took a while to find a way to integrate the bass into the overall sonority. Uncertainty about what words I would set added to the confusion, too, as I dabbled tentatively with various different texts.  ncOP5e8In the end I found things took off the quieter I got, the more I explored delicate, translucent sounds. And finding that delicacy, a kind of musical water-colour, coincided with trying to set a wonderful little poem by Yves Bonnefoy.  Once I had sketched out this song I felt that the character of the music was coming into focus.  But I also felt that the song was too little and fragile on its own, and it needed to be part of a little group.  In the end I found two other short poems from the same collection, and in ways that I couldn’t predict, even after I had chosen the poems, the other two songs found quite different ways to compliment the mood of the one I wrote first (which ended up going second).

I’ve mentioned Bonnefoy before, a couple of years ago, when I discovered a long, searching poem which wouldn’t let me go, and I ended up writing a ‘setting’ of it, but just for instruments (flute and piano).  The music was very closely entangled with the words, line by line, but there was no singing or even speaking so the poetry remained ‘invisible’, but there was no singing (or even speaking) so the poetry remained ‘invisible’, unheard, even while it shaped the music at every moment.

rain_mediumThese new songs felt very different from that.  The three short poems date from nearly thirty years later, and are both modest and breathtaking in the way they evoke the trace of touch and thought through the slightest and most innocuous of impressions.  The instruments were all different, now (and therefore, the basic texture of the music, too) but even more importantly, the words here are actually sung, literally present in the performance of the music.  -Which is normal when poetry is set to music, but after working with Bonnefoy’s poetry as a kind of unspoken spirit, hearing it sung out loud felt strangely vivid and unexpectedly larger than life. Last week I heard a rehearsal, and it was fascinating hearing both the sounds and the words take on a real ‘live’ presence.  I’m very much looking forward to the premiere, in Limewharf, London, on November 15, where there will also be new pieces by Giles Swayne, Kim Ashton and Aleksandr Brusentsev. [ see Sound and Music blog ] 

Orion returns

images-4What a pleasure to hear my horn trio from four years ago, Orion, given such a bold and committed performance on Monday.  The piece is full of counterpoint, which makes for a strong surge of adrenaline when composing and when playing, too, asserting your own part against the impacts and rebounds of the other players’ lines.  It was wonderful to hear the clear, impulsive energy of the playing, by three outstanding players in a SCO lunchtime concert at the Perth Concert Hall.  Wonderful too to hear Schumann’s fantastic Adagio & Allegro, and Brahms’ Horn Trio played on the natural horn as the composer originally imagined it. Orion will have another outing next February, in Glasgow; I hope I can be there.

Letting go the lighthouse

orford_ness_eadt_no_permissionOrford Ness is an extraordinary place.  A strange peninsula, reachable only by boat and very much like an island in feel, it was formed by the combined effects of silt from the river and sand and stones washed in by the tide.  It’s a unique habitat of vegetated shingle, and is not really solid land at all – the whole shape slowly waves and twists over decades and centuries under the pressures of the tides.  Right next to Aldeburgh, Britten’s town on the Suffolk coast, it lies directly in front of Orford Harbour, which was busy and important port until the Ness grew for miles across it, blocking off access from the sea by all but the smallest boats.

It offers a strange and memorable combination of rare, delicate wildlife and flora alongside dilapodated and sinister buildings left by the Ministry of Defence, who used the site for experiments on weaponry (including H-bomb detonators) from the 1920s to the 80s.  It’s been memorably described by W.G Sebald in The Rings of Saturn, and also by Robert Macfarlane in his wonderful book The Wild Places.  

Orford-Ness-1-lighthouse-425

But why I am talking about it here?  The ness has been the site of numerous lighthouses over the centuries, the last and most impressive of which was built in the 1780s.  It’s a strong and sturdy structure – but the coastline in front of it has been eroding very fast in recent years.  It won’t be long at all before the base of the lighthouse will be literally standing in the North sea, and once that starts decay and dereliction will quickly follow.  This is why a couple of years ago the decision was taken to decommission the lighthouse and allow it to be gradually reclaimed by the elements.

It seems to me that this is a historic moment.

Looking-over-Orford-ness--001It’s obviously a big change for the people of Orford Ness, who no longer see the beam scanning over the waves, and know that the sea is drawing ever closer.  But to me it also feels like the turning of the tide in a much bigger story.  Orford lighthouse dates from the Enlightenment, when a combination of rationality and idealism gave people the confidence and the means to begin to shape the world in the way they wanted to.  The lighthouse warning ships away from a treacherous coast is just one small example of how men set about subjugating nature, sometimes with laudable intentions, sometimes in thoughtless greed.  Everyone knows now that that story has got us into a perilous position, and that the environment’s power over us and our futures has turned out to be far greater than our power over it.  And now, without in any way abandoning our efforts to use science and technology to make the world a safer place to live in, we’re having to show a much greater humility.  Our engineering capabilities may be a hundred times greater than they were in the 1780s, but the fact is that where they chose to intervene and to build, we today are forced to withdraw and abandon.

happyhares-by-mat-g

So I was hugely excited when I heard of plans to mark this turning-point with a series of arts events to celebrate the story of Orford, its people and its history, and to think over the significance of the present moment and contemplate the future.  Thanks to novelist Liz Ferretti, who has been a prime mover in all this, I’m now writing a new piece inspired by this unique place and by the lighthouse’s past and future. What will the new piece be?  I’m still turning over lots of ideas, so that will be the subject of another post.  But it’s an exciting project: there could be no more contemporary issue than this.  

Photos gratefully acknowledged:  EADT; Orford Ness National Nature Reserve; Matthew Guilliatt.

Sometimes mysteriously

This is the title of a free-verse poem by the poet Luis Omar Salinas, and it’s also the title of a new setting of the poem I wrote last week.  It seemed like a good title for this post, because while the decision to compose the next piece can be well planned – often a response to a commission, or an aim that has taken shape over a long time ( and ideally both of these things at the same time!) – there are also times between bigger projects when I cast around for an idea and try out things almost at random, on a whim.  Very often they don’t take off, and I don’t mind if they don’t: they still serve as a way of shuffling my ideas and impressions and turning over the soil, so to speak.  But occasionally, they take hold and make me keep going til they’re done.  Sometimes, mysteriously.  That’s what happened with the poem by Salinas, who is often called the leading figure of Chicano poetry (Mexican-American).

Luis_Omar_Salinas_PictureIt felt a bit like a tight-rope walk, because I wrote it for solo soprano, and almost immediately I started to feel the lack of other singers or instruments: the lack of big textures, harmonies, counterpoint, contrasts of timbre, none of which were available here, except through suggestion and subtlety. The poem itself sets out like a kind of intimate confession, vulnerable and bare, so the challenges and limitations of the one-voice medium felt appropriate.  And in keeping with this I kept the musical ideas extremely simple, not so far away from when someone hums a tune to themselves.  I’ve used the musical structure to lengthen and exaggerate this tight-rope until it ended up 10 minutes long – a long time for one performer to hold the audience alone on stage.  But that intimate, sustained communication on a personal level is very much what the piece is about.  There’d be absolutely no point in playing this piece through on a piano: if it has any interest or power it will be when a singer performs it, takes on the persona that the words gradually unveil and takes an audience with them all the way across the tight-rope.