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.

Commission from St John’s College, Cambridge

The choir of St John’s College, Cambridge needs no introduction from me.

chapelRenowned across the world for its rich sound, beautiful blend, vivacity and virtuosity, it is a world-class ensemble.  I feel very excited to have been commissioned to write a new piece for them, which they will sing during Evensong in 2015 under the direction of Andrew Nethsingha.  Much to think about!  What words to set?  How best to enjoy those voices?   I’ll post again when the new piece is taking shape.  Incidentally, somewhat off at a tangent (because though I like them very much, I don’t think I’ll be setting them to music), I recently came across these lines from George Herbert’s poem Even-song:      Thus in thy ebony box / Thou dost inclose us, till the day / Put our amendment in our way, / And give new wheels to our disorder’d clocks.

Beethoven Plus

beethovenI’m very excited to have been invited by the fabulous violinist Krysia Osostowicz to write a piece for her Beethoven Plus project.  I’ve long admired Krysia’s playing, as a soloist and in Domus and the Dante Quartet.  She and pianist Daniel Tong have had the great idea of commissioning ten short new pieces, each one responding in some way to one of Beethoven’s ten violin-and-piano sonatas.

They have chosen an amazingly varied and exciting line-up of composers – the other nine are Huw Watkins, Philip Venables, Matthew Taylor, Kurt Schwertsik, David Matthews, Jonathan Dove, Elspeth Brooke, Judith Bingham and Peter Ash.

Beethoven is one of my very favourite composers and I listened to him a lot when I was a teenager. His personality is so strong that even 200 years later it seems wise to do something completely different rather than get too close and risk disappearing into his shadow. But that’s why this commission is so intriguing – I think the way I shall approach it is to do something completely different, and see what happens to a few snippets of Beethoven when they find themselves in this very different space.

beethoven-home-page2The eighth sonata is a special favourite of mine for its endlessly cheeky, inventive, subvertive energy and charm. There’s a particular spot about a minute and a half into the first movement with a strange, devilish texture, twisting quick and light but also dark and momentarily sinister. Whenever I hear or play this bit I always feel that it’s Beethoven at the piano – in a cheeky mood, but with a strange undercurrent. I don’t know what will happen to it in my piece, but this will definitely be one of the bits that gets transplanted into an alien landscape.

Recently I seem to keep coming back to the violin – after In a quiet place, Primavera and Ouija, my last piece was Self-ablaze which was given a blistering premiere last month by Peter Sheppard Skaerved and Roderick Chadwick.  If that was massive, fierce and direct, for the new piece I now need to find a very different way of thinking – nimble, elusive, oblique, teasing.

Self-ablaze

wild2Last 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.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe

Trahison-des-imagesA little while ago I was asked to write a new piece for organ with live electronics.  I’ve written for electronics before in pieces such as A Sudden Cartography of Song, the Magnificat for St Catharine’s College and Ouija.  But all the electro-acoustic tracks in these pieces are prepared and assembled in advance; the live processing in this organ piece will be something new for me.  It’s something I used to feel wary of, ever since seeing an excellent performance of a new piece by Philippe Manoury performed by a team from IRCAM, the state-of-the-art research institute in Paris blessed with fabulous resources and almost unlimited funding.  Even they ran into a glitch a few minutes into the piece, had to stop the performance while their boffins emerged blinking into the daylight and tapped away at computer keyboards for 10 minutes or so, before going back to the beginning and starting again.  (As I say, once we’d got past that, it was excellent!)  This was a few years ago, and at that time live processing had a justified reputation for running a very high risk of things going wrong. But of course technology has raced on, even in the few years since then, and everyone advises me that there’s no longer any great need to worry.

It’s important to me that if the sound transformation is live, it should sound like it’s live.  That may seem obvious, but to be honest, quite often, it’s not at all obvious to a listener that it’s live – similar effects could perfectly well be produced by preparing the electro-acoustic element in advance.  Telling the audience that the sounds are generated in real time raises expectations of a kind of flexibility, spontaneity and in-the-moment drama, but even when these qualities are felt in what you hear, it’s also the case that a well thought out system of cueing prepared material can achieve an equally spontaneous, dramatic, responsive.

I’m only starting to develop my ideas for this piece, but I think incorporating some very free, improvisatory rhythms and shapes into the live organ part, and then making them determine the shape of whatever is transformed electronically – in an audibly similar way – will probably be crucial to making the ‘liveness’ as immediate as possible.

I needed a title, and was thinking of how electro-acoustic treatments of live performance can have (often in a good way) a feeling of the magic trick or the illuisionist about them.  By chance I had been talking with a friend a few days earlier, about Magritte’s famous picture La trahison des images (The treachery of Images), better known by the words written at the bottom of the picture – This is not a pipe.  The aim of my new piece is that it should be full of intriguingly, ‘magically’ impossible transformations of familiar pipe-sounds, but that it will also be very upfront, unmysterious, about what it’s doing. If a little of Magritte’s mischievous sense of humour rubs off on us too, so much the better…

Quicksilver – new video

This is a video of Anuradha Chaturvedi dancing to a score I wrote for her a couple of years ago. This was the third performance, at the Exuberant Gala in the Pegasus Theatre, Oxford, last month. Anuradha made a new choreography so it’s quite different from the two videos you can see in last year’s post. It’s also a much better quality of video – thanks to Erika Montenegro who filmed it!

or for mobile phone users, this is a smaller file: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/10415359/quicksilver%20-%20for%20mobiles.m4v

The Wild Places

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:

wild“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!

Gazelle

For a couple of years I’ve been wanting to write a piece for the harpist Michelle Abbott, who works in Hong Kong and also in the US.  Finally this summer a good moment emerged, and with it a quiet theme, gently circling, or rather spiralling.  This theme is the core of the piece: it has a life of its own, continually ticking over, watching, weighing up.  Mostly it is cool, elegant, but occasionally it shows strength and speed.

GRANT'S GAZELLE maleIt was fairly soon after drafting out this main theme that I got the idea for the title.  A gazelle is elegant, poised, attentive, beautiful, a little mysterious.  In Arabic literature it is associated with the beloved, and there is a genre of Sufi love-poetry whose name ghazal probably comes from the same root.

The harp is a special instrument, and an intriguing challenge for pianist-composers because its music looks on the page like piano music, and to some extent feels like it too, but this is a trap.  Finding those shapes and gestures which really speak in the tones and resonances of the harp requires as a crucial first step forgetting all about the piano.  There are also technical issues to do with the pedals and the tuning of the strings which require thought, but actually they’re easy enough to master.  What has been fascinating has been to try to discover the harp’s mother tongue, or rather, imagine it.  It has felt a little bit like trying to imagine the thoughts and sensations of a gazelle.

Image:  NHPA/Photoshot

Quicksilver – new choreography

AVARTAN MainThe wonderful dancer Anuradha Chaturvedi, who premiered my solo dance piece Quiverful in July 2011, has made a new choreography of the piece and will be performing it at the Exuberant Gala show at the Pegasus Theatre, Oxford, on Sunday 22nd September.

I’ve also changed the name of the piece to Quicksilver (to avoid the completely inappropriate associations of the name Quiverful for readers of The Barchester Chronicles!)

We aim to take a video, which I’ll post soon – watch this space.

 

Two steeples and a trio

As you approach the village where I live, just north of Cambridge at the edge of the fens, there’s a moment when you see two church steeples straight ahead in the distance. In fact, one of them is in my village and the other in a different village a couple of miles further away, but the flat fen landscape undoes any sense of perspective and it looks as though they simply stand side by side. As you continue up the road, the two spires slide smoothly towards each other, closer and closer, til they touch, and then with a silent ‘snap’ become identical, a single spire, crisp and clear. Then the image begins to blur again, and slowly the two steeples separate and slide apart. It’s a simple effect, easily explained, but magical when it first catches you, unawares, and still magical if, as I sometimes do, you deliberately slow down and look out for it. The exact point of union is a moment of freedom, of suspension; you don’t breathe. You’re poised on a perfect straight line running through the two steeples, and for as long as you balance on that tightrope gravity has no hold.

distant-spires-suzette-broadNot long ago I was trying to get going on a new Piano Trio (strangely, my second this year, though I’ve never written one before in my life but have often thought of doing so).  As with the violin piece Ouija which I wrote last year, the commission challenges me to find some way of drawing out improvisations from the players, within the composed design of the piece.  But it’s different from Ouija, partly because I’m determined to approach the problem in as different a way as possible so that I don’t repeat myself, and partly because the challenge is different – in Ouija there was one solo performer improvising, and my means of shaping and guiding the player were both the score and the electro-acoustic tape part (which is a powerful way of guiding certain kinds of musical direction without words, almost subliminally) .  Here in the trio there are no electronics, so everything must be prompted by the score.  (Of course, it’s also shaped by our work together in rehearsal, and this will affect the resulting piece significantly.  But in the end, I’d like it to be possible for sympathetic performers to realise the piece in their own way from the score alone, in my absence.)  The other important difference is that now there are three performers, so the relations between soloist and tape in Ouija, complex as they are, start to seem simple by comparison with the three-way interactions between three musicians all thinking, reading, listening and playing together in real time. I had got stuck on how to ‘compose’ improvisation with Ouija before I eventually solved it, and I got stuck again trying to find a different answer to the problem with this piece.

Eventually I realised that the steeples were what I was looking for.  I began with fully composed material which reflects a scene at subtly shifting points of perspective, perhaps a little like Monet’s serial studies of rocks or haystacks, or Rouen Cathedral.  But then the piece slides into a moment of ‘eclipse’, and one of the players finds themselves free and weightless, improvising.  After this I abandon any literal idea of steeples but retain the idea that double images in shifting perspectives move at various important moments into synchronicity and coincidence, and when they do, someone is freed to hover, suspended, in improvisation. When I first saw the spires I was vaguely aware of but hadn’t actually read a well-known passage in Proust’s novel Swann’s Way where Marcel sees two spires shifting and glinting, suddenly joined by a third. Unlike my fenland spires they don’t touch, but even in their slow hovering dance Proust finds a kind of awakening, an epiphany.

25My trio, Steeples Eclipse, was given a marvellous first performance by Tom Poster, Tom Hankey and Guy Johnston of the Aronowitz Ensemble a few days ago, in the Cambridge Summer Music Festival.  It was fascinating working with these three fantastic players on it, hearing the improvisations take shape, and trying to find the right balance between explaining the kind of thing I envisaged, while leaving them as much room as possible to do it their way, and make it their own.  The performance was wonderfully intense and I was delighted by the way that the composed parts led seamlessly into the improvisations and the conviction and spirit with which these were brought to life.  I look forward very much to hearing the same group give a second performance in Oxford in the autumn (date tbc) and after that, in London.