Soft-born measureless light

When I was asked by David Christophersen to write a new piano piece for a recital in St John’s Smith Square next year, his requirement – for a piece that would provide reflection and perhaps even meditation between the onslaught of two war-torn works from the mid-twentieth century – was quite a challenge.  Soothing, lullaby-like piano pieces have been something of a vogue over the last fifteen years or so – their hypnotic and mild repetitions seem to answer a need – but I must confess that I have something of a horror of such pieces.  I can’t help feeling that they don’t really answer that need properly.  It’s easy to be reassuring if you haven’t engaged too deeply with the problem.  What David was asking for was not that, but something that would actually respond to the vicissitudes of the other music in his programme, and of the terrible worldwide upheavals of which they might be felt to be a reflection.

images-3It felt like a significant step forward when I came across a line in Walt Whitman’s great elegy written in response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed. The line was ‘the gentle, soft-born, measureless light’.  A cynic might immediately respond that this line is perfectly amenable to inspiring the kind of insipid, hazy new-agey meanderings I’ve just said that I wanted to get away from – no doubt this is true.  But that’s not how it struck me, and it gave me a different direction to explore – musical evocations of light, conjured through resonance, sonority, reverberation, the luminosity and brightness of clouds of sound.

Anyway, the piece is now written, and will receive its first performance by David in St John’s Smith Square on February 22nd.

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.

Faure’s long, slow, withdrawing roar

Being asked to make a radio programme on Faure’s only string quartet – his last work, written at almost 80, rekindled my fascination (obsession?) with this amazing and under-appreciated composer. The image of him as a charming but superficial composer is just about as perfectly wrong as it could be.

Recently, I’ve been completely drawn into the strange and haunting world of his later Nocturnes, for piano solo.  Last year I put together with Michael Hurley a performance of five of them, interleaved with dark, soul-searching poetry from Manley Hopkins, Tennyson, Hardy, Rossetti and Arnold – we performed it in Robinson College chapel in near-darkness amidst pools of candle-light, at 10pm on a Monday evening in November, and to our amazement, got a full house.  Now I’m putting on the programme again in the lovely space of Emmanuel UR Church as part of the Cambridge Summer Music Festival.  I’m thrilled to be performing alongside two wonderful readers: Robin Kirkpatrick and Rebecca Stott.

Keats’ nightmare

The nightmare in question seems to have haunted Keats not so much at night as during his waking hours, invading and derailing his daily thoughts and moods in a truly obsessive fashion. It’s a sudden vision, in brilliant and unwanted clarity, of the remorselessly savage cycles of the natural world – what Robert Browning later called ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’. I chanced across Keats’ ruminations on these haunting and melancholic thoughts in a verse letter he wrote to his friend J.H Reynolds, and soon found myself wanting to set them to music.

Some time later came a request for a new piece for tenor, horn and piano, a combination firmly stamped with the hallmark of Benjamin Britten, and for that reason initially somewhat intimidating to write for. But once I had found the first musical idea, I was able to forget about this and plunge back into Keats’ nightmare. The piece is called Unbidden Visions, and was written in August 2008.

Music by Jeremy Thurlow

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.

Matthew Schellhorn premiere

Matthew Schellhorn will be giving the premiere of a short piano piece I wrote for him last summer, fleeting… in Bangor on 14 February. It will be played as part of a wonderful programme including music by Messiaen, Dutilleux, Ravel, and Colin Riley in the Powis Hall, Bangor University.

Matthew is currently planning to record fleeting… along with The Will of the Tones, which was also written for him, and a selection of my other solo piano and chamber music, on a CD to be released next year.

Music by Jeremy Thurlow

Messiaen’s bird dramas

A study of Messiaen’s birdsong music which I wrote a couple of years ago has now appeared in print in a volume called Messiaen Studies. My essay looks at Messiaen’s wonderful cycle of bird-portraits Catalogue d’Oiseaux [Catalogue of Birds] and considers the pictorial and dramatic dimension of these vivid and extraordinary pieces. This book challenges the respectful orthodoxy which has tended to grow up around Messiaen’s music, presenting a selection of fresh and independent approaches to this least orthodox and most exhilarating of music.

Messiaen Studies, edited by Robert Sholl, published by C.U.P. is available from 5 December 2007.

Click here for more details of the book on the CUP website.