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.  

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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.

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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.

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.

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!