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.

A concert for Yves Bonnefoy

It was a huge honour to welcome the great French poet Yves Bonnefoy to Robinson College, Cambridge, last week, to give a reading of his poetry and to hear a concert of music inspired by poetry.  Bonnefoy is unquestionably a major figure in poetry worldwide and his reading drew enthusiasts from far and wide.  He read with extraordinary straightforwardness and simplicity, and within this there was a striking dignity and solidity to his words.

yves_bonnefoy-712799Last year I wrote a piece closely based on one of Bonnefoy’s poems.  At the time I owned a book of his but had no expectation of ever meeting him nor of his ever hearing my piece.  But, through a chain of extraordinarily lucky chances, I ended up putting on this concert in which my piece was given its second performance in front of the poet, alongside other music based closely on specific poems, and with the poem in question read immediately before the music.  (This was a fun programme to devise – Richard Causton’s Sleep (based on Seferis); Debussy’s Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air (Baudelaire); Machaut/JT: Virelai ‘Dame, vostre doulze viaire’; Cheryl-Frances Hoad’s Bouleumeta (Euripides); Dutilleux’s De l’ombre et de silence (no poem for this one, but it was perfect at this point in the programme) and finally my piece Plus avant que l’étoile, based on Bonnefoy’s poem Deux Couleurs.)  These pieces were beautifully played by Sara Minelli and Roderick Chadwick.

M. Bonnefoy was extraordinarily receptive and generous towards the music, and wrote an appreciation of my piece which I shall treasure.  I was lucky to spend much of the following weekend with him, which was full of warmth and lively conversation.  He has suggested that we take a similar programme of poems and music to perform at Tours next year; it would be wonderful to be revisit and continue what was a truly magical weekend.

Old wine in new bottles – 21st-century Machaut

This is a little piece I wrote on a whim.

poemI needed something very short to round out a programme of music based on poetry, for flute and piano.  All the best ideas were too long – I only really had 3 or 4 minutes to play with.  I thought it might be interesting to take a song of Guillaume de Machaut, the great 14th-century French poet and composer, who wrote both words and music for his songs.  Many of them are polyphonic, in 2, 3 or more parts, but the one I decided on in the end is a monody: some modern recordings add a drone, while others sing the melody completely unaccompanied.  Part of the beauty of the line comes from the delicate shifts of accent, as well as the elegant twists and turns of the melody, which at times has an almost arabesque quality.

The modern flute is not all that much like the instruments of Machaut’s time, and the modern Steinway still less so: this helped me, because I wanted to present the melody refracted through a vastly different, twenty-first-century sensibility.  I set it twice: first half-hidden in the piano, beneath gentle swirls and strands of languid counter-melody in the flute, and then plain and up-front, offset by crystalline chimes.

The premiere will be given by Sara Minelli and Roderick Chadwick at a concert in Cambridge, given in honour of a visit from the great French poet Yves Bonnefoy next month.

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.