Alien visitation

Last year, after putting it off for quite a while, I finally faced up to words which are incredibly familiar to anyone who’s sung in an English church or chapel choir – the Magnificat – as I said in my post about it, they were so familiar and so inextricably associated with the musical settings they’re sung to, that it took considerable time and effort to leave all that behind and find a way to approach the words afresh.

girl sky angelAnd now I’m setting them again, but this time I have something completely different in mind from the rather austere, timeless ritual quality which I tried to evoke in my first setting, which gave the words to the whole choir (men and women) all together, so that they were taken up as if by a whole community, joining together to enact a ritual as one.  This time I wanted to concentrate on the more personal and particular aspect of the scene – a young girl, alone, suddenly visited by something supernatural, inexplicable, indescribable.

I’m writing my new setting for the choir of girls’ voices at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge – which is made up of girls between the ages of about 7 to 16.  I can be fairly sure that the music will be different from a traditional Anglican setting because I am basing it around an electro-acoustic tape part created from the sounds of girls’ and women’s voices raised in laughter, shouts and song.  The actual girls of the choir sing in unison, strongly, with a kind of fierce joy, and their voices and the organ are immersed in the swirl of sound from the tape.

The choir will give the first performance in their final Luminaria (a beautiful service of based on one of the old monastic rites) of this term, on November 27th at 6.30, conducted by Edward Wickham.

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.

Caius Choir premiere

It was such a pleasure to hear the choir of Gonville & Caius College under their conductor Geoffrey Webber sing the new Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis which I wrote for them, on a wonderfully wintry, dark and snow-laden Sunday Evening.  It’s an unusual setting in many ways, and the choir and organist so quickly latched on to what it is about, and gave a really excellent first performance.  And it was an incredibly challenging programme, which also included three pieces by Cheryl Frances Hoad and a new set of responses by Robin Holloway.

It was very good to see so many friends who braved the weather to hear it.  I’m delighted that Geoffrey has suggested that they will sing the piece again next term, so if anyone was unable to get there on Sunday, do come along. As soon as I know the date I’ll post it up on this site.

Song of Simeon

Last winter around Christmas I wrote a Magnificat: it was strange, and in the end quite exciting to immerse myself in words I’ve known very well for years and years but haven’t ever set to music before (see a post about this).  In England, the vast majority of occasions when a choir sings a Magnificat are Choral Evensongs, so it really made sense to follow up that piece with a Nunc Dimittis, setting the words of the old man Simeon when he sees the infant Jesus.  At some point last year I mentioned to composer Robin Holloway that I’d written the Magnificat and was now thinking about a Nunc Dimittis, and he said  – you’ll enjoy it: the Magnificat is an awkward text to set because it’s all chopped up into short separate sentences, but in the Nunc everything flows on in a single unfolding vision.

Looking at the two texts I can see exactly what he means, but strangely, I ended up finding the Nunc much harder to set.  I got stuck just once in the Magnificat, and found a way through that within a few days.  In the Nunc I made only a very uncertain start, and then got stuck for several months; later attempts in the summer to make a fresh start did little better.  It could simply be that it wasn’t a top priority, but at any rate, the musical ideas wouldn’t come.

The next thing that happened was that Geoffrey Webber offered to give the first performance of the Magnificat with the fantastic choir of Gonville & Caius College – but it was agreed of course that I’d write a Nunc Dimittis to go with it.   And then, once Christmas was done, there actually wasn’t a huge amount of time left in which to write it.  The sticking point (‘For mine eyes have seen thy salvation…’) didn’t open up straight away, even then, but when it did, what turned out to have been the crucial issue was rhythm.  It was only when I found the right rhythm, and with it momentum, flow, that the melodies and harmonies came, and then they came very easily.  All the earlier attempts went nowhere because they weren’t in the right underlying tempo, metre, groove.

So it’s done now, and I’m really looking forward to hearing the first performance, at Evensong on Sunday 5th February – it’s a superb choir and I’ve no doubt they will do it proud.  It’ll be an exciting service, with a new set of Responses by Robin Holloway and an anthem by Cheryl Frances Hoad.

And now I’m beginning to have an idea for a completely different setting of the Magnificat…

(to hear some of my other choral music, go to >listen/voices)

Light matter revisited

It’s two years since CCD turned the Senate House inside out and filled it with laser beams and dancing bodies, as part of the University’s 800th anniversary celebrations.  For two nights this august space pulsed with the movement of newly-made dance, including one that I wrote with choreographer Isobel Cohen (other scores were written by Ewan Campbell and David Earl, and also, at several centuries’ distance, Christopher Tye). The events were captured on video, but sound quality was less than thrilling; I’m delighted that it’s now been possible to clean up the recording of the piece Isobel and I wrote and I’m putting it up here where it can be seen and heard.

The dancers are all members of Cambridge Contemporary Dance: the piece takes as its theme Isaac Newton’s experiments with light and colour.  See for yourself:  Light/Dance

pipe carol

Not the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol, but a request from recorder-player Robert de Bree for a solo piece, for two recorders (played at the same time).  It’s for a Christmas concert Robert is giving with a Dutch choir in a historic church – so he’s asked if I can base the piece on the Christmas plainchant Puer Natus, in some way.   Robert, who plays various kinds of recorder and oboe, all instruments known for their ability to play just one note at a time, is a frustrated contrapuntalist, who was overjoyed to discover a kind of Sicilian folk music where two pipes are played by the same player, not just as a drone, but playing independent lines.  He has learned to play the folk music, but wants to broaden the repertoire.

In my piece the plainchant becomes a kind of pied-piper spell, or rather two kinds, as the soprano and tenor recorders make their way through the melody in very different styles.  From time to time they join in a duet…

The concert is in the Oude Pelgrimvaderskerk, Rotterdam on 22 December.

lips and maps

I’m delighted that CARMEN-ELEKTRA are going to put on a production of the video-opera that I wrote with Alistair Appleton a couple of years ago for the Spitalfields Festival.  Carmen Elektra have a fantastic track record of putting on new opera in new spaces for new audiences.  This time they’ve found a huge warehouse off the Newmarket Rd in Cambridge, soon to be demolished, with a great acoustic and – once the lights and the sound system are in – a great atmosphere too.  It’s fantastic that Alistair will be doing the narration (which he wrote – he also made the video).  The piece is being done in a double-bill with Kate Whitley’s new opera Terrible Lips, a sci-fi thriller which should be spectacular.

There’s more about this in a recent post on the biting point



Friday 17 June, 9pm.

sounds of spring

Last month I enjoyed the chance to hear a short piece for four horns and choir which I wrote a few years ago for the opening of an outdoor theatre.  This is our Eden, a song of gardens, flowers and trees. It was beautifully performed by horns and singers alike – and it’ll be recorded on a CD this summer, along with the carol As Joseph was a-walking.

Meanwhile, I’ve been writing a new piece for violin and piano, for Guy Button.  Spring seemed to be what was in my mind, and a rather Italian, Vivaldi-ish spring too, hence the name Primavera.  It’ll get its first two performances next month in London (GSMD, July 5) and Winchester  (July 6).

GOATs in concert

The climax of six weeks of scraping and blasting came yesterday, with a grand concert in Cambridge Corn Exchange to celebrate the success of the Grade-One-A-Thon raising money for the Spinal Injuries Association.  A large and motley orchestra of well over a hundred players filled the stage, and played to a huge audience.  Everyone, it turned out, had passed their grade 1 exams, most with distinctions.  More importantly, vast amounts of money had been raised for this fantastic cause – in the end, a grand total of £60,000.

There’s a short feature about it all on BBC Look East – the music being played throughout the clip is my piece.  You can also hear about it on Radio 5 live (Christian O’Connell) if you fast-forward to 47 mins in.

It was a lot of fun.  Chris Lawrence did some excellent stand-up, and Russell Keable took the orchestra through its paces, which included new pieces by Simon Brown and me, both of which sounded surprisingly acceptable!  Guy Llewellyn and Maurice Hodges gave an excellent rendition of Mozart’s Rondo (from the 4th horn concerto), taking turns at horn and piano.  There were many strange squeaks and thumps, and much laughter.  All credit to those who worked very hard to make this happen so wonderfully.

GOAT music

Chances are, the premiere of this new orchestral piece will be a raucous affair.  It’ll be an orchestra with a difference, as you can tell from the name, ‘Clueless in Concert’…

This month over 150 musicians from in and around Cambridge have taken up the ‘Grade-one-a-thon‘ challenge.   That is, they’ve heroically volunteered to learn a completely new instrument up to the level of Grade 1 in one month, taking the exam at the end of February.  By collecting sponsorship they have already raised over £20,000 for the Spinal Injuries Assocation (SIA).

I’ve been asked to write a short piece for the full orchestra, which is set to include a hundred or more players, including 14 horns and 7 harps.  I finished it last week and all the parts were sent off this weekend.  It was certainly fun to write and I hope it’s fun to play.  I can’t vouch for what it’ll sound like, though!

Clueless in Concert is going to be an amazing occasion – do get a ticket before they all sell out, and come along.  (It’s on Sunday 27 February, in the Guildhall – click here for the full story.)