Ligeti Quartet plays Memory is the seamstress

Ruth Crawford Seeger’s amazingly original String Quartet of 1932 launched the second programme of Strings in the Earth and Air, featuring the Ligeti Quartet.

Harrison Birtwistle’s weighty Duo for Eight Strings (for viola and cello, but sounding like twice as many players) was the centre-piece, and they concluded with my

2016 quartet Memory is the seamstress. Inspired by some lines from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, six movements grasp at sharply contrasting qualities of touch, pace and feeling. Watch the video of my piece here, introduced by a short conversation with composer Louise Drewitt about the ideas behind the piece. (Later in the year you can see the whole concert when it’s released on youtube.)

Virginia Woolf’s Ring

The opening of Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves feels suspended, unreal. After a mysterious sunrise, there follows a series of incantations. We feel that a spell is being cast, processes are being set in motion. In 2018 I set these incantations to music, writing very simply for choir with piano. While the piano creates a circling, always-returning wave-like motion, the choir sings Woolf’s phrases whose verbal rhythm ‘breaks’ and ‘tumbles’ across this regularity. (She wrote of her rhythms breaking and tumbling in the mind, in a letter to Vita Sackville-West).

The phrases are sometimes descriptive and sometimes symbolic. Many of the symbolic ones are almost certainly echoing, and radically reimagining, tropes from Wagner’s Ring cycle. Perhaps it’s good that I was unaware of this when I wrote my piece, because the sound-world I was aiming for was pale and understated, very far from Wagner’s rich and powerful brew.

I see a ring was written for the Tsuru University Chorus and first sung by them in Tokyo in November 2018. And I’m delighted that a recording of the piece by Cambridge-based vocal consort King Henry’s VIII will be broadcast on Radio 3 in the Breakfast Show with Petroc Trelawney on Friday 16th April. (And after Friday morning it can be heard on BBC Sounds).

Following this, Riding the Waves on Sunday 18th at 6.45pm, also on Radio 3, is a fascinating exploration of how Woolf’s writing and thought continues to touch and inspire artists today.

I see a ring, hanging above me…

I see a ring is my third musical entanglement with Woolf’s words, and in its simple lyricism it’s quite different from my two earlier Woolf-based pieces, A London street in winter (voice and piano) and Memory is the Seamstress (string quartet), where I responded to the restless polyphony of her thought with music more changeable and kaleidoscopic. (See the fascinating series of concerts, talks and films organised by Woolf & Music, who commissioned both these pieces.) Memory is the seamstress will be played by the Ligeti Quartet in the upcoming Strings in the Earth and Air – an online festival of young string quartets, to be launched in the late summer. (More on that later….)

A London adventure in Leeds

a-london-square-in-winterVirginia Woolf & Music is a fascinating series of concerts and discussions exploring the rich relationship between Woolf’s writing and thinking, and her experience of music and musicians.  I was delighted to be asked to write a short setting of some of Woolf’s words for voice and piano, to be premiered during the 26th Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf in June 2016.

Setting prose to music is a strikingly different experience from setting lyric verse.  Perhaps some of Woolf’s more ‘musical’ passages, such as the poetic and lyrical refrains of The Waves, might have lent themselves more immediately to this kind of treatment – but I didn’t want to tear a short passage out of an intricately interwoven progression that spans the entire book.  Woolf’s Diaries and Letters were suggested to me as good places to look – and certainly, they are bursting with life and quick sharp perceptions.  But in the end I settled on a passage from an essay, ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’.

I’ve called it A London street in winter.  It begins

How beautiful a London street is in winter, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley.

A deeply evocative scene, in which we both do and do not stay – for Woolf’s imagination is quick to burrow behind the vivid and immediate sights and scents and take us on unexpected journeys, even if in the end she checks herself, and asks to ‘be content with surfaces only’.

I tried to keep my setting clear and unfussy, so that rich and complex sentences can still be understood, and words are given space to resonate.  And I tried to make musical clarity and unfussiness leave space for mystery, suggestion, the unspoken and the half-thought.

A London street in winter will be given its first performance by Annelies van Hijfte and Lana Bode at 7.30 in the Clothworkers’ Centenary Concert Hall, Leeds University on Friday 17 June.