AOTROMACHD / LIGHTNESS
String quartet, mezzo soprano (or baritone)
5 November 2008, Queen's Hall, Edinburgh. Performed by the Hebrides Ensemble and Jane Irwin
Commissioned by the Hebrides Ensemble. Aotromachd used by kind permission of Polygon and Meg Bateman.
Aotromachd / Lightness
This piece began with a song. Enchanted by Meg Bateman’s poem, I set the first four lines for mezzo-soprano alone, mirroring the lilting rhythms of the Gaelic in a recording of poet’s voice. The change of perspective in the second stanza struck me as an opportunity to use Bateman’s own English translation. The song continues, hummed as though half-remembered, but is interspersed with spoken fragments of the English text. Song and speech compete for primacy, breaking into smaller, disjunct shards until the final words are spoken, the lightness “that will let me go adrift”.
The song became the heart of the quartet. Enriched by a halo of floating harmonics, this setting is the calm, still centre of the music, which draws in the hyperactive opening, and then sets the music adrift, spinning out of control with ever-increasing energy. The opening four lines of the song are treated loosely as a theme for variations, acting on the music like a centre of gravity: the further from the song the music moves, the less constrained it is by it, and the less audible the connection to the source.
The piece opens with three wild bursts of sound, separated by a frozen stillness. A dance begins, initially high in register, but eventually encompassing the entire range of the quartet. Furious chords eventually overrun this light-footed dancing, and split the quartet into two rival groups: stratospheric violins weave a quiet duo above a passionate cello recitative, supported by viola. After the cello reaches the heights of the violins, the song begins, the halo of harmonics gradually infiltrated by scurrying figures as the music is set adrift. A lyrical viola solo, accompanied by stuttering violin and pizzicato cello leads to a texture dominated by a machine-like violin ostinato. After this point, the music drives faster and faster, until it eventually reaches the almost chaotic music of the opening. The piece ends frozen on one of the pauses, although the cycle could repeat again and again.