The Tuning (2019)

The Tuning (2019)

Commissioned by the Oxford Lieder Festival

Instrumentation: Mezzo-soprano and piano
Duration: c.20’
First performance: Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo) and Chris Glynn (piano), at St. John the Evangelist, Oxford, 19 October 2019

The Tuning – five Donaghy songs

The musicality of Michael Donaghy’s poetry is often remarked upon, and perhaps this is what drew me to his texts – a musicality that is more than just pervasive lyricism, one that extends to his precision of gesture and cadence and a delight in the union of formal elegance with expressive heft.  But I think what I love is the magic, and with it the making-strange, whether of poem-as-spell or of a seemingly quotidian observation. The magic holds me.


The five poems in this set are selected from across Donaghy’s output and are unrelated, though ‘Tears’ and ‘The River in Spate’ are placed next to each other in his third collection, Conjure. They are not intended to present a coherent narrative, nor are they a cycle – though the music offers cyclic elements, and a narrative could be constructed if desired. I chose them because I could hear them sung as I read them, and – with the exception of The Tuning, whose exposition-heavy text required a different approach – I set them as songs: simple, often strophic vocal lines and a piano part focusing on a single figuration, as in classic Lieder.


After an extended introduction, ‘The Present’ places cycling pairs of vocal phrases against ever-expanding piano descents. ‘The River in Spate’ and ‘Tears’ both offer types of musical near-suspended animation. In ‘The Tuning’ the piano takes the melodic lead, sinuous counterpoint enveloping the narrator’s arioso. ‘Two Spells for Sleeping’ practices a hypnotism of unceasing pulsation and not-quite-repeating loops.

image credit: Mikkel Frimer Rasmussen / Unsplash

This Departing Landscape (2019)

This Departing Landscape (2019)

Commissioned by BBC Radio 3 for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

Instrumentation: large orchestra
Duration: c.20’

This Departing Landscape

Morton Feldman once highlighted how music slips away from us even as we are hearing it: ‘this departing landscape’.  I love this strangely melancholic characterisation of music’s elusiveness along with the idea of music as a physical space that we move through – or rather that moves past us, our backs to the future, the past stretching ahead into the distance, reconfiguring, distorting and eventually dissolving as we try to fix it in our memories.

The force that propels the musical landscape became my focus for the composition of this piece.  There’s something magical in the way all music projects this energy, its ebbing and flowing, but orchestral energy is something particularly special.  I remember as a young violinist sitting in my first rehearsal with NYOGB and being astonished by the sheer mass of sound of which I was part.  Of course such a high-energy situation cannot be maintained indefinitely: we quickly accustom ourselves to new ‘normals’, loud loses intensity unless it gets louder, repetitions, at first exciting, lose their bite – music’s dynamism relies on change.  But musical energy emerges from a whole range of properties: not just how loud, how high, how fast, but also how tense, how thick, how far, how does one harmony suggest another and when does it arrive, at what point does one type of material switch to another and why…

What if it were possible to use this variety to write twenty minutes of orchestral music that lived its life in a perpetual state of high energy?  With this question, and Feldman’s beautiful image, I began to write the piece.

There are two movements, which run together without a break.  The first presents a kaleidoscope of sharp-edged fragments constantly shifting into new configurations. There are abrupt changes of material and tempo: patterns loop, repeat and transform irregularly.  These shards of music are broken from a small set of components – a brief melodic figure and a harmonic sequence of alternating 5ths and 3rds.

In the second movement the pace is radically reduced.  This is music of glacial energy: extremely heavy, extremely slow, an inexorable continuity of gradual transformation.  Tone becomes microtone becomes noise – and out of the noise, pulsation returns, a series of accelerations spiralling unceasingly, and then suddenly cut off.

Photo by Stewart M on Unsplash

Meditation (after Donne) (2018)

Meditation (after Donne) (2018)

Commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, generously supported with funds from the Cruden Foundation and the RVW Trust

Instrumentation: Chamber orchestra and live electronics
Duration: c.11'
First performance: Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Nicolas Altstaedt, at Younger Hall, St Andrews, on 7 November 2018 

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

John Donne, from Meditation XVII (1624)

John Donne’s famous ‘Meditation XVII’ (1624) exhorts us to recognise our shared humanity, a plea which is utterly contemporary in a world where self-interest and insularity threaten to divide communities and smother alternative discourses.  Donne’s reflections are triggered by the tolling of a distant bell, the sound of which provides the basic material for this piece, through both recorded samples and the orchestra's harmonic material. 

Rung out across the country when Armistice was declared, church bells are potent markers of both joy and despair, public sounds with personal resonances summoning a complex web of associations.  In association with SCO Connect, the Armistice Bells project invited members of the public to record their local church bells to be included within the electronic fabric of the piece.

A series of huge composite bell-strikes gradually disperses and is woven into a softly tolling tapestry of bells surrounding the audience.  From within the orchestra a song is born, grows, then fades away.  All the while the bells continue, a reverberating tracery of recorded sound contributed by members of the public across Scotland.  Eventually these too fade, and the tapestry dissolves.

Emily's Electrical Absence (2017)

Emily's Electrical Absence (2017)

Commissioned by Aurora Orchestra and Poet in the City supported by Bio Nano Consulting for the dissemination of PETMEM (piezoelectronic Transduction Memory Device), an EU Horizon 2020-funded project exploring low-voltage memory technologies

Instrumentation: String Quintet for 2 violins, viola and 2 cellos
Duration: 25'
First performance of mvt IV: 15 October 2017. Aurora Orchestra Soloists, Wellcome Collection, London.
First complete performance: 12 January 2018. Aurora Orchestra Soloists, King's Place, London.

String Quintet, Emily's Electrical Absence

Among the many fascinating aspects of the PETMEM (Piezoeletric Transduction Memory device) project that frequently arose in conversations between Frances and myself were the strange otherworldly landscapes revealed under the scanning electron microscope, and the piezoresistive effect, where a material under sufficiently high pressure changes state from a resistor to a conductor of electricity.

There are many ways in which the idea of pressure can be translated into music – squeezing material into shorter and shorter timeframes, squashing the pitch space around a given note, increasing the density of activity – and all of these have a role to play throughout my quintet.  Scanning electron microscopy has its parallel in the microtonal landscapes of two of the quintet movements, and the technique of delving inside complex sounds to find hidden harmonic structures.  Memory is the other starting point: memories of other composers, memories of musical material within the quintet, memories of Frances’ poems and her inspiration, Emily Dickinson.

The first movement is a highly energetic dance with a bass line that is squeezed until it breaks off into a sequence of fortissimo hammered triads.  The second movement, following on from Frances’ paired lines in White Box, presents pairs of microtonal harmonies, all in harmonics, held in a floating stasis.  In the third movement, the quintet ‘speaks’ a Dickinson poem, After great pain…, their rhythm and contour taken from an audio analysis of my own voice reading the poem.

In the final movement, a viola melody is surrounded by a filigree tapestry of echoes and fragments and distorting mirrors across a series of compressions until all that remains of the available space is a single trill.  At this point of extreme pressure, the properties of the material suddenly change: bright, gleaming, sudden bursts of sound in a highly microtonal environment. 

All of this is haunted by the ghost of Schubert, above all the incomparable Adagio from his String Quintet in C major.  A memory of this music, perhaps my favourite piece by my favourite composer, increasingly asserts itself on the musical surface until the final passages become as if hypnotised by Schubert’s harmonies, crystallising around them like frost on a fallen leaf.

The White Road (after Edmund de Waal) (2016)

The White Road (after Edmund de Waal) (2016)

Commissioned by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for Katherine Bryan

Instrumentation: Orchestra ( - - 2 perc - and solo flute
Duration: 15'
First Performance: 3 February 2017. Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (cond.), Katherine Bryan (flute)

The White Road (after Edmund de Waal)
(image credit: Mike Bruce / Gagosian Gallery)

I’ve wanted to write a concerto for Katherine for around twenty years now.  Which is to say, pretty much as long as I’ve known her.  RSNO audiences will be familiar with her glorious tone, thrilling virtuosity and magnetic charisma, and these qualities were already apparent in her playing when we met as teenagers.  So, in one sense, I’ve had some time to think about this piece.  That said, it’s one thing imagining as childhood friends, but when the chance comes to make it a reality it’s no small challenge to write something that lives up to two decades of daydreams.

One idea I knew I wanted to include was to have the solo flute backed by an army of string harmonics – an orchestra of virtual flutes – playing gleaming, resonant microtonal harmonies.  I also wanted to focus on line and to write Katherine melodies throughout the piece that would give her the space to sing and be expressive.  And so the piece began as a series of alternations between these two types of sound: the flute plays a melodic fragment and the orchestra responds with an increasingly lush microtonal chord.

This iterative process brought to my mind the ceramic art of Edmund de Waal, whose installations of porcelain vessels – sequences of groups of pots, usually of a single glaze, against a plain background – have extraordinary potency despite their economy of means.  De Waal’s arrangements are almost rhythmic and seem to evoke patterns of inhalation and exhalation, aspects which resonated with me in the context of writing a flute concerto.

De Waal’s work is focused to the point of obsession, and obsession is one of the topics he addresses in his 2015 memoir-cum-travelogue-cum-history of porcelain, The White Road.  This flute concerto is not a piece about porcelain, nor a musical evocation of the colour white, but it may be about obsession, and it certainly reflects my admiration for both Katherine’s playing and de Waal’s art.  The idea of the music leading us along a road also appeals to me, with the solo flute’s repeated song-fragments being like a Pied-Piper to the orchestra’s Hamelin.

This ‘White Road’ travels through seven main landscapes.  The first places flute melodies and string harmonics in an antiphonal relationship.  The second, quiet throughout, sees the flautist and a group of eight solo strings exchange melodic phrases, backed by temple blocks.  The third is an almost violently passionate reworking of this music, solo flute alternating with furious woodwind alongside drums and metal percussion.  Next, after a pause for breath, the flute dances around brass staccato pulses, each phrase ending on a held microtonal chord recalling the first section.  There follows an intensely lyrical cello sextet caressed by waves of microtonal harmonics, with short flute cadenzas initiating each phrase.  Finally an extended section of flute-song, marked ‘almost a lullaby’, floats atop continuous running figures in the wind and strings.  This eventually leads to a short virtuoso conclusion, gruff brass chords launching the flute into the stratosphere.

Piano Concerto (2014-6)

Piano Concerto (2014-6)

Commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with generous support from The Idlewild Trust, Britten-Pears Foundation, RVW Trust, Cruden Foundation and The Hope Scott Trust.

Instrumentation: Chamber orchestra ( - - str - solo piano)
Duration: 30'
First performance: 12 October 2016. Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Thierry Fischer (cond.), Tom Poster (piano)

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Piano Concerto

For a long time, I considered giving this concerto the title ‘And this was how it started’ after a poem from Niall Campbell’s collection Moontide.  In it, a singer, challenged to sing a thousand songs, moves from songs of drinking and dancing to wedding and to mourning until on the fifth day he continues with the clicks and whistles of the birds. ‘And then he sang the wave-fall when there’s moonlight, / sang the black grain, its bending in the wind, / then sang the stars – and then, and then, and then.’ 

I love the proliferation in this poem, the seemingly trivial starting point which leads to the sense that the world is being sung into existence before our eyes.  These were ideas important to me in the writing of this concerto: that the soloist, rather than being a heroic protagonist striving against the might of the orchestra would instead somehow set the musical world in motion, and that the music would proliferate and spiral into more and more diverse regions; that the pianist would have such an excess of life and energy that they would set the orchestra spinning around them, and that song would be at the music’s heart.

There are five movements.  The first presents the piano in energetic counterpoint with various small subgroups of the orchestra: cor anglais and viola; strings; clarinets, oboes and horns; piccolo and violin; claves; and finally solo viola again.  Movements II-IV form a sequence of three linked Intermezzi, each of which takes a small fragment of material from the first movement and explores it to an extreme. Hammered semiquavers run continuously through movement 2, while movement 3 expands bell-like chords into gentle microtonal waves of imagined resonance. The fourth movement highlights the percussive capabilities of both the piano and ensemble.  Melody returns in the final movement, a lyrical version of the first movement’s opening line, begun by the piano and gradually taken up by the entire orchestra.  Underpinning the flowing music of this song, an almost-passacaglia spirals – and falls, and falls, and falls.

I also did an interview about this piece with Jess Conway for SCO News which hopefully offers some background:

When did you decide you wanted to become a composer?

I was quite young, and I wanted to aspire to something that would top my older brother and sister, who are both instrumentalists.  Composer seemed to fit the bill: what little brother wouldn't want to write the tune their siblings had to dance to?  As well as an extremely supportive family, I was fortunate to have a piano teacher (Rob Foxcroft) who encouraged me to improvise as much as possible, as well as introducing me to a wide range of new music – I had quite narrow tastes as a teenager, pretty much Schubert and Queen; Old Blind Dogs too when I joined a ceilidh band.  I remember learning some movements of Messiaen's Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus and them being the first pieces of (relatively) contemporary music I actually enjoyed.  But once I opened my ears, what a world there was to explore – and the best thing being I could create it as I discovered it!  So, just as I was discovering I didn't really have the patience to do the slow methodical focused practice required to be a violinist, I found I did have the patience to do the slow not-always-methodical work of composing music.

Did you play an instrument first? Does that help you when you are composing?

I use anything I can get my hands on to help when I'm composing – violin, piano, singing, computer synthesis, persuadable instrumentalists and singers... Getting the actual sound right is so important, and my ears are a much better judge than my eyes, I find, or at least a different judge.  Pitch matters; how music moves in time matters.  But also the years spent playing in orchestras and a sense of the physicality of what I'm writing are invaluable.

 Do you ever miss being the one on stage?

So much. I'm an attention-seeker as much as a control-freak.

What does your first draft of a score look like? Fully formed/sketches/different colours/detailed/visual/wordy?

It depends on the piece. Sometimes there's a specific moment of music that arrives almost fully-formed and I can write that out and see where it leads; other times I have a sense of where I'm going but I need to use a lot of words and try a lot of wrong directions before I get there.  Each movement for this Piano Concerto has been quite a different experience to write.  The one constant is a stack of fineliners of as many different shades as possible which I periodically replenish.  When working on a piece, I have to be creator, critic and coach, and it helps to have different 'voices' in different colours – plus it makes me happy.

Do you always use a specific stimulus when composing (like the Niall Campbell poem ‘And This Was How It Started’ which inspired your new Piano Concerto which we premiere in October)?

I find it helps to have some fixed point around which ideas can crystallise.  Last year my 'sources' were mainly visual – Goya and Edmund de Waal – but I think all the pieces I've written for the SCO have had a literary connection – Borges for storm, rose, tiger; Shakespeare for Six Speechless Songs; and now Niall Campbell for the Piano Concerto.  I read Campbell's book Moontide in 2014 while I was making the first sketches for what became this concerto and I was utterly seduced.  The myth of a world created through song is an old one I've long been attracted to, and the everyday magic of Campbell's pub singer seemed to me just what I wanted from my soloist – there's virtuosity there, but it's not an antagonistic situation, more of a celebration, life-affirming.

Did you become a dad a couple of years ago? Has this changed your perspectives on composition, or has it had any other effect on how you compose?

It changes your perspective on pretty much everything!  Practically, it means I need to be much more efficient.  That's definitely still a work in progress.  I also seem to have shifted from writing very late at night to writing very early in the morning. 

As a Glasgow-born Scot, do you feel an affinity with all things Scottish? Haggis, Burns’ poetry, Scottish music…?

Hah! You know, I won the 'Scottish Songwriter in Schools' competition with a song about haggis I wrote in primary school, so maybe... But actually it's really complicated: yes I play the pipes and I sorely miss my ceilidh-playing days, but I got into these as a classically trained 'outsider'.  And one of the wonderful things about so much that we consider quintessentially Scottish is that it's really international rather than provincial in nature – bagpipes occur in a great many cultures; our fiddle playing embraces traditions from the whole Celtic diaspora, not to mention Scandinavia; Burns was an internationalist (think 'The Slave's Lament'); the line singing of the Outer Hebrides (which I simply adore) became transformed in the Americas. . .

If you had to pick a composer from the 18th or 19th centuries to work or study with now, who would it be?

It depends on what we'd be doing, I can imagine many of them would be difficult to work with! They say you shouldn't meet your heroes, but still I'd have to go with Schubert. Or Berlioz – his orchestral imagination is extraordinary and I'd love to bring him back to the 21st century and see what he'd do with our resources.  He described an orchestra of 120 violins, 40 violas, 45 cellos, 35 double bass, and 4 octobasses alongside a corresponding quantity of wind and brass – imagine what would happen if he got his hand on a computer and ambisonic speaker array!

Psalm (2015)

Psalm (2015)

image credit: Fran Pickering

Commissioned by Edmund de Waal

Instrumentation: harp and 3 groups of 4 players (2 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, 2 double basses)
Duration: c. 19'
First performance: 9 November, 2015. Principal players of the Aurora Orchestra, Royal Academy of Art.

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PSALM (after Celan)

There is a longer-form description of this piece and the process of its writing, of which the following is a compressed version.


What is the sound of white? 

Edmund de Waal asks this question early in The White Road, but offers no answer.  I am no synaesthete; I am no more able to respond than de Waal.  In any case, the question is, strictly speaking, nonsensical.  But it is an intriguing proposition.  If we could hear the colour of milk and snow and clouds and sunlight, what music would it make?  In commissioning Psalm, de Waal invited me to consider just this.

I decided on an oblique connection: white light refracted, scattered in a prism, echoed in a thousand different colours.  This became a single ‘white’ pitch, B, energised by a harp, then echoed and transformed by three quartets arranged around the auditorium.

Just as porcelain is the composite of two minerals, so my piece fuses two sources: white alongside the poetry of Paul Celan. White for Celan is the snow of his mother’s death, executed in a Nazi concentration camp.  How could I respond to this; what right have I, a privileged Millennial, to offer musical gloss on a horror that is beyond my comprehension?  So again I approached white indirectly, as silence: the white space that dominates the pages of Celan’s later poetry; the empty responsory of his hymn of praise to an absent god, Psalm.

Celan’s psalm aligned with the prism I had made: David was a harpist; my orbital ensembles are antiphonal choirs; his reference to a potter is pleasingly apt.  This psalm offered to No-one, with no possibility of response, suggested to me a musical situation in which harp and ensembles exist in different worlds and the harp ‘cannot hear’ the echoes she generates.  Inevitably, I was also led to think on the extraordinary heterophony of Gaelic psalmody and the corresponding lack of song in Celan, with the ‘crimson word’, the sole sung element in Celan’s Psalm, appearing only as a recollection.

White is the colour of mourning; it is also the colour of rebirth.  My harp calls out to a deity she cannot hope to hear; but yet she calls.  She is David and also Orpheus and the world she conjures is gleaming shining microtones and spectra and white light scattered and reflected and in the end there is song, or the memory of song. 

Visiones (after Goya) (2015)

Visiones (after Goya) (2015)

Instrumentation: clarinet (or violin), cello, piano
Duration: 13'
First performance: 20 June 2015: Mark Simpson (clarinet), Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Tamara Stefanovich (piano); Aldeburgh Festival, Britten Studio, Snape.

Commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festival

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Visiones (after Goya)

On page 10 of the Goya sketchbook generally known as the Witches and Old Women album, there is an image captioned by a single word: 'Visiones'. An elderly couple dance, apparently suspended midair in an awkward embrace: his attention seems elsewhere; she may be picking his pocket. The pen-strokes are few, and the ink and wash technique makes the image seem as though momentarily conjured out of smoke. But without a doubt they are dancing, this strange couple, ready to step off the page, so alive is the penmanship. Peeking out from behind a fold of the lady's skirt or the man's cloak is a grinning face, all sunken eyes and wrinkled skin, laughing at – what? The dancers, the viewer, the world?

As I drew together materials for this clarinet trio, Goya's vision haunted my dreams. It's not the piece but it drew the piece into its orbit: three odd characters, bound together in dance. There is a kind of beauty there, I think, and elegance, and poise, and some sweet melancholy. But also obsession and violence and no way out. As I shaped the piece, these ideas shaped my thinking.

There are three sections:

#1: Cello and clarinet circle each other in repeated microtonal lyrics, while the piano, completely separate, taps out ecstatic pirouettes in the extreme upper register.

#2: A fragment of the lyric figure becomes something approaching a lullaby; the three instruments combine to create a single expanding harmonic texture, which, increasingly mechanical, gets stuck in irregular loops. The process repeats. Then repeats again.

#3: A distorted memory of what has gone before. The piano is now the melodic lead; the cello a crazed, fragmentary virtuoso, unable to find a 'pure' tone; the clarinet restricted to a simple pattern of soft multiphonics. The spinning dance intrudes, then overwhelms.

Six Speechless Songs (2013)

Six Speechless Songs (2013)

Commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Instrumentation: Chamber orchestra ( - - str)
Duration: 14'
First performance: 6 February 2014. Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (cond.)

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Six Speechless Songs

The title comes from the final couplet of Shakespeare's Sonnet 8:

Whose speechless song being many, seeming one, 
Sings this to thee: 'Thou single wilt prove none.'

Shakespeare is here celebrating the family unit, but it could be extended to the many voices of an orchestra.  The lines appeal to me as a new father (my daughter was born while I was writing this piece) and allow me to link this birth-day with the SCO's birthday.  As a violinist, I think of music most directly in terms of melody, and so a 'speechless song' for orchestra chimes with my musical instincts.

When Robin asked me to write a piece that was celebratory in nature, I had intended to write a single movement of great energy and excitement, but the clever formal schemes I had planned were preventing the diverse music I was writing from properly taking off.  So instead I decided to write a sequence of short lyrical moments - birthday candles, perhaps, though six doesn't divide into forty so well - that would allow for a variety of celebratory gestures within a multi-movement piece: 'many, seeming one'.  (Also, fortuitously, short drafts are potentially sketchable in baby's nap-time.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of music for me is how it is able to combine simultaneous disparate elements into a coherent whole - the magic of polyphony.  Each of these miniatures explores a possible realisation of the many-voiced speechless song that Shakespeare invokes.  Four 'songs' are energetic and lively in character: a fanfare unison, a collection of dance fragments, a peal of bells, and a brief melody floating within a flowing river.  Two are more reflective: the central movement re-imagines a famous piobaireachd urlar, while the final is a hypnotic berceuse.

Postcards (2012-13)

Postcards (2012-13)

Commissioned by the Scottish Ensemble with support from the PRS for Music Foundation

Instrumentation: String orchestra (
First performance of Chimes at Midnight: 14 Feb 2013. Scottish Ensemble, Marryat Hall, Dundee.
First performance of Mr Jonathan Morton, His Ground: 3 Dec 2012. Scottish Ensemble, Marryat Hall, Dundee.
First performance of Touch: 7 June 2013. Scottish Ensemble, Music Hall, Aberdeen.
First performance of In Memoriam: 22 Oct 2012. Scottish Ensemble, Caird Hall, Dundee.
First performance of complete set: 21 Oct 2013. Scottish Ensemble, Music Hall, Aberdeen.


These pieces were written for the Scottish Ensemble’s 2012-13 season, with one included in each of their UK tours.  Although the musical idea underlying each piece might fit on the back of a postcard, the result is a little more substantial. They can be performed individually or as a complete set.


I – Chimes at Midnight

A series of bells.  From within the resonance, echoes of a dance emerge, and a high violin sings.


II – Mr Jonathan Morton, His Ground

Where the violin leads, the others follow, eventually arriving at rich, gleaming microtonal chords covering all registers.  Throughout the whole piece a simple melodic phrase loops over and again.


III – Touch

A toccata of scurrying semiquavers in which the players join, separate, and recombine in ever-changing groupings to create a many-voiced polyphony.   The journey repeats – though with each iteration it is squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces, until eventually it is barely there at all.


IV – In Memoriam

Stepping out into what seemed to be the first day of Spring: barely a breeze, and the sunlight warm against my face.  A sequence of microtonal harmonies gradually transform into singing cello lines backed by fragments of dance and birdsong.

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Nocturne (2013)

Nocturne (2013)

Commissioned by Aldeburgh Music for Faster than Sound

Instrumentation: violin and cello
Duration: 9'
First performance: 18 May 2013. Pekka Kuusisto (violin) and Peter Gregson (cello), Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Snape.

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In this short piece of night-music, two materials alternate: a microtonally-inflected lullaby on the one hand and a shadow world of loops and dances on the other.  Throughout, violin and cello are fused together as a single instrument, the violin projecting an imagined resonance of the cello.  As each verse passes, this resonance becomes richer and more complex, until eventually the violin escapes into a kind of birdsong.  Despite their now contrasting songs, the two instruments remain bound together until the end, the cello repeating a simplified version of the lullaby melody, while the violin circles overhead.

Release (2013)

Release (2013)

Commissioned by the BBC for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Tectonics Festival

Instrumentation: Symphony Orchestra ( - - perc. hp strings)
Duration: c.12'
First Performance: 12 May 2013, City Halls Glasgow, BBCSSO / Ilan Volkov (cond.)

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It’s hard to resist, I find, when in a large space, the urge to clap or shout or sing and listen to the sound bounce around and decay.  In one sense, that is all there is to this piece, with the orchestra taking the role of both impudent child and cathedral.  The advantage of this kind of metaphorical model is that one can play fast and loose with the laws of physics: walls can move, echoes can distort, resonance can be captured, extended and manipulated as I see fit.  Release is the moment of letting go, of letting other forces take over.  Imagine repeatedly throwing a ball into a landscape of high winds and somewhat erratic gravitational fluctuations…

There are three main sections in this piece.  Each is formed from the repetition of a particular type of impulse; each has its own type of resonating release component.  In all three sections the release portion has a tendency to take on a life of its own and overwhelm the initiating material.  In the first section, loud common-chord strikes by the whole orchestra leave behind a trace of microtonal clusters, which eventually blossom into rich, resonant harmonies.  During the second section a viola and cor anglais melody gradually expands to fill the available space.  The final section features chaotic, dense harmonic exhalations which gradually coalesce into simple pulses.  In the uppermost register of the violins, a song begins to emerge.

storm, rose, tiger (2011)

storm, rose, tiger (2011)

Commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Instrumentation: Chamber orchestra ( - - timp - str)
Duration: 20'

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storm, rose, tiger

The title is adapted from a phrase in Borges' short story The Circular Ruins. Amongst many other things, this story is an allegory of the creative process, narrating a magician's attempts to dream a human being in minute detail, dedicating himself to the task with such fervent passion that the dream-creature becomes a living man. It is a strange and compelling story, with a great deal of resonance for me as a composer: the magician's struggles as he strives to bring his creation into focus, his commitment, his bouts of self-doubt, his decision to destroy what he has made and start again, the bittersweetness with which he sends his work out into the world; all these are familiar waypoints on the creative journey.

Rather than a programmatic mirroring of the story through music, there were two features in particular which seemed to relate to musical processes I was interested in exploring, and so provided the starting point for work on the piece. The first feature is the idea of bringing something in and out of focus, of 'seeing' musical material more or less clearly, perhaps like the sort of transformations we experience in dreams. The second is the fundamentally repetitive nature of the magician's task, its incremental nature, night after night. The musical analogue I planned was to explore three types of material in sequence (storm; rose; tiger - though these are to an extent arbitrary labels rather than descriptions), repeating the succession several times and transforming each component through expansion or compression, whilst playing with ideas of 'focus' within each section.

Such was the plan, but music often has a mind of its own. While this was my starting point and many of the above elements will be readily audible, the finished piece follows its own logic.

I have made extensive use of so-called 'microtones', particularly in the latter sections of the piece. These are notes that lie outside our familiar western 12-note scale and, in my music, are derived from quarter-tone approximations of the harmonic series. These unusual pitches serve two roles: to blur on the one hand and to evoke a new musical landscape on the other. The blurring occurs as bending and glissandos around standard pitch-units, an offshoot of my initial thoughts on types of focus. The 'new musical landscape' comes from using harmony where notes outside a piano keyboard are an integral feature. Here the term 'microtone' is something of a misnomer, as I never use an interval smaller than a standard semitone; rather I am interested in those larger intervals that fall in the gaps - a semitone and a half, for example, or the interval between a major third and minor third - that give the harmony a special and often (to my mind) glowing, radiant quality. In short, I am aiming for a special type of beauty that the microtonal resource enables.

storm, rose, tiger falls into a number of distinct sections. A turbulent opening gives way on its repeat to a long melody in the winds. The strings shadow this wind line and gradually overwhelm it with ornamentation. There follows a grotesque dance, after which there is a return to the opening material presented in greatly expanded form: intensely expressive string polyphonies eventually freeze into simple harmonies, while sotto voce winds create increasingly elaborate patterns. The final section is a passacaglia, circling around a repeating modal (microtonal) pattern, beginning with the violins alone and eventually incorporating the entire orchestra.

Candlebird (2011)

Commissioned by the London Sinfonietta

Instrumentation: Large ensemble (2,1,2,1 - 1,1,1,0 - 1perc. - harp - baritone - 1,1,2,2,1)
Duration: 22'
First Performance: 29 May 2011. London Sinfonietta, Leigh Melrose (baritone), Nicholas Collon (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.

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The five songs of Candlebird are all settings of texts by Don Paterson. The selection and ordering are my own; four songs are taken from Rain (2009) and the final song is from Paterson's earlier collection God's Gift to Women (1997). The choice was, initially, merely personal preference; I was attracted to those poems that 'spoke' to me. That said, I knew from the outset that I wanted the primary vocal impulse to be lyric - in other words I set out to write songs, in a rather traditional sense perhaps (though I didn't necessarily remain faithful to this desire!) - and so the regular metric- and rhyme-schemes of the poems I chose struck me as being particularly suited to musical setting.

Only the central song is a Paterson 'original': the others are his versions of texts by Robert Desnos, Antonio Machado, and Abbas Ibn Al-Ahnaf. Paterson has described this 'versioning' as a remaking, a process in which he remains faithful to the spirit rather than the letter of the text; not an attempt to capture the original author's voice but an independent poem of his own, albeit one based on a earlier work. This is, I feel, very similar to the process of setting text to music, and the resulting nesting of versions appealed to me, from untexted music at one extreme, to my musical versions of Paterson's versions of pre-existing poetry at the other.

In the first song, 'The Landscape,' the voice triggers orchestral passages of gradually increasing harmonic density. These suddenly release on to an open sonority that remains frozen while a long trombone melody using a quarter-tone inflected scale glides on top. 'Sky Song' is a simple alternation of orchestral and vocal lines. In the third song, 'Motive', the texture is woven from an unpredictable sequence of scurrying fragments, their configuration continually changing while the harmonic underpinning remains constant. 'The Wind' is an exuberant polyphony of dances in which strings, wind and voice live in related but entirely separate worlds.

The final song, 'Candlebird,' is really a song-within-a-song. This is set as a melismatic central section in which the baritone moves freely through many quarter-tone derived scales. Bordering this, intensely expressive string polyphonics gradually shed their ornamentation until they fuse into a simple sequence of harmonies, their repeated cadence bringing the work to a close.

Lieder ohne Worte (2010)

Lieder ohne Worte (2010)

Commissioned by John Reid with generous support from the RVW Trust.

Instrumentation: Piano solo
Duration: 10'
First Performance: 19 September 2010. John Reid (with Nicholas Mulroy, tenor).

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Lieder ohne Worte

I. Der Dichter, als Prolog
II. Mein?!
III. ...mein Herz ist zu voll

These three short piano pieces are reflections on Schubert's cycle. In their way, they are songs too: the first, a recitation; the second, port-a-beul (dancing nonsense rhymes); the third a long lyrical aria.

Der Dichter, als Prolog borrows its title from the first of Müller's Die schöne Müllerin poems (which Schubert chose not to set). Like Müller's text, it presents an external speaker introducing the world of the song cycle, the forest, the brook, and distant horn calls.

The second piece continues directly from the triumphant Mein!, the over-exuberant repetition of key phrases from this song perhaps suggesting that the miller's cry, "die geliebte Mullerin ist mein! ist mein!" is more a delusional demand than a celebratory acknowledgement.

In Pause, the tenor sings “Ich kann nicht mehr singen, mein Herz ist zu voll” (I can sing no more, my heart is too full). The third piano solo, which follows immediately, takes this line as its basis: the idea of a heart filling with song to the point of overflowing.

Lieder ohne Worte are dedicated with great affection to John Reid, and their commission was generously supported by the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust.

To See the Dark Between (2010)

To See the Dark Between (2010)

Commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society and the Wigmore Hall

Instrumentation: piano, 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos
Duration: 10'
First performance: 9 May 2010, Wigmore Hall, London: Aronowitz Ensemble

Three Venus Haiku (2009)

Three Venus Haiku (2009)

Commissioned by Oliver Coates.

Instrumentation: Cello and Piano
Duration: 5'
First Performance: 8 March 2009. Oliver Coates (cello) and Daniel Driver (piano) in the Wigmore Hall, London


Let it be nameless
It is beyond the touch
of utterance and life


She runs and runs.
In all the long years
never has she carried such sunshine


Saftly, saftly lichts
the morning star. The black
abyss will nae oot it

(From Through the Letterbox: Haikus by George Bruce, Renaissance Press. Reprinted with permission.)

Three short pieces: a musical response to the poetry of George Bruce, the last surviving poet of the Scottish Literary Renaissance, who would have been 100 this year.

I. Piano and cello fused together as a single instrument, singing from a great distance.

II. Inside a beam of light.

III. A never-ending lullaby.