Commissioned by BBC Radio 3 for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Instrumentation: large orchestra
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.