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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.

Perusal score


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. 

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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Candlebird

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.