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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

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.

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

perusal score 

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.

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.

perusal score


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.

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).

perusal score

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.