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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.

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)

perusal score

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!

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.)

perusal score

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.

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.)

perusal score


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'

perusal score

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.