Through my composition I developed an interest in incorporating different aspects of the natural world into my compositions. I have created a large series of works that engage with the natural world, musically mapping certain aspects into the fabric of the music. Through this I have been increasingly fascinated by the idea of colour in music and how this can manifest itself in different ways through musical expression. I find it very exciting to explore the potential expressive impact that timbre can have within the musical space.
Within the broader theme of the natural world I have often found myself writing a number of works related more closely to a specific sub-theme. For example I have recently written a number of pieces to do with space particularly focusing on eclipses, the sun, moon and stars. These are Veiling of the Sun for string quartet, The Moon Runs Red for solo trumpet, Sun Catcher for wind quintet, and the three works I have written for the Illuminate concert series: The Moon is Falling for classical guitar and violin, Into the Scarlet Sky for shakuhachi and classical guitar, and Night Mirrors for solo piano.
When I compose I find it extremely helpful to have a clear concept for the piece before I begin. I often find the title for the piece before I start as this can give me a lot of stimulus from which I can develop musical ideas and a framework. I often first sit down with a blank piece of paper to plan the structure of the piece. This can take the form of written words and timings, but more often then not there are shapes and sketches and notes to myself about instruments or timbre. As much as possible I like to feel a connection to the instruments for which I am writing and will try to compose ideas on the instrument as much as I can, even if I can hardly play the instrument at all. This allows me to feel how the fingers sit and how the sound really resonates. Of course, this is not always possible however much I would love to own a whole orchestra of instruments. I unfortunately do not! In this situation my default tends to be the piano or relying on my inner ear to guide me.
In my work Veiling of the Sun the previous influences of using the natural world as an influence on different parameters is present as well as now foregrounding timbre as a modulating and structural parameter. The piece explores ideas and imagery associated with a solar eclipse. It explores different representations of light and uses timbral dissonance to represent the blocking out of light. These moments of timbral dissonance gradually increase in rhythmic pacing as the sun becomes more and more covered by the moon. Timbre is also used as a structural device to create progression within the piece, with the most dissonant moments coming in the form of bow over-pressure twinned with harmonic dissonance, and violent gestural material. The fading light of the sun is represented earlier in the piece through fragile timbral devices such as harmonic and quiet sul ponticello passages. As the sun’s light gradually gets more blocked out by the moon the rate of bow over-pressure moments increases. The last passage represents the final glimpses of light around the edge of the moon before the eclipse reaches totality and darkness truly takes hold.
Another piece that is based on the theme of eclipse and timbre as structure is my work As The Moon Runs Red for solo trumpet. This piece explores different timbres of the trumpet making extensive use of its different mutes through the lens of a lunar eclipse. A lunar eclipse is a natural phenomenon where the Earth blocks the sun’s light from reaching the moon. As the moon passes behind the Earth the shortest light lengths of colours, such as violet and blue, are scattered as they go through the Earth's atmosphere, leaving the longer wavelengths such as orange and red. This means the moon appears to go a deep red colour as the only light able to reach it is these longer wavelengths. This piece draws on the imagery of a lunar eclipse exploring each colours character and timbre before it is scattered away gradually building in intensity until only the violent red music is left to colour the moons surface.
You can hear this piece live at the John Armitage Memorial Trust 'Music of Our Time' concert on 22 March, 7.30pm. It will be performed by Alan Thomas, part of Onyx Brass.
Night Mirrors for solo piano (for the Illuminate concert series)
Before I wrote Night Mirrors I had recently watched several different documentaries about space and the training astronauts have to go through. One of the programmes showed the amazing natural phenomenon that is Salar de Uyuni (or Salar de Tunupa) which is where the world's largest salt flat acts as the largest natural occurring mirror. When darkness falls on a clear night, the night sky is reflected by the salt flat, creating a 360 view of the universe. These programmes and this image particularly stuck in my mind, as I was caught up thinking about the vastness of space and the complexities within it, but it also made me think about how everything is essentially created from the same elements and the simplicity of this idea.
This idea of complexity versus simplicity manifests itself in Night Mirrors with contrasts between some sections being very complex and dense in harmony and gesture, before gradually shifting to only three, three-note chords that control the harmony. This simple harmony then combines with the complex gestural material essentially pairing complexity and simplicity together.
Night Mirrors also explores the shapes and stars of the universe in the night sky and its mirror-image. The piece explores the depths and height of space, the drama and the stillness, using symmetry and reflection throughout the piece in different ways to create a musical mirror.
To hear the full version of my piece Night Mirrors live as well as my other pieces Into the Scarlet Sky for shakuhachi and classical guitar and The Moon is Falling for classical guitar and violin, I hope you will join us at one or more of the Illuminate concerts!
© Angela Elizabeth Slater
Dr Helen Thomas