In my compositional work I have an ongoing interest in seeking concepts from the natural world that can be mapped onto the musical fabric and framework of a piece. More recently, I have started to also explore aleatoric and graphic scores to allow for a freer interpretation of my musical expressions by performers, giving agency to performers to tailor interpretations to specific acoustic spaces.
These ideas are applied to varying extents across my recent works, with a notable example being my string quartet, Eye o da hurricane. This work was written for a collaborative workshop with writers and the Gildas quartet at the St Magnus composition course (2017). The piece takes inspiration and imagery from Christian Tait’s poem ‘Fae da Journal o a Crofter’s Wife’. The piece pays particularly attention to selected lines from the poem laden with musical imagery, including:
Sae here I am ida eye o da hurricane
while a aathing crashes an roars an birls
aboot me. Destructive an oot o control.
ta read atween da lines, or hoo
my hert vibrates laek fiddle-strings
in tune wi der black despair
sood cry my name A’ll hear him
sammas he wis in da nixt room
But ivvery mennit o ivvery day
I bargain wi da Mellishon, offerin him
my sowl if he’ll bring dem safely hame
Dis is what its laek, aa bi me lane
trapped ida eye o da hurricane
I used this musical imagery to direct the narrative shape and gestures of the piece. Take, for example, the line ‘ta read atween da lines, or hoo’. I represent this musically by using double stops in the viola that gradually get closer and closer together until they finally reach a D. At this point the whole ensemble trills and tremolos around D; microtonal and harmonic D’s create a saturation of D that vibrate in the air representing the lines ‘my hert vibrates laek fiddle-strings, in tune wi der black despair’. To create this effect, I used a graphical score approach allowing the musicians not to be fixed to strict traditional notation practices. This also means each performance is significantly different from any other, an aspect that I embrace and enjoy about this piece; each time I hear it afresh. The performance below is by the LSO performers as part of the LSO Soundhub concert on 9th February 2019.
Continuing this exploration, another work that uses this approach is my recent string quartet called Falling Watercolours. This workwas written for the Rolston quartet for the Soundstreams Emerging Composer workshop in Toronto, Canada in early 2019. The piece explores effervescent and delicate textures and colours, both luminous and dark, reflecting the array of possible tones, textures of watercolours. In addition to its underlying imagery, the piece aims to explore the relationship and dynamic between material free of meter or precise rhythms in conjunction and juxtaposition with very traditional strict meter material.It was the tension between these two different musics, placed side by side and within the same musical space that fascinated me the most when writing this piece. The two contrasting musics serve to represent the fixed and concrete shapes that you can create when painting with watercolours as well the effervescent and blending of colours possible in the medium. The performance you can see below happened at the Alliance Française Spadina Theatre in Toronto on 1st February 2019 performed by the Rolston string quartet as part of the Soundstreams Emerging Composer Workshop showcase.
This idea of two musics functioning within the same piece then transfers over to my piece Shades of Rain, my latest Illuminate commission for piano trio. The piece functions as though it is two movements happening within the same piece: Cloudburstand Petrichor. ‘Cloudburst’ refers to an extreme amount of precipitation in a short period of time often accompanied by hail and thunderstorms. The piece reflects this with dramatic driving rhythms and strident dramatic chords from the piano that punctuate the piece. These spells of extreme dramatic rain and musical descents are interrupted by music representing Petrichor. ‘Petrichor’ is the pleasant aroma that occurs after rain has fallen for the first time after a dry period. These parts of the music are explored through expansive and reflective lyrical lines giving relief to the dramatic movements and figures found in the Cloudburst sections. To hear this piece in concert please join us for one of Illuminate Season I concerts – link to What’s On.
The Illuminate Women’s Music 2019 Season I concert series and commissions is supported by the PRS Open Fund for organisations and Ambache Charitable Foundation. Illuminate Season I is delighted to host concerts in both the US and UK with concerts in Boston (MA), Hartford (CT), Oxford, Brighton, York, and Stafford.
You can now support Illuminate Women's Music 2019 season I and II!
As my work often deals with connecting with physical movement, the topic of my previous Illuminate blog discusses how my early experiences with dance naturally feed into the way I approach and think about music. For this second blog, I discuss visual art as an inspiration for my new Illuminate commission, which builds on an earlier piece for flute and harp entitled Shift.
Shift was written to accompany an installation of the same name by artist Anne Gibbs which was featured in National Museum Cardiff’s ‘Fragile?’ contemporary ceramics exhibition in 2015. Gibbs’ work incorporates intricate small-scale figures that explore themes of beauty and unrest, approached with sensitivity and precision. Each figure could be viewed as an independent piece, but what I find striking is Gibbs’ deliberate arrangement of these distinct figures to form the collection as a whole. Specifically, two aspects of Gibbs’ piece have inspired the processes encompassed in its musical companion: its title and combination of disparate materials.
The title of Gibbs’ piece was instantly intriguing to me in particular, and in a way, it served as an instruction for the composition of the piece. A five-note cell of pitches that is perpetually shifted rhythmically into reoccurring musical figures largely comprises the piece. This set of pitches was isolated from the painstakingly intuitively composed opening flute gesture.
The second principal source of inspiration taken from Gibbs’ ceramic piece, crafted out of bone china, silk thread, pins and wire, is combining disparate materials. There is a parallel between the visual installation composed of differing materials and the grouping of contrasting instruments in the musical work. Shift combines the agile chromaticism of the flute and the timbral possibilities made available by the differing lengths of the harp’s strings to correspond with the mixed materials in Gibb’s installation.
More info about Gibbs’ work can be found on her website: https://annegibbs.co.uk/
Undercurrent, my piece commissioned by Illuminate Season I 2019, develops ideas from Shift within a longer piece, both motivic and constructional, particularly the concept of the arrangement of disparate elements together. Throughout the piece, timbre functions alongside differing approaches to metre and pulse to coordinate or stratify the instrumental characters.
The largely atmospheric opening of Undercurrent comprises of dovetailed expressive lines in the violin and cello underpinned by muddled chords in the piano’s lower register. This section corresponds to the organic ceramic shapes in Gibbs’ installation, which I associate with breath and resonance. A strong pulse is evaded in this section with metre constantly changing to support the expressive lines.
In the faster central section of the piece, however, the dense piano chords evolve into secco rhythmic pulsations which provide a mechanical-like current in opposition to the expressive gestures characteristic of the violin and cello pair. Four primary cells are combined in different ways to construct the piano part in the central section. At times these cells are repeated in a familiar pattern, however, the pattern is quickly interrupted and never stated exactly.
The final section of Undercurrent is a return to the atmospheric opening as the original piano chords return, this time in all of the instruments. Repeating at a differing rate, the rhythmic pattern is slowly augmented in each instrument until the individual streams converge to close the piece.
You can hear Undercurrent performed throughout 2019 by Boston-based piano trio Prism, alongside new works by Kerensa Briggs, Laura Shipsey, Angela Elizabeth Slater, and Sarah Westwood, as well as historical works by Morfydd Owen, Grazyna Bacewicz and Lili Boulanger.
I use memories as the catalyst for my work, primarily memories of dance projects that I have previously composed which I intersect and layer with other processes of hidden ideas and personal meaning. Elements associated with dance such as gesture, specialisation and embodiment play into my concert works, but I am especially interested in exploring Somatics in composition and the memory: the body as perceived from within, and the somatic principles of mind-body connection. Somatic movement is used in dance, and through my practice-based research I am endeavouring to link this ‘dance’ concept as a holistic approach to writing music, linking embodiment and intuition, and gesture and memory together.
Etching Circles, my piece commissioned by Illuminate Season I 2019, was composed after I created electronic music for dance piece Circle of Perpetual Choirs. For this dance, the audience was in the round, and dancers moved outside the audience. Speakers were placed around the audience and under the seats, and I mapped a live, aural landscape around and close by the audience and dancers. Afterward, I was interested in the spatialization and in the different energy of the dancers, and wanted to focus on these thoughts for Etching Circles.
Originally, Etching Circles started out as four small movements. My mind turned to the earlier dance music, the idea of the Baroque Dance Suite, alongside the fact that four dancers within CoPC each had their own energy, and I decided to pair the memory of each dancer with a particular Baroque movement I felt had a similar quality in their expression; the Allemande, the Courante, the Sarabande and the Gigue. I started sketching and layering ideas from this which germinated gestures and sound worlds for each particular movement.
However, I didn’t want the piece to be structured with four separate movements, and as in the original dance, which interwove the choreography around the audience, I thought to weave and circle the movements together. From this idea, and the fact that somatic movement has a level of indeterminacy, I’ve composed the movements as a mobile and invite the performers to play in their preferred order. Furthermore, each performer may play one stanza from a particular movement whilst another is playing from another movement. Repetition is encouraged. I imagined the sense that Etchings Circles becomes a sonic etch of the dancers. I like the image of etching as it a corrosion of the original project and something which can be etched in my memory. A final image that helped shape this piece is a photo of dance with long exposure. By now, my ideas for different movements could be placed within the same time and place in co- existence.
Finally, I’m sharing a recording of a piece I wrote which also uses memory as impetus. You are Your Memory was written for Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble, and came from working dancers at Centre National de la Danse Paris (during workshops for In Vivo Danse). We talked about an idea that we face our past with our backs turned to the future. I meditated on this idea and later composed this:
You can hear Etching Circles performed throughout 2019 by Boston-based piano trio Prism, alongside new works by Kerensa Briggs, Laura Shipsey, Angela Elizabeth Slater, Blair Boyd, and historical works by Morfydd Owen, Grazyna Bacewicz and and Lili Boulanger.
Circle of Perpetual Choirs: initiated by dancer Tara Silverthorn and developed with the kind support of Arnolfini Bristol, Ballet National de Marseille France, Siobhan Davies Dance London and Dream Time residency - a creative initiative between Dance Base, Studio On The Green and LIVE Borders. Funded by Arts Council England and Creative Scotland.
Dr Helen Thomas