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!
Dr Helen Thomas