For me the easiest way to talk about my work as a composer is to talk about the questions I am working with. The first questions for almost every piece I’ve written so far have been to do with context: what and where I am writing the piece for, and most importantly, who the musicians are. I’m writing this blog during the last few days of Impuls, a new music festival and academy in Graz, Austria, in which working together has been a central part of the compositional experience so perhaps that is skewing my current view, but for me the first challenge of Confluere (my new piano trio for Illuminate’s 2019 Season I), was the huge distance between me as a composer and the Prism Trio in the USA. I can’t wait to work with them when they come to the UK later this year because there is really nothing like being in a room with musicians and working on ideas together. For now I’ll introduce Confluere and explore how it relates to some other examples of my work.
Confluere was the first instrumental piece I wrote following a long period of work on Samara, my largest orchestral work to date. After being immersed in such a large canvas for so long, suddenly having only three instruments felt very exposed. Confluere is in a sense very simple. It focusses on building very intimate relationships between the three performers and exploring how those relationships can change. The word ‘Confluere’ is the Latin root of the English ‘Confluence’ and means the place where two rivers meet and join together. Unusually for me the title came after the work on this occasion. It is descriptive of how the three instruments interact but also of my compositional process which, for this piece, was in a way very fluid. Confluere will be premiered in the US on 8th March (Cambridge, MA) and in the UK on 30th August (Brighton) alongside works by Blair Boyd, Kerensa Briggs, Angela Elizabeth Slater and Sarah Westwood.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of collaboration and notation is my recent piece In Tiled. Building on some smaller scale pieces written during my time in Cardiff last year, In Tiled explores how exactly we communicate (with each other as musicians and audiences, and with the musical material itself), and what happens when the score becomes mobile. Inventing and working with a new kind of scoring for this piece meant confronting questions of form and movement and has resulted in a work which I hope will grow in new directions each time it is performed. In Tiled was premiered in Graz, Austria, by Jacobo Hernández Enriquez (violin) and Yui Sakagoshi (saxophone) to whom I will always be grateful for their enthusiasm for the experiment.
Back in the land of traditional notation, or at least a non-mobile score, Samara is my first full scale orchestral work and was commissioned by Aldworth Philharmonic Orchestra, an amateur orchestra based in Reading, UK. Samara was written to sit in a programme of music concerned with desire and for me that meant working with ideas of partnership, parallel and contrary motion, suspension and, above all, a journey. My harmonic and structural approaches in Confluere are largely drawn from ideas that occurred during my work on Samara. Below you can listen to two excerpts from the premiere given by Aldworth Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Taylor, Reading University Great Hall, UK, 2nd Feb 2019:
The Peacock Tree
An older work than the others I have talked about so far, but one which was a turning point for me, is The Peacock Tree for wind quintet. At the time of writing this piece I was working a lot with issues to do with metaphor, meaning, and the live experience of music; what it means to give sound a title, to what extent music can really communicate, and how much the non-audible aspects of a performance and performance space can become part of a piece. Many of the aspects I began to explore in this little piece have been vital to my more recent works and continue to provide questions worth further exploration. You can listen to an excerpt from the piece here:
Juxtaposing these four pieces, I think I can safely say that my current concerns are: approaches to structure, music as a mode of live communication between audience, performers and composer, and clarity of character in the experience of each piece I make. I am still at the beginning of my journey and who knows where music will lead me next. I am hugely grateful to Angela for the opportunity to work with the Prism Trio and honoured to be a part of Illuminate’s 2019 Season I.
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Dr Helen Thomas