An awful lot seems to have happened since Dr Angela Elizabeth Slater asked me to publish the first-ever composer blog about Morfydd Owen for the Illuminate Women’s Music website on 3 January 2018.As Illuminate moves into a second year with performances of Morfydd’s 1915 ‘Piano Trio’ taking place in the USA and UK, it’s a pleasure to reflect on events that marked the centenary of the composer’s death last September and to preview some of those to come.
I met Angela by chance when we were both invited by Dr Rhiannon Mathias to give papers at the First International Conference on Women’s Work in Music at Bangor University in September 2017. The timing really couldn’t have been better: Angela was planning to launch Illuminate while I was revisiting my Doctoral research with a view to programming a year-long commemoration of the centenary. By the end of the conference, we had agreed that Morfydd’s Four Welsh Impressions for solo piano would benefit both projects by forming part of Késia Decoté’s repertoire for Illuminate’s inaugural concerts in Stafford, Cardiff and Brighton (10, 11 and 20 April 2018).
2 Késia Decoté playing Morfydd Owen’s Four Welsh Impressions
Publication of the blog gave an immediate sense of the level of interest to come. Within a day, BBC Cymru Fyw, the live-stream Welsh-language news channel, had picked up the story and turned it into a feature piece, Cofio Morfydd, cerddor lliwgar y cymoedd [Remembering Morfydd, colourful musician of the valleys] that reached the top three news headlines in Wales. Requests for interviews, repertoire suggestions and programme notes soon started arriving via @MorfyddOwen100, the Facebook and Twitter channels that I set up to publicise and archive centenary activity and, by February, it was clear that Morfydd was becoming a full-time job in her own right. This had some practical implications, given that my usual job is to programme the Gregynog Festival, the oldest extant classical music festival in Wales, but happily, we had just enough time to retailor our 2018 season so that we could present a programme of events in Mid Wales as usual, focusing on Morfydd Owen’s family roots in the Montgomeryshire village of Llanbryn-mair, while also leaving me the flexibility to respond to other invitations and opportunities. And so @MorfyddOwen100 evolved into a series of concerts, talks, exhibitions and special events in the UK from January to December 2018, plus other performances and broadcasts worldwide that I was able to assist via e-mail and social media.
Highlights in Wales included two ceremonies over centenary weekend to unveil blue plaques on the houses where Morfydd Owen was born (68 Park Street, Treforest), and in which she died (Craig-y-Môr, Plunch Lane, Oystermouth). Creating and delivering these occasions, including arrangements for performers, audience members and television camera crews, kept us all so busy in the moment that it is good to have quieter time now to realise how significant they were. Few people can ever been paid such a compliment, let alone a musician who died when she was just 26 years of age. There were large attendances at centenary lectures for the Royal Institution of South Wales and Oystermouth Historical Society at Swansea University (6 September 2018); the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth (11 September 2018); Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives (12 November 2018), and the University of South Wales’ Treforest Campus when Morfydd Owen was the subject of the Ursula Masson Memorial Lecture for the Centre for Gender Studies in Wales and the Women’s Archive of Wales (International Women’s Day, 8 March 2019).
Other audiences were reached through frequent television and radio broadcasts, including a 90-minute drama by Boom Cymru for S4C (Channel 4 Wales) that was given a preview screening by BAFTA Cymru in Cardiff (25 October 2018) prior to broadcast (16 December 2018). During a year of #Sheroes and #Herstories, Morfydd Owen’s life and example also came to symbolise something more than musical achievement alone and there were requests for interviews for current affairs programmes as well as those specialising in music and the arts. Morfydd was chosen, for instance, as one of five inspirational Welsh women to mark one hundred years since the Representation of the People Act by BBC Radio Wales’ flagship news programme, Good Morning Wales(8 February 2018). Rhondda Cynon Taf Borough Council also announced that it would be honouring three women including Morfydd with commemorative panels in local libraries with the intention of telling their stories so that future generations of women in the area may be inspired to follow in their footsteps. The Morfydd Owen panel will be unveiled when a new library building has been completed at Llys Cadwyn, Pontypridd.
But the most impactful event of centenary year must surely have been the fine performance of Morfydd Owen’s Nocturne by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Thomas Søndergård, at the BBC Proms on 20 July 2018. This was the first time that the work had been heard in London since it was premièred at Queen’s Hall, Langham Place, by the Royal Academy of Music Orchestra, conducted by Alexander Mackenzie, on 12 December 1913, and the performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio Cymru as well as being recorded for delayed television transmission by BBC Four. What a whirlwind of a day that was, including an interview by John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4’s Today; a Proms Plus talk with Steph Power and Petroc Trelawny that was edited to form the interval feature during the live performance on BBC Radio 3; and concert commentary for BBC Radio Cymru that was broadcast live from within the Royal Albert Hall itself.
Nocturne was heard alongside two scores by Lili Boulanger, who also died prematurely in 1918 at the age of 24; and she and Morfydd Owen were two of 21 women whose music was represented at last year’s Proms – that is, 15 per cent of the 133 composers whose work was heard during the season as a whole. According to the annual survey conducted by Women in Music, these figures were substantially better than the previous best of 12 female composers in 2015. Proms Director David Pickard has also pledged to increase the number of commissions so that male and female composers are treated equally by 2022.
Nocturne was greeted by rave reviews in the British and French press and, believe you me, when Richard Morrison concludes his Times review with ‘More Morfydd soon please’ after you have sought to draw attention to the significance of a score for 35 years, it feels like a really good day at the office. The Proms performance has since been rebroadcast by ABC Radio in Sydney (28 July 2018), Radio Monalisa in Amsterdam (26 and 29 August 2018), and as part of Mexico City’s leading classical music programme, Música en Red Mayor, presented by Jose-Maria Alvarez (4 September 2018). Nocturne was also featured by Steve Lamacq on BBC Radio 6 Music and by Huw Stephens and Clemency Burton-Hill on BBC Radio 3’s podcast Classical Fix, making this one of the year’s highest-profile events for Welsh culture in terms of impact and reach. A cumulative audience of millions must have been able to access the concert itself, plus the live, delayed and on-demand broadcasts via BBC radio, television and online, and the subsequent relays by other radio stations.
From one major national festival to another and it was standing room only at the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay for a presentation about Morfydd Owen’s pioneering work as an ethnomusicologist as part of Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru’s new strand of classical music programming called #Encore (7 August 2018). The Welsh Folk-Song Society generously made it possible for me to include live performances of Morfydd’s rarely-heard transcriptions and arrangements of Welsh and Russian folksongs by Siân James and Steffan Rhys Hughes, accompanied by Rhiannon Pritchard, as illustrations to my script and the presentation also served as the Society’s Amy Parry-Williams Memorial Lecture for 2018. We repeated the event at Llanbryn-mair as part of Gregynog Festival's Morfydd in Montogomeryshire programme (29 September 2018) when it was emotional to do so within sight of the framed portrait of Morfydd Owen that her father presented to the village after her death and which still hangs in the entrance hall of the Community Centre. Llywelyn Ifan Jones also made an effective transcription for solo harp of Morfydd Owen’s haunting piano miniature Glantaf that he premièred during his Gregynog Festival recitals in partnership with Live Music Now.
9 Llywelyn Ifan Jones playing his transcription of Morfydd Owen’s Glantaf
Two new scores took Morfydd Owen’s legacy in fresh and imaginative directions by sampling her songs. Psychohistory, a sound installation commissioned by Swansea International Festival from Locus (Richard James of Gorky’s Zygotic Monkey and Angharad Van Rijswijk of Accü) for Swansea Museum (22 September-21 October 2018), drew on a fragment from A mother’s lullaby; while Robin Haigh’s score ‘Morfydd’, premièred at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, by the Berkeley Ensemble (22 November 2018), used the vocal line of The lamb as the only melodic material throughout. Haigh's score was one of eight commissioned as part of Acclerate, PRS for Music's inaugural career development programme, and received a second performance as part of a Tŷ Cerdd Night Music showcase at St David’s Hall, Cardiff (9 April 2019).
Significant revivals of Morfydd Owen’s vocal, choral, chamber, piano and orchestral works took place throughout centenary year, including seven songs by Katherine Aregood Crusi and Keith Trievel at the Trinity Lutheran Church, Reading, Pennsylvania, USA (2 May 2018);Threnody for strings played on tour from Beaumaris to Milford Haven by the Welsh Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Anthony Hose (May-October 2018); a full recital of Morfydd Owen’s vocal and piano music, given by Gail Pearson and Christopher Williams at Cardiff University School of Music (13 November 2018), and Nocturne played by the Philomusica of Aberystwyth, conducted by David Russell Hulme, at Aberystwyth Arts Centre (8 December 2018).
Cardiff University honoured Morfydd as an alumna during concerts by its Symphony Orchestra (24 November 2018)and Chamber Choir (14 December 2018); and the Choir has since toured three of Morfydd’s choral works to China (June 2019).Morfydd’s scores have also been championed by the student musicians of Stetson University, Florida, USA; the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiffl and the Royal Academy of Music and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London (part of the #VenusBlazing initiative). After 35 years’ research, I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to see the composer reach a tipping-point where personal lobbying is no longer required from me for her music to be programmed, and long may it continue.
11 The Ethel Smyth Trio and Prism Trio playing Morfydd Owen’s ‘Piano Trio’
Which brings me to the current sequence of performances of Morfydd Owen’s 1915 ‘Piano Trio’, programmed by Illuminate Women’s Music and given by the Prism Trio as part of the Music Marathon at the Women Composers Festival of Hartford, Connecticut, USA (30 March 2019), and the Ethel Smyth Trio in Brighton (30 August 2019), York (7 September 2019) and Stafford (14 September 2019). Angela Elizabeth Slater and I will be giving a pre-concert talk in York and look forward to seeing you there. Other performances of Morfydd’s music are already being planned as far ahead as September 2020, so do follow the @MorfyddOwen100 accounts on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest news.
Meantime, Zoë Smith has just released a recording of the Four Welsh Impressions as part of a disc of Welsh piano music on the Tŷ Cerdd label;and a few copies of my ‘life in pictures’ of Morfydd Owen, Never So Pure A Sight, are also available from Tŷ Cerdd. Morfydd’s published music can be obtained from Tŷ Cerdd and Oriana Publications; while the main collection of her manuscripts is held at Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives.
I’ll end with some reviews of Nocturne at the Proms that speak for themselves and I trust will convince others to programme Morfydd Owen’s music in future. Do be in touch if there is anything I can do to help; and with sincere thanks – diolch o galon- to all who have helped in so many ways already.
Alongside Schumann’s Fourth Symphony and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, we had two works by Lili Boulanger and the Nocturneby the little known Morfydd Owen … Only twenty-six when she died, she left behind a substantial corpus which is too infrequently performed. What stands out in her Nocturneis the beautiful writing for woodwind, subtle but virtuosic, and the advanced nature of the orchestration as a whole, hinting at works that might have matched Strauss if only she had had the time … At fifteen minutes long, it’s a work we could do with hearing more regularly in the concert hall.
Morfydd Owen's Nocturne in D flat major (1913) … should transform perceptions about Welsh (and British) music history … Unlike far too many supposedly ‘lost’ composers, Owen's legacy was substantial. Her reputation doesn't rest on sentimentality or gender alone, but on the hard evidence of her music itself.
The Nocturne is sophisticated and highly original … Such deftness of design, such precise orchestration, and such beauty … unhurried and clear of purpose … its serene confidence is highly distinctive: Owen most definitely had a voice of her own, though she was only 22 when it was completed. BBC NOW should make this Nocturne part of their standard repertoire … Owen's music speaks for itself regardless of reputation.
Morfydd Owen’s tragically short life is rendered even more poignant by a haunting photograph of a beautiful young woman gazing confidently out at you. She wrote Nocturne in 1913, and it is, in our global village, a powerful reminder how a couple of hundred miles can make a world of difference. As with Lili Boulanger, there’s an element of Impressionism, although from a darker, grey-green palette. The various influences – Delius, northern Europe, Russia – might not sound so assimilated, but Owen had a freakishly astute orchestral ear, clearly knew the power of a good tune and was an imaginative manipulator of mood, all aspects of her musicianship given full expression by this beautifully engaged, spacious performance.
Morfydd Owen was a revelation to me. The only thing more astonishing than the quality of her orchestral Nocturne is the fact that she wrote 250 other pieces in her 27-year life … Performed for the first time in London since its 1913 première, the Nocturne begins with very French flourishes for woodwind, then unfurls the most gorgeous melody. More Morfydd soon please.
© Rhian Davies, 2019
The Times, 23 July 2018.
A BBC Proms press release suggests that ‘over 16 million people watched the BBC Proms on TV’ in the UK alone in 2017, see: https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/mediapacks/proms-2018.
As one of the most prolific composers of the seventeenth century, Barbara Strozzi was not only a renowned soprano, but a profoundly accomplished and empowered woman, who forged a career for herself as a composer of cantatas and arias. Her 400th Birthday offers an opportunity to explore the life and works of one of the first women to openly characterise herself as a composer, and to be accepted as such, in what was an oppressive and problematic social environment for women.
Strozzi was born in Venice on 6th August 1619, to Giulio Strozzi, and his long-term servant and mistress, Isabella Griega. Giulio played a key role in setting his illegitimate daughter on the path towards a musical career, encouraging and including her in his academic activities, especially those which were musically inclined. He co-founded an academic movement called the Academia degli Unisoni, an offshoot of the distinguished Academia degli Incogniti, which focussed on musical activities and debated musical topics. Taking place in the Strozzis’ home, Barbara acted as a master of ceremonies, directing debates, giving vocal performances, and ultimately, having the last word. These types of academic societies were key to Renaissance and Baroque culture, as they provided intellectual and financial support to the arts, and therefore were frequently responsible for dictating cultural, artistic fashions.
Giulio Strozzi arranged for Barbara to be taught by Francesco Cavalli, himself a student of Claudio Monteverdi, who was a prominent composer of opera and other dramatic works. Giulio was a great admirer of music, and wrote libretti for composers such as Monteverdi, Cavalli, Manelli and Sacrati. It is no wonder that this passion for music lead him to encourage his daughter’s talents, although the degree to which he included her in musical activities in an academic, intellectual context is remarkable.
The liberal approach of her father enabled Barbara Strozzi to establish herself as an autonomous and serious composer, although doing so was not without its risks. Her female contemporaries were performers; Prima Donnas of the operatic stage, whose status as actress-singers at times gave them little more than aesthetic significance in the public eye, and generated comparatively little cause for concern in the predominantly conservative society. Some of these singers also composed, but none made a name for themselves through their compositions.
Due to the controversy of Barbara Strozzi’s musical activities and her interaction with men in academic circles, it has been frequently suggested by her contemporaries and by recent scholars that she was a courtesan. In 1637, eight satires were anonymously published, which criticised the Academia degli Unisoni, with comments made about Barbara, including; "It is a fine thing to distribute the flowers after having already surrendered the fruit”, and "to claim and to be [chaste] are very different”.
In the period of 1640-1646, Barbara became a single mother, bearing three children by Giovanni Paolo Vidman. She later gave birth to a fourth child, the father of whom is unknown. Her status as a single mother has propagated the courtesan narrative, as has a portrait of the composer by Bernardo Strozzi (no relation of Barbara), which features Barbara with a nude breast, alongside a viola da gamba and sheet music (indicating her ability to perform and accompany her own music). Whether or not Barbara was a courtesan cannot yet be determined, but it does not alter or undermine her musical achievement.
Strozzi’s exposure to the academic sphere inspired her to go down the route of composition, and she shrewdly chose to focus primarily on one genre of works. So far, research has uncovered over eighty-two works composed by Strozzi, the vast majority of which are short, secular songs set to poetry with a consistent theme: unrequited love. This theme is approached in a variety of ways: with humour, irony, and solemnity, depending on the piece. She composed cantatas and arias, which vary in form and length, clearly showing an attempt to play with different structures. Her vocal ability as a soprano seems to have dictated the music she wrote, as all but a few works are for, or include, a soprano voice. Her pieces are lyrical, emphasising the power and diversity achievable with the soprano register, with long, melismatic passages giving the performer plenty of opportunity to show off. She added dynamics, tempo markings and a plenitude of ornamentation such as trills, tremolos and runs, suggesting that Strozzi was keen to show the singer how to best to exhibit their skills.
A particular example of this is “Appena il sol”from Opus 7, Diporti di Euterpre (1659), which contains numerous markings and instructions from Strozzi, as well as exhibiting the long melismas which show off the soprano voice to its fullest.
Although Strozzi composes in the seconda prattica style, which puts emphasis on music being secondary to the words and emotions it is expressing, she shows an affinity for choosing short passages of text to set her music to. Her use of text is often repetitive rather than expansive, as can be seen within her strophic arias and their repeated choruses. Although typical seconda prattica techniques such as word painting are used to emphasise certain lyrics, her works indulge the singer’s abilities, rejecting the narrative voice adopted by her contemporaries, in favour of a more self-expressive one. She deals with the inherent drama of her theme: the agony of unrequited love, by using the voice to truly expand on the feelings expressed in the lyrics, with her lyric-less portions of melody creating just as much, if not more, emotional impact upon the listener. The aria “L’eraclito amoroso”, from Opus 2, Cantate, ariette e dueti (1651), exemplifies this repetitive use of text and expressive, lyric-less vocal melismas to create a significant emotional impact.
Her attention to detail, as well as the fact that almost all of her works were short cantatas and arias, provides a stark contrast to the work of her teacher Cavalli, and the work of her other contemporaries. Whilst opera was an extremely popular phenomenon, demand for printed books of works which could be performed in the home were also very popular. Most composers attempted to supply both dramatic and domestic markets, as well as writing sacred music, but Strozzi focussed her attention on producing her Opuses, which were monographic collections of musical works for general, domestic use. Appealing to the domestic market, Strozzi was able to see eight of these Opuses, consisting entirely of her own compositions, through the press.
Unlike composers who belonged to a particular court or patron, Strozzi was not required to churn out music for particular occasions or at the whim of an employer. She was able to perfect her own works at her own pace, and ensure that they were all printed, avoiding the ephemerality of many court composer’s outputs. Although she was not able to rely on a consistent salary, she managed to earn enough to support herself, her children, and for a time, her ailing parents. She dedicated her works to a range of high-ranking, European patrons, such as the Duchess of Mantua and King Ferdinand of Austria, implying a high level of renown and success.
Barbara died in November 1677 after travelling to Padua. We can only trace her career as far as her last published set of cantatas and arias in 1664, but in the final thirteen years of her life, Strozzi may have composed several works which were not published, or were lost.
Barbara Strozzi’s music demonstrates her impressive knowledge of the soprano voice, and expresses her passion for vocal music, cultivated by her supportive father. Her exposure to the academic societies of Venice allowed her to flourish in an environment which was hostile toward women in her position, and her shrewd approach to her compositions enabled her to create and perfect music which was not only popular, but commercially saleable. In doing this, Strozzi created a musical legacy which has lasted over three centuries, long outliving the works of many of her contemporaries.
© Annabelle Page (2019)
You can now support Illuminate Women's Music future activities!
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.
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.
You can now support Illuminate Women's Music 2019 season I and II!
Much of my music is influenced by reflection. As music can be such a powerful elicitor of reflective thought, I aim to write music which can give expression to existential emotions in a way that is universally accessible. Having grown up in the English Choral Tradition and singing on a regular basis from a young age, my music has been heavily influenced by the transcendence of sacred music and spaces, with it being described as ‘meditative and mellifluous’, with a 'great feel for choral sonority and textures’.
In terms of my compositional approach, I am very much led by my ear. As the composer Herbert Howells once said, ‘I have composed out of sheer love of trying to make nice sounds’.Musical sounds or ideas, like any auditory signal of course, unfold over time. When composing this piano trio, ‘Forget?’, for Prism, I wanted to explore ways in which music can be involved with memory and the processing of emotions, responses and ideas.
I knew from the outset that I wanted the opening section to reappear in different guises, each time incorporating different textural, harmonic, melodic and rhythmic ideas. I wanted the reminiscence of the initial theme to be clear, but for the memory of it to become altered through the processing of the subsequent contrasting sections. These are varied in numerous ways throughout the piece but hark back to ideas from the original theme.
I often find it helpful to refer to traditional structures, and with this idea of musical reminiscence and altered repetitions in mind, I decided early on to use Rondo form as a structural outline (ABA1CA2DA3). Polytonal ascending semiquaver phrases in the piano part juxtapose emotive and more melodic writing found in the string parts in the B and C sections. The D section sees a more contrapuntal interplay between all of the instruments. There are elements of jazz-influenced rhythms and harmonies throughout the piece, particularly at the end of the D section where the strings eventually come together into unison. This then leads us back into the final statement of the original theme, which, although featuring subtle differences and having been influenced by memories of the contrasting sections, has not been forgotten.
You can hear the trio amongst other premieres by Sarah Westwood, Blair Boyd, Angela Elizabeth Slater and Laura Shipsey on the 8th March at the New School of Music Concert Hall in Cambridge, MA; at the Women Composers Festival of Hartford, CT, on the 30th March; at the Music and Wine concert series at St Luke’s, Brighton, on the 30th August; at Late Music at Yorkon the 7th September; St Mary's Church, Stafford on the 14th September, and at Stonevale Concert Serieson Sunday 15th September.
The Choir of St Bride’s Fleet Street on ‘Gloucester Service’ (2018)
Professor Robert Saxton on ‘Ave Regina Caelorum’(2017)
Paul Spicer, Herbert Howells, Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press Ltd (1998)
You can now support Illuminate Women's Music 2019 season I and II!
Charlotte Bray on works for piano
Inspiration from dreaming and children link almost all of the works I’ve written for solo piano.
The latest piece, Bring Me All Your Dreams was commissioned by Aldeburgh Festival for Pierre- Laurent Aimard, and premiered at Aldeburgh Festival on 10th June 2019. The piece is written in memory of Oliver Knussen and for my son Caio, who entered the world just a few months after Olly suddenly, sadly and unexpectedly made his exit. To write something as perfect, precise, beautiful and enchanted as everything Olly wrote is most likely to be a lifelong quest for me. The lessons he so generously, openly and readily provided me will remain close to my heart as will the conviction he instilled in me as a composer.
The piece seeks to mimic the imaginings within the dream of a newborn child. The music floats and dances with tiny flutters and fleeting smiles, moving rapidly through various states of a luminous, secret world. The title Bring Me All Your Dreams is taken from the poem, The Dream Keeper, by Langston Hughes. The ‘heart melodies’ wrapped ‘in a blue cloud-cloth, away from the too-rough fingers of the world’ describe exactly the newborn’s dreaming I write about- innocent, inventive, playful and curious. Echoes of Olly’s Ophelia’s Last Dance pervade the work, hauntingly yet affectionately.
Written in 2013 and commissioned by the Festspiele Europäische Wochen Passau, Oneiroi was also dedicated to Oliver Knussen, since his works (and that of Hans Werner Henze) inspired the piece. A dialogue of thoughts flow throughout- an incredibly private inner space, frequently returning to melodies, as if flashes of dream recur. Sometimes dark, isolated, and pensive, and at other times delicate, lyrical, and warmer in character, the music is in constant flux between a clear and a blurred state- one questions whether it is a dream or reality.
In Greek mythology, dreams are personified by dark-winged spirits called Oneiroi. They emerge at night from their cavernous home in Erebos, the land of eternal darkness beyond the rising sun. According to Homer, the Oneiroi passed through one of two gates: the deceitful dreams through a polished ivory gate, while the prophetic, god-sent dreams issue from a transparent gate made of horn. Since dreams are essentially a private inner space, a hidden dialogue of thoughts and emotions, the parallel of the Oneiroi is fitting in viewing the piece as a Spirit of dreams.
Chapter’s One, Two and Three, written between 2009 and 2017, are compilations of short pieces spanning various levels, intended to be played by children. Written as presents for friends in celebration of the births of their children, each explores the piano in a different way, designating a temperament to the music, inspired by the child in some way. To mention a few, Herbie’s Funfare is filled with energy and determination. The witty and mischievous nature of A Hundred Monkeys is fitting for Evelyn, whose independence and intellect is already clear. ‘Bryn’s Blue Jay’ is graceful and light, written while I was resident at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, and ‘Luke’s Lamborghini’ reflects his love of cars. The pieces have been particularly widely performed by the Cambridge Suzuki Young Musicians, thanks to Stephen and Betty Power.
Dame Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) described in 2001 as ‘one of the most substantial composers these islands have ever produced.’ Looking at her musical rap sheet alone is impressive, you name it she’s written for it - symphonies, concertos, ballet, opera, chamber music, the lot.
So who was Elizabeth Maconchy?
Elizabeth Maconchy was born in 1907 in a village in Hertfordshire and spent her teenage years in Ireland. She started playing the piano when she was six and at just 16 years old she got accepted to the Royal College of Music to study piano and composition. At RCM she made a lifelong friendship with fellow composer Grace Williams and studied under Vaughan Williams who also became an important mentor and friend.
In 1930 Maconchy caught a big break when Henry Wood premiered her orchestral suite The Land at the Proms. It was the start of an amazing career. She received commissions from everyone from major orchestras including BBC Symphony and CBSO to individual musicians such as clarinettist Gervase de Peyer and singer Janet Craxton. Maconchy went on to become Chairman of the Composers Guild. She also chaired the Executive Committee of the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM) and helped develop the British Music Information Centre (BMIC), now both part of Sound and Music. Maconchy was made a CBE in 1977 and then became a Dame in 1987.
Maconchy was friends with her contemporaries Grace Williams, Ina Boyle and Britten, later on she also inspired and befriended a new generation of composers including Thea Musgrave and Richard Rodney Bennett.
RCM launched her phenomenal talent into the world but like many women Maconchy dealt with her fair share of misogyny and sexism. She was denied the Mendelssohn Prize enabling overseas study by the college director Sir Hugh Allen because she ‘will only get married and never write another note.’
Maybe Maconchy thought she’d be compared unfavourably to other composers because of her gender if she allied herself to a particular school of composition. Whatever the reason Maconchy forged her own path, composing in a unique musical language and not getting bogged down in the various schools and isms going on the rest of the musical landscape of the time. She rejected the English pastoralism of her mentor Vaughan Williams, if anything she was inspired by East European modernism from Bartok and Berg, although her later work moves on from that to create her own distinctive style.
Her fiercely independent voice means Maconchy’s music is more accessible, there’s something for everyone. You have the masterwork of power and strength in her Symphony for Double String Orchestra, delightly cheeky comic opera The Sofa, uplifting jubilation in her song This Day to the patriotic Proud Thames. Maconchy’s body of work explores the whole range of the human experience. Maconchy was continually innovating, constantly challenging herself and doing the unexpected whilst still having a clear sense of her music and style.
So, Maconchy wrote tons of music for different ensembles but she kept coming back to the string quartet. She wrote 13 string quartets over a 50 year period. They act almost as benchmarks to the whole of the mid 20th century, from the 1st in 1932 to the last in 1984.
String quartet no 3 is her shortest quartet but it packs in the drama. Written in 1938 No 3 sees Maconchy really getting into the nitty gritty of complicated family relationships. The piece is a 10 minute psychological thriller, seeing the four instruments engaging in a tense disagreement.
The only recording of this so far breaks the piece into 5 broad sections. The first section is a Lento, slow and full of unspoken tension, expertly paced and drawn out to heighten the drama. This leads into a Presto - frenetic and passionate. There’s a brief respite with a seductive Andante, sweet and manipulative before moving into another anguished Presto. This is succeeded by a calmer Poco Largamente which brings the piece to a close.
The interactions between the strings really seem like a story unfolding, the chords come together but never quite resolve themselves, just bouncing off onto another phrase, another sentence.
The four voices are constantly intertwining, breaking into canons then merging again only to separate completely once more going all the way through until coming to a final uneasy conclusion.
To hear this fascinating work performed come along to Illuminate at RCM on 16th February 2019!
Dame Elizabeth Maconchy is such an inspiration, her musical integrity, individual sound and breadth of composition continue to delight audiences. More recordings of her music are appearing and her work is regularly performed around the world.
Here’s to Dame Elizabeth!
Written by Elizabeth de Brito
You can now support Illuminate Women's Music 2019 season I and II!
Sculpting and Refining, a cross synthesis in Amphora
1. an ancient Greek jar or vase with a large oval body, narrow cylindrical neck, and two handles that rise almost to the level of the mouth broadly : such a jar or vase used elsewhere in the ancient world
2. a 2-handled vessel shaped like an amphora
For the upcoming Illuminate concert, my piece Amphora for bass clarinet, violin and cello will be performed as part of the RCM Chamber Music Festival 2019.
Amphora are vessels dating back to the Neolithic period and also had been made for Ancient Greek vase painting. They were used for the everyday and rituals, prizes and for funery practices.
I had been working with pottery in previous pieces, including using various size clay pots as resonant speakers- in Cable Veins, for piano and electronics; Chalk.Body.Barrowelectronics for dance, and Rare Earth installation (work in progress). Whilst working physically with pottery, I wanted to focus on their tactile quality; the weighted and earthy and fragile and ancient qualities, to embody these in sound. The idea of writing Amphora began here.
At the same time, my compositions encompass other impetuses, and I am often drawn to dance (which I discussed in my previous post for Illuminate) or poetry, and I blend these with my sketches - sculpting, juxtaposing and refining original designs for the piece.
I’ve used the poetry of Georgie Lorimer as a catalyst for a few pieces, including Amphora and it falls within a triptych of works I am basing on Lorimer’s poetry: The Artist’s Kintsukuroi
1) Into the Blank Expanse of Space for bass flute, piano and electronics
2) Amphora for bass clarinet, violin and cello
3) The Artist’s Kintsukuroi for septet, narrator and conductor
it was autumn when we kissed
that first time after one
last summer storm on the beach
hair plastered against your face
and disfigured with sandwe
were hideous as tempests
battering into the cave
maybe if we’d stayed for more
than that moment we’d have been
trapped forever much later
i danced a fresh edge of sea
until even the soft shush
je t’aime je t’aime je t’aime left
my leaps sinking into sand
After developing these thoughts, a ‘cross-synthesis’happens where phrases, or larger structures, could have started as an embodiment of pottery which are then co-mingled with the poetry ideas, or vice versa. Once I have refined a section, the original meaning and ideas are hidden and transformed. In electronic music, the cross-synthesis occurs when spectral data is applied from one sound to another in order to create a hybrid sound, or a transition from one sound to another. I wanted to use this process in an acoustic setting - and so I imagined the cross synthesis firstly occurring in a short, exclamatory motif.
I then abstracted this motif, supporting it with different pressure, resistance, harmonics, multiphonics and pulsating vibrato and tremolo, always striving to sculpt the poetry and pottery together. I also endeavoured to blend an embodied sense of the pottery and poetry with the spiritual.
Example: [ https://soundcloud.com/sarahewestwood/amphora-extract/s-hTvVh]
Amphora extract, Heather Roche (clarinet), Patrick Dawkins (violin), Valerie Welbanks (cello) Deptford Town Hall, London. May, 2018.
To hear the please in full, come to the concert on 16 Feb!
1) Guillaume Baviere
Creative Commons: Attribution, ShareAlike.
2) Sarah Westwood, personal photo of the ocean
You can now support Illuminate 2019 Season I and II activities!