Commissioned by the Household Division Saxophone Quartet this is a short medley of moods with an optimistic slant. The title refers to the final line sung in my opera ‘The Path to Heaven’ on the subject of the Holocaust, and refers to children of the present and future.
A new opera in one act on the subject of the Holocaust with an accompanying ensemble of woodwind, brass and percussion.
Article for the World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE) magazine
During my compositional career research into my Jewish roots has become more important, and many of my works over the years have been inspired by Jewish themes including Kol Simcha (1995) a ballet commissioned by the Rambert dance company with an ensemble based on the set up of a klezmer band, Klezmer (1993) for solo violin, a Clarinet Concerto (1999) for Nicholas Cox and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and two wind ensemble works Yiddish Dances (1998) and Eine Kleine Yiddishe Ragmusik (2004) that have entered the general repertoire of wind ensembles world-wide. For this new work I intended to write a theatrical work steeped in Jewish culture with an accompanying instrumental group of wind, brass and percussion instruments, a combination often found in Yiddish music, and something quite unique in the field of opera which will hopefully enable many future productions.
The holocaust and its resonances in recent history is an area I have long wanted to explore musically and dramatically as a composer. My background is Russian Jewish and I still count myself fortunate that my grandparents’ generation looking for a new life to escape from the pogroms in Russia at the start of the 20th century chose in the main to settle in the UK rather than the European mainland. The theme of survival in impossibly dangerous circumstances is one that is all too relevant today and I hope the new opera reflects that the dangers faced now have continued relevance and resonance as they did in the 1930s and 1940s, as are the perils of human relationships across a cultural divide. ‘Art under the threat of catastrophe’ is a concept that excites me greatly.
With this in mind I became very involved with exploring the lives and work of musicians that worked under the threat of the Nazis. In December 2015 I travelled to Barletta in Italy to meet the musicologist and pianist Francesco Lotoro who is acknowledged as a world authority on music written in World War two camps. I interviewed him about his work for a radio programme about music written in the camps, with particular emphasis on the transit camp Terezin in the Czech Republic and the composers that worked there. The programme was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in January 2016. I have met with many survivors, including Zdenka Fantlova, Arek Hersh and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, whose books about their wartime experiences provided invaluable inspiration for the project.
The Path to Heaven is my fourth collaboration with the librettist Ben Kaye. Our other works are Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall (2007) for narrator, bass singer, chorus, brass quintet and organ based on the experiences of the political prisoner John McCarthy, Eternal Voices (2010), a commission from the Royal Marines about war in the 21st century for narrator, mezzo soprano, chorus and Wind Ensemble and Anya 17 (2012) an opera on the subject of slavery and sex trafficking which has had productions in Germany and the USA.
Ben Kaye has written of The Path To Heaven:
The story is about Hatred, Love and Bread.
A group of friends and lovers in Berlin find their carefree lives suddenly turned into a waking nightmare when they come to the attention of the Nazi authorities. Returning home from her eighteenth birthday party, Sara finds the Uncle and Aunt who raised her arrested and abducted, her friends under suspicion and her entire family branded with a Jewish heritage of the parents that she never knew.
Abandoned by her lover Dieter, within hours, Sara, her sister Hanna, Hanna’s baby Inge and their cousin Magda are rounded up and packed into cattle trucks, heading ever East for slaughter. Following a brief respite to experience the irony of Nazi Propaganda at Terezin, the group arrive at their “ultimate destination” to undergo the first of many “Selections” by the terrible Doctor “Uncle Rudi”, where the babies, the children, the old, the infirm or frail of mind are routinely diverted straight to the gas chambers.
As the piles of spectacles, hair and shoes grow ever higher, here they meet “The Cobbler”, a Rabbi who has lost his faith and has been driven mad by the Nazi’s requirement that he survives to service their Jackboots, a sadistic Kapo (Camp Enforcer) and Dieter… Having sought to protect himself whilst Sara’s lover by signing up as a Wehrmacht Soldier, Dieter finds himself stationed as a Camp Guard.
Having seen The Final Solution first hand, he is now within a second’s decision of suicide. Seeing Sara brings the salvation of his mind within grasp, but the revulsion towards his indoctrination and his one true desire to save her can only end one way. “The die has been set, and the machinations of mere men can do nothing to alter the fickle ways of Fate.”
My nightmare would be to live in a world where not only was The Holocaust denied as historical fact, but also where Hate Groups thrive unhindered to persecute minority groups to satisfy their lust for meaningless violence and political gain. Please… will someone wake me from my nightmare?
Musically there were two great challenges: to write a dramatic stage work that, despite the horrific context there would be a hopeful message at the end of The Path to Heaven, which would chime in with my view borne out by my meetings with survivors that the Holocaust was a failure, and Jewish society and culture lives on triumphantly. The other goal was to write a work where fifteen woodwind, brass and percussion instruments could provide support, colour and vibrancy to complement the seven singers. This particular combination of instruments is capable of extreme force and great tenderness, plus humour and satire where appropriate. Most importantly where words need to be heard, they are, and the dramatic structure is clear to the listener.
The production of The Path to Heaven was semi-staged, and the premiere took place at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds on June 19th2018, with a second performance at the Royal Northern College of Music on June 21st. The director was Stefan Janski and the conductor Mark Heron.
Reviewers comments include:
The work…is framed by touching Hebraic laments…. alive to humour, with several dances including a devilish waltz for a guard and a polka with klezmer clarinet….an appealing piece, worthy of its tricky topic.Martin Dreyer – Opera
It is a staggering achievement on many levels with the instrumental, vocal and narrative invention hanging in the head for days afterwards. It’s a landmark piece, not just in operatic terms but as an opera with wind ensemble accompaniment….he and his librettist Ben Kaye take us on a rollercoaster journey via a subject we think we know in a manner that’s unexpected, surprising, and very moving the conclusion of which is not despair but the exemplification of the human spirit. Bill Connor – Winds
The opera is beautifully constructed …this demands to be heard more than once…..
The music…..is of extraordinary skill, passion and beauty. Gorb has written exhilaratingly in klezmer style on a number of occasions before, and he gets that vernacular into his score to splendid effect. He’s also a master of pastiche of what he calls “bad music” – slimy 1930s populist stuff – and even has a go at sending up a staid Lutheran chorale…… Above all, he lets himself go with expressions of the horror and outrageousness of the truth he’s telling and leaves you in no doubt about his feelings and his passion for a truth to be told. Robert Beale – The Arts Desk
…a wonderful lullaby at the end of this opening scene which would have broken even the stoniest of hearts.
….a quality production, with the orchestra expertly conducted by Mark Heron Andrew Marsden – Number 9
The Path to Heaven is in one act and is 105 minutes in duration. The full 15-piece ensemble is two flutes (one doubling piccolo,) two clarinets (doubling E flat and bass, two saxophones (Sop/alto and alto/bass), bassoon doubling contrabassoon, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, two percussionists and piano/celeste. The seven cast members of The Path To Heaven include two sopranos, two mezzo sopranos, a tenor, a baritone and a bass, and they were drawn from opera students from the RNCM. The ensemble of woodwind, brass and percussion consisted of players from the Manchester based contemporary music ensemble Psappha working alongside RNCM instrumentalists.
For financial support for the project I am grateful to the Arts Council England, the PRS Foundation and the John S Cohen Foundation. For support in kind I am thankful to the Royal Northern College of Music, Opera North and the Britten-Pears foundation.
For those interested in knowing more about The Path to Heaven I am happy to email a perusal score, a programme (including the libretto) and a video of the RNCM performance.
I am passionate to keep the memory of the Holocaust through the medium of music and theatre. Its relevance still resonates over the decades, and I want to do all in my power to keep its warning at the forefront of people’s minds, with a story of hope and triumph through the darkest of times. This is the most meaningful way that Ben Kaye and I can help try and make the world a better place for the next generations.
Article for the World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE) magazine
I always imagined if there had been saxophones in the thirteenth century the composer Perotin would have made full advantage of their unique qualities. The title refers to his choral work based on the Gregorian plainchant, and a small part of it can be heard very softly about two thirds of the way through this piece. Mostly the mood is brutal and unrelenting, perhaps reflecting day to day life more than a century before the Black Death struck.
For oboe, horn and harpsichord
A tribute to Debussy in the year of the centenary of his death
The idea of this instrumental combination is strange enough, but for Debussy to be contemplating combining using a harpsichord with an oboe and a horn seems downright bizarre to me. I felt I should go to the great man for initial thoughts and had a look through some of my favourites amongst his piano preludes. This was not going to be a piece inspired by girls with flaxen hair or submerged cathedrals; then I chanced upon No. 9 in book 1: …La serenade interrompue. This is a most captivating piece in Debussy’s more ‘Spanish’ idiom and the opening ‘picked’ motif quasi guitarra with its obsessive semitone gave me the impetus I needed.
I like writing pieces about relationships, in this case between the oboe and the horn with the harpsichord acting as mediator (and guitar.) At the risk of political incorrectness, I hear the horn as the boy and the oboe as the girl. When one instrument becomes too forward the other shies away (just like in real life), and there are places when all three players resort to semitonal noodling as a way of passing the time whilst thinking what to do next. Towards the end of the piece something approaching a more lyrical aria is played by the horn and the oboe together before an abrupt close. The chord that the harpsichord finally settles on is taken from another Debussy prelude: no. 5 in book 1: …Les collines d’Anacapri.
Written in 2016, I wanted to explore the more lyrical and tranquil sounds of the wind ensemble in this seven-and-a-half-minute work, which is pitched somewhere in between the style of a barcarolle and a Satie Gymnopedie. The more intimate and chamber music qualities of the ensemble should come to the fore, particularly at the start. The mood is not all sweetness and light – the boat has to ride through some comparatively rough waters before vanishing into the sunset at the close.
In memory of my dear friend Stuart Orford. When we were undergraduate students together in the late 1970s Stuart informed me that he was going to host a ‘Brahms and Red Wine’ evening, but as I then didn’t care for Brahms or red wine I wasn’t invited. Since then I’ve tried to repair these failings, in this particular instance with a little bit of help from Brahms Intermezzo opus 119 no 1.
The title of this 18-minute work is taken from a poem: Lauds which forms a part of Horae Canonicae by W H Auden, a group of poems referring to fixed times for the monastic hours of prayer, but really an extended meditation on the events of Good Friday. Lauds can be read as a description of a village community, and the ambiguous refrain In Solitude, For Company suggests both aloneness and the need for others.
The work starts with two off stage trumpets playing in consecutive fifths answered by a distant solo oboe. Other pungent ideas announce themselves in various colours, repeating themselves in the hope of connectivity. A dense texture is reached before the solo oboe heralds a new keening melody in unison woodwind over a hypnotic ostinato, which slowly descends to the depths of bass clarinet and contra bassoon. At its darkest point a distant piano is heard, as if from the deepest recesses of the memory.
A chaotic passage follows reshuffling the insistent motifs from the first part before it dissolves into a reprise of the unison woodwind melody under which a brass chorale marked nobilmente emerges. At the climax the distant trumpets and oboe solo return, and eventually everything is swallowed up by the violins, which punctuated by cymbal crashes end the work ecstatically.
In Solitude, For Company started out as Awakening commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in 2006. This drastically revised version was premiered by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in January 2016 conducted by Clark Rundell. It is dedicated to my wife Elizabeth.
Tapas: Small Spanish savoury dishes, typically served with drinks at a bar.
Written for Rarescale
Inspired by the 1994 film ‘Speed’ which has an amazing central sequence where a lorry has to be driven at above 50 mph or it will explode, this piano piece written for the amazing Clare Hammond starts as fast as possible then gathers momentum.
This three-movement work celebrates the arrival of spring with all the associated magic and rejuvenation of this special time of year. Its opening movement applauds in sounds the fresh, vibrant stirrings of the season with subtle atmospheres and young, buoyant, vivacious melodies. The second is more reflective with extended solos punctuated by sensitive muted brass chorales. The Finale is where the real action begins: a Latin American inspired variation of the opening movement spins us into a whirlwind of infectious rhythms and harmonies, the whole culminating in a riotous, life affirming coda.
This nine-minute work was written for Le Yu and Ben Powell who gave the première at the Rosengart museum in Lucerne Switzerland in 2014. It is written in memory my godfather, one of my great mentors and lifelong friend of my father Micha Battsek who had died earlier that year. Micha had a loud and exuberant personality, so I thought I’d write something as contrasting as possible to how I remembered him, but a tribute to the inner tranquillity that people of such a generous disposition undoubtedly possess.
This work was written in 2013 and commissioned by Donal Flynn in memory of his wife Penpon. It is subtitled Bojjhangaparitta and takes inspiration from the Buddhist chant of that name.
The Pali word Bojjhanga is a compound of bodhi (enlightenment) and anga (factor while a Paritta (protection or safeguard) refers to the Buddhist practise of reciting or chanting certain verses and scriptures in order to ward off evil fortune or dangerous conditions.
The work lasts around twenty minutes and is in three parts: moderate speed, fast and a final slow movement which sets off with the Bojjhangaparitta theme, transcribed from Buddhist chant and starting in the solo cello, eventually passing through the ensemble, ending the work peacefully.
Having heard many concerts with the Northern Chamber Orchestra I was thrilled to be asked to write a piece for them: this was the first time I’d written a piece for a large ensemble without a conductor, so that posed a new challenge! ‘A Celebration’ is a positive observation of life in general; five short movements over eighteen minutes, embracing humour, poeticism, energy, unpredictability, some introspection and finally joy. The piece is dedicated to the memory of my father who possessed all these characteristics in abundance.
Trunk; a five minute piece for solo trombone was commissioned by the bass trombonist Jonathan Warburton in 2009. There are versions for bass and tenor trombone. The title is an amalgm of the words ‘Trombone’ and ‘Funk’ whichshould give a clue to the character of the piece.
The Dying of the Light (1992) for bassoon and piano takes its title from the Dylan Thomas poem ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’ The mood of this ten minute piece is defiant in keeping with the line that is repeated like a mantra throughout the poem: ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’.
For the original programme note for Sisohpromatem (Metamorphosis in reverse) I wrote the opening line of the Kafka story ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into a mostrous vermin’ backwards. This work was written in 2012 for te Manchester based group Vulgar Display, whose instrumental line up of violin, cello, piano, electric guitar and percussion explores and questions the possibility and practicality of classical and rock musicians performing together. Sisohpromatem is a mini six minute cello concerto where possibly Gregor Samsa is transferred from a ‘monstrous vermin’ back to humanity.
Dancing in the Ghetto was premiered by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in 2008. At that time I felt that the piece needed to be expanded, and much of the material found its way into my opera Anya17 a few years later. This four minute sometimes folkloristic blast for large chamber ensemble attempts to conjure up a spirit of wild joy under the threat of catastrophe.
‘A Better Place’ was written in the shadow of the tragically premature death of a close colleague, Mark Ray, the Head of Keyboard at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Rather than write something dark and funereal, I felt it more appropriate to celebrate Mark’s life and that of another that was taken away all too early: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The work is tranquil and whimsical in spirit, and is in one movement lasting about seven minutes. It opens with Mozart’s favourite Alberti bass on the piano and a naïve melody at the top of the oboe’s register. There are four sections that loosely correspond with the form of a sonatina. At the end the opening material returns; and the little codetta signs off with a tribute to two favourite works: Mozart’s Clarinet quintet and Stravinsky’s octet. The role of the piano in this group is that of a wind instrument with an exceptionally wide range: it only plays one note at a time.
For Brass Band
The title of this piece is borrowed from the American author Barbara Tuchmann’s extraordinary book about ‘The Calamitous 14th Century’. In it she describes as ‘on the one hand an age of chivalry and princely splendour, of Gothic cathedrals, of superbly illuminated chronicles…on the other hand it was an age of chaos and ferocity, of social disruption, collapsing assumptions and a cult of death.’ In this fifteen-minute work I have attempted to conjure up the spirit of the era with its combination of the elemental and the mystical, the brutal and the courtly. The medium of the brass band seemed appropriate to express both the barbaric splendour and the harshness of life in medieval Europe after the Black Death. While certain musical characteristics and compositional techniques of the fourteenth century are touched upon, I hope this piece has a contemporary feel.
A Distant Mirror is in three movements. The first movement is in a playful 6/8 time illustrating ‘the childishness noticeable in medieval behaviour, with its marked inability to restrain any kind of impulse.’ The harmonic language becomes increasingly harsh leading to a kind of grotesque paralysis. The middle movement, evoking the grandeur and mysticism of the great cathedrals is an adaption of a Gregorian plainchant. An inevitable melodic ascent from tuba via euphonium and B flat cornet to soprano cornet is underpinned by the sound of bells and gentle impressionistic murmurings from massed cornets and horns.
The start of the last movement is deceptively naïve; a light footed dance for five players with prominent hemiola rhythms is repeated twice before being brutally submerged by crude dissonances from the rest of the band, which then launches into an all-embracing processional. The imitative writing in the upper parts looks forward to the era of Giovanni Gabrielli, but the prominent consecutive fifths in horns and euphoniums and the obscene pedal notes from the bowels of the trombones are a reminder of the general coarseness undermining any show of dignity. Towards the end, the dainty skipping rhythms from the start of the movement make an ill-advised attempt to reassert themselves before being swallowed in the bludgeoning inevitability of the final procession.
In the second half of the nineteenth century the drink Absinthe became known as the queen of poisons, and was readily taken up by several of the world’s most important artists including Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Gaugin and Picasso. I particularly like the idea that the word Absinthe is derived from the Greek word Absinthion meaning undrinkable. In this ten minute piano solo I have been particularly drawn to a painting by Edgar Degas L’absinthe which, to my eyes devastatingly depicts the breakdown of a relationship between a woman (drinking absinthe) and a man (drinking coffee.) The imagined combination of non-communication, poignant memories, suppressed violence and complete desperate intoxication makes for a heady musical brew, and I have attempted to explore the sleazier side of my musical way of creating, with a passing nod to Wagner and Debussy.
Absinthe was first performed by Graham Scott at the Royal Northern College of Music on February 17th 2010. It has since been performed in student recitals and end of year examinations and will be given its London premiere by Nestor Bayona in a PLG concert on 10th January.
Adrenaline City is a six-and-a-half-minute concert overture, inspired by both the stress and vibrancy of twenty-first century city life. It is in sonata form and is notable for a time signature in 10/8. The harsh and dissonant opening passage is contrasted by a mellow second subject theme in the saxophones. The percussion come to the fore in the middle section, and at the close of the work the harmonic tension reaches an exhilarating breaking point before resolving on the tonal centre of A.
I am deeply indebted to Steve Grimo of the US Air Force Academy Band for getting this project together. The bands involved in the commissioning of Adrenaline City include
The USAF Academy Band, Lt Col Steven Grimo, Commander
The US Military Academy Band, LTC Timothy J. Holtan, Commander
USAF Band of Flight, Lt Col Alan Sierichs, Commander
USAF Band of Liberty, Lt Col Larry Lang, Commander
USAF Heritage of America Band, Maj Douglas Monroe, Commander
USAF Band of the Golden West, Capt Michael Mench, Commander
USAF Band of Mid America, Capt Donald Schofield, Commander
Commissioned by Liche Musik Tage Uster and first performed by the Uster Festival Wind Orchestra, conducted by Franz Schaffer, Staathofsaal Uster, Switzerland in 1996.
For a Briton responding to a Swiss commission to draw on images of mountains for inspiration may seem a little obvious, but it was in my mind for a long time to make a musical response to Cezanne’s series of paintings of Mont St. Victoire in southern France near Aix-En-Provence. I feel that the cool detacment of Cezanne’s vision, the quiet grandeur, could be expressed well through the sounds of a wind ensemble.
Ascent is mainly calm and impersonal. It begins with off-stage trumpets, and gradually various groups of instruments enter with their own musical ideas. Melodies repeat and overlap in layers without development. After a desolate middle section, with passages for solo instruments, a soft brass chorale marks the final part, where the whole ensemble is heard together for the first time. The ending attempts a musical impression of reaching out, from a great height, towards order, clarity, tonality.
The initial impulse to write Awakening came from a short poem by W.H. Auden: Lauds depicting a village community, which includes the refrain: In Solitude, for company. This piece explores the relationship between solitude and company, with groups of instruments reflecting the loneliness of the human condition, and the essential desire for companionship. Throughout the work various ideas see the light of day, sometimes interacting with each other, at other times remaining aloof.
Two off stage trumpets playing in consecutive fifths start the work answered by a distant solo oboe. Other short motifs emerge, simply repeating themselves in the hope of communication. A dense texture is achieved before it dissolves into a sombre brass chorale. What follows is a shimmering woodland Allegro: the youthful exuberance of the texture not quite succeeding in masking something much more ominous in the quiet depths of the trombones. This idyll is rudely cut off by an arrogant solo horn, which, in turn reaches a maximum point of tension, leading to a long descending passage for cor anglais and bassoons over a hypnotic off stage ostinato. At the darkest point a distant solo piano sounds as if from the deepest recesses of the memory.
The main fast music of the piece follows, rural becomes urban, soft becomes hard, the dream becomes a nightmare. An undoubted exhilaration takes over and the first fortissimo climax of the piece is reached with chaotic textures that fight for attention.
A frozen passage for strings leads to a restatement of the cor anglais melody, which is joined by the earlier brass chorale and rushing string figuration. This leads to a joyous climax, a moment of truth that quickly dies away leaving the off stage trumpets and solo oboe to continue on their way as if they had never been silenced. The final luminous string chord perhaps hints at a sense of community that the piece has been striving for over the previous twenty-five minutes.
Awakening is in one continuous movement and is dedicated to my wife Elizabeth.
In this six-minute curtain raiser my inspiration has come from the great days of the American Musical Comedy. I have tried to express in a brief sonata form movement the exhilaration of ‘getting away from it all’ for a few short hours on a festive Bank Holiday. Musically the piece is a homage to the great days of the Broadway musical with its irresistable brashness and irrepressible high spirits. If you can envisage George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky and James Bond travelling together at a hundred miles per hour in an open-top sports car, I think you’ll get the idea.
For piano, two violins and cello
Bittersweet is one of the hardest challenges I’ve ever had. What I wanted was something musically sophisticated that has a certain amount of substance in a mere three minutes, but at the same time is appealing to an audience relatively unfamiliar with new music. I also wanted to make the piece playable for gifted youngsters and amateurs. The musical language of Bittersweet is diatonic with ‘wrong notes’ and is based on small motifs that make up a melody in quintuple time that I eventually couldn’t get out of my head.
The Bermuda Triangle is a legendary area of ocean celebrated for mysterious happenings, nautical disappearances and other baffling phenomena. It is also the name of an equally legendary Caribbean waterside bar – a meeting place for sporting characters of many races, renowned for the warmth of its welcome, the potency of its beverages and the high-spirits of some of the goings-on there. Taken seperately, the words conjure up pictures of their own which the composer reflects in his work – a piece of serious confectionary not without its sinister side: the Bermudans with their informal, fun-loving approach to life, and Triangles, darkly suggestive of mathematics, percussion instruments, compound time and marital infidelity. If you can imagine the great Pythagoras on a holiday cruise (aboard the SS Hypotenuse ) stopping off to let his hair down with a highly mixed bunch of sporting locals at an impromptu musical barbecue, and never being seen again, then you will bet the picture.
Bohemian Revelry is a tribute to the verve and vigour of the music of the people of the Czech republic, but it is also a celebration of the other meaning of the word, meaning the artistic and social freedom of people without ties or responsibilities, allowing for a party atmosphere whenever and wherever possible, as painted so vividly and memorably in the second act of Puccini’s timeless masterpiece La Boheme.
The work lasts fifteen minutes and is in four movements based on well known Czech dances:
Polka: a moderate tempo dance in duple time, but with an unexpectedly violent conclusion.
Furiant: Very fast triple time with a more nostalgic middle section. Eventually the dance fades away lading into a
Sousdeka: A more relaxed dance in 3/4 with a pastoral feel
Scocna: Fast and lively duple time incorporating a hymn like melody drawn from a Czech Christmas carol. Drinks all round at the end!
Any reminiscences of a certain set of dances by a very well known Czech composer should be heard as an act of homage rather than parody or plagiarisation.
Burlesque for Clarinet Choir was commissioned by the British Clarinet Association. I was originally a not very good clarinettist, and my first attempt at an opus 1 was a suite for two clarinets written when I was thirteen in 1971. I thought it might be fun to revisit this very immature work, so the strident fanfares that open Burlesque are drawn from the opening of the juvenile suite. This acts as a curtain raiser to the main body of the piece, which highlight the more grotesque characteristics of the clarinet family including an abundance of grace notes, flutter tonguing and sounds influenced by the klezmer idiom. Violent outbursts alternate with passages of more joyous lyricism. There follows a more tranquil section drawn from the opening before a brief finale takes the piece into a more flowing sound world. At the very end a melody reminiscent of a Neapolitan folk song emerges, but ominous rumblings from the contrabass clarinet sound the warning that a more grotesque world isn’t far away.
Burlesque lasts approximately ten minutes.
In several of my works I have turned to my Jewish roots as a source of inspiration. At the very end of the twentieth century I wanted to bring together elements of this musical ancestry to write a large-scale work. The chance to write a piece for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra gave me a great opportunity to do this. Obviously the key historical event for the Jewish people in the last century was the Holocaust. I wouldn’t be able to begin to write a piece of music about such a tragic period of our history. I wasn’t there, and evil on such a large scale goes beyond the realms of artistic expression. Where I feel that I can say something is about the ultimate failure of the Holocaust, the fact that Jewish culture was not destroyed, but lives on triumphantly.
There are two important musical areas that have guided me during the writing of the Clarinet Concerto. One is the field of Yiddish folk music, or Klezmer, the other is the music of Gustav Mahler, a composer who, in my mind, foresaw the horrors of the twentieth century in his works like no other composer. Mahler’s work remains, to me, profoundly Jewish despite his later conversion to the Catholic faith. There are quotations from every Mahler symphony in various parts of the Clarinet Concerto, some obvious and others less so. A wonderful (some would say terrible) characteristic of the Jewish people is the ability to laugh in the face of terror. This is a constant feature in Mahler’s music and I also hear it in the Klezmer music that is played at weddings, parties and bar mitzvahs. This juxtaposition of high comedy and deep melancholy runs through the Clarinet Concerto, which is in three movements played without a break.
The opening of the work is a torrent of despairing rhythmic instability over which the soloist defiantly wails in Klezmer style. A piercing climax is reached, out of which emerges a gracious oboe melody, which is then developed flippantly through the orchestra. The soloist introduces a more lyrical theme, which is soon swallowed up by material from the opening, and leads to a climax marked in the score as ‘catastrophic.’ The remainder of the movement is a slow descent into the murky depths, although at one point there is the briefest glimpse of paradise, courtesy of Mahler!
The unstable rhythms of the opening return in a spectral guise at the end of the movement before a rhythmic pattern is set up in the percussion to introduce the second movement. Here the solo clarinet is transformed from the voice of despair to that of the Master of Ceremonies. In this movement, an exploration of musical humour, I have drawn from the melodic and rhythmic characteristics of various Yiddish dances including the Terkishe (a fast tango) and the hora, which is characterised by a rocking rhythm in triple time. The movement ends with a group of nine soloists defiantly playing a freylachs, (a fast dance in duple time) over which a long melody rises up from the depths of the orchestra to the work’s largest climax, at the start of the final movement.
The soloist now adopts the role of comforter as the orchestra gradually subsides. A gently repeating phrase heralds the return of the more lyrical material from the first movement before being cut short by a brutal outburst from the lower reaches of the orchestra. There are more savage interjections that attempt to undermine the mood of increasing tranquility. In the final epilogue I have tried to depict the idea of meeting Mahler in the afterlife; there are many quotations from his works and the mood is now cool and detached, although an undercurrent of danger remains. The work ends with intimate chamber music textures.
The Clarinet Concerto is dedicated to Nicholas Cox, who gave the first performance and last about thirty minutes.
This work is cast in a single movement and is loosely in variation form, but beginning with a florid cadenza-like passage for the soloist. A gentle, lyrical section in the style of a Gymnopedie is followed by a lively and virtuosic Allegro, which transforms in mood from carefree to something more agitated. At the centre of the work is a bluesy Andante in which members of the band, including a baritone sax and clarinettist interact and complement the soloist. An edgier Allegro culminates in a short but wild cadenza for the soloist. Following a climactic passage there is a recapitulation of the tranquil material from the beginning of the piece, and after a hushed duet with a flute and a memory of the very opening, the work ends in a flash of brilliance.
Concertino for Alto Saxophone was commissioned by the soloist Tim Watson with funds from the Arts Council of England, and lasts approximately thirteen minutes.
This work was commissioned by Timothy Reynish as part of a series of commissions to commemorate his son William Reynish who tragically died in a mountaineering accident in 2001. The world premiere took place at the Royal College of Music in London in November 2003.
Dances From Crete is in four movements and is intended to celebrate the good things in life, drawing much of its material from the dance music from the Greek island of Crete , where many of the ancient Greek myths took place. The first movement, Syrtos is intended to serve as a portrait of the Minotaur, the famous creature that was half bull, half man, and fed upon young men and women that were sacrificed to him every year before being killed by the hero Theseus. The character of this movement is harsh and ruthless.
The second movement, Tik is a more graceful dance based on the sinuous movements of young women, but it is also characterised by a certain roughness; and is in 5/8 time. Tim Reynish writes that ‘in this movement the whole orchestra should feel the pulse like a Cretan Peasant on the threshing floor.’ Following on from this the third movement in a slow 7/4 time is darker in mood and inspired by a steep and perilous walk down the Samaria Gorge; one of the most spectacular of all walks. The movement eventually rises to a triumphant peroration, depicting a welcome plunge into the Libyan Sea . Following distant offstage fanfares the finale, a modern Greek dance, Syrtaki, which bursts in with the offstage trumpeters swaggering back on stage playing a deliberately vulgar theme. The music soon becomes very fast and eventually ends in total festive anarchy, although before the final apotheosis the ghost of the Minotaur can briefly be heard joining the party.
Dances From Crete lasts about eighteen minutes.
A Diaspora is a dispersion or spreading of a people belonging to one nation or having a common culture. Most commonly now it refers to the scattering of the Jews originally from Palestine . Over the centuries the Jewish people have made their homes in all parts of the world; one of the most culturally important examples of Diaspora existence has been that of the Jews in Eastern Europe , particularly in and around Odessa in the Ukraine. This particular way of life proved fruitful and successful for many centuries before increasing Soviet anti-Semitism forced the Jews of Russia to either emigrate or face a life of persecution and economic hardship.
During the twentieth century many new Diaspora existences have been formed due to Soviet and Nazi persecution, particularly in parts of Western Europe , the USA and Israel . Many of my own family originate from the Ukraine , including both my grandfathers. Also some of the last century’s greatest violinists including Yehudi Menhuin, David Oistrach and Jascha Heifitz are from this part of the world; so it seemed appropriate to use this backdrop as the starting point for my work for the Goldberg ensemble.
In this single movement piece the ensemble is split up into two sections: two violins and double bass that personify the wandering ‘folk’ communities and a double string quartet that represents the land in which these new communities are entering. During the work a process of musical assimilation takes place, from the harsh opening section where the two groups are musically set starkly apart from each other through a more sympathetic passage where a mournful theme in the trio is offset against fleet footed pastoralism in the octet. This reaches a strenuous and violent climax, out of which emerges a soulful unison melody bringing the two opposing forces together. The mood becomes more tranquil with one, then two cellos playing in their highest registers. The pastoral music from earlier makes a return appearance, now reconciled with the folk inflections from the opening played by the trio. The work ends ambiguously in a sea of trills under which the double bass intones a warning from the past; six pizzicato bell notes symbolising the six million Jews whose particular Diaspora existences were brutally and tragically cut short.
Diaspora lasts about fifteen minutes and is dedicated to Malcolm Layfield and the Goldberg Ensemble.
A trombone concerto
The character of this work is that of a serenade or divertimento but with Jazz and Latin influences. I have attempted to explore the mercurial aspects of the solo trombone, avoiding more commonplace characteristics of the instrument (there is not a single glissando for the soloist.) The piece is in three movements: fast – slow – fast that alternate dance-like and more lyrical passages. The first movement is swift and light footed and contains the two main themes that form the basis for the whole work, the first at the start by the lone soloist, and a more singing second subject that becomes the main theme for the laid-back second movement. Here the band consists of saxophones, brass and rhythm section only. The woodwind and horns return for the finale, which is a variation of the first movement in 10/8 time. The writing for the soloist becomes more virtuosic as the movement progresses and leads to an abrupt conclusion.
Suite for Percussion and Wind Ensemble
EARTH – Allegro Moderato
WATER – Andante
FIRE – Prestissimo
AIR – Largo – Presto
The origins of the four elements: Earth, Water, Fire and Air ate back to the Greek philosopher, physician, poet and high priest Empedocles (c. 490 – 430 BC) who allegedly committed suicide by throwing himself into the crater of Mount Etna . Empedocles analysed the universe into the four elements, fire being the essence of life, the other elements forming the basis of matter. His system is founded on the theory together with another, which supposes two opposing forces, Love and Strife. The world began when the elements, which had been torn asunder by the forces of Strife, tended to come together again under the influence of Love. The different species arose out of the different mingling of the elements.
In this work I have drawn upon motifs from that great elemental epic: Wagner’s ‘Der Ring Des Nibelungen.’ While there is little direct quotation I have been inspired by the extraordinarily forward-looking harmony and the magical sense of atmosphere found in Wagner’s great masterpiece. The first movement: Earth begins with ominous rumblings for the soloist, which soon erupt into a mood of intense fury. The harmonic language is harsh in the extreme, the rhythms are angular, and the texture is dominated by drums of various timbres, with an occasional grotesque interjection from the xylophone. At the climax of the movement any sense of order is lost and the players in the band play independently of the conductor, over whom the soloist improvises on octobans, (a particularly cruel and piercing-sounding set of drums.) Things eventually calm down, and the second movement: Water begins with an extended saxophone duet over murky chromatic semiquavers for wind and brass. Through this movement I have attempted to guide the emotional direction from Strife towards Love. The dominant instrument here is the marimba, which plays rhapsodically around fluid woodwind solos, like a deep-sea diver travelling amongst various strange tropical fish. Twice in the course of the movement a brass chorale (with melodic contours from Wagner’s Rhine maidens) cuts through the texture, leading in its second appearance to the tonal centre of A major before the saxophones are heard once again.
With the sound of a match being struck Fire steals in, at first with a flicker, but soon gathering momentum and becoming wild and uncontrolled. The soloist switches from marimba to various metal percussion instruments, including thunder sheet and junk metal. At the climax of the movement a joyful bell-like theme is heard in the horns before the fire quickly burns itself out. The final movement Air expands this bell-like melody in music that is very slow, very quiet and very simple with silence an important factor. The dominant sound now is the cool, calm timbre of the vibraphone, and a great peace descends upon the scene. There is a final statement of the bell-like theme in the full band before the piece evaporates in a quicksilver A major codetta.
Words by Ben Kaye Music by Adam Gorb
For Mezzo Soprano Solo, Boy Treble, Chorus and Wind Ensemble
When asked to write a large-scale choral work involving the Royal Marines on the subject of the present conflict in Afghanistan I sensed that to take any particular stance would be inappropriate. So I hope that in this work, both tub thumping jingoism and anti-war agitprop are not evident, although the mystery of music is that the same melodies, harmonies and rhythms can express totally different reactions and feelings from one person to the next. Think of the end of Shostakovitch’s 5th symphony, is it pro or anti Stalin? Or the song ‘Lily Marlene’ which was made famous by Marlene Dietrich and was claimed by both the British and the Germans in World War 2.
My intentions in this work are more intimate, and to achieve this I have been enormously inspired by the marvellous words by Ben Kaye. Within minutes of receiving his script I was able to imagine a clear structure for this work – in effect Ben had given the piece a totally convincing sense of inevitability before I had written a note. The script concentrates on one particular family, a Royal Marine who loses his life in the field of conflict and the effect it has on his wife and young son. The work is in five unbroken sections, but with interjections relating to the ‘story’ of the work spoken by a narrator.
Salt of the Sea. Describing the Marines themselves, and their determination and fortitude. I wanted to give the sense of a rolling sea and the majesty of the vessels, inspired by the by the extraordinarily vivid and visionary paintings by the great British artist J.W.W. Turner. The opening of the piece features a gleaming falling motif in the brass answered by rising arpeggios in the woodwind, both of which will feature throughout the work. Towards the end of this movement the choir singing ‘A Capella’ intone the title of the work as it refers directly to the combatants: ‘Let Their Eternal Voices Ring.’ This is followed by a build-up in the ensemble that is abruptly cut off leading directly into the next section.
Contact. The word refers to the battle cry used by Marines when there is a threat of enemy action. It also refers to the cameraderie and mutual support in times of battle. This is the fast movement of the work and starts with soft menacing percussion with the word ‘Contact’ first shouted, then sung by the choir. The movement is one long crescendo leading to perceived triumph followed by grotesque unreality with the return of the percussion and finally tragedy. At the end the first solo voice heard is a tenor from within the choir, a marine having been struck down, with his last living thoughts and memories.
Coming home. Up to this point the scoring of the piece has been fairly full with no particular instruments coming to the fore for any length of time. Now an off stage soprano saxophone laments over chromatically descending low brass and this leads to all the male voices in unison: ‘Down the Ramp for Your Last Run Ashore.’ There is a more consoling interlude with the women’s chorus before the tenors and basses return, the last word in the low reaches of the bass register. The soprano saxophone returns and the melody line plunges into the depths of a baritone saxophone, also off-stage.
The Stars. The sound world changes dramatically as a young boy, the dead Marine’s son looks upwards and remembers his father: ‘Daddy, the Stars.’ Piano, vibraphone and glockenspiel come to the fore along with a chamber group of wordless female voices. Following this the mezzo-soprano soloist grieves for her husband in a monotone closer to speaking than singing. These two starkly contrasting musical worlds are combined before a final impassioned plea from the mezzo- soprano: ‘If I Could Hold You One Last Time,’ before she breaks into a wordless melisma linked to the saxophone melody from the previous movement.
Resolution. Beginning with a cor anglais taking over from the mezzo-soprano with a repeating tuba line underneath, the choir return with a message of hope and fortitude: ‘We are as waves that break upon the farthest shore.’ This signals a reprise of the music from the very opening of the work, which in turn leads to the epilogue where soloists, choir and wind ensemble come together as one, although the final bars leaves open as to the possibility of total peace and resolution.
ETERNAL VOICES lasts about half an hour and was commissioned by the Royal Marines Band Service with funds from the Royal Marines Charitable Trust Fund. The work is dedicated to all Royal Marines and their families who have given the ultimate sacrifice and have been affected by modern conflicts since the year 2000.
Farewell is a large-scale symphonic Adagio lasting about twenty minutes. In this piece I’ve decided to split the Wind Ensemble into two separate ‘orchestras.’ The first ensemble consists of clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, tubas and harsh sounding percussion; and the music is predominantly desperate and anguished. The instruments in the second ‘orchestra’ are flutes, oboes, bass clarinet, bassoons, horns and more gentle percussion, and the mood is more calming and introspective. At first the ensembles play exclusively from each other, but eventually they merge and reach a massive climax focussing on a chord of D minor. At this point a third ‘ensemble’ is heard for the first time – the notes C and F sharp (which have not been played at all in the work so far). These notes are played ppppp and come to haunt the end of the work. The title refers to Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, but instead of all the players walking off leaving two instrumentalists to finish, here a solo oboe and clarinet step forward and quietly lament while the rest of the band quietly intone an eternal modus in diabilis.
Farewell was commissioned for the National Youth Wind Orchestra of Wales by the Welsh Amateur Music Federation at Ty Cerydd – Music Centre Wales.
Scoring: Two Tuba quartets: (4 Tenor Tubas, 4 Bass Tubas)
2 Bass Drums, tubular bells
Fasolt and Fafner are the two giant brothers that appear together in ‘Das Rhinegold’; the first of the series of music dramas that make up Wagner’s massive series of music dramas that make up ‘Der Ring Des Nibelungen. They are entrusted with building the stronghold of Walhalla for Wotan, the chief of the gods. Eventually they quarrel over the means of payment for this task and Fafner beats Fasolt to death taking the gold, and most crucially the Ring. In a later opera ‘Siegfried’ Fafner returns as a dragon and is slain by the fearless young Siegfried, but that’s another story.
For a while now I’ve been feeling a little bit sorry for Fasolt and I thought I’d try and redress the balance in his favour. So in this work I’ve represented the two giants as two tuba quartets, each with their own bass drum; and they get a chance to slug it out, twenty first-century style!
I don’t want to say too much about the structure of the piece, hoping that it will speak for itself. It follows a basic slow-fast-slow format and lasts eight minutes. Harmonically and melodically each quartet strictly stays within its own particular series of pitches; and there is discreet use of leitmotifs from Wagner’s ‘Ring’, including the drum rhythm of Siegfried’s death just before the end of the piece.
Fasolt’s Revenge was commissioned by the Tennessee Technical University Fine Arts Foundation for the 40th anniversary of the Tennessee Tech Tuba Ensemble, and first performed at Tennessee Technological University on November 2 2006. It was subsequently performed at the Weill Recital hall at the Carnegie Hall in New York, and is available on a commercial recording on Mark Masters 6960 MCD.
There is a big price to be paid for freedom. Today there is limitless freedom of choice for consumers: at the click of a computer mouse one can arrange to fly anywhere in the world, eat or drink anything one likes, buy whatever products one wants; if you can’t afford it that’s OK, you can get another credit card. The consequence: (directly or indirectly) a more violent, less tolerant society, more world -wide war and famine, and the planet heating up to potentially catastrophic levels.
This nine -minute work can’t even begin to scratch the surface of these issues, but there is an equivalent for composers: we are now blessed with superb music processing packages that take a lot of the drudgery out of composition. Parts are extracted automatically; it’s possible to hear the piece back automatically, scores look immaculate, giving more time for the composer to write more works or get another credit card. As a result of this computer-led ‘freedom’ it has become easier for many more pieces to see the light of day, and I’m not sure that this can be good. Consequently, for this work I went back to producing a neat score using pen and paper and found that I had more freedom to express myself than ever before. At the start of the piece the oboe’s free rhapsodic line is held in check by the harp’s rigid, rhythmically unvarying perpetuum mobile. After a climax the two instruments join together, before slowly drifting apart to find a newly acquired freedom where the instruments can complement each other rather than battle for supremacy. The repeated harp notes at the end of the piece are no longer threatening or restrictive, and the oboe has the last laugh with a flirtatious gesture.
Freedom is dedicated to Melinda Maxwell.
French Dances Revisited was conceived during an exercise I set some of my students, which was to write a variation on the Bach keyboard prelude in C BVW 939 for double wind quintet. Subsequently I thought it a good idea to take this same prelude and use it as a basis for a kind of Baroque suite for the same combination. I hope that what I’ve written doesn’t sound too much like a pastiche, but more as an act of reverence for the music of Bach which I have always found so life enhancing. The six movements of the work follow the model of the Baroque French suite. The first movement is an Overture featuring an angular introduction followed by a fugato in 5/4 time. There follows a stately Allemande led by flute and bassoon, a lively Courante in fast triple time, a mournful Sarabande featuring solo oboe and horn and a Gavotte that also pays homage to Neo-classicism. The piece ends with a Gigue, which makes much use of canonic writing. Towards the end the stern dotted rhythms of the opening of the work reappear before the mood lightens for an exuberant ending.
In this piece I’ve also tried to follow a procedure of a certain flexibility of instrumentation which has been perhaps the hardest challenge. The two horn parts can be played on saxophones, the music of the second bassoon can be played on a bass clarinet and the oboe 2 part should also work on a clarinet.
French Dances Revisited lasts about fifteen minutes.
For Eight Cellos
The cello encompasses perhaps the widest emotional, timbral, dynamic and expressive range of any instrument. To be afforded the luxury of writing for eight of them was an offer I couldn’t refuse, and in this work I have attempted to enter this vast and varied sound world with a nine minute work that passes through despair and terror to illumination and triumph. I wrote this work in 2008, and the final chord is a small dedication to myself for my 50th birthday. ‘Into the Light’ was premiered at the Royal Northern College of Music with the RNCM cello ensemble in November 2008, and has since been performed by the cello section of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic orchestra and Cellophony.
For unaccompanied violin
The term ‘Klezmer’ comes from the Hebrew ‘Kley Zemer’ referring to the instruments played by the Jews of Eastern Europe. Nowadays the musician, his instrument and the music he plays are covered by the one term ‘Klezmer.’ The origins of this music date back to the sixteenth century and are of Eastern European folk idiom filtered through Jewish ears and consciousness. In the last hundred years Klezmer music is best known through Jewish weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and at fairs and carnivals. The music has certain pungent characteristics in melody, harmony and rhythm, which is the starting point for this work. As is well known the violin is an instrument particularly suited to Jewish music and I have tried to capture the passion and directness of a musical language that was in integral part of the lives of my great-grandparents. Klezmer lasts about nine minutes.
This short setting of a poem by the Tasmanian poet Sarah Day was written as a 70th birthday tribute to the composer Anthony Gilbert for his 70th birthday in 2004. The quirky instrumentation of soprano solo, sopranino recorder, cello and harpsichord is the most bizarre I have ever attempted, and I hope helps towards conveying a feeling of minute detail and tropical humidity so vividly portrayed in the poem. Incidentally the title should read ‘Magnification times’ as opposed to the twenty fourth letter of the alphabet!
I have long wanted to write a work reflecting the hectic pace of modern-day living. The invitation to compose a piece for the very urban combination of woodwind, saxophones, brass, piano and extensive percussion gave me this opportunity. The initial idea for Metropolis came from a radio play which was set in the near future and where the entire population of the country lived in their vehicles, driving forever round a circular motorway day and night, stopping only for food and petrol. In this piece I have tried to capture a mood of extreme tension together with the desperate exhilaration that the play conveyed to me.
The work is in one movement falling into four sections and lasting about fourteen minutes. The first section is by far the longest and is fast and agitated with much of the material deriving from the nervous opening figure on low clarinets. After a cacophonous climax the ‘human’ voice of the solo alto saxophone tries to introduce a mood of greater tranquility before music from the opening section returns, this time in a brash and vulgar style. The final section follows a doom-laden climax and features a soft chorale for all the winds over percussion playing in cross-rhythms. The work ends starkly and simply.
Metropolis is dedicated to Paul Patterson and was first performed by the Royal Academy of Music Wind Ensemble, conducted by Edward Gregson in 1993. It subsequently won the Walter Beeler Memorial Prize in the USA.
Michael and All Angels in mini-cantata for narrator, horn, chamber choir and organ with a text take from the Book of Revelations from the New Testament in the Bible. The first line: ‘There Was War in Heaven’ is reflected by chaotic wordless choral melismas and grindingly dissonant organ chords. The horn makes its baleful presence felt with jagged, ungainly wide leaps. After a while the piece gathers more of a forward momentum reaching a climax with a return of the opening chaos before order is restored with a thunderous A on the organ and the choir singing words for the first time: ‘And the Great Dragon was Thrown Down.’ The mood now calms with the description of the angel ascending from the rising of the sun. The final part of the work is a passacaglia which builds in confidence and triumph as the narrator describes ‘A Great Multitude Standing Before the Throne.’ The end of the work is a tireless blaze of joy in A major: ‘For Ever and Ever.’
I have been excited and enchanted by the music of Latin America since I was a child, and I have a particular love for the Tango; a dance that has its roots in Argentina. In this work I have tried to capture the combination of darkness, violence, mystery and seductive passion that is all an intrinsic part of the Tango. The work lasts ten minutes and is in two parts: an opening Andante, which starts with menacing drumbeats and continues in a corrupt and decadent mood. The main Allegro starts in a fragmentary manner, before the trumpet states a ‘night club’ theme that has an important role through the whole section. There is a short quieter middle section before the return of the ‘night club’ melody leads to a triumphant climax and a return of the opening drumbeats, before the faster music has the final word. At one point in the Allegro, those with keen ears for inner harmony might spot a reference to Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’, totally in keeping with the Tango’s explicit eroticism.
‘Midnight in Buenos Aires’ was commissioned by the Harmonie St. Caecilia Blerick and their Principal Conductor Andreas Van Zoelen.
This short work is a humble tribute to Giovanni Gabrieli: a composer of some of the most evocative and dynamic music ever written.
Prelude, Interlude and Postlude was written in 1992, and won the Purcell Composition Prize in 1995. The three pieces are in a free atonal idiom, but with some leanings towards modality, particularly in the Postlude. In all three movements I have attempted to explore the percussive possibilities of the instrument without, I hope, resorting to cheap effects. The Prelude features violent juxtapositions between various moods and registers, while the Interlude is mainly swift in tempo with an unexpected diatonic twist at the end. The Postlude lasts as long as the first two movements put together and is subtitled Epiphany in Venice , being inspired by the sounds of multiple bells on a bitterly cold and foggy January day in that unique city. This final piece is dedicated to the memory of Olivier Messiaen.
There are three definitions of the noun ‘Repercussion’ – 1) An unintended consequence occurring sometime after an event or action, especially an unwelcome one; 2) The recoil of something after impact; 3) An echo or reverberation.
These definitions all have a relevance to this fifteen minute piece which is in four sections that should be played without a break. Each movement is a consequence of the preceding one, a reaction to the impact of what has just been aurally experienced. The first part is crude and rustic, in a kind of English ‘Mock Tudor’ idiom with much close imitation and characterised by open sounding quartal and quintal harmonies. The ‘reaction’ of the second section is to move the harmonic language into something much more ambiguous in a four minute orchestral diminuendo held together by an insistent repeating note pattern. Following this the third movement ‘responds’ with static gestures and much reverberating sounds on muted brass and metal percussion over which an off stage saxophone blows a plaintive recitative. After this the opening of the finale is childlike and naïve with a return to a neo-sixteenth century harmonic language. The consequence of this is that it initially gets blown aside, but then combines with a brutal theme in the brass, which is in turn overwhelmed by apocalyptic bells and drums that end the work.
There is a fourth made-up ‘definition’ of the title word, literally ‘percussion again’, in that each movement starts with the percussion sounds that have ended the previous section.
Repercussions was commissioned by Kappa Kappa Psi, National Band Fraternity and Tau Beta Sigma, National Band Sorority and first performed at Pike’s Peak Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA by the 2011 National Intercollegiate Band conducted by Craig Kirchoff.
Children’s Games – Vivace Leggiero
Two Monkeys – Lento
The Peasant Dance – Presto con Fuoco
The Wedding Banquet – Moderato Pesante – Allegro Molto
In this suite of four short movements, I have been drawn to the wonderfully detailed and multi-layered depictions of village life by the sixteenth century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel. There is a strong element of satire in his paintings; what comes across most strongly is Bruegel’s pinpointing of human folly and hypocrisy. Man’s lust, cruelty and greed is repeatedly shown, sometimes in a wild, garish light, at other times beneath the surface.
His painting Children’s Games at a cursory glance may seem full of life and gaiety, on closer inspection the hundreds of children depicted seem to be manipulated by an invisible hand, there are no expressions of joy here, and the games being acted out have very little of the spontaneous. In this first piece I have tried to capture the mood of the painting in three and a half minutes of robotic six/eight time from a deceptively innocent beginning to a brutal conclusion. At one point in the movement a very well known medieval song is quoted.
The painting Two Monkeys is in marked contrast to the other three. Here the crowd is not crowded with frenetic activity. Two gloomy-looking monkeys, portrayed in the movement by two bassoons playing in their highest registers are chained to a windowsill under a deep dungeon-like arch. They have been chained down for their greed for a hazelnut. Behind them is Antwerp covered in a thick mist.
The third movement The Peasant Dance is wild, uncouth and very brief – and includes another quotation, this time from a bi-tonal sixteenth century dance by the German composer Hans Neusidler.
In The Wedding Banquet Bruegel’s characters are completely ruled by their lust for instant gratification – something that hasn’t changed very much in the last five hundred years. Any sense of the spirituality of the occasion is swept aside by the constant demand for food and drink. The music is intentionally two dimensional, never leaving the tonal area of B flat.
Scenes From Bruegel was commissioned by the National Youth Wind Orchestra of Great Britain with financial assistance from the John Lewis Partnership.
Commissioned by the Hampstead and Highgate Festival Ltd with Funding from the John S Cohen Foundation
Dedicated to my Parents
Duration 14 Minutes
- Moderate speed – a sort of sleigh ride through melting snow
- A miniature flute concertino – idyllic until just before the close
- A dazzlingly bright May morning, leading by way of a memory of the sleigh ride to:
- Twilight Romanza for strings only, leading to:
- A summing up of events with apologies to the violas.
Having moved to Cheshire from London some years ago I thought it would be an enjoyable challenge to try and write a work inspired by events from local history and folklore. Some of the ideas behind this piece are local legends; for others I am indebted to a book by Doug Pickford: Macclesfield Mysterious and Macabre, which is full of vivid and bizarre stories and anecdotes, all of them apparently true.
Silk Impressions is in five movements:
1. Maggotty Samuel
’Maggotty’ Johnson is said to have been the last court jester in England. He worked for most of his life in London, then lived at Gawsworth Hall near Macclesfield and is buried in ‘Maggotty’s Wood’ in Gawsworth. He died in 1763, and it is said that if you walk three times round his grave his ghost will appear. The opening of the piece pays mock homage to the pompous 18th century ‘French Overture’ style of many suites by Bach and Handel with prominent dotted rhythms. This is soon rudely interrupted by a cry from the wind and brass. The movement is an eccentric burlesque that respects no particular style.
2. The Dark Lady
The lady in question is Mary Fytton of Gawsworth Hall, who may have been the inspiration behind Shakespeare’s 152nd sonnet. She is alleged to have fallen in love with the young William Shakespeare and followed him to Stratford-upon-Avon. They had a passionate affair then she left him. He expressed his feelings in the heartfelt and embittered sonnet: To the Dark Lady. This movement is a subdued swaying waltz, enshrouded in mystery.
3. Pex Hill
Otherwise known as ‘The Hill of the Pixies.’ There have been alleged sightings of ‘little people’ around the Macclesfield area through the centuries. One day in the early 19th century in Pex Hill, near Hurdsfield a group of schoolgirls claimed to have seen ‘a group of thirteen small people, no larger than rabbits, holding hands and dancing in a circle.’ One girl shouted something, which startled the group and they dispersed, never to be seen again. This movement is a miniature tone poem: blink and you’ll miss it.
4. The Guildford Chimes
A melody for bells originally written by George Wilkins, organist at St. Nicholas’s Church, Guildford. This melody has been taken up in various parts of the country, including the now redundant but atmospheric Christ Church in Macclesfield. This is the slow movement of the work and is dedicated to my two children: Ben, who is fast becoming an expert bell ringer, and Juliette, who thought up the melody which is heard on the muted trumpet towards the end of the movement.
5. Silk Heritage
The town of Macclesfield is, of course, most renowned for its silk industry. This movement celebrates a once proud tradition. I have attempted to give an impression of the intricate machinery of the silk factories by somewhat unorthodox means, before the ‘French Overture’ theme from the start of the work brings everything to a suitably grandiose conclusion.
Silk Impressions was commissioned by the King Edward Music Society with Funds provided by the Anne Thomson Foundation.
While this work is not a sonata in the conventional sense, my inspiration for writing it was based on elements of sonata form that I consider eternally fresh in so much of my favourite music. This includes development and metamorphosis of thematic material, establishment of tonal centres and the relationship between them, contrast between the dynamic and the lyrical, and above all, musical context – why things happen when they do.
Sonata for Violin and Piano is in one extended movement lasting about eighteen minutes. The opening Adagio is in ABA form with delicate, transparent textures based around the tonality of A flat framing a more passionate central episode centred around A major. The return of the opening material features the use of harmonics and quarter-tones in the violin part. The Presto that follows is wild and tumultuous although there are scherzo-like episodes, including a tango-fugato initiated by the pizzicato violin, and a hesitant waltz that eventually leads to the climax of the work where A major is more firmly established.
At the moment when the music seems to be rushing headlong towards a joyful conclusion, the bass of the piano cuts through with repeated tollings of A and A flat. Over this the violin heralds the final Adagio with a long melody, rising ever upwards and leading to a restatement of the very opening of the work. By now the tonality is less stable, and the piece ends in a new sombre, questioning mood.
This work is dedicated to my wife, Elizabeth.
In this ten-minute piece I have attempted to illustrate a Kafkaesque sense of claustrophobia and paranoia. The mood is predominantly dark, often violent, and at times grotesque. The tuba and piano should play as if locked together in a deadly embrace – indeed the piano part is limited to one note at a time in the register of the tuba. Towards the end of the work a brief cadenza for the tuba gives a hope of liberation, but this is denied by a cruel tolling in the depths of the piano that brings the piece to a bleak conclusion.
‘Straitjacket’ was commissioned by and is dedicated to James Gourlay to whom I am eternally grateful for suggesting that the work should be transposed down a tone, thus blackening the mood still further.
Writing this work was one of my greatest challenges as a composer. In the first place, I was given the opportunity to write a chamber piece with my own decision in instrumentation, as opposed to being prescribed a particular instrument or group of players – greater freedom of choice can prove problematic as opposed to liberating. In this particular case, having been a great fan of the Maggini quartet for many years, the choice was a clear one for me. Secondly there is, of course, the awesome tradition of the string quartet repertoire. I cannot write in a musical vacuum and the thought that composers like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Tschaikowsky, and more recently Janacek, Bartok, Britten, Shostakovich, Schnittke, Ligeti and many more were breathing down my neck made me doubt my thoughts and notes even more than usual. Thirdly, I wanted to write a work without any pictorial, literary or philosophical stimulae, and the pure form of the string quartet seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
My initial thoughts for the piece were to complete a trilogy, which started with Klezmer for solo violin (1993) and continued with the Violin Sonata (1996). The latter work starts with pure innocence and ends in a more sombre mood. The opening of this quartet, which is played without a break, magnifies this mood into one of black despair – very slow, grindingly dissonant and punctuated with silence. After a long, desolate violin solo there is a sudden rearing up and the mood then lightens for a while, with more flowing material for instruments in pairs, before a harsh cello motif undercuts the relative tranquility. This leads to a climax heralding a return of the opening chord sequence. A despairing viola melody leads to the end of the first section.
There is now a long silence, then the same music that ended the first part starts up again, but metrically altered to be part of an extended Allegro movement. The mood, after a muttering start is that of increasing violence and tension, with a particular rhythm in 13/8 time coming to the forefront. In the middle of this passage there is a tribute to the finale of Beethoven’s Rasumovsky Quartet No. 3 with each instrument having a chance to display itself in turn. A furious culmination is reached with a stark statement of the pervading rhythm; there is another silence, and the third part again adopts the procedure of starting where the previous section left off – this time to something much calmer and more enigmatic. This, in turn leads to a Presto section (a variation on the earlier Allegro), and there is a perceptible lightening of mood and texture as the music suggests something more jazz-inflected. A further increase of tempo to Prestissimo has the quartet all playing tremolando.
The final section (after another silence) starts with a long, impassioned melody for all four instruments playing in unison, then the opening material returns for a final time. A gradual ascent leads to a crystallising towards a tonal centre of G sharp minor, where the work ends with a brief reinstatement of the very fast tremolando music.
The whole piece lasts about half an hour.
I have called this work String Quartet No. 1 in the hope that I will write another one before I die. It was commissioned by Bromsgrove Concerts for Mixing Music, with funds provided by the Performing Right Society Foundation, and is dedicated to the Maggini quartet.
My first string quartet written in 2001 is an intense half hour affair that attempts to plunge the depths of human emotion. This piece written in 2009 tries to do nothing of the sort. It is in four short movements, is serenade like in character, and lasts approximately eleven minutes. It was written for the 85th birthday of Thilde Fraenkel, the mother of an old schoolmate, and was given a private performance at her home by the Tippett quartet in December 2009.
This work consists of two movements which can be played together or separately. Both movements last around three and a half minutes.
The first movement Singapore Sunrise is intended for school bands, and is based on the Singaporean melody Ikan Kekek. It is characterised by a mysterious opening with early morning birdcalls on the woodwinds before the melody takes over and rises to a climax.
Night Safari is aimed at slightly more advanced bands and is a depiction of Singapore’s world famous Safari park that can only be visited in the dark. I have tried to recapture the sense of excitement and danger as the wild animals are seen (or sometimes just heard) in their natural habitat. The piece is a sort of jazz waltz but with a lot of surprising sounds!
Sunrise and Safari was commissioned as the test piece for concert bands for the Singapore Youth Festival 2007.
Andante cantabile (con moto)
Allegro molto e vivace
Allegro molto e vivace
For most composers the prospect of writing their first symphony is a daunting one. The thought of conceiving a large-scale work following the example of one of the great traditions in western music offers a challenge that many put off indefinitely, and others never attempt. I have ignored this colossal weight of expectancy and written a party piece, which, I think is appropriate as it was written for a fortieth birthday party. The mood is light and effervescent, appropriate for an accompaniment to champagne and strawberries on a summer evening. The structural and thematic model of the piece is that of a very famous Symphony no. 1 in C by a certain L. Van Beethoven. Towards the end of the fourth and final movement of this fifteen-minute work there are quotations from other famous symphonies in C. Your answers, on a postcard please, to…
The conflict between imposing limitations upon myself as a composer and the freedom to break those limitations has often showed me the way during the process of writing. In this work for bass-baritone solo, brass quintet, chorus and organ, I have been lucky enough to be guided by a text that explores these limitations, in this case, those of incarceration. The words by Ben Kaye and John McCarthy are based on the experiences endured by John McCarthy as a prisoner in various Lebanese jails between 1986 and 1991. For nearly all of this period, he had virtually no contact with the outside world – indeed until the final year of his imprisonment, nobody had any idea of whether he was alive or not.
I have not attempted to write a musical documentary. Instead I have followed the very clear outline of the text which separates the main thrust of the piece into three parts, those of the Solo, Conscience and the World. The bass singer expresses the bleak and turbulent emotions of the Solo; the prisoner having to endure brutality, solitude, monotony, fear and anxiety; but finally hope in freedom. The voice of Conscience is taken by the off stage choir. Here I have tried to express the poignancy of memory, of loss of intimacy, and also of the proximity of near insanity. There is a notable part here for solo soprano, (also offstage.) The World is encapsulated by four soloists, who should sing in a ‘Broadway’ idiom of the pleasures of freedom in contemporary Western society. Whilst offering light relief, the serious message is that perhaps we are all prisoners in an empty superficial world of our own making.
The brass quintet and organ are used to heighten the conflict. From the militaristic brutality of the opening, through the mocking jazz tuba in the World sections, the desolate horn solo over the chorus’s mantra-like repetitions of the same chord, to the more joyous bell like trumpets celebrating ‘Euphoria and Hope.’ Throughout much of the piece an organ pedal ‘imprisons’ the harmony with a low E flat. At the very end the mood changes from that of joy to sober reflection as the entire ensemble repeats the line: ‘We made us what we are’; an admission of guilt, or at least responsibility for how we have fashioned the world to suit our needs and desires.
Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall was commissioned by the John Armitage Memorial Trust, and lasts a little over twenty minutes.
I am constantly drawn towards the idea of conflict in my works. The invitation to write a substantial piece for the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra gave me the opportunity to explore the conflict between the stress of living in today’s frenetic world and the search for something far more transcendental. During the writing of this work I became drawn to the story of the Buddha: Siddhartha Gautama whose life and teachings over two thousand years ago paved the way to one of the world’s great religions.
The Buddha’s early life was spent in comfort and naive self-indulgence and his father made sure that he would not experience any of the harsh realities of the world at first hand. After a while the Buddha did encounter old age, sickness and death on three forbidden visits from his father’s palace. On his fourth visit he came across a religious ascetic dressed in rags who seemed content despite his suffering; from this moment on Siddartha decided to devote the rest of his life to seeking the truth of human existence.
At the age of twenty-nine the Buddha left his life of luxury to become a wanderer himself. He spent six years in complete self-denial fasting and meditating, before, emaciated and starving, he realised that he was no closer to finding the answers he sought. After several days of prolonged meditation he opted to try a moderate, middle way which would bring an end to suffering. He spent the remaining forty-five years of his life travelling the North East of India teaching, answering questions and engaging in debates with audiences in the towns and villages. He died from natural causes aged about eighty.
Nirvana is the highest possible state of tranquillity and the realisation of no-self and freedom from cravings and attachment. The experience of nirvana gives release from suffering and rebirth. The thirty-one levels of the Buddhist universe ascend from Hell to ‘Neither perception nor non-perception.’ In this twenty-minute work I have attempted to follow a musical route from depicting base self-seeking human existence through harsh austerity leading eventually to the promise of complete detachment and calm. In the first part of this work, man’s striving for pleasure and self-gratification is expressed in harsh, dissonant music that veers between the expression of hollow triumph and despair. The sleazy worlds of jazz and music hall make their appearances before a complex and desperate climax is reached and then cut off by cataclysmic drum rolls.
The second section of the piece is a long extended diminuendo over thirty-one strokes of the tam tam. A sombre brass chorale offset against the piercing sound of unison woodwinds in their highest registers gradually descends into the murky depths of the band. There is a brief restatement of the stabbing chords of the start of the piece before a tense calm is broken by the sound of offstage saxophones impersonating Tibetan horns. Now the colours become more transparent and the harmonic language softens, and the third section introduces a vaguely pentatonic theme that is also derived from the opening. The saxophones are heard again, as well as new, more exotic sounds. In the final moments of the work I was drawn to the Buddha’s own description of the end of a person’s life likening it to ‘A flame that has been blown out. The flame does not go anywhere. Where would it have been before it was here and where would it go to next?’
‘Towards Nirvana’ is dedicated to the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra and their principal conductor Douglas Bostock who gave the first performance in Tokyo in October 2002.
This short work is dedicated to Timothy Reynish and is a study in restraint, with the dynamic rarely above piano. This seven minute work projects a sense of loss but never descends into despair. At one point the members of the ensemble hum a canon based on the opening theme. The work ends with a sudden burst of birdsong that dies away with a repetition of two brass chords over which is written ‘Rest in Peace.’
The inspiration for WAR OF THE WORLDS came from the celebrated novel about a possible Martian invasion by the former Bromley resident, author H.G. Wells. It is a large-scale 20-minute work in five clearly defined sections. A slow, brooding opening with an atmosphere of suppressed menace culminates with a thematically significant solo bass trombone acting as a messenger from a far off place. There follows an out-of-control passage signifying blind panic leading to a fearsome climax, which melts into the third section dominated by descending nebulous chords and a glassily nostalgic celeste solo recalling safer times. This is cruelly cut short by four off-stage saxophones representing the invading Martians playing the same repeating pattern while walking to their seats in the orchestra. A violent allegro follows dominated by this motif, eventually reaching a percussion dominated plateau, where the whole ensemble becomes ‘infected’ by this theme before eventually collapsing.
The final part of the piece features a long and impassioned ‘human’ oboe solo using material already heard on the bass trombone, increasingly finding warmer support from the ensemble. At the very end of the work the off-stage bass trombone returns and the mood darkens. The Martians may have been destroyed, but what of the future?
A tribute to Igor Stravinsky
Wedding Breakfast involves one performer who sings, plays the tambourine and does a few other things. The piece is inspired by, and takes its material from Stravinsky’s masterpiece ‘Les Noces’ (the wedding), at the end of which the bride goes up to her nuptial bedchamber to meet with and do whatever else necessary with her new husband on her first night of wedded ‘bliss.’ In this work I have tried to express how the bride might have felt the next morning, maybe after a bit too much vodka. The text is a jumble of syllables taken from the Stravinsky work, and makes no sense in Russian or English.
The Weimar Republic covered the brief and chaotic years in Germany’s history from the end of the First World War to the rise of Hitler in 1933. These years were characterised politically and socially by extreme instability and turbulence, and artistically by a unique boldness and a new awareness of the political climate. For many, including myself the Weimar Republic is associated with the Berlin of Marlene Dietrich, Fritz Lang, Brecht/Weill, the cigar smoking, gin swilling Sally Bowles… A glorious, frenetic and dangerously illegal final late-night celebration in the face of utter catastrophe.
In this work my musical mentors have been Alban Berg, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill and perhaps most importantly Duke Ellington who, I’m sure would have gone down fantastically well at the time, and who provided me with the melody that was the initial inspiration for this piece: ‘Creole Love Call’. ‘ Weimar ‘ is in one movement of about sixteen minutes’ duration. There are four sections: the opening part is very fast and frantic, like a speeded up silent film. There follows a tender and illicit love scene between the oboe and the tenor saxophone, which is crudely cut short by a depiction of the sickening banality of the National Socialists and their grotesque leader. The final section starts with a piercing and despairing melody that sinks into jazz inflected ‘scat’ singing for two wordless sopranos. The mood of the end of the piece is defiant, sensual and sleazy – the party will always continue however dark the forces of evil.
‘Weimar’ was commissioned by the Purcell School with funds provided by the RVW trust. It was given its first performed at the Adrian Boult hall in Birmingham in 2000, by the Purcell School Contemporary Music Ensemble conducted by Edward Longstaff.
Yiddish Dances, written for Timothy Reynish’s 60th birthday in 1998, is very much a party piece. It brings together two of my abiding passions: the Symphonic Wind Orchestra and Klezmer – the folk music of the Yiddish-speaking people.
The five movements are all based on set Klezmer dances:
Khosidl – a medium tempo 2/4 in which the music moves between satire, sentimentality and pathos.
Terkishe – an up-tempo Jewish tango.
Doina – a free recitative in which various instruments in the band get a chance to show off.
Hora – slow 3/8 time with a characteristic rocking rhythm.
Freylachs – very fast 2/4 time in which themes from the previous movements are recalled, ending in a riotous ‘booze-up’ for all concerned.
Le Chaim! (To Life!)