Crossing Dartmoor

A large-scale song cycle for tenor and piano, based on the Dartmoor textworks of British sculptor Richard Long, Crossing Dartmoor is a long-term project which will eventually consist of around 26 performable items. The singer chooses their own path through the material provided, with a minimum of five pieces constituting a ‘complete’ performance of the cycle. As such, Crossing Dartmoor is currently complete enough to provide several variants of such a performance, consisting as it presently does of around 40 minutes of audio material plus videos.

The cycle also exists as an arrangement for mezzo-soprano and guitar.

Full information and recordings of Crossing Dartmoor are available on the project’s dedicated website at crossingdartmoor.uk.

Preview the score of Crossing Dartmoor (click on the score to view full-screen):

Two Fish

Commissioned by Rebecca Cohen in 2014, Two Fish was written in response to a brief for an amusing song or group of songs with a total duration of approximately 4 minutes for soprano and piano. Having chosen texts from the 17th century fishing manual The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton, we worked to create two contrasting songs that reflect characteristics of the fish described. At some point during the composition process, I began to associate the fish in the texts with characters from Victorian melodrama. The music correspondingly took a melodramatic turn and both songs abound with frills and flourishes.

‘Adonis’, the first song of the pair, represents the heroine of Victorian melodrama. Beautiful and pure-hearted, this fish is the personification of innocence and love. While I was unable to precisely identify the fish described by Walton, I discovered that the herring is sometimes described as ‘The Darling of the Sea’. I learned that the herring, a fish which lives on plankton, is preyed on by a range of creatures. Specifically, I found photographs showing herring schools being attacked from above by gulls and from below by whales lunging from the depths. With the text being essentially description, with no innate drama, I used the idea of predators from below and above to build some drama into the piano part. As the piano part became more dramatic, the vocal line retreated into a simplicity informed by the idea of church chant.

‘Sargus’ represents the morally corrupt villain of Victorian melodrama. The text, the rather loose descendent of a French original based on an ancient description, describes an unnatural sexual liaison – between the Sargus fish and a goat. The mixture of description and purple-prose hyperbole in this text suggested the use of strong contrasts in this piece. The melodic material for the opening derived from a cipher on the fish’s name, while the central section was composed intuitively.

Preview the score of Two Fish (click on score to open full-screen):

Vignettes of Home

Written for a collaborative English Song project run by Jess Walker at Trinity Laban in February 2014, these four tiny songs were composed in a single night (18 February 2014) to texts contributed by four different singers on the project.

The texts describe what ‘home’ means to the writers and the songs each combine singing and speaking. The approach to both vocal lines and accompaniments is very free. Each song is about 30 seconds in duration, giving a total running time of about 2 minutes.

  • ‘After Rain’, for Melanie Harikrishna
  • ‘Returning Home’, for Amon-Ra Twilley
  • ‘Christmas’, for Deborah Miller
  • ‘Sycamore Trees’, for Lucy Miller-White

Parlour Game

Parlour Game is a conceptual, improvisatory Christmas piece for three or more singing performers (either acting singers or singing actors) with a sense of adventure and a taste for silliness. It is based on the children’s game Chinese Whispers, in which text is whispered from player to player, becoming corrupted and less and less intelligible as it moves through the group.

The ‘score’ of Parlour Game consists of a page of instructions and 8 slips of paper which contain four graphic suggestions for melodies and four suggestions of ways of speaking. This is the foundation of the piece. The first performance was augmented by readings from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and the provision of ‘rumours’ to the audience in handmade paper fortune cookies (made with Christmas origami paper!). The rumours were all lines taken from A Christmas Carol, but could be anything that fits the occasion, and of course, audience members can always make up their own rumours.

The piece can run for any duration, although less than about 7 minutes would probably not be effective. The first performance ran for 12 minutes.

Parlour Game: First performance

Parlour Game: First performance

Parlour Game: First performance

Remembrances of Half-Forgotten Dead People

These three songs for high voice & piano take their texts from the 1911 edition of the Petit Larousse Illustré. These have been set as they appear in the dictionary (with certain minor changes to preserve clarity of meaning), and were chosen for the different ways in which time has treated the subjects of the entries:

I. Lament: Louis-César-Joseph Ducornet (1806-1856). French painter. ‘Born without arms, he painted with his feet’. Ducornet has by now been apparently totally forgotten, to the extent that his name does not even appear in modern 20-volume encyclopaediae.

II. Funeral march: Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896). French composer. He was chosen because while he was extremely popular during his lifetime, his works did not seem to be performed often even though his name was known. This was from my perspective (1990s Australia!) when the work was written – it seems that in Europe his music is still performed.

III. Elegy: Marie de Flavigny, Comtesse d’Agoult (1805-1976). French writer. Quite well known during her lifetime, she wrote under the nom de plume Daniel Stern. She is best known now as Liszt’s mistress.

The performance here is by soprano Angela Hicks, who sang Remembrances of Half-Forgotten Dead People in the Old Royal Naval College Chapel, Greenwich on 23 January 2014.