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):

More or Less

with Alexandra Kremakova

More or Less is a set of piano variations written in collaboration with the pianist Alexandra Kremakova for the John Halford Competition at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in 2014. Drawing on a visual conceit of zooming in and out of maps, the variations proceed in two directions from the theme – one set becoming more and more complex, adding runs and spreading out across the full range of the keyboard, while the other set becomes progressively simpler, reducing down to the simplest form that can still convey the theme – four held notes.

Duration: ca 5 minutes

The collaboration

More or Less developed over the course of about four months, starting from initial broad discussions and proceeding through regular meetings, sometimes just talking, sometimes mixing discussion with playing viol duets (Alexandra plays treble viol, I play tenor), but mostly at the piano.

The idea behind the theme was to explicitly use intervals which we both love – perfect fifths for Alexandra, tritones for me, octaves for both of us. There’s a certain reflection, I feel, of our shared enjoyment of early music in this theme. Alex’s response to the theme was that its sparseness reminded her a little of reductive analysis, and she suggested that it could be the basis of a set of variations. I was already feeling that the theme had a sort of kinship with Erik Satie’s Vexations, and it seemed that variations might be a useful way to handle the material and that this might provide scope to explore both our shared interests and different ways of thinking about music.

The challenge was to find a way into the piece that would give the variations a purpose. I feel that many sets of variations quickly devolve into showing off technique, and we both wanted to avoid that. Alex also likes to find a narrative or visual aspect of pieces she plays which she uses to create her interpretation.

From the idea of reductive analysis and the simplification of complex ideas, I drew a mental parallel with the way Google Maps works: you zoom in to see the detail of streets, local landmarks and businesses; zoom out for context, reducing the place you just saw in such detail to a mere dot connected to other dots. From this came the idea of two sets of variations, interleaving but with the conceptual distance between them widening as the piece progresses.

With this concept in mind and with the variations sketched out, we worked together over a number of sessions to make the piece a more coherent whole. In particular, Alex suggested ways to make the music more pianistic, especially in the more complex variations; I worked to adjust the music to create a more lively harmonic world, within its very static parameters, principally by interpolating a cycle of fifths as interjections of single notes between each variation.

I also adjusted the opening of Variation 2a to be a direct quote from Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, in reference to Liszt being the composer Alex was playing the first time I heard her perform.

I’m still not a huge fan of variations (although I have now discovered exceptions to this rule, most notably Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated) but I’m really glad to have worked on this piece with Alex, and I feel that together we have managed to create a work which reflects our different approaches as well as tying together our common interests.

from the explanatory notes in the score.

Since its first performance at Bastard Assignments, Alexandra Kremakova has also performed More or Less twice at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and at the Barbican.

Preview the score of More or Less (click on the score to open full-screen):

In Detail

Written for pianist Valentina Pravodelov, In Detail is a response to the first four of Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Régards sur l’Enfant Jésus, the opening pieces of a programme of solo piano works focused on religious and mystical subject matter. The programme also included Sofia Gubaidulina’s Toccata Troncata and Liszt’s Funerailles, as well as music by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.

New piece: Maps of Seville - Full
Maps of Seville. Mixed media: collaged maps and tracing paper, gouache, oil pastel, fineliner.
Click through to Flickr for larger sizes and detail shots

Valentina asked for a meditative piece that would be less than three minutes long. I deliberately took a linear approach to contrast with the strong harmonic bias of the other works on the programme and present a different type of meditation.

In Detail also has roots in a visual art piece, Maps of Seville, that I created for another (unfinished) work. It has a completely different feel from the artwork – especially texturally! – but relates to the detail view – up close, even bold straight lines display a mass of irregularities.

The title relates to the saying “God is in the detail” and refers to the need for the pianist to focus on tiny details of sonority, duration, touch and rhythmic angularity and instability. Notes of unspecified duration allow the pianist to adapt the piece according to the needs of their programme, the size of the venue, and the nature of the instrument available.

Glacier, for Stephen Montague

For my teacher Stephen Montague’s 70th birthday celebrations, the composers at Trinity Laban were all asked to write a ‘piece on a postcard’ to celebrate the occasion. Glacier, for Stephen Montague is my contribution to this project.

Given that Stephen’s role as my tutor is largely to help me explore more experimental ways of thinking about music, I didn’t just want to write a piece but wanted instead to do some small-scale exploration. The postcard I used (pictured below) was one I found in a secondhand bookshop in Greenwich, Halcyon Books and is of a painting of the Glacier of Rosenlaui in Switzerland by John Brett. I started thinking about creaking ice and how I might be able to create a similar effect on the piano. The work uses mostly the strings inside the piano and largely consists of scraping a card up the strings towards the hammers, and striking the strings with card, the hand or the fingers. Keys are depressed silently in order to create pitches to reverberate after the action directly on the strings.

The performance here is by Caitlin Rowley, from a private performance at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, Friday 3 May 2013.

Glacier postcard artwork
Glacier postcard artwork
Glacier, for Stephen Montague - score
Score of Glacier, for Stephen Montague

 

Still River Air

‘absolutely beautiful, brilliantly executed’ (Adjudicator’s report)

A finalist in the 2013 Runswick Prize at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, Still River Air is based on seven photographs by iconic American photographer Ansel Adams, from the exhibition From the Mountains to the Sea at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

The work is in three sections. The first describes two images of still water, the second a group of river-rapid images and the third represents photographs of waterfall spray. Still River Air is scored for the unusual ensemble prescribed by the terms of the competition and has a duration of just under 10 minutes.

Praise for Still River Air

From the adjudicator’s report:

‘I was drawn to distinctly different photographs during different sections of the piece which was a remarkable experience.’

‘the tone of the music felt incredibly well judged alongside the images of the exhibition.’

‘absolutely beautiful, brilliantly executed’

To Fortune

Written for American composer and singer Charles Turner for February 2012’s Lucky Dip album project. Nancy Rexford plays the piano on this recording.

Charles suggested the text for this short song, Robert Herrick’s To Fortune:

Tumble me down, and I will sit
Upon my ruins, smiling yet ;
Tear me to tatters, yet I’ll be
Patient in my necessity.
Laugh at my scraps of clothes, and shun
Me, as a fear’d infection ;
Yet, scare-crow-like, I’ll walk as one
Neglecting thy derision.

Three Whitman Songs

Three Whitman Songs is, oddly enough, a set of three songs to texts by Walt Whitman for contralto and piano. The first and last songs of the set – ‘Hast never come to thee an hour’ and ‘This is thy hour’ – are for both performers, while the second song, ‘Come forward, o my soul’ is for unaccompanied voice and is followed by a brief interlude for solo piano.

The vocal range this work is intended for is perhaps a little lower than average – between them the songs cover a compass from E-flat at the top of the treble stave, down to F below middle C. While this is an unusual range, it happens to be that of the composer (for once I wanted to write something I could sing without transposing it down a fourth!)

The texts are as follows:

Hast never come to thee an hour

Edited from Hast never come to thee an hour

Hast never come to thee an hour,
A sudden gleam, divine, precipitating,
bursting all these bubbles, fashions, wealth.
Those eager business aims, books, politics, art, amours,
To utter nothingness.

Come forward, O my soul

Extracted from Proud Music of the Storm

Come forward, O my soul, and let the rest retire,
Listen, lost not, it is toward thee they tend,
Parting the midnight, entering my slumber chamber,
For thee they sing and dance O soul.

This is thy hour

Edited from A Clear Midnight

This is thy hour, o soul, [thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,]
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.
Night, sleep, death and the stars

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.

Deconstruct: Point, line, plane

Deconstruct: Point, line, plane is a flexible-instrumentation minimalist composition for 5 winds/strings and piano. It explores the sonorities of the instruments, first as solo timbres, then in conversation, and finally together as an ensemble. The structure of the piece has been influenced by the writings of Kandinsky – in particular his theories of colour and line, which the composer has interpreted as timbre and melody in this musical context.

The title, Deconstruct, refers to the initial melodic material (the alternating piano notes and first main flute/oboe melody) which is rapidly deconstructed into something quite different. This material is from the opening of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen – a small homage to the great Sir Charles Mackerras, who died just as this composition was being started.

Egg the Eleventh: An odd fugue for Francis Western-Smith

Written for composer and pianist/organist Francis Western-Smith for February 2012’s Lucky Dip album project, Egg the Eleventh has strong ties to the other keyboard ‘eggs’ I have written. Its being a fugue was the result of a Twitter challenge from Francis 🙂

Egg the Tenth: A Whitman Interlude

Egg the Tenth started out as a piano interlude to my short song-cycle, Three Whitman Songs but pretty quickly developed ideas above its station and became too long to be appropriate for the setting, so I pulled it out and let it stand on its own.

Like many of the other piano ‘eggs’, the harmonic world Egg the Tenth occupies is a little quirky, but technically it’s not difficult to play. It should also work well on harpsichord.

2 by 4

Eggs 6 through to 9 were written as a set of not-terribly-strict two-part inventions for piano or harpsichord in 2006/7 as a way of easing myself back into composition after an extended period without writing anything.

The two-line challenge proved perfect for the situation. I used the opportunity to explore melodic development and counterpoint a little, and while all four pieces are quite clearly individual works, they share a common approach and feel. While briefly Bach-like in places, these Eggs are far from pastiche, although they are perhaps among the more ‘traditional’ in approach of my compositions.

These recordings are MIDI realisations.

Egg the Fifth

Egg the Fifth was the first piece I wrote after a protracted period of compositional inactivity. It is a small-scale, slimly textured piece, stylistically related to the more contemplative items from The Four-Egg Omelette which I wrote in 1998.

Written for solo piano, it is technically very simple and should be playable by pianists above about grade 2.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

catharsis

catharsis grew out of a clash of priorities between my composition and my dayjob. With little time to compose, I became increasingly frustrated, leading to this work which is probably more cathartic for the composer than for the performer!

This recording is a MIDI-generated performance.

Pieces of Eight: A frivolity in eight parts

Pieces of Eight was written in response to a ‘call for scores’ from French chamber group Ensemble Décadanse who were embarking on a project entitled 2000 miniatures for the year 2000. They were asking for groups of pieces, each item of which was no longer than 10 seconds in duration.

Taking up the challenge, I viewed each piece as a window onto another – hypothetical – larger piece.

Pieces of Eight exists in several versions by the composer:

  • flute/violin, B-flat clarinet, cello/double bass & piano – the original version written for Ensemble Décadanse
  • soprano saxophone, violin, viola, double bass & piano for Australian group Topology who performed this version at the MiniMax Festival in Brisbane in 20o2
  • string quartet
  • solo piano, premiered by Luca Tieppo at a London Composers Forum concert in 2011
  • solo pedal harp, written for American harpist Shana Norton who recorded it for the Lucky Dip project in 2012.

Additionally, Pieces of Eight was arranged by composer and oboist Catherine Pluygers for the ensemble of the London New Wind Festival who performed it in London in 2009.

The recording here is of the first performance of the piano version, by Italian pianist and composer Luca Tieppo at the London Composers Forum‘s lunchtime concert at St Mary’s, Putney in London, 7 October 2011

Shimmer

Shimmer was composed in 1998 for Newcastle (NSW) pianist Rob Kelly. While it may sound at times a little like Debussy, its roots are strongly in the music of Stravinsky – especially structurally.

The structure of the work was created along the lines of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which consists of fragments of themes juxtaposed against each other, chopping and changing, but gradually building a series of thematic lines through the piece.

Shimmer has two principal ‘lines’, one free and quasi-improvisatory; the other more rhythmic and structured.

The performance here, by Jeanell Carrigan, is from the Vox Australis CD Hammered (Australian Post-1970 Piano Music, Vol. 3) VAST027-2, released 2000 and available to buy from the Australian Music Centre.

Shimmer also exists in an alternate version for piano and percussion.

haiku I

haiku I started life as a student exercise for Peter Sculthorpe’s Composition Workshop at Sydney Uni. Given 10 minutes to come up with a short work drawing inspiration from haiku poetry, I composed a short piano piece using the pentatonic scale and drawing its musical structure from the poetical structure of haiku – 3 lines (sections) of seven, nine and seven syllables (bars) respectively.

Originally written for ‘normal’ piano, haiku I was reworked for prepared piano* in 1998 and recorded (rather erratically…) by the composer as a score for Simone O’Callaghan’s web film Fetisssh (no longer online).

* The piano is prepared by attaching metal paperclips to some of the strings of the piano

The Four-Egg Omelette

Egg the First

One day while browsing around the music library at Sydney University, I spotted a score of somebody’s “complete oeuvre” which I at first misread as being their “complete oeufs“. The idea of issuing a set of “complete eggs” appealed to me (still does 🙂 ) and so when I started to write a set of short piano pieces shortly afterwards, they became the beginning of a series of ‘piano eggs’.

The Four-Egg Omelette comprises the first four of these ‘eggs’ and was written in 1994. The style is somewhat quirky and free-ranging, but quite dramatic in ‘Egg the First’ and ‘Egg the Fourth’. ‘Egg the Third’ is a waltz (“Sunny-side up”) and ‘Egg the Second’ is a short Interlude.

This recording is a MIDI realisation of ‘Egg the First’ (hence its somewhat heavy-handed approach with the accents). The key feature of this piece is setting a five-note ostinato in the left hand against a melodic right-hand part which ranges across a number of metres.

Other Eggs

The series of piano eggs continues. Other pieces in the series are:

  • Egg the Fifth
  • 2 by 4: Eggs the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth, a set of two-part inventions
  • Egg the Tenth, a stand-alone Interlude
  • Egg the Eleventh