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

Drowning Songs

Written for the Trinity Laban chamber choir, Drowning Songs for unaccompanied SATB chamber choir was commissioned for a programme of nautical-themed works including Judith Bingham’s Salt in the Blood and Richard Rodney Bennett’s Full Fathom Five.

It is an evocation of the experience of drowning and a remembrance of those who have drowned. The text consists of a fragment of the psalm De Profundis, the names of some of the seamen listed as drowned in circumstances other than shipwreck in the British Merchant Navy records for the period between July 1881 and June 1882, and additional text devised by the composer.

The opening of the piece draws on a description of bodies sinking down through deep water, “falling like dolls”, given in the book All the Drowned Sailors by Raymond B. Lech. Depth and the action of the waves are recurring ideas throughout the piece, with the recurrence of the opening gesture and the susurration of whispered and spoken names of sailors rising and falling.

Preview the score of Drowning Songs (click on the score to open full-screen):

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

Breadcrumbs

a ‘striking dramatic take on the familiar tale’ (review by Robert Hugill)


Breadcrumbs performed by Charlotte Richardson (soprano) and Clemmie Curd (cor anglais), directed by Omar Shahryar, at Kings Place for Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, 9 August 2014.
Breadcrumbs is a dramatic monologue for unaccompanied soprano, based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel.

It was composed for soprano Julia Weatherley’s Master of Music recital in 2013 and was designed to explore ideas and material to be developed into a chamber opera in 2014.

The text is by the composer and incorporates material from Eastern European fairy tales, Dante’s Inferno and the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The singer plays the role of 15-year-old Gretel, alone in the woods. The back-story to the piece is that after their father abandoned Hansel and Gretel (rather than kill them as his wife had ordered him to), Hansel (aged about 12 or 13) went to try to find the breadcrumb trail and got lost. She is angry with him and feels responsible for her little brother. After an optional cor anglais introduction, Breadcrumbs begins with Gretel’s scathing indictment of Hansel’s idea of tracking the path back to their home with breadcrumbs. With nightfall, she expresses her fear of being alone in the dark and with nothing else to do, she relates her whimsical mental wanderings around the image of “a darkness a spoon could stand up in”. Finally, she sees a light through the trees, smells gingerbread and hears her brother – can they have found the safe haven she craves?

An early version of Breadcrumbs was workshopped by Jane Manning at Tete a Tete opera festival in Hammersmith in August 2013, and the completed work was first performed by Julia Weatherley (soprano) and Clemmie Curd (cor anglais) in September 2013 [view video]. In August 2014, Breadcrumbs was featured as a free fringe event in the 2014 Tête à Tête opera festival at Kings Place, performed by Charlotte Richardson (soprano) and Clemmie Curd (cor anglais) and directed by Omar Shahryar, and also performed at the Barbican [view: rehearsal video teaser, production photos].

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’

Red Drops, Scarlet Heat

Red drops, scarlet heat started out as a piece I was writing for the Percy Grainger Museum’s annual composition competition*. The terms of the 2002 competition stated that entries should use material from one of a number of set pieces composed by Grainger. One of these works was Grainger’s The Immovable Do which is based entirely around a drone on C.

I wanted to see how I could most expressively use a drone in a vocal/choral work. Taking Walt Whitman’s beautiful but rather chilling ‘Trickle drops’ (from Leaves of Grass) as my text, I worked to create a dramatic piece from fairly limited musical resources. I experimented a little with the addition of an optional glockenspiel part during rehearsals, but ultimately removed this from the work. The overall effect of the work is quite dark, but passionate.

The individual vocal parts should not be difficult for any moderately experienced singer, but the work does require a very stable sense of pitch – not only to maintain the drone, but to correctly place dissonances and leaps.

*It never made it to the competition as the final version did not meet the minimum duration imposed by the competition rules.

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.

Chanson

Erik Satie’s ‘Chanson’ is the first of his Trois autres mélodies, written in 1887. This arrangement, for voice, vibraphone and tape by Caitlin Rowley was commissioned by American composer Adam Di Angelo and completed in 2009. The tape part uses recordings from the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara (with permission) as well as environmental sounds recorded in Ealing (London) and Brussels by the composer.

Not wanting to greatly change the beauty of Satie’s original music, the aim was for the tape part to underscore the feelings of fleeting pleasures, and the melancholy aspect of J.P. Contamine de Latour’s text, while the vibraphone and voice present the melody and accompaniment almost unaltered from the original.

The score comes with a CD of two versions of the tape part: one with and one without the vibraphone part, enabling either easy solo practice for the singer, or performance when a vibraphone may be difficult to come by.