Mark Bowden: A violence of gifts | Unsuk Chin: Mannequin | Plus April’s new music6:29, 30th March 2015
Mark Bowden’s new work as part of his role as the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ resident composer is a large-scale, 40-minute work for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra, which takes inspiration from both Haydn’s The Creation and, at the same, the metaphysical and scientific issues which themselves inspired Haydn more than 200 years ago.
Haydn wrote The Creation after visiting what was one of the foremost scientific instruments of its day, William Herschel’s telescope in Slough; and, concerned to mirror Haydn’s compositional process as much as possible, Bowden and librettist Owen Sheers ‒ rather than ‘just read pop science books or find out what we could from our own research on the internet,’ says Bowden ‒ secured a grant from the Jerwood Charitable Foundation to visit the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, where they spent a week.
‘The trip was completely vital to the whole process,’ says Bowden. ‘Owen had such a busy schedule, and I was writing another piece at the time, so it was a really good time for us to be together for a number of days, to talk about the project round the clock. We thought that if we’re going to write a piece about the beginnings of the universe and the beginnings of life, we should be going to speak to the people that are doing the most up-to-date research on it.
‘They gave us these passes, and they said we could go anywhere on the site that these passes would open: “You can’t get into any room where you could do any damage!” Every day we were there they arranged for us to have lunch with different particle physicists, so we would have these 2-hour lunches in the canteen where they would tell us about everything they were doing. And they were so enthusiastic ‒ to me they were a bit like performing musicians, who are completely dedicated to and singleminded about their instruments, and the search for perfection. Actually there were a lot of musicians there, with orchestras and choirs ‒ a bit like a university. There is that relationship between music and physics.’
Bowden built much of the work’s musical structure from notes and ideas made during and immediately after this trip, creating material inspired by the physical properties explained in the standard model of nuclear physics, including, for example, the three pairs of quarks ‒ up and down, charm and strange, and truth and beauty. ‘These six became like the building blocks for my piece, in the same way, I suppose, as they are building blocks for matter … Sometimes I also used number patterns related to the standard model, just to generate intervals and rhythms really. These basic building blocks for musical material became a palette, bringing unity to a large stretch of music.’
Originally, Bowden and Sheers had planned to mirror the three-movement structure of The Creation exactly ‒ exploring the three ideas broadly categorised as the creation of matter, the creation of life, and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden ‒ but over time a two-movement structure developed, weaving and drawing parallels between the two ‘sudden switches’, from off to on, of the big bang and the emergence of life on earth.
A compositional strand between The Creation and Bowden’s work comes from the harmonic language of Haydn’s first-movement ‘Representation of Chaos’, with Haydn’s three centre of C, G and A flat also ‘a kind of unifying harmonic motif that leads through the piece’ in A Violence of Gifts.
Orchestrally, the work makes particular use of the lowest instruments, with returning motifs for the combination of double bass, contrabassoon and contrabass clarinet.
A ‘huge choral passage, scored for double chorus’ opens the work, with the word ‘begin’ translated into many languages, after which the soprano becomes identified with the origin of the universe, and the baritone more associated with the emergence of life.
The final section ‘is really contemplating what it means to ask these questions’, says Bowden. ‘What people at CERN kept telling us was that you mustn’t believe in anything. You’ve got to keep asking question and being doubtful in order to find new knowledge.’ So not an oratorio, but an anti-oratorio? ‘We started off calling it an oratorio, but I was never really comfortable with it. To be honest, we’re just calling it a piece.’
A doomed battle to prevent the demolition of the pedestrian subways at south London’s much-maligned Elephant & Castle has inspired a site-specific work for choir by Danyal Dhondy, ‘to mark the passing of these safe, efficient and terribly signposted subterranean pedestrian spaces’.
Requiem for the Subways will be performed by a scratch choir who will gather just before sunset to perform in each of the seven subways, ‘pausing at each to hear a different stage in the piece’.
‘There’s been a battle to save these subways for the best part of a year now,’ says Dhondy, ‘which has ultimately been futile ‒ they’re closing them down over Easter. People see them as scary, dirty, and confusing, but actually statistics show they’re a quick and safe way for local residents to get around. Instead we’re going to get pedestrians competing with traffic and cyclists on what is already one of the busiest roads in London.
‘Richard Reynolds is a local resident who’s been campaigning tirelessly on the subways’ behalf, and it was his idea to mark their demise with a performance. It’s a fantastic space to do a promenade concert in, with seven sections of subway going in every which way, and what with it being Good Friday as well, my thoughts homed in on the two fantastic settings of the Seven Last Words on the Cross by Haydn and James MacMillan.
‘Our piece will be in seven miniature movements, each setting a fragment of text that reflects the history of the subways, the wonderful murals that adorn them, or the callous decision by Transport for London to close them against the wishes of local residents. The layout and acoustic of the space will be crucial components in ‒ I imagine there’ll be a good echo down there and I’m looking forward to hearing how our scratch choir sounds.’
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Unsuk Chin ‒ Mannequin
Unsuk Chin’s Mannequin will be premiered by the 163-strong National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain conducted by Ilan Volkov, at its three April concerts on 9, 10 and 11 April. It tells a story, in non-linear terms, inspired by E T A Hoffman’s 19th century novella The Sandman. While ‘it is no illustrative programme music,’ says the composer, its four movements do refer to themes in the story, of childhood terror, the stealing and feeding of children’s eyes, the antagonist Coppelius and, in the third movement, ‘Dance of the Clockwork Girl’, to the protagonist Nathanael’s love for the automaton Olimpia. The final movement refers to Nathanael’s death, but ‘might only be a hallucination, a dream within a dream’. Chin sees the work in the context of several previous works exploring different artforms: Mannequin is inspired particularly by dance.
‘Hoffmann’s style is febrile, elliptic and obscure, but precisely this makes it interesting: it directly reaches the nervous system and the spine,’ says the composer. ‘I try to create the feeling of weightlessness by means of breakneck virtuosity, unusual sonorities and musical mirages. It’s highly gestical music, an imaginary choreography which is intended to be danced. To paraphrase Vladimir Nabokov, it’s trying to perceive the mysteries of the irrational through rationally organized sounds.
‘I am always trying to create something new by searching for a synthesis which draws on tradition as well as on modernism but also looks beyond the confines of European classical music. The music is neither avantgardist, nor post-modern nor neo-tonal (whatever such phrases mean, however, is another question) But I believe that such aspects as tension/resolution, of centres of gravity and of a certain latent, for lack of a better word, ‘tonal’ order ‒ all these things that were, perhaps justly, challenged by the avant-garde ‒ are musical archetypes which one can’t get rid of.
‘Now, there exists no general musical grammar (such as functional tonality, for instance) anymore ‒ which is why with every new piece a contemporary composer faces the question anew of how to reassess and re-establish such phenomena without drawing on previous solutions or one’s old habits.’
One reason for choosing the work’s subject, says Chin, ‘Was because it strikingly addresses topics especially crucial for young people such as the problem of perception and identity and the question of what is real, after all.’