An unceasing appetite for exploration: Raymond Yiu on Julian Anderson9:28, 15th March 2016
Readers may be most familiar with Julian Anderson’s operatic triumph, Thebans (2014) – an opera in three acts with a libretto by Frank McGuinness after Sophocles. It cemented his position as one of Britain’s most successful composers, and is a watershed in his œuvre. Among its many enthusiastic reviews, the Oedipus-themed opera was noted for its dramatic directness, structural tautness, superb vocal writing and most of all, an unparalleled inventiveness in its orchestral writing.
The last of these hardly came as a surprise. Despite a string of staggeringly original and colourful pieces for ensemble or solo instrument – from the exuberant Khorovod (1989-94) to the most recent, the more introverted Catalan Peasant with Guitar (2015) – orchestral music remains the core of Anderson’s output. These solo and ensemble pieces surround the substantial orchestral works like creative nuclei, just as the latter, in turn, gravitate towards Thebans.
Anderson’s fascination with the orchestra was evident from the outset. Not only did he announce his arrival as a mature composer with an orchestral work, Diptych (1989-90), he composed four more substantial orchestral scores within the next 11 years – Past Hymns (1996), The Crazed Moon (1997), The Stations of the Sun (1998) and Shir Hashirim (2001).
Hearing a passage from any of these pieces, one can easily detect the importance of melody in Anderson’s music. But these are no ordinary, four-square melodic ideas as one would often expect from concert music. Anderson’s melodies are always highly organic, and often profusely ornamented, as one could observe in folk music from many parts of the world. Anderson’s long-standing interest in folk music has had a profound impact on his melodic thinking. Rather than approaching the subject like an ethnomusicologist, Anderson is interested in folk music as a composer.
He was fascinated by the shared features of different folk musics – scales, consonances, metre, and so on. Inspired by Gaelic psalm-singing, Anderson drew on the notion of a melody ‘interpreted’ independently by a mass of instrumental voices, generating numerous variants of the original. He created a modally-flavoured sound-mass, with ever-changing timbres and a shimmering surface texture. This can be sampled in Diptych, particularly its second part, ‘Pavillons en l’air’, and the extended coda of The Stations of the Sun. This unique combination of techniques was also employed in the choral writing of several of his later pieces, including Thebans, to great dramatic effect.
By the time he wrote The Stations of the Sun – his first Proms commission – a new focus had emerged in Anderson’s music. From a young age, he had been interested in the ‘spectral’ approach to composition (which originated in France in the early 1970s, with techniques developed and refined, primarily at Ircam in Paris, by composers such as Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey). But Anderson’s love for music with rapid harmonic movement meant that he could not follow the spectral wagon blindly, as the majority of spectral music written up to that time was slow-moving harmonically.
Anderson studied the principles of spectral music, and tailored them into his sonic vocabulary. In Imagin’d Corners (2002), Symphony (2003) and Eden (2005) microtones are used – alongside standard, tempered scales – to synthesise complex harmonies derived from spectral analysis of sound materials. These untempered harmonies, based in the harmonic series, gave Anderson’s music an unusual luminosity, which became another fingerprint of his later music.
Another, increasingly prominent, feature in Anderson was the concept of discontinuity. Although there are plenty of abrupt changes of musical texture, many of Anderson’s early works – orchestral or otherwise – are in single-movement form. It was not until his ensemble piece Poetry Nearing Silence (1997) that the composer experimented with multiple-movement structure. It remains more characteristic of his chamber or small-ensemble works, including The Bird Sings with its Fingers (2001), Book of Hours (2002-03), The Comedy of Change (2009) and Van Gogh Blue (2015).
Only in Heaven is Shy of Earth (2006) did Anderson use a multiple-movement scheme in a large-scale work for the first time. Lasting about 40 minutes and in six movements, this oratorio for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra is in many ways a test-run for Thebans, with further experiments in works leading up to the opera.
In Alleluia (2007), a concerto for chorus in all but name, written for the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall in June 2007, Anderson pushed the limits of the chorus further in an orchestral setting. Fantasias (2009) and The Discovery of Heaven (2011) explore the potential of silences both between and within movements, taking into account the psychoacoustic impact of the placement of silence, and the way silences distort listeners’ feeling of musical time. These experiments certainly helped Anderson in constructing the unusual and dramatically effective non-linear time-stream in Thebans, with its three acts depicting events happening in the past, future and present respectively.
Thebans was not merely a summation of Anderson’s music up to that point in his career; it also provided a useful laboratory for the composer to try out new ideas which he has continued to use in his more recent works. In his first post-Thebans orchestral work, In lieblicher Bläue (2015), there is a new-found feeling of transparency and a heightened interplay of foreground and background activities. The solo violin and orchestra take centre stage in alternation, with the soloist physically moving about on stage in order to subvert the acoustic presence and stage presence of the soloist in a traditional concerto setting.
Anderson is currently composing a new work for the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle, as well as a piano concerto for Steven Osborne and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. With his unceasing appetite for exploration and limitless invention, it is impossible to know what we should expect these pieces to sound like. But with the increasing number of his works being performed and recorded, we are blessed with the opportunity to witness the birth of works by one of the most brilliant and original composers of orchestral music of our age.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s second disc of orchestral music by Julian Anderson – In lieblicher Bläue, Alleluia, The Stations of the Sun – with Carolin Widmann, the London Philharmonic Choir, the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski, is released in the UK on 26 February.
Raymond Yiu is a former student of Julian Anderson