Looking to a better world: Wim Henderickx
September’s new music9:00, 1st September 2016
Although it is first and foremost a tribute to Jonathan Harvey, Wim Henderickx’s new work is also a celebration of religion. These things are not separate by any means: one of the things the two composers hold in common is their interest in religion and spirituality. It was this connection that formed the starting point of the work, which was commissioned as part of a concert in Harvey’s memory.
Henderickx first came into contact with Harvey’s music some 15 years ago, and the two composers met when Harvey commissioned a work for the music @ venture festival at DeSingel, Antwerp in 2005. ‘I had been listening to and studying his music for some time already,’ Henderickx explains.
He continues to be inspired by Harvey’s music – in fact, he studied the composer’s vocal works while preparing to write this particular piece – but is equally stimulated by Harvey’s artistic ethos. ‘He’s one of these composers whose music has a universal character. He takes inspiration from the whole world, and his work touches people from all nations. This is also my own credo – I want my music to speak to a lot of people.’
The work does so by embracing Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. ‘I come from a Christian background but I’m inspired by other beliefs, so I decided to take three different texts from three different spiritual environments.’ The work incorporates excerpts from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and texts by Hildegard von Bingen and Rumi. Although the composer planned to name the piece by its first line, ‘From the blossoming lotus of devotion’, it was Martyn Brabbins who proposed the final title. ‘I’m not a native English speaker, but I thought it was very original to call it Blossomings rather than Blossoming,’ Henderickx says.
The piece begins with ‘a dark, mantra-like figure in the basses’, and becomes a celebration of Harvey at the words ‘Rise up, oh compassionate master’, punctuated by trumpet interludes. The second movement creates a very different atmosphere, beginning with the sound of small finger cymbals played by the choir members. ‘The music is from the middle ages, but it’s displaced to today. There are lots of parallel fourths and heterophonic voicing,’ says Henderickx. The last movement is inspired by Middle Eastern music. ‘It starts with a drone on the note A, over which there is the suggestion of Arabic or Middle Eastern singing with the commentary of a trumpet from far away. The music gradually enters a beautiful introspective world before the drone returns, ornamented by solo mezzo-soprano and trumpet.’
The combination of trumpet and choir, as with the title of the work, was a suggestion from Martyn Brabbins. ‘I wanted to write a piece for mixed choir and he said he had a remarkable trumpet player, Marco Blaauw. I thought it would be an unusual but original combination! The trumpet actually fits really well – it’s like a call to Harvey to listen to the piece.’ Blaauw will be using a double bell trumpet, opening up numerous sonic possibilities: he can use two different mutes at the same time, or combine a mute with a more open sound.
Inspired by one of Harvey’s most famous pieces, Henderickx has also written a part for electronics. ‘The programme also includes Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. I’d been working so much with electronics that I thought it made sense to add a soundscape as part of the harmony. You can perform the piece with or without the drone, but it creates a special effect.’
What message does Henderickx hope the work will convey? ‘It is a piece for a better world. I want to dedicate it first of all to Harvey, but then to victims, to people who have suffered because of their religions.’
Wim Henderickx Blossomings (Marco Blaauw, trumpet, BBC Singers, Martyn Brabbins, conductor, LSO St Luke’s, 7.30pm)
Although Jack Sheen describes the London Symphony Orchestra’s defining characteristic as ‘a real roaring energy’, his new work for the group is ‘static and circular, quiet and intricate’ – the very opposite of the qualities he admires in the orchestra.
Lung is rooted in the time Sheen spent observing the orchestra as a Panufnik composer, and particularly the numerous rehearsals spent in the Barbican Hall. ‘For me, a really important part of writing any piece is imagining it happening on a stage,’ Sheen says. ‘Observing the orchestra from the perspective of an audience member really influenced the piece.’
A revelation about the nature of the orchestra was the starting point for the piece. ‘I started seeing it as a collection of lots of smaller groups or sometimes individuals, and conceiving different music for those layers, superimposing them and seeing what happened,’ the composer explains. The smaller groups are gradually subsumed into the larger, eventually arriving at a full orchestral sound.
Sheen says that his recent work has been concerned with moving away from linear narratives. ‘This piece is partly about seeing what else music can do,’ he explains. ‘I wanted to see if it could also give people experiences which are more static, slower, more in the moment. It’s like a children’s mobile: the focus is the same, but you’re constantly realigning yourself in relation to it.
‘A lot of the music is to do with expanding and contracting material. There are some phrases or chords which will sometimes be condensed into just a quaver, or sometimes expanded over 30 seconds. That’s where the word “lung” comes into it: breathing is a repetitive gesture, but no two breaths are ever the same.’ The composer is keen to stress that people can read anything they like into the title – ‘it’s just a short, one-syllable cherry on top of the piece’.
Sheen has written for orchestras regularly since the age of 18, but says that he learned a lot through working with the LSO. ‘I think I’m at a time in my life when the music I’m writing is quite unusual and throws up quite a lot of challenges, which have been really fun to figure out,’ he says.
Despite his experience in writing for the medium, he continues to be inspired by the symphony orchestra. ‘For composers, I still think they’re the ultimate catalyst for imagination and making amazing sounds, and schemes like this which offer you the freedom to do that are increasingly pertinent and important, particularly for young artists.’
Jack Sheen Lung (London Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding, Barbican, 7pm)
The enigmatic title of Joe Steele’s new work is taken from Carson McCullers’ novella The Ballad of the Sad Café. A ‘strange story about a bizarre love triangle’, the quote in question is about the nature of love. One passage explains that in any relationship there’s the lover and the beloved: someone who is passionately in love, and another who is not committed to the same extent.
Steele originally envisaged that the piece would be conceptual in nature, with each member of the trio representing a character, and the piece depicting certain moments in the text. ‘But these other ideas emerged, and I ended up taking a more general, instinctive response to the text and the writing,’ the composer says. ‘I also became interested in evoking the style of Carson McCullers’ writing, which is almost like a folk fairy-tale.’
Simplicity was Steele’s aim, although this proved challenging at times. ‘There’s often a temptation to clutter simple ideas and make them complex, so I had to avoid that,’ he says. ‘The piece is written in a folk-like idiom, and I tried to create a real sense of spaciousness with the textures; my music tends to be rhythmic and very melodramatic, whereas this has a much calmer feel.’
Steele acknowledges that harp, flute and viola are ‘an unusual set of instruments’, but says that they work ‘beautifully’ together. ‘We tend to think of them as being soft instruments, but they’re all capable of power as well.’ Having written for the combination once, the composer says that he hopes the opportunity will arise to allow him to write for trio again. ‘There aren’t any plans at the moment but I’d definitely want to.’
Joe Steele from different countries (Pelléas Ensemble, St John’s Smith Square, 1.05pm)
Paul Desenne Hipnosis mariposa UK prem (Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 3.45pm)
Tom Harrold Raze (BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 7.15pm)
Sally Beamish Chorale Prelude on ‘Ach lieben Christen, seid getrost’ (William Whitehead, organ, St Mary’s Parish Church, Haddington, 11am)
Penderecki Flute quartet (Chilingirian Quartet, Kings Place, 11.30am)
Ravel (arr Cohen) La Valse (Primrose Piano Quartet, St John the Evangelist Church, West Meon, 7.30pm)
Elgar (arr Anthony Payne) Presto for piano; Griffinesque for piano (Primrose Piano Quartet, St John the Evangelist Church, West Meon, 11.30am)
Will Gregory & Adrian Utley Score to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (Monteverdi Choir, Charles Hazlewood, conductor, Globe Theatre, London, 8pm; also 7 October, Wells Cathedral, 8pm)
Johann Adolph Hasse Demetrio (Opera Settecento, Leo Duarte, conductor, Cadogan Hall, 7pm)
Kimiko Ishizaka Completion of Die Kunst der Fuge BVW 1080 UK prem (Kimiko Ishizaka, piano, St John’s Smith Square, 6.30pm)
Anna Meredith New work (Aurora Orchestra, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)
Andrew Wilson-Dickson Karuṇā London prem (Miriam Allan, soprano, Ian Yemm, tenor, Paul Carey Jones, baritone, Choir and Orchestra of the 21st Century, Howard Williams, conductor, St John’s Church, Waterloo, 7.30pm)
Samuel Bordoli The Great Silence (The Children and Gentleman of Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal, St George’s Chapel Windsor, The Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy, St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, 7.30pm)
Bob Chilcott We bless thee for our creation (Westminster Abbey Choir, James O’Donnell, conductor, Westminster Cathedral, London)
Brett Dean Knocking at the Hellgate UK prem (Russell Braun, baritone, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, conductor, Barbican, 7.30pm)
Scott Lygate A Barony A Frame (Headspace, Pandora’s Box, Cumnock Town Hall, 7.30pm)
Paul Hanmer Scratch-Pad-and-Six (Leon Bosch, double bass, Sung-Suk Kang, piano, St John’s Smith Square, 1.05pm)
James MacMillan O Give Thanks unto the Lord (Truro Cathedral Choir, City of London Sinfonia, Stephen Layton, conductor, Truro Cathedral, 7.30pm; also 1 October, Hereford Cathedral; 7 October, Lichfield Cathedral; 9 October, Liverpool Cathedral; 14 October, Southwell Minster; 15 October, York Minster; 21 October, Chester Cathedral)