I am a composer of over 35 years’ experience, with over 200 works to my name, and my path has been neither straight nor clear. Diversions, detours, distractions, reboots, and re-evaluations have all been part of my journey, as they no doubt have been for many artists. My most recent preoccupation has been, and continues to be, with the world around and outside me, as distinct from the world within, which has so often been the source of my compositional obsessions. In the last handful of years I began to feel that I should be engaging artistically with things that affect us all and not just what affects or interests me (although I do like to think that the interior things I obsess over are not peculiar to just me).

So, a recent twofold interest has arisen – in the environment, and in the politics that are shaping our world now. These are far from being mutually exclusive areas, unfortunately. Regarding the latter area, my first work engaging with the subject, ‘Denier’ (i.e. someone who denies something, or who denies someone else something) for flute solo and string quartet (2017) was directly inspired by the rise of populist leaders in various parts of the world, people who came to power making vague promises which appealed to some voters’ baser instincts, or to those who were disenfranchised and felt they had no better alternative. We see this playing out all over the world and, while it’s not necessarily anything new, its prevalence is disturbing, especially in countries where this has not been the norm. This short work has the flautist perform virtuosic, crowd-pleasing, mesmerising phrases and patterns which are ultimately devoid of any real meaning – like many of the speeches these so-called leaders make.

 


 

 


My second work in this vein and the work of principal interest here, “How goes the night?”, was the result of a commission from New York’s Glass Farm Ensemble, a contemporary music group led by composer and pianist Yvonne Troxler. Yvonne began to play my music a few years ago and in the last while Glass Farm has given the US premieres of a number of my chamber works. Since we had established a good rapport I suggested we collaborate on something new for the group and when the commission materialized I felt it was a good opportunity to explore the idea of Resistance, of pushing back against ideas and values which can sit at the top of the political tree and yet not truly reflect a nation’s (or an individual’s) ideals and character. A friend of mine, the terrific English poet Helen Pizzey (Invisibility for Beginners) had heard about the Resist Much Obey Little collection and, when I asked her for some advice on poets I might explore in relation to the Resistance theme, she recommended I get hold of a copy. This I duly did and I was very taken with the whole collection and many of the individual contributions. I read the RMOL collection cover to cover, making a short list of potential poems to set. When I look for a poem to set to music, it has to speak to me in a number of ways – important elements are the style and content of the language, its length (long poems don’t usually work well for me), and whether I can imagine it being sung. Eventually I narrowed it down to the final three – “One Thousand Years” by Janet Hamill, “Foreward: This Machine Kills Fascists” by Mark Lamoureux, and “November 9, 2016” by Mercedes Lawry. I responded strongly to each poem individually, but also liked them as a set – going from the almost deep-time view of Janet’s poem with its evocation of standing watch through the ages, through Mark’s muscular and shiningly angry text, to Mercedes’ thoughtful and quietly determined words.

I got in touch with all three poets to ask permission to set their poems, which they very kindly gave, and then I set about finding the right musical context for each. I wanted to reflect what I saw as the essential character of each poem, so the setting of Janet’s poem has a ritualistic feel, while Marks’ poem was given a much more fragmentary, explosive musical context. I gave Mercedes’ poem a more gentle, languid surrounding, yet with some steel. I knew the wonderful Canadian soprano Charlotte Mundy would be the singer and so had some correspondence with her about the best approach I could take regarding her voice specifically, and what interesting sounds or colours we might explore with it. For instance, at the beginning Charlotte waves her hand in front of her mouth while singing to create a kind of wah-wah effect; elsewhere she uses an unusual Baroque-era trill, she screams, and she even barks at one point – the texts threw up some surprising musical associations.

The 15-minute work took less than a month to write and then I sent the materials to Glass Farm to start preparing. As I live in Europe we didn’t have a chance to meet for rehearsals but we did do a Skype rehearsal which was useful. Yvonne had secured funding for Glass Farm to tour with my new work and new works by César Camarero and herself – two dates in Spain and one in Switzerland before the final performance in New York at the end of November last year. I met up with the ensemble in Madrid for rehearsals and the two Spanish concerts – I was delighted with the performances, and very impressed by the audiences in Madrid and Badajoz, which were large and very attentive.

 


 

 


 

“How goes the night?” is an important work for me – it has given me some clue as to how to proceed as an artist in these times. Through this work I have collaborated with a great American ensemble and three excellent poets. Most of all, I feel that I have done something useful, even if only on the smallest scale, and that makes me want to do more.