In an interview for Arcana, Tansy Davies detailed how Re-greening, written for all 164 players of the National Youth Orchestra without a conductor, is essentially an introduction to Mahler’s Symphony no.9, the piece they performed without a break afterwards.
In the interview, which can be read in full here , Davies explains how “the way the music is layered to me suggests a forest like quality; interweaving arpeggio-type figures bubbling or erupting up from the cold earth in winter, and scales or lines reaching up to the light”.
Did you know?
Before making her way as a composer, Davies sang and played guitar in a band. That was probably until she won the BBC Young Composers’ Competition in 1996!
Re-greening begins with bright sounds like a forest coming to life – the opening percussion stroke, a bright, metallic sound, feels like the first sun of the day.
Then we hear the rustling of the orchestra, with harmonics from the stringed instruments and shrill woodwind that sound like the birds, sonorous brass. A song is sung by the orchestra, the popular and ancient song Sumer is icumen in, essentially a hymn that glorifies in the arrival of a new season or a new day. The chant continues, surrounded by a large orchestral sound that is used economically. The brass are prominent, Davies making great use of a big space with percussion and a huge string section.
Davies layers the sounds, so that it feels like several chords are piled up on top of each other in a full bodied texture. Then towards the end the orchestra sing again, this time a canon from English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, set like the earlier song in C major,. This proves an unusual and moving experience when set among the excited cacophony from the rest of the instruments.
Where can I hear more?
There are a couple of excellent Tansy Davies discs in circulation, partly because her music seems to be very aware of its surroundings, i.e. it is aware of the culture – both popular and classical – in which it is written. So far she has tended towards chamber pieces that are of manageable length but considerable intensity. That much is very clear from her Troubairitz disc for Gabriel Prokofiev’s Nonclassical label, which includes the excellent Neon for chamber ensemble – and from the Spine disc for NMC, which includes the Saxophone Concerto with Simon Haram:
Talking in an interview for this site, Cheryl Frances-Hoad explains:
“The Cardinall’s Musick wanted a piece for eight voices (double SATB choir) (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) that was a homage to Tallis, and about 7 minutes long (I ended up writing a piece that’s closer to 9 minutes). They suggested some words (I eventually selected my own) but were otherwise completely free about how I should approach the commission.
Tallis lived in Greenwich towards the end of his life, which lead me on to reading about the refinements of timekeeping and the calendar during his lifetime, which then lead on to discovering that there was a major astrological event that happened whilst he was alive…which came to symbolize (to me) the massive changes that occurred during Tallis’s lifetime (including for instance the Reformation)…which lead to discovering Tycho Brahe’s (A Danish astronomer) ‘Treatise on the Great Comet of 1577’….
Cheryl was chosen as a featured composer on BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week (‘Five under 35, March 2015)
The first and immediately striking thing aboutFrom the Beginning of the World was the relevance of the words to today’s climate. In a week where NASA received ground breaking pictures of Pluto and Charon this tale of an earlier astronomical event – the ‘comet with a very long tail’ resonated strongly, especially with its talk of ‘Mighty and destructive wind storms’, ‘Poisonings of the air’ and ‘Terrible earthquakes’.
Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s music only enhanced the dramatic impact. Written as a homage to Tallis its acappella setting carried the same freedom through the air – but here the harmonies were daring, rich with added notes, the most distinctive melodies tending to use wide leaps and drops. This heightened the feeling of unease – especially when the tritone was used to highlight the ‘great wars and bloodsheddings’.
The end of the text is curious, the author questioning suddenly that the comet might not destroy the earth after all – but the damage has been done in all the worrying beforehand, and it was on this that Frances-Hoad’s music really made its mark.
The performance, subtly directed by Andrew Carwood, was one of clarity and pure intensity.
Where can I hear more?
Cheryl has a Soundcloud site, where you can hear another of her works for choir, This is A Blessing:
Ahead of an appraisal of her new piece on this site, here is an interview with composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad about The Beginning of the World, a commission for the BBC Proms – to be performed in the company of the music of Thomas Tallis. Cheryl talked with Arcana about rubbing shoulders with one of the greats of English music – and the thrill of writing for the BBC Proms:
When did the BBC approach you with this commission?
Actually it was the Cardinall’s Musick who approached me, in March of last year (my piece isn’t an official BBC commission, although it is a Prom Premiere. Originally my new work was supposed to be premiered in Leeds, but the timings didn’t work out, so, it was decided that it would be premiered at the Proms instead. Leeds is a wonderful city, but in this case I’m glad the original premiere date didn’t work out! 🙂
Was there a particular brief?
Yes, the Cardinall’s Musick wanted a piece for eight voices (double SATB choir) (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) that was a homage to Tallis, and about 7 minutes long (I ended up writing a piece that’s closer to 9 minutes). They suggested some words (I eventually selected my own) but were otherwise completely free about how I should approach the commission.
In the Proms guide the working title for your new work was ‘Homage to Tallis’. At what point did it become ‘From the Beginning of the World’?
At the time we had to list the piece in the Proms brochure, I still had absolutely no idea what the piece was going to be called (or, I think, what text I was going to use – I only finished the piece on the 20th June!)
I got a bit stuck when I began to think about this piece – Tallis is such a wonderful composer but I found a lots of the texts he set, well, a bit boring (mostly because a large amount were in Latin). I wanted to find an exciting text that was somehow relevant to Tallis and contemporary times, but for about a month I was utterly stuck.
I plodded through a two foot high pile of books about Tallis but got nowhere. But, little by little (and at this stage with quite a lot of help from Google) I started connecting things – Tallis lived in Greenwich towards the end of his life, which lead me on to reading about the refinements of timekeeping and the calender during his lifetime, which then lead on to discovering that there was a major astrological event that happened whilst he was alive…which came to symbolize (to me) the massive changes that occurred during Tallis’s lifetime (including for instance the Reformation)…which lead to discovering Tycho Brahe’s (A Danish astronomer) ‘Treatise on the Great Comet of 1577’….
Where does the text come from?
Tycho Brahe‘s German Treatise on the Great Comet of 1577. I spent several weeks in libraries attempting to find a suitable text. Whether Tallis knew about the comet is unknown of course, but this seismic event, to me, seemed emblematic of all the great changes that occurred during his lifetime, in areas such as religion, the calendar, and time-keeping (finding out that Tallis lived out his last days in Greenwich was an extra bonus).
The text also seems to speak to contemporary times: whilst Brahe may have thought the comet’s birth would cause the sun to ‘bring unnatural heat’, nowadays we know that its ‘venom [will be] spewed over the lands’ due to mankind’s continued pillaging of the earth’s natural resources, a fact which our political ‘pseudo-prophets’ seem to deem less important than saving us from a false austerity.
The full text of From the Beginning of the World
Then it comes to pass that something new is born in the heavens
Contrary to the custom of nature
And all mankind holds it to be a great wonder.
Videte Miraculum (Behold the miracle)
A miracle of the heavens.
From the beginning of the world
From the uppermost sphere of the fixed stars
This new birth reveals itself
A comet with a very long tail.
Something new can be generated in the heavens.
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto (Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the HolyGhost)
But what do such unnatural births mean?
Creator caeli et terrae! (Creator of Heaven and Earth), Respice humilitatem nostram (Be mindful of our lowliness) Peccavi (Have mercy)
Great mortality among mankind.
Mighty and destructive wind storms Peccavi
Poisonings of the air Peccavi
Great harm by fire.
Great mortality among mankind.
The sun will bring unnatural heat
The sun will bring harmful, unnatural heat
It will spew its venom over the lands
Great mortality among mankind
Those who deal with political regimes
Will be much stifled (Creator caeli et terrae)
Those who seek their own honour as pseudo prophets (Respice humilitatem nostram)
Will be punished, punished.
Great wars and bloodsheddings. Peccavi Miserere Nostri (Have mercy on us)
However, there are actually no reliable grounds
For predicting the end of the world from this comet.
It thus behooves us to use well our short life here on earth,
So that we may praise him for all eternity.
Our short life here on earth…
The music itself is very influenced by Tallis, and canons and imitation abound. During my time as a ‘cellist at the Yehudi Menuhin School, I performed Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis many times, and so From the Beginning of the World, which also uses Tallis’s Third Mode Melody from the English Hymnal, is really a homage to both composers.
How would you describe the piece?
At this point of interview I haven’t heard the piece yet (I have to wait until Saturday 18th to hear it for the first time!) But, I hope it is a tremendously dramatic piece, perhaps a bit melodramatic! (also see paragraph above this question…)
Is it daunting knowing the work will be performed around such a well-loved work as Spem in alium, or does that become an inspiration as it is a homage to Tallis himself?
It was inspiring when I was composing, but now it’s daunting. It’s silly, I’ve written far bigger pieces than the one that’s to be premiered on the 20th, but I have to say I’m getting incredibly nervous for this premiere! I really hope I haven’t gone and written a dud! However! I’ve consciously both based this piece closely on Tallis, AND tried to do some things that are very different in style – so, at the very least, my piece will stand out hopefully!
How does it feel to be writing a piece for the Proms?
Does it help that the concert is available on the iPlayer afterwards, for people to get a chance to properly get to know the piece?
Absolutely! And this year, all the Proms are also downloadable which is wonderful! Particularly as my piece is being performed at lunchtime, I imagine many people won’t be able to listen live, so it’s so wonderful to be able to nag people to listen to it on iPlayer for 30 days after the premiere!
The BBC are actively encouraging new music with programs like ‘Five Under 35’ – do you feel the corporation is stronger than ever in its support for current composers at the Proms?
I’m not really sure to be honest – I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have been chosen as one of the Five under 35 (as part of the International Women’s Day celebrations) and feature in the Proms – but I’m not sure how connected the two are.
You can listen to the world premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s FromThe Beginning of the World as part of the first Proms Chamber Music concert of the season, given by the Cardinall’s Musick and Andrew Carwood, by clicking here
You will shortly be able to hear Cheryl’s thoughts on how it went – and an Arcana appraisal – on the site in the next few days.
For more information on Cheryl you can visit her website – and as a taster here is a recent YouTube post of her Mazurka for violin and piano:
John Foxx, the founding vocalist of Ultravox, is a prolific composer of electronic music, both instrumental and vocal. His recent endeavours include a solo release, London Overgrown, and an album Codex as part of the group Ghost Harmonic, recorded with classical violinist Diana Yukawa and frequent collaborator Benge (with whom he has also recorded as John Foxx and The Maths).
Because of his heritage and continued quest for making new music, Arcana spoke to him about his music, and in particular about the effect classical music has had on his life, in both positive and negative ways.
You seem to be in a very rich creative vein at the moment. Have you always been this productive, or are you finding that collaborations with others are bringing even more music out of you?
Collaboration is a fascinating thing – it’s so productive, but each time you have to figure out a new way to surf along with other people’s energies. You’ve both set yourself up – so then you have to put up or shut up. It puts you right on the spot and is very energising. Plus you both get to share the blame!
What does Diana Yukawa bring to your work with Benge that other classical violinists might not?
She enjoys improvising and enjoys being thrown in at the deep end with technological temporal disorientation devices. Not many classically trained musicians can handle that. She thrives on it and produces surprising results.
Diana has the sort of musical ability and agility that I find enviable. We’ve really only begun to glimpse her potential.
What is it about your relationship with Benge – and his studio – that inspires musical creativity?
It’s great fun – and always fascinating.
At first you think everything sort of half works but then you realise he’s managed to get beautifully rough sounds on sometimes beautifully rough equipment that excite you into the next stage without being able to resort to your own clichés.
When you listen back at home you realise you’ve been creatively misled into something you might have dismissed otherwise. And it all sounds very fine indeed.
I also love his take on mixing. The usual hierarchy gets dismantled and you hear sounds that don’t often get a just exposure. He’s completely fearless in that respect.
With London Overgrown, I first listened to it in bright early morning sunshine journeying into London, and the music and visuals seemed to go very well together. Is that how you see it?
Good – I think there’s a lot of English weather in the music, the sun through clouds and the sort of perspectives you might glimpse calmly gliding through overgrown streets. It is both detached and tranquil. ‘Serene Velocity’ was the phrase that best seemed to describe it.
Was it a conscious move to write music with these projects that seems to be more treble rather than bass?
Well, with London Overgrown the instrument I used most was an old DX7, and that can produce beautifully complex upper frequencies, so I simply enjoyed and went along with that. Many of the pieces were improvised using 30 second delays, and delays so long create their own ecologies. It’s like gardening. You let things grow. In the end I had a city that was completely overgrown.
In the case of Ghost Harmonic we were obviously focussed on Diana’s violin, so that defines the frequencies to a large extent. The bass end was supplied by the big Moog and textural intervals supplied through the interplay between those two and the reverberation and delays. I like the violin’s range – it really is a singing instrument, a human voice extension. I’d like to use a cello against it next time – a marvellous creative groaning device.
Would you say either Codex or London Overgrown are classical in any way – their form or melodic contours, say?
Well, that’s such an interesting question, and to some extent it supplied the reason for this recording. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I ride my wee hobby horse for a moment.
You see, I think the divisions between classical and other music are really illusory, but nevertheless interesting – ‘classical’ is a sort of ossified form, historically where music began to be written down instead of being played, personal and constantly evolving, as it was before the evolution of the orchestra – and this is what created all the problems.
You see, orchestras couldn’t improvise any longer because they’d become too big. They have marvellous, unlimited harmonic and melodic potential but they’re like an ocean liner to a canoe – they can’t manoeuvre instinctively.
Orchestras are also very hierarchical and bureaucratic – all instructions have to be written down and adhered to in order to operate effectively, otherwise chaos would ensue because of the sheer number of participants involved.
That’s when orchestral players became more focussed on obedience training than improvisation skills and agility, simply because it was necessary for the successful operation of the music.
Musicians unwittingly became a reproductive device. The conductor assumed the interpretive role, but even he couldn’t fundamentally alter the score. Writing things down also fixes them, it tends to inhibit or prevent any further development, so that’s another reason the whole thing became so inflexible.
I think it’s no accident that the orchestra evolved during the industrial revolution, where factory and bureaucratic systems also had to evolve, to deal with the massive scale of industry and populations.
They are really a sort of model of idealised, organisational harmony created through bureaucracy – powerful, monolithic and effective – but there’s always a price and the price paid here is the sacrifice of individual freedom of interpretation and expression. By logical increments you find we have unwittingly locked ourselves into a sort of bureaucratic form – bureaucratic music.
With Diana we were attempting to steal the fire of some of that marvellous technical skill that classical music demands – and set it free among the fields of infinite sonic possibilities that a modern recording studio can offer. You can change time relationships, even reverse them, and manipulate sequences, perceptual spaces, perspectives, harmonies and textures. You can focus down like a microscope, or out into landscapes and even create occurrences that behave like weather systems.
Of course the act of recording also captures, alters and defines a sort of music, just as written music does, but in very different ways – so there’s still a price for every gain.
We began by simply wanting to see what would happen if we mixed the most intriguing possibilities of both genres, without prejudice. Along the way we also began to realise it might offer a way out of this impasse that so called ‘classical music’ seems to have unwittingly entered.
Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?
Yes – first hearing of Nimrod by Elgar (from the Enigma Variations) and realising the power and subtlety of an orchestra.
I heard older music in church – the sung Latin mass, which was marvellous to hear and that oceanic feeling of dissolving into something greater than yourself. I also begun to understand how chants evolved by harmonising with your own delayed reflections from the architecture – architectural music as opposed to bureaucratic music.
When I hear music by Thomas Tallis I hear the astounding beauty of those interwoven voices, then realising the evolutionary connections between chants and orchestras and architecture.
Then the next thing that really impressed me was Satie‘s piano music. I heard someone play the Gymnopédies one afternoon in the old lecture room at art school.
I can still picture the instant – early summer, big open doors, the view down the marvellous avenue of trees at Avenham, and that beautiful elegant music. It is perfect minimalism, with poise and tranquillity, like distilled civilisation in a few notes and a sound. I was transfixed. it seemed to alter everything. I’ve loved piano ever since. It really is my favourite sound in the world apart from a blackbird’s song.
You said in an interview with me a while back how you liked what John Cage did, and the theory that music is organised noise. Is that how you see it – and is that why the noise of Benge’s studio, for instance, assumes the importance it does?
Yes to both. Understanding that music is organised noise was a great liberation. It enables you to understand and encompass lots of other sources of music from traffic to industrial noise to feedback and other accidental by-products such as tape hiss and glitches etc. Inherent imperfections become part of the landscape, so the landscape immediately becomes bigger and more textured, as well as more fun.
Would you ever consider writing for orchestral forces, or what are seen as more ‘classical’ forces, such as an electronic string quartet?
Maybe – but I’d need to have the motivation – usually some aspect of music that seems to need reconciling or some neglected possibility that intrigues enough to do the work. In the case of Ghost Harmonic, that was supplied by attempting to reconcile classical playing abilities with modern recording and improvisation.
What does classical music mean to you?
Something wonderful that became confined by its own form.
It means great possibilities still unrealised – what might happen if you facilitated a real interplay between the massive harmonic possibilities of orchestras and the full potential of a modern recording studio?
At present the classical world sees recording simply as a means of recording a single performance – any other manipulations are seen as inauthentic. There’s no attempt to access the massive compositional possibilities of modern recording. What a waste!
What are you listening to at the moment, and what piece of classical or modern music would you recommend Arcana readers go out and find?
Ruben Garcia made some beautiful piano and reverberation improvisations on a record called A Roomful of Easels. I often play some of these pieces at home.
There’s one David Darling recording, by the instigator of ECM Records Manfred Eicher, called Cello – improvisations against long delays. It’s a specific mood and poise, perfectly held, beautifully recorded and composed. Sadly, I didn’t much like his other recordings – except perhaps Dark Wood. It seems he needed the austerity of vision enforced by Eicher.
And Satie, always. He’s really the Marcel Duchamp of modern music – the point it all began, for me. His work embodies purity of intention and gorgeous simplicity with elusive intelligence. A benchmark.
London Overgrown is out now on Metamatic Records – and on the same label, the Ghost Harmonic album Codex is also available – their website can be viewed here