Fall of the Rebel Angels

(2017. orchestra. 10')

Pieter Bruegel’s 1562 painting The Fall of the Rebel Angels depicts the conflict between the archangel Michael and the forces of heaven – rendered with white robes, elegant wings, and flowing hair – and Satan’s rebel angels – which have taken all manner of grotesque forms, chimeras of human, animal, and artificial elements – each totally different.

Aside from these strange entities, two things stood out to me. A pillar of angel bodies – innumerable powerful beings locked in a battle beyond understanding – stretching into the distance represents the unfathomable scale of the conflict, of which Bruegel depicts a minuscule slice, in space and time. But, stripped from its narrative context, the painting would become even more bizarre: an expanse of writhing, seething, weird matter. This piece pans between these different layers and characters, bound together by the narrative of the rebel angels’ fall.

The opening quotes Nicolas Gombert’s motet Media vita in morte sumus – ‘In the midst of life, we are in death’ – written at a similar time and place to Bruegel’s painting.

machine for turning bread into stones

(2017. flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, violoncello. 10')

The title of machine for turning bread into stones derives from Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress; Tom's sudden wealth has brought him luxury and amusement, but no lasting satisfaction. One night he has a dream of a machine that could turn stones into bread, feeding the world and gaining him lasting admiration and respect. He endeavors to make this a reality, and fails spectacularly; he falls into ruin, disaster, and shame. I wrote most of this piece in January and February of this year, with an acute feeling that those with power and wealth are turning bread into stones, and receiving not disaster or shame but adulation.

The 'bread' in this piece's machine is 'Stormy Weather', as sung by Lena Horne in the film of the same name.

Pack of Orders

(2017. soprano, bass clarinet, harp, double bass. 9')

Aleksei Gastev was one of the leading poets of the early Soviet Union; in 1922, Nikolay Aseev called him ‘the Ovid of miners and metalworkers’. He also became one of its key labour theorists, founding the Central Institute of Labour which trained over half a million workers in new methods of production, before being purged in 1939. In both aspects of his work, Gastev was obsessed with blurring the lines between human and machine, convinced that this was key to both creativity and productivity. The ten poems in Pack of Orders – the first five of which I have set – describe the creation and operation of what we now might call robots or cyborgs. The piece casts the four musicians as slightly malfunctioning androids, detailing Gastev’s vision with a mixture of cultish monomania and distracted confusion.

This recording is from a live performance by The Hermes Experiment at King's Place, London, on April 16 2017. The text is available here.

TRIO TRIO TRIO

(2016. string trio. 8')

TRIO TRIO TRIO is built in three sections, which each contain three sub-sections; its structure is a trio of trios, hence the title. However, it attempts to make the trio itself sound like more than three instruments, or like one super-instrument; or, sometimes, both at once. Against these more structural concerns, the musical material of the piece is built around continual expansion, with tiny gestures and seeds growing, flowering, and vanishing.

The piece was first performed by the Eblana String Trio; it was commissioned by the Park Lane Group, with support from the RVW Trust.

Who will we be

(2016. two pianos, two percussionists. 12')

‘The End of History Illusion,’ a study led by Daniel Gilbert, showed that – across all demographic lines – people tend to say they have changed greatly over the last ten years; asked about the next decade, they predict they will stay more or less the same. We ‘regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.’ This piece tries to reflect this, flickering between change and stasis, hope and nostalgia.

an awakening voice

(2015. flute, clarinet, horn, vibraphone, harpsichord, violin, cello, bass. 8')

an awakening voice was commissioned by the Melos Sinfonia, and first performed at the St. Petersburg Philharmonia as part of the Sound Ways Festival.

This piece has been a significant departure for me; it has far greater dynamism and drive than my previous works, and focuses more on moment-to-moment changes of the sound material, so that the work is constantly in flux. Contradictorily, perhaps, I feel it has more of a spiritual or mystical message – something solid emerging out of this quicksilver, perhaps only after the piece ends.

Nauset

(2011-12. chamber opera; two sopranos, tenor, eleven instruments, six female voices. 40')

A libretto is available here.

Nauset is a chamber opera created in collaboration with poet David Troupes. The work is set on an Atlantic beach at night, where a man has drowned. Three characters sing, alone: the daughter mourns her father, the wife mourns her husband, and finally the husband walks out of the sea and delivers two cryptic paragraphs that leave us unclear whether he is alive, dead, or somewhere in between. I'll leave discussion of it to reviewers of its first performances:

Almost nothing happens in Nauset. There is no dialogue and no action; no character development and no plot; no set and no costumes. It is a reviewer’s nightmare. Yet its mesmerising music, exquisite libretto and powerful emotional content make it an audience’s dream. For the short opera is much like a dream. It is comprised of separate, timeless vignettes, set to slow breathed music of great frailty. We hear three songs by three different characters: a daughter, a wife and a father. Each discusses the father’s obsession with the sea and suggested drowning, and it is their nuanced emotional responses that form the content of the opera. (Joe Bates, The Cambridge Tab)

Rust’s 45 minutes of music in homage to, or in bewilderment at, the wonder of the sea is certainly dramatic stuff. When [the conductor's] hands lowered after the final wail from his orchestra, the quiet was absolute: the words pin and drop come to mind. No one wanted to begin the applause that singers, players and creators alike undeniably deserved, for fear of breaking the mood of sea-salted contemplation. (Elly Brindle, Varsity)

Performers: Louise Kemeny (soprano), Gwilym Bowen (tenor), Josephine Stephenson (soprano), and the Kallion Ensemble, conducted by Christopher Stark.

Beyond the Heart

(2014. orchestra. 7')

Beyond the Heart was commissioned to share a program with Sibelius' Seventh Symphony, one of my favourite pieces. The motif that dominates the first section of my piece has a reference to Sibelius' opening, and more broadly, my musical language here draws on the Romantic gestures of Sibelius' work.

The piece also moves in the opposite direction, separating the orchestra into small groups or individuals who act almost independently of each other, sometimes with the same goals, at other times opposed. The conflict between sweeping gestures and these more atomised processes is the central thread of the piece; its title, Beyond the Heart, reflects this tension.

This recording was made by its commissioners – the Melos Sinfonia, conducted by Oliver Zeffman.

sunt etenim pennae volucres mihi

(2012. six female voices. 6')

Discantus, a group of female singers who specialise in music of the first half of last millenium, commissioned this piece to complement a programme of music from the Winchester Troper, one of the oldest – if not the oldest – source of notated polyphonic music.

Its text is the first poem of the fourth book of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, describing a soul rising – with the wings given it by philosophy – through many layers of the sky to be with its creator, then looking down on the dark earth below, and seeing its troubled, oppressed inhabitants as exiles from their true home.

This recording is from Discantus' CD Music for a King.

Surfacing

(2013. violoncello and piano. 7')

Gjallarbrú

(2011. electroacoustic. 7')

At the inception of this piece was Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photograph Anonymous Sculptures (Gas Tanks), from 1972. The couple’s artistic output comprises gelatin silver prints of isolated units of industrial architecture, organized into grids of related structures. Removed from their contexts, the four gas tanks displayed here can be appreciated for their presumably unintentional aesthetic interest, and the cumulative effect of the series both highlights the repetitively monolithic constructions that are necessary for even the most mundane aspects of a society’s infrastructure and magnifies the differences between them.

Gjallarbrú is named in the Poetic Edda as a bridge ‘thatched with glittering gold’ over the last of eleven rivers on the road to Hel (the Norse underworld); this work shares this synthesis of the bright and dark. It is formed of four spans—one for each gas tank—and, whilst each span has a separate structure, they are unified by a common direction.