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.
(2014. twelve instruments. 10')
Throughout ancient Italy and Mesopotamia, priests would tell the future by sacrificing animals and then examining their entrails for abnormalities that would carry signs from the gods. In Rome, such a priest would be called a haruspex. The liver, believed to be the source of the body's blood, was the most examined organ, and many clay and metal models of livers have been found with inscriptions to guide priests through their predictions or to record the results of sacrifices made – like this Babylonian example at the British Museum.
This piece draws together the divergent, contrasting facets of this practice – the brutal and bloody act of sacrificing an animal and then scrutinising its organs, the precision with which it was carried out and recorded, and its arcane and mysterious aims of communicating with the gods and divining the future – drifting between etherial and earthly horizons.
(2013. violoncello and piano. 7')
Surfacing's different kinds of material lie on a spectrum from those that are only possible on the piano (arpeggios caught in the sustain pedal) to those only possible on the cello (a crescendo on a held note), with many at varying degrees in between (chords being more suited to the piano, tremoli more suited to the cello). These materials resurface in various combinations throughout the piece.
The first movement focuses on the ways the two instruments must interpret the material differently, but the second movement begins with a meeting point: the pizzicato cello matches the una corda piano's short (but not staccato) notes. The instruments diverge slightly, using more characteristic material, but remain closely allied until the 'cello returns to arco playing at the end, forcing the piece back to the soundworld of the first movement.
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.
(2012. soprano, tenor, violin, viola, violoncello, double bass. 23')
Settings of five poems by Edward Thomas – "Digging", "The Trumpet", "Snow", "Thaw", and "And you, Helen" – make up this piece. The first four poems form a cycle of perspectives on the structures of memory: "Digging" examines the evocative power of olfacion; "The Trumpet" – written while Thomas was serving in WWI, and referring to the reveille – parallels waking to a new day with leaving behind the burdens of remembering; "Snow" and "Thaw" find opposing viewpoints, the former closely focused on a tiny fragment of a childhood memory, the latter looking at the turning of the world through the eyes of rooks, who 'saw from elm-tops, [. . .] what we below could not see, winter pass.' The final setting, "And you, Helen", in contrast, is a rich, warm – if slightly distanced – love poem written by Thomas to his wife.
Performers: Gwilym Bowen (tenor), Josephine Stephenson (soprano), and the Kallion Ensemble, conducted by Christopher Stark.
(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.
(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.