BEAUTY AND SECRETS

I'm composing an opera in collaboration with playwright, Fraser Grace, called Don’t Breathe A Word. This chamber piece is a kind of “suite from the opera”, using material from the first act. The title comes from a description of the country where the action is set (“a land and beauty and of secrets”).

The opera follows the fortunes of a young idealistic British Ambassador - Alex McCloud - who arrives in a newly independent ex-Soviet republic called “Ushkent”. He quickly recognises that the regime as corrupt, barbaric and tyrannical. He also meets a beautiful dancer in a bar. Recklessly, he decides to speak out at a Human Rights Conference against the regime, while also  pursuing a passionate love-affair with the dancer. Needless to say, the combination proves disastrous and McCloud’s career implodes.

This chamber piece traces four key stages in the first part of this story: McCloud’s arrival in Ushkent, his meeting with the dancer in a bar, the deepening of their relationship, and finally, the moment when McCloud learns about a grizzly political murder committed by the regime.

When researching the background for the piece I wanted to know what music would be heard in a bar in downtown Tashkent (the setting for the real story) in 2002/2003 (when these events happened). Emphatically, repeatedly I got exactly the same answer: Britney Spears. I decided that authenticity was an over-rated virtue and adapted two folksongs for the scene where the lovers meet. 

In the UK, Craig Murray - whose story inspired the opera - has a notoriety like that of Eliot Spizer. The parallels are not precise, but there is a striking similarity in their respective trajectories and in the role played by the media in amplifying and contributing to the outcome. If you mention Craig Murray’s name in London, most people struggle to remember, but if you offer the prompt “ Ambassador and pole-dancer” - as the story was reported - recall is usually much quicker.


THREE POEMS OF MIROSLAV HOLUB

This cycle of three songs based on poems by Miroslav Holub was composed as a tribute to Peter Lipton. Peter Lipton was the Hans Rausing Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University. He was much admired for his remarkable ability to communicate complex scientific and philosophical ideas. In particular, he relished stories and humour as ways of exploring problems.

These three poems by Holub evoke aspects of Peter's style. They describe classic scientific problems: accuracy, measurement, time, the convergence of parallel lines. I don't know whether Peter would have agreed with the interpretations suggested by Holub, but I think he would have savoured their precision, lucidity, humour and humanity.

Brief Reflection on Accuracy was translated by Ewald Osers and is used with permission from the publishers, Bloodaxe Books. The Clock and Parallels Syndrome were translated by David Young and are used with his permission.


LONELY SITS THE CITY

is based on the Book of Lamentations, a sequence of five poems from the Hebrew Bible, reflecting an ancient tradition of mourning poems after the destruction of a city. In this case, the city is Jerusalem invaded and destroyed in 586 BC.  

This piece is emphatically not a traditional setting of the text. I've chosen small extracts from each section to make an emotional journey through this very bleak landscape. It is 

theatrical rather than liturgical; angry rather than comforting. 

In the middle of the opening poem, the narrative switches to an urgent first-person voice ("May it not befall you, all who pass by this road"). This voice is clearly female, representing 

the city itself. But the thoughts and feelings reflected in the text are so graphic and immediate that they suggest a real woman: someone who has survived the onslaught, now surveying 

the physical, psychological and emotional destruction of her life. Giving some sense to the emotional experience of this women is the main purpose of this piece. 

In the pre-recorded music there are snatches of whispered and sung Hebrew. In most instances these are verses from the beginning of each of the five poems. I've also used the 

Hebrew letters, partly as a reflection of the acrostic nature of the poems, but also as a nod to the many beautiful settings of these words by sixteenth and seventheenth century 

composers, which often include the letters in an ornamental style before a more austere setting of the verses that follow. 

The phrase "Echah" which begins three of the poems and is used extensively in the piece, is usually translated as "Alas". 


A LITTLE NOTEBOOK

was composed in 2006 to celebrate the 40th birthday of Melissa Lane, my partner, and to fulfill a longstanding promise and wish, to compose a piece for the Fitzwilliam String Quartet. This latter aim became more pointed in the course of 2006 - the anniversary of the birth of Dimitri Shostakovich. The Shostakovich cycle of quartets was profoundly influential when I was young and the Fitzwilliam's recording is something that I remember and still treasure.

I composed most of this piece in Los Angeles, in the home where Melissa grew up, where I happened across a waltz that she composed at a music-camp. A short fragment of that theme is used in the piece, appearing at the end of the first march. The piece is in ten short sections, though played continuously. They are:-

March (1) - very energetic - still energetic - march (2) - waltz - delicate, hushed - absolutely still - allegro furioso - gentle, simple - march (3).

It is dedicated to Melissa Lane and to the members of the Fitzwilliam String Quartet.


THE COLOUR OF SADNESS

is the title of a woodcut, from a suite called 'Roaming Far from Home' (1953) by the Japanese artist, Shiko Munakata.

Munakata's image features strange gaunt birds and figures against washes of moody colours: blue, green mauve and touches of yellow. What particularly fascinated me was the paradoxical suggestion of both restless movement and a melancholy stillness in the image.  The piece uses extensive microtonal tuning in both the saxophone and prerecorded material. It lasts for sixteen minutes.


UNKNOWN TERRORS 

is a musical journey into the geography of the imagination and the mythology of exploration. It was partly inspired by James Cowan’s book, The Mapmaker’s Dream, which  gives poetic voice to the sixteenth century cartographer Fra Mauro. Fra Mauro lived in a monastery on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni near Venice, where he listened to the stories of travellers - merchants, seamen, adventurers, explorers - using their descriptions to create his own maps. The most striking surviving example is his beautiful ‘Planisphere’ of 1549.

I found a modern counterpart to Mauro’s Planisphere in some remarkable photographs of the earth taken from space in a book called Orbit by Apt, Helfert and Wilkinson.They show lakes, rivers, deltas, mountain ranges, deserts, islands, oceans, land masses and human activity: agriculture, cities, fires, pollution. Like maps, these pictures challenge us to imagine the world anew; a place of extraordinary beauty, strength and fragility.

Both of these sources hint at a deeper mythic structure: a journey undertaken by a hero or heroine to hell - and back. Orpheus, Persephone, the Ancient Mesopotamian Goddess Inanna, Jonah. These stories possess a structure which recurs again and again in stories throughout the world, providing - perhaps - a kind of ‘map’ for the innermost path of human adventure.