Title: In the midst of the Sonorous Islands

Year: 2015-16

Program note:

At any moment, wherever we are, we are hearing; but we are not always listening. Sounds unavoidably communicate all kinds of information about the world around us, but only when we treat sounds as music do we realise their inherent aesthetic value. This sense of the potential beauty of sound can be heightened, or at least brought to attention, by the act of making objects sound, whether or not they were intended as ‘instruments’. The central idea of this piece is the participation of the entire audience in the quasi-alchemical process of transforming raw sound into music: creating form out of matter.

The five ‘audience instruments’ (foil, chains, baoding balls, bottles, harmonicas) have been chosen for their ability to produce rich and strange global textures from relatively simple playing techniques. Sometimes these textures define the musical foreground, allowing every individual to focus-in on their own contribution to the aliveness of the moment; at other times they become a background for the activity of the ensemble, inviting an experience of the inevitable tension that arises between listening-to and playing different things simultaneously. In one of the preparatory workshops for the piece a participant asked “what are we supposed to listen for?”. A pertinent question to which there is no absolute answer, except maybe that we should all, at all times, be as attentive as possible to the relationship between our individual action and our surrounding environment: in music as in life. In this way, the aesthetic bleeds into the ethical.

The piece is not just about the relationship between the ensemble and the audience, it is also about the transforming relationships within the ensemble, and the abstract narrative which they define. The players are broadly divided into two groups: off-stage ‘soloists’ and on-stage ‘continuo’ (not quite in the Baroque sense, but they do generally articulate the bass line and core harmony). Each movement represents a phase within a broad process of change, which is articulated both spatially and sonically by the changing playing positions and tempi of the nine soloists (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, 2 violins, viola). Beginning at the back of the hall, each soloist in a unique tempo (mvmt. I), they go on to form duos (mvmt. II), then trios (mvmt. III) – again, each sub-group observing its own tempo and inner coherence – before arriving on-stage for the final movement, in which the sense of time becomes more fluid. As the final movement progresses the flugelhorn and tuba emerge as the new soloists, engaging in a ‘love duet’ which could be seen to symbolise the unification of the previously divided ensemble(s). The new found unity affords the opportunity for an ecstatic dance, though this soon fractures into repetitive fragments from which emerge one last glimpse of the audience foil texture.

It is my slightly paradoxical intention that the structure of the piece also contains within it the process of learning to perform it, such that the early stages of the piece allow the audience larger proportions of time to grasp and explore their role, whereas the later movements ask for relatively quick reactions to start/stop cues. Since the majority of the audience will only be present for the concert itself there is little chance to practice the piece in advance, but that doesn’t matter because ultimately the goal is not aesthetic perfection (much as that appeals) but acuteness of attention and the opportunity for creative action/interaction that the concert experience grants us.