In 2010, I received a commission from my A-level chemistry teacher, Dr Duncan MacKay, a poet and astrophysicist, who had recently retired from teaching. He asked me to write a new work for soprano and string quartet, Caelestialis (2011), to be performed following his lecture at the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys on the subject of Arts versus Science. Whilst leaving the musical and stylistic aspects of the task very wide open, he encouraged me to focus on the unnerving and out-of-this-world material I had in mind. Desperate to add harp and electronics to the proposed instrumentation, I chose a group of musicians who were active members of the Canterbury Christ Church University music department at the time, including the harpist, Alex Rider, the soprano, Luci Drelaud, and violinists Kammy Pike and Phil Osborne, and cellist Claire Bartrum.
Caelestialis is the medieval Latin term for celestial, meaning positioned in the sky or outer space as observed in astronomy. The celestial body may belong to heaven in the form of a celestial city, or it may refer to the celestial beauty of music. The music is conceived as a representation of the sky, the clouds, with brief bursts of sunlight, and with regular flashes of insight into outer space. I used a libretto formed with phrase fragments taken from a series of nine poems called Sangaku written by Duncan MacKay. The title Sangaku refers to the 17th century Japenese custom of leaving wooden tablets inscribed with a mathematical problem at a shrine or temple. Like all serious questions, sometimes there answers also offered, sometimes not.
In June 2010, I met the composer Dimitri Scarlato, who had just completed his PhD at RCM. He conducted his own new work, Time and Eternity (2010), written for soprano, string quartet and percussion, at the Cadogan Hall in the RCM’s annual Rising Stars concert. A few months later, he kindly explained his compositional process in this work to me, with particular reference to how he wrote for the instruments in such a way that the voice was harmonically and melodically supported. Then in May 2011, the Leon Quartet and Luci Drelaud performed Belgrade (2011) for soprano, string quartet and tape written by Sam Messer, at the Sounds New Contemporary Music Festival. For this, Sam created an electronic background by manipulating sound samples of recordings of the Leon players bowing over the instruments’ bridges. Sam’s Belgrade incidentally won him the Canterbury Festival Composition Prize that same year.
In a recording session with violinists Phil Osborne and Ben King, and myself, we played a series of isolated natural and false harmonics in turn, each lasting a couple of seconds. I then transposed some of these notes, but keeping the majority at their original pitch, and organised them into a continuously repeating sequence. I positioned one note after the other in a very slow rhythm, sometimes closer together so that they overlapped and occasionally at the same point in time to create a chord or discord. I found that by arranging the samples in this way and then adding an exaggerated reverb effect to each sample, the sequence turned into an unnerving electronic background, which seemed to suit Duncan’s initial request. I treated this background similarly to the underlying string background of that used in Central Park in the Dark (1906) by Charles Ives, or the ‘Musica Mundana‘ used in Star Child (1977) by George Crumb, also formed mostly from strings with the addition of bowed crotales and cymbals. For the performance in July 2011, inspired, in some ways, by Sam’s treatment of his background which he played alongside live musicians as part of the notated score, I added the electronic background to be played at the same time and co-ordinated with the live performance.
During my studies at RNCM, I decided to take this project a step further, and I adapted and orchestrated the original Caelestialis for Soprano and Orchestra. In order to orchestrate the electronic background and make sure that it sounded as close as possible to the original instrumental timbres, I assigned natural and false harmonic notes to the entire string section. The players are generally asked to decay their notes over several beats so that the overlap imitates the electronic reverb effect, but to add to this effect, I gave some of these pitches to bowed cymbals, vibraphone and crotales according to the appropriate registers. I decided to condense the text a little so that I could focus on evoking more specific moods in respect of the text. I used brass, woodwind, and occasionally solo strings where I had used the string quartet in the chamber version, sometimes subtly blended with the background, and sometimes as stronger sharp foreground gestures. I kept the harp part in the orchestration, doubling with a second harp where appropriate. Having an orchestra also meant that I was able to use many different timbres in close succession, such as brass muted with straight mutes, cup mutes and harmon mutes, and multi divisi strings, at one point divided such that one player was asked to play a single part. Having already listened to Jessica Gillingwater perform incredibly in many different concerts of contemporary music and in other dynamic settings, I asked her if she would sing the soprano part for the orchestral version, which was premiered on October 2012, conducted by Carlos del Cueto, whose handling of the orchestra was vital for the success of the performance. It also seemed appropriate that this was performed in the same concert as The Plateau – Up On Sunbiggin Tarn (2012) composed by Ted Ayre, who was also strongly influenced by Ives at the time.
White sun breaks through grey cloud,
What is, what is passes,
What is, is movement in the mist and rain.
The plant stares at me.
And point to point along the curve,
The plant stares at me, it stares.
And the quiet thread of spreading water.
Leaves twenty seven to thirty three of book two are missing.
Above its soft, soft ground, staring at the screen.
Leaves twenty seven,
What is, is movement in mist and rain,
Mind stop at thinking.
Let hearing stop with the ears.
Through mist and cloud, and cloud.
It sits on the sill pastel blue,
A solitary plant, on the sill.
Mind stop at thinking.
Above its soft, small ground.
Staring at the screen.
The plant stares at me,
Libretto taken from Sangaku (Black Gable 2009) by Duncan MacKay, Centre for Astrophysics & Planetary Science, University of Kent.