I owe the realisation of Encomium (2008), scored for wind orchestra, to Prof. Grenville Hancox and his Symphonic Winds of Canterbury Christ Church University. I wrote Encomium over a two month period in the Autumn of 2008, thinking of it partly as a tribute to a friend who had died one year previously. The word, Encomium, also means a glowing tribute of high praise. Retrospectively, I think that the thing I was praising was the gift of life itself, and our human ability to remember. Musically, I like to think I placed strong emphasise on the ‘glowing’ element. The culmination of this is evident in the cslm but powerful ending.
When I submitted my Masters Portfolio in 2013, my external examiner suggested that perhaps I could make my music feel a little more personal. I think this piece is as personal as it gets!
Many of these thoughts emerged whilst I was in the middle of composing the score, rather than before. The composition process itself was sometimes rather difficult. For over three years before this point, I composed relatively little on paper. My mind would sometimes work fruitlessly on various ideas, or at other times, not work at all. I sketched many of the thematic ideas in the form of a piano reduction, generally knowing what instruments I would subsequently assign them to. It was only after about a month of struggling that things started to come together structurally. Once I reached that point, the feeling of being able to compose again was wonderful. The wind orchestra at the time had expanded to as many as fifty players, one of whom was myself in the percussion session. For Encomium I played timpani. I had percussion lessons with Phil Hyde between 2002-2004 and I played percussion with the Pfizer Wind Band in 2003.
Keen to play in part of a percussion section again, I joined the Canterbury Christ Church University Symphonic Winds in October 2008. I had already developed an appetite for wind orchestra repertoire, but it was at this point that I began to really appreciate the extent to which the wind orchestra was important as an ensemble per se. In conversation, Grenville remarked at that it is still undervalued in our society, where for most the Wind Band still conjures a sound picture of mostly military marches and popular tunes! He added that he always enjoyed not only working alongside some very able students but also in promulgating the Wind Orchestra as a tremendous ensemble capable of realising very challenging music.
We began rehearsing several other works in the repertoire, most memorably including Incantation and Dance by John Barnes Chance, Illyrian Dances by Guy Woolfenden, Orient et Occident by Camille Saint-Saens, and the English Folk Song Suite (1923) by Ralph Vaughan Williams. At the time, I remember being particularly moved by the darker tones of the slow movement, Intermezzo, from Holst’s second suite. Among the many pieces we went on to play in our first concert that year, I also remember reading through Awayday by Adam Gorb, who became my composition tutor three years later. Awayday, written specifically for wind orchestra, is an especially vibrant work, rhythmically and texturally, and for me it helped to demonstrate the incredible potential of the wind orchestra as a medium. Long before this, in the summer of 2003, I had become very fond of Hammersmith (1930), an extremely effective and an often very dark piece written for wind orchestra by Gustav Holst.
Simultaneously to this, I was very keen on the Octet (1923) by Igor Stravinsky. I was extremely determined to write a complete composition. Grenville allowed me to test a few of my drafts before completing the final score, but I respected the fact that the completed score needed to be rehearsed over several weeks before it could be performed, so I worked as hard as possible to finish the score, sometimes only knowing theoretically what would work when I wrote. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard my ideas in the first full rehearsal. Seeing that many people rehearse and perform something I’d written put a big smile on my face. I made a special point of telling them so!
The world premiere performance took place in the Church of St Mary and St Eanswythe, and was received warmly by the audience including Ian Gordon.
In 2016-2017, I revised the score considerably, adding a substantial extended section and making more of the harp. Then in 2018 I wrote a version for full orchestra, keeping the saxophone and euphonium parts as I felt these were essential parts of the piece and that they added to the dynanic range. Whereas in the wind orchestra version it is only the harp that gradually rises in prominence during the course of the work, in the orchestral version the harp and the entire string section does so. Particularly significant between the two versions is the difference of the final chord, as the multi-divisi string textured diminuendo brings the final few bars much closer to Ralph Vaughan William’s Symphony no. 9 (1957), as I intended. This version was performed by the Royal Northern College of Music Symphony Orchestra in the intimate setting of the RNCM Concert Hall.