Matthew Brown Composer


Peganum Harmala

In four short movements, Peganum Harmala (2018) draws upon much of the musical ideas that I used to write both the electronic and orchestral versions of Three Illusions of Peganum Harmala (2011 and 2013 respectively). The main difference is that whilst Three Illusions focuses on building a series of complex textures around a long melody for viola, Peganum Harmala explores the initial ideas that fuelled the other works in a much more pure and abstract way. Scored for a sinfonietta, it is in my view neither chamber nor orchestral, but somewhere between the two. There are almost always two opposing forces involved that I cannot help but compare to that of Yin and Yang.

For a long time now, I have been struck by the effectiveness of the antiphonal grouping technique used by Adam Gorb in Farewell (2008) for wind orchestra. In this case, the whole ensemble is divided into two separate groups.

Group 1: clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, euphoniums tubas, piano, and harsh sounding percussion

Group 2: flutes, oboes, cor anglais, bass clarinet, bassoons, horns, celeste, and gentle sounding percussion

Though technically quite different, my approach in Peganum Harmala echoes the opposing forces concept rather than that of antiphony. Also in my grouping system, there is much over-lap, since some of the instruments involved, perhaps especially the strings, are capable of extreme timbral diversity.

The characterise the Yin element I started a particular pitch set and further highlighted it by using:

  • staccato flute in the low register
  • loud clarinet at the extremes of its register
  • tubular bells and crotales
  • harp played près de la table
  • tremelo, sul ponticello, pizzicato and Bartok pizzicato in the strings

For the Yang element:

  • soft clarinet in the middle register
  • vibraphone and glockenspiel
  • soft piano in the middle register with pedal
  • harp harmonics
  • strings playing in a gently expressive manner or using harmonics, often muted

The instrumentation Peganum Harmala is almost a complete sinfonietta, but with no trombone.

Flute doubling piccolo

Oboe doubling cor anglais





Percussion (tubular bells, crotales, glockenspiel, vibraphone)



Two violins,

One viola

One cello

One double bass


Only harp, woodwind, brass and percussion play in the first movement. The second movement has only string quartet and piano. In the third and fourth movements, the two groups come together with the addition of double bass.

I – Almost the entire movement relies on limited aleatoric notation similar to that used by Witold Lutoslawski in his Third Symphony (1973-1983). The focus of the first movement is on the Yin element, but in woodwind, brass, percussion and harp only.

II – The second movement is an extended version of Piano and String Quartet (2016) as this was also partly my study in Yang. The score reverts back to conventional notation, but the music feels free of any sense of pulse. Using a piano quintet instrumentation contrasts with the first movement.

III – The music is set to a clear, steady pulse for the first time. This is also the first movement to use all instruments of the ensemble together, not in true climaxes in several long awaited bursts of tutti.

IV – The final movement begins with the most static texture heard so far in the work. However, this is the movement with a true climax.