Matthew Brown Composer


Three Illusions of Peganum Harmala

My inspiration began when I was in the garden at Alcroft Grange in Canterbury experiencing the hot summer air. I started to imagine a series of soporific portamentos against an implied E flat major tonal back-drop.

In conversation, Martin Outram had once made the comment that the solo viola could be used for its bright qualities in the high register in contrast with its dark qualities in the low register, With this point strongly in mind, I began to explore the possibility of incorporating viola into the intensely glittery glockenspiel/celeste-like sound-world.

The music was deeply inspired by my own personal illusions of the smoke generated by the seeds of the Peganum Harmala plant, more commonly known as Harmal. The illusions are represented in the piece in sections, with a sparse accompaniment for the first illusion, a bold and intrusive intervention of sounds for the second, and a more calming regular rhythm for the third.

This is a contrast of light and dark. A sound – which suggests sadness, danger, coldness, warmth, and happiness – could exist within a few notes, and this sets the scene for the first illusion. Melody and harmony are closely linked; one is readily generated out of the other.

The inclusion of viola as a solo instrument is deliberate in reflecting this and a narrow range of material is used to portray all of these things, often confused with the background, as in the second illusion, yet always unmistakable in timbre.

This short piece is almost without tempo, where sound and silence both play vital role. This is, of course, except for the final illusion, which rather bizarrely has a faint steady pulse throughout in the form of a pattern of exaggerated, soporific portamento gestures. All other gestures heard at this time are related by pitch intervals and yet contrast in timbre, and are bound together with a deep but warm bass every so often which provides the underlying sense of tonality.

During my second year at RNCM, the violist Paul Beckett came to visit in one of our seminars and he played the Viola Sonata (1991-1994) by Gyorgy Ligeti from his own recital repertoire. I was sufficiently inspired by his unique performing style to ask him to perform an orchestral version of Three Illusions of Peganum Harmala (2013). We explored some further ideas together, both theoretically and on our violas. I decided to adapt the viola part quite considerably to allow for the orchestral accompaniment, whilst taking care to ensure that the scoring was generally light and thin-textured. Paul performed this outstandingly well with the RNCM symphony orchestra, conducted by Alpesh Chauhan in October 2013.