WINDS: BWV 555 → BOOM

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The first piece I’d like to tell you about is (although it doesn’t sound like it) in many ways the simpler of the two works I wrote for the Platform 4 WINDS concert. BWV 555 is one of a set of eight miniature preludes and fugues that Bach wrote for the organ. Except he didn’t. Write all eight of them, that is. Some (including this 3rd in the set) are now attributed to his pupil Johann Ludwig Krebs.

I was attracted to this particular work as it is short, compact, and quite serious while having lovely changes of texture woven throughout. Originally, the idea was to create a colourful orchestration which had the memory of a pipe organ in the wind timbres. Thus the prelude, which is a straight orchestration for woodwind and horns only, begins with low flutes, mid-range clarinets and a muted horn for an sombre and airy sound, the melody ringing out a little more. The timbral diversity increases as the texture changes, changing to more plangent oboe and (high) bassoon sounds, and finally culminating by “pulling out all the stops” before the sound dies down to its initial gentle glow.

BWV 555 – BOOM Prelude PDF score

I had deliberately reserved the heavy brass to pump some energy into the fugue, and it was this energy that ended up spilling over into a wild coda. Each note of the fugue subject is accented by another instrument (quite a Stravinsky-an device?), creating noticeable attacks that take on a life of their own in the horn section, while the piccolo and oboe have “wrong” notes that signal that something quite un-Bach (un-Krebs) is about to happen.

One major advantage of having so many instruments at your disposal is being able to play around with texture more extravagantly. From half-way into the fugue I built up the energy levels gradually, whipping up a storm with the flutes, while building to a climax where instrument groups played their own parts but slotted together to a chaotic texture (can’t get away from the Rite of Spring, can we… and who would want to?!).

BWV 555 – BOOM fugue PDF score

The coda was my chance to have fun. Wild and rude sounds were pushed on from the fugue, and material from the prelude was piled up in chords and layered over the top. This Bacchanalian scene could only sustain itself for so long, however, and we hear the machine run out of power quite literally. Only a final raspberry could complete the tribute to / desecration of the original.

BWV 555 – BOOM coda PDF score

WINDS

In the second half of 2014, Platform 4 (our Sheffield-based composers’ group) decided to expand beyond the small chamber music we have written and performed in past seasons, and have a jolly good go at writing for a larger ensemble.

WINDS was a project that invited amateur players from the area, as well as more experienced performers, to assemble for Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. We built a concert around this beautiful but little-performed work, and also around Lutoslawski’s cartoonish Chain I (yes, I know it has some strings in, but only a few…).

The three main aims of this project were:

1. To promote the performance and appreciation of new and new-ish music to local players. Many amateur players never get a chance to tackle modern chamber repertoire (and of course a lot of it is waaay too hard), and therefore haven’t had a chance to experience the rich variety of pieces out there that are rewarding to play and listen to.

2. To write for, and experiment with, a larger ensemble and a greater “palette” of sounds.

3. As always, to keep reaching new audiences who might find that one piece of new music that changes their listening habits forever.

The concert programme was the following:
WINDS Promo flyer

It was a successful concert, with an appreciative audience (many concert “newbies”!), and with all the performers wanting to do more in this line of playing.

We will be blogging over the next couple of months about our own individual pieces, with score extracts for those nosey folks that like that sort of thing (me!). For the time being, all our videos can be found on our YouTube channel

A second large concert is currently being planned (STRINGS) and will build pieces around Ligeti’s Ramifications, amongst others, with works by Chris Noble and Jenny Jackson.

A celebration

What’s the most difficult commission a composer can receive?

An alphorn concerto?

A duet for contrabassoon and tambourine (must last 20 minutes)?

A multimedia project on a building site exploring issues in contemporary feminism?

Well, I’d tackle all three. But when I was asked to write a piece for my fellow composer-in-crime Jenny Jackson to walk up the aisle to on her wedding day, my mind went blank.

And stayed blank.

How to start?

Atmosphere was the first consideration. What ambience would the bride like to achieve in the ceremony? No clues were given – “do what you like” was the brief.

So I created a resonant, atmospheric soundscape, quite glowing and bright, a bit lydian mode, a bit drone-y and gentle. Then I was told the acoustic in the venue (Whitley Hall, just north of Sheffield) was as dry as a bone and just not suitable for creating any resonance. Attempt no.1 discarded.

OK, what else did I have to go on? Jenny had a string quartet playing after the ceremony so I could use that as a basis. There was also a list of music she wanted them to play, as well as pieces to avoid.

As any good artist should do, I went immediately to the “banned” list… and it turns out Jenny really doesn’t like Pachelbel’s canon.

Now, I know from her own extraordinary works that she enjoys experimenting with spacialisation (Sanctum) and a certain amount of theatricality, so I formed a plan which involved taking apart the Pachelbel, and using the guests to create some unexpected spacial effects. And the atmosphere should not be negative, even through a famous piece was being utterly ruined.

I present “Pachelbird’s Canoon”, possibly the riskiest compositional venture I’ve had to do. It could have bombed.

Birdwhistle and instructions given to guests

The laughter you can hear about halfway through is Jenny’s. Mission accomplished.

Download the  Score of Pachelbird’s Canoon.