Thursday, 23 February 2012

Taking inspiration from Sally Beamish

When I heard the composer Sally Beamish talk about her composition for the Cultural Olympiad several weeks ago I took inspiration from the way she had responded to the theme of sports. The composition Spinal Chords, commissioned by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, expresses the slow recovery process of journalist Melanie Reid who broke her neck in a horse-riding accident. To express this, the music is static a lot of the time. To reinforce this, the orchestra was deconstructed into small groups of soloist who were gradually put back together again.

Sally Beamish often takes inspiration from the world around her. In her composition Bridging the Day for cello and piano, for example, she reflects the different experiences of light from sunrise to sunset around her Scottish home. The Seafarer Trio is a composition for narrator and piano trio which in life performances is accompanied by prints by Jila Peacock. The Seafarer is an Anglo-Saxon poem that speaks of the pull of the sea and the loneliness of a sea voyage. In her music, Sally Beamish communicates the atmosphere of a sea journey, and reinforces this occasionally with the cries of gulls. 

What I find inspiring in the work of Sally Beamish is that she shows a range of ways in which a composer can respond to his or her source of inspiration. Until several decades ago most classical composers did so by either expressing the atmosphere found in, for example, a poem or painting, or by imitating the sounds suggested. Cuckoo calls in pastoral music are known examples. Other composers have taken classical forms like the sonata form to express storylines in tone poems. When Debussy impersonated the faun in Stéphane Mallarmè’s poem L’Après-Midi d’un Faune that inspired his prelude with the same name, he broke new ground. 

But in Spinal Chords Sally Beamish has gone a step further. Rather than focusing on the sound world created in a composition by imitating sounds or suggesting atmospheres, she has reflected her source of inspiration by deconstructing and reconstructing the chord as the backbone of music. Though serialist and minimalist composers have experimented with organising and reorganising the raw materials of music in different ways before her, this has to my knowledge mostly been done in an abstract manner. To me, Sally Beamish has gone beyond this in both the way she organises the raw materials of her music and the way in which she uses this to reflect her source of inspiration.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Learning to sing together

Setting up an intergenerational choir is a balancing act. Learning to sing together not only involves negotiating a balance between the interests of children and adults in the choir, but also the repertoire to sing.

Before starting the choir the idea of intergenerational work seemed unambiguous to me as I assumed that there would be a balance between the interests of children and adults. After the first two sessions, however, I felt the choir was more like a children’s choir with adults helpers. In part, this was a result of there being more children than adults. But this feeling was further reinforced by adults giving away ownership of the choir by suggesting what they think the children would like to sing. If anything, I learnt that an intergenerational choir is not only about balancing the numbers of children and adults, but also the extent to which their respective interests are heard.

Finding songs to sing means balancing the interests of children and adults. The children are keen to sing Glee songs and Whitney Houston, the adults have suggested songs from the shows, seventies pop and Scottish folk songs. This is the music that the children and adults are familiar with, and defines who they are. I'm trying to make sure that the repertoire contains a bit of everything. Yet, I also want to introduce some new songs as this allows them to try out something new. These new songs are not yet associated with a certain social identity and the children and adults may eventually associate them with their intergenerational encounters in the choir. 

Though the negotiation of what it means to be an intergenerational choir and what is to be sung feels like a challenge at times, this struggle is part of the process that any new group goes through. Bruce Tuckman argues that any new group goes through four stages: forming, storming, norming and performing. During the first two sessions the intergenerational choir negotiated the balance between the interests of children and adults and the repertoire to sing (forming and storming). In the third session we started to focus on the performance ahead of us (norming) and what we need to do to prepare ourselves for that. To help the choir establish itself I need to listen carefully to the wide range of views on what to sing and how to sing it. To move forward, however, I have to make decisions that may not be popular with all.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 7 February 2012


Sometimes the work of another artist helps me to reflect on my own work. Earlier this week, I came across the work of experimental artist Sam Firth who, in her project Stay The Same, films herself every day at the same time in the same place. Her work has not only made me realise how repetition can facilitate intimacy and reflection, but also how artists often use images of nature to reflect their inner feelings.

In my project Songs of the Earth I set out using composition as a means to exploring my relationship with the woodlands and fields around my home. Repetition, making the same walk several times a week, has helped me develop an intimate bond with my local natural environment, a bond that I do not feel when I visit places that are unknown to me. Likewise, repetition helps Sam Firth to track seasonal change. The changes in light and weather make her think about the passing of time and the process of ageing. Though I tend to focus on changes in foliage, seasonal changes are important for me as well. When I walk in an area unknown to me, I tend to focus on the larger forms in the landscape. Only when I am familiar with an area I notice changes in this landscape.

Composing music inspired by my local walks has, however, changed my experience of my local environment. Not only do the compositions and accompanying writing make some everyday experiences extra-ordinary, they now also make me remember these experiences when I revisit the places to which they are related.

The creative writing that accompanies most compositions has helped me deepen my experiences. In a similar manner as that Sam Firth relates her nature experiences to the passing of time and ageing, I impose my feelings on my environmental experiences. In Silver the incoming weather somehow gives me a sense of calm, in A Different World I leave daily worries behind when I enter the woodlands, and in Unfolding I describe a sense of wonder and relief that winter is past. Such imposition of human feelings on nature is a common trait in music as well as poetry and painting. In Das Lied Von Der Erde, Mahler made the seasons stand symbol for the cycle of human life.

Last week I listened to some of the compositions I wrote last autumn and was struck by how, in a trio for French horn, violin and piano, I had transformed the theme of autumnal leaves dancing on the wind (the middle section) into a melancholy theme (towards the end) reflecting the summer that is past. Here a Sibelius recording of this composition (in Sibelius the instruments seem to blend less well as they're likely to do in reality):

Copyright text and music Petra Vergunst