Friday, 22 November 2013

Kenn and the salmon

Performed at the banks of Dunbeath Water, the chamber opera Highland River, based on Neil Gunn’s novel of the same name, portrays the young boy Kenn’s relation to the river of his childhood. As a young boy, he prevails after a long struggle with a salmon and his parents use the fish to pay off the family’s debts with the local grocer. A few years later, his older brother Angus invites him to poach salmon further upstream, an illegal act that could lead to repercussions from the gamekeeper. As an adult, Kenn returns to the river of his childhood to reflect on his childhood memories and the sense of place and time these embody. The site-specific chamber opera Highland River touches upon themes of physical and spiritual growth and a deeply felt sense of place and time that Kenn’s childhood experiences of salmon, the river and the wider landscape conjure up. Performed in the open air, the voice of the baritone, clarinet, violin and cello will merge with the rushing of the river and the whisper of the wind.

The video beneath contains an extract from the opera from the first act. The young boy Kenn’s mood changes abruptly when he spots a salmon in the river. For a moment he is paralysed by fear of the gamekeeper, but soon his mind turns to killing the fish and finding a stone. His confidence soon grows as he throws stones at the salmon to disturb and catch it. The fish responds furiously and, in first instance, Kenn dashes back. In a moment of reflection, he considers how the salmon must have swum up the river. Kenn throws another stone at the fish and manages to pull it on the grass. Using the full weight of his body, Kenn eventually masters the fish and kills it. As the salmon dies, Kenn’s body comes to a rest and he looks in wonder at the hands with which he managed to land and kill the salmon.

Copyright text and music Petra Vergunst

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Remembered feeling

Remembered feeling, a term used by visual artist Marian Leven, describes the feelings a place evokes in one’s memory. Pitcowdens, a composition for brass quintet, is about the feelings and imaginations a forest croft in the northeast of Scotland elicits for composer Petra Vergunst. For years she has visited the croft - as a destination of walks, to plant trees and to study and share its history. Though abandoned since the mid 20th century, the contours of the house, the byre, the fields and the well are still visible in the landscape. For centuries the farmer and his family and farmhands worked the land in daytime and played the fiddle and sang bothy ballads at night. Pitcowdens is based on one of those bothy ballads, The Dying Ploughboy. In this song, one of the farm workers feels his end is near and says farewell to his master and the land he used to work. In a way, he bid farewell to a way of life and working the land as farming retreated to the more fertile lower-lying grounds along the river Dee half a century ago. To express her remembered feelings and imaginations of the forest croft Petra Vergunst has taken the first four notes of this ballad – the sequence of the tonic, mediant, subdominant and dominant – as a motif to create a sense of longing, the rhythm of working the fields, and more lyrical passages that allude to the bothy ballad.

Alongside her work as a freelance community musician, Petra Vergunst has studied music composition with Patric Standford at the Open College of the Arts. Inspired by theatre, performance art and poetry, her compositions often combine music with narrated or sung texts. To reinforce the narrative character of her music she likes to resemble musical utterances with spoken ones. Like thoughts, these utterances then develop organically and are arranged in the form of monologue or dialogue. A number of her compositions have been successful in competitions and were performed professionally. Three (for alto flute), inspired by Elizabeth Blackadder’s painting Still Life, January 1972, has been performed in Aberdeen Art Gallery by Richard Craig during sound 2013. Pitcowdens (in an arrangement for flute, oboe, bassoon, horn in F and cello) was shortlisted in a competition by the St. Andrews New Music Ensemble and subsequently played by the ensemble in a workshop led by Sally Beamish. Frozen River (flute, trumpet, cello) was played by The Red Note Ensemble during Noisy Nights in Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

Pitcowdens, in an arrangement for flute, oboe, horn in F, bassoon and cello, can be listened to here.

Copyright text and music Petra Vergunst