Blogpost #1 – Suns extinguished

The following blogpost was originally published on London Symphony Orchestra’s blog (find here) as part of the Panufnik Scheme 2018.

After hearing I had been accepted to London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Composer’s Scheme this January (2018), the very first question I asked myself was ‘What does one compose for a world-class orchestra of 80 musicians lasting just three minutes?’

There are an infinite number of musical possibilities and nothing is impossible for such an orchestra. Not only that, but it has been a daunting task to write for so many performers. Here is some insight into how I attempted to deal with the challenge.

Asking the first question is like opening Pandora’s Box. My mind starts racing with ideas, images, sounds, scenarios and everything in between. For every question I ask, two more appear. Within minutes, about a hundred new questions and puzzles pop up and loom above. It feels as if there is no canvas for me to paint on, so it was time to find a form for these initial thoughts and questions to exist in. I then sat down on the piano and chose four dyads (two-note chords). These became a musical sieve to filter ideas – now every bit of musical material could be related back to these four dyads. I had a canvas!

Three minutes is a very short time to fill with the sound of a large orchestra. The orchestral medium tends towards much larger structures. Yet one can fit a great amount of detail and movement into three minutes too. However, it felt unnatural to fill the available three minutes with as much action and activity as possible. The solution for me was to have the dyads mentioned above repeating throughout the piece, observed through different lenses, creating a way for a variety of musical elements to breathe and speak. The music does not try to break away or travel to a new place but rather evolves within its own parameters. This continuous cycle of the four dyads came to function musically as a background chorale, and structurally as a framework.The dyads are traditional in voicing with a perfect cadence occurring when the dyads are repeated (A to D). The resulting progression implies tonality and may seem like a reference to a much older piece. There was no conscious effort to reference anything in particular, yet I was aware of the familiar sound these dyads would produce. The harmonies I chose are influenced by my love towards the sonorous world of renaissance choral music. These repeating dyads form the skeleton of the work, allowing me to add fleeting foreground material, throw in splashes of orchestral colour and add harmonic tension by playing with microtonal (intervals smaller than a semi-tone) inflection. Setting a moderately slow tempo allowed me to indulge and explore the huge variety of sound on offer as if dipping a brush into a palette and dashing colour onto a large canvas. There is a sense of familiarity in the underlying harmony of the piece, but these different colouring elements described will create a sense of the alien.

However, it isn’t the technical aspects that are most important in my work, but carefully crafted sounds and textures – which for me, are like the detailed use of colour and light in paintings. What the listener hears after all, is all they will know (unless programme notes or blogs like this reveal extra!) I love delving into the possibilities and combinations of sounds whenever writing a new piece.

This is why it has been especially touching to write for the London Symphony Orchestra, whose brilliant sound is something I can recall from many years back. By chance, the LSO was the first foreign professional orchestra I ever heard live at Philharmonie Luxembourg during my teenage years. It is exactly the fiery and delicate sounds conjured up by the orchestra that I have ever since admired.

The title of my piece, Suns extinguished, is derived from a paragraph in philosopher Paul-Henri Thiry‘s 1770 book Le système de la nature. It reads:

‘Suns are extinguished or become corrupted, planets perish and scatter across the wastes of the sky; other suns are kindled, new planets formed to make their revolutions or describe new orbits, and man, an infinitely minute part of a globe which itself is only an imperceptible point in the immense whole, believes that the universe is made for himself.’

I came across this quote in another book – A Brief History of Creation by Bill Mesler and James H. Cleaves II – and immediately found its poetic power and beauty striking. The concept and reality of suns extinguishing and planets perishing seemed to suit the melancholic sound world expressed in my piece. Reading about the long lifespan of stars and the immense cooling processes that characterise a star’s death is spellbinding. Only in imaginative and abstract ways can I attempt to bring justice to concepts like these on this ‘pale blue dot’ of ours (as Carl Sagan put it). But perhaps touching upon these near-absurd concepts (e.g. the 10-billion year lifespan of the Sun) are what so fascinate me in composition and creativity.

It has been a great pleasure to work with and learn from Colin Matthews and Christian Mason as well as attending a plethora of LSO’s rehearsals and concerts. They have been a constant fuel for creativity and an invaluable source for learning. To conclude, a huge amount feeds into the creative process. To be able share the joy of creation with audiences, listeners and performers is a privilege, and ultimately what propels me to keep writing more music. I wish to express a huge thank you to everyone involved in the scheme, especially to Lady Camilla Panufnik and the Helen Hamlyn Trust for their passion and support for young composers. Taking part has been a fantastic experience. Now, 11 months into the scheme I have had the pleasure to get to know my co-participants, George Stevenson, Alex Tay, Cassie Kinoshi, Ido Romano and Lara Poe. The musical diversity has been fascinating to observe. I can safely say all of us composers have gained a ton of insight from the workshops with LSO players; percussionist Neil Percy, harpist Helen Sharp, trombonist Dudley Bright, violinists David Alberman, Harriet Rayfield and Elizabeth Pigram, violist Robert Turner and cellist Victoria Simonsen. These workshops tended to be where our initial ideas started to crystallise as we got to discuss and brainstorm these with the musicians.

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