Telling the Tale


    Research output: Non-textual formComposition

    19 Citations (Scopus)


    A sextet, commissioned by Psappha. First performance February 2019, Psappha conducted by Jamie Phillips.

    Around the time that I began work on this piece, my good friend and fellow-composer James Wishart died after a long period of ill-health. James’ poignant work The Leaving of Liverpool had been performed and broadcast by Psappha a year or so before he died, so it was doubly appropriate that the new piece for this ensemble should be ‘about’ James in some way.

    Keen to avoid an overly elegiac approach, I decided to build it around a memory of an incident that occurred when James and I and some of our composition students attended the 1984 Musica Nova festival in Glasgow. After a long day attending concerts and workshops, James was insistent that we should all attend a late night concert of Danish new music, and (despite the attractive option of the festival bar and the local fish and chip shop) we duly obliged. One of the featured pieces in the programme, Plateau pour Deux by Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, was scored for solo cello and percussion – and the latter included a prominent role for two car horns.

    A somewhat bewildered audience listened attentively to the first section of this piece, in which the cello held long notes, quietly, whilst the two car horns were deployed in a strident and rhythmic fashion. I became aware that our row of seats was beginning to shake – James had the giggles, and was trying to contain himself. A pause between movements offered the opportunity for him to take control, but when the piece restarted in a very similar fashion, he could hold it no longer and there was loud explosive laugh from his direction. He was not alone – as the piece progressed, many members of the audience joined him, with many clearly unsure whether it was OK to laugh at a new music event. James, however, was past caring. The situation was not eased by the fact that the concert was being recorded by the BBC. By some of James’ later reactions to certain pieces in the concert hall this was a somewhat benign response, but the incident stuck – affectionately - in the memory. I told the story at his funeral.

    I had been exploring various ways of incorporating this episode into my new piece when I came across Exercises in Style, by Raymond Queneau. This brilliant book takes a simple, short tale and re-tells it 99 times in a virtuosic display of literary technique and imagination. The English translation by Barbara Wright (from the original French) is masterly, in many ways another ‘retelling’. So, I had a model. The new piece would recall the event, and then ‘re-tell’ it in different ways. As the piece progresses, the focus slips away from the original event to become a lens to other pertinent memories. That said, the basic components of the tale are never far from the surface.

    Original languageEnglish
    Place of PublicationOxon, England
    PublisherEdition HH
    EditionISMN 979 0 708146 83 4
    Media of outputOther
    Publication statusPublished - Feb 2019


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