Borletti-Buitoni Trust
21 May 2008

Introducing Simon Holt’s “A Table of Noises”

by Colin Currie

May the 14th this year saw the premiere of Simon Holt’s “A Table of  Noises” and the final fruition to my use of my BBT funds. Jointly commissioned by the fund and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, this work will, I have no doubt, make a huge impact not only in the percussion world but for new music in general. It opens up a brilliantly original sound world and the rapt audience in Birmingham gave the work a duly robust ovation. I am extremely happy with the music and believe the trust can once again be hugely proud of its vital contribution to new music of the very highest order.

Quite unlike any piece of music I know, the new Simon Holt percussion concerto “A Table of Noises” exuberantly tears up the manual on how to approach the medium and I am thrilled with the idiosyncratic, adventurous results. The title draws on some initial research Simon made into percussion instruments, and the discovery of a Peruvian instrument named Una Mesa de Ruidos (A Table of Noises). This led, laterally, to the vivid recollection of an altogether different kind of table, namely that at the centre of the life of Simon’s late Great Uncle Ash. Severely disabled (and part-time taxidermist) Ash had a table adorned with a variety of possessions central to his life.  This other table had fascinated the adoring young nephew, and along with a variety of other childhood memories, informed the character of the new concerto. In six titled movements, the work recalls various protagonists from that era, often with appropriate Lancastrian wit and eccentricity. Those characters include the dog “Fly”(a blistering scherzo featuring xylophone insanity) and the boisterous “Skennin’ Mary” with her maverick glass-eye and fabulous temper. Haunting these images are a variety of (unidentified) ghosts, who manifest themselves as interludes throughout the work.

The concerto crackles with energy, and its unconventional percussion inventory adds to the pep in its step. The soloist’s own Ash-inspired “Table Top”(movement 9) forms an entire solo-movement where a variety of intimate, jewel-like sounds are laid out, and investigated in a variety of quirky combinations. Worth a mention also is the skewed orchestral set-up, including two antiphonal percussionists and piccolo players, alongside a complete dearth of violins. Rising out of these angularities are some of the most arresting textures yet to be penned, and the originality is both confident and not in the slightest self-conscious. Brittle woodwinds, thick brass-chords, the hoot of a car-horn, high double-bass harmonics, all jostling for position!

The final movement entitled “Under Glass” represents a kind of finality; the finishing touch of the taxidermist’s art and the inexorable demise of the characters alluded to within the concerto. Extremely powerful, this final, grave gesture spoke viscerally at the premiere, and for those brave enough to listen, eerie personal resonances were evoked. Music can have this rare power, and it has found a wonderful new vessel in Simon Holt’s “A Table of Noises”.

I look forward to playing the work on many more occasions, and sharing a landmark work with as wide an audience as possible.

Best wishes, Colin Currie.

To be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on June 6 and available to listen again online for a week after that.

Read  The Guardian review of the premiere

More about Simon Holt