Composing Breaking Silence for percussion ensemble O Duo has been a long, but rewarding process.
In February 2001, I went to a party given by a musician friend. There I met a wonderful, vivacious Australian blonde who had the nerve to interrupt my conversation with a talented young percussionist with the words: ‘Do you mind if I talk to you?
After a great night locked in conversation, we arranged to see each other again, but over a series of casual dates it became obvious that while I was getting more interested and more keen to develop the relationship, she still had unresolved issues with a previous boyfriend, so things between us ground to a halt. A little disappointed, I soon came to terms with my seemingly hyper-extended single status and made the most of single London life. Two months later, just as I was really beginning to get the hang of it, my new Aussie friend announced that she had broken up with her boyfriend for the very last time and promptly asked if I would kiss her! I did, and we’re now married (9 years this year) with two children!
So, just as relationships don’t always begin (or end) when you think you want them to, the relationships that bring about the birth of new pieces of music can often be difficult, complicated or just drawn out.
In 2007 I heard a rumour that Owen Gunnell and Oliver Cox of O Duo were going to ask me for a piece. ‘Interesting and flattering,’ I thought, but then again as a composer, you’re sometimes told face to face that you’re next on the list for an exciting new commission, only to never hear it spoken of again. So, it was still a surprise when in February 2008 I got an excited call from Owen, his faint voice jumping up and down, as he told me that O Duo had won a commissioning award from the Borletti-Buitoni Trust and were going to use it to commission a double percussion concerto from me. ‘Brilliant!’ was my first thought. ‘Oh no, two percussionists!’ was my next.
A meeting was set for September 2008 and within days, fuelled by the exhilaration of it all, I had ideas to make a dance-suite based on contemporary street dances. This would be great for Olly and Owen as their performances are so physical and theatrical – a dance-suite with practically a live dance element!
However, as time went on it became clear that things weren’t going to move quickly. We still had to find partners for funding and performing groups willing to commit artistically and financially to the project. As the Trust began the hard work to build the project I moved on to other things and the inevitable long silences made me contemplate the fact this one just might not happen at all.
Finally, in June 2011, an email arrived, saying ‘We’ve got the funding and two partners, Sinfonia Viva and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. When can you write the piece?’ My pulse started to quicken again and I replied immediately that I could write over the summer. Just one problem: I had now lost connection with the original idea! Too much time had gone by and it was no longer in the bloodstream…
Looking for inspiration, I arranged to meet Olly and Owen in May 2012. They picked me up at Huntingdon station and we drove to Owen’s house in his noisy, untidy Ford Transit. In the garage, Olly and Owen set up instruments while I rummaged through shelves to see what instruments I could find.
Over a cup of strong tea we talked about three distinct elements of musical expression that I felt I’d like to express in the piece: ritual, dance and song. The first two of these elements tapped into ways in which percussion instruments have been used to punctuate ceremonies or celebrations for thousands of years. However the third component (song) got a raised eyebrow response. For me, though, it later became the core, or the tender heart of Breaking Silence.
We started to experiment with some repeating phrases on marimba and then found ourselves substituting marimba pitches for the same notes on temple blocks and cowbells. I liked the sound, the game – and Olly and Owen seemed to be excited by the playful nature of the experiment.
This set me thinking about growing patterns on the marimba which gradually fanned out and combined with cowbells and temple blocks as well as the physical relationship between the two performers, their instruments and the performing space.
As I composed I got excited by the theatrical / physical dynamic which really began to drive the music. I felt intensely animated by the ritualistic physicality as the performers moved around an instrument, or from one instrument to another across the stage. I found I was imagining the visual spectacle as much as the sound of the music.
My search through Owen’s garage led me to discover some small shakers, a number of bird callers and the wonderful ACME Wind-Bird-Steam. These underused novelties eventually found a place in the music as tiny wisps of nocturnal mutterings set against breathy, almost inaudible strings. In the third movement they contrast a more percussive orchestra while the solo percussionists ‘sing’ their lyrical song on tuned cowbells played first with mallets and then brushes.
Although the dance-suite idea never took off, there are traces of that initial excited flirtation. The last movement is very much a dance movement that embraces hooks, loops, breaks and grooves, and provides a strong bedrock for more virtuosic drumming. Nothing’s ever wasted!
Last week Olly and Owen called to ask if they could extract a section of the concerto (for duo alone) to play in their O Duo recital concerts. I said yes and offered to write a companion piece for this context. It seems our relationship has entered the stage of contemplating the production of offspring!
Breaking Silence was written for O Duo and co-commssioned by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, Fidelio Trust, Sinfonia Viva – who perform the world premiere conducted by Gergely Madaras on March 19, 2013 at the Derby Assembly Rooms, UK – and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, who perform the work in Melbourne under the baton of Benjamin Northey as part of a ‘Meet The Orchestra Week’ in which Fraser Trainer is also participating.
Photo: John Ferro Sims