A blog by Benjamin Graves, RSNO Composers’ Hub 2016:17

The piece is entitled A Hundred Agonies in Black and White, a line taken from War Photographer by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. The poem explores our desensitisation to the gruesome and brutal images of war by putting the reader in the perspective of the photographer who takes them, describing how he desensitises himself by restoring order to the chaos, for example by putting his “spools of suffering” in “ordered rows”.

In a previous blog for the RSNO, I described my discomfort with writing a piece about war, having never been to war and only witnessing its effects through media coverage, so I decided to base my piece on this (I don’t however want to force a potential listener to hear the piece in a certain way by ascribing specific meaning to the notes that may, for them, not even be there, so I will just describe my thought processes when creating the technical materials of the work. The hope in composing is that a work stands alone as an abstract piece of music, without need for narrative).

The aim was to create a musical war, represented by more traditional (and loud) musical styles, such as fanfares and chorales, and then soften their impact in various ways (in the same blog I made a slightly tongue-in-cheek reference to musical drones representing flying ones, so drones found their way in to the piece, make of that what you will).

The musical desensitisation process is presented at its most obvious in the two halves of the piece’s introduction:

The work begins with the first iteration of the war-like fanfares. The harmony is harsh, cycling through rising fourths (once considered a dissonant interval) and major sevenths and their inversions. This is the harmonic preoccupation of all the “war” passages. The orchestration is also harsh, with staccatissimo punches; extremes of register; string pizzicatos and the percussion playing hard, wooden instruments such as temple blocks and xylophone and side-drum sticks on bongos, tom-toms and bass drum. A brass chorale counteracts all the harshness with a chord of F sharp minor, its ordered nature pre-empting the harmony of the more apathetic sections.

The second half offers an immediate contrast. The tempo is considerably slower and the harmony reduces the fourths to minor thirds and the major sevenths to minor, giving a pentatonic feel. The orchestra is also greatly reduced: only half the string ensemble are employed, some muted and using harmonic tremolo effects; percussion use softer mallets and bows on metallic instruments such as vibraphone and crotales; and harp uses harmonics and plays “prés de la table”, the winds are removed entirely (in later passages, when this material is developed woodwinds play multi-phonics – several notes at once – and brass interject with fanfares). Several members of the ensemble are required to play solos, these rise from within the ensemble, the music reminiscent of the earlier fanfares.

The piece is cast in two parts: the first is sort-of sonata development exploring the relationship between the introductory materials described above. The second is a repeat of the first, but with all the desensitising moments removed and the war sections slotted together, building toward a final climax. After each of the two parts the chorales that have always ended the war-like passages are themselves softened and stretched. Just the winds play, the brass are muted, horns hand stopped, all combined with more woodwind multi-phonics. The second iteration of this material is the final coda, the chorales accompany a final statement of the fanfare motif, this time played by offstage trumpets at a tempo other than that of the ensemble.

The piece is ultimately a way of exploring war artistically, but doesn’t re-appropriate the feelings and experiences of others, a trait which unfortunately some works can be guilty of.

A Hundred Agonies in Black and White by Benjamin Graves will be workshopped alongside four other new compositions by the 2016:17 RSNO Composers' Hub participants on Friday 31 March 2017 in the New Auditorium at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall as part of the RSNO Composers' Hub Workshop.