Zulu

Unmade

A Celtic Challenge

A blog by Philip Ashworth, RSNO Composers’ Hub 2016:17

Embarking on any new composition requires a goodly deal of planning and preparation. With a wholly original piece, one generally has carte blanche and can pretty much do whatever you like. However, arranging or transcribing existing music carries with it a different set of possibilities and, indeed, responsibilities.

Transcribing a piece would keep the entire melodic and harmonic shape intact, and merely set out to present the tune for a different group of instruments. In this case, voices to orchestral instruments.

Arranging a piece allows for a great deal more artistic interpretation, and one is less constrained by the source material. However, the listener must be able to recognise that this is the same tune: Jingle Bells arranged for full orchestra or for solo piano is still Jingle Bells.

Of course, one could choose neither route and embark on a work that uses the original piece in a most oblique manner, perhaps not even incorporating any musical elements at all, using the original simply as a source of inspiration.

There are pros and cons to all three routes, and it was fundamental to establish where I was going and how I would approach the work at hand.

I felt it important from the outset that the original tune should feature prominently in my piece. (It is, after all, the reason I chose it.) But more importantly, it is a tune firmly entrenched in the aural tradition; passed down through generations only by ear, without need of notation and a feel some responsibility in preserving our heritage.

Given that this a single line melody with no accompanying harmony, I elected to create harmonies of my own to suit the ensemble for which it was now being arranged. So this would be a new element.

The other thing to consider was the fact that the original is a vocal piece. The melody repeats and relies on the text being sung as its means of achieving variety. This textual element would not be possible for orchestra, and so I would need to invent another way to create contrast and variety: whatever I was going to create had to stand up in its own right.

Waulk is based on a melody taken from a Cloth Waulking Song, performed by Mrs Kate Nicolson, South Uist, and recorded by the University of Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies in 1982. This working song serves two primary purposes ­– entertainment for the task in hand, and a more practical function of keeping the 'mechanics' of the operation in time. In my arrangement of this tune, I felt it important to keep something of the 'call and response' idea. However, I have attempted to introduce two further elements. The first is a sense of harmony, translating the notional harmony of the working group to a musical sort. The other is intended as a comment on the rise of industrialisation that has all but wiped out traditional working practices such as hand-washing tweed.

Restoration Project

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

I love Grand Designs: the monumental designs, the originality of the buildings and the way they fit within their surrounds. But most of all I love Kevin McCloud: his dryness, consistent incredulity at the viability of each build and genuine surprise every episode at the quality of the finished product, despite an unchanging format. But, however much I adore him he didn’t inspire my folk song arrangement for the Celtic Connections Festival. What did was the restoration of Hellifield Peel Castle from ruin to fully functioning bed and breakfast.

Derelict for 50 years, nature had reclaimed the castle: shrubs and trees were growing out of every wall, their roots penetrating deep into the mortar, and every exposed brick was carpeted with lichen and moss. It seemed attempting to restore this ruin was madness, but Francis and Karen Shaw, having spent upwards of £150,000 to acquire it, were going to give it a go, pushing Kevin’s dubiety to its limits. Or at least the local stonemasons were, Shaw just coughed up the cash. What resulted was spectacular: all credit should go to the wonderfully named “Jason the Mason” and his team. They had faithfully and tirelessly reconstructed old stonework, fitting it alongside the original, all in strict compliance with the 1882 Ancient Monuments Protection Act.

The Shaws now owned a real castle, parts of which originated from around 850 AD. Past owners included Saxon and Norman lords; a Knight Templar, Sir John Harcourt; the Knights Hospitaller; a Catholic dissident, Stephen Hamerton who was hanged, drawn and quartered for opposing Herny VIII’s Protestant Reformation; and Hamerton’s uncle, Lord Clifford, who betrayed him and further Hamerton family members. Having cost the Shaws somewhere in the region of £600,000 to restore the castle (or, as Rightmove describes it, the seven-bedroom detached house) it was recently sold for £1.65 million.

What interested me most about this project was its potential to inspire musical form: a musical restoration project with new musical “stone” added to old. The story of my chosen folk tune, coincidentally, is not dissimilar to that of Hellifield Peel Castle. Griogal Cridhe or Beloved Gregor is a lament supposedly written by Marion Campbell to her husband Gregor MacGregor as she viewed his head on an oaken steak, after he was betrayed and executed in 1570 by her father “Grey” Colin Campbell Laird of Glenorchy. Its lyrics, originally in Gaelic, speak of how Gregor cared for her and how much she misses him.

In the piece Griogal Cridhe is presented directly. Its rhythms appear modern, but are in fact a direct transcription of interpretations by various folk artists, a modern rendering of the old. More bricks for this musical castle are forged from various extended techniques such as harmonic glissandi, trills and tremolos; quartertones and new harmony derived from the old, all combined with canonic versions of the original melody.

My piece doesn’t evoke directly the story of Marion Campbell and Gregor MacGregor, rather it represents a restoration of it: Griogal Cridhe’s history is told in the tune left behind. I hope this approach will lend an alternative perspective to the musical treatment of folksong, but mainly I hope it’s a piece Kevin would be proud of and perhaps one day he’ll deliver a philosophical closing monologue on one of my projects.

A Conflict of Interests

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

When one thinks of war music it is usually the descriptive nature of the pieces themselves that comes to mind: an incessant “andante marziale” or absurdist scherzo. What one doesn’t immediately think of – in comparison to, say, the war poets – is how directly conflict has affected the life of the composer, and affected they were: Stockhausen’s parents disappeared during the Second World War and only much later did he learn of their murder; Ligeti’s entire family, except his mother, were killed in concentration camps and George Butterworth and Ivor Gurney never returned from World War I.

So bearing this loss in mind, how does, or can, a composer who has never seen action, except on television, and unburdened by war’s emotional baggage set about composing a piece evoking war? How can the music he or she writes – music having the potential to be the most direct form of emotional expression – be seen as anything except passing off the turmoil of others: an appropriation of emotion?

Consider contemporary warfare: the constant bombardment of Aleppo, the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan or the struggle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. What these conflicts all have in common is an advancement in remote warfare.

An interesting approach could be to draw parallels between contemporary artistic portrayals of war by disconnected composers and those that fight remotely. They, like the composers, live at home, perhaps with their boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives and children, they walk out of their front door each morning, get into their cars and drive to work, some have never seen a battlefield.

The potential controversy surrounding the composing of a piece reflecting on the cost of war, emotional or otherwise, by a composer who has never seen it is paralleled in the eventual scrapping of the Distinguished Warfare Medal, a medal introduced for remote warriors. What right, argued members of Congress, veterans and serving combatants, do individuals who have never set foot in a war zone, let alone risked life and limb in service of their country, have to receive a medal for valour? Likewise, what right does a composer have to receive a grant and all the congratulations and adulation that comes with composing a work for a world class orchestra, all for a piece about a war he/she has never entered?

One could argue further parallel: studies have shown drone pilots suffer similar emotional damage to fighters on the ground, they are acutely aware of the lives they end and the cities they destroy, despite attempts at desensitising. But this does not seem to resonate with many active personnel: remote warfare is held in much lower esteem, due to a lack of direct action. In fact, The RAF claim it is in fact workplace stressors such as overwork or a poor working environment that affects drone operators, rather than post-traumatic stress disorder.

A young composer could claim a deep, potentially damaging, feeling of emotional connection with the images he/she sees in the news, or perhaps knows someone at war, but surely this pales into insignificance when compared to the losses Stockhausen, Ligeti, Butterworth and Gurney suffered, but is it any less valid?

The main difference is, of course, that by composing a work for orchestra a composer is not directly or indirectly involved in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of people, many of whom are innocent casualties, and so my comparisons shall go no further.

Personally, without wishing to tie myself down to too rigid a narrative, the main approach I believe to be the most appropriate is to display, in musical form, a level of detachment to the subject I’m dealing with, a potentially tricky solution and one I’m still contemplating. One option is to compose a piece which employs (musical) drones. These, if by name alone, could represent, well, drones, but the problem is that a musical drone only represents a flying one because I, the composer, said so. Another, and the option I am exploring at the moment, is a musical representation of bombed out buildings: think Coventry Cathedral. Remnants of conflicts past inhabiting a contemporary, largely war free, space. These husks are what war has left me: they represent stories of war told to me by my grandparents, wars fought years ago spoken of in history textbooks and the images that flash up on news programmes of wars being fought thousands of miles away. All of which punctuate the contemporary landscape of my everyday life.

Ultimately in addressing the issue of so called emotional appropriation, the question I have to ask myself is: if by writing a piece of music about war is it only me who stands to benefit from its production? If so that piece should not be written. If instead I can encourage even one member of the audience to ask questions, whether moral or otherwise, of themselves, me and others then I believe the piece was worth writing.