A blog by Robert Allan, RSNO Composers’ Hub 2016:17

Much of my recent music has taken its cue from the imagery around me, in visual art, folklore and in the environment around us; I like the idea that a piece of music, dealing solely in sounds and silences can evoke a sense of place, colour, time and space. There’s nothing new in that. However, I also believe that in attaching specific images to the music they create, a composer gains the power to impart a political message to its audience. For example, my solo piano piece The Palace of Light (2016) evokes the image of light shining through translucent paving slabs to an underground toilet used by criminalised gay men as a meeting place for anonymous sex. The refracted light, pavement and dingy toilet become, through their translation into music, allegories for the way our society treated – and continues to treat – minority identities.

When, in October of last year, the RSNO asked me – along with my four colleagues on Composers’ Hub 16:17 – to write a new orchestral work which dealt with the theme of war, my immediate port of call was to search for an image which could both translate into a piece of music in its own right, as well as impart an important message about the needlessness and cruelty of war, and our relationship with it. Among the roughly 2.6 million words of the Chilcot Report may have been an unlikely place to find it.

"SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: What were your views of the final report of Duelfer's?
SIS4: Sunt lacrimae rerum, really.
SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Would you like to elaborate?
SIS4: I think it says it all.
SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: All right. We will stop there.
THE CHAIRMAN: Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore. Shall we break for ten minutes?
SIS4: Yes, that would be lovely.

(A short break)”

The above quote appeared on my Facebook timeline at around the same time that I was starting to think about how this piece might take shape, and comes directly from the witness transcripts that support Lord Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry. In it, Sir Freedman asks SIS4 (a pseudonym used to protect the identity of a high-ranking MI6 official) for his thoughts on the findings of Duelfer report, the 2004 CIA report which found that Saddam Hussain had no capability to develop nuclear weapons – the key rationale behind the decision to invade Iraq the previous year.

SIS4’s response comes from Virgil’s Aeneid and literally translates as there are tears for things’. After his refusal to elaborate further, the chairman replies with his own quote from the Aeneid, ‘tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore’, or, ‘their hands outstretched in yearning for the other shore’.

"to those dim shores the multitude streams on,
mothers and husbands and unbreathing forms
of high-souled heroes, boys and virgins,
and strong youth at whose graves their parents mourned:
as numberless the throng as leaves that fall
when autumn's early frost is on the grove
or like vast flocks of birds,
by winter's chill sent flying over wide seas to lands of flowers.
all stood beseeching to begin their voyage,
their hands outstretched in yearning for the other shore."

In this passage, Virgil describes the journey taken by the war dead – in this case, those of the Trojan war – across the mythological river Acheron in their search for eternal rest in the underworld. I found these words, as he describes this mass of people desperately reaching out for their own peace, utterly captivating, and I feel that this image provides a powerful parallel for all political endeavour; hands eternally stretched out towards an unreachable goal.

As such, I wanted to incorporate this imagery into the gestures, rhythms and cadences of the piece I was to write. This is reflected in the finished work’s overarching structure: over twelve minutes the piece takes the listener on a journey from the incredibly distant percussion material which opens the piece to the tumultuous and violent writing which brings the piece to its eventual close.

I also chose to build the piece’s structure on gradually increasing terraced tempo indications, from an almost painfully slow start to a frantic, wild finish. This structure was initially used to reflect the endless yearning of the dead as described in the Aeneid, however, on reflection, I now realise that this also reflects an increasing frustration that I felt while writing the piece: in the 5 or so months that I spent working on it, we experienced unprecedented turmoil and uncertainty in global politics.  I experienced – and was not alone in doing so – an incredible amount of anger and frustration at the apparent regression of the political climate during these months, and it’s because of this, I feel, that this piece started to develop a distinctly violent language that is absent in much of my previous work. There was a somewhat cathartic element to the process I went through in writing this piece, and I hope that, in the elemental gesturalism that defines much of the writing, a listener can hear not only my own political frustrations but also of those described by Virgil, by Chilcot and beyond.

Ultimately, it may be naïve to suggest that, as a composer sitting in his kitchen, writing notes on a page, that I can in any way enact the political change that I want to see in the world. However, if I can – and I believe I can – place in a listener’s mind an image, transport them somewhere they’ve never been before, I believe I can then in some way shape the way they see the world and offer a new perspective on the way they live their lives. And if I have that ability, then I see it not only as my job but as my duty to do just that.

Robert Allan's new composition 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.