Insects play an important role in human imagination and mythology. Each culture has its own repertoire of insect legends and, although these are more prevalent in indigenous or traditional cultures than among industrialised societies, they often share themes that bridge the cultural and temporal divide.
Everyone in the West knows the song about an old lady who swallowed a fly (perhaps she’ll die) but in Japan, twelve species of musical insects with evocative names such as Small Bell, Bamboo Grove, or Grass Lark are sold as good luck charms. Usually however, the associations are negative ones as in Chile, where the praying mantis is known as the Devil's Horse, or in Madagascar, where people are frightened by moths, believing them to be ghosts. My favourite is the legend that the Lantern Beetle's sting will kill you unless you make love within the next 24 hours - a perfect excuse if one were needed - even though this insect has no trace of a stinger…
Western literature has tended to play on people’s phobias about insects and exploited their association with spreading pestilence. Sartre’s Les Mouches, a three-act play telling the same story as Sophocles' Electra, introduces flies as a metaphor for ever-present decay and death, but it is Kafka’s tale The Metamorphosis, with its powerful use of the insect form as a metaphor for the alienation and loss of self that Gregor Samsa feels as he transforms into a fly, which resonates most strongly. This piece follows the first realisation of that transformation, the electronics serving to amplify and distort the timbre of the oboe, like seeing a familiar object under a microscope.
LA CITTÀ INVISIBILE
Commissioned for the opening of the Turin Festival, La Città Invisibile brought together a classical chamber orchestra and four musical groups from the ethnically diverse population of the city. Each group initially played in separate spaces around the foyer of the Teatro Regio, allowing listeners to wander round and experience each type of music individually, before all the groups combined on stage to create an electrifying performance.
Strom by Second Citizen is a collaboration between Cameron Sinclair and Angus Farquhar from the ground-breaking industrial music group Test Dept. A series of hypnotic electronic tracks are dubbed and mixed live with a giant marimba in a whirlwind of polyrhythmic intensity, with images created in real time by feedback from sensors on the mallets and notes.
To the ancient Greeks, all natural phenomena were a manifestation of the divine. Elements of nature were merely the visible embodiment of the many deities contained within and the mythological nymphs Oreiades were the spirits of trees, woods, groves and mountain forests.
The opening of the piece brings the woody warmth of a marimba together with the resonance of a piano in its lowest register to create a dark, mysterious texture. Gradually, the movement becomes more capricious, reflecting the pursuit of the oreiad Pitys by Pan, god of the mountain wilds, nature and rustic music. She rejects his advances and is transformed into a pine tree.
Throughout the piece the marimba and piano are closely intertwined with phrases being foreshadowed and echoed and the sustain of the piano amplifies the resonance of the marimba. The word ‘echo’ comes from the story of the oreiad Ekho, who was condemned only to repeat the words of others. After rejection by the self-obsessed youth Narcissus, she fled back to the mountains where she faded away, leaving only the faint remnants of her voice behind.
Shifting Sands was composed immediately after Funk Loops and uses similar forces in a stark minimalist style. It opens mysteriously with free-floating sounds that outline the main melodic material of the piece before the piece is propelled into a motoric section with close canons and tight interlocking patterns.
THE SECRET OF THE UNIVERSE
The Secret of the Universe is a setting for choir and ensemble of a poem by Edward Dowden (1843 - 1913), which describes his experience of watching Whirling Dervishes and imagining himself taking part in their spinning ritual, bringing him closer to the central point of existence.
'Spin as all things spin, as time and space spin off into immensity and the finite into infinity, I spin...'
Opening with a bold statement from a solo violin, the first section builds up short fragmentary vocal phrases in close canon, in a process of continual variation. Melodies and harmonies created by the shifting canons are traced in the violin line and given further variations in a style influenced by folk-fiddling.
Throughout the piece the voices sing only a single syllable, until the final bars culminate in an exclamation of joy with an ecstatic Alleluia.
De Angelis is a re-composition of an antiphon by the 11th century Abbess Hildegard von Bingen. The text, like all her writings, is almost expressionistic in tone and the soaring vocal lines, which exhibit an extraordinarily wide tessitura, heighten the mystical imagery of the words.
Dramatic intensity reaches its zenith during the words, 'perdito angelo, qui volare voluit supra intus latens pinnaculum Dei, unde ipse tortuosus' [the lost angel, who wished to fly above the hidden inner pinnacle of God, plunged into ruin], where the full choir, hitherto singing long pedal notes, takes over a fully harmonised version of the plainchant, while the soprano soloist soars above the texture.
In this re-writing, I have also added bells to ring the harmonic changes and a solo violin as an independent voice, separate from the singers. Its music, derived from the plainchant, winds itself around the vocal lines, the timbre adding a passionate intensity to the disembodied purity of the voices.