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10

Four Archetypes

for large orchestra

Composed: Cambridge, December-July 1993

Commissioned by the Cambridge-Heidelberg-Montpelier Orchestra with funds provided by Eastern Arts

Performed: Fanfares only - August 1993, West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge

 

10.1 Composition

The composition of Four Archetypes was begun immediately following the completion of Three Pieces for Two Pianos. I had first learned about the commission in June/July 1992, so a number of ideas were already in my mind before work began in earnest.

The basic form of what was to become the first piece of the four had been in my mind since about 1987. During a walk in the Durham Dales, I had a sudden and distinct realisation of the vastness of the landscape: large, rolling, barren hills disappearing into the distance. This landscape felt as if it were one huge texture; every now and then, a sudden flash of a car window, a bird, another person; something that appeared and disappeared very quickly, seen in the corner of the eye, hardly affecting the landscape. This formed the opening idea of what became Fanfares. A further, later influence was from a rock song: Money for Nothing, by the band Dire Straits. At the opening of this song, a sustained texture is gradually energized and eventually overcome by a series of percussion 'breaks', at first short and widely separated, becoming gradually more dense until a vast concatenation of percussion leads into the main part of the song.

Originally the piece was to be called Acts. This was an oblique reference to the Act of Worship broadcast on Sunday morning on BBC Radio 4 for as long as I can remember. I still have plans to write a piece using this title, evoking a delightfully formal approach to a potentially profound spiritual happening. Acts was to be in one movement, with the Fanfares music opening the piece. The second idea was originally based around a set of brass and woodwind Calls resembling, at least to begin with, a sort of orchestra of Tibetan mountain horns (or at least what I thought this would sound like). This, again, was an idea that I had wanted to use for some time: about two years before it had reached semi-fruition in an eventually abandoned piece for ten-piece brass ensemble.

These calls were to give way to a faster, more substantial section, Dances. After a climactic passage, there was to be a coda: a prestissimmo and exuberant Jamboree.

This form was abandoned towards the end of April, when a hectic consultation with Professor Casken convinced me of a number of problems in the piece.

As there was a time problem, the obvious solution was to cut the piece into different short movements broadly resembling the original version. The Calls, one of the main problem areas, were excised entirely, to be replaced by Dirges, and a finale was added including a brief recapitulation of the Fanfares, moving to a prestissimmo, Jamboree coda.

In the Introduction above the use of 'generic' titles was mentioned, and along with Three Pieces, this piece encapsulates many of those ideas. As the titles are 'generic', the pieces they refer to are not specifically fanfares, or dirges, or dances, but they make use of the archetypal idea of those activities. So, the Dances are not specific dances, but the piece was composed with the idea of dancing and dancers in mind. Ironically, the one movement which could not be associated with a particular 'activity' was the last one, not least because it was split, involving elements of two of the previous movements before launching into the jamboree coda, and yet in this respect it was the 'archetypal' form of the nineteenth-century finale.

 

10.2 Analysis

Unlike any other piece in the portfolio, the four movements of Four Archetypes are not linked in any way, other than the literal or near-literal repeats that occur at the beginning of the Finale. At present I am unable to ascertain whether this represents a particularly different method of composition, a new direction, or merely an extension of previous work. Certainly during the compositional process, I felt more 'free' than during the composition of any other piece, in the sense that I did not construct so many tables, or rows, or the like. Far more of the music was written 'off the top of the head'.

One reason for this is probably because of the relatively short length of each of the movements, (by far the longest, at about five minutes, is Dirges, the others are each between two and four minutes long), and their widely differing moods. Also, the piece was written with the 'help' of a sequencer and synthesizer, although I used few if any of the more 'creative' procedures mentioned above with regard to Three Pieces for Two Pianos.

The forms of three of the movements: Fanfares, Dirges and Finale, are very simple. Dances is little more complex, but it is different.

10.2.1 Fanfares

This movement is simply two 'fanfares' linked together, (one primarily for brass, the second a sort of woodwind 'texture'), and a coda at the end which provides a transition into the second movement. The piece is primarily an introduction to the rest of the piece - quite literally, an opening fanfare.

The first chord is the third-based twelve-tone chord also used at the beginning of Shilbottle Cobbles (ex 1:35a), only here it is far more effective on heavily divided strings. The fact that the piece was to be played by a youth orchestra, in which the strings are often one of the main problem areas in terms of both confidence and uniform ability in performance was one of the main reasons this idea was used in the first place: giving them a large span of music on little more than one note would, it was hoped, both be easy to play and increase confidence for some of the horrors to come, (the realities of these solipsisms are judged in more detail below). The opening chord, which contains very strong tonal elements although twelve-tone, provides quite a lot of the harmonic basis for the movement, (for instance, the 'woodwind fanfares' from figure 7 are based on the chord). This too, I thought, would help in performance.

The ppp string chord at figure 11, formally a 'diatonic' reflection of the opening chord was inspired by a moment in Stockhausen's Kontakte. As in Three Pieces, this was an 'interpretation' of an electro-acoustic texture. Originally, in the piece Acts, this chord and variants on it were to take a much more important part in the piece. As it is, this is its only appearance in Four Archetypes.

10.2.2 Dirges

This movement is in simple ABA form, where A is a slow-moving dirge in which two ideas are contrasted: the first is disjointed and isolated, the second a set of sustained notes, each joining together in a violent outburst. This pair of ideas is repeated twice, growing each time, until a burst of movement at figure 5. This is, in fact, a revised version of the semiquaver outburst at figure 32 of the Fugues in Three Pieces for Two Pianos.

This leads into the B section, where undulating figures are passed around the orchestra. This texture was deliberately chosen as a complete contrast to the above. Here, the texture is smooth and continuous rather than disjointed and varied. A large climax leads to an abbreviated recapitulation of the A section.

10.2.3 Dances

The first couple of pages contain all the material used in the piece. The first (ex 10:1), is a highly rhythmic, non-harmonic idea. The second, at figure 2 in the score, hides a slower melodic line under a texture of percussion, harp and string pizzicato quaver movement, (ex 10:2). Ex 10:1 returns in a variety of guises across the orchestra until figure 7, where the melody of ex 10:2 returns much more explicitly. The actual melody is given in ex 10.4. The ex 10:2 material is not simply a textural contrast, it introduces the duplet into the texture. This use of duplet movement, of two against three (three against four, etc.), becomes increasingly important through the movement. At figure 10 a new section begins, with a new, rhythmic melody in the flute and bassoon, and trill-like responses on strings. Throughout the section from figure 10-15, these two elements alternate, gradually developing and influencing each other. By figure 18, the two part flute and bassoon melody at figure 10 has grown into a ten-part version for the whole woodwind choir. The duplet influence increases towards figure 20-21, where the whole texture becomes dominated by quadruplets. The texture again builds, this time to an orchestral tutti at figure 26. Here ex 10:4 is combined in a number of ways. The brass play a four-part version of the theme, (ex 10:5), the woodwind another version above this, and the strings play the theme and its harmonies in half-time. A coda at figure 27 creates a similar texture from ex 10:1. Here, the piccolo plays an original ex 10:1-type theme, and below it, a number of versions in a variety of augmentations, (ex 10:6a - h). So, flute 3, oboe 1 and clarinet 1 play the same thing at half-speed. The cor anglais and clarinet 2 play the theme backwards. The bass clarinet and second bassoon play this theme triple augmented, and so on... At the very bottom, the tuba, basses and contra-bassoon play the piccolo's theme seven times more slowly. This violent coda leads directly into the Finale...

10.2.4 Finale

As has been noted above, Finale opens with a passage from Dirges (figure 15), leading to a re-working of the opening of Fanfares. The music is not identical: the string chord is worked slightly differently, the woodwind, percussion and harp are slightly changed, but most importantly, the brass fanfares themselves have given way to long sustained notes. The woodwind fanfares from figure 7 of the first movement are at figure 5 'transposed' into the percussion and harp, now accompanying a slow flute solo, recapitulating the flute solo from figure 11 of the same.

This solo leads into the presto Jamboree coda. This is quite openly a jeu d'esprit. the material contains little or no relevance to the rest of the piece, the logic being that the previous passages recapitulate the piece as a whole, leaving the stage free for the Jamboree. This is notable if only because of its frighteningly fast speed, and because the music is entirely white, the first time I have ever used such a technique. Although the detail is fast, the movement is because of the music whiteness, almost entirely static. Above it was described how my compositional method might be compared to map-making, initially from an aircraft and gradually focussing on in on the various areas in greater and greater detail. Here, the process could have speeded up: the music could be that of a huge celebration heard first from some distance before it gradually approaches. At figure 11 we find ourselves momentarily in the epicentre before we pass and the music gradually disappears into the distance.

 

10.3 Meta-Global Elements

There are only two elements used in Archetypes that are taken explicitly from previous pieces. The first is the twelve-tone, third-based chord that opens this piece and Shilbottle Cobbles. The other is the passage at figure 5 of Dirges, which is quite consciously taken from the Fugues of Three Pieces. The absence of any more substantial element of self-reference is, I think, an indication of a change of emphasis and direction in my composition that has been occurring gradually over the last few years since I left Charterhouse.

 

10.4 Influences

A number of direct influences have already been mentioned above. A full list would include the opening of Stockhausen's Trans, which influences the opening of Fanfares. The moment from Kontakte which was used as the basis for the chord at figure 11 of the same movement. There are, I think, elements of Messiaen's Turangalila in the build up from figure 14 of Dirges. Finally, there is a conscious element of Pipers Lynn, by Professor Casken in the Jamboree. (I believe the word itself was used in relation to the closing passage of the piece during a radio broadcast some years ago.) Apart from these moments, I cannot see many other influences, maybe because the only other profound influence on Archetypes is my own previous music. So, the flute and bassoon melody at figure 10 of Dances reminds me of the flute and bassoon homophonic duet in the slow introduction of Only Connect. The section on Meta-Global elements above includes a couple more of these.

 

10.5 Judgement

On a primary level the piece was a complete failure. Having worked on it virtuously continuously, (on one or other of its forms), for the best part of six months, the orchestra for whom it was written proved utterly incapable of playing it. I had been informed that the orchestra was to have comprised students of an instrumental standard between Associated Board Grades 6 and 8, and although there were some very competent students, the vast majority of woodwind and brass were very poor. Also, of the latter group, only one horn instead of three and one trombone instead of three trombones and a tuba were provided. It very quickly became very obvious that performance of more than one of the four movements was impossible. An initial attempt at Dances resulted in a one hour rehearsal spent trying to make the poor players understand what the rhythms were supposed to sound like. The whole experience was a rather depressing anti-climax to a very intensive period of work.

However, the piece is difficult, and ultimately the responsibility for 'performability' must rest with the composer, even if he or she is to some extent mis-informed about the resources available. In the end, we were able to give a passable performance of Fanfares in the circumstances, given the absence of nearly half the brass section and the lack of competence of those who were there. This merely emphasised a problem that will be discussed in greater detail below, that is the problem of writing 'educational' music, especially in the context of a PhD portfolio.

Needless to say, I was very disappointed not to have had a decent performance of any of the piece, and the experience of performing Fanfares was coloured by the need for survival, that is getting to the end without stopping.

If these depressing circumstances are put aside, and although because of the remit of the commission I felt slightly constrained in what I could and couldn't do, (although, of course, in the event, it wouldn't really have mattered), I like the piece a great deal. I think that displays a freedom of production that Three Pieces showed, but in Archetypes this is quite a lot stronger. The language is complex, but the gestures and forms are some of the simplest I have ever used. As well as this, I feel the piece works as a whole, without vast passages of internal references. And although I feel a little ambivalent about the Jamboree, I think that in context and being such a short episode it works very well. I am quite pleased with the piece.