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Breathless and Tlatelolco


The summer of 2016 saw two premieres of new works, both of which took place in York. In June, Tlatelolco (for the unusual ensemble of soprano, cor anglais, bass trombone and marimba, with child flautist) was presented during the Festival of Ideas, and at the beginning of July Breathless received its first performance as part of Late Music’s day of brass.

My colleague at York St John University, Dr Victoria Carpenter, had spoken about the massacre at Tlatelolco during a conference in September 2015, and she introduced me to the poem by Marcela del Rio which Victoria subsequently translated into English. There are so many things we still don't know about the massacre (which took place at Tlatelolco, Mexico, on 2nd October 1968, on the eve of the Olympic Games. The photograph shows the crowd gathering that day to take part in a peaceful demonstration, similar to those happening all around the world in the summer of '68). Even eyewitness accounts differ, and the number of dead and injured when the shooting started remains a mystery to this day. Marcela Del Rios captures something of that ambiguity in her epic poetry which features three clearly distinct voices which alternate throughout: the first voice is a witness to the massacre: a poet, watching from above, high up on the thirteenth floor of the Chihuahua Building (the building with two H’s in its name, according to the text). This voice is spoken by the solo soprano, accompanied only by solemn repeated chords on marimba.

The second voice could well be the poem that she wrote about the massacre, her pensive reflection on the events of that tragic day. This is softly sung by the soprano, an arioso accompanied by the languid lines of a cor anglais and gentle, low rolls on marimba.

The third voice borrows lines from an ancient source; it quotes from the 16th century account by the Aztec informants of Fray Bernardino de Sahagun telling of the Cholula massacre and the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. The parallels with the events of 1968 are made clear. The music varies: sometimes it is angry and violent but elsewhere it is sad and resigned – it features bass trombone in addition to cor anglais and marimba.

I have set the whole poem, virtually uncut, resulting in an extended dramatic 'tour de force' for the solo soprano – but Anna Snow gave a stunning performance in the premiere and I am looking forward to several future performances.

Breathless was composed for brass quintet in the spring of 2016, a commission from Late Music and one of those happy occasions when a request coincides with a piece I wanted to write for myself in any case. The music takes its inspiration from the sculpture by Cornelia Parker which hangs in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, which comprises some fifty brass band instruments which have been compressed flat and which are arranged in a circular design suspended in a space between two floors in the museum. Looking down from above they are polished but from below they are tarnished black; Parker’s work represents the supposed decline of the brass band in Great Britain which is ‘like an anthem that is slowly winding down’ and ‘part of the robustness we used to have’ (Cornelia Parker, from the V&A guide). Her work expresses lots of dualities (light/dark, silence/noise, upper class/lower class…) so my quintet is cast in two movements: Unit which is fast, relentlessly repeating and quite aggressive, and Aria which is dark and lamenting, and which features offstage trumpets playing antiphonally across the lower ensemble which remains seated on stage. Orichalcum Brass Quintet gave the premiere performance as part of an exciting programme of contemporary music for brass quintet.


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© 2012 - 2019 by David Lancaster

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