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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lancaster

The Best of Times.

Updated: Jan 2

The last couple of months of 2023 has been an amazing time for me, with so much going on, and I felt the need to set a few words down while it is all still fresh in the memory...

Travelling to Milan on 1st November now seems such a long time ago, but the performance of ‘Canzone Sospesa’ at the Teatro Dal Varme, given by Giorgio Lucchini (cello) and Marta Ceretta (piano) was so utterly compelling it will remain with me for a very long time. I met with them for rehearsal on Wednesday morning, when they already showed that they had developed a stylish, fluent reading of my piece that demonstrated a complete understanding of this complex music; their performance on the Thursday evening was utterly definitive! The ‘Canzone’ is a darkly brooding piece with angry outbursts and a ‘song’ that only emerges in fragmentary form towards the end of the piece, high in the cello harmonics. The tempo is constant, however the music sometimes seems to rush relentlessly forwards, whilst elsewhere the rhythmic momentum appears to be suddenly suspended, hanging in mid-air, hence the title. You can hear their performance here.

Under normal circumstances we might have stayed in Italy for a few days and explored other sights nearby, but on Saturday 4th November there was another first performance to attend back in York. I’ve been working on a ‘Dylan Thomas project’ for more than a year, collaborating with Prof. John Goodby, a poet in his own right and a leading authority on Dylan Thomas, to mark the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the poet’s death and to coincide with the publication of John Goodby’s new biography of Thomas. My setting of ‘The force that through the green fuse’ was one of seven new song settings of Thomas’ words, performed by Chris O’Gorman (tenor) and David Pipe (piano) in their recital at Late Music, along with songs from Philip Grange, Sadie Harrison, Hayley Jenkins and Rhian Samuel.  ‘The force…’ appealed to my sense of the elemental: like ‘Canzone Sospesa’ this is all about the passing of time, that enables us to grow, develop and mature but which ultimately results in our demise. It’s about our place in the natural world but also our inability to communicate with that world and to alter our place within it. So my song is by turn both declamatory and reflective, and in the piano we hear the ticking of clocks and the tolling of bells. Interestingly both these pieces were completed while I was in Aulus-les-Bains, high in the Pyrenees, during a week at Gavin Bryars’ retreat for composers, and whilst they are musically completely different the underlying themes are very closely allied. We are very much hoping for further performances of the Dylan Thomas recital and a CD recording in the summer of 2024, for which I will be adding a further song.  You can hear ‘The force that through the green fuse’ here.

The third piece to be performed in November was a completely different proposition altogether, and something of an experiment for me. Back in 2018 Emily Rowan had encouraged me to visit the ‘Lady and Unicorn’ tapestries that hang in the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris. I was a little reluctant at first because I thought I already knew since they are relatively well-known, but on seeing them for real I discovered that the six huge tapestries, hung together in a darkened room, provided an almost cathartic, powerfully immersive experience. Determined to create a musical response to that experience I sought appropriate texts and found medieval poems in archaic French by Thibaut de Champagne, and I set these (in modern translation) for soprano and clarsach, and also recorded them in their original language to incorporate into a fixed-media electronic track; singer and linguist Merit Ariane made the recordings for me and I developed them into multilayered soundscape interludes to play between the live songs. I also discovered texts by Rainer Maria Rilke which introduce and describe the six tapestries individually, so these are read on stage by a live narrator. Most of this work was begun in 2019 and completed during the ‘lockdowns’ of 2020 and 2021, which meant that the business of arranging a performance took much longer than anticipated. My friend Rachel Davies provided excellent advice on writing for harp/clarsach throughout the process, and encouraged me to keep working towards a performance in spite of all the external factors; I was delighted that Emily Rowan agreed to be the narrator. The songs required a soprano with a pure, expressive voice, and my colleague Sarah-Jane Gibson proved to be the perfect interpreter. I introduced the performance of ‘A Mon Seul Desir’ (in the Creative Centre at York St John University on November 8th) and then the trio of performers gave a sensitive, utterly spellbinding performance, illustrated by projections of the tapestries. It was so different for me, not so much because of the subject matter (I have a long-standing interested in the medieval world) but the modal writing enforced by the clarsach, the use of electronic soundscapes, the multimedia presentation, and the vastly more collaborative approach to creating the work were all unfamiliar territory in the context of my other recent pieces. Further performances (and hopefully a video recording) will follow, but for now you can hear that live recording here.

My miraculous month didn’t end there either: on Sunday 19th November the CSD Brass directed by Christopher Lawrence included two of my brass band pieces, ‘La Mourisque’ and ‘Orfeo!’ (both of which are responses to early music) in their excellent programme in Cambridge. Just a couple of days later I received in the post the latest CD recording from the Delta Saxophone Quartet which includes their superlative recording of ‘Renaissance’ (my ‘prayer for rebirth’ composed during the months of the first lockdown in 2020) which is part of a superb collection of new music that will surely attract great critical acclaim and reach the ears of new audiences. The studio recording is great but for that you’ll need to buy the CD! Here is their live performance of ‘Renaissance’.

Meanwhile my other CD release of the autumn, the vocal/choral ‘Apocalypse’ recording on Resonus Classics received its first formal review, courtesy of the British Music Society. You can read it here, and needless to say, I was very happy to read such a perceptive and detailed review, written by someone who clearly understands what the music was attempting to do.

Good times continued into December, with Jonathan Sage’s scintillating performance of ‘Jump Cut’ at Late Music, and a sensitive performance of my carol ‘Lully Lullay’ by the SSA forces of the University Choir, in the awesome setting of York Minster.

A composer’s life can be something of a rollercoaster with significant highs and lows, but I will certainly remember the performances of November 2023 for a long time to come, not only because there were so many in such a short space of time, but because of the sheer quality and the level of understanding and sensitivity demonstrated by these amazing performers.




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