On Strike!

May 31, 2015

 

May proved to be a busy month, as usual.  ‘Strike’ (for flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello and piano) received its UK premiere at the National Centre for Early Music on Saturday 2nd May as part of University of York’s Spring Festival of New Music.  It was a meticulous and detailed performance, given by the Dark Inventions Ensemble, directed by Chris Leedham.  It was good to catch up with Philip Cashian, whose powerful work (called Dark Inventions) was also on the programme that evening.  A couple of days earlier the first performance of ‘Strike’ had been given in Hong Kong by the AMGA Ensemble, at the Sha Tin Town Hall cultural centre – but sadly I couldn’t make it to that performance!  ‘Strike’ is another of my pieces whose origin is in techniques derived from film making:  it takes its title from the first full-length feature film by Sergei Eisenstein (Stachka), made in 1925 which depicts a strike in 1903 by the workers of a factory in pre-revolutionary Russia and their subsequent suppression.

 

The film is particularly remembered today for a vivid climactic sequence near the end in which the violent conclusion of the strike is cross-cut with footage of cattle being slaughtered.  Eisenstein's influential essay, ‘Montage of Attractions’ (in which he first outlines the concept of montage in film making) was written between Strike's production and its premiere; in this he describes the art and technique of motion picture editing in which contrasting shots or sequences are alternated or immediately juxtaposed to affect emotional or intellectual responses, usually resulting in a quickening of pace or a heightening of dramatic tension in the film. Much of the film is devoted to images of machines and the repetitive toil of heavy industry.  Another theme is collectivism in opposition to individualism, which is reflected in the scoring of my piece in that most of the five instruments are playing for almost the whole duration with few significant rests or solo passages.  Although this music begins with an exposed passage for piccolo it is almost entirely a collective effort where none of the protagonists gain prominence for any extended period.

 

The music is in three main parts: an opening section which contrasts the individual against the collective and explores different types of transition, a softly pulsing second inner part, and an extended ‘montage’ leading to a coda which offers a ‘flashback’ of the opening.

 

‘Strike’ was composed in 2014 (which, coincidentally was the thirtieth anniversary of the miners’ strike in the UK).

 

Also in May music student Michaela Tomanikova performed ‘Metronome’ as part of her second year recital at York St John University; she certainly had the concentration and strength which the music requires, with its relentless repetition and ringing chords, and she showed great understanding of the music’s structure – I hope she plays it again!

 

Later in May I attended a London performance of the Saxophone Quartet ‘Swan’ at the Gresham Centre in London.  This was given by the Lunar Sax Quartet who had originally given the premiere of the work in 2011 and who were reviving the piece for forthcoming concerts.  They are a very dynamic and virtuosic group who gave a vivid musical reading which had me on the edge of my seat throughout!  ‘Swan’ comprises a slow, cool, unfolding solo for soprano sax which is accompanied ppp by the ensemble, leading into a much quicker, driven section in which the whole group is involved in maintaining momentum whilst fragments of melody splinter apart and then link back together to form a crazy dance movement.

 

‘Swan’ has a very special meaning for me but for the moment I think it’s best to be enigmatic…

 

Swans, genus Cygnus, are birds of the family Anatidae, which also includes geese and ducks. Swans are grouped with the closely related geese in the subfamily Anserinae where they form the tribe Cygnini.  The word swan is derived from Old English swan, akin to the German Schwan and Dutch zwaan and Swedish svan, in turn derived from Indo-European root  swen (to sound, to sing), whence Latin derives sonus (sound).

 

The Black Swan Theory (or Theory of Black Swan Events) is a metaphor that encapsulates the concept that the event is a surprise (to the observer) and has a major impact. The theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain firstly the disproportionate role of high-impact, hard to predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance and technology, and secondly the non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities).

 

Leda and the Swan is a motif from Greek mythology in which Zeus came to Leda in the form of a swan.  As the story goes, Zeus took the form of a swan and raped or seduced Leda on the same night she slept with her husband Tyndareus, King of Sparta.  Leda subsequently bore Helen (of Troy) and Polydeuces, who were children of Zeus, while at the same time bearing Castor and Clytemnestra, children of Tyndareus.

 

The silver swan, who living had no note,
When death approach'd, unlock'd her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more.
Farewell, all joys; O Death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.

 

“Jane was characteristically late, around ninety minutes if I remember correctly.  (Apparently it had taken longer than expected to collect the Alfa from the garage).  But then, quite suddenly, there she was: strikingly blonde, voluptuous, elegant and walking slowly towards me.  ‘Miss Swan?’ I tentatively enquired.  She giggled, twinkled her eyes and took my hand…”

 

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