I first heard the Albany Piano Trio in 2014 when they presented a programme comprising only the work of female composers. I was immediately struck by their attention to detail and the precision of their ensemble playing, but also by the sensitivity and deeper impression of musical understanding in their performances. So I was naturally delighted when they were invited to present a concert in the 2016 Late Music series and that I was commissioned to write a new piece for them.
Many composers have recorded that they have found piano trios especially difficult to write because the sheer power of the piano can dominate the ensemble (although this was never a problem with the Albany Trio); for me the problem was compounded because - just before beginning work on the trio - I completed writing the commentary on my PhD composition portfolio which amounted to a sort of ‘manifesto’ about my work, setting out my aims and intentions. Clearly the new piece had to meet the very detailed criteria I had set for myself!
That commentary documented my interest in film, and specifically the possibility of adopting techniques employed by film makers in my compositional practice; for example I use ‘montage’ (sticking short pieces together) to suggest the possibility of two things seemingly taking place simultaneously, and I explore different types of transition, from soft ‘crossfades’ to more brutal ‘smash cuts’ (to borrow from film jargon), in order to manipulate the expressive potential of the music by controlling the rate of change between musical ideas. In Hiraeth there are just two basic musical types and it was my intention to alternate them to create the impression that they are taking place simultaneously, whereas in reality they are only ever heard individually. The first is fast, loud and angular and it generally occurs in short, explosive outbursts; it is subjected to variation, transformation and distortion, and the shortness of the sections seems to suggest that we are only ever hearing a short fragment of a much bigger thing, but we can never hear it all at once. On the other hand, the second musical idea is slow and soft, consisting of longer sections which grow organically from a single note into a chord sequence and ultimately into a long lament, in the final, extended coda.
Hiraeth is a Welsh word for which there is no direct English equivalent, but it suggests a sense of longing or loss for a person, place or time which no longer exists, or perhaps never existed at all. The title arrived quite late in the process of creating the piece but seemed entirely appropriate in terms of the searching, consciously nostalgic quality of the final moments.
The performance by the Albany Trio was powerful and intense; it was clear to me (and probably everyone else in the audience!) that they had fully embraced the concept behind the music and that they were able to articulate it clearly in their playing. The final bars were truly spine-tingling!