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Peter Wells is tutor of recorder at the Queen's University of Belfast, the University of Ulster, and Maynooth College of the National University of Ireland. He specialises in the performance of contemporary music. Very special thanks to Miriam Rainsford for organizing this article and for providing mp3's crow opening mp3 crow middle mp3 crow ending mp3
Peter G. R. Wells
The Recorder in Contemporary Irish Music:
Crow (1999) by Benjamin Dwyer
Mentioning the music of Ireland to most people brings forth images of"a bit of a diddly-dee" around a few (sic) pints of Guiness. The Guiness is certainly an accurate part of the picture, but recent years have seen a remarkable surge of creativity and output from contemporary Irish composers who view themselves much more in the mainstream of Western European Modernism than in an isolated national situation, however rich its folk music history may be.
The number of recent works making considerable demands on the player and listener is still few in number, but not without interest. Over the past few years the present writer has sought to begin the creation of a corpus of serious contemporary recorder music of professional performance level. This project is on-going with new developments and several more commissions currently under discussion. The principal criterion in any of these commissions has been that works be of a seriousness and substance without concessions to the supposed limitations of the recorder. Beyond that, composers have been justify entirely free to write what they want, with no obligation imposed being imposed to create music aimed at a particular audience of any kind. The first two composers commissioned (both with financial assistance from The Arts Council of Ireland/An Chormhairle Ealafon) were Benjamin Dwyer and Siobha'n Cleary. The latter's "Petering Out" (2000) for Sopranino and Live Electronics will be discussed in a later issue.
Benjamin Dwyer - Crow (1999) - for amplified Tenor Recorder and Tape
Ben Dwyer first heard the present writer playing contemporary Japanese recorder music in the vast acoustic of Belfast Cathedral in 1996 and was immediately fascinated by the possibilities of the instrument. One of the first suggestions that he made for a new recorder work was to take the traditional idea of the recorder's associations with bird song and adapt this to a newer, darker vision of black birds. A sense of the performer being overwhelmed by complexity seemed to be an idea that appealed in our early discussions and suggestions were made of using recorders, the player's voice reciting poetic texts and percussive instruments, to build up a multi-layered and highly complex structure of great virtuosity. As these ideas grew, the addition of a narrator was also considered
Then, towards the end of 1998, Ted Hughes, the poet laureate, died, and the composer decided that he wanted to make the new work, not necessarily an "in memoriam", but at least an homage to this tremendously influential poet. The black birds idea led inevitably to Hughes' 1970 collection From the Life and Songs of the Crow1and added a new dimension of emotion to the work. The narrator and the percussion were abandoned and a more paired down, dark sound world of recorder pitted against electronic tape was envisaged. The imagery of the poetic cycle is powerful and bleak. Hughes himself said "In our time the heroic struggle is not to become a hero but to remain a living creature simply"2
Hughes attempted to address the violence of the modern world by using the emblem of the crow. It is black, solitary and non-musical. It is an eater of carrion and so is dependent on death and destruction.3 The violent nature of this existence, and the bleakness of so much of Hughes' vision of history and the future (especially his use of apocalyptic or post-nuclear imagery) have coloured the musical response of the composer. Allied to this is the traditional association of recorders with death, and the pagan quality that can be created in the recorder sound. In particular the opening poem's ritualistic repetitions influenced the character of the tape part, and the overall sense of darkness.
'Black was the without eye
Black the within tongue
Black was the heart
Black the liver, Black the lungs
Unable to suck in light.
Black the blood in its loud tunnel
Black the bowels packed in furnace
Black too the muscles
Striving to pull out into light
Black the nerves, Black the brain
With its tombed visions
Black also the soul, the huge stammer
Of the cry that, swelling, could not
Pronounce its sun'4
The other main material of inspiration came in the form of the anonymous text of the John Dowland song 'In Darkness Let Me Dwell'
'In darkness let me dwell, the ground shall sorrow be,
The roof despair to bar all cheerful light from me,
The walls of marble black that moisten'd still shall weep,
My music hellish jarring sounds, to banish friendly sleep.
Thus wedded to my woes, and bedded to my tomb,
O, let me, living, living die, till death do come'
While the Hughes poems provide the overall mood, much of the musical material in the recorder part is based on the Dowland song. The work divides roughly into four sections. The first is quasi~improvisational in nature but with phrases based on fragments of the Dowland song. Ex 1 shows the first three notes of the song and two transformations of this material in the recorder part.
Another fragment takes a series of notes from Dowland and transforms each of these into a specific event. It is important to realise that, at this stage, the musical material of the Dowland song is not intended to be recognisable as such, but a reverse development process will change this in the final section of the piece, as we shall see.
The second section builds in intensity through a long scale rising chromatically. This is made of figures placed in boxes, which can serve as material to be repeated, or improvised around, for a given length of time. Each semitone rise is marked by a percussive (gun shot) sound in the tape part. (See Ex 4.) As this section progresses the recorder part explores more and more of the extreme high register and, in combination with the amplification (discussed later) and the addition of a range of vocalisations, creates an extremely dramatic effect building to a central climax.
Section three marks a complete change of character. Gone is the frantic struggle and the violent, oppressive style. This is replaced by a vision of desolation in which the recorder part is largely free pitched; using various glissandi on the finger holes, and pitch variations with labium vibrato. The Dowland song fragments transfer to the tape part, where the melodic shape of the original song becomes more apparent.
The final section takes the first three phrase fragments of the Dowland song and sets them as a quasi-organum (the voice of the player singing the same phrases a perfect fifth below the recorder).
In addition to this melodic use of the voice, the player is required to vocalise certain sounds, both simultaneously with recorder sound and as voice only. These, the composer states, are to "add a new set of timbral sounds to the music and heighten the dramatic nature of the music"5 The vocal sounds employed are as follows:
1. 'SHHHH' ff with glissando
2. 'CHAAA' fff
3. 'HAAA' sffz with glissando
4. 'SSSS, ff with glissando
The dramatic impact of these sudden vocalisations is made the greater by the absence of the recorder sound in them, as the effect of the instrumental musician coming out from behind the protective barrier of the instrument makes for a more immediate challenge to a listener's perceptions of instrumental music. Many of these devices were employed after discussions between composer and performer, allowing the composer to adopt an approach of asking "what would happen if you....?" and being able to observe at first hand the impact of certain effects. This has had the result that extended techniques, where they do occur are used in the sure knowledge of what effect they will have, rather than being used for their own sake.
The prospect of playing with electronics is one which sends a shiver down the spine of many recorder players, redolent as it is with images of over serious black polo necks earnestly sitting through long stretches of the most peculiar noises with no apparent musical content. In this day and age we have, however, seen such an increase in the speed and capability of electronic music processing ... next page
1 Crow: from the Life and Songs of the Crow', 1970, Faber and Faber Ltd, London
2 Leonard Baskin (from an introduction to an exhibition in London in 1962) reprinted in Ekbert Faas, 'Ted Hughes: the Unaccomodated Universe', Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, p167.
3 Benjamin Dwyer, 'The compositions of Benjamin Dwyer' PhD Thesis, The Queen's University of Belfast, 2000, p 150.
4 'Crow - from the Life and Songs of the Crow' ibid p.1
5 Benjamin Dwyer, 'The compositions of Benjamin Dwyer' ibid p.167