Basho in Helsinki

BashoI have a well-worn copy of the poetry and travel sketches of Basho, a book I bought from a second-hand shop when I was a student. I’ve always enjoyed his style of writing – concise, clear, and crystalline – because it resonates with the way I approach composing. So I was delighted to recently be commissioned to write a short series of harpsichord pieces for a theatre/music production that is concerned with ‘Meditations on Sound, Space, and Body’. This event will, in part, be based around the poems of Basho, and an earlier harpsichord piece of mine, Admiring Yoro Waterfall, will also be included amongst the music.

The harpsichordist in question is the brilliant Assi Karttunen – whose recordings of Froberger and Rameau I’ve really enjoyed listening to – and she is collaborating with Petra Frey (actress), Jone Takamäki (musician and sound engineer) and Pauliina Hulkko (director). They’ve worked together before on other projects.

Admiring Yoro Waterfall was based on a woodblock print by Hokusai, and the music is very much to do with perception: the sound of the waterfall gradually emerging into the piece before fading away at the end. The new compositions are called Present-Past-Future-Present, and in a slightly different way they explore the question of how we perceive the things around us, both as physical objects as well as the contents of our own minds. This can be immediately heard in the opening piece, Present (subtitled, ‘The Road’) in which a strictly paced ‘walking’ motif periodically appears and disappears, being intercut with episodic material that is freer in nature; the mind flickers between outside reality and inner reflection. Past and Future expand fragments of material that were heard in the opening piece, before returning to the walking motif at the end.

It’s always tricky writing music that has a specific cultural connotation – in this case, Japanese culture. In trying to establish a link with the subject matter, whilst not sounding crassly ‘oriental’, I’ve returned somewhat to the musical language of Admiring Yoro Waterfall. But at the same time, the experience of composing the two White Books for piano (2002 and 2008) gave me an opportunity to develop my keyboard writing in different and richer directions, and this shows in this new work for Assi. Within these three pieces the differing harmonic colours unfold in counterpoint against each other, resolving into an overall balance that has no real sense of linear progression. Things change, but without direction or implicit meaning.

Assi and Pauliina will be giving a presentation at Surrey University in April – as part of the conference ‘What is Performance Philosophy? Staging a new field’ – and both Present-Past-Future-Present, and Admiring Yoro Waterfall, will be played then. The first performance of the complete production will take place in September in the new Helsinki Music Centre, followed by other venues.

 

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