I’ve never given much consideration to self conscious questions of ‘style’, preferring instead to view each work I write as an individual musical exploration at a particular moment in time. I try to make each piece focus on certain qualities of experience, and the manner in which the notes arrange and model themselves is discovered along the way.
The question of what is being expressed though comes before the language that expresses it. And if I were to sum up the qualities of Trio Cocteau in one word it would ‘lightness’. Not, I hasten to add, ‘light music’ – in the way the term is normally understood – I hope it’s a serious piece, but with an architecture that is unusual.
Although the structure of Trio Cocteau is a conventional fast/slow/fast three movements (played continuously, and lasting just thirteen minutes) the music contained in this structural vessel is like a mosaic; there is no development, organic growth, or tense musical discourse. In the background of some fragments there are echoes of non-classical styles such as tango, flamenco, Parisian café music, or Venezuelan waltzes.
This process means that each fragment relates to its neighbours in a way that is playful, surprising, and sometimes unsettling; the music opens up into different worlds, never resting in one place. These qualities are also evident in the work of Jean Cocteau, and his literature, art and films, have been an influence on me; hence the title of the piece.
At the time I started writing Trio Cocteau I was reading Calvino’s ‘Six Memos for the Next Millennium‘. The first of these is on ‘lightness’, and along with the work of Cocteau it also gave me the insight I needed to structure the music. At one point Calvino compares the poetry of Cavalcanti and Dante, and quotes a sonnet (his translation) by Cavalcanti;
“Beauty of women and of wise hearts, and gentle knights in armour; the song of birds and the discourse of love; bright ships moving swiftly on the sea; clear air where the dawn appears, and white snow falling without wind; stream of water and meadow with every flower; gold, silver, azure in ornaments.”
He compares “and white snow falling without wind” to a line from the Dante’s Inferno;
“As snow falls in the mountains without wind.”
In Dante, Calvino explains, the line creates a metaphor within a sense of place; it is weighted. In Cavalcanti the word ‘and’ puts the snow on the same level as the other images. This levelling of all these beauties of the world allows them to float up – equal, light and free. It was the effect I was looking to create in Trio Cocteau, as no aspect of the musical material dominates, or is generative of other ideas: everything is balanced, and the tension is in the sprung plasticity of movement and the expressive content of each fragment, rather than a weighted musical argument.
Finally, as a warning to those who seek deep significance in all things! – a scene from a Cocteau film…
In Orphée (Cocteau’s reworking of the Orpheus myth, set in post war France) the path to the underworld is through a bedroom mirror. I rather like this curious moment, and wanted Trio Cocteau to have an entry and exit point. In order to do this I had to find a musical ‘object’ that stood outside the rest of the piece, so I randomly chose some chords from a Debussy song, which I then completely re-shaped. These appear at the start, after the cello pizzicati, and again at the end as the piece exits into silence.
The puzzling thing in Orphée is that in order to step through the mirror it’s always necessary to put on rubber gloves. I wondered on the significance of this when I first saw the film; what did it mean? Later, I discovered that the idea was more practical than symbolically expressive, because in order to create the effect of entering through a mirror it was necessary to use a tank of mercury. This dangerous solution required gloves, and it’s typical of Cocteau that he made a theatrical and almost ritualistic gesture of this moment in order to suggest some deeper implication.
The first performance of Trio Cocteau was given recently by the Mediterannea Trio, in London, as part of the Music Chamber series run by Richard Carruthers. I’d first rehearsed with the Mediterranea Trio on the piece over a year ago and since that time they’d completely absorbed all its nuances and got to know the music inside out. It’s a beautiful performance, which can be heard here – Trio Cocteau – Mediterranean Trio