Sonnet Machine

(2015)

by Tom Coult

Description
orchestra
Duration
10
Genres
Full Orchestra
Instrumentation
3(III=picc).0.3(II=Ebcl.III=bcl).2.cbsn – 4.3.2.btrbn.1 – perc(4):
 I: medium susp.cym/whip/mar II: large susp.cym/tabla/bongos/tamb/whip III: small susp.cym/BD/glsp IV: sleigh bells/whip/vib – harp – strings (14.12.10.8.6)
Commission

Commissioned by the BBC

First Performance
23.4.16, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK: BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Gourlay
Availability

Score and parts for hire

Programme Notes

This piece was written for a project based around Shakespeare’s sonnets. I got interested in the rhyming scheme of 14-line sonnet forms, though it was actually not the Shakespearean sonnet (ABAB/CDCD/EFEF/GG) that most excited me but the Spenserian form (ABAB/CBCB/CDCD/EE), which has more repetitions. My piece follows this latter ‘sonnet’ form, with the result that there are 14 discrete chunks of music of five types (A, B, C etc) interacting and juxtaposing in various combinations, always separated by percussive whip cracks to signal a sharp cut.

The result is a piece that is volatile and changeable, but with material returning and changing in various ways – the initially stately ‘B’ material is compressed into shorter stretches of time on each occurrence, so that the same music ends up getting faster and faster. Conversely, the mechanical ‘C’ material, initially led by marimba and plucked strings with sleighbells, expands and develops on each occurrence, finally going haywire, like a machine spinning out of control. Also included in the orchestra are several string instruments tuned a semitone or tone lower than normal, so that the ‘A’ and ‘E’ material (at the beginning and end of the piece) are able to use the resonant sound of open strings on many more pitches than the string section normally allows.

Alan Turing was fascinated by the idea of machines writing sonnets. He brought the idea up a number of times in writings and interviews, and sonnets feature in several dialogues in ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’, his 1950 paper that asks ‘can machines think?’. The hypothetical interrogator in his ‘Turing Test’ dialogues (where a human has to ask questions and determine whether the answers are given by a human or a machine) asks the machine/human to produce a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge. I like the idea of a mechanical sonnet-generator – and the misunderstandings that would be thrown up by a machine trying to get its ‘head’ around the blunt rules of sonnet form without an understanding of its poetic, human context. My piece is therefore a creative misunderstanding of sonnet form – 14 bits of music that ‘rhyme’ in various ways, as if an early computer had arbitrarily applied the rules of sonnet form to a piece of music.

© Tom Coult

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