In December Manchester Collective premiere Oliver Leith’s will o wisp, a new work for strings, as part of their Places We Know tour. Places We Know will travel to the Royal Northern College of Music (2 December), Southbank Centre (4 December), The Holbeck Centre in Leeds (10 December), and the Tung Auditorium in Liverpool (11 December). The ensemble is lead by Rakhi Singh.
The 19-minute piece was co-commissioned by Manchester Collective and Det Norske Kammerorkester and funded by the British Council’s International Collaboration Grants. It is cast in four movements: ‘boom push fairy spook’; ‘rot spook’; ‘magic’; ‘knot face’.
will o wisp has many hallmarks of Leith’s style: gradual and slight alterations in pitch and harmony, using finely-calibrated microtones; monolithic figures that sit atop more gentle textures; slow repeating gestures whose meaning transforms over time. Distinctive features of will o wisp include an imitation of alpine horns in the lower strings; in the final movement a solo violin dances freely over the rest of the ensemble.
Leith says of the work,
will o wisp is me attempting to grapple with something to do with Englishness. It uses an old English-Irish-Scottish folk theme; nobody quite knows where it’s from. The piece sort of tears it apart and it’s as if it has been left in a vat of something for a long period. It should be both rather beautiful and scary.
The music continues Leith’s imaginative exploration of string textures and timbres, exemplified in the score for his acclaimed recent chamber opera Last Days, 2019’s Honey Siren (the second movement of which the Manchester Collective toured in spring 2022), and Ivor-nominated string quartet The Big House (2021).