Poetry Nearing Silence


eight movements after Tom Phillips for chamber ensemble of 7 players
Mixed Chamber Ensemble
fl(=picc+afl).cl(=bcl) - harp - 2 vln(I=tgl.II=small rachet+tgl)).vla.vlc

Commissioned by the Nash Ensemble with funds provided in part by the London Arts Board

First Performance
5.3.97, Purcell Room, London: Nash Ensemble/Martyn Brabbins [NB the extended version for ballet (19mins) is called Towards Poetry]

Score 0-571-51970-9 on sale, parts for hire

Programme Notes

Poetry Nearing Silence was commissioned by the Nash Ensemble with funds provided by the London Arts Board.

This suite of eight movements was inspired by a very unusual book of drawings and poems by the artist Tom Phillips entitled 'The Heart of a Humument', related to his larger book A Humument. He derived both by 'treating' an obscure late Victorian novel - that is, selecting certain words and phrases from it almost at random, and then painting over the rest of each page. In most cases the content of the paintings is provoked directly by the sense of the words selected. My music is similarly a direct reaction to the verbal content of each page, although the striking visual content was certainly as important to the final sound world. I am very interested in exploring the relationship between words and sounds - and quite unsure as to what, if any, true correspondences between the two may be found. On one level this piece is an examination of that. The images selected are deliberately highly contrasted, often seemingly bizarre. But for much of the piece silence plays a vital role - in punctuating the music, disrupting it, concluding it, or stopping it in its tracks. Hence the choice of title - which is also the name of the central movement.

A summary of the movements:

1) muse in rocks or pebbles or clouds or foliage. The piece opens with four sounds evoking the four words. These sounds engage in a quick dialogue and melt into each other.

2) Know Vienna...A slow, lugubrious tune, somewhere between a disjointed waltz and a blues, with a heavy, bass-ridden accompaniment.

3) my future as the star in a film of my room. Two episodes linked by three refrains. The use of an aural backdrop (a ratchet played by the second violinist) against which almost the whole piece is heard - a sort of composed background noise.

4) Poetry Nearing Silence. Trouble is a voice outside. Fleeting melodic shapes and quietly ticking pulses onstage are challenged eight times by increasingly desperate fanfares offstage from the clarinet (the 'voice outside'). The original painting is a portrait of Samuel Beckett. The following three movements are played without a break, just as in the book they each occupy a third of the same page. They form a 'suite within the suite':

5) lashing in Italy. String quartet. A canonic invention on a chromatic subject. The entries get closer together as the piece progresses.

6) in Bohemia, screwing (Hommage to L.J.) Full ensemble. A folk-style monody for clarinet with increasingly aggressive accompanying figures, which eventually overwhelm the tune. An affectionate hommage to (not a parody of) my favourite composer.

7) in Carpathia, you cared for new things. A release of musical tension. A hommage to the folk music of the Carpathian mountains, with its shepherds? pipes, jews harps, alphorns, etc.

8) Coda: tall rain rattled over Paris. A moody, introspective conclusion. Against a backdrop of rattling and tapping, the clarinet has a melody in G minor, somewhat akin to that of movement 2, but more fragmented. As night falls, a bell rings and the music drifts off into silence.

I am very grateful to Tom Phillips for kindly granting me permission to use his texts as titles for my music. Poetry Nearing Silence lasts about 12 minutes and is dedicated to Oliver Rivers.

Julian Anderson

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