Prog Notes, Writings

Ctrl+F the following pieces:



Anatomical Study: Voluptuous

Scenes from the Madrigals
Exhibition Suite
Fastener (Bra 3) (Plunge)
Triple Concerto
Prowl Routine
Package 1A
Memory Chasm (this note from before it appeared in ‘Exhibition Suite’

Poems at the bottom:

Gifts Unigiven

The Woman-Notes-Thing

Porridge Column can be found under ‘Porridge Column’


This piece is a Fantasia on material that is largely originally by Shostakovich. These programme notes should come with a ***SPOILER ALERT*** as some aficionados may prefer to try and identify the Shostakovich references as they fly by during the piece. First, we hear chords from the 8th Quartet, then material from the opening of the 5th Symphony (used for its rhythmic power but without the aggro), and then material reminiscent of the 2nd Piano Concerto’s 1st movement. The same concerto’s popular 2nd movement forms a kind of abbreviated slow movement here as well (reworked in a different time signature), and this is mixed in with a suggestion of one of the even more popular Jazz Suites. Finally, as we charge headlong towards the piece’s conclusion, we hear echoes of the central movement of Shotakovich’s Quintet.

There is also material derived from Shostakovich’s name as he used to sign it himself (D – S – C – H; or D – E flat – C – B), and from my own name in three different forms: (Tom Ow)E(n), which explains the pedal point that pervades the whole piece; (T)H(om)AS (Ow)E(n), a 4-note motif that calls to mind Shostakovich’s 1st Cello Concerto; and (T)H(om)AS (Ri)CHA(r)D (Ow)E(n), which is more rambling. This material is the most angular in the piece, and the most independent of tonality.

Often in Shostakovich’s music we hear references to the ‘knock at the door’, or the fear thereof, meaning a visit from the secret police. This would have been an ongoing threat, something to cope with in everyday life – and, musically, these are episodes which come and go in longer autobiographical works – Shostakovich was a survivor. In my own piece, it seemed more fitting to put the ‘knock at the door’ at the end of the piece. Unlike Shostakovich’s Russia, or even present day Russia, we have complacency rather than fear – complacency about peacetime, complacency that the rest of the world will somehow prioritise a comfortable ride for the UK – so it seems to me that the next time we get a real wake-up call, it will be the end of a narrative, and not just something tense that happens in the slow movement. A working title for the piece was ‘Black Swan Knocking’.

The idea of a Shostakovich soundworld proved something of a compositional restriction, and was in danger of becoming an excuse to write naive-sounding or simplistic music. When certain harmonies or splashes of colour occurred to me, it was as if Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Schnittke were trying to muscle their way in. I am more convinced than ever that we should mainly value Shostakovich’s music for its historical commentary, and I am happy to have written a piece that is most memorable for its trajectory, or its ‘programme’, however vague that may be.


I’ve always thought that “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!” was a particularly elegant palindrome, In this piece I’ve also set a sonic palindrome of it. “Ahmenap, lanaker, nalp, a nammer”, which reverses the phonemes you get when you read it out loud, rather than the letters. The baritone sings the original palindrome first, and the soprano and tenor begin with the “Ahmenap” version. Both are sung in full before the “mirror” in the middle of the piece, which then folds both versions over like a child’s butterfly painting. As the piano part is also a palindrome, you could play a recording of the piece in either direction and get something almost identical, the exception being the attack and decay of the piano’s notes.

The intro and coda to the piece also feature a retrograde inversion – music which reappears upside-down as well as backwards – something not possible in writing but possible in music.

Anatomical Study: Voluptuous

The first “Anatomical Studies” I wrote were part of a longer suite inspired by the work of J. G. Ballard. The studies reflected on his use of the “wrong” language to describe things: Characters describing their lovers as if reading from a medical textbook; elsewhere more artistic corporeal imagery used to describe things like motorway intetsections. I began to imagine the proportions of the human body in terms of musical intervals stacked up on top of each other, intervals which change places within each chord as the person or object moves around/is seen from different angles.

Today’s piece is a stand-alone work which describes a more curvaceous form, hence the need for four hands.

Scenes from the Madrigals

1. Sweet Suffolk Owl (after Thomas Vautor)
2. Fair Phyllis (after John Farmer)
3. The Silver Swan (after Orlando Gibbons)

This suite is for voice and three unspecified instruments, and aims to turn these eloquent, poetic texts of the Renaissance in to something more directly depictive, in a way that approaches caricature. This is achieved both sonically and by cutting and pasting the texts.

The Sweet Suffolk Owl is beautiful and swooping, but also predatory and mouse-obsessed. The Silver Swan shows mainly disdain, and glides predictably. In the central song, the gossip about Fair Phyllis is overblown prattle, dwelling pointlessly on Phyllis and her lover’s initial failure to locate each other, and even leaving the suggestion open that no second human was ultimately involved. This setting is framed by a brief pastoral duet.

The piece is, of course, in the pastoral tradition, insofar as all the scenes take place in the great outdoors. However, we don’t all go there to have deep cerebral responses to the scenery – we may in fact go to reach a lowered intellectual state, something closer to animal consciousness.


Exhibition Suite

1. Memory Chasm
2.* Anatomical Study with Gearbox
2./3. Interlude: The Beach Planetarium
3./4. Anatomical Study with Gearbox
4./5. Coda: The Optimum Wound Profile

*optional, for 2 contrasting performances.

The ‘Exhibition’ in the title refers to the visual capabilities of the imagination which are triggered even by non-programmatic music, and more specifically to J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, in which the mind’s eye conjurs vast and alien settings, and uses strange and confused modes of description. The material is also of an exhibitionist nature, with everything overtly on display.

There are two ‘landscape’ movements, inspired by chapters in which Ballard’s protagonist walks around worlds generated out by his subconscious brain, and two ‘anatomical’ movements, which describe persons. In the landscapes, the sense of scale is dramatically altered, with the terrain broad and barren in a way that only an imaginary landscape can allow – I think of the distance to the cliffs in the background of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. Elsewhere the portraits think of Ballard’s oddly geometric descriptions of the human form. Famously in Crash, there are pornographic scenes created from medical emergencies, filled with surgical detail. Elsewhere, though, I am more interested in what is arguably the converse of the same device: the heroine’s figure lovingly described in terms that a surgeon or mathematician would use in a scientific document. There’s nothing romantic about this techinque, but it successfully suggests a kind of obsession in which the mind of the observer, troubled or working in overdrive, has activated an inappropriate faculty in an attempt to describe.

‘Anatomical Study with Gearbox’ is something of a game piece, with the performer choosing the order in which the material appears, and also the order of a set of tempo (‘gear’) changes – meaning that any part of the piece could potentially appear at a huge variety of speeds. The movement in its entirety, then, could turn out turbulent and virtuosic, or sustained and meditative – or a skittish mixture of the two. In other words, it is an attempt to combine virtuosity and spontaneity.


Fastener (Bra 3) (Plunge)

All Bach left us for the central movement of Brandenburg 3 are a lonely-looking pair of chords forming a Phrygian Cadence, presumably for improvising on. This always struck me as a not particularly Bach-like gesture: his instrumental music often features quasi-improvisatory moments, but they tend to be fully realised in the score. These chords, on the other hand, seem to welcome all comers.

Following the commission from Tom Davies to produce an entirely new movement, I set myself a few criteria:

-The content should be a total stylistic non-sequitur, so that Bach continues to be the sole inhabitant of his own musical realm. If the result seems blasphemous, consider a counterexample that patronises the Bach with pastiche, or familiar progressions used without Bach’s ingenuity. No parody is intended here, only a “plunge” in to a completely foreign place.

-The movement should still be fleeting, structurally still nothing more than a link between the weightier forms either side of it.

-The improvisatory feel should be retained.

-Most importantly, the movement should still be a reflection on the Phrygian cadence, and indeed the Phrygian mode. At one point, Phrygian melodic figures from various tonal centres are superimposed. The end of the movement recalls the traditional cadence with a brief moment of clarity – and a slight twist.


Triple Concerto

1. Prologue
2. Cross Section

Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos slighly predate an overwhelming and long-standing trend for the “concerto” format to feature a single, heroic protagonist figure in the soloist. Bach’s soloists dart in and out of the texture contributing to the greater whole, they are not always natural matches for one another timbrally, but they are bound by the idea, which is of greater importance than the players. Perhaps one of many reasons that Bach’s music sits so well alongside contemporary music is that the dynamic between solo and ensemble voices is finally being re-addressed again.

I’ve taken our alternative setup for Brandenburg 2 as a starting point (E flat clarinet rather than trumpet), and withdrawn the violin soloist back in to the ensemble. I’ve written material in which the soloists are (almost) always interwoven in duos or interlocked as a trio – they cannot help but stand out from the ensemble, but cannot break free from each other. I’ve expanded the solo ‘voice’ downwards to include bass recorder, bass clarinet and cor anglais. There is a sense that the material must be heard in all registers, which leads to some timbral surprises.

Starting with, say, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the German tradition has given us so many fine examples of variation formats – ‘the same object in different lights’, or, as Stockhausen later prefered, “different objects in the same light”. My ‘object’, having been conceived and projected by the strings in the first movement, is then examined in such detail that it can only be taken on board a layer at a time, a level of detail which is confrontational and at times problematic.


Package 1A

I began writing some studies for bass clarinet purely to give myself something to play when I first bought a bass clarinet, with the intention of finding my way around the instrument and tightening up on certain basic aspects of technique. ‘Package’ refers to a bundling of a few of these studies in to a single concert piece, with some extra accompagnato sound. Package 1A features two studies in full; ‘Control’, and ‘Agression’, before the soloist is joined by an unseen presence for a slight recomposition of my study for ‘Effects’.



Womb is a wind sextet in two sections. The opening section is a continuum of two layers, a gently pulsating chord progression unfolds, sometimes giving way to a more effusive, insistent toccata. The bare fifth gradualy emerges as an important characteristic colour. The remainder contains elements from Thomas Luis de Victoria’s anthem ‘O Magnum Mysterium’, which concerns the immaculate conception. This second chapter has a more linear agenda, dwelling thoughtfully on this Renaissance source material and eventually going further towards reconciling it with the piece’s opening outbursts.

Whilst this is not a religious piece, I do find that ancient music can seem miraculously ‘fertile’ in spawning new ideas. If Victoria is the Mother of Womb, the Mother is probably Varese.


Prowl Routine

The solo part in Prowl Routine arises from material in a few short improvisations which I recorded in response to the Gillian’s first batch of sculptures. Gillian then responding by making the two sculptures which are the centrepiece of the set-up for Prowl Routine. Previously, Gillian’s work had struck me as being close to the extreme end of abstraction, suggesting to me a sort of haunting emotional debris. Immediately, however, the larger of the two new sculptures struck me as having a clearer real-world parallel in a spiny, stalking creature. The presence of the much smaller companion piece had me imagining the creature’s stance as protective and caring. Soon I had generated the background musical material which places the creature in its environment.

As the title suggests, this piece is about territorial, defensive feelings and a wariness of the wider community and its machinations. It is the latest in a series of works which imagines emotional states being played out in vast, strange, imaginary landscapes. These thoughts were initially provoked by J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, and later by the odd worlds depicted by Max Ernst. However, whilst Ballard’s dreamscapes require the most virtuosic literary tricks, all good non-programmatical music seems to have an intrinsic potential to conjure up these landscapes in the mind of the listener. I think of Prowl Routine as non-programmatic, but the sculpture, alongside some of the strange markings on the score, help to terraform the listener’s mental landscape a little.


Memory Chasm

This piece represents a personal response to some of the techniques and sonorities encountered in the more recent works of Boulez, in particular Page d’Ephemeride and elements of Sur Incises, although there is a slight shift towards the programmatic compared to these works. A primary concern here is a move towards greater fluency with an expanded palette of resonances, both immediate and sympathetic. However, noticing that the effects in question can be quite satisfyingly voiced on an upright piano in a small space, the piece does not require a sostenuto pedal. Similarly, in this version, an embryonic idea to prepare some of the strings at the extreme high end of the piano has been discarded and replaced by the consistent use of chiming fourths and fifths to voice the line that appears in that register, leaving an unadulterated and universal piano piece, ready for spontaneous performance on all models.

This piece is one of a series of responses to the strange visions of the protagonist in J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. On walks round desolate airfields, psychological and anatomical reflections on the self become entangled with architectural and cosmological reflections on the surroundings. Imaginary figures linger and haunt, embodiments of past trauma. Giant constructs appear and project
back the image of the onlooker in uncomfortable detail


Gifts Ungiven

Kneeling again in this bath of frogs:
Is the brain even Pavlovian any more?
The stream was deeper than I thought
And eternity was already on my side of the fence

The Doctor,
The Vicar,
The Daughter,
The Gardener,
They didn’t seem very happy

By the time the police arrived
I forgot what it was about.
By the time the ambulance arrived
I forgot what it was about.
By the time the firemen arrived
I was talking to the coastguard

Why is everyone telling me what I already know?

It was me on the billboards:
My nostrils,
My eyelids

The Woman-Notes-Thing

It sounded ominous even as a silhouette on the horizon.
Lying on the ground in the tent you could picture it rumbling through the earth.
It got louder through binoculars
And on a clear day she hummed closer
We couldn’t judge the size
Because she squawked herself larger
And the satellite couldn’t pinpoint the nest,
Because she groaned a cloak
And at night the mating cry
Brought on nightmarish visions
Of a harmonic series.

When we finally got up close
It was all too vivid.
The intervals were all there:
Compound Intervals…
She had the biggest 6ths I’ve ever seen,
And when it rolled over, they all crashed against each other and rearranged.
A sensuous, shambling mess of a spread chord.
The abdomen was resonant
Her timbres quivered
And the limbs reverberated

We wanted to hear it stand up,
Bound around,
But she snarled burgundy,
Sighed dark
They say they’re as frightened of you as you are of them,
but we didn’t stick around to find out.

Back at the lab
We drew sketches of it, but we couldn’t do it justice
We sculpted it from various compounds
But it was all too legato
Too homophonic
Too delicato
And we couldn’t get the proportions right,

But when we looked at the samples under the microscope
The pitches were already completely clear
Buzzing and shifting around
In the larvae

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s