(2018) – Harp
(Excerpts from Yew, Spectred Oaks and Mountain Ash. The full Spectred Oaks and Mountain Ash can be heard here)
‘Sylva’ is from the Latin for forest or woodland, and also an archaic term meaning ‘a collection of poems or literary pieces’.
Trees have always been important to me, and I have always found them very inspiring. I have also always loved the harp, and this most ancient and mystical instrument seemed the perfect choice for these few arboreal portraits.
Written for Alexandra Guiraud, Sylva Suite is a set of tree character-studies, and a sense of age, mysticism and cyclical movement pervades much of the music. The five movements (Yew, Birch, Cherry, Spectred Oaks, and Mountain Ash) are musical responses to each tree, as inspired by their physical, cultural and spiritual character. A number of poems, or scraps of poems became attached to the music as I wrote it, and I included these three in the score:
A Japanese Death Poem by Chori:
Uso ni chiru
ha mo nashi yomo no
kane no koe
(Leaves never fall
in vain – from all around
A fragment of a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire
…ce qui j’ai chanté là-haut
Un arbre élancé que balance
Le vent dont les cheveux s’envolent.
And a fragment of a poem by Edward Thomas
…Die and forget
The hill of trees,
The gleam, the wet,
This roaring peace.
Synonymous with church yards and spirituality, Yews can grow very old and very large. This movement sets the tone for the suite, and the music begins by slowing the typical dotted-rhythm of an overture down to a meditative pace, whilst moving through a series of cyclic harmonies based on the interval of a 5th. The central section introduces an ostinato-like thread reminiscent of plainsong, and weaves the plainsong Crux Fidelis (on the line “One and only noble tree”) into the texture.
The Birch could be called the Dionysus of trees – living a relatively short life but also representing rebirth and renewal. Moving from a meditative, relatively sunny mood, through to a darker, nocturnal depiction – this movement begins with silvery glissandi, suggestive of light, sun, and the shimmering image of a Birch. Moving through a contrastingly dark and ghostly central processional, the music then returns to the renewed opening sunshine.
This short ‘song without words’ was suggested by the romantic and sensual character of the tree, with its colourful blossom and sweet fruit. The music has a kind of intimate, nostalgic jazz flavour, with a slight reference to Miles Davis’s Blue in Green.
Spectred Oaks (Elegy)
Inspired by a number of long-dead oaks near Llantony Priory, the image of these sun-bleached ‘spectres’; stood near the ruins of the Abbey; amongst the beauty of the landscape and looking back through the ages – all suggested music.
Mountain Ash (Impromptu)
Though this music was partly suggested by the tree, it was also written as a character-study of our son Rowan (who was 1 at the time and beginning to run!). The piece begins with the notes D and Bb (a spelling of Rowan’s initials – R.B.), which move outwards to A and E (a reference to Rowan’s mother’s name – Lauretta). This symmetrical tendency is then ‘improvised on’ throughout the piece, and often takes the form of an inverted canon – one hand closely mirroring the other like a chase. There are also further references in the music to Debussy’s Children’s Corner, and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.30.
Score available here