Musicians bearing gifts

Posted on Monday, August 1, 2011

The idea of a gift and its meaning is something that's been resurfacing in my thoughts a lot since I read Lewis Hyde's beautiful book on the subject. It's not an accident that we say people with artistic talent have a 'gift' and if you know someone who appears to be talented, it's very common for friends and family to spend a lot of time debating the origins of that gift, whether it came down from a distant family member, or from their environment, or from some other more mysterious source.

My new piece The Given Note takes its title from the poem by Seamus Heaney which discusses the origins of inspiration, in relation to a particular and quite unusual-sounding Irish air, "Port na bPucai" which is traditionally said to have been 'given' to a Blasket Islands fiddler by the fairies. I head out to Germany later in the week for the premiere on Thursday at the Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

I do think it's important in some way to 'give back' the gift - something Hyde discusses in his book- but how one goes about doing that is not so clear. The obvious answer as a composer might be to 'think of the audience' whilst composing, to be aware that you have something you are trying to 'give' to them. But isn't it true that some of the most inspirational and genuinely moving art is the kind that emerges from an almost entirely inward process. Think of people like Nancarrow or Messiaen, when you listen to their music you have a sense of an extraordinary, bizarre object, created by someone who locked themselves away for years on end polishing and perfecting, never once thinking of an audience reaction. It's a paradox I suppose that the most selfish forms of creative gift are often the ones most gratefully received.

It only struck me as I was writing this, but my friend Richard Brown, to whom the new piece is dedicated, has a rather beautiful metaphysical theory he calls alphomism in which he suggests that creative process - the process rather than the finished product - plays an important part in the workings of the universe, as a way of focussing mental energy, as it were. What a beautiful thing to imagine, that even when you are wrestling as an artist with impossible materials and nothing seems to be going right, you are still somehow playing a crucial role in the wider cosmos. To that extent you can see that the main way to repay the gift is simply to work hard and not squander what you've been given.

The Given Note is a 40 minute journey, incorporating a variety of traditional celtic melodies. Originally I was asked for a 10-15 minute piece, plus some arrangements of Irish melodies. But I found the two started to overlap and so I eventually settled on a quite unusual approach which is half way between arrangement and original composition. I'm so excited to be working with the musicians on this project - clarinettist David Orlowsky and his trio, violinist Daniel Hope and cellist Vincent Segal. All three have recorded some really beautiful music, most recently check out Segal's beautiful album chamber music with Kora player Ballaké Sissoko.



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