RNCM Compositions for the British Museum

In today’s post we hear from four RNCM composers who have written new works in response to various objects in the British Museum’s collections. These works can be heard in full on Friday 5 July at the museum, where they will receive their world premières!

Michael Betteridge on Two Leopards for two clarinets
written for objects of same name (BM ref AOA 1924,L1a-b) in the Africa gallery

‘I'm fascinated by the idea of simple and slow 'evolution' within music, as well as almost-repetition.  When I saw these two leopards I was impressed by how similar they were to one another, despite presumably being made by hand.  Of course like any reproduction there will be minor differences so I pounced upon this idea.  I decided to work with two clarinets, one in B flat and one in A, as visually this played on my concept of 'similar, but different' – the instruments may look the same, but have their own idiosyncrasies and timbral differences.  Also the playful motif that evolves throughout uses the whole range of the clarinets, starting high, moving to the low chalumeau register in the middle, before returning right to the top of the instrument, and can be seen, or heard, as two leopards playing with one another, stalking each other in the long grass.’

Click here to hear Michael Betteridge, Two Leopards

Clémence Hazaël-Massieux on Shiva and Parvati for violin
written for object of same name (BM ref Asia 1872,0701.70) in the China, South Asia and Southeast Asia gallery

‘This piece has been inspired by Indian music in many different ways. The first part of the piece sounds reminiscent of traditional Indian music and paints a dialogue between the lovers Shiva and Parvati. The second theme is based on the Tala, a cycle of rhythmic patterns used in Indian classical music and which brings a new mood and dimension to the piece. Each rhythm in the pattern is associated with a spoken syllable, which we can hear in the piece in patterns of 7 sounds or 7 syllables: ta-ka-de-mi-ta-ki-ta. Each pattern is repeated three times, a rule in the Tala. Finally, the initial theme returns to finish the short cycle, being also a representation of the Hindu cycle.’

Click here to hear Clémence Hazaël-Massieux, Shiva and Parvati 

Leo Geyer on Book of the Underworld for bassoon
written for Sarcophagus of Nectanebo II (BM ref EA 10) in the Egyptian Sculpture gallery

‘When I was asked to choose an object to write a piece about, I was particularly struck by the Sarcophagus of Nectanebo II, but not by the coffin itself but rather the inscriptions that cover it. I later found that the hieroglyphs depict a number of sections of the funerary text known as the Amduat, or 'Book of what is in the Underworld', hence the title of my piece The Book of the Underworld. There isn’t a great deal of room surrounding the sarcophagus, just enough for one player, so I decided to write a piece for solo bassoon which I could play myself. To create the composition I used a selection of the hieroglyphs and translated them into small musical cells. These snippets of music are added one by one to create a large coherent structure, just as the hieroglyphs are added together to form the funerary text.’

Click here to listen to Leo Geyer, Book of the Underworld

Sarah Gait on A King of Kings for violin and cello
written for Ife head (BM ref Ethno 1939, Af 43-1) in the Africa gallery

‘At first I hadn’t expected to be interested by this particular object, as I tend to find greater inspiration in ‘abstract’ objects than in human figures.  Because of this expectation, I was even more struck upon first seeing the Ife Head by the detail and skill of the carving, and perhaps most of all by the sense of hidden power behind the outwardly serene countenance.  The more I looked at the face, the more I was fascinated and almost drawn into it, and this is what set the Ife Head apart for me.

‘The Ife Head, for me, represents an extremely powerful ruler, hence the title A King of Kings. I wanted to express in this piece the quality of the object that had particularly fascinated me: the contrast between apparent serenity and a sense of colossal power behind that. The piece starts from a cold, contained focus and expands from there. This structure was triggered by my own increasing awareness of the depth and power of the Ife Head. For most of the piece, either one or both instruments maintain to some degree a feeling of restraint, but increasingly there are outbursts portraying the ruler’s virtually unlimited, and potentially terrifying, power.

‘The combination of two string instruments at different ends of the pitch spectrum offered precisely the scope I wanted: I could either use the two instruments in the same range (at times on precisely the same note) or I could have them at completely opposite ends of the range in contrast to each other. Additionally, the wide tonal range that can be created on string instruments was ideal to fulfil my idea of opposition between calm restraint and power.’

Click here to listen to Sarah Gait, A King of Kings

25 June 2013