The British composer Howard Skempton has written a wide range of music, from instrumental miniatures to larger orchestral works, and, increasingly, choral music: he says that he enjoys the expressive potential that comes from writing for voices. When you hear his music, what strikes you is its delicacy and clarity, with the sound stripped back to its bare essentials. In a Q&A on Twitter (that helpfully coincided with this blog post), Skempton talked about finding focus and economy in his composing style – you get the impression that he is brimming over with ideas, but that he likes to use them sparingly in any one piece.
The piece we’re singing by Skempton, He wishes for the cloths of heaven is a setting of the famous verse by Yeats. It’s one of those poems that has become rather tired with over-use, especially its final line, “tread softly, for you tread on my dreams”, but Skempton’s setting deftly avoids sentimentality: it’s sweetly sincere, full of the earnest optimism of the young lad whose dreams have not yet been diluted by reality. In the Twitter questions, when asked about his approach to setting a well-loved text, Skempton replied “My approach to a text is always respectful. The worst thing would be if the setting somehow demeaned the poem”. I asked him about how he approaches a new text, to which he replied that he starts with the rhythmic character of the text, he types it out and works on the rhythm first: in He wishes for the cloths of heaven, the result is a gentle lilt that captures the enthusiasm and love of the speaker, and keeps the words bouncing along. Have a listen:
From the Irish poet Yeats, we hop across the Atlantic for the other living composer featured in our concert, the American Augusta Read Thomas. She’s one of the most widely performed living composers in the US, but she’s relatively unknown here, so we’re very happy to introduce you to her music. Her career began with large orchestral works, and in an interview on her website, she talks about the excitement of bringing out all the rhythmic and harmonic colours available in an orchestra. Another area that interests her is dance; she has composed several ballets, and like the great baroque composers, dance is an underlying feature of much of her work - she talks about how she composes standing up, dancing, conducting and singing all the parts as she does. There’s something of this very physical connection to the music in her Two E. E. Cummings Songs for ladies’ voices: (kiss me) is beguiling, light and flirtatious, and the music for sky candy sprouting violets follows the idiosyncratic layout of the poem, with little kaleidoscopic patterns jumping around the page. We’ve previously sung settings of E. E. Cummings by Eric Whitacre and Judith Weir, and his startling, abstract imagery is clearly a gift to imaginative composers.
Listen to Two E. E. Cummings Songs on Augusta Read Thomas's website - where you can also explore lots of other recordings of her music, and watch video interviews.