Composers' Choice: Stephen Gardner

A preview of Gardner's Composers' Choice on 28th January, 2003 at the NCH.

This concert offers me the opportunity to present two works of mine that are contrasting in style and mood. There is also a ‘fun’ piece by John Adams to open, and the remarkable Cantigas from Magnus Lindberg. This will be the Irish premier of Cantigas, which I consider to be a modern masterpiece.

My own composition, Wanting, Not Wanting, was commissioned by BBC Northern Ireland for a St Patrick’s Day concert given by the Ulster Orchestra in 1992. It is a very loosely based impression of the Irish air ‘Snaidhm an Ghrá’ (The True Lover’s Knot). The original tune is a combination of mixolydian (flattened-seventh), pentatonic (five-note) and whole-tone modes within a veiled major-scale framework. This provided the source for much of the melodic and harmonic material. At the time of writing in early 1992 there were two utterly senseless acts of mass murder at Teebane and in a bookies’ on the Ormeau Road. These tragedies had a profound effect on the mood of the music. There is a constant struggle for light to shine through. An Ulster Processional, which provides the climax, has a beacon of light in the high trumpet solo, though it is still tinged with sorrow. The work ends reflectively. Wanting, Not Wanting is dedicated to those who pointlessly lost their lives during the conflict.

My other work in this concert, Wallop, is only a game. Most of the harmonic and melodic material is derived from the melody heard on the oboe near the beginning after a traditional introduction. The woodwind plays around with this melody. As they are playing, the strings get jealous, so they try to interrupt. Eventually they pull the woodwind into line. The strings then call the tune, with the woodwind sheepishly joining in. After having got the show on the road, the brass feel left out so they add a bit of colour – not ready for fun and games yet.

The strings and woodwind then engage with each other in a flighty dialogue. The strings take off, resting and playing (although they are playing when they are resting), when, in a reflective mood, the woodwind blends in. But everyone is tired of flitting around. In they all charge, competing vigorously. Each group is trying to take the lead and, wouldn’t you know, it’s the big bad brass who eventually take control, funking it up a bit. The strings gather forces to the challenge, which spurs everyone to mix it, jumping up and down and around. As they get tired, it’s time for a chorale; after this they are all exhausted. They reflect peacefully on the day, collectively thinking that if Mr Percussion had come to play there’d have been a lot more bruises and, perhaps, a few respiratory problems.

Published on 1 January 2003

Stephen Gardner is a Belfast-born Irish composer, and a member of Aosdána

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