Last Saturday at Canterbury Christ Church University’s St. Gregory’s Centre for Music saw the premiere of four movements from an ongoing project for solo viola, given very generously by Martin Outram of the Maggini Quartet. Entitled songs, the piece is an opportunity to explore the small-scale possibilities of ‘song structure’, the ABAB verse-chorus form (and its extensions/variations) that have predominated amongst folk- and popular-music for many centuries. The format was attractive principally for its brevity; I have always loved the unusual, sculpted power that a short but well-crafted miniature carries.
This sparse, often ghostly piece was a chance to experiment. In particular I was interested in distilling the form down to its bare bones, examining whether the careful alternation of two simple, distinctive materials was really powerful enough in its own right to generate a sufficient musical tension. At times I consciously took this to extremes; thus movement III, comfortably the shortest at <30", alternates in call-and-response style a chromatic semiquaver passage with bursts of Bartok pizzicato. At its close, a ghostly natural harmonic played tremolando serves as a ‘middle-eight’ and coda rolled into one. Others are more lengthy; V takes the repeated strophic structure of much early folk music and elaborates over a few minutes until the initial material is merely a skeleton upon which much cloth has been draped.
Thus in actuality these pieces are ‘ghosts’, pointing us to something beyond; the material clinging thinly to the form, outlining, shaping itself according to the frame beneath. But the power of the song is in its ability to make a minute into an eternity, to open the structural space in front of us and swallow us whole.