22 February 2012
Creating and recording Polyhymnia
Melbourne-born, now UK-based composer Jonathan Little talks about his new album Polyhymnia, of which the British music journal Tempo recently wrote: 'Polyhymnia conjures up a heart-rending panorama: it is immensely poetic, almost otherworldly, and employs an exceptionally hypnotic array of musical colour'.
In December 2011 Little became the first Australian-born composer to be elected the John Clementi Collard Fellow in Music - this prestigious fellowship is awarded approximately every three years to one of Britain's leading performers, composers, conductors or scholars. Little is also the first composer to receive a professional development award from the British music business's own charity, the Musicians Benevolent Fund. His music, often written for large-scale choral, string and orchestral forces, is now attracting increasing international recognition.
A composer often needs some kind of musical calling card, and my latest CD, entitled Polyhymnia, should effectively fulfil that role. The disc contains five representative string, orchestral and choral works and, in particular, it includes two of a projected series of nine works for instrumental forces, on the theme of 'the nine Muses'.
A programmatic or pictorial subject is sometimes a great stimulation to aural creative endeavour, and so, about five years ago, I decided that, whenever time allowed, I would pursue the creation of nine works, each aimed at capturing a different colour and atmosphere suggestive of the essential spirit of every one of the fabled sister goddesses of ancient Greek mythology. The projected series might be thought of as a modern-day, multi-tableaux 'Greek Mythological' equivalent of Gustav Holst's 'Roman Astrological' suite, The Planets (which was conceived in seven movements, almost a century before).
The nine Muses of the mythology are: Calliope (epic poetry); Clio (history); Erato (love poetry); Euterpe (lyric poetry); Melpomene (tragedy); Polyhymnia (sacred poetry); Terpsichore (dance); Thalia (comedy); and Urania (astronomy). According to ancient allegory, Zeus (almighty creator, and powerful father of the gods) lay with Mnemosyne (Memory, the encapsulator of all past events), and it was she who gave birth to the Muses - through this mystical union of the spirit of universal power with that of universal memory. By such means (and by implication) we mortals are able to create anew ourselves - albeit as a pale reflection of perfect heavenly forms - constantly striving to fashion ideal works from synthesised elements recalled from intense and symbolic past experiences. In spirit then, the artist may be likened to the medieval alchemist - forever producing new wine from old bottles, through the peculiar agency of these extraordinarily gifted and bountiful goddesses.
The current disc presents Polyhymnia ('She of many hymns' - or Muse of sacred poetry) - scored for multi-divisi string orchestra and soloists - followed by Terpsichore ('the Whirler' - or Muse of dance) - for large orchestra (15 minutes in length, in the spirit of the famously sensual and provocative orchestral dances constructed by various well-known composers around siren-like figures such as Salome and Delilah). Polyhymnia, by contrast, is a searing, many-layered, 21-minute 'lamentation for string orchestra'. Tension is built, maintained, and released, over long periods. Leaving aside the (rather folk-like - or Celtic-sounding) middle interlude, the whole work is effectively a series of extended 'waves' - at times dissipating, before swelling and cascading forth again, towards a final powerful and sustained climax.
Harmonically, the work makes great play of clashing semitones, and gradually builds up clusters of notes into evolving, ever-changing, and ultimately resolving chord patterns. It creates unusual effects by dividing the string orchestra into multiple parts with an emphasis on lower strings: there are four individual violin lines (besides an extra four solo parts), ditto in the violas, eight individual cello lines, and two bass lines. This tends to create a thick, rich and complex texture, yet there are also some exceptionally lucid passages - for Polyhymnia is also the Muse of eloquence. According to some ancient sources, Polyhymnia is believed to have invented the lyre, and is also said to be an encourager of the dance (and so, her sparkling sister Terpsichore enters next).
The five works on this new album were recorded at various times over the last seven years, and involved three European orchestras and one large UK choir. The project as a whole survived several crises, not least the untimely death in 2010 - prior to the final recording session - of the American conductor and new music entrepreneur, Robert Ian Winstin. After some delay, the project was taken up again, and I am grateful to PARMA Recordings (USA) for completing the recording in the Czech Republic, for release this year on its Navona fine music label.
Initially, however, I thought that the 'raw' first edit of Polyhymnia did not seem at all promising; with so many musical lines involved, there was a real danger that its thick texture might simply turn to pure 'muddiness'. But detailed and thorough work over several subsequent months proved what most composers must learn, and all good conductors know: that achieving exactly the right balance of instruments in the recording mix is often crucial to a work's ultimate success or failure. On completion of the final master recording, Bob Lord, CEO of PARMA Recordings, commented that he thought the title track, Polyhymnia, was 'unusual and finely wrought … inventive and unconventional'. The phrase 'finely wrought' confirmed to me that all its musical filigree work had now been set in its proper relation - each line perfectly in balance against every other one.
The album's debut radio airplay was on 1 February on WPRB 103.3-FM (Princeton, New Jersey, USA) within Marvin Rosen's Classical Discoveries program. Next, the record label and I begin the process of garnering press reviews and seeking more comprehensive radio airplay.
Thanks to the recent award of the John Clementi Collard Fellowship, I will soon be embarking on my next project in the series - the musical depiction of the muse Erato - and I also hope within the next year or so to bring to fruition a short book I have been planning, documenting some of the challenges facing composers in the early 21st century. In many ways, these challenges find parallels in the difficulties faced by composers at the beginning of the previous century, which is to say: finding a musical language most relevant and suited to contemporary expression, ongoing economic difficulties in the wider environment, and a reluctance on the part of many performing organisations to consider programming very much contemporary music.
In the end, of course, I am under no illusion that it is primarily the composer's responsibility to convince impresarios and audiences that the quality of the music a composer has created absolutely justifies that it should be heard.
The official release date of POLYHYMNIA: String, Orchestral and Choral Works of Jonathan Little is 28th February, on the Navona label of PARMA Recordings (USA). It is distributed internationally by Naxos (Cat. No. NV5867) and available directly from Naxos, Amazon and other online retailers.
© Australian Music Centre (2012) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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The atmospheric and evocative music of Dr Jonathan David Little, BMus (Hons), ThA, PhD, is characterised by its beauty, intensity, and richness of material. Little was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1965. After initial studies at the University of Melbourne, he completed the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Monash University by research into the development of 'exotic' orchestration in 19th and 20th-century music. Since 1995, he has worked largely in the UK.
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