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27 April 2015

Nigel Butterley at 80 - A Reading and 7 Listenings

Nigel Butterley Image: Nigel Butterley  

Chris Williams's article celebrates Nigel Butterley's 80th birthday (13 May 2015) by adopting a slightly unusual format and offering us seven 'listenings' of Butterley's music. Chris Williams is based in Oxford, UK, and is currently in Australia undertaking a four-week residency as the Friends of the National Library of Australia's inaugural Creative Arts Fellow.

In his recent blog article, Elliott Gyger wondered if Nigel Butterley's 1981 piano solo Uttering Joyous Leaves might be the quintessential Butterley work, with its structure of musical materials which 'appear, reappear, and evolve in an intricate network of relationships'. In celebrating Nigel's 80th birthday, I want to evoke a similar structure here. I will trace some of Nigel's influences, and how I've come to understand them through knowing him and his music.

Nigel once told me that he loves living in the Sydney suburb of Stanmore because there are lots of small streets that zig-zag across it. Aside from finding straight lines boring, he liked being able to forge a new path each time he went out even if his destination remained the same. It's an admirable quality, and a telling insight. I also hope it gives me permission to zig-zag a little, here.

First Listening Meditations of Thomas Traherne (1968) for orchestra
Movement I 1:56 - 2:19, pages 5 and 6 of the score

'A shaft of transforming light'. The orchestra disappears, and its harmony is captured, transformed and transfigured through a group of descant recorders. It is at once a part of, and tearing apart the orchestral edifice; revelation, in every sense. The epigraph - Traherne's words - captures this musical moment precisely: 'All appeared New, and Strange at the first, inexpressively rare, and Delightfull, and Beautifull. I was a little Stranger which at my entrance into the World was Saluted and Surrounded with innumerable Joys'.'The 'little Stranger' offers us an 'entrance into the World', inexpressibly rare.

Thomas Traherne was a Hereford man, mystic and poet, but we'll return to this.

In 1962, Nigel studied in London with Priaulx Rainier, at Michael Tippett's suggestion. He sang with a choir during his time 'over here' so I knew he'd be pleased when I told him I, too, was joining a choir. He immediately told me that he thought Christ Church College had a choir that sang evensong, while the chapel choir wasn't available, and that I should join them. Not only was he right (and I've no idea how he knew this, or why he'd remembered it over the years), but this choir, the Cathedral Singers, was the very choir I had just joined. The Anglican choral tradition has been important for Nigel over the years, and singing in London was an important formative experience for his own music. I've always sensed that it was more than just the music, it was also the community of musicians and their role in the broader community that appealed to him in this tradition.

Second Listening Spring's Ending (1997) for choir
IV 'Good rain on a Spring Night'
The Australian Voices are performing Spring's Ending on 16 May

The movement begins 'A good rain knows its season…'. There is a characteristic harmonic shift on the word 'season', and you feel as if the heavens may have opened above you. Setting Nigel's own translations of Du Fu, this collection of exquisite miniatures are essays in musical concision and subtle beauty. Rarefied music for rarefied words.

Nigel and Traherne reappeared to me a few months later, when the Cathedral Singers toured to Hereford, to sing services in the 11th-century cathedral there.

Hereford Cathedral is famous for its Mappa Mundi, the largest medieval map still in existence. It maps the entire world, from the vantage point of a medieval European christian and so is more cosmologically intriguing, than geographically accurate. It's a fascinating document, but also a tourist attraction with its own gift shop attached, housed in the western end of the Cathedral.

The Mappa Mundi maps time as well as place, just as the poetic narrative of Nigel's Laudes maps out a history of Christianity and architecture over time.

Third Listening Laudes (1963) for octet
Movement 1 'The Basilica of Sant' Appolinare Nuovo, Ravenna (6th century)'
0:37-0:43, bars 7 and 8 of the score

The flute, clarinet, and horn gently, though briefly, oscillate once in rhythmic unison.
The sound is warm, the clarinet beginning slightly below the horn. The flute, low in its range, is an earthy additional colour to the blend. Though brief melodic fragments predominate, this first hint of a chorale returns and populates the texture as the movement's apotheosis. This, to my ear, is the 'gentle sound of bells' in the score's epigraph. Though several years before the direct evocation of birds enters Nigel's music in the White-throated Warbler, I already hear avian exaltations (or exhortations) in this movement.

If, instead of visiting the Mappa Mundi, you head to the eastern end of the cathedral, beyond the altar, you reach a lady chapel. There's a small doorway on the southern side, easily missed. As you step through it, the dull lighting of the cathedral descends into darkness, momentarily, and is then filled with light.

Fourth Listening Meditations of Thomas Traherne (1968) for orchestra
Movement III

This movement - the pivot-point of the whole work - pivots around the recorders. The symmetrical structure addresses Traherne's axiom that 'The world is a Mirror of infinit Beauty'

The recorders emerge gradually, in aleatoric shimmer against still string chords, until they begin to overwhelm the entire texture. Where they previously captured the orchestra's resonance, the orchestra now takes their lead, starting to weave its own lines in compliment to the recorder's filigree. The calm, steady articulations of muted brass against these sinuous threads of music, create an elegant structural feature, perhaps Traherne's 'Temple of Majesty'.

You find yourself in a small, hidden chapel slightly on the outside of the main structure of the cathedral, a long way from the gift shop. The largest feature in this chapel is the four stained glass windows by contemporary artist Tom Denny, commissioned to commemorate the life and work of Thomas Traherne. Denny's windows are beautiful and completely unlike traditional stained glass, almost impressionistic in the way they fracture the light. His distinct approach to colour is the result of a particular technique, which can take days to create but which results in an expressive palette beyond what is possible with traditional methods. It creates a world of its own which is 'constantly asserting itself and withdrawing as the light changes'. I can't think of a better metaphor for Nigel's work. Assiduous in detail, balance and constantly sensitive to the subtle variation of colour through a piece, across an instrument's range or within a chord progression. There is a rich interplay of colour across Denny's four windows, which incidentally share some of the epigraphs of Nigel's Meditations of Thomas Traherne.

This chapel is both small, and vast. The visions of the visionary Traherne, on their grand scale, seem to expand beyond the small room. They are overwhelming; in but not of the world outside. Delicate, intricate, glowing. Tiny windows which glow with Revelations. I think Nigel's music achieves this same duality. Intimate, even when on a huge scale, yet expansive, even when in miniature.

Fifth Listening Goldengrove (1982) for string orchestra
Movement II
7:09-End, page 16 of the score

The second movement of Goldengrove is built around a single, mournful melody. At this point in the piece, this melody has been passed from the highest register of the first violins, to the viola, and comes to rest once more with the cellos. The score notes that the two surrounding movements are based on a chord sequence derived from Tallis's O Nata Lux, but I hear Tallis at the end of this movement too. As the lower strings ascend, the violins interject with a repeated, remarkably unadorned harmonic progression, intensified by false relations, which eventually resolves itself at the same time as the melody. This heightened dissonance at a cadential moment is pure Tallis.

The title Goldengrove comes from another of Nigel's idols, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins and Traherne were only separated by a short distance - and some 200 years - with Hopkins at Balliol college, around the corner from Traherne's alma mater of Brasenose. Where Traherne's 'little Stranger' looked out at the world in wonder and joy, in 'Spring and Fall', Hopkins's child weeps with her first recognition of the passing of time and earthly transience.

Addressed to a young child, the poem asks,

'Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?'

Most music we encounter in our day-to-day is impersonal. It tries to distinguish itself from the completely generic just enough to avoid litigation. There is a logic to this, and there is a market for it too. If most music we encounter is in the west of the cathedral, with a gift shop attached, then Nigel's music is the precious, unexpected images, through the dark, mysterious doorway in the east. Shards of light, striving for revelation. It seems a relatively small step from transfiguration to Transfiguration, like the bridge from revelation to Revelation. Nigel's music lives and thrives in these small, beautiful spaces.

Sixth Listening Spell of Creation (2000) for soloists, semichorus, double choir and orchestra
Movement IV

'…And from the heart there flows a song,
And in the song there sings a word.
In the word there speaks a world,
A word of joy, a world of grief,
From joy and grief there springs my love…'

Traherne and Hopkins seem fully assimilated, and resolved in the next of Nigel's major literary influences, Kathleen Raine. What Raine adds is a unified cosmology in which music creates and restores the universe. Nigel often remarks that Kathleen Raine was the last in a trinity of strong formative figures in his life; his mother and Priaulx being the other two.

Spell of Creation is a masterpiece. It is also the culmination of the broader tapestry of Nigel's life and work.

I've included 'listenings' here because I think Nigel's birthday should be about his music, and so I wanted words that would point us back to the music. I've also written a piece for him, hoping music, too, can point to music. Nigel once told me he was invited to write a birthday piano piece for his own teacher, Priaulx Rainier, for a concert in London. She responded afterwards by sending a thank you note. In it she noted that the phrases don't always 'have' to go up. In telling me this, Nigel expressed slight disappointment at this teacherly admonishment. He likes the phrases that go up.

The piece I've written is made almost entirely of 'phrases that go up'. Happy Birthday, Nigel.

Seventh Listening Meditations of Thomas Traherne (1968) for orchestra
Movement V

Over this movement's seven minutes of music, the recorders make only three statements, divided into seven parts then five then seven again. The first and last statements are just single chords. Mystical numbers abound. They are all quiet statements. The recorders are no longer sudden, they are no longer sinuous. They are calm, and still. The second statement is an echo of the first, the third an echo of both and the entire piece. They are joy, and grief, but also clear testaments to what Traherne might call 'The Author' as 'Beautifier' in the world. This is Nigel.

AMC resources

Nigel Butterley - AMC profile (biography, works, events, articles)
Chris Williams: In laudem (2015) for solo piano - 'In praise' of Nigel Butterley, on his 80th birthday (pdf of the whole work)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Chris Williams is the inaugural Friends of the National Library of Australia Creative Arts Fellow.


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