Scilla autumnalis : for orchestra
by Chris Williams (2014)
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Performance by New Bristol Sinfonia, Jonathan Lo from the CD Selected Works by AMC Represented Artists, vol. 60
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The piece is in two parts of equal length, each of which is characterised by and focuses on a single type of simple musical line. These forms have their initial inspiration in the physical structure of the bridge itself. In the first part of the piece, curved lines are used in the form of the harmonic series - the series of pitches which resonate in strict integer proportions above a musical note. In the second part of the piece, straight lines - simple musical scales - emerge and build upon themselves through a gently shifting tonal space. The bridge's beautiful curves and straight lines, gently undulating in the wind, are evoked in both of these musical ideas and are articulated within the two major climaxes - pillars - of the piece. In sculpting music to try and capture something of the grand dimensions of the bridge, strict proportions are repeated on different scales of dimension across time and pitch.
I think of the piece as being more structural than decorative, more vast than intimate, and more textural than melodic. The only clearly melodic material occurs near the midpoint of the piece as the solo cello emerges from the first climax and plays a simple melody of harmonics across various open strings of the instrument. Both the harmonic series and the various wind noises are used to evoke a sense of natural sounds and vibrations.
In writing the piece, however, it was very apparent that the immensity of bridge's physical presence is only one aspect of its importance. The title of the piece celebrates the historic and symbolic importance of the bridge. Scilla autumnalis is a rare and beautiful flowering plant which still grows on St.Vincent's Rocks, overlooking the Clifton Suspension Bridge. When initial preparations for the bridge were being made, Elizabeth Catherine Barker - the wife of the site engineer - noticed the plant and insisted that care be taken to move it and ensure its survival. It is the first recorded conservation effort undertaken in the area, and possibly the world.
While the piece, Scilla autumnalis, is not a direct evocation or depiction of the flower, it offers the plant as an emblem which encapsulates some of the ideas embodied by the Clifton Suspension Bridge and their shared history. Both the flower and the bridge are iconic features in the natural environment of the gorge, though on vastly different scales. Both are perpetual gifts to future generations only possible through the care and labour of the Bristol community. Finally, the piece, like both the bridge and the plant, is cast in simple, elegant lines which are symmetrical and in strict proportions. There are two axioms worth repeating here. 'Music is architecture in time' and 'Art imitates Nature'. At the grand opening of the bridge in 1864 the bridge was decorated with flowers, and so it seems apt that the piece too should be decorated with this important species.
In honouring the Bridge the piece also celebrates the landscape from which the Bridge is inseparable and without which, unimaginable.
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (flute 3 doubles piccolo), 2 oboes (oboe 2 doubles cor anglais), 3 clarinets (in Bb), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in C, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players), harp, strings.
Duration: 13 min.
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