I have completed a commission from the East Ayrshire Education Authority, supported by Historic Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund through the Kilmarnock Conservation Area Regeneration Scheme/Townscape Heritage Initiative, to write a work for its fledgeling string orchestra, some 40 or 50 young players in all. This Authority, under its redoubtable music manager Paul Wood, does amazing work in that part of the world. I went on a fact-finding mission last autumn and attended the annual gala concert in the Great Hall at Kilmarnock. Here was an evening of jazz, rock, barber-shop, big-band, film scores and (rousingly) bagpipe music which restored one's faith in the power of a public education system to transform hundreds of young lives.
The age-range and ability-range of these young players is necessarily wide, and this was my first problem. How to write a piece that has a strong overall effect but that accommodates the junior players equally with the senior? The trick here is to concentrate on just this aspect: the overall effect, and then work out an internal division of labour that appears best to deliver it. The Ayrshire ensemble faces the problem of all youth string groups: only two viola players. I have tried to solve this by dividing the violins (always plenty of violins) upwards of six times: the lower echelons can then function as part-viola. But I do feel for those two viola players, and have made some passages in which they are the only instruments to be heard. I would start up societies and online communities for the middle voice instruments, particularly to encourage the young to take them up: the glorious society of bassoonists; violasrock.com.
My work is called I know where I’m going, fantasia for string orchestra. It is planned to tour this work across the channel in my native patch of Northern Ireland, and a theme that unified the Scotch and Ulster strain seemed desirable. The tune ‘I know where I’m going’ provided it. The tune was collected by Herbert Hughes in County Antrim; but the authorities believe that it may be Scottish in origin. On Youtube you can hear a gorgeous rendition of Hughes’s arrangement by Maureen Hegarty. (You can find the link on my Facebook page.) And listen carefully to the lyrics, which have the unappeased, heartbreaking quality of the tune itself.
My work is essentially a set of free-variations of this haunting tune. I say free, because at times I do not vary the whole tune but take a tiny group of pitches and subject them to a kind of microscopic examination. The old periodicity-driven idea of variation gave us some very great works, like Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. But it has always seemed to me a form (like fugue) more for showing off the composer’s ingenuity than for gripping the listener. We can find many new ways of doing it, especially if we go by Stanford’s great principle that all composition consists of theme-and-variation.
I wish these young players well in negotiating the challenges of premiering this work. The music makes some allowances for their varying technical capacities, but none at all for their musical imagination and ambition.
In these respects, I ask them for everything.
The premiere of I know where I'm going; fantasia for string orchestra will take place in the Grand Hall Kilmarnock, on Wednesday 23rd of March at 7.30 pm.