Bird hovering, clouds scudding past in Flint
I have almost finished Flint. On and off, I have been working on this for about three or four months. It has made me think about whether you can synthesise responding to landscape and song in the same piece, using musical methods which map shapes in both.
Flint, for strings, was commissioned by Maeve Jenkinson and The Corelli Ensemble, supported with a grant from RVW Trust. The work is in three movements and lasts approximately 11 minutes. The outer movements are fast with a focus on a solo role for the lead violin in the final movement. The inner movement is slower, gentler and more contemplative.
Flint is a musical response to a place I know well - the Sussex Downs. Flint, for me, evokes the Sussex landscape, with its undulating chalk downs and sudden cuts and verticals, whether at a quarry, or at locations where the land suddenly meets the sea. Walking the Sussex Downs is a reminder that place shapes human experience over time and vice versa - from flint arrow heads to flint walls, this is a place that would not look as it does if people hadn't farmed it for millennia. Flint reflects some of the 'abstract' qualities of landscape (for example in gradually unfolding musical lines, or sudden contrasts, as in the fast first movement) as well as something of the experience of people who live in it - in the form of a Sussex folk song 'collected' and arranged by George Butterworth in 1912, which inspired the middle (slow) movement, and also permeates the textures of the third and final fast movement.
Flint is especially about the experience of the South Downs surrounding the town of Lewes. Walking on the chalky paths gives you exhilarating views of smooth, silky, gliding downland, formed of earth, chalk and flint. Flint seems to be everywhere in the walls of Sussex and of course was a very early tool, as the archaeological digs by Peacehaven playground have shown. So this piece is about walking in a landscape and thinking about its culture.
Movement 1 begins with bubbling energy and whirling repeated patterns. The textures are earthy and granular but there is also an ecstatic and soaring aspect to the top lines. The first violin is like a bird hovering, suddenly diving and then flying high. The softer sections are like watching clouds scudding past. Sharp cuts in the cliff chalk are figured in the sharp shifts in harmony, texture and flow. Chromatic melody sometimes mixes with soft modal tunes. Like the sharp cuts of flint in the predominantly smooth and flowing landscape.
Movement 2 is where the song collected by Butterworth comes to the surface in a slow, contemplative reading. Though the harmony is gentle, the musical material ebbs, flows and drifts like different naturally occurring systems in counterpoint. This means that although the song is on the surface, it is also heard in various transpositions and at various speeds, in a way that might be compared to geological strata suddenly revealed in the cliff where land meets the sea.
Movement 3 recovers the dynamism of movement 1 but this time with an extra focus on the contrast between solo (violin 1) and the ensemble. The solo violin 1 stands out with its very high notes and also a sustained passage in which it creates a kind of descant in very fast notes flying over the earthy ensemble below. This is perhaps a non-literal nod towards Vaughan Williams's famous Lark Ascending which I heard Maeve Jenkinson perform with the Corelli Ensemble earlier this year, although it is not a quotation! Below the solo descant, the ensemble again intones melodies formed out of the song from movement 2, softly layered to produce a slightly amorphous string texture. This moment once more touches on the underpinning tune which generates the harmonies and therefore defines the 'journey' of the whole piece.