Ancient Mexico and modern Britain – two of my orchestral pieces

I am hoping to write an orchestral piece this year, as a way of seeing in the 2020s.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of piece I might write, and I have an emerging plan in my head – no notes or rhythms yet, but some idea of overall sonorities and how the piece can be shaped by contrasting instrumental registers. While not really a ‘programmatic’ piece it is inspired by a landscape that I know well, and the changes that occur year by year.

Partly as preparation for this, I’ve been listening to a range of orchestral music, including some of my own, and realising yet again the enjoyment, as well as the pitfalls, of writing for orchestra.

Yesterday I listened to two of my orchestral pieces – apart from the fact that, oddly, they both begin with a gong, they are very different pieces.  One of them was written for a youth orchestra, with easy instrumental parts, and the other one was written for an orchestra of music students, and was designed to stretch these trainee professional musicians both technically and musically. Both have several movements, with descriptive titles, but, after that, they have little in common!

The earlier piece was ‘A Colchester Suite’ written in 1982 for the newly-formed Colchester Youth Chamber Orchestra. It has four movements, each relating to a different aspect of life in Colchester, past and present. Colchester is a Roman town, with much history, and these pieces are, if you like, picture postcards of the high-street market, the countryside nearby, and the old port down the hill. And the last movement is a fantasia on the nursery rhyme ‘Old King Cole’, which has some claim to be of Colcestrian origin. The music is accessible, often influenced by folk-song, and uses the orchestra in a colourful but traditional way.  Indeed, its pictorial quality became even more evident when, a few years later, it was made the subject of an Anglia TV film, in which appropriate video was put to the music. (One day I must try and trace that film).

Very different was the piece that I wrote to see in the millennium. ‘Aztec Genesis’ (2000) was written for Christopher Phelps and the Colchester Institute Symphony Orchestra. At that time, Colchester Institute, where I taught, had a very large music department, for students from 16 to 21+, and provided many musical opportunities: this orchestra was just one of the many student ensembles on offer. This is an expansive piece, for large orchestra, and provides both technical and musical challenges for player and listener. 

In the year 2000 I think many of us were thinking of our own past, our traditions and beliefs, and somehow I was led to consider the traditions of other peoples, and in particular the creation myths of the Aztec people of Mexico. The Aztec civilisation goes back many thousands of years, and although much has now been destroyed, some wonderful works of art remain.  There are five movements in my piece, which reflect the Aztec belief that the world was created five times and destroyed four times – we are now living in the fifth era. Each era was named after a god and a force of nature: Sun, Wind, Rain, Water, Earthquake, and I based the music on a five-note motif derived from the letters AZTEC.

Deriving the music from a short motif immediately provided a different approach to the melody, harmony, and texture than in the earlier piece. I think the thing that excited me most about writing this was the opportunity that the large orchestra gave me to think in tone-colours, and although each movement is to an extent pictorial, the picture painted is rather more amorphous and difficult to pin down than in the earlier piece. I was excited – and I think the students were too – by the power unleashed by the heavy percussion, the snarling brass, the rushing woodwind: and by the delicacy of the strings in their highest and lowest registers, by the gentle heterophony (several players playing the same material but deliberately not quite together) and the peaceful sonority created by solo wind instruments, and by the pitched percussion and piano. 

Not everything quite came off – although there are many areas of busy, forward moving music, there are possibly slightly too many points of relaxation; and also in the final bars I wanted the large gong to make so much noise that you couldn’t hear the rest of the orchestra at first, so that gradually the other sounds would emerge as if out of the depths, and this didn’t seem to work.  But most of it did succeed, and I was pleased with the colour and texture that I had created, and have enjoyed listening to the recording again after twenty years.

So, here are two pieces, by the same person, with some similarities, but yet which provide a big contrast in mood and style.  I wonder what my new piece will be like?

The image is a page from the last movement of Aztec Genesis.

You can hear recordings on YouTube of both pieces:

A Colchester Suite 

Aztec Genesis