Piece of the week 28: ‘Shoreline Sketches’ for classical ukulele

One of the delights that I always found as a music lecturer was meeting young people at the beginning of their careers, hopefully helping them, sending them on their way, and then following their progress as they made their way in life.

Donald Bousted was one such musician, who I first encountered at the age of eighteen as he began his degree course as guitarist and composer. I noted straight away his thoughtful and intelligent approach to everything he did, his friendly and inquiring attitude, and his real sense of focus on what interested him.  So it was no surprise that, although we lost touch for many years after he left college, I occasionally saw his name in the musical press, both as performer and composer, as he developed his skills as classical guitar player, film maker, and composer of finely wrought and boundary-breaking music.

Much more recently we met up again when he was in his sixties, and at this stage in his career he had given up guitar playing due to carpal tunnel syndrome, but had taken up the classical ukulele, which suited his hands and stretch much better, and had moved out of London to rural Norfolk. Donald found himself part of a small, but world-wide community of classical ukulele players who were dedicated to showing that there was much more to the instrument than most of us thought!

Donald was keen to encourage composers to write for the several different sizes of ukuleles, and I was delighted when, in 2020, he asked me to write a piece for a CD that he was planning to make.

Working with Donald was a delight. The classical ukulele resembles a small guitar in many ways, but it only has four strings, and usually one string is tuned an octave higher than you might expect, (called re-entrant tuning) which makes the pitches of the strings closer together than on a guitar and gives it a characteristic sonority.  Uke players traditionally play from tab rather than 5-line stave musical notation, but Donald asked his composers to use the stave as well. Tab was a new experience for me but a very useful one, and of course it has a long history because lute music was notated in tablature in the 16th and 17th centuries. For the composers that he worked with, Donald produced helpful documents and YouTube videos, and, as I got into writing my piece, he answered my many questions and gave me really detailed feedback via Zoom on the pieces, getting me to explain what sound I was after and showing me the best way to obtain it.  Our roles were reversed – he as tutor and me as pupil, and it was a fascinating experience.

As we both lived near different parts of the East Anglian coastline, a set of five movements focussed on the coastline seemed appropriate, and my Shoreline Sketches for tenor ukulele was born. The first movement, Pebbles, depicts the variety of colours and shapes of pebbles on the shore, and, at times, the rasping sound they make as the waves pass over them. The second movement, Rain, probably needs no description – though possibly the sun starts to shine through in the final bars. The undulatingly repetitive but slightly changing patterns of the third movement suggest the Waves of the title, interspersed with passages of harmonics – those points, perhaps, where the waves draw back to reveal the glistening sand beneath. The fourth movement, Horizon, looks into the far distance while visions and colours gradually fade in and out of the line of sight, and finally Harbour represents a safe haven, with gently rocking motion, sometimes modified by the wash of a vessel entering or leaving.

Two years ago, in July 2021, I went to the premiere of my piece, alongside other new pieces as well as a number of seventeenth-century pieces transcribed from lute tablature. The recital was in St. Mary’s Church, Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk – a tiny church down a field track a few miles from Donald’s house, and seeing and hearing Donald surrounded by ancient church architecture and wall paintings, producing an amazingly wide range of colours from his tiny instruments, was an experience I’ll never forget.

Shortly after this performance Donald discovered that he was suffering from inoperable cancer. He continued working steadily through the autumn, recorded the CD Cross/Over and a number of videos, and passed away in a hospice near his home in December 2021, aged 64, leaving behind him a wonderful range of compositions and recordings of all sorts, and memories of a kind, thoughtful, focussed and inventive musician.

Here’s the YouTube recording that Donald made of Shoreline Sketches.

Details of the CD, and publication details, here.