Union Chapel in Islington

Union Chapel in Islington

Bryn Harrison, a recipient of the prestigious Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Composers, has composed To Shadow, a new 35-minute piece work to be premiered in Union Chapel on 7 February by the unique combination of cello trio (Tre Voci), gamelan (Southbank Gamelan Players) and organ (Kit Downes). We interviewed Bryn to find out more about his new composition, ahead of hearing it live in Islington's stunning octagonal Grade I-listed church.

What was the inspiration for To Shadow?

 Pianist/organist Kit Downes

Pianist/organist Kit Downes

Having the opportunity to work with Kit Downes in particular has been hugely inspiring. I know his work well from hearing him play with his band Troyka and with his jazz trio. For a while I've been looking for ways of pushing myself outside my comfort zone so the opportunity to write parts that might give him some freedom to create or expand upon written ideas was exciting and a new challenge for me. The materials in the organ part are loose and open to interpretation. I've given him an indication of what I'd like him to do and leave the rest to him. 

 The organ at Union Chapel was designed and built specially for the size and acoustics of the new Chapel building in 1877 by master organ builder Henry “Father” Willis. It is undoubtedly one of the finest in the world.

The organ at Union Chapel was designed and built specially for the size and acoustics of the new Chapel building in 1877 by master organ builder Henry “Father” Willis. It is undoubtedly one of the finest in the world.

How do the timbres of each instrumental group play off each other?

Working with such an unusual combination of instruments (organ, three cellos and gamelan instruments) has been a huge challenge. Each instrumental grouping inhabits its own timbral world and there are other issues such as the difference between a tempered and non-tempered tuning systems. I met up with Rob Campion from the Southbank Gamelan Players early in the project and tried out different instruments to determine what was going to work best. Ultimately I settled on just four gamelan instruments which I figured would balance well with the three cellos. All of the instruments are playing pretty much all of the time but each instrumental grouping is conceived as a separate layer that contributes to the whole. Each part has common pitches with  the others but these slight differences in tuning colour the parts in different ways. Essentially, the piece consists of rising lines in which the parts ghost each other - hence the title To Shadow

How similar is To Shadow to the rest of your repertoire?

Like much of my music (listen on Spotify), the piece is dense and largely textural. It also makes much use of repetition which is a characteristic of the way I work. I'm rather fond of a quote by the British painter Bridget Riley who has said that repetition can act as an amplifier - making one aware of things that would otherwise go by unnoticed.  An idea I've been working with in this piece and other recent projects has been to increase the levels of repetition as the piece continues to create the feeling of being inside the music. I like to resist change when I working, trying to think into an idea rather than out of  or away from it. 

There's a different kind of musical development at play, where the act of listening changes rather than from specifically what happens in the music. I'm interested to see how this work with this particular combination of instruments and with the freer elements that Kit brings to the piece.  

You seem to have an interest in musical time. Can you say how that operates in your music?

I really like the fact that music is a temporal act form - nothing ever stays still. As a composer you can really play around with how time passes and even play with the apparent contradiction of creating a sense of stasis. I work with cycles of sound that create the feeling of things always being in motion and yet always returning to their starting point. I'm interested in creating a type of music that allows the listener to be present to whatever is happening  at that particular point in the music. Events to reappear in this piece but are hopefully changed by what has gone before. Most of my music seems to be coming out at between 30 minutes to an hour (this piece is 35 minutes). The pieces seem to need this amount of time to really draw the listener into the fabric of the music.

Hear the world premiere of To Shadow by Bryn Harrison on 7 February at Union Chapel.
 

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