I was extremely proud to have played a small part in a recent concert at Bath Abbey, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the University of Bath. The concert brought together students and teachers from present and past, to celebrate 50 years of a university that has expanded exponentially since its humble beginnings in 1966. It is now a leading centre of research in diverse fields of study such as science, engineering and sports science.
I was commissioned to transcribe a piece of orchestral music and reduce it to a much simpler arrangement of two violins, clarinet and piano. The piece was called ‘Prospero’s Magic’, by the celebrated British composer Michael Nyman, and it was to be performed at the 50th anniversary concert by some talented music scholars who study at the University.
My job was very clear, to take a huge, dense orchestral tapestry and reduce it to the key elements that would work within the instrumentation I had available. On initial listening, it seems as if there is one main theme repeated over and over again. In fact, if you listen closely, you will hear that each part varies slightly every few bars, the only repetitive element being the bass line.
Although this method of composition has been labelled as ‘minimalist’, it actually has roots that goes back centuries to great composers like Henry Purcell. Purcell’s most famous aria ‘Dido’s Lament’ is a perfect example of a repeated bass line that is transformed into a grand piece through little variations in harmony that are laid over the top of it. It should come as no surprise therefore, to know that Purcell is often cited by Michael Nyman as one of his greatest influences.
Dido’s Lament starts at 1:32, sung here by the brilliant mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly
The process of rehearsal was extremely rewarding, working with the music scholar quartet who all proved to be very professional and perceptive in their approach music. Watching my transcription come to life from the dots and lines on the paper reminded me why I enjoy writing music (if I needed reminding!), and it was wonderful to hear the performance improve with every rehearsal. The quartet were also rewarded with a final mentoring by violinist and composer, Alexander Balanescu. Alexander happens to be a founding member of the Michael Nyman band, and so had priceless insights to the piece being rehearsed. It was clear that the quartet were hugely inspired by Alexander’s direction and guidance.
Come the day it was quite relaxing to simply sit and watch these four talented individuals take to the stage and perform! I was not nervous, as I could tell by the final rehearsal that the piece was ready to go. Having performed myself as a pianist, I knew what pre-performance nerves the scholars might be going through, but like all true professional musicians, they took to the stage and let the music do the talking. It was wonderful to hear the music reverberate around the ancient building of Bath Abbey. All of the drama and passion of the original version of ‘Prospero’s Magic’ was very much alive here and almost concentrated in the compact quartet arrangement. I look forward very much to hear future concerts that these musicians perform in.
Below is an HD video of the whole event. You can watch the quartet playing at 26:54