Last night at the New Barrack Tavern in Sheffield, a tribute was paid to a group of local young men, who fought for our country but never came home. To mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, I was commissioned to write music for an evening of narration, poetry and song in memory of these men. They were the Sheffield PALS.
This was a very exciting project to be involved in, as I hadn’t produce any extensive incidental music for a production of this kind before. Both the brief and the script given to me provided enough inspiration to produce the kind of music I felt would be appropriate for the setting. I chose to write for viola and electronics, for practical reasons mainly but also to heighten the intimacy of performance in the venue which is quite small in itself.
A lot of the musical material came from a withdrawn piece of mine called After the Silence for solo horn and spoken word, which was performed two years ago today at the Imperial War Museum in Manchester as part of a festival of the same name. The three subsections of the overture (Lament – Praise – Consolation and Solace) are taken from the traditional Greek poetic form of the elegy which contains serious reflection and lamentations for those lost. I have included a little snippet below from the end of the piece, as the viola fades away on a single pitch leaving artillery gunfire rumbling in the distance.
For the underscore material I chose to write a series of short postcard pieces that are labelled with sub-sections from the script and interact with the narrative of the story to a greater or lesser extent. Also written on each card is a looped figure which can be varied by the performer in terms of speed/timbre and intensity, depending on the nature of the words it is supporting.
A large part of the aesthetic reasoning for choosing to present music in this way had to do with my thoughts on the relationship between the reality of war and it’s perception back home in England at the time. I imagined that each postcard a snapshot of reality, sent home to family and friends as a very personal and individual statement. It was also musically interesting in terms of having to produce such short phrases on the small canvas of a postcard which in turn have to convey so much when interpreted to the listeners.
The electronics part is very simple and slightly less involved than the viola during the performance. It consists of just four sample tracks.
A – radio noise
B – crowd noise
C – church bells
D – gunfire
I transformed each of these in editing software to provide subtle background textures where applicable in the narration. In response to the patriotic fervour for instance, I manipulated the sound of crowds in the street to symbolise a call to arms whilst the church bells and gunfire when played simultaneously, attempt to reflect and idyllic dream of victory set against the reality of death and destruction.
It was a very moving performance from everyone involved and I hope our little tribute did the PALS proud.
‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.’