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Simon Mawhinney | Marlacoo

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Avant Garde: Classical Avant-Garde Classical: Piano solo Moods: Type: Instrumental
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by Simon Mawhinney

An epic, contemporary piano work, expertly played by Mary Dullea.
Genre: Avant Garde: Classical Avant-Garde
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  Song Share Time Download
1. Marlacoo
53:31 album only
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes

Memories Remembered: An Introduction to Marlacoo

Marlacoo is a small lake set amidst orchards and pasture. When I was young I used to go there with my father and fish for pike, using bacon as bait. One day I saw a tree that had been hollowed out by lightning. Another time we went with a man who had chopped off his frostbitten toes as he ascended Everest. And when the fish rejected their bacon, we made a little fire and roasted the rest. Decades passed and I never visited the lake until early adulthood. I saw that it presented an underwhelming landscape, but the magic of those earlier memories continued to grow. This is a feature of memory; every time we remember something we modify it slightly, allowing the embers of nostalgia to burn hotter and the summer skies of old to grow more cloudless. Marlacoo Lake therefore came to symbolise something significant, although ineffable, that exists primarily as memory.
In 2008 I began composing a work for piano solo that would explore the concept of musical re-remembering. My initial experiments to translate these observations into musical terms suggested a musical work that would spread over rather a large canvas. The resulting work is just under 55 minutes long in a single movement. As I worked on the piece during the second half of 2008 the complexity of the music continued to grow and I mentioned the project to Mary Dullea, whose ability to navigate the difficulties in the piano writing is truly astonishing. She indicated an interest in performing and recording the work, but upon completing the music in January 2009 I found that I had some doubts about the efficacy of the overall form. These doubts began to grow with time. Since I was unsure as to the exact nature of the problem, and had even less idea about its rectification, the piece was shelved. During 2010 I returned to the piece several times to rediscover that the second half of the piece appeared to lack an appropriate sense of architecture. The solution finally presented itself in January 2011, whereupon I made the appropriate alterations and added a further five minutes to the piece that helped to refine the proportions in the work’s second half.
The piece begins in an austere manner, presenting a series of strongly characterised musical ideas that are separated by long silences. These ideas, which I call ‘thematic objects’, are heard many times in the course of the piece. No two repetitions are exactly the same, but the identity of these objects is almost always easily perceived. After a few minutes we hear the primary thematic material of the work – a series of nine phrases, each consisting of nine pitches. These phrases are first heard in an unadorned manner, accompanied only by the resonance of harmonics that are sustained by the piano’s middle pedal. Thereafter the music continues on an increasingly complex journey, with the sparse nature of the opening minutes increasingly replaced by multilayered writing, complex polyrhythmic writing and elaborate structural procedures.

There are some structural signposts in the course of the piece. For instance, in the middle of the piece we hear a drone on B flat, a device which persists for minutes and indicates to the listener that we are moving into the second half of the work, a passage which is somewhat different to what has already been heard. The music now begins to pick up pace and we can hear that the music is moving towards a climax. Unlike many of my other pieces, where there is a certain teleological rigour in preparing the work’s ultimate goal, in Marlacoo the gradual accumulation of tension is continually interrupted and undermined. Indeed, a long passage may be heard, around two thirds of the way through, where we hear heavily pedalled bass notes and chords in a passage that persists for a sustained duration. In this passage all semblance of musical clarity is lost. This is an example of a device I have used in several large-scale works, where the listener is almost challenged to lose their sense of concentration, to become momentarily lost. I have found that such formal tactics can induce a deeper state of listening, creating a kind of musical hypnosis that can make our perception of what follows more magical. At the climax of the work the music develops into a rapid toccata that leads to a summative coda which returns to the austere simplicity of the opening.

The symmetry between the first and final bars of the piece suggests a circular approach to form. Indeed, I found my thinking became increasingly ‘circular’ as I wrote, with the notion influencing most of the parameters in the composition. Amongst the most significant manifestations of this circularity is the approach to musical time and the overall harmonic control.

With regards to musical time, a distinction might be made between linear and circular time. This distinction is discussed at length by Karol Berger in his book Bach’s Circle, Mozart’s Arrow, where he makes a distinction between ‘circular’ time in Bach, where music is focused more on the moment than on formal goals, and ‘directional time’ in Mozart, where music is driven by a focus on cadential/formal goals. He claims that the rise of directional thinking is in fact indicative of much broader intellectual developments – a sign that we have moved into the modern age from a more timeless Middle Ages. Having developed my thinking on this matter I found that I believed a combination of both approaches to be most relevant to my own worldview and therefore sought to inculcate this understanding in my formal design. The result is a work which acts as a kind of companion piece to my earlier composition, Hunshigo, wherein a non-linear, circular approach to form is combined with a goal-oriented approach. In this earlier work there is an intense climax which is reached after forty minutes of stops and starts. Musical mysteries and puzzles of memory are deliberately engendered, all developed in a manner which has a purposely ‘nocturnal’ approach redolent of that which was taken by Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake. In contrast,

Marlacoo aims towards the same goal, but from a diurnal perspective; whereas Hunshigo is consciously mysterious in its approach to form, Marlacoo is intentionally lucid and expositional. I found that my attempt to embed this interest into the development of the music led to an overall musical form of considerable complexity, a form that draws together thematic evolution in patterns that relate symmetry to broken symmetry, the circular with the elliptical, and the explicit with the obfuscated.

My exploration of circularity in the organisation of pitch led to a personal solution to the question of how harmonic technique might develop a relevance to the contemporary world without aping the methods of the past. My approach here is somewhat similar to the synthesis of time-concepts as described by Berger – the adopting of several approaches which are ostensibly at variance and to establish new points of unity. In this instance I have taken techniques from the ‘expanded serialism’ of postwar modernists from the 1970s onwards and the modality of Messiaen and found a means to draw them together through the approach of spectralism. A serial objet is therefore capable of expansion into a mode (which thereby is susceptible to free modal treatment) and can also be treated in spectral terms – that is, not as a set of pitches, but as a sound whose acoustic properties themselves constitute musical material with which one may compose. This leads to musical techniques of considerable suppleness.

The manner in which spectral concepts led to the expansion of my pitchworld may be described as follows. In the largest section of the piece I desired to create a rich array of developments while preserving as much as possible the harmonic identity of specific phrases. In an effort to extend the range of the phrases I made use of some basic spectral techniques. From a phrase consisting of nine pitches I grouped the notes as a chord and, using computer software, proposed them to be partials in an overtone series. Using a function developed by Tristan Murail, a virtual fundamental was predicted, along with the other partials that would form the predicted spectrum. I extended the range downwards by also including a function that calculates subharmonics that relate to the spectrum. Needless to say, the resulting arrays of notes might be subsequently treated following the same principles of serial/modality outlined above, thereby yielding note choices that can be handled with liberality and suppleness while at the same time maintaining a distinct harmonic identity in each section of the piece.

These techniques are employed with the single goal of creating a work that will be experienced in sound. The extended form and textural complexity of Marlacoo almost necessitates several listens before the work will begin to reveal itself. However, in writing a work of this scope the composer is afforded the opportunity to write music that can be ‘learnt’ as you listen. It is my hope that listeners will find themselves increasingly able to predict what they think they are about to hear. It is at this point that the music will truly begin to sing.

As soloist and chamber musician, Irish pianist Mary Dullea performs internationally at venues including London’s Wigmore Hall, Casa da Musica (Porto), Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre, Phillips Collection Washington D.C., Symphony Space New York City, Palazzo Albrizzi Venice (Italy), Johannesburg Music Society and National Concert Hall Dublin. Festival appearances include City of London, Cheltenham, St. Magnus International Festival, Belfast International Chamber Music Festival, Brighton, Huddersfield, Corsham, Aldeburgh, Fuse Leeds and Sound Scotland as well as Belfast Festival at Queens, West Cork Music, Reggello International Festival, Lodi Festival (Italy), TRANSIT Festival (Leuven) and National Arts Festival (South Africa). She frequently broadcasts for BBC Radio 3 and RTÉ Lyric FM and appears on CDs for NMC, Delphian, Altarus, Divine Art, MNR, Naxos and Resonus Classics. Concerto appearances include RTÉ Concert Orchestra, KZN Philharmonic Orchestra and a BBC commission with Lontano.

A sought-after interpreter of new music, Mary’s expansive repertoire covers the standard piano literature as well as an ever-increasing amount of 20th- and 21st- century compositions, many of which are dedicated to her. She has commissioned and premiered works from composers as varied as Michael Finnissy, Johannes Maria Staud, Michael Nyman, Donnacha Dennehy and Gerald Barry– notably with her piano trio, The Fidelio Trio and with violinist, Darragh Morgan.

Since 2008 she has been the curator of Soundings (an annual UK/Austrian collaborative new music festival) at the Austrian Cultural Forum London. In 2015 she served on the jury of ‘Schubert und die Musik der Moderne’ International Chamber Music Competition in Graz, Austria. She is the Artistic Director and founder of ‘Chamber Music on Valentia’, an annual chamber music festival in Co. Kerry, Ireland.

Mary’s own studies were at The Royal College of Music, London on the Edith Best Scholarship with Yonty Solomon and Goldsmiths University of London (MMus in Contemporary Music Studies). Her PhD in Performance focused on repertoire incorporating the use of the inside and the outside of the piano. Mary is Director of Performance at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Simon Mawhinney was born in Co. Armagh in 1976 and began composing at the age of eleven under the supervision of his grandfather. His early compositions were influenced in particular by Messiaen, the 2nd Viennese School and, somewhat unusually, Sorabji. By his late teens, Simon Mawhinney’s range of influences had expanded to include postwar modernism, particularly Boulez, as well as the incorporation of lessons learnt from wider study (for example John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Indian, Persian and Malian music.) After studies in the Universities of Oxford and York he returned to Northern Ireland to begin a PhD in Composition under the supervision of Piers Hellawell. Thus began an increasingly fruitful phase of performances, commissions and broadcasts, as well as a string of awards and prizes, including the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize. Since his appointment as Lecturer in Music at The Queen’s University of Belfast in 2006 Mawhinney’s work has had a distinctly international focus, with commissions from leading performers and ensembles in Germany, France and Iceland. Forthcoming works include a work for chamber orchestra (for Ensemble Caput, Iceland), a cycle of string quartets and a multi-movement piano work entitled The Garden of Light.

Mawhinney’s catalogue of compositions contains over 75 works in a wide range of media, ranging from works for symphony orchestra to computer-based soundscape compositions. The timescale of the works is likewise varied, ranging from ephemeral miniatures to single movements that last almost an hour. Most of his music, however, is written for soloists and chamber ensembles and is notable for its combination of the ecstatic and the severe. At the heart of his work is a dialogue between spontaneous expression and strategic rigour, combined with a love of audacity and soaring virtuosity.

Recording: Harty Room, Queen’s University of Belfast, 13th December 2011
Executive Producer: Chris Rice
Recording Engineers: Christopher Haworth, Craig Jackson
Photography by Roger Mawhinney and Anita Mawhinney
Photograph of Mary Dullea by Sophie Dennehy
Piano by Steinway
Will Stevenson, Shamim Razavi, Joseph Hobbs, Polo, Heavy B



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