Composition Date: 2014
Duration: c. 6‘
Instrumentation: Oboe, Bassoon, Piano & Percussion
This piece emerged as I was experimenting with a kind of minimalism. I was wanting to see if I could build a complete work out of the least possible number of compositional elements — yet without sounding (to my ears, at least) tediously monotonous or repetitive.
So for this piece, I decided to use the technique of ostinato (a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm) as the basic compositional building block. The challenge here was to ensure that, even with the repetition, there would be enough musical variety and emotional expressiveness. The approach I decided to use was this:
Each instrument would have its own ostinato for each movement. But they would be heard afresh or under a different guise as and when each instrument added its unique ostinato to the mix, resulting in a kind of layering or fugue-like effect.
I also wanted to leave room for creative flexibility, however. So in the end, not every instrument repeated itself exactly. The piano in particular was given far more freedom to embellish and develop.
Soon after I had completed the piece, I came across a wonderfully evocative poem by William E. Stafford, called “Next Time” (1983).1 I immediately saw a connection between the main themes of the poem and what I was trying to do in musical terms: namely, showing how it was possible to engage with continually repeated things (or sounds) so as see (or hear) them in a fresh way .
The poem’s key insight — as I understand it — is to notice how we routinely brush aside and disparage the ordinary, the commonplace or the everyday. Instead, we lavish our attention and devotion on the celebrity or the exceptional. And we assume that virtually all of life’s beauty or happiness must somehow be concentrated into these rare abnormalities.
Yet it is possible to see every thing and every moment — even those we have encountered many times before — as bursting with the capacity to inspire wonder and delight. To remove our habitual ‘nothing-to-see-here’ lens, we need to re-approach the ordinary with reverence and quiet receptivity. We need to pause, and attend to what is given, freely and immediately, in everything around us.
Stafford’s poem is, in effect, inviting us to share his own pledge: next time we engage with “everyday places and events and people”, we will pay closer attention. We will take the time to see, hear and feel — to “realise” all that is there, the “wonderment” of all that lies around us.2
As I reflected more on the poem, I could even hear quite specific alignments between each of its three stanzas and the three movements of my piece. So, by way of giving recognition to this (wonderfully serendipitous) correspondence, I gave the work the same title as Stafford’s poem, and the name of each movement was drawn from the final line of the relevant stanza.
In the following, I will present each stanza of Stafford’s poem, followed by the thoughts, feelings and imagined scenes that his words evoked for me. These reflections include the subtle ways in which I heard my music in the poem’s lines (e.g. “intricate, baroque-like”, “playful swirling, entwining, escalating, plummeting”, “ebb and flow”, “slight ‘lift’ of pitch”, “singular, startling beauty”, and so on).
The music was written before I encountered the poem, so it can stand alone, as it were. But I hope the listener will nevertheless find that reading the poem alongside the music will enrich their experience, as it still does for me.
1. The Air Being Still
Next time what I’d do is look at
the earth before saying anything. I’d stop
just before going into a house
and be an emperor for a minute
and listen better to the wind
or to the air being still.
Our capacity to take in the signs of beauty and delight all around us can be easily smothered by endless distractions. The solution is to look first, before saying anything: turn down the background noise and pay attention, especially to the very things that have become so commonplace that we now scarcely notice them.
For instance, imagine re-seeing our everyday world through the eyes of an “emperor”, surrounded by intricate, baroque-like splendour. Or again, tune in to something as ubiquitous as the wind, to its playful swirling, entwining, escalating, plummeting; and when the signal-to-noise ratio is just right, we might even hear its stillness.
2. What Lifted The Voice
When anyone talked to me, whether
blame or praise or just passing time,
I’d watch the face, how the mouth
had to work, and see any strain, any
sign of what lifted the voice.
When we are engaged in a conversation, we are usually oblivious to the mechanics: the mouth at work, the tones of voice, the nods. But when we do focus our attention, we can be struck by its utter strangeness, the marvel of it all.
How does the miniature dance of facial movements, sounds, and gestures communicate? How does the undulation of a voice express the difference between praise and blame? How does the ebb and flow of two voices come to make sense as a conversation? How is it that a slight lift of pitch in a voice can convey so much more than the words alone?
3. Like a Light
And for all, I’d know more—the earth
bracing itself and soaring, the air
finding every leaf and feather over
forest and water, and for every person
the body glowing inside the clothes
like a light.
To see the wonder of life, we must look in a different way. The earth, for example, is not simply there: cold, lifeless, and monotonous. Instead, it lies in wait, preparing for action, “bracing itself” to break through the surface and rise up as mountains, “soaring” into the clouds.
Again, the air is not merely thrown about like a blanket, aimlessly. It is on an ancient quest, searching the forests and the waters, entranced by the finest detail, “finding every leaf and feather”.
And people are not predictable duplicates of each other: beneath the clothes, the concealments of sameness and familiarity, there is always a singular, startling beauty.
2 The only published comment on this poem by the author appears to be the following: “The persuasion that all of those around you may be swept away at once —not just one at a time, with adjustments in between — builds a special perceiving of those friends, these days. Not all of the time by any means, but occasionally, I find myself addressing this feeling of anticipated nostalgia, this feeling of wonderment about everyday places and events and people. I would like to record the opinion that our time has created a sharper, more pervasive, more frequent mood of trying to realize things that pass. My poem “Next Time” is for me just an example of that way of leaning into the experience of the late Twentieth Century.” Stafford, W. (1983). Next Time. New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, 5(4): p. 616.