Introducing the Firewheel Anthology

Dark Inventions' directors Christopher Leedham and Martin Scheuregger explain the thinking behind the Firewheel project, and introduce the anthology of new pieces that emerged from the project

7 years ago
Time to read
About 6 minutes

The Firewheel Anthology is available on CD and digital download, and sheet music for the entire collection is published by the University of York Press.

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This CD and score collection represents the culmination of a project that began with the commissioning of just one work. In 2013 we asked Philip Cashian to write a new work for our then fledgling ensemble, Dark Inventions. With funding from the Britten-Pears Foundation, we were able to make this a reality. Support from Sound and Music followed, and the group was able to commission further composers and to take the whole project on tour across the UK.

After a UK tour and a live performance on Radio 3, we were approached by the University of York Music Press. Support from Arts Council England allowed us to record and publish all of the commissioned works in order to pass them on to new players and new listeners. A long journey and several strong partnerships forged along the way, culminated in the album presented here, which we hope will engage and enthral listeners with the diverse range of new British music that it represents.

The Firewheel Collection brings together a number of seemingly disparate compositional voices, yet is united by an attention to line and melody. From the lucid tune and flowing metre of The Cruel Mother, to the modern polyphony and rhythmical freedom of Three Inventions, there is a striking contrast between approaches to the treatment of horizontal material and vertical harmony. Nevertheless, the deliberate attention to these factors, and the integrity of each composer’s decisions, has led to a series of works that shift from one to the next with satisfying contrasts yet unifying parallels.

The album begins with the captivating sonorities of Uhtceare (Patrick John Jones, 2014), as the pure tone of a singing bowl emerges from silence. Pulsating chords gradually surface and new melodic lines begin to flutter, with musical ideas unfolding as if we are hearing the first waking thoughts of the composer; indeed, the title is taken from a little-known Old English word for the anxiety one can experience when awake just before dawn. This feeling is manifest in a soundworld that develops from relaxed pulsations to agitated movement, and sees the opening melodic flourishes blossom into frenetic, extended lines across the piece.

The tension between separate melodic lines heard in Uhtceare is carried forward to Death and the Lady (arr. Martin Scheuregger, 2014). In this setting of the traditional English folksong, the original melody is left largely untouched. Two new lines are contributed by a cello and clarinet, creating a lilting polyphony as the instruments develop their own melodies over a largely repeated vocal part. Each instrument takes its own path, following the dark tale as its doomed protagonist meets Death and tries to bargain with him.

A central melody remains the focus of the title track, Firewheel (Philip Cashian, 2013), which takes its inspiration from the painting of the same name by Bryan Wynter. We first hear a spiralling line passed between instruments in a manner that resonates with the obsessive repetition heard in Uhtceare. A duet between piccolo and vibraphone soon comes to the fore, giving the first taste of a tension between triplet and semiquaver rhythms that is retained as the work progresses. The sudden shift into a spikey rhythmic unison gives a chance for the cello to emerge as soloist, before the dry sonorities of staccato chords and the pizzicato solo slowly melt into sustained vibraphone harmony. A clarinet line emerges to revisit the hocketing heterophony of the opening, this time stretched out and slowed down as the melody gradually shifts between clarinet, flute and violin.

The material is once again transformed as the clipped chords return, combined with the triplet/semiquaver idea. Although imbued with seemingly relentless energy, this material cannot sustain itself for long, and soon breaks down to give space for a slower passage as the focus shifts to a bass clarinet and piccolo duologue. A sudden interjection from the strings leads to a more direct revisiting of the opening material, now overlaid with the slower, winding melodies. A vibraphone solo leads to a final flourish of ideas before the machine starts to break down. The material fragments and the energy dissipates as the piece finishes, with the remnants of all the previous activity now seemingly locked into a single repeating chord.

The Shipwrecked Ghost (Stef Conner, 2014) is a through-composed original composition, which, like Death and the Lady, features a folk melody at its heart. Its composer takes the role of singer as we hear the story of a drowned sailor returning home to visit his lover one last time. Fragments of the original folksong melody are preserved – taken from a transcription by the poet John Clare of his mother’s singing – and entwined in new material that reflects the prosodic contour of an imagined reading of the story to a child. Old and new interact seamlessly as we hear the original melody in a fresh harmonic and textual setting that nevertheless preserves the character of the original tale and tune.

The idea of continuity is taken to its logical extreme in the next piece. Möbius Sticks (Christopher Leedham, 2014) is built around a constantly twisting but ultimately static melodic line that is shared between the instruments of the ensemble. Although we first hear the group sounding as one unit, each part begins to emerge with a more overtly individual role. A sense of tightly controlled counterpoint holds the strands together in a piece that tumbles onwards with a sense of perpetual motion. As the energy dissipates, the material remains familiar: a journey has certainly taken place, but ultimately we find ourselves back where we started.

In Three Inventions (Benjamin Gait, 2014), the independence of each melodic line is at the heart of the composition. Performers are invited to make many decisions about the music, ranging from the placement of individual events, to the order in which the movements are played. In each invention we hear vibraphone, flute and clarinet successively take a solo role. The soloist leads with its melody, whilst the second instrument shadows, and the third comments and interrupts. Decisions are taken both individually and as a collective, inviting the performers to engage with the material and create their own interpretations. In the performance captured here, the result of the compositional approach is felt in a breadth and freedom that allows each successive invention to develop its own character.

Instruments also take on varying characters in The Four Last Things (Martin Scheuregger, 2014), with the percussionist, clarinettist and cellist each leading the action at various points. Individuals come to the fore in different sections, but even whilst an instrument is fulfilling an essentially accompanying role, it still strives to be heard above the others. Many of the musical ideas are pursued through explorations of simultaneous horizontal lines, with instruments moving through highly characterised material at their own pace. Taking its title from ‘The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things’, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, this piece uses discrete sections and the idea of layering to present ideas in a range of different ways: links between sections are sometimes audible, at other times subtle, and occasionally hidden altogether.

The Cruel Mother (arr. Christopher Leedham, 2014) closes the collection with another dark folk tale. This murderous story of infanticide is widely known: when a mother gives birth to a child in a forest, its illegitimacy leaves her with only one option. In this version, a matter-of-fact musical representation contrasts with the disturbing narrative, placing the tune in a web of pulsating drones and jaunty counter-melodies. The disconnect between the story and musical material reflects the wider concern for juxtaposition that typifies the album.

Across the collection, the individual voices of the composers remain distinct; however, conflicts between vertical layers, contrasting horizontal sections, and tensions between narrative and context pervade these works. These common concerns provide an aesthetic coherence that ties the pieces together to create a unified, and hopefully satisfying, listening experience.

–– Notes by Christopher Leedham & Martin Scheuregger