Mark Bowden in Conversation: Haydn, the Big Bang and 'A Violence of Gifts'

Mark Bowden in Conversation: Haydn, the Big Bang and ‘A Violence of Gifts’

Mark Bowden has been Resident Composer at the BBC National Orchestra of Wales since June 2011. Born in Wales, 1979, Mark’s association with BBC NOW has been especially fruitful, with three major new commissions punctuating an exciting series of performance and education projects. His most substantial piece yet is A Violence of Gifts, scored for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra, to a specially commissioned libretto by the Welsh poet and writer Owen Sheers.

Inspired by Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation (1797-8), the piece explores the origins of light, matter and life. Crucially, though, Mark and Owen come from a 21st century perspective in weaving together some of the very latest scientific theories and discoveries, including some they learned about whilst visiting the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, beneath the Franco-Swiss border.

It seems fitting that the world premiere of A Violence of Gifts will take place just as the LHC has been switched on for a second time, in search of further discoveries about our universe and life on earth. On Saturday April 18 at Cardiff’s St David’s Hall – and broadcast live by BBC Radio 3 – the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, will be joined by soloists Elizabeth Atherton and Roderick Williams in a programme which also includes Holsts’ The Planets.

Ahead of rehearsals, Mark spoke with Steph Power about A Violence of Gifts, and what led him to its extraordinary subject matter. Together they explore many ideas, from the interplay of music, poetry and science, to Haydn and the Enlightenment, and the vital role that creative freedom plays in all fields of human endeavour.


Steph Power: Your new piece, A Violence of Gifts, is all about origins and genesis, so I’d like to ask you about the genesis of the piece itself. How did it come about?

Mark Bowden: It’s been a long time in the making. The first meeting was in December 2011, a few months after I started my residency at BBC NOW. I was just finishing my Cello Concerto when they asked me what I’d like to do for my next two pieces. I ended up writing Heartland next – the Percussion Concerto – which was a collaboration with National Dance Company Wales. But I said I also really wanted to write a piece with the chorus in the future.

I told them my idea for the piece and they were so supportive, they just said yes. The actual idea was much older; I’d been thinking about it since before I started with the orchestra. It’s being said a lot now that this piece is a modern-day Creation and it’s not really! But I have always been interested in Haydn’s oratorio. Actually I’m interested in the first movement; Haydn’s harmony, the unresolved cadences, the strange tonality. And I’m interested in the story about how he came to write it; his astronomical study with William Herschel.

Haydn’s said to have been amazed at what he saw through Herschel’s telescope on a visit to him.

Yes, Richard Holmes writes about it in The Age of Wonder. Herschel’s telescope had the largest lens yet created and was based at Slough; a more rural place then, with a good view of the stars.

So the idea of The Creation as a starting point for a piece had been there in the back of my mind. And at BBC NOW we talked about making not a season, but a group of concerts, which is how my piece comes to be programmed alongside Holst’s The Planets, and The Creation will be performed in May.¹

Could you say something about the meeting of music, poetry and science in your piece?

Two of my really strong interests outside music are poetry and physics – particularly stuff to do with space. When I’m writing any piece I’m often inspired by poetry and text or by some sort of natural phenomena, and I normally look at some scientific aspect of that. So bringing those two things together for this piece made a lot of sense for me. I also wanted the subject matter to be the most up-to-date ideas and knowledge about the origins of the universe. So it’s about the Big Bang, and it’s about matter and antimatter and all of these things. I looked around at first to find an existing text, but soon realised that wouldn’t be possible. So I raised funds to commission a new text, which was a separate project.²

I gather you first encountered your librettist, Owen Sheers, at the Hay Festival?

Yes, I didn’t know Owen, but I really liked his talk at the festival. I bought his early poetry collection, Skirrid Hill, and loved his imagery and economy of means, which I felt I needed for this kind of text. I just wrote to him, told him my idea, and we met up. He really liked it.

Mark Bowden and Owen Sheers
Mark Bowden and Owen Sheers at CERN

So, effectively, you went from Herschel’s telescope to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN – the 21st century equivalent I guess – which you and Owen visited together as part of your research?

Exactly, that really is the idea! Actually Owen knew Ariane Koek – in fact she was at the Hay Festival so it was quite serendipitous. At the time she was running the Arts at CERN programme. They arrange residencies and research visits for artists.³

And I was in my element there, I have to say! Owen was too; like me, he’s fascinated by all this stuff.

Owen’s talked about how he discovered that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity became known in Britain during World War I.

Yes, that’s right, in 1916.

So there’s the irony of this incredible, expansive idea arriving amidst terrible destruction. And of course that’s when Holst wrote The Planets too; right in the midst of that dreadful maelstrom.

Absolutely, it’s amazing. And CERN itself is an interesting marriage of the repercussions of war and science, I guess. We were told how it was seen as a mechanism for bringing about peace in Europe and bringing people together. Someone actually used the word ‘apology’; an apology to the world for having created the bomb, and a chance to have nuclear research for peaceful means and the good of humanity rather than for destruction.

That’s key isn’t it – how we choose to apply new discoveries and knowledge. Which brings me in a way to wider notions of creativity, and to the cosmogenic narrative of A Violence of Gifts. I believe you’re very interested in the idea that ‘everything comes from nothing’?

Yes. I hadn’t heard of that concept until I started researching this piece, but I was reading Lawrence M. Krauss’s book, A Universe From Nothing, about the origins of the universe. Apparently the main narrative now is that a vacuum is not ‘empty’ at all; rather, a vacuum is full of matter and antimatter being continually created and destroyed. And the question ‘why is there something’, or ‘where did it all come from’: Krauss discusses how it would be absurd for there NOT to be a universe, because of that discovery. Because, in any vacuum, we see matter and antimatter continuously just popping into existence.

Oh, ok. The idea that nature abhors a vacuum?

Yes, exactly. This infinitesimally small ‘spot’ that the universe would have occupied would have been bursting with ‘stuff’ that just had to go somewhere. And this happens all the time. If we were to make a vacuum now, we would be able to observe it happening if we had the right instruments. Little tiny universes, perhaps, bursting into existence.

That’s fascinating. And I wonder how – or whether – that might work musically, in your piece? For instance, in the Haydn, it’s not so much that he juxtaposes chaos and order, say, but that he simply starts with nothing – with a void if you like – and effectively fills it with sound. Does that bear any relation to how you approach A Violence of Gifts?

Maybe, to a degree. I guess the act of writing anything – whether it’s poetry or music or coming up with an idea – in some sense is making something from nothing. And in the temporal arts, there’s silence and then the music starts. So on that level perhaps it’s a metaphor for all music and all art. But the thing I really drew from the Haydn was his harmonic material, which might not be apparent in my piece when you hear it, but is there on a molecular level if you like; these strange juxtapositions of major and minor tonalities that Haydn uses, these unresolved cadences – which are almost proto-Wagnerian sometimes, particularly in the opening movement.

Then later in The Creation there’s an aria, ‘In native worth’: he starts in C major, then modulates to G, then goes to Ab major. This isn’t startling to us now, but it was very startling to audiences in the 1790s. To those three pitches, C, G and Ab I added Db. Then I thought of E as being in the middle of those, so I made a sort of mirror image around E: with C and Db, G and Ab. If you like, they’ve become the atoms of my piece harmonically, and in terms of line and pitch. So I really did take something fundamental from the Haydn – although not a quotation.

So you’re using that material as a kind of structural kernal rather than something that’s intended to be audible?

Yes, that’s it. And for myself, I just hear these notes, these pitch relationships, all the time when I’m thinking about the piece – though I haven’t heard the orchestra play it yet! The whole piece just abounds with those patterns and shapes. Perhaps if you’re listening and you have that sort of sensitivity to intervals you might hear that going on.

Right, I’ll listen out! Yes, and the way Haydn used harmony, and orchestration too – I’m thinking more on technology here – even the blazing C major chord that Haydn has at ‘Let there be light’! At the time, that was seen as what we’d now call a technological effect. It would have almost literally blown people away – and it’s a kind of mixing of art and science.

Yes, there’s some quite unusual orchestration in The Creation. He uses the contrabassoon, which was a fairly new instrument at the time. And he does use, as you say, these technological effects – timbral surprises to represent the whale or the worm – all sorts of different things. And actually that’s been an influence for me as well. I use the contrabassoon, which is not so startling now, but I’ve also got the contrabass clarinet which is an octave below the bass clarinet – this is the first time I’ve written for it. There are some key passages where those two instruments have a solo group with the double-basses and the tuba. They have melodies which wind around each other. I know these will sound muddy; you won’t be able to hear the detail necessarily, but the effect was an inspiration from Haydn.

Before we look in more detail at your piece, I’m curious to know how you feel about people’s tendency to separate art and science into distinct categories? To me, this feels a false and uncreative way to look at the world!

Yes! To me the separation of art and science is completely false, and I don’t think artists are more creative than scientists. But I do think there are people, whatever their field, who are open to questioning and to new ideas, and then there are types – of behaviour rather than people, probably – where you’re a bit closed down, and just carry on with what you know. Probably the majority of us are a bit more like the latter. But it’s only when you have people, and sometimes institutions – I think CERN is one of the very few – who are willing to respectfully throw out everything that’s gone before, that practice can be pushed forward. Whether that’s scientific discovery or composition.

Haydn was a composer of the Enlightenment, and that thinking is very apparent in The Creation, despite the religiosity of the text – and that it was written a bit later perhaps, just after the French Revolution. So I was wondering whether aspects of Enlightenment thinking influenced your piece? Especially the idea of reason being a means to liberty; a light shining in the darkness, if you like – which was not necessarily anti-religion (and certainly not in the theological Haydn) but, still, part of a wider struggle to counter the authoritarian dogma of the church.

Those ideas really resonated with me, and with Owen, when we were writing the piece, yes, and Owen alludes to this quite strongly within the text. I hope we don’t offend anyone as it’s not supposed to be an anti-religious piece. It is about science, and today’s scientific narrative of where the universe came from. Obviously that will be different in ten or fifteen year’s time and the piece itself will be confined to history. But there’s a beautiful line, let me see …

… is it,  ‘the faithful cannot search or make a story new’? That was the line which prompted my question, anyway – it’s a powerful line!

That’s the one! We recorded everything at CERN, and Owen drew a lot of ideas from conversations we had with people there. Someone said, talking about science, that those faithful to scientific dogma, or who are partisan, or who insist on particular theories being right, can’t search for new stories. At CERN they want people who are completely prepared to say the Big Bang never happened! Or, I guess, in the past it would have been throwing out the idea that the sun went round the earth. It took a huge cultural and intellectual shift for that to filter into society – people were imprisoned or far worse just for daring to question the orthodoxy. So that is very much at the heart of our piece, and again, that comes from Haydn, that idea of Enlightenment.

Generally I’m an optimist but sometimes I look around – I work in higher education a bit [Mark is Director of Composition at Royal Holloway, University of London] – and I’m disheartened by the way that society, through the government and universities in particular, is channelling funds into scientific research that is deemed to be of immediate economic benefit. I have scientist colleagues who really struggle with this because having the time and space to think freely is becoming more and more eroded.

So in some ways our piece is also a plea, really, to stop this happening. That the only way we can find out more is to keep asking new questions and being open. Since the Enlightenment we’ve made these amazing discoveries, but I’d hate to see us moving backwards. I’m sure we won’t, but we have to keep on. The Enlightenment was battling against religious orthodoxy and now I feel we’re battling against the orthodoxy of capitalism, actually. And that’s just as pernicious and perhaps even more dangerous.

I agree. That whole neo-liberal emphasis on profit rather than people, and how we all get sucked into consumerism, often despite our best efforts.

Unfortunately universities are quite small institutions now in relation to that thinking – it’s a David and Goliath situation. Whereas somewhere like CERN has the clout not to be like that – it’s a really inspirational place from that point of view, and feels very special.

The last movement of your piece is entitled ‘It is not answers we seek’ … but questions. Which feels all about that quest for knowledge.

That’s right; the last section is where that line, ‘the faithful cannot search’ comes from – and also a lovely line: ‘thought to mine thought, doubt to feed knowledge’. I think that’s brilliant; that we think to mine new thoughts, and have to cultivate doubt in order to seek new knowledge. The last section is a call to arms really. I’ve talked a lot about CERN, but the piece is also about the emergence of life – much more recent history! When Owen was writing this, his wife was pregnant, so this was very much in his mind: every child that’s born has to learn the history of knowledge anew. And it’s these new people who will make the discoveries of the future.

Then we started thinking about how each new person is the result of a star exploding. Everything in our bodies comes from supernova – which is what Haydn observed through Herschel’s telescope. But it’s a really difficult process. We have to teach every new generation what we currently understand as the truth and at the same time try to instil the idea that you mustn’t stick to that dogmatically.

Which is where critical thinking on the one hand and openness on the other are so important.

I think that applies as much to particle physics as to composing, or any discipline. If we can maintain that culture, then I feel very optimistic about the future, though it sometimes feels like there are many obstacles.

Turning specifically to your piece, can I ask you what listeners will encounter as the structure unfolds? From the score, it looks to be in two parts, with each part having three continuous sections.

Yes, the piece will last around 35 to 40 minutes – we haven’t rehearsed it yet! Originally Owen and I had thought about making the first part about the origin of matter and light, with the second part being about the origin of life. That would have mirrored Haydn’s structure in The Creation. But actually what ended up happening was the intertwining of these two themes like a double helix structure all the way through the piece. So the pause in the middle is more practical really, for the chorus.

The ‘Intrada’ starts with that low sonority group of instruments I mentioned. Then there’s a double-chorus tapestry of the verb ‘to be’ or ‘to begin’ in many languages; Owen was inspired by how international CERN is – people come there from all over the world.

The first movement ‘proper’ is called ‘There is a Relic of Ancient Light’. In this, the solo soprano alludes to the ‘cosmic background microwave image’. This is a beautiful picture of the oldest light we can see in the universe. Basically, the further away we see, the further back in time we are looking, as light takes time to travel.

I gather that means some stars we see no longer actually exist!

That’s right. What we see today is how they were. This background light is the afterglow of the Big Bang – the universe was only 380,000 years old. But we can’t see anything past that because, before then, light and matter were the same thing, they weren’t separated! But suddenly, as the universe cooled, just like ice turns to water at a certain point, everything shifted and light became separated from matter. So that’s the oldest light we can see – it’s still there, in the sky! All we need is a good telescope.

Full-sky map of the oldest light in the universe: Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team
Full-sky map of the oldest light in the universe: Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team

That first section leads into a duo called ‘Imagine that Moment’. Owen has composed two matching stanzas for the soloists. The soprano imagines being at the very first instant of the Big Bang, beyond that microwave radiation barrier where we can’t see. One of the big questions is why was there more matter than antimatter at the beginning? Because there ‘should’ have been equal amounts of each. But at CERN we learned that for whatever reason, rather than ‘annihilating’ each other, there was a bit of matter left over, which is everything that we see.

When I was at Hay I also went to a talk, by the biologist Adam Rutherford, on the origins of life – the other major theme of my piece. His beautiful book, Creation, discusses LUCA, or the Last Universal Common Ancestor. Every living thing is descended from this – every bacteria, every plant, every human being. So in this section, the baritone imagines being at that point in the earth’s history, far later than the birth of the universe, when something shifted and this thing popped into existence.

So the two stanzas unfold concurrently. Owen and I saw lots of parallels between these two switches – and it was a switch, when something changed in the chemical make-up of the earth. There were huge tides a hundred metres wide, and water rich in minerals; incredible extremes of temperature, all swirling round, pulled by the moon, which was much closer to the earth then. Suddenly it changed – as it did in the early universe when suddenly something happened to instigate the Big Bang. So we drew our own, totally unscientific parallels between these two events. Maybe that makes us a bit anthropomorphic, but actually human beings are amazing – for me, anyway; the idea that, in human beings, the universe has made something that can study itself.

Yes, it’s quite a paradox! And picking up your point about anthropomorphism, it’s interesting that, as the 19th century went on, there were people who criticised Haydn’s Creation because of the pictorial imagery he used; people who maintained that music should be abstract, even transcendental, who thought it was wrong to try to depict material substance in music.

The thing is, music is abstract, but almost every time a friend comes to hear a new piece, they’ll ask, ‘was it about this’? Or they’ll say, ‘I heard this story’ in it. People always create images when they hear music, whether they are specific images or abstract thoughts – even if it’s nothing to do with what the composer was thinking about. And for composers it’s a useful way of getting going! Sure, my piece is just notes and rhythms – I don’t think my notes depict these ideas. But then the piece isn’t just about sound! It’s about everything; text, context, inspiration. They all come together.

Yes, to me, music is clearly abstract, but it’s also very physical – quite apart from dealing with text, which you do here. At least it is in performance; instruments are blown or bowed, or struck and so on, and a live orchestra has its own visual element, even theatre. It’s a visceral and emotional experience.

Absolutely! I do think there is something to be said for the idea of the abstract in music. I’m thinking of  Milton Babbitt perhaps [an American serial composer and theorist, 1916-2011] – or even JS Bach’s later pieces, like The Art of Fugue, where he wasn’t necessarily thinking which instruments would be playing.

No, he was just composing those lines.

They’re amazing pieces. And there’s some Babbitt that I absolutely love. But it’s quite rare to create music in that way and I don’t think we could only create music that way – it’s like a composer’s scientific research! But you’re absolutely right; music, when it’s being performed, is a happening. It’s a bit like dance, which I also work with a lot. Whenever people watch dance – even if it’s the most abstract work, say, a Merce Cunningham work, purely about form, content and movement – people will still draw narratives and think of characters. It’s completely normal. As humans we draw meaning from everything around us.

And we tell stories. Creation myths exist in every culture on earth.

Yes! So I have no problem with representation in music. Haydn even uses it in his Prelude title: ‘The Representation of Chaos’. Then again, with Holst and The Planets, I don’t think any of those movements represent the planets as such. I think it’s far more interesting to look at the Roman god aspect there, but also to think, here’s a person in the early 20th century responding to the science of the time – that’s just more interesting for me, rather than how this represents that. But it’s very different for a poet, because that’s a more representative art form.

Part 2 starts with a movement called ‘Theia’, and this movement is both cosmological and biological. Theia is the name scientists give to an early planet in the solar system that was on the same orbital path as Earth. The theory is that the two collided with a devastating impact, but one which led the way to our own existence.

Is that the ‘giant impact hypothesis’?

Yes that’s the name they give it – which I think at the moment is actually being questioned [laughs]. But then, Holst’s The Planets doesn’t have Pluto in [it wasn’t discovered until 1930] – which is probably a good thing, as Pluto’s now been demoted from a major planet to a ‘dwarf’ planet!

But my piece is really about where knowledge is in my lifetime, so if it turns out to be false, I still love the story: Theia collided with the early earth, and the two cores merged together, whilst the debris that resulted coalesced and became the moon. It’s hugely important because it creates our tides, which led the way to life and it was then much closer to the earth so it was basically like a big spoon, stirring the earth up. That impact also knocked the earth off its axis, creating the 23° tilt which gives us seasons, annual cyclic life patterns and so on. This section, ‘Theia’, is where the title of the whole piece comes from.

A Violence of Gifts. It’s very evocative.

The title is completely down to Owen. I love the text in this section and it’s very short: ‘Theia/ a violence of gifts/ a moon, seasons, tides/ a passing rage that set us adrift’.

You could equally apply that to matter-antimatter; it’s describing an incredible violence of continuous creation and destruction, but, with the gift, if you like, of imbalance leading to the stabilisation of matter, which leads to life. It seems to me that violence, both cosmological and geological, is at the root of all the creation events: of the universe, the planets, of life. So ‘Theia’ is an important movement. It encapsulates this very specific event but it’s a metaphor for some of the other ideas in the piece too.

The next section is entitled ‘Once, to look out was enough’ – and the baritone now has a solo. Thinking back to Haydn, he ruminates that, in the past, all we thought was needed to understand our origins was to look out into the cosmos, to understand stars and galaxies. But it turns out that, just by looking, we can’t see everything. Actually what we need to do is look inwards into matter – which is what they’re doing at CERN: the Large Hadron Collider smashes particles together at the speed of light so they come apart and, for a fraction of a moment, we can see what’s inside them.

The baritone makes a direct reference to these experiments with the words; ‘joust energy and matter/ and measure the curl/ to witness the release/ of the forces and chains/ at the source of us’. But the experiments are not just about looking inside atoms, they’re about understanding the basic building blocks of everything. And, the more you divide, you find there’s actually nothing there at all. There’s no ‘stuff’ – it’s just energy. Matter is a kind of illusion because of the scale that we live on. Rather, at the root of everything we find four forces of nature: gravity, the strong force, the weak force and the electromagnetic force. The baritone goes on to sing about LUCA, or the Last Universal Common Ancestor – so again, drawing the link between the emergence of life and the beginning of the universe.

You’re talking about enormous extremes of scale here, propelled by extraordinary physical forces. Does that inform any aspect of your scoring, say?

When I was starting the piece, I wondered, will it start with a ‘big bang’! Will I have huge things and tiny things to represent the scale? But I just felt that, as powerful as the orchestra and chorus is, it’s still just a few hundred people on stage, and to try and make direct aural representations of these ideas wasn’t for me ever going to be enough. So I haven’t really sought to do that. For me there is the metaphor that these three notes, the C – G – Ab, are my quarks if you like, the beginning. Just as, for Owen, words are his! So what I’ve tried to do is think about the text and how to convey that.

Owen’s words are very pictorial, but are also very distilled and abstract. He compresses them in a very fluid way – which sounds contradictory, but necessary here perhaps?

Owen is one of the few people I would have trusted to do this because he is a poet first and foremost. So he has that ability to distil language, but he also writes plays and other works on a grander scale so he understands the idea of narrative. Not that this is a narrative as such, but we also wanted to get certain things in. I do say to my students you shouldn’t choose your favourite poems and set them because poetry doesn’t need music. But actually, Owen doesn’t call these poems, although they are poetic.

And what you’ve done is very different from setting existing poetry; you’ve commissioned the text specially and composed the piece together in many ways – at least to start with. I guess to stick with the genetic metaphor, there are your twin strands of creative DNA going through the piece?

That’s right. We were sharing ideas really in the early stages, and the piece was longer, originally – we shortened it. In no way did I contribute to the text, but the whole process was collaborative. So I don’t feel I just took his words and set them.

The last movement, ‘It is not answers we seek’ – here, there’s a mixing together of those three ideas we’ve been discussing and it’s scored for all the forces: one involves new text, about that need to cultivate curiosity and doubt, and to avoid dogma. Another idea comes through the chorus, which brings back some of the important themes of the piece. For instance, they sing, ‘a weight on the side of us/ enough to gift the cooling mass/ our chains of liberty’. This is a reference to that idea of the imbalance of matter and antimatter. And thirdly, the soprano and baritone allude to that idea about passing on the baton to new generations, imploring all scientific and philosophical pioneers in the future to keep asking questions and to keep ‘mining for new thoughts’.

This all feels very timely, just as CERN are embarking on their second experiment with the Large Hadron Collider!

Yes, they’re hoping to research some more of what we can’t see, using much higher energy levels this time. They’ll be partly hoping to research dark matter and dark energy – which we don’t really touch on in the piece, and is another, completely different story! It’s tremendously exciting.

Here’s to ‘mining for new thoughts’ – and to new music. I’m looking forward to hearing it – best of luck for the rehearsals.

Thank you!


¹ Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation, will be performed at St David’s Hall on Friday May 8, 2015. The BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, conducted by Stephen Layton, will be joined by soloists Elizabeth Watts, Allan Clayton and Matthew Brook.

Before that, the BBC NOW will perform an afternoon concert exploring three different viewpoints on the creation of the earth at BBC Hoddinott Hall on Tuesday April 21 (2pm). Music by Rebel, Ravel, Milhaud, Sibelius and Ginastera, conducted by Stefan Asbury.

² Mark was awarded a grant from the Jerwood Charitable Foundation to fund the commissioning of the text and the research trip to CERN.

³ Mark and Owen were selected as CERN Official Visiting Artists in the Arts@CERN programme for a specially curated visit.