David John Roche on the challenges of composing for wind quintets, the responsibility of the composer and the development of his new work for Britten Sinfonia, Sentimental Espionage Music.
Britten Sinfonia is an ensemble made up of some of the best musicians working globally today. Real, true, cream of the crop classical music (including, but definitely not limited to, Wales’ own fantastic Huw Watkins). They’ve been in the news recently for less-than-pleasant reasons (for which they need support), but they are known internationally as one of the most important ensembles creating music right now. I am fortunate and privileged enough to be working with them on two new works. I will be writing a concerto and a wind quintet as part of their Magnum Opus Residency. The latter is the subject of this article – if you’re ready to get a flavour of what’s to come, you can start by listening to this version of my Prayers of Method, performed by Baron Fenwick.
I always think that wind quintets are a tough ensemble to write for. The balance is hard to manage (for me, at least!), there’s not an awful lot of repertoire out there (obligatory mention of this Ligeti piece, it’s really good, and people always bring it up, but I find it casts a shadow more than it helps), and the instruments you do write for (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn) all have rich, intimidating, but still wonderful, back catalogues. It’s an ensemble that requires composers to shoulder a lot of responsibility. The broader responsibility of the composer, however, is to write something that only they could write. Britten Sinfonia are exceptional and the best, most respectful thing I can offer is my own musical voice. There’s no point in trying to give people what you think they want, give them the best of what you can. I am always trying to do this, but it was especially close to the front of my mind when composing Sentimental Espionage Music.
As the title suggests, lots of this piece is made up of sentimental music. This is often lyrical, broad, and a little slower than the surrounding material; it is almost always melody-driven. During the writing of Sentimental Espionage Music, I spent a lot of time working through John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil and Christopher Theofanidis’ Rainbow Body. The former for its emotional intensity and simplicity of scoring – it puts a lot of onus on the performer, but also allows their interpretive skills to shine through (and Britten Sinfonia’s players are incredible… so I want this to happen). The latter for its yearning quality and reverb-inspired harmony. I love the soft directness of Theofanidis’ piece (listen in at 1:28 in the linked example to see what I mean); it’s beautiful, and it’s a quality I’d like to emulate in my own writing.
The waves I ride have never yet been crossed: David John Roche
After hearing the Britten Sinfonia players perform some of my initial sketches, I wanted to make sure I gave them space to sing out. Much of this was done by thinning down the lyrical sections of my composition, but I also added substantial solos for the players – including one for the bassoon. I wanted to make use of the richer tenor register. To this end, I looked at some scores in my little library. When I was 18, I asked for the score for Berio’s Bassoon Sequenza (like an absolute dork, I think I asked for it it for Christmas too! Fun for the whole family – no doubt!). It’s a piece that has always stuck with me for its long, unusual melodic contour. It’s famously hard to play, but I’m not after the raw virtuosity of Berio’s piece; I want the lyrical, gorgeous writing.
I also liked the idea of decorating the melodic writing with planes of sound; lots of different strata operating in conjunction with, but independently from, a main point of reference. This was inspired by the opening of Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto, with its gently consonant, floating musical lines. I also love the instrumental doublings (or almost-doubling) in the opening of this concerto and wanted to bring something of that thickness to my wind quintet. So, throughout, you will hear lots of doubled melodic lines, interrupting melodic entries, and melodic ideas being passed around. Lots of exciting movement, lots of subtle alterations.
Practice Patience: David John Roche, performed by Psappha.
Finally, metronomic rock rhythms form a large part of my musical language. In working with Britten Sinfonia, I was really aware of their skill and ability, and I didn’t want to impose my deficiencies as a performer on them through the medium of my music. So, although I might want a rigid and clear rhythm, I was careful to give them the space to respond musically, to lean into who they are as players. Simple things like approximate rhythmic markings and descriptive terms help with this; I wanted to give an impression of my intention with enough space for them to be individually expressive. I wanted this to be a piece of music they could feel their way into.
In terms of rhythmic influences more generally, a few years ago I worked on a commission with Psappha. They programmed a piece by Molly Joyce called Less is More. The work is direct, clear, moving, and engaging, and I think about it a lot. It wasn’t ultra-complicated, even though it didn’t need to be, but it worked so well. The rhythms were tight, the groove was clear, and the music sounded great. This balance of interpretation, beat-driven pulse, and expression is something I wanted in my Sentimental Espionage Music. So, Joyce’s piece was at the front of my mind. I was also listening to David Lang’s Cheating, Lying, Stealing, but that’s just because it’s an awesome piece for instruments you can find in a wind quintet. Maybe I’ll think up a more intellectual reason for talking about this and put it in the comments (yeah, maybe – I think it might be the tight, punctuating lines, right?).
Sentimental Espionage Music is being performed on April 14 2023 at Milton Court, London. Further information and tickets are available here.