On Harrowdown Hill

On Harrowdown Hill

This is my entry for the ENO’s mini opera competition (see http://www.minioperas.org/the-soundtrack-competition/) , it is a soundtrack composed for the script ‘On Harrowdown Hill’ by Shaun Gardiner, based on the story ‘Death of a Government Inspector’. I chose this particular one because I loved the poetry of the script, and the way that it captured the sense of loneliness of a man driven to take his own life. It is of course based on the death of Dr David Kelly, a story which makes a terrific choice of subject for a modern opera.

My score was written in a great hurry (I only found out about the competition a week ago), so has many flaws. However I think there are advantages to writing quickly, you just have to go with your imagination, there just isn’t time for self-censorship. I deliberately chose are very spare instrumentation, the main instruments are the viola (which represents the inspector), piano, choir, bassoon, three horns and percussion. Although it is computer generated I think it could be played live (with the addition of a few electronic noises). I have used some subtle long delays on the piano and viola to give a dream or nightmarish ambient background. The sounds at the beginning are actually a recording of bird song slowed down.

When a Lozenge is not enough

Anyone who attends classical music concerts on anything like a regular basis will be familiar with the phenomenon: the rousing chorus of coughing that breaks out at the end of a movement (and occasionally in the quiet bits during a movement).

This is not often discussed (that I am aware of) and it does puzzle me somewhat. Normal coughing is a reflex action occuring as a result of the build-up of phlegm in the throat, and it difficult or even impossible to control. This cannot be the explanation for the coughing that occurs during a concert, which is generally carefully timed. Since it is not something that I do myself I cannot say definitely what motivates those who do. I assume that it is a way of relieving the nervous tension of being required to sit still and silent for several minutes on end. Perhaps a course of meditation would help regular perpetrators, or perhaps each audience member could be issued with a lozenge before the concert.

Still it probably wouldn’t help eveyone. My father spent some time working in Germany, and during that time he was a regular audience member for the Berlin Philharmonic. On one particular occasion he was sitting right in the front row of a concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma, when he (my father) broke into an uncontrollable coughing fit. That’s what I call doing it in style.