Notes from Underground

My latest project is Notes from Underground, a song cycle for baritone, chamber choir and large chamber ensemble. The words are by Sean O’Brien, an award-winning poet also based in the Northeast of England, and also a professor at Newcastle University.


The work is a commission from Durham Book Festival 2015. Earlier this year, the Festival's dynamic and forward-looking creative team approached O’Brien to propose a new commission involving words and music dealing with WH Auden, and in particular with Auden’s interest in the lead-mining areas of the North Pennines. O’Brien accepted, and he in turn proposed that I should be engaged as the composer. I accepted too, even though the timescale was daunting: these conversations were happening in March, or perhaps April, and the Festival was going to be in October; the words would have to be written first; and I had other works to complete first. But the proposal was too attractive to resist, so I agreed.

O’Brien did not take long to send me the first drafts. I found them very stimulating. It was not difficult to relate to the world he was evoking: landscape, the underworld, mines, shafts, regional histories – which are, of course, universal histories. The poems – which is what they are, and they could stand alone in their own right, without music – are pithy, contained, stark sometimes, and all the more powerful for that. They leave plenty of expressive space for the music to unfold. Which does not mean they are short; some are, but some are of a length I found challenging for the timescale of the piece. The total duration comes to about twenty-five minutes.

As soon as the academic year ended, I stepped down from my duties as head of music at Newcastle University. This enabled me to concentrate on writing music all summer. I first completed After the Gathering for Kathryn Tickell and The Side. I agreed a later time than I had been expecting for the completion of my next project with New Juilliard Ensemble. I started at length on Notes from Underground in mid-July, and after a period of concentrated work I was able to complete the piece by the agreed date, 15 September.


The team that will be in charge of the production is the best one could hope for. It includes a brilliant baritone from Germany, Benjamin Appl, the local chamber choir Voices of Hope directed by Simon Fidler, and Royal Northern Sinfonia conducted by Clark Rundell. The première will be on 15 October in the Gala Theatre, Durham.

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