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Five Memos

Five Memos

(2015) 18’
for violin and piano
Lightness – Quickness – Exactitude – Visibility – Multiplicity


I took Italo Calvino’s series of Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, as a starting point to create a five-movement work for violin and piano. My ambition, to create musical responses to the artistic virtues Calvino held up as being of particular importance for writers, and artists, of the future.
In ‘Lightness’ Calvino discusses the concept of balancing an inner rhythm against a frantic spectacle. He contemplates grace, light, veils of particles and the fine balance of the physical forces holding matter together. He contrasts these images with heaviness and savage, brutal horror. In the music, I have sought to find a driving rhythm in the piano, propelling itself ever forward as the violin floats above escaping the tonal force of gravity of the piano’s harmony as though it is a neutrino, wandering free since the beginning of time.
In ‘Quickness’ Calvino describes how seemingly disparate narrative events can be connected through repetition, rhyme and rhythm. He talks of continuity of form, discoursing and the idea of festina lente, or ‘hurrying slowly’. In the music I created contrasting musical gestures for the violin held together by common intervallic materials whilst exploring different perceptions of motion and speed within the piano part.
Calvino contrasts the notion of ‘Exactitude’ against Vago – an Italian adjective meaning ‘attractive’ or ‘wandering’, as well as ‘vague’. He contemplates the idea of night, darkness, obscurity and depth, and talks of the simultaneous evocation of fear and pleasure that true infinity induces in those who contemplate it. In the music, a simple cycle of chords is treated to what could become an infinite process of repetition and change. The violin’s melody, always smooth and simple, undergoes an exact and meticulous unfolding of pitches against a more wandering, or vague, harmonic exploration in the piano music.
In ‘Visibility’ Calvino discusses how a writer can conjure images in the mind of the reader, bringing into focus that which is unfocussed or unseen. He also grapples with the swarming multitudes of possibilities available to the novelist when creating a literary work. In the music, a kaleidoscopic tumult of fantastical material unfolds, each gesture containing the possibility to develop into a work in its own right. But, instead, new material keeps emerging until a cascade of arpeggios in the piano brings us back to somewhere near where we began before finishing with an inconclusive, uncertain coda.
The final chapter of Calvino’s book addresses “Multiplicity’. He considers how even the smallest starting point can spread to encompass ever-vaster horizons. He explores the possibilities implicit in unfinished literary fragments, comparing them to ancient ruins. He points to the networks of relationships in the works of T.S. Eliot and the ‘systems within systems’ buried in the writings of James Joyce. Finally, he reconnects to his first topic – lightness – creating interconnected pathways across his own set of essays. In the music, a tiny generative motif taken from the first movement is the source of all the material of an intricate toccata, interrupted briefly by a slower and more lyrical section, that bustles and ripples along creating networks of relationships between the piano and violin. MB

Articles & reviews

★★★★ Mark Bowden: Lyra; Heartland; Sudden Light – power, invention and subtlety / Andrew Clements / Guardian
★★★★½ ‘Each of the five movements relates to ideas from one of the essays, or you can listen to the music simply as fascinating character pieces. Lightness has a high suspended violin above an undulating piano, textures spare yet full of incident. Quickness has a busy, angry violin in dialogue with calmer piano, with a sense of contrast in the musical material. Exactitude has a long slow violin line, finely spun out by Hyeyoon Park, with spare piano chords giving a sense of suspension to the violin. Visibility combines a strong, elaborate violin part with glittering, rippling piano in a striking texture. Finally Multiplicity gives us a sense of the disparate voices, despite the busy material. Fine performances from Hyeyoon Park and Huw Watkins bring out the rich incident which Bowden gets from his two instruments’ / Robert Hugill / Planet Hugill
★★★★ ‘Excellent performances by all involved on the disc do contemporary composer Mark Bowden proud’ / Elinor Cooper / BBC Music Magazine
‘Pianist Huw Watkins and violinist Hyeyoon Park are poised and expressive in the Calvino-inspired Five Memos — the third movement, Exactitude, is breathtakingly simple and played with masterful stillness’ / Kate Molleson / Gramophone
PREMIERE OF THE MONTH Inspired by Literature: An Italian author’s philosophy expressed in music / Pauline Harding / The Strad
‘vibrant, virtuosic, challenging in the best way, but also accessible and hugely enjoyable. The audience response was overwhelmingly positive, and it was a privilege to host the premiere of an important new work’ / Mark Eynon / Director of Newbury Spring Festival

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