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Sample: first page of each 'Reflection' (piano reduction)See details ➔
Sample: first three pages of each movement (full score)See details ➔
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Symphonic Reflections is an orchestral presentation of nine poems by Michael Harlow. It was planned (as were a long series of works before it) in consultation with the author.
In spite of my preoccupation with musical reflections in earlier works in which I explored reflections as retrograde and or inverted versions of the material (e.g. Poem, then for love or Vlaminck‘s Tie — also with texts by Michael Harlow) there are very few such musical reflections to be found in the present work. Instead I have concentrated on complementing the content of the texts as I see it and on developing ideas emanating from them in the connecting passages.
The nine Harlow texts are grouped in threes making three movements. The texts themselves are as the title suggests, reflective, thoughtful about everyday situations. If there is a common theme it is the feeling of wonder. This feeling is often accompanied in the music by a sequence of chords with strings, harp, piano and crotales which serves as an “idée fixe” throughout the work. This theme is heard for the first time at the end of the first song: “This is called the holiness of attention.” (bars 67 to 74, p. 14)
The “vexing swarms” of the song 3 suggested the swarm sounds which dominate this movement. They are heard briefly at the beginning and then form a longer section between the song 2 and song 3 (p. 30-44). One is reminded of them again at the end of the whole work (p. 134). The idea of the swarms also gave rise to the cover pattern which was generated with random numbers in a computer program. The “wedges” of this picture were also used for the positioning of the Ab Bb background-chords in the second movement (p. 72–75 and 82 – 88).
A slow and contemplative piece. The line from song 4 in this movement: “where you can talk to the mountain and it talks back in many voices” gave the idea for a unifying motive. A chord from the strings is repeated by horns and trumpets (bars 17 to 19, p. 64). This motive forms the basis of an instrumental passage between song 5 and song 6 (bars 53 to 66, p. 69 – 71).
The bass solo in song 5 “How this fossil-stone slips easily into the palm of your hand” (where we hear stone sounds from the percussionists) is almost entirely on two notes (Ab and Bb) until it finally breaks loose at the words “there is music here”.
The same two notes remain in the background of the following song 6, but the mood is darker, merging on despair.
Although the three songs of this movement are very different from one another: anger in “Eclipsed” (song 7) and tenderness and wonder in the central song (song 8), they reach a resolution in the last song: “Boustrophedon” (song 9) where the two singers come together for the first time. The title word of this last song describes the action of oxen who walk back and forth ploughing (with a ponderous mixture of triplets and duplets). The harmony also moves back and forth (reflections!) and one hears a turning motive at the end of each sentence (p. 124, 126, ...). This same motive was also heard in the episode between song 7 and song 8, but only now do we realise where it came from (p. 99).
Song 8 “I’m always surprised that people are helpful” is accompanied by violas and celli divisi a 3 making a cluster-like texture over which other clusters from the wind make short interpolations. The material from the lower strings is used again by the whole string band with a very different bow technique to build (together with the wind clusters) a wild connecting passage joining the last two songs.
For more information about this work, visit kitpowell.net.
Texts by Michael Harlow