Chamber concerto for piano and ten instruments
First performance: Douglas Finch (piano), Continuum Ensemble c. Philip Headlam
Spitalfields Festival, Christ Church, London 8 July 1999
flute, cor anglais, clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, guitar, harp, 'cello, double bass
This work was started in 1996 as a piano concerto, intended to be in four movements: a study in rhythm and harmony, a programmatic scherzo, a static slow movement, and a brilliant finale that was to depict my first impressions of Hong Kong (where I had just moved) - complete with evocations of street theatre and Cantonese opera. The first two movements almost seemed to write themselves; and though I had imagined what should happen in the last two, my inspiration deserted me, as I had proscribed the destination too clearly. I had lost interest in continuing this particular journey. The two completed movements were performed in May 1997 and it was apparent to me that they neither stood together, nor had I a notion of how to proceed. Not until I looked over the piece in the summer of 1998 did I find a way to rework and complete it. The original two movements had been (1) an almost constructivist passacaglia on nine shifting chords that were varied ten times and (2) a scherzo movement that depicted the scene of a hunt from one of the extraordinary painted Buddhist caves at Dunhuang (in the far reaches of the Gobi desert). These two movements are still heard consecutively - but fragmented, part of a continuous structure, and the very different material of both old movements have now melded. The constructivist passacaglia is still discernible, but the once brutally efficient machine is now rusting, overgrown with foliage, and the mechanism is decidedly out of kilter. Instead of an external travelogue, the piece now charts an internal progress, a discursive and subjective journey that has no fixed destination, with an outcome that is unforeseen from the start.
The subtitle Chamber Concerto indicates that, though the piano dominates, the argument is carried forwards by all the instruments, which are showcased at various points; thus the trumpet and trombone dominate the ruined passacaglia, the cor anglais, bass clarinet and piccolo feature in the central scherzo - and dotted through the piece are little moments where the piano, harp and guitar form a sort of composite keyboard. Finally, in an Epilogue, the horn takes over with a simple shanty-like melody and the journey, unlike the piece, has no end.
Off Course is dedicated to a lost child, abandoned somewhere in central China, with the hope that somebody will find her, soon.