In the Tate Gallery there is a late Turner oil painting, Norham Castle, Sunrise. The 12th century castle in this picture is silhouetted against a huge, golden sun. What struck me immediately about this beautiful image was the way in which solid objects – fields, cows and the castle itself – virtually appear to have melted under the intense sunlight. It is as if the paint were still wet.
Abstractly, this observation has been important to the way I have composed the piece. A ‘solid object’ can be formed as a punctuated, clearly defined musical phrase. This can be ‘melted’ into a flowing, nebulous continuum of sound. There can be all manner of transformations and interactions between these two ways of writing.
Equally important, however, this piece is a contemplation of dawn, a celebration of the colours and noises of daybreak. It is set in three movements: in the short, opening one, superimposed fanfares burst into hazy, undefined textures. After a pause the extended second movement follows, itself subdivided into several contrasted sections, full of abrupt changes in mood and tension. The concluding movement arrives without a break, and progresses in a continuous, flowing line illuminated with ever more resonant harmonies.
At First Light, which is dedicated to Donald and Kathleen Mitchell, was commissioned by the London Sinfonietta with funds provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain. The première, under Simon Rattle, took place in November 1982.