Former Panufnik Scheme composer Jack Sheen will have his piece Lung, the 2014 scheme 10-minute commission, premiered by the LSO and Daniel Harding at the Barbican on 25 September. Here, he talks us through five key works that influenced the music and we share the work's programme note written by Jo Kirkbride...
Lung was written throughout the Autumn and Winter months of late 2015 and early 2016, just after I moved to London from Manchester. There are always a myriad of influences behind any one piece of music. Some of them are obvious, some much more subtle. Some are conscious, some sneak in through the backdoor. Many don’t come from music at all, and most of them will probably come from a piece you’ve already written. Below are five (mostly) pieces of music that I think offer some insight into this 10-minute piece for symphony orchestra.
Mark Fell Multistability
Lung is underlined with music that expands and contracts. At times, a chord may be condensed into a split-second gesture or stretched out to last almost half a minute, allowing the music to constantly change shape without undergoing complete metamorphoses.
These ideas form the basis of a lot of Mark Fell’s music, where rhythmic patterns are in a constant and dynamic state of flux without necessarily altering their basic qualities. It’s totally unpredictable, and somewhat absurd; there’s a playful stubbornness with which he makes music that I find really exciting, with the sounds essentially repeating over and over without you ever being able to pin them down.
Fell talks a lot about writing music economically by pushing one set of ideas as far as they possibly can go. This approach to composition influenced the writing of Lung a lot, setting an example of how much variation you can achieve through stripping back and excavating the music, rather than throwing more and more into it.
Multistability is an incredible album, but it’s the very short first track which encapsulates these ideas best.
Cassandra Miller Bel Canto
From the opening seconds of Cassandra Miller’s Bel Canto, I am always completely spellbound. There’s a skewed sense of familiarity which is simultaneously arresting and elusive; tonal triads slide in and out of focus; romantic vocal gestures swoop up and down; lush vibrato oscillates in the strings.
Yet as these sounds cycle round and around, they start to slowly pull the rug out from underneath you. Through hypnotic repetition, smudging and collision, the sounds totally depart from your understanding and transcend into a more ambiguous and emotionally charged state. It’s like everything and nothing you’ve ever heard before; the real within the surreal.
I’m fascinated by how music can present something to you that you feel like you know, but that is somehow offset and becomes fresh and indiscernible. For me, this is one of the great challenges and pleasures in writing music for an orchestra in the 21st century. One is presented with an ensemble with such a weight of tradition, with such a recognisable sound, that this familiarity becomes a topic with which you can compose, rather than a hindrance.
For me, in Lung, the various associations one may have with the sound of a distant string trio, of a high and fragile descending melody, or of a low, rumbling orchestral chord, are just as pertinent and fascinating as the sounds themselves. Obviously, no composer can ever predict exactly what any other individual may associate with any sort of sound, yet whilst writing Lung I became increasingly aware of my inability to escape my own musical reference points that underpinned what I was writing for the orchestra, and how this could galvanise the compositional process.
Jürg Frey's Streichquartett No 2
For half an hour, Jürg Frey’s Streichquarttet No 2 presents an almost inaudible collection of minor chords punctuated by silence, each chord timbrally altered by half-stopping notes directly above each tone in the chord, resulting in a choked, ghostly whisper.
For me, the economy of this idea – chord, silence; chord, silence – is incredibly emotionally charged. Describing this piece is like describing a tightrope walk. Similarly with Miller’s Bel Canto, the familiarity of the sounds – minor chords performed by a string quartet – is offset by Frey’s ingenious and arresting approach. These are minor chords like you’ve never heard before. This is a string quartet which sounds like a choir
Streichquarttet No 2 completely grabs you from the start through this bizarre sensation of simultaneously sinking into the piece whilst feeling on edge and alert to its existence, as if observing it from afar. Through sheer commitment to economy, Frey paradoxically heightens your sensitivity to the tiniest of changes in the sound, resulting in a receptiveness that if anything is maximal rather than minimal.
Lung is in no way as as extreme as Frey’s piece, and generally presents music which is much more texturally saturated. But the boldness of Frey’s idea and the glacial intimacy of Streichquartett No 2 provides a constant source of inspiration. I think this purity is something many composers are chasing: the simplest of ideas spun out into a deep and complex experience for the listener.
For me, this is one of the most haunting, serene and joyful pieces of music written in the last century. It’s a true celebration of sound and how it can affect us all.
Rhythm & Sound Imprint
Rhythm & Sound is a project by Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald, two German musicians who under a variety of aliases have been producing some of electronic music’s most hypnotic records since the 1990s.
Over 22 minutes in length, Imprint is an immersive listening experience. It seems like a single loop that comes in and out of focus and is constantly reconfiguring itself, never quite appearing the same way twice. Within this expansive timeframe there is incredibly subtle variation, through slight shifts in the sounds’ equalisation and the offsetting of their vertical alignment.
The layers of sound within Imprint combine in a haze rather than crystalline clarity, at times smothering and hiding one another. Despite its hushed ambience, an incredible sense of depth and weight is created. The track almost sounds three-dimensional because of this vast sense of space between the sub-bass frequencies and the hiss which contain an echoing myriad of minor chords and rattling percussion.
It uses the concept of dance music as a point of departure rather than an end goal. It’s pulse and drive are submerged deep underneath the music, as if Ernestus and von Oswald are seeing how far they can travel from the concept of club music before it becomes completely unrecognisable.
This play between real and imagined repetition within numerous layers of music is something I wanted to explore in Lung. Through presenting groups of music different small ensembles which variate at a different rates of change, I wanted to try and reflect the focus and feeling of being subsumed that I get from Imprint, through a hazy, gently cacophonous sound-world.
Cerith Wyn Evans: Composition of 19 flutes and other works
When I moved to London last year, one of the first things I did was visit the White Cube to see Cerith Wyn Evans’ latest installation/exhibition. I ended up going three times within the space of a month.
The installation consists of a huge open space occupied by four tangled neon light sculptures, dispersed alongside small palm trees that rotate at an almost unnoticeable pace, and accompanied by a series of eerie microtonal drones. Whilst these objects subtly quiver, a translucent structure hangs in one corner. At first glance it looks like another neon-sculpture that’s broken, but eventually you realise that this is the object that is producing the sound. It’s a collection of 19 plastic flutes which are being gently blown, filling the space with tones and chords that fade in and out of silence.
The installation isn’t loud or brash, but it is engulfing. It’s enticing and instigates a sense of curiosity as you walk around and situate yourself within the environment Evans sets up.
In many ways I feel like Lung is an environment, inhabited by the different groups of instruments which are formed from the players of the orchestra, each of which occupies an autonomous layer of music governed by its own unique laws of nature. As a composer, I tried to leave these groups/layers to run their independent course as much as possible. Instead of enforcing my own idea of a hierarchy or structure between these different groups, I wanted to leave as much open about the piece for the listener as possible.
Evans’ exhibition undoubtedly motivated this idea which underpins Lung. I wanted to create a piece which felt installed on stage; a piece which was not didactic or depicted a clear semantic concept or linear narrative for the listener to try and follow. Instead, I hope that Lung offers something that can be observed and explored by a listener however they choose, as if walking through a space full of different objects, lining up their own perspectives on them as they go.
by Jo Kirkbride
Lung began life in 2014, when Sheen took part in the LSO' Panufnik Composers Scheme for emerging composers. Its lucid scoring and imaginative structure so impressed the LSO team that Sheen was invited to expand his initial ideas into the 10-minute work you hear today. Like much of his music, Lung first took shape from a huge collection of individual ideas. ‘Often I write lots of music on lots of small sheets of paper’, he says, ‘arranging them around my desk and imagining them all happening at once in a looser way than a full score would allow. I don’t think that linear composition methods really suit me.’
It is a fitting process for a work that is centred on ideas of expansion and contraction. Lung is not a linear piece in the traditional sense of a beginning, middle and end. There are no obvious vertical or linear hierarchies here, nor is there a developing thematic thread for the listener to follow. Instead, Sheen selects a series of unusual instrumental groupings – alto flute and harp; piano, flute, clarinet and trumpets; horns, a quartet of violas and double bass – which present his ideas as ‘a collection of objects which are constantly revolving and appearing in a variety of different ways as one collective whole.’ What begins as a 2D work gradually becomes three-dimensional, revealing its curves and angles as the ideas recur, reflect and refract. How you hear the music depends on your perspective.
In fact, every performance of Lung will present a slightly altered version of the work, depending on the whims and preferences of Sheen’s trio of string principals, who play independently of both orchestra and conductor. Given only simple cues that indicate where to start and stop, the trio cycles through a series of animated loops that fade in and out of the broader texture – sometimes dipping beneath the surface, at other times coming to the fore. It is just one of several ‘playful games’ that remove total composer control.
There are discernible motifs within Sheen’s score – a jittering five-note figure in the string trio; a swooping chromatic descent in the winds and piano; and a persistent, pulsing undercurrent – but how these motifs ‘work’ is less important than the shapes and sensations that these create for the listener. ‘All of these concepts, processes, and games are just in place to act as a catalyst for me to make hypnotic, visceral, emotive music in a way that’s coherent’, says Sheen. ‘I want to set up enough open-ends for people to have their own individual perspective on what they can hear, what they think the piece is and how they feel towards it.’
The LSO with Daniel Harding give the world premiere of Lung at the Barbican on 25 September, alongside a performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Nikolaj Znaider, and Mahler's Symphony No 4 with soprano Christiane Karg. You can find out more about Jack on his website or follow him on Soundcloud or Twitter.