'Music is feeling, then, not sound': Joe Bates on his piece Muted the Night

'Muted the Night marks a major step forward in my musical ideas and moments of enormous change in my personal life.' Written during his time on the 2019/20 LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme and due to be workshopped by the Orchestra in March 2020, composer Joe Bates heard his piece performed for the first time one year on, in March 2021. This month, you can hear it for the first time too. Read on to find out more.

Peter Quince at the Clavier

'The title for this piece is taken from a gorgeous poem by Wallace Stevens, Peter Quince at the Clavier. Its fundamental message is that 'music is feeling, then, not sound' – a romantic understanding of music-making that I find very seductive. A hand-printed copy of the poem hangs above my piano. It somehow fused in my mind with a piece that obsessed me, Cassandra Miller’s wonderful Duet for Cello and Orchestra.

Witching Chords

Its witching chords sunk into my writing in the summer of 2019, as I began to rethink some of my core musical ideas. Since 2016, my music has made use of notes that fall outside the typical Western scale. Whereas a piano divides each octave into twelve evenly-spaced notes, most of my music uses 24 notes. These ‘quartertones’ lie in between every one of our usual pitches – between a C and a C-sharp, for example. I’ve been particularly influenced by the composer Giacinto Scelsi, whose stark music swells fluidly in between the notes. His violin concerto, Anahit, was one of the first pieces I produced in London with my music night Filthy Lucre; its tantalising sound has stayed with me.

At first, I used quartertones as a source of music disorientation. Years of playing had shaped my hands, allowing them to find customary chords and melodies with ease. Retuning my keyboard shook up my familiar patterns and helped me find new ideas.

To write this work, I decided to ditch the disorientation and gain a better understanding of my quartertone system. I developed a tonal system, a quartertone analogue to the usual major and minor keys. I then divided the orchestra into two groups; each group uses three different quartertone pitches. These pitches give them access to two keys each, for a total of four key areas. This restriction came with two benefits. For players, quartertones can be challenging. Limiting the total number thus eases performance.

'For me, the clear key system allowed me to use some familiar bits of musical rhetoric – the arpeggio, the perfect cadence – in unfamiliar and exciting ways.'

These ideas sound little like Scelsi’s work, making use instead of chordal language drawn from my interest in electronic music production. I’m particularly influenced by Beach House, whose detuned organ sounds and retro, broken samplers created a complex sound with familiar components. My music often mimics these effects, using thick vibrato to give chords a strange patina that reminds me of their 2015 album, Depression Cherry.

I also devised a fun way to explore this system. I usually plot my quartertone works using my voice and a retuned digital keyboard. For this piece, I began with a retuned autoharp. The autoharp is a folk instrument, like a zither with keys. The keys allow it to move through a set of conventional chords and keys. When retuned into my zany system, it plays conventional chords within an unconventional system. This was the source of a lot of my initial ideas.

A cymbal crashed, And roaring horns

Halfway through writing this piece, I was hit by a car. I spent two weeks in the hospital, with a shattered kneecap and a fractured vertebra in my neck amongst my worst injuries. A great deal of this piece was written in the weeks afterwards. I was recovering at my parents’ home, gradually getting up onto crutches. I would spend most of my days propped up in bed, writing this piece.

It was, to be frank, a bleak time. My friends and family were wonderful, but I found the sudden confinement and not-inconsiderable pain difficult. By this point, much of the piece’s tone had been established, so I’m not sure if you can hear any relics of the accident in it. But to me, Muted the Night will always be associated with the strangeness of that period: writing brass fanfares and beating out cross-rhythms in between endless games of online chess and dully painful physio routines. Perhaps these emotions surface from time-to-time, in the slightly-numb ending, or the fidgety timpani rhythms that underpin most of the piece’s second half.

Coda & Next Steps

This blog post was written before a second disaster intervened: coronavirus. It was cruelly appropriate that a piece whose creation was so defined by unwilling confinement should have had its realisation delayed in the same way. It has been interesting to revisit this blog post following the workshop. The wide range of stimuli contributed to a work whose texture was much denser than I had expected. I crammed the piece full of all my orchestral ideas – simultaneous detunings, microtonal harmony, blurred vibrato, complex cross rhythms and more. In some places, particularly at the beginning, this resulted in a pleasing misty texture. But in others, it obscured the melodic and harmonic ideas that were most important to me.

I am now in the process of re-writing the piece, stripping back layers to clarify each musical line. I hope this makes the piece more rewarding to perform, by allowing each player to more clearly hear their role in the overall texture. The workshop taught me that I need to make bold choices, rather than to follow all my instincts at once.'

Joe Bates' Muted the Night was workshopped by the LSO in March 2021 at LSO St Luke's, alongside works from other LSO Panufnik composers. On Sunday 16 May, you can hear these works for the first time in a short film introduced by the composers themselves, and the mentors and musicians they worked with throughout the scheme.

ONLINE EVENT: LSO Panufnik Composers present …
Sunday 16 May 7pm BST, youtube.com/lso

Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade Sleep-Chasings
Joe Bates Muted the Night
Caroline Bordignon Iridescent Flares III
James Chan Tanztheater
Jonathan Woolgar PROTO-SYMPHONY
Louise Drewett The Daymark

Jack Sheen conductor
London Symphony Orchestra

Colin Matthews composition director
Christian Mason composition support

The LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme is generously supported by Lady Hamlyn and The Helen Hamlyn Trust


Photo © Matt Jolly

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