altogether disproportionate

Programme Note

"We are not a young people with an innocent record and a scanty inheritance. We have engrossed to ourselves - an altogether disproportionate share of wealth and traffic of the world. We have got all we want in territory, and our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions, mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us." (Winston Churchill, 1914)

It is simultaneously satisfying and disturbing to read that such a powerful man as Churchill clearly understood the nature and causes of the staggering disparity of wealth between his country and those from whom it stole. At the same time, and like most of our leaders, it is to our shame that he did so little to redress the imbalance. In fact, writing only five years later about possible solutions to the Iraq problem of his time, Churchill would appear to be quite a different man from the one we might imagine--more related to Saddam Hussein, perhaps: "I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes", he wrote in 1919.

Altogether disproportionate, no? At the time of writing (October 2010), the proposed cuts to the UK military budget are 8%; those to the higher education teaching budget, 80%. The widely broadcast US military deaths since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 number more than 4300; the almost always ignored Iraqi civilian deaths caused by the war, circa 100,000. The cost to US tax payers of each Taliban fighter's death in Afghanistan? $50 million, according to one estimate. Such depressing statistics were taxing me whilst writing this piece, along with a Diane Arbus image of one of the 'patriots' she photographed during the Vietnam War. Not the more famous one, with the maniacal expression on his face, but the stiff boater wearer, sporting the almost illegible lapel badge which implores "Bomb Hanoi." Pleasant young man. Proportionate? Hardly.

As for the music: Per Rundberg asked for it. He told me he wanted something similar to my ensemble piece, cheat sheet, that he co-premiered in Austria in 2007. He enjoyed--or so he said at least--the very fast tempi that drove the performers to almost skim through the vast array of notes--16000 odd in that piece I believe; only 3000 or so here--careering into each other and into all sorts of unplannable serendipities that are usually found only in free improvisations. He also expressed a desire for music with political content, something that was abundant in cheat sheet. So here we are.

I was further mindful of various conversations Per and I have had over the last thirteen years about works for piano and electronics. It was Per who pointed out to me that one of the difficulties of using amplification is that musicians perform not just in, but with the architectural space of a concert hall; that they learn to project their instrument's sound into that space, and loudspeakers disturb this relationship. So although I nevertheless wanted to write for piano and computer, this time I didn't want to make a piece which demanded amplification through a PA system. My solution was to use loudspeakers under the piano. This allows me to excite the piano's sound board with electronics; mix the instrumental and electronic sources acoustically, in situ, rather than electronically, in a mixing desk; and allows Per to perform without microphones, balancing sound levels according to both the acoustic properties of the piano and the hall he plays in.

I can't resist ending with a quotation from the composer Helmut Lachenmann. His inspiring writings go some way towards explaining the presence here of so much political comment in what should be a simple concert programme note: "The experience of the beautiful is indissolubly connected with making perceptible the social contradictions in our reality; because to make them perceptible is to make them surmountable."