New Water Music

Debbie WisemanWed 6th June 2012
Conducting and waving at the crowds from a wet and windy boat (photo: Mark ScottConducting and waving at the crowds from a wet and windy boat (photo: Mark Scott)

Celebrating the reign, ignoring the rain at the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant

On January 18, 2012, I was allocated the title of my Jubilee Water Music movement by Gavin Greenaway, the musical director and composer in charge of the commission for the Queen’s Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant. His task was to select 11 titles from Handel’s original Water Music and then allocate them by way of a draw to 11 chosen film and TV composers. The composers would then set about writing a five-minute movement inspired by the title, with the first performance by a floating orchestra of 20 musicians to be on June 3 on the Georgian music herald barge. My title was…'Gigue'.

Finding the initial melody is always the starting point in my composing process; 'Gigue' immediately suggested a lively and joyful dance, which I felt was exactly right for this occasion. I felt inspired to write something fun and celebratory, to suit the mood of the Pageant.

I found the opening melody fairly swiftly, but I soon began to realise that to compose a gigue that sustains interest for five minutes would be a more difficult task than it initially appeared to be. Handel’s 'Gigue', or ‘Country Dance’ as it’s sometimes referred to in the original Water Music, is only about a minute and a half in duration, and as I started to compose I was acutely aware of why Handel kept this movement short. The ear quickly becomes tired of a lively dance-like rhythm, and I knew that there would have to be considerable light and shade over the movement, particularly in the orchestration, for it not to become exhausting for the listener.

The orchestration was a challenge. Twenty musicians was the maximum number that could fit on to the Georgian. Woodwind, two saxes, brass (without horns), percussion, marimba and timpani, and a string quintet. I was keen to use everyone on board, and to give each instrumentalist a moment to shine. As well as the Pageant being a wonderful opportunity for the composers, I felt as though the players should be on show too – a perfect chance to showcase the supremely gifted professional musicians we are fortunate to have at our disposal in the UK. A powerful PA system would be on board so that the music would be heard by the million people expected to line the riverbanks.

The first rehearsal on the barge was on February 22. I woke up to a freezing cold, rainy, windy day…not ideal for a boat trip, even without the conducting music part. Still, at least we would have the opportunity to try everything out in the worst possible conditions – and surely it would definitely be much better weather come the start of June?

When I arrived at Festival Pier where the Georgian awaited us, the musicians had already got their instruments on board, and it seemed to all fit on perfectly. The conductor’s podium had a good view of all 20 musicians, who were positioned down the full length of the barge, and everyone had just enough room to play without poking their neighbour’s eyes out with their bows and drumsticks. As it was such a windy day, all the musicians’ parts were pinned on to the music stands with clothes pegs – not very glamorous, but it did the trick!

I was first to the conductor’s stand and the musicians sounded wonderful – even in the cold wind and rain! Gavin Greenaway was trouble-shooting during my rehearsal, making sure that none of the musicians’ parts flew off into the river, and luckily everything stayed more or less on the music stands! I was thrilled with how the piece sounded – I was worried that the string quintet would have trouble being heard, but with the PA system on board the sound was fantastic. Going under a bridge was an amazing experience as suddenly the music sounded huge! Enhanced by the confines of the bridge, we were suddenly transported from the barge to the acoustics of Wembley Arena – quite a surreal experience! The music was also reverberating back from the buildings across the water and firing back to us after a short delay – a disconcerting but rather wonderful effect!

Christopher Gunning followed next, and his piece was a delight – full of fun and imagination. The best feeling of all was how all the musicians were playing with huge grins on their faces, and waving back, in moments when they had rest bars, to the people along the riverbanks that were waving and staring in disbelief at this floating orchestra! Even with the terrible weather, everyone was loving every single moment of it. I came away from the rehearsal brimming with excitement and looking forward to June 3 with renewed vigour.

Then, two days later an email arrived from Gavin Greenaway. The Pageant organisers had commented that our music barge sounded rather too similar to the other barges in the flotilla – a little too ‘orchestral’ and ‘classical’ in tone, and so perhaps wouldn’t stand out sufficiently from the other boats also playing orchestral music. The feeling was that we needed to make our sound more modern and contemporary, more ‘filmic’ and a little less orchestral, in order to create a different atmosphere. In the email, Gavin was suggesting losing the woodwind section, and perhaps replacing them with electric and acoustic guitars, more percussion, perhaps a bass guitar and another keyboard. I could understand the organisers’ perspective on the flotilla as a whole. We were one of 10 music barges and each one had been chosen to create a completely different musical contribution. I decided to step back from the 'Gigue' for a while in order that I could return to it fresh in a few days’ time, and perhaps rethink the orchestration, or maybe even start a new piece entirely.

I came back to the 'Gigue' with a revised musical battle plan. I decided to try to maintain some of the melody of the original orchestral version, but re-think the overall feel of the piece to suit the new line-up of musicians and the desire from the Pageant organisers for our barge to sound dramatic and cinematic. There were now just two woodwind players, two keyboards, electric and acoustic guitar, three percussion, bass guitar, string quartet, two trumpets, two tenor trombones, and bass trombone. Quite an eclectic line-up of instruments, but it definitely suggested a more dramatic, robust, energetic piece, and the character of the movement slowly started to take shape in my mind. I even came up with my own pirate story to accompany the music – it’s a common trait of the film composer that a visual image, or story, is needed to spark the inspiration!

The movement was completed towards the end of March which allowed a few weeks for me to complete the orchestration and get the music copied and prepared for the rehearsal and recording in the studio early in May. The CD recording by Silva Screen Records of the new 'Water Music' was already announced with a release date of May 28, so this was a very tight deadline to get everything recorded, mixed and mastered in time…but film composers always work well with a deadline looming!

The recording session took place on May 3 at British Grove Studios. All 11 composers recorded their piece in turn, and I was hugely excited when it was my turn to step up to the podium. It’s always a very special moment when your music is performed for the first time, and to hear my new 'Gigue' played with such verve and enthusiasm was hugely rewarding. The musicians performed beautifully adding, as they always do, their own personality and charm to the piece. After 45 minutes, we’d recorded the 'Gigue' and the next composer was invited to the podium. One of the composers commented that it was almost like being in a dental surgery, waiting for your name to be called, but obviously without the drilling and the injections.

Finally, the day of the pageant arrived. June 3. A cold, wet, windy day; uncannily similar conditions to our rehearsal day back in February. So much for the weather improving! Nevertheless, as we made our way onto St George’s Pier to board the Georgian, I could sense the excitement – the crowds were gathering even as we arrived traffic-beatingly early at 8am, and their numbers continued to build throughout the morning as we moved to our mustering point just west of Wandsworth Bridge. The inclement weather made absolutely no difference to the public’s enthusiasm for the occasion – it was wonderful to see the world-renowned British resilience in action, and to soak up – literally - the party atmosphere!

We had our rehearsal in the morning, and then after lunch on the barge, the Georgian moved into position at the head of the narrowboats and barges section of the flotilla, and we began to play, each composer stepping to the podium in turn. It was truly magical, conducting my music and seeing the massive crowds gathered along the riverbanks and on the bridges waving and dancing along. I tried to wave back as often as possible, whilst trying not to miss a beat of the music; a task not helped by a sudden and huge gust of wind which blew my score clean off the stand at around bar 45. Forced to conduct the piece from memory, I crossed my fingers, kept the beat and the brilliant musicians simply carried on! Later in the afternoon, the intensity of the rain became biblical, and the players sitting near the side rails of the barge were comprehensively drenched, but nothing dampened their spirit and enthusiasm. As we came to the end of my 'Gigue' there was a satisfyingly raucous roar from the huge crowd, and then Gavin Greenaway took over to expertly conduct the rest of the pieces, including his own, infectious, rousing 'Passepied'.

It was a true honour to take part in the Jubilee pageant – a fitting tribute to our Queen and to the great British spirit. It was a special and unique experience. I will never forget the feeling of conducting our floating orchestra on this historic occasion, and I’m sure that every single person that took part will treasure every single memory of the spectacular Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant; one rainy, windy, wonderful day in June 2012.

Debbie Wiseman

Debbie Wiseman, MBE, is a composer, conductor and presenter. She has written over 200 works for small and large screen, including 'Wilde' and 'Death of Yugoslavia', which were each nominated for Ivor Novello Awards. She has won a TRIC Award for 'The Good Guys' and an RTS Award for 'Warriors'. In 2007 she was awarded the Gold Badge of Merit by the British Academy of Composers & Songwriters.

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