A new accordion concerto, premiered at the Barbican this Saturday, November 24, takes its inspirations from meditation
A fortnight ago, I returned home from a weeklong silent retreat. Retreating is something I do regularly, and I had partly chosen this one to help me deal with the stresses of a new orchestral piece looming: my half-hour accordion concerto, The Tiniest House of Time, is being played at the Barbican by James Crabb and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on November 24. My post-retreat head also helped me to cope with preparation for two concerts and a masterclass in 24 hours at Aberdeen’s Sound Festival last week, as well as a vegan butterscotch fudge-related, hand-held blender incident that almost shredded my index finger completely the following day...
Composers have been known to moan about their lot, and it’s an easy trap, so I try to stay alive to the joys and pleasures of this most ephemeral work. That’s where meditation helps, as it does in my daily life. Of course it highlights frustrations and fears too, but can give the courage and clarity just to get on with them. In some of my pieces I have even used ideas from meditation practice as structural or figurative starting points for the music: the accordion concerto for example has a slow section, ‘Tonglen’, which refers to the Tibetan practise of breathing in the pain of others and transmuting it – on the outbreath – into release, relaxation, love. (The accordion does the breathing!)
With a new piece, there’s a fine balance between challenging and satisfying the musicians, particularly difficult to achieve with 70 or 80 players. My impulse this time was: BBC Symphony? They can play anything. Starting from that premise, I then showed all the provisional parts to different player friends to check the details. (Arcana such as double bass harmonics and harp notation can stir surprisingly strong passions!) I’m lucky to know some of the BBC players from my Youth Orchestra days (I used to sit a desk behind the leader of the violas when I was 15), and I’m keen to make the rehearsal process as friendly and mutually interesting as possible. Sad to say, it isn’t always: shortage of time, lofty composers, tired players who don’t like the music much - all contribute.
Then there’s a soloist of course, in this case an incredibly committed and dynamic one. We have worked together on the part for six months and more and it’s at the limits of the possible. This is important for me, as I want that Xenakis-like energetic edge that comes when precision is only just about graspable (surely the same effect that the Grosse Fuge and the Hammerklavier first had, and The Rite of Spring certainly did.) I am encouraging James to embrace this danger as part of the piece! He sounds wizardly, and works with a palette on his instrument beyond anything I thought possible. I also make huge demands on a pianist, harpist and four percussionists playing more than 40 instruments. I hope they will have a wild ride.
Meditation has one other particular purpose for me: amidst the frantic business of life, where Tomorrow and Yesterday cast enormous shadows, and Now can be utterly deafening. It allows us to rest in the moment and fully experience it. That is a theme and a spur to this new piece, but also something I hope the musicians, listeners and (selfishly!) the composer may experience in the Barbican on Saturday. I recently heard a line from the Zen poet Ryokan, which for me perfectly says it:
‘What is it my heart has been longing for, since before the beginning of time?
Just this, just this.’
Rolf Hind's new accordion concerto, The Tiniest House of Time, will be premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jakub Hrusa this Saturday, November 24 at the Barbican alongsite works by Janáček and Rimsky-Korsakov. Visit the Barbican website for full details.