Composing in the quiet carriage

Graham FitkinMon 29th April 2013

A trip to Lyon should be the perfect opportunity to prepare for this year's Vale of Glamorgan Festival...but fellow passengers are not in the mood for quiet

The quiet carriage. That dreamy vision of relaxed Einsteinian tranquillity set amidst pastoral landscapes flowing by in a smooth uninterrupted parallel continuum.
 
An interesting idea, lots to commend it. But the reality seems very much at odds with the rationale. 
 
It does seem to me the tensest carriage on the train. A heady mix of travellers unaware of the concept, passengers fully cognisant but enjoying the lazy frisson of rebellion and those who endeavour to remain stoically quiet. The latter group I find the most interesting. And count myself among them. There is, of course, subdivision here - those who put up with noise and try to focus on their own lives, those who think rules are rules and have no hesitancy in alerting offenders to the concept and those who indeed still think rules are rules but have a somewhat English reluctance to cause fuss or confrontation. I myself fluctuate from one group to another depending on my awareness of noise, my energy to deal with it and my perception of the success rate of confronting offenders.  
 
Today, it’s a lost cause. It’s bedlam in here. Familial arguments from behind, a party of Polish exchange students in tears at leaving their new best friends, a medley of Ivesian ring tones peppering the ambience and a broken Tannoy system with optional ‘fuzzbox’ alerting us to the delights of ‘hot food’ five carriages away. There is outright condemnation from some quarters, a great deal of heated whispering and a general air of battle fatigue.   
 
I’m on my way to Lyon to work with Percussions Claviers de Lyon on my new piece Partially Screaming. They are due to premiere it at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival on May 17, and rather than hearing it the day before the concert, when there is no time to change anything, they wanted me to be able to hear a rehearsal four weeks ahead so that there is still time to implement any changes. Eminently sensible. And they are indeed a great group to work with. They even put on a private concert for me before I started the piece so that I could try things out with them.
 
It is this attention to detail and desire to get things as perfect as possible, which is so rewarding for a composer. And it is one of the hallmarks too of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, who commissioned this piece. The festival, steered by the ever-inventive John Metcalf, seems to have an unerring knack of producing fantastic concerts in wonderful and unusual venues with a real sense of vision. In the early 90s the festival started to focus solely on the work of ‘living composers’, and featured the likes of Pärt, Reich and Górecki when these guys were unbelievably still regarded as ‘alternative’. More recently Skempton, Kancheli, Vasks, Tavener and many others have all been involved, and I’ve also been very fortunate to have a number of premieres at the festival.
 
This year the incorrigible blighters are featuring a lot of my work. Aside from the new percussion commission, an orchestral piece Mindset will be performed by BBC NOW on May 18, conducted by Garry Walker, and Raphael Wallfisch joins the orchestra for my Cello Concerto in the same concert. The Fidelio Trio perform my string work Lens on May 10, accordionist Raimondas Sviackevičius performs solos on May 11 and a week later Ruth Wall plays a section from my recent multiple harp piece Lost.  
 
A lot of notes, a lot of noise and a few raised eyebrows. I’m looking forward to the whole shebang.  
 
I’m also somewhat forlornly staring at this percussion score trying to grapple with the balance between two kick drums, a vibraphone and a glockenspiel. However the Polish students in front are getting the better of me, I’ll soon be handing out Kleenex, to them and everyone else. (They clearly had too good a time.) Focusing on my own noise is now completely in vain, there’s far more interesting stuff going on here. Embrace it Graham, and enjoy the quiet carriage for its unfailing ability to unearth new combinations of outright din and noise by stealth.
 
With corresponding levels of tension.

The Vale of Glamorgan Festival runs from May 9-18. Tickets are available here or by calling 0844 8700 887.

Graham Fitkin's picture

Graham Fitkin

Graham Fitkin is a composer based in the UK. He also swims and runs.

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