Molecular musical madness – the APO commission

Back in mid July, I was delighted to be announced as the winner of the Aldworth Philharmonic Orchestra’s Young Composers Award. My vision for the piece was to reflect on the irrevocable changes that climate change is bringing about in all our lives, whether we notice them or not.

A theme that is currently dominating my work is that of giving the performer(s) more freedom and consequently trying to ensure they feel a greater sense of ownership over their performance(s) of my music. In the past I’ve played around with giving much more freedom in terms of dynamics and articulation, and in the case of the marimba piece Summer Rain, in allowing the performer to decide which order to perform the piece in. However, this becomes trickier when large ensembles are the order of the day. With the Quangle Wangle Choir, I was able to meet up with them and to collaborate on key parts of the piece. With the Aldworth Philharmonic Orchestra (APO), circumstances dictated that I was unable to meet up with them so I needed to allow the orchestral members to put their stamp on the piece in a different way.

I’m not sure what most people’s thoughts are when they think of climate change, but I’m immediately taken back to A level chemistry lessons where we discussed it at length. In particular, the individual molecules’ effect on global warming came to mind. As these are where the story of climate change begins, it made sense to me for it to be where the piece began. To create the random, chaotic, entropic effects of an atmosphere full of molecules, I decided that the first section of the piece would rely heavily on the contemporary technique of independent repetition. I gave individual instruments ‘musical’ molecules, which they are allowed to repeat as many times as they like and at any tempi within a given period of time. This fulfils the aim to give performers more freedom, whilst ensuring each performance is different and still reflecting the element in mind (the atmosphere). The concentration of the periods of independent repetition begins by reflecting the pre-1750 tropospheric concentrations of the molecules in question, and by the end of the section the current atmospheric concentrations are reflected.

 

Forming the molecules

Using too many different musical molecules would render the piece incoherent – particularly as I wanted to ensure each molecule featured throughout the piece, whilst also extending their themes in the second section. I therefore concentrated on four atmospheric molecules that play a key role in climate change. I won’t go into detail about each molecule used, but to demonstrate the method I used, here’s carbon dioxide:CO2

When forming the musical representation of this molecule, I began with the carbon atom in the middle, and assigned it the note C (for carbon – why not!). As each oxygen atom has six electrons in its outer electron shell, I decided to make the oxygen notes the interval of a sixth away from the carbon molecule – the A above, and E below. Finally, I decided to repeat each note twice – the carbon to represent the two electrons it shares (on each side) with oxygen atoms, and the oxygen atoms to represent the two each shares with carbon. Each molecule can then be transposed to anywhere on the stave throughout the atmospheric section of the piece. With regard to carbon dioxide, as it plays such an important role, I also added a more decorated version of the molecule.

 

To compile, this section was a bit of a logic puzzle – I had a harmonic template and a selection of chords (formed from each individual molecule’s notes), which I then attempted to slot together to create the final atmosphere. As the first section of the piece progresses, the effects of climate change – a rising overall temperature – can begin to be heard through a very slow theme in the lower strings, which repeats and rising, rising through the stringed instruments, until it reaches a peak.

 

The second section

After focusing on the atmosphere, I wanted to touch upon the causes that had created the atmospheric makeup we have today. Each molecule involved has specific processes that have caused the atmosphere to change significantly and climate change to occur, all of which are a result of man’s effect on the environment (industry, agriculture, technology etc.). In this section, many of the molecules develop a slightly extended theme reflecting the industries that are causing them to rise in concentration. These themes combine with the original molecular motifs to create a mechanical, repetitive driving force, gaining in momentum and power as the temperature continues to rise.

 

The final section

The final section of the piece takes a sudden turn. Instead of revolving around the musical molecules the focus switches to concentrate on green technologies, with suspended, beating notes representing the beams of sun shining down on the Earth and by extension the role nature plays (and should be playing) in creating greener technologies that can aid in slowing the effects of climate change. This section is considerably more positive than the two that precede it, despite its inclusion of the first section’s molecules, and a transformed rising temperature theme, reflecting the fact that our positive changes have potentially slowed the temperature rises, but that they are still occurring, and there is still more work for us to do.

I’m really looking forward to hearing how the piece develops as the APO rehearse and get to know it. Writing a piece including such a technique is quite bizarre – in this case I formed chords from molecules, and slotted them alongside a harmonic landscape – but of course, there’s no way of telling precisely which notes will be heard simultaneously. The piece will change with every rehearsal and performance, which is incredibly exciting!

 

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