Commissioned by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

  • 0200/2000/mba/hp/str(
  • 13 min

Programme Note

In spite of the implications of the word, I only decided to call this piece Portrait II somewhat after the fact - that is, I had nearly completed the piece when I realised that it fulfilled the task I had set myself when I wrote the first Portrait: namely that it was a portrait not of a specific object or person, but a "portrait of an idea". (This term comes from the artist Mark Rothko, who used it in relation to the abstraction and absence of subject from his canvases from the mid-1940s onwards).

In the first piece, that "idea" was the extreme suppression of violence, the denial to the listeners of their need for release, which is also a feature of much of Rothko's work. In Portrait II, I was playing a sort of game with the instruments and their various ways of transforming the same basic material.

The idea was that whichever instrument(s) were in focus at any given point would be "followed" by the rest of the group, but eventually all would be overtaken by something bigger, as if they had only been led around a few corners until they realised they were back on the street they started on, albeit seen from a different angle. Each time the new "leaders" take over, they head off in a different direction and it becomes increasingly difficult for the others to follow, until eventually the sense of where the original street lies is more or less lost. Here the piece breaks free of the "something bigger" for a while (although it is not forgotten!) until we hear only snapshots of where various different threads have reached, while the marimba tries unsuccessfully to move forward; but withhout the support of the others behind it, it merely trails off into the distance…

This sort of "game" should not be taken too literally, of course…but it illustrates the main principle of the piece: that of the containment of different strands of material within one framework. Again borrowing from Rothko's ideas, the materials within the work develop along their own lines as "characters in an abstract drama", but can never actually leave the context of the work to which they belong.

© Stuart Macrae