Commissioned by the London Sinfonietta

  • 1(pic)1(ca)11/hn/str(
  • 15 min

Programme Note

Kites (scored for wind quintet and string quintet) came about due to my interest in Japanese things, and features a kite fight preceded by an introduction of fragile, slow and serene "scene-setting" music. Along the way the O-dako kite is involved (the largest of Japanese kites often requiring up to 40 people to help fly it!). After the "climax", at which one of the kites has its' flying line cut, the music becomes extremely static due to the time-stopping nature of the act of kite flying; a feeling expressed in Buson's haiku:

A kite-
in the same place
in yesterday's sky.

The kite plummets into the river (over which the competition takes place) and the painted "washi" paper dissolves leaving the kite bones to be dragged out and used again.

The piece closes as it began with a light breeze blowing shoreward from the ocean.

© Simon Holt

One of the creative arts of the twentieth century is that of writing composition titles, and some of the results have been not only strikingly apt to the music in question but also suggestive of a whole new way of hearing; Stravinsky's Agon and Boulez's Eclat are examples; so is Simon Holt's Kites, the name he found for his fifteen-minute piece for quintets of winds and strings. Like kites, his musical ideas are objects defined by the forces within them; intervals, dynamic intensities, tensions between different instruments or registers. Like kites, too, they are subject to forces from outside; they can turn, fly further off, suddenly come near. Perhaps above all, there is something precarious as well as elegant in Holt's flying of his musical kites: the music has to contain the unpredictability of the wind, but also the continuity of the same objects against the same sky. As he said himself: "I've always liked the idea of music being essentially a kind of heightened improvisation, the musicians appearing to improvise my thoughts on a particular issue in a very precise way, but with the capricious and surreal operational methods of dream". It is this combination of precision and caprice, coupled with his way of working with sharply coloured, infinitely transformable kites of notes, that places his work at the end of a line traceable back through Ligeti and Birtwistle to Debussy and Stravinsky.

No description of the opening could come near to his own: "The piece begins with an almost silent high sound like a delicate disturbance of the air, which is electrified by the harsh flute shriek and double bass snap pizzicato. A charge has activated the air and heightened our sense of expectancy. In medieval times the minstrel would shout the word 'Hwaet' to silence the throng in the mead hall (accompanied by a chord on his harp), thus informing them that his epic poem was about to begin". What follows is an introduction allusively superscribed "(…floating world)" and bringing forward some of the main ideas. After a first climax a sequence of wide-spaced chords is identified as the o-dako kite (the metaphor, but not the music, is Japanese), and a little later the kenka-dako, or fighting kite, is introduced by incisive sforzatos from flute and oboe. From this point the music takes flight, in gusting movements and crossings of kites (there is one moment where one breaks free in a flute cadenza), straining towards the principal climax. Then the fine strains and colours of the piece gradually subside (the score quotes the beautiful line: "A kite in the same place in yesterday's sky"), and there is a chorale-like coda.

© Paul Griffiths





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