Commissioned for Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra by the Barbican

Winner of the prize for Large-scale New Work at the Scottish Awards for New Music 2019

  • 4(2pic,afl).2+ca.3(Ebcl,bcl).2+cbn/4.3(pictpt).2+btbn.1/timp.4perc/hp.cel/str
  • 22 min

Programme Note

I. Fanfares
II. Woven Space
III. Course

Helen Grime wrote her first orchestral piece, Virga, for the London Symphony Orchestra just over a decade ago, music of spectral luminescence and captivating mystery, suitably named after an upper-sky phenomenon, of shafts of rain that seem to hang in the air, never reaching ground level, because they will have evaporated away. Now, in this bigger composition, her thinking turns from nature to art – though not all the way, for Woven Space takes its title from a structure by Laura Ellen Bacon, whose work, exploding the notion of basketry, is done with fresh willow twigs wound into forms that might echo those of plant growth or water flow. In her choices of both material and structure, therefore, Bacon is an artist of the natural, which would be one reason for Grime to find her work sympathetic. What Bacon does with withies, Grime accomplishes with lines of notes: shapes them into curves, balances their strains, weaves them.

One big difference, of course, is that where Bacon’s pieces, often made for specific outdoor locations, are bound to disintegrate within a few years, a musical composition will with time become firmer, as successive performances discover its strengths. Another is that woven space, in music, must be woven time.

The first movement, ‘Fanfares’, was written for the orchestra’s opening concert of the season, back in September. ‘Bright, dance-like’ is the marking at the start, aptly describing the characters of the two kinds of music set in motion and how they interact: clangs from tuned percussion with rushing woodwind scales are intercut with, then combined with, a springing drive from strings, harp and celeste.

Trumpets and horns, hitherto mostly in the background, spill forwards at an initial climax and stay involved, up to a point where the music becomes ‘Submerged, distant’. The cor anglais sets out a line that is threaded through what follows, along with reminiscences, until there comes a full restoration of brilliance in a melding of the musical principles that initiated the movement. The ending, though, is again withdrawn.

Woven Space, the title the big central movement shares with the whole work, was also the name of a structure Bacon created at Chatsworth in 2009, an enclosure in an enclosure, made of curving walls of interlaced willow twigs within the spaces of an ancient yew.

Grime’s music may similarly give a sense at times of enfolding the listener. Its opening is mysterious, a resonance of bells and tam tam sustained by muted brass and lower strings as background for lines winding down in groups of second violins. To these the firsts respond with defined figures, thus re-establishing, in a very different atmosphere, the contrast that sparked off ‘Fanfares’. A third item is due, and it comes with a brass chorale. Then everything begins to interweave, to interconnect, and to strengthen in doing so, until the growing tension is released in bright triplet energy, coming first from high woodwind and celesta. Slower music persists on other levels, but the exuberance bounds on. As woodwind solos and duets come forward, the movement arrives at its close, with alternations between steady melodic winding and triplet speed.

The finale also takes its title, ‘Course’, from a work of Bacon’s, a channel of woven willow made to snake down into the river in the grounds of Hall Place, in Bexley. ‘Driven’ is the marking, for music that maintains its swirling motion of lines upon lines, speeds upon speeds, through a central sequence in which the drive recedes into the distance for a focus on woodwind solos. When the energy comes forward again, impelled by trumpets, something is held in reserve. Then, with earlier ideas rushing back, the music can be let fly.

Programme note © 2018 Paul Griffiths
Not to be reproduced without permission


Woven Space
Helen Grime on Woven Space


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