Commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra as part of UBS Soundscapes Pioneers. First performance on 17th February 2011, at the Barbican Centre, London by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding.

  • 2+pic(fl).2+ca.2+bcl(cl).2+cbn(bn)/4331/2perc/
  • 5 min

Programme Note

The idea for this piece was initially an abstraction whereby two sets of similarly constructed chords travel loosely in parallel but according to different procedures; one based upon descending semitones, one according to cycles of fifths. The chords themselves would have been familiar to 1930s New York songwriters or any early Schoenbergian.

Fred (Astaire) & Ginger (Rogers) enter the frame so: having started the piece, I was watching the main pas de deux in the film ‘Top Hat’ (Irving Berlin’s music abounds in the kind of chords I was interested in) and was struck (obviously) by the suavity and sophistication but particularly by Astaire’s choreographic technique of gliding through phrases against Berlin’s music. It’s perfection. But I remembered a quote: "Sure he was great, but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards... and in high heels." (Bob Thaves 1982)’ It struck me as an apt metaphor for the way my musical material was to progress. Further background reading also revealed that the Astaire/Rogers working relationship was far from amiable and was marked by storms and tears. So what we saw on the screen - the beauty, line, poise, ease, elegance - was a result of a serious clash of temperaments.

Fred & Ginger stops short of portraiture: it borrows from the dance phrasing (often the music suspends ‘in mid-air’ or is punctuated by silence), one passage is marked ‘soave’ whilst the device of running similar chords according to different procedural criteria means that harmonic sequences which are quite innocuous in their separate selves clash fiercely when they elide. If not programmatic in a descriptive sense, Fred & Ginger does nod towards a creative paradox and is certainly a homage.

Programme note © 2009 Gary Carpenter


Carpenter: Fred and Ginger