• Giles Swayne
  • The song of Leviathan (1988)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Salomon Orchestra for their 25th anniversary

  • 4(3pic)4(ca)4(2bcl)4(cbn)/8532/2timp.4perc/2hp/str(+soli)
  • 30 min

Programme Note

The Song of the Leviathan takes as its starting-point a chord from another piece of mine, CRY for 28 amplified voices. This was written in 1979-80, and is probably the work for which I am best known. It was an artistic breakthrough for me, and like all breakthroughs it created as many problems as it solved. In it I discovered a language which was rich in intellectual content, without being in any way intellectual in effect - the sound of the piece is direct and songlike and not nearly as remote from 'everyday' music as most contemporary compositions. This remoteness from reality has done contemporary music no good at all; a healthy art-form springs out of the popular culture of its time - it should not be a thing apart. If it is, it becomes a private code for loses and its force.

This was my preoccupation in the pieces I wrote between 1981 and 1984: a search for an integrated language which sprang from real emotional experience, not specialist theory, yet which possessed the intellectual rigour to be used for complex conceptual structures. I believed - and still believe - that music is something which works best when it relates (however obliquely) to a popular culture and that we have lost a great deal if we cannot write melodies which can be sung in the bath or whistled in the street. There has been far too much ideology (which means fashion) in twentieth century music and far too little physically. We are not brainboxes, but flesh and blood.

The works I wrote in the five or six years after CRY sought to achieve this integration by extreme simplification of musical means. They are related more to my interest in African music and my openness to the sounds about me than they are to minimalism, which does not interest me very much. From 1985, however, I began to fell the need to re-explore a wider harmonic field.

In the fifth movement of CRY I used a chord consisting of the first five notes of the harmonic series to represent the whale. I have taken this chord and made it to the basis of The Song of Leviathan - it pulses throughout the piece like an enormously slowed-down heartbeat. The whale-chord, and the change of pulse, dynamic and harmonic field to which it is subjected, are the material of the new piece. It also gives off echoes of itself. These consist of transpositions of the whale-chord, the nature and position of which are governed by an overall series of 32 notes which I called the Cantus Maximus. This series also provides all the pitch material for the piece other than the whale-chord itself. A reduced, 13-note form of it (Cantus Minimus) is looped across the entire piece as a series of pedals played on various solo strings. These pedals are not all intrusive - in fact they are inaudible for much of the time- but they can be heard through 'holes' in the sound and act as a binding force.

The piece is heard as one continuous movement, but is arranged in 13 verses, each verse having its own transposition of the whale-chord, its own tempo, metrical structure, peal-note and combination of instruments. The tempi may vary from very fast to very slow. At the centre point of each verse is a caesura - a contrasting inner section played by the solo strings who, except at these points, sustain the quiet pedals already mentioned. The Song of the Leviathan is an abstract piece; but it takes as its starting point the image of a whale as a symbol of the fragility of life now that technological man has so completely dominated the planet. Like the planet itself, the whale is a huge, powerful and beautiful creature which for millions of years has lived without interference, yet now, after only a few hundred years of human intervention, is in serious danger. Can it survive?Can we survive?Can we learn to live less wastefully before it is too late?

© Giles Swayne

The Song of the Leviathan is affectionately dedicated to George & Patricia Harewood.


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