• Benedict Mason
  • Lighthouses of England and Wales (1987)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Winner of the 1998 Britten Award for Composition

  • 3(pic)3(ca)3(bcl)3(cbn)/4331/timp.4perc/2hp.pf/str
  • 15 min

Programme Note

Lighthouses of England and Wales

- being a guided tour around a chorus of the main English and Welsh lighthouse phases (as extant in the Trinity House Schedule of Lighthouses and Fog Signal Characters and Equipment), from the Solway Firth to the Farne Islands, some of which were notated ‘in the field’, and in which each lighthouse is portrayed in solo, in turn, with accompanying pre-echoes and ‘after-images’ of the others. And also part of a topographical series of pieces featuring compositional ‘surveying’, whereby physical characteristics and statistics form the basis of a piece’s musical realisation.

During the summer of 1987 I visited all the main Trinity House Lighthouses. I worked in situ and from different vantage-points, notating the interplay of their patterns with less important or more distant flashing signals. I worked entirely objective intentions, and was not at all concerned with Romantic notions of seascape and moodscape (that came later at my desk, when I adopted such concerns in a more ironic context). I tried to examine ‘orchestrational’ notions of depicting weather, sea and natural phenomena in terms of our conditioned responses to such musical approximations. Precise depiction of weather was important. I worked in all conditions and travelled to other locations during daylight.

Scale was something else I tried to notate. A distant lighthouse signal is the gentlest bleep on the horizon. Close to, is a huge lumbering beam that swings past, appearing to speed up as it comes towards you and slow down after it has gone past. This is translated into sound as its most literal when the conductor makes a semicircular sweeping gesture across the orchestra, which cues all the players in domino effect as the conductor’s arm passes the line of vision.

This silent light was continuously mysterious to me, even more so given the metronomic and dynamic way in which the lighthouses behaved. To translate light into sound on many simultaneous levels was also am ‘orchestrational’ endeavour. I had in my mind the possibility of the piece representing a model of this island’s coastline, the size of a concert hall, in which all the lighthouses are flashing in a tempo and can be viewed/heard together. It is as if one is moving on a fast journey through a series of different locations while always remaining on the same spot. To use a photographic analogy, each location exists in a different depth of field, each coming into focus to be viewed briefly before turning the lens to take control and develop, by virtue of the deliberate device of each new episode interrupting and distracting the listener’s attention, and curtailing his or her involvement with the previous view or episode.

© Benedict Mason