Commissioned by the BBC
For the Promenade Concerts
A composer can consider himself lucky if the right commission coems along at the right time, and I think myself especially fortunate as far as the Proms are concerned.The first time I was asked to write a piece for this special audience and unique auditorium , it enabled me to complete a work which had been in my mind for some twenty-five years. It badly needed writing, yet lack of performance prospects and other commissions continually forced it to the back of my mind. It was rescued by a Prom commission, and in retrospect I can see it as a key work which nearly everything in the previous ten years had led up to.
Now, five years after The Spirit's Harvest, there arrived another commission just at the time when I was once more feeling the need to grapple with a large project. For better or for worse, one always feels that the Proms demand the biggest statement one is capable of. So far, so good. But in the event, months passed and my mind remained blank. I felt anxious and fallow.
Finally, some time in the autumn 1988, I knew quite suddenly what the piece had to be about. It was an exhilarating moment but my spirits quickly sank when I began to appreciate what I'd let myself in for. It is depressing sometimes to contemplate one's mental and spiritual laziness, but I knew that I was no longer going to be able to rely on several important elements of language that had sever me well for some time previously, and that I would have to extend my vocabulary and syntax, and struggle with what were for me at least new techniques
The idea that had sprung into my mind was that the piece should reflect the idea of the 'Big Bang', beginning with an explosion of material then speeding out into space. The music would gradually slow up towards a still point at the centre of the work then, under the of gravity, so to speak, reverse the process and end up by accelarating back towards a situation simsimilar to the opening explosion, or singularity. Importantly the work would need denser harmony than I had ever used before and a wider stylistic range from the nearly chaotic to the simple and orderly.
Having envisaged the overall structure and general cosmic ares of feeling, it was about six months before I felt able to put pencil on paper. More detailed ideas on form and material slowly accumulated during a time when I felt impatient to be starting, yet apprehensiveand helpless. The first idea to take definite shape concerned the lenghts of paraghraphs and complete sections. I had never used golden sections before, but the proportion of 8:5 seemed perfectly to define the difference between an outward and a return jouney. Both would probably take the same real time, but would differ in terms of experienced (or musical) time. Returning through already charted territory feels quicker.
Then I saw that each journey would consist of seven sections, using the numbers 1-7 in the sequence 7-3-5-1-4-2-6 to govern their lenghts. Multiplying by 8 (56-24-40-8 etc.) gives the outward journey in bars per section, and by 5 the return journey. The individual character of these seven sections then became clearer to me and finally settled into the following sequence: explosive exposition (I) lauches free-running allegero (II) with a trio-like section consisting of high violin melody over an ostinato (III) and a brief return of the allegro (IV). The music then slows down through a series of minor explosions and reappearances of opening material, including polymetric chords hammered by strings, wind and brass (V). A quiet high-lying violin recitative (VI) leads to the still centre of the work - soft slow string harmonies supporting an often dense tapestry of seven-note melodies.
The return journey retraces these steps, but not as a strics palindrome. Indeed new aspects of the material are constantly explored so that at first we may not recognise that we've turned round. We can ask ourselves whether in real life any difference would be perceived between travelling away from the Big Bang and being sucked through space towards a particularity - that is, until the last few moments!
Finally I decided not to begin the work with an explosion, but add a few introductory bars of expectant emptiness - the void waiting to be filled.