Category Archives: Music

Sea music

Cornwall cove

In my regular skirmishes with stress-induced insomnia, I’ve found a weapon – a five-hour recording of waves breaking on the wide open ocean, rather similar to the sound of leafy branches swaying and rustling together in a high wind. The slow hypnotic shushing noise, funnelled straight into my head through earphones, is supposed to lull my brain waves and breathing into a corresponding state of calm.

It’s monotonous, for sure. There’s hardly any variation in pitch, and the rhythm is just a predictable swell and release – inhale, exhale. It’s not what you’d call ‘music’. This is the real sound of the sea, yet many composers, from the Romantic era onward, have been inspired to improve on it with their own melodic interpretations.

One of those is Benjamin Britten, who wrote four Sea Interludes for his opera Peter Grimes. In the third of these pieces, ‘Moonlight’, the impression of small waves swelling and subsiding is captured by means of a repeated short crescendo and equally short diminuendo – simply pushing gently and letting go.

This effect can be achieved with any instrument that’s capable of getting louder and then softer on a single note, so all of the wind and bowed string sections can do it, but percussion can’t.

047Where the percussion instruments do come into their own, though, is in their ability to mimic the sound of water hitting another surface. In Cornwall once, I watched waves slapping against a harbour wall, sending a shower of spray over the railings. Every so often, there was an eerie ‘boom’ like a drum, which seemed to come from the force of the water beneath the surface, bouncing off the wall. And whenever I hear surf on the beach, reaching the limit of its flow and falling back, taking the shingle with it, I always think of the sizzle of cymbals.

Another of Britten’s Sea Interludes, ‘Storm’, uses cymbals and tympani to create just these effects. In a different musical genre, ‘The mighty Atlantic’ by Scottish folk-rock band Runrig (from Mara, their concept album based on the sea), features a big bass drum in the instrumental section towards the end – to my mind, the highlight of the track.

My soporific ocean wave recording is very boring by comparison with these musical depictions of the sea’s many ‘moods’ – but that’s the point, of course. All you want when you’re still awake at 3.00 am is the sound of Zzzzzzz.

An audience of one


I gripped the slippery doorknob with both hands, twisted, pushed hard and stepped over the threshold. It was silent, as I’d known it would be. Not even the ticking of a clock disturbed the stillness. And it was warm—the kind of warmth in which I could imagine a cat snoozing contentedly on the windowsill. Sunlight radiated through the sheer fabric of the curtains and settled on my back as I turned to gaze around.

This was the small front parlour of the house, rarely used but showing every sign of being well cared for. The light reflecting from the inlaid wooden table revealed no dust, just a clean satin surface. In this room were displayed my grandmother’s best examples of handiwork—the embroidered firescreen, the framed tapestries and felt appliqué pictures. Here, too, were the best plates and teacups, locked away in a glass-fronted cabinet, safe from curious-fingered children.

It was an older, calmer, more ordered world than I could have found anywhere else.

I breathed in the drowsy air and moved forward. The piano—that’s what I’d really come for. I sat on the stool, my feet barely reaching the pedals, and broke the silence with a first few tentative notes. Until the call came for tea, time would be of no consequence.

Playing the piano at my grandma’s house was always special. We had a rackety old instrument at home, but it was in the living-room, competing for air-time with the television, two parents, a brother and a sister. It was also backed up against the wall shared by our neighbours’ house, and I’d been made aware that they were not so fond of ‘The Ash Grove’ that they wished to hear it in stumbling rehearsal every night of the week.

Between the ages of 18 and 38, I had regular access to a piano for only two years. It was in a rented house that I shared in my early 20s with two friends, both more accomplished performers than I was. By this time, I was mangling Mozart, Debussy and Fauré, and I judged it best to do so mainly while my friends were out.

Now, at last, I’m properly grown up, with my own home and my own piano. Luckily for my neighbours, it stands against a thick stone wall that adjoins their garden shed, not their living-room. I now own my grandma’s old piano stool; one of her tapestries hangs on my mother’s wall, along with one felt appliqué picture; the rest of the furniture from the small front parlour is who-knows-where. I’m unlikely ever to enter that room again—but whenever I sit down alone to play, I cross a threshold into the same calm and ordered world.

And in this place, an audience of one is quite enough.

Songs of winter

John Rutter is well known as a composer of popular Christmas music for choirs. Songs like his ‘Star carol’ and ‘Shepherds’ pipe carol’ are bright and breezy, easy to learn and fun to sing.

The piece my choir is about to perform at our Christmas concert – Rutter’s When Icicles Hang – is, we’ve found, rather more challenging. It’s a cycle of six songs with lyrics from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, contrasting the harsh, melancholy conditions of winter—dark nights, biting winds and barren landscapes—with the ways in which people fight back against the gloom.

You could imagine that the movements give us a glimpse into six different rooms on a winter’s night.

  • ‘Icicles’, a setting of a poem from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, paints a picture of freezing weather outside, with an owl hooting in the dark and a woman called ‘greasy Joan’ stirring the pot for a somewhat meagre meal.
  • In ‘Winter nights’ by Thomas Campion (an Elizabethan musician and lawyer), we’re inside the hall of a considerably richer household, with a blazing fire, flowing wine, wax candles and a high standard of music and dancing for entertainment.
  • ‘Good ale’ (15th century) takes us into the humorous company of, I think, a group of wassailers (door-to-door carol singers), demanding payment in booze and rejecting all offers of nutritious meat.
  • ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’ is Shakespeare’s work again (from As You Like It)—a melancholy minstrel’s song about false friendship, more bitter than winter weather.
  • The minstrel turns rather pious with ‘Winter wakeneth all my care’, a 14th-century lament about the inevitability of death—a subject probably at the top of people’s minds during the era of the Plague.
  • As if to banish those depressing thoughts, the last movement, ‘Hay, ay’, is sung in the heart of the tavern, celebrating Yule and New Year with friends and beer.

The music has many beauties but isn’t easy to learn. The ‘cold’ songs are discordant, with spiky, jagged melodies. The drinking songs bring their own difficulties, with stomping rhythms and sudden changes of time signature. They’d be best performed with tankards to swing, although this is something you’re unlikely to see in an English choral performance. (Shame!)

One of the most intriguing things about these pieces, though, is the way they bring ordinary medieval and Elizabethan experiences to life. Most of the history we learn from those times is about battles and power struggles among royalty and nobility. Poetry and songs tend to reveal more intimate details about the lower classes and their attitudes.

Some of those details show up different ways of thinking from our own. In ‘Icicles’, the owl’s call is described as ‘a merry note’, whereas we think of it as a spooky, unsettling sound. Some words can be misleading: in the same song, I wondered how poor countryfolk could get access to ‘roasted crabs’ – until a bit of research revealed that they’re crab apples, not seafood.

In many ways, though, the experiences are easy for us to identify with. Even with centrally heated homes as a refuge, we know what a bitter wind feels like against the face, and we understand the simple comfort of hot food, drink, friends and music.

If our concert audience feels that contrast between iciness and warmth as we sing, we will have done the piece justice.

Art and craft and engineering


I don’t often make things, not tangible things. A couple of years ago, though, I was taught to make a square stained-glass frame for a mirror – constructed from four rectangles of coloured glass, held together with strips of soft lead. There were definite moments of drama in the process. The sudden ‘snap’ as a sheet of glass broke along the cutting line was one. Another was the instant when the solid metal collapsed into liquid under the hot tip of the soldering iron. It wasn’t a perfect job by any means, but I was proud to say that I’d made it with my own hands.

D.H. Lawrence observed something special about hand-made objects, especially those that have outlasted their makers:

Things men have made with wakened hands, and put soft life into
are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing
for long years.

And for this reason, some old things are lovely
warm still with the life of forgotten men who made them.


I imagine that Lawrence, being from an urban industrial background, was thinking of utilitarian things – tools, machinery, perhaps furniture. To him, such objects transcended ‘mere’ usefulness because the love and care with which they were crafted made them also beautiful. Hard materials held ‘soft life’; unfeeling blocks were somehow ‘awake’.

For things like this to be functional, they have to be precisely measured and securely fixed together: they have to be engineered. But the same goes, I think, for works of art whose main purpose is to be beautiful.

I once put a short poem to music, and I found that it had to be built up piece by piece. First I mapped out the rhythm of the words, then turned the rhythm to melody. I fitted a bass line underneath, plotting chord progressions that my old A Level music notebooks told me would work. The missing notes of the chords went in next, including some discords and resolutions, all checked against the rules of harmony. Finally I assessed whether each of the four lines would be interesting enough to sing in its own right. It was a painstaking building project. I had to ask, would the underlying structure hold up and would the music do justice to the beauty and emotion of the words?

It sounds pretty boring as a description of a supposedly creative process, doesn’t it? But I suppose it’s not much different from the way a watercolour painting is made, layer upon layer, or, indeed, how a working machine part is brought to life from a diagram littered with measurements.

The important question, common to them all, is: have they been made with ‘wakened hands’?

Shovel: “Ystespade NF.1914-0312” by Foto: Anne-Lise Reinsfelt / Norsk Folkemuseum – Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –



The choir I sing with is rehearsing the choral suite from Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace. For me, his setting of the Sanctus is especially spine-tingling to sing. The tiptoeing tension in the opening bars, the small skip added to the beat in ‘Pleni sunt caeli et terra’ and the rise and fall of the repeated ‘Gloria’ lead to a leap of excitement with ‘Hosanna in excelsis’.

The words are sublime, too. Based on the song of the six-winged seraphim in the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God, they speak of dazzling light and a world beyond everyday earthly experience. This could easily be a musical picture of a heavenly procession that can’t help breaking into dance.

That is, until you remember that the overall context of the piece is a preparation for war. Then the steady beat underlying the melody becomes the ominous, relentless approach of an army. If it’s a dance, it’s a hypnotic, menacing one.

Once, driving due west at dusk into a lurid red and orange sunset, the Sanctus happened to be playing on my car stereo. The effect was apocalyptic, as if the Four Horsemen might be preparing to thunder over the horizon. I remembered that ‘Dominus Deus Sabaoth’ means ‘Lord God of hosts’—or ‘God-of-the-Angel-Armies’, as The Message Bible paraphrase puts it.

I feel ambivalent about this, and perhaps Karl Jenkins means me to. The words and music are glorious, but war is not glorious—the First World War poets leave us in no doubt about that—and ‘holy’ war is especially horrific. Angel armies, if they exist, don’t kill men, women and children with guns and bombs, yet too many of the world’s armies and solitary warriors believe that some kind of heavenly commander is leading them on.

Jenkins’ composition as a whole suggests a range of conflicting emotions. The very title, The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace, is a contradiction in terms. Clearly, though, it aims to highlight (to quote Wilfred Owen) ‘the pity of war’. Possibly the most heart-rending movement in it is the Agnus Dei: ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have pity on us and give us peace.’

So I shall continue to feel this conflict whenever I sing the Sanctus. I hear both the tramp of an earthly army with a delusional belief that God is on its side and, at the same time, the dance of a heavenly procession through light and glory.

What do you hear?