Proms 2012: Charlotte Bray – At the Speed of Stillness (World Première)

Perhaps one of the more highly anticipated premières at this year’s Proms was Charlotte Bray‘s At the Speed of Stillness, which received its first performance last night by the Aldeburgh World Orchestra, conducted by Mark Elder. Bray’s name has been growing in significance particularly in the last year or so; her inclusion on the LES’s 2011 list of most influential people in classical music was undoubtedly a combination of hyperbole & optimism, but this new work goes a long way towards consolidating Bray’s position as one of our most engaging composers. Her inspiration picks over a number of concepts arising from a line in a poem by Dora Maar (Picasso’s famous muse), “the hummingbird motionless as a star”. This led Bray to consider paradoxical notions of simultaneous movement & stillness, either (or both) of which may be merely ostensible. These starting ideas—so much simpler than the needlessly highfalutin concepts with which so many composers festoon their work—translate well into sound &, most importantly, can be easily grasped as the music plays out.

Bray’s starting point is to create a bedrock of energy; the piece swings into action out of a motif that leaps up & down, gathering sound around it. But alongside this energy she swiftly marks out the work’s other primary characteristic, melody, sending the flutes scurrying frantically around; the strings seem to counter this but they ultimately combine (absorbing the opening motif) to drive the piece into its first highly rhythmic episode. It’s tempting to hear the influence of her former teacher, Mark-Anthony Turnage, at this point, but Bray immediately moves away, bravely allowing the potentially bruising gestures she’s established to dissipate into slower material where melody again begins to rise. The music never drifts, though, & picks up pace once again, before another abrupt shift away to cooler material, with agile woodwinds foregrounding repeating string rhythms. Yet this gradually turns out to be the thin end of a very large orchestral wedge, collapsing into a bullish pounding that brings the pulse ever more into focus as it builds towards the work’s climax, a remarkable collection of quasi-Mahlerian raspberries. As they ebb away, these heavy, blurting bursts of sound act like a release valve, exploding the pent-up energy accumulated to this point (it’s easy to hear them as a ‘climax’ in more than one sense). Having let everything loose, Bray continues with a soft, convoluted cluster of melodic roots that meander their way outward, bringing echoes of the work’s opening (flute-driven material, soft tam-tam strikes). Expectedly, the pace soon starts to get going again, &—finally, having been given little more than punctuating material until now—the brass are allowed to become prominent, a horn & trumpet protruding from the texture, which immediately, & unpredictably, retreats beneath them.

It’s not just the relentless & irresistible energy that makes At the Speed of Stillness such a successful piece; there’s never a dull moment, the brilliant clarity of Bray’s orchestral writing is captivating. Moreover, she displays a remarkable lightness of touch as well as allowing no little beauty into music that is often fairly hefty. Very exciting stuff indeed, aided in no small part by the Aldeburgh World Orchestra’s absolutely first-rate performance.

Charlotte Bray – At the Speed of Stillness (World Première)

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