The latest orchestral work by British composer Hannah Kendall received its first performance a couple of nights ago at a late night Prom given by Chineke! Orchestra, the flagship orchestra of the Chineke! Foundation, established a couple of years ago “to provide career opportunities to young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe”. As she described in her answers to my pre-première questions, her new piece The Spark Catchers takes its inspiration and title from a poem by Lemn Sissay. The text pays homage to the London matchgirls who in 1888 went on strike in protest at their long hours, meagre pay and dangerous working conditions, involving serious, potentially fatal, risks to their health. Throughout the poem, Sissay plays on the triple-meaning of the word ‘strike’, alluding to the industrial action as well as the motion that causes matches to ignite (in hindsight, i wonder whether ‘Strike’ would have been an even more suitable title for Kendall’s piece), but most specifically the call that went up in the factory when a loose spark shot out, threatening to set everything ablaze, whereupon one of the women would leap to catch the spark before it could touch anything. Requiring a remarkable combination of reflexes and dexterity, Sissay praises “the magnificent grace / The skill it took, the pirouette in mid air / The precision, perfection and the peace.”
Kendall has taken phrases from the poem to serve as structural markers: ‘Sparks and Strikes’, ‘The Molten Madness’, ‘Beneath the Stars/In the Silver Sheen’ and ‘The Matchgirls March’. From very early on, her piece establishes an interesting relationship between the lowest register instruments and everything else. ‘Sparks and Strikes’ is spritely and playful, simple and conventional, workaday and familiar (even over-familiar), until some low notes catch – commencing ‘The Molten Madness’ – and a tone of solemnity is suddenly introduced, recolouring everything else above. It’s important both as a contrast and as a reaction that will recur later. Its effect now is to strengthen the slow melody being traced through the centre and to break up the lively texture it sat within; the music becomes portentous and rooted to the spot. It’s a short-lived threat, though, and what prevails, albeit halting, is a network of little melodic ideas (in the winds) surrounded by bursts of chatter, with occasional surges from the brass. It essentially sounds like a somewhat perturbed version of the ‘Sparks and Strikes’ material, ultimately pulling back (via repeated glock/harp notes) to a high, sustained violin pitch that dovetails into ‘Beneath the Stars/In the Silver Sheen’.
As other notes coalesce around it, the effect is interesting: one’s perspective darts back and forth between regarding it as emphasising harmony or melody (or indeed both). To my mind, the slowness in the music here is qualified by a distinct sense of effort, as if it were trying to push forward with an idea but was unable to do so. And is that a melancholic streak running through it? Either way, though not unattractive, this lengthy episode starts to feel a touch aimless as it progresses, but just as Kendall seems to be really pushing her luck, she triggers ‘The Matchgirls March’. Sudden momentum and a return to the boisterous liveliness of earlier, more robust than before. When the deep bass notes return, this time they gain even more traction, again ominous but this time ramping up the music’s impetus as well as doubling the melodic line, such that the music becomes much less spritely, losing some of its vigour. The role of the lower registers really is catalytic in this piece, and works as well as it does due to Kendall’s restraint in employing them elsewhere. Appropriately, the work comes to an end not with stereotypical bombast but in a series of ungainly spasms. The glittering final phrase isn’t enough to mitigate just how uncomfortable this conclusion is, which only makes the piece more interesting, unusual and provocative.
The first performance of The Spark Catchers was given by Chineke! Orchestra conducted by Kevin John Edusei.
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Hannah Kendall - The Spark Catchers
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Lemn Sissay – Spark Catchers
Tide twists on the Thames and lifts the Lea to the brim of Bow
Where shoals of sirens work by way of the waves.
At the fire factory the fortress of flames
In tidal shifts East London Lampades made
Millions of matches that lit candles for the well-to-do
And the ne’er-do-well to do alike. Strike.
The greatest threat to their lives was
The sulferuous spite filled spit of diablo
The molten madness of a spark
They became spark catchers and on the word “strike”
a parched arched woman would dive
With hand outstretched to catch the light.
And Land like a crouching tiger with fist high
Holding the malevolent flare tight
‘til it became an ash dot in the palm. Strike.
The women applauded the magnificent grace
The skill it took, the pirouette in mid air
The precision, perfection and the peace.
Beneath stars by the bending bridge of Bow
In the silver sheen of a phosphorous moon
They practised Spark Catching.
“The fist the earth the spark it’s core
The fist the body the spark it’s heart”
The Matchmakers march. Strike.
Lampades The Torch bearers
The Catchers of light.
Sparks fly Matchmakers strike.