Premières

Proms 2018: Philip Venables – Venables Plays Bartók; Laura Mvula – Love Like A Lion (World Premières); Agata Zubel – Fireworks (UK Première)

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The last few Proms premières have been, to put it mildly, an extremely mixed bag. By far the most excruciating of them was Venables Plays Bartók, a violin concerto of sorts by Philip Venables, given its first performance last Friday by Pekka Kuusisto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo. As its title suggests, the piece incorporates music by Bartók, inspired by an episode in Venables’ life when, as a teenage violinist, he had a lesson with Rudolf Botta, playing to him a piece by Bartók. The lesson was recorded, and Venables’ rediscovery of the tape evidently led to a enormous burst of Proustian nostalgia. Read more

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Proms 2018: Simon Holt – Quadriga; Suzanne Farrin – Hypersea (World Premières)

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Last Monday at Cadogan Hall, percussionist Colin Currie and the JACK Quartet combined forces to perform two works from the ’80s by Xenakis and two world premières, by Simon Holt and Suzanne Farrin. The points of inspirational origin of these pieces were somewhat different from what one usually encounters in new music, Farrin turning to an interpretation of humankind’s emergence from the oceans (and what we may have brought with us – see her answers to my pre-première questions for more details), while Holt’s is the only piece i’ve ever encountered to draw on the movements of classical dressage. Read more

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Proms 2018: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Farewell; Lisa Illean – Sleeplessness … Sails (World Premières)

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Two of the smallest of this year’s new works were given their first performances in a recital at Cadogan Hall on 6 August by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton. The concert had themes of sleep (and the lack of it), dreams and lullabies running through it, explored primarily in 20th century music by the likes of Howells, Britten, Stanford, Holst and their ilk (all of whom had associations with the Royal College of Music), with the new works by Australian composer Lisa Illean and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Read more

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Proms 2018: The Brandenburg Project

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The Proms wouldn’t be the Proms if it didn’t feature one of its favourite obsessions: contemporary music commissioned with the specific aim that it ‘responds’ to existing works in the repertoire. The most recent example of this is The Brandenburg Project, an idea dreamt up by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in which six composers were asked to write a work for solo instrument(s) and orchestra in response to one of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, utilising as far as possible the same instrumentation. The project began in December 2015 with Stephen Mackey (No. 2) and Uri Caine (No. 5), followed by Mark-Anthony Turnage (No. 1) in 2016, Anders Hillborg (No. 3) in 2017, concluding in February this year with Olga Neuwirth (No. 4) and Brett Dean (No. 6). All six pieces received their first UK performances (though it was the world première of the complete cycle), together with their associated Brandenburg Concerto, by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard at two Prom concerts on 5 August.

It’s worth spending a moment to consider what it means – or what it can mean – to ‘respond’ to something. It can of course be part of a warm dialogue, but we shouldn’t automatically infer similarity or sympathy of any kind in that word: a ‘response’ doesn’t need to employ the same use or style or tone of language, exhibiting not just a perspective but also a vernacular uniquely its own. Furthermore, importantly, the nature of a response isn’t restricted to the obvious continuum between positive (yes) and negative (no): it might just as easily – particularly in music – have more in common with the Buddhist ‘mu‘, a response that rejects as flawed or incompatible the very premise of the thing being responded to, demanding that the question it supposedly poses be “un-asked”. Read more

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Proms 2018: Tansy Davies – What Did We See?; Jessica Wells – Rhapsody for solo oud; Joby Talbot – Ink Dark Moon (World Premières); Georg Friedrich Haas – Concerto Grosso No. 1 (UK Première)

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Every year the nature of the works premièred at the Proms – presumably due in part to the festival’s (i.e. the BBC’s) risk-averse emphasis on popularity and familiarity over challenge and provocation – veers wildly between extremes of light- and heavyweight fare. The most recent quartet of new works, considered together, are in many respects a vivid microcosm of this qualitative inconsistency.

However, there’s a world of difference between a trifle and mere triviality. No-one would claim – least of all the composer herself – that Jessica WellsRhapsody for solo oud, given its world première at Cadogan Hall on 30 July by oud-meister Joseph Tawadros, was anything more than a simple miniature workout for the instrument. From a tentative series of arpeggios, like warm-up exercises, the music develops into its main idea: rapid, syncopated music, redolent in style of the instrument’s Middle Eastern provenance, interspersed partway through with a slower episode exploring motifs in a more improvisational way. And that’s all there was to it – but this didn’t matter in the slightest, Tawadros executing the piece with such panache that its relatively narrow scope felt not simply forgiveable but beside the point. It was what it was and nothing more: an amuse-bouche (amuse-oreille?), brief, vivacious, harmless fun. Read more

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Proms 2018: Chaines – Knockturning; Laurie Spiegel – Only Night Thoughts; Daphne Oram – Still Point (World Premières)

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For the most part, the Proms has always liked to pretend that electronics don’t really exist. The exception to this wilful ignorance are the occasions when electronics are made the focus of either a specific piece or an entire concert, as was the case with ‘Pioneers of Sound’, a late evening tribute to the legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop that took place at the Royal Albert Hall on 23 July. The undisputed highlight of the evening was the world première of a recently-discovered large-scale work by Daphne Oram but, alongside music by Delia Derbyshire and Suzanne Ciani, it was preceded by two smaller new works. Read more

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Proms 2018: Ēriks Ešenvalds – Shadow; Eve Risser – Furakèla (World Premières); Andrew Norman – Spiral (UK Première)

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A piece doesn’t have to be – in fact, can hardly be – all things to all people, but in the case of Shadow, by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds‘, one has to wonder if it has much if anything to offer a mature listener. This in itself is interesting precisely because of the fact that the driving force of the piece is a meditation on the implications of parental responsibility, using the words from Longfellow’s eponymous sonnet to contemplate the future and fate of one’s children. The words, as indicated by the poem’s opening line, are literally being said to oneself, so the ‘audience’ or object of these private ruminations is adult, while their subject is children. Read more

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Proms 2018: Georg Friedrich Haas – the last minutes of inhumanity; Hannah Kendall – Verdala; Isabel Mundry – Gefallen; Luca Francesconi – We Wept (World Premières)

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The London Sinfonietta’s Prom concert at The Roundhouse, on 21 July, marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I with great works by Messiaen and Ives, plus a quartet of world premières, commissioned to explore aspects associated with the conflict and its aftermath. Composers are often at pains either to avoid extra-musical content entirely or, if present, to play down its significance and play up the subjectivity of the listening experience. One of the few exceptions to this is war music, when composers can breathe a sigh of relief in the expectation that they can lean on programmatic associations to, at least, steer audiences in the right general direction.

Listening to these four pieces, three of which included mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley, it was impossible not to acknowledge their ‘war credentials’ due to the way they were presented, surrounded by discussions with three of the composers about their respective inspirations. Yet the extent to which they spoke with authority, or even authenticity, on this subject, was by no means as obvious. Read more

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Proms 2018: Caroline Shaw – Second Essay: Echo; Third Essay: Ruby (World Premières)

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What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Whether or not you agree with these words – penned by the sombre but often startlingly wise author of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes – it’s impossible not to consider them when listening to the most recent pair of world premières at the 2018 Proms, written by US composer Caroline Shaw. Her music was new to me, and as a warm up for her two new ‘Essays’, i spent some time with her First Essay: Nimrod, composed a few years ago. In hindsight, it’s by far the best of the three, exhibiting a similar kind of playfulness to that of early Tippett, at all times taking its rhythmic and harmonic ideas from existing tropes and models but which, with the exception of a dull passage in the middle, generally avoids sounding too conventional in the way they’re used. The same can’t be said for Second Essay: Echo and Third Essay: Ruby, which received their first performances at Cadogan Hall on Monday by the Calidore String Quartet. Read more

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Proms 2018: Ben Foster – Young Musician Theme & Variations; David Bruce – Sidechaining; Iain Farrington – Gershwinicity (World Premières)

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Party time!

The Proms needs precisely no encouragement whatsoever to turn a concert into a party, and on Sunday evening, a mere two days after the opening night knees-up, came another boisterous shindig, celebrating 40 years of the Young Musician competition. Given by the BBC’s resident light music aficionados, the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Gourlay, they were joined for the occasion by a host of past competition winners and finalists. Appropriately enough, the music on offer was to a large extent the equivalent of party food, though thankfully – perhaps a self-conscious nod to Britain’s ongoing obsession with tackling obesity – most of it was savoury rather than sweet. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2018: Quartet Premières; Berkeley Ensemble; Juliana

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Last Wednesday at Cheltenham Music Festival saw the world premières of no fewer than four new string quartets, courtesy of the Ligeti Quartet. Interestingly, all of them were cast as single-movement structures, though in the case of his String Quartet No. 2Michael Zev Gordon presented something akin to a swatch book, the work comprising an episodic collection of diverse patterns and hues. Mildly engaging, not really containing anything unfamiliar or unconventional, these episodes seemed like short exercises in library music, like the underscore cues for a slightly quirky British drama (think The Camomile Lawn). Somewhat lacking in substance and a bit directionless and monotonous in its later stages – some of the ideas were protracted longer than they warranted – it nonetheless had its moments. Similarly incidental was Ayanna Witter-Johnson‘s Mento Mood, a pretty, cheerful piece invoking Jamaican mento music. In many respects it sounded more like an arrangement than an original composition per se, though there were some nice passages where the material extended beyond the instruments, requiring the quartet to sing and vocalise.

Much more involving than these was Sarah RimkusLe Dian, a piece taking inspiration from Gaelic-language musical traditions. Rimkus sets up a diatonic world, powered primarily by cycling rising minor thirds, from which the instruments then broke away, led by the cello. This established a pattern of harmonic side-steps resulting in nice collisions and ambiguity along the way yet never interrupting the constant flow of the material. A later episode, where the rising motif was explored at length, was truly hypnotic. The most outstanding of these four new quartets was Bethan Morgan-WilliamsGhost Tongues. In keeping with the referential aspect that permeated all the pieces, Morgan-Williams’ music appeared to be derived from folk music, though in the most marvellously oblique and obscure way. It would be simplistic – no, it would just be plain wrong – to say that the piece was ‘folk-like’, yet at all times there was something about the material that, in ways difficult to articulate or even understand, made an oblique but undeniable connection back to a folk origin. This fluid, uncanny sense of familiarity was sometimes expressed in exploded form, the music pulled apart into small fragments, before reforming or shifting into a kind of prismatic lyricism, conveying melodies and harmonies as if refracted through the instruments. This back-and-forth between poles of extended lines and atomised pizzicatos were mirrored by the work’s expressive scope, Morgan-Williams not afraid to let the music become pensive, even allowing it to fall silent a couple of times. Though episodic, it all felt part of the same underlying argument, concluded in a lovely ‘dirty’ major seventh chord, as though a cadence had been forced onto the end. A really brilliant piece that i can’t wait to hear again. Read more

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Proms 2018: Anna Meredith – Five Telegrams (World Première)

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This year’s Proms season kicked off on Friday evening with a concert featuring a major new work from Anna Meredith. Titled Five Telegrams, it’s a work that continues a thread that’s been running through mainstream British culture for the last few years, commemorating the events of the First World War. As the title implies, the piece takes its inspiration from telegrams sent back and forth during the conflict, its five movements focusing on different types and contexts for these telegrams, also featuring specific instrumental groups: newspaper spin (10 trombones), field service postcards (choir), redacted information (four euphoniums), codes (6 trumpets and percussion) and the armistice (tutti).

A recurring question i found myself considering during the piece was the extent to which this layer of extra-musical inspiration had an unambiguous bearing on the music. Underlying conceits and metaphors will always manifest themselves in ways that aren’t merely subjective but impossible to rationalise, and in the case of Five Telegrams Meredith’s inspirational starting point made its presence felt to widely differing degrees and depths.

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Only Connect 2018 (Part 2)

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From the lofty architecture of Sentralen, day two of the Only Connect festival took place in the infinitely more modest environment of Skippergata, a relaxed café-bar-nightclub with various large and small performance spaces. Though the venue was low-key, the concerts were anything but.

Flautist Alessandra Rombolà’s rendition of Christina Kubisch‘s 1974 Emergency Solos – a work the composer described during the festival as her “goodbye to instrumental music” – was one of the most agonisingly authentic performances i can remember. Kubisch reflects on the stumbling blocks, barriers and expectations that confronted her as a woman musician at the time by inflicting ever more hindrances on the flautist: thimbles on all the fingertips, causing regular jams on the keys; playing on just the headjoint with a condom placed over the end – subsequently used as a bladder to elicit groaning squeaks; stuffing the instrument into a gas mask, resulting in increasingly desperate in- and exhalations, the flute buzzing and producing strained blurts of pitch before finally dying; forced to put down the instrument in order to adopt a defensive posture behind boxing gloves; and attempting to play ‘Silent Night’ while wearing mittens. Read more

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Only Connect 2018 (Part 1)

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At contemporary music festivals one becomes accustomed to expecting the unexpected. However, in the case of Norway’s Only Connect festival, which took place last weekend in Oslo, expectations were overturned in no small part by the weather, due to the country experiencing its warmest May in over 70 years, basking in constant sunshine and 28°C temperatures. As a consequence this was new music not only at its most exciting, but also at its sweatiest, for performers and audiences alike. Organised by nyMusikk, Norway’s 80-year old centre for experimental music and sound art, Only Connect’s two days of concerts took the festival name seriously, arranging the concerts such that each day was essentially a journey round or through a single space. Read more

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The Tolmen Centre, Constantine: Kevos – From this world to the next

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The extent to which contemporary music is well-represented in ‘the provinces’ of the UK, away from major cities, is extremely variable and in the case of Cornwall it’s not really pushing a point to describe it as being almost non-existent. Kevos (Cornish for ‘contemporary’), a six-piece ensemble formed in 2016 by Patrick Bailey (who directs the group) and dedicated to new music, is therefore not merely an honourable exception to the rule, but something altogether more rare and vital. Nominally based in Truro, in the middle of Cornwall, Kevos take a peripatetic approach to their concerts, performing as far afield as Newlyn to the west, Falmouth to the east and the lovely Kestle Barton arts centre to the south (not far, in fact, from the most southerly point of the British mainland). Kevos’ geographical scope is matched by the repertoire they take on, which in the last year has included music by Steve Reich, Alison Kay, Berio, Charlotte Bray, Richard Causton and Judith Weir. Kevos clearly set their sights ambitiously high, and deserve huge amounts of kudos and encouragement for what they’ve achieved thus far.

A few nights ago i was fortunate to catch the last concert of their current season, titled ‘From this world to the next’, this time taking place at the Tolmen Centre in the tiny village of Constantine. Kevos’ concerts occasionally feature electronic music alongside instrumental works, and they opened with Jonathan Harvey‘s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. Whenever i’m about to be confronted by this piece – so familiar and, composed in 1980, increasingly un-contemporary – i instinctively wonder whether it has anything left to give. Personally speaking, i’ve heard it in practically every possible context, both in concerts and at home, in small halls and vast spaces, through speakers and headphones, in its original 8-channel version and condensed down to stereo. Yet when the piece plays and the bell and the boy sing out once again, i find that that familiarity is at once reinforced and completely undone. Somehow it continues to speak with incredible freshness and vitality; despite its 38 years of age, it could almost have been composed last week. Furthermore, despite not having the finest of sound systems, its rendition in the Tolmen Centre – heard in its full, 8-channel glory – was nonetheless compositionally crystal clear, demonstrating Harvey’s sense of inquisitive play in his treatment of harmonics and morphemes, as well as the work’s sublime balance of densities and registers. The polarised conclusion, high cluster-chords intoned over the low tolling bell, was so striking it suggested that not only does Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco have plenty more to give, but that we never really know the piece in its entirety; just like all those complex overtones of the Winchester bell on which the work is based, there’s always so much more to be discovered within. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs: Night Liminal; Who knows if the moon’s

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A couple of performances of my work are coming up soon. Most imminently is the #EarBox series of art and music performances organised by the University of Kent. Their next event features my 2012 ambient work Night Liminal in conjunction with a new exhibition titled Extending the Frame. It’s taking place at 1.10pm on Thursday 24 May at Studio 3 Gallery, in the University’s Jarman Building, and admission is free. Further details can be found on the University’s music department blog, and you can read all about Night Liminal here.

To mark the occasion i’ve created a 50% discount code for the digital download of Night Liminal, valid until the end of this month. Head over to the Bandcamp page and when adding to the cart enter the code earbox to get the discount.

And next month soprano Jessica Summers will be giving the world première of my song for solo voice Who knows if the moon’s. Despite lasting a mere two minutes, this little song – a setting of E. E. Cummings’ well-known poem – is a piece i once thought i’d never complete. It dates back to my undergraduate days; i broke off working on it in May 1995 following the abrupt death of my father, and could never bring myself to return to it. It then sat around for nearly two decades until i rediscovered the sketches and finally managed to complete it during my PhD at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Partly because of how personal it’s become, i’ve not shown the piece to many people, but i’m delighted that Jessica will finally be performing it; it really is high time i let go of this music.

Accompanied by pianist Jelena Makarova, the concert is one of Jessica’s Living Songs recitals, and takes place at 1.15pm on 12 June at St Mary-at-Hill Church in London. The concert also includes music by Debussy and Stuart MacRae. More details can be found at the church’s website, and the Living Songs project can be followed on Twitter at @LivingSongs21.

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 3)

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Over the last few years, i’ve been repeatedly impressed – no, flabbergasted – at the ingenuity, imagination and beauty that seem to typify Estonian choral music as well as distinguish it from pretty much everywhere else. It’s by no means the most experimental music to come out of the country, but the subtle way many Estonian composers explore and redefine notions of consonance and dissonance, as well as ways to structure a musical narrative, are consistently impressive.

However, by way of balance it’s only fair to recount that this year’s Estonian Music Days afforded me the opportunity to hear one of the most entirely terrible vocal compositions that i have ever encountered. Completed in 1987, Songs of Death and Birth by Estonian composer Kuldar Sink (1942–95) is a song cycle for soprano, two flutes, guitar and cello exploring five texts by Federico García Lorca. In his programme note, Sink claims that “… it would be misleading to think that I imitate the style of flamenco.” No, it absolutely wouldn’t: virtually the entire piece is a non-stop stream of appropriated and ersatz materials that cleave slavishly to Spanish musical idioms and mannerisms. It doesn’t help Sink that George Crumb’s Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, composed almost two decades earlier, definitively brought the same texts to life in the most vivid and stunningly original way. By contrast, Sink’s song cycle sounds like an early student exercise in pastiche, rendered all the more wretched due to being not just incredibly boring but so impossibly overlong as to be downright sadistic. One can hardly fault the members of Yxus Ensemble for simply doing what the score told them to do, yet soprano Iris Oja (looking as if she’d just walked off the set of Bizet’s Carmen) unleashed her mediocre material with such impassioned zeal that it felt malicious and personal, seeking only to wound and offend. Thankfully, this was the only concert at EMD to exhibit such tenacity-destroying malignance. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 2)

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One of the defining features of the Estonian Music Days is its openness to including decidedly unconventional concert situations. Last year’s Obscure Avenues, a two-hour experience during which we were blindfolded and led around to various performance spaces, remains among the most radical and memorable musical encounters i’ve ever experienced, and while the 2018 festival perhaps wisely didn’t attempt to top that, it had its fare share of surprises.

The opening night of the festival saw Flame Sounds, a short open-air performance from composer Liisa Hirsch with Australian fire artist Chris Blaze McCarthy. Surrounded by four microphones, Blaze acrobatically wielded a succession of implements – a mixture of bars and chains – that almost looked as if they’d been borrowed from Tallinn’s museum of mediaeval torture instruments, each one burning in a unique way. These were the basis for Blaze’s physical choreography, with Hirsch in turn capturing and processing the sounds into a network of billowing noise formations, projected out via four speakers surrounding where we were standing. Considering this was part of a music festival, it was a shame that the emphasis was almost entirely on Blaze’s actions rather than on Hirsch’s sonic results – Blaze abruptly moved on throughout, despite Hirsch’s music continuing – making for a frustrating, though visually exciting, performance. But what we experienced nonetheless made an interesting connection with the festival theme of ‘sacred’, elusive sounds emerging from the merest contact of fire and air. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 1)

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A few days ago i returned from spending a week in the city of Tallinn, experiencing most of this year’s Eesti Muusika Päevad, the Estonian Music Days, the country’s most important festival devoted to contemporary music. In previous years i’ve commented on the perception that what one hears during EMD often seems remarkably removed from the conventions and traditions that we associate with new music in western Europe, and in tandem with this, that the development of Estonian contemporary music can appear to have taken place – and, to an extent, continue to be exercised – in a kind of hermetically-sealed bubble. As my understanding and appreciation of this music has deepened, i’ve come to realise there’s both truth and falsehood in these perceptions, but to say that the situation is a complex one – due to a tangled mixture of political, geographical and cultural elements – is to put it extremely mildly.

For the last three years the artistic directors of EMD, composers Helena Tulve and Timo Steiner, have chosen an annual theme for the festival, which is deliberately pithy and allusive in order not to be too prescriptive and to allow composers and audiences the widest possible scope for interpretation (to date: ‘abundance’ in 2015, ‘green sound?’ in 2016 and ‘through dimness’ last year). For 2018 the theme was püha, the Estonian word for ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’, and this point of reference could be felt as a constant through pretty much every concert, though continually provoking a need for reassessment of what that word means and implies, and from much more than just a musical perspective. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Maria Kõrvits – through (World Première)

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The second piece i’m looking at in this Estonia in Focus weekend is through, a new work for seven players by Maria Kõrvits. In some respects it’s reasonable to think of through as a ‘mood piece’, drawing for inspiration on a series of short lines taken from the opening paragraphs of Virginia Woolf’s 1931 experimental novel The Waves:

Stalks rise from the black hollows beneath.
I hold a stalk in my hand.
I am the stalk.

My roots go down to the depths of the world,
through earth dry with brick, and damp earth,
through veins of lead and silver.

I am all fibre.
All tremors shake me,
and the weight of the earth is pressed to my ribs.

…and I feel come over me the sense of the earth under me, and my roots going down and down
till they wrap themselves round
some hardness at the centre.
I am rooted, but I flow.

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