Simon Holt

Proms 2014: Simon Holt – Morpheus Wakes (UK Première), Jonathan Dove – Gaia Theory & Gabriel Prokofiev – Violin Concerto ‘1914’ (World Premières)

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The three Proms premières given at the end of last month make for an interesting comparison, with regard to the relationship between material and intention. There was no little weight being hefted around; Jonathan Dove‘s Gaia Theory aspired to James Lovelock’s hypothesis of the same name, concerning ideas of ‘self regulation’ in the systems that make up our planet, whereas Gabriel Prokofiev‘s Violin Concerto took both its subtitle, ‘1914’, and its narrative from aspects arising from the commemorations of World War I. Heavyweight stuff, then, making Simon Holt‘s inspirational starting point of a mythical god waking from slumber seem almost triflingly trivial by contrast. The results, though, were rather different.
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Simon Holt – Two movements for string quartet

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My Lent string quartet series continues with a most unusual work from Simon Holt. Its title, Two movements for string quartet, seems uncharacteristically abstract for Holt, but its content is rooted in the evocative imagery of Emily Dickinson’s poetry (the piece is, in fact, the second in Holt’s five-part ‘a ribbon of time’ cycle inspired by Dickinson’s work).

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

The poem in question is ‘Dying’, composed in 1863 (see left), a sombre text made all the more troubling by Dickinson’s characteristic use of dashes, turning the text into a fraught sequence of breathless utterances. This quality is brought to bear on Holt’s first movement, titled ‘Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz’. The music is drawn from an opening solo on the viola that begins rapidly but loses momentum quickly, eventually stopping. It then relaunches with the rest of the quartet, and it’s this pattern of behaviour—quick commencements that founder; intense, rapid material becoming light and sporadic—that pervades the entire movement. At times there’s an onomatopoeic quality, the instruments overlapping and nuzzling each other, creating buzz-like clashes. As it progresses, the material feels more deliberate, jutting, pointed, as though rudely carved in the air. Lumbering tuttis eventually come to dominate, but the quieter passages are more striking, particularly a curious episode halfway through, when the music falls into a slow, gentle rocking (to be echoed later). This, together with the heavy conclusion, the quartet petering out and sagging, shivering, onto their final chords, go a long way to capturing the unsettling atmosphere of Dickinson’s text. Read more

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Proms 2011: Simon Holt – Centauromachy

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Simon Holt has been featured at the Proms on numerous occasions over the years, and yesterday his music returned to the Albert Hall with the orchestral work Centauromachy. It was given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with whom Holt is Composer in Association; they were conducted by François-Xavier Roth, who also oversaw the première of the piece in November last year. The work features a pair of soloists, of distinct but not dissimilar timbres: clarinet in A and flugelhorn, played by Robert Plane and Philippe Schartz respectively.

Holt has structured the work in five movements, the shortest of which comes first, featuring the soloists alone. Titled ‘Two natures’, it serves to compare and contrast the clarinet and flugelhorn, which at first take it in turns to attempt to catch each other, scurrying around, imitating, their phrases ending together on a unison note. It’s not until the third and final phrase that they move beyond a relatively narrow pitch space, moving swiftly to occupy distinct registral areas, the clarinet initially high above the flugelhorn, then leaping below it. Following a final chirrup, the second movement, ‘Chiron’s dream’ introduces the orchestra, rapidly materialising like a grand, cinematic fade-in. When the soloists restart their activity, it’s with forceful gestures, but they quickly yield to lines that continue to cling together. A trumpet strikes up a rapport with the flugel, while the strings seek to try something out in their uppermost register, delineated by glockenspiel strikes. Everything coalesces onto a lower note, from which the soloists again recommence strongly but immediately become soft; as earlier, though, Holt keeps the material restless, suggesting a dream that’s not entirely comfortable. Read more

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Proms 2010: Simon Holt – a table of noises (London & World Premières)

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This evening’s Proms première came from the pen of one of England’s most intriguing and engaging composers, Simon Holt. Holt’s music betrays little of the generic English sound that plagues so many of the ‘established’ (i.e. published) composers in this land—there’s no trace of the anodyne ‘Faber sound’ here. On the contrary, Holt’s inspirations and method of execution are cosmopolitan, highly eclectic and invariably utterly unpredictable, as is the case with tonight’s piece, a table of noises.

It’s a work that brings together such incongruous ideas as Peruvian box drums—from which the title of the piece is derived, being a translation of ‘mesa de ruidos’, one of assorted names for such drums—and Holt’s great uncle Ash (picture below), a significant figure in his childhood, up in the north of England (Lancashire, to be precise). a table of noises is a percussion concerto, and while percussion continues to be the most hackneyed group of instruments in contemporary instrumental composition, what Holt does with it is strikingly original. The orchestra comprises a selection of wind and brass, colouring the material with a slight abrasiveness that is entirely in sympathy with the atmospheric and often very sprightly solo percussion part. At around 30 minutes’ duration, a table of noises passes through no fewer than ten movements, that explore an exceptionally wide range of both timbres and performing techniques (so much so that George Crumb springs to mind). Above all, Holt clearly relishes the assortment of sounds with which he presents us, allowing them the freedom to speak almost relentlessly rather than resorting to mere novelty (the usual crime perpetrated against percussion). Soloist Colin Currie’s élan takes the work to even greater heights of exuberance; it’s just such a shame that a plethora of loudly-coughing invalids peppers the performance with their own noisome contribution—including just after the final note, a capital offence in my book. Before the performance is a brief interview with Currie and the composer himself. i’ve included with the recording a copy of the programme note from the official Proms guide. Read more

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