The next piece i’m featuring in this year’s Lent Series, focusing on grief and loss, is probably the shortest i’ve ever explored on 5:4. Naomi Pinnock’s We are consists of a mere 12 bars of music, lasting around 60 seconds. The piece was part of BBC Radio 3’s ‘Postcards from Composers’ project that took place in 2020, while the UK was in lockdown during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, commissioning miniature works for solo instruments.
Though extremely short, We are is a continuation of various lines of compositional thought that have permeated Pinnock’s output. It immediately brings to mind another of her recent works, I am, I am for soprano and string quartet (composed the previous year), not only because of the resemblance of its title – there having a single rather than a universal outlook – but also due to the musical similarities of the second part of I am, I am, where the quartet switches from a more gentle demeanour to one that sounds audibly tense, filled with high harmonics. In both pieces these harmonics are marked flautando, they share the same tempo (♩ = 56), and the actual pitches, though different, overlap the same narrow range: I am, I am tilts between D and C quartersharp; We are between Eb and C natural. (As far as pitch is concerned, We are also brings to mind an earlier work, Everything changes (2011), in which the cello part prominently oscillates between Eb and C; the flautando reference also suggests the lengthy flute solo that starts part 3 of Pinnock’s Music for Europe (2016), which also meanders around the same high register.)
We are demonstrates one of the key characteristics of Pinnock’s music, a quality of obsession in which ideas are endlessly explored in a variety of exact repetitions and shifting permutations, worked on and worried away at length. Though only lasting a minute, the rising and falling of what Pinnock has described as “quite a sad fragment of a melody” occupies each and every second of that minute, as if the instrument were locked into a tiny portion of its range, unable to move beyond the narrow confines of these three notes. Furthermore, what movement it is allowed is made timbrally complex – in the process sounding strenuous – due to being articulated via harmonics. The result is 60 seconds of tight, tense simplicity. The very last bar is the one and only time the instrument manages to leap rather than moving by step; whether or not that’s meaningful (even optimistic?) is a judgement call, but if there’s any sign of hope at all in the piece – aside from the act of making the instrument sing in the midst of a crisis – it’s there.
The first performance of We are – recorded in isolation, away from audiences – was by Laura Samuel, leader of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.