MEIRION BOWEN - Articles & Publications


Giles Swayne

A radical change of style in the work of a composer seemingly mature and established is hardly a new phenomenon. Yet it always invites scepticism. It is an affront to the in-built conservatism of those performers and audiences, critics and publishers for whom the abiding principle tends to be 'better the devil we know...'. Liszt experienced it when he abandoned the life of virtuoso pianist to write symphonic poems and daring, innovatory piano pieces. Stravinsky experienced it more than most and for long was considered the chameleon of 20th-century music. Plenty more recent examples may be plucked at random from the contemporary scene, for instance Tippett (with the mosaic forms and scoring that suddenly appeared in King Priam), George Rochberg (with his disavowal of serialism), Henze and Cornelius Cardew (with their politically motivated pieces) and Dominic Muldowney (with his discovery of Brecht) - all have divided their followers into factions showing various degrees of sympathy (or antipathy) towards their new-found creative directions. A change of religious or political affiliation, or of sexual orientation, might have been more easily accommodated.

For Giles Swayne, as with many such figures past and present, the change was really a sudden discovery ofhis true identity. From about 1970 he had been writing works that used a variety of techniques and idioms. These had ranged from easy-going pieces deploying the talents of amateurs and children to more testing and diAicult music for professionals. He had won a number of prizes, was fluent enough to accept the commissions that were regularly forthcoming, and his music was being broadcast by the BBC.

Then, in 1979, he heard a record of some African tribal music - pygmy polyphony. At the same time he received a commission to write a work for the BBC Singers. The work soon went in a different direction from that expected either by the BBC or Swayne himself. And as it turned out, Cry, for 28 solo voices, became a landmark in his career and his most frequently performed large-scale piece.

At this time, Swayne accepted an appointment as composer-in-residence to the London Borough of Hounslow. Dealing with the untapped and untutored talents of school children and writing music for many local groups led Swayne to make an urgent reappraisal of his approach to music-making. He took time off to visit West Africa where he spent two months doing research and recording the music of the Jola people-of Senegal and the Gambia. On his return he found it exceedingly difficult to restart composition in the normal manner. He formed a rhythm group (largely by advertising for untrained musicians in the magazine Time Out); this became Square Root, an ensemble performing on tuned African drums, Western-style drums, other percussion instruments, guitars and keyboards. Before long it produced, collectively, music for a television play by Stephen Davis, Floating Off. Then the certainties that enabled him to compose afresh crystallized and, in the last year or so, Swayne has again become prolific.

The African influence that seeped into Cry is now obvious in his most recent music. However, a brief survey of his past compositions (which he does not disdain or reject) provides hints of what was to come, and perhaps a raison d'etre for the changes that occurred. For a start, Swayne was musically a late developer. Born in Liverpool in 1946, he came from a musical family, numbering among his relatives the composer Elizabeth Maconchy, a grandfather who was a good violinist and pianist and a father who was involved in the Three Choirs Festival and a member of the board of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Through his father he attended many of the RLPO's rehearsals and met Sir John Pritchard, who subsequently helped him.

Swayne was then mainly attracted to the chamber and orchestral works of Bartok and Hindemith. At Trinity College, Cambridge, he began reading classics but changed to music. He was baffled by academic music studies: form, fugue etc meant little to him and he was already, significantly, more interested in rhythm and colour. After graduating he went to the Royal Academy of Music, where he became suAiciently accomplished as a pianist and conductor to obtain work as a repetiteur and conductor at . Glyndebourne and to attend a conducting course at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena.

Swayne's progress as a composer, meanwhile, had been slow. A solo piano composition from his student days at the RAM shows something of the directness and flair that were to become hallmarks of his mature music. This was Phoenix Variations (revised 1979), a straightforward study, in serial technique in which a note row is presented unadorned and followed by seven variations (the second and fourth are identical) and a coda in which the theme returns slightly embellished - an ingenious design that manifests formal proficiency without selfconsciousness.

For three years Swayne studied with Nicholas Maw and his compositions suddenly began to burgeon. His debt to Maw is acknowledged in The Good Morrozv (1971), a setir< ting for mezzo-soprano and piano of poems by John Donne, arranged to form a tiny musical drama about a passionate yet light-hearted love-affair. It is clearly a counterpart to Maw's own, more serious and affecting song cycle, The Voice of Love: but Swayne's work is less a song cycle than a con- tinuous narrative, with more emphasis on Donne's vision i< of the oneness of the physical and the spiritual than upon human passion. This elevated, almost mystical preoccupa- tion with the experience of life as a whole is something that came increasingly into the foreground of Swayne's work as he matured.

Also in 1971, Swayne's String Quartet no. 1 appeared, win- ", ning the Greater London Arts Association Young Compo- sers' Award. It again was conceived as a continuous struc- ture, full of Bartokian sonic experiment yet demonstrably assured in its handling of a succession of short, concentrated episodes, including an aleatory section near the end. Swayne then embarked on a series of instrumental studies, under the generic title Canto, after Dante (Swayne knew by heart the first canto of Dante's Inferno and recited it often when gardening). His Cantos for guitar (1972), violin (1973), piano (1973) and clarinet (1975) are as much dramatic monologues as technical studies. The exploration of separate instrumen- tal identities in these works developed into something more intricate and intense in Synthesis (1974) for two pianos. Here, from a single comprehensive sonority, Swayne extracts a powerful dialectic of rhythmic and harmonic gestures. Much of the work sounds improvisatory, and indeed there is con- siderable interplay between the two pianists using metrically disjunct and aleatory presentation. This polarizes into sharp oppositions of rhythm which fleetingly resolve; harmonically the tendency of the music to erupt into chord-clusters is also stilled so that there is momentary repose (ex.l). A canonic episode presses the music towards a resolution of its conflicts and the final synthesis occurs when both pianists focus suddenly on trills on the same note, B flat (where the piece began).

Both in Synthesis and in his String Quartet no.2 (1977) the latter having an even more compact one-movement format Swayne maintains cogency of argument amid the most wild and rhapsodic invention. More dificult to apprehend is the overall scheme of Pentecost Music (1977) which seems partly to be the fruit of his attendance at Messiaen's composition classes in 1976 7. This single-movement, 30-minute work has nine subdivisions amounting to a huge arc-shaped structure symbolizing a journey towards fulfil- mended and a search for stability, only attainable at the end when a new beginning is possible. Swayne here uses a large orchestra (including two saxophones, six horns, four trumpets and five percussionists) with great panache, but the density of the musical thought is daunting. One immedi- 379 ately striking passage is the Dawn Chorus episode, the fourth, where the scoring divides into three audible strata: overlapping Messiaen-like birdcalls for woodwind, horn, trumpet and piano; rhythmic polyphony from the percus- sion; and long held notes for the lower brass and strings. The textures here prefigure the vocal writing in Cry. Orlando's Music, Swayne's first orchestral piece written a few years earlier (1974, revised 1976), is less ambitious: an effective, gentle and witty celebration of the birth of the composer's first son, with lullabies, plainsong and nursery songs supplying the basic musical ideas.

With Cry we reach the turning-point in Swayne's work. The recorded African music at first suggested to him a musical 'wake' with an African text. But he wanted something more universal in its implications and settled on a wordless (or nearly wordless) piece based on the story of the Creation. The work was conceived as a song in seven movements related to the Judaeo-Christian narrative of the Creation as described in Genesis, amounting not to a conventionally 'religious' work (except in the very broadest sense) but a celebration of life in all its aspects. The movements vary in length, the first being the longest (about 1 1 minutes), the second the shortest (5 minutes) and the rest about the same (8 - 9 minutes).

Cry is in the tradition of Tallis's 40-part motet, Spem in alium, and the eclectic mysticism of Holst. Its 28 vocal lines are individual. The singers are arranged, moreover, in a semicircle, spreading out from low basses in the middle to high sopranos on either extremity. In the fifth movement four singers detach themselves from the rest, lending a further dimension to the sound-picture. As sheer sound, the piece is breathtaking. Its vocal writing is virtuoso, demanding the widest gamut of colours and timbres, moving freely between speech and song, extending from the lowest to the highest pitch-span and often making use of a quasi-instrumental quality of articulation, in which single syllables characterize attacks signifying specific images. Its harmonies and textures add up to a series of sound-tableaux, constantly shifting in shape and focus; its impact was considerably reinforced in last year's Prom performance when for the first time some limited electronic treatment of the vocal sounds was made possible, and the Albert Hall seemed an ideal space and acoustic for it all.

The work starts from the near-inaudibility of 'void-light - darkness' and acquires its first words - 'adam - eva' - in the second movement; it contemplates the mysteries of sea, dry land, vegetation, the sun, moon and stars in the third and fourth movements. Then, in a central pair of movements, it identifies creatures of the air, water and of dry land. Finally, on the last day as it were, we reach 'rest' - a synthesis of the ingredients of all the other movements, bringing into the foreground the word 'anima' which formed itself accidentally through Swayne's manipulation of vowels and consonants.

Cry is interesting as a composition demonstrating both technical mastery and a concern with quality of expression and content all too rare in an epoch of minimalists, neo-Romantics and other faddists. It also has elements that suggested new paths for Swayne. One such was the African influence manifest in the vocal ululations, starting with tenors and altos in the third movement (ex.2) and spreading to the other voices. It also appears in the sixth movement as a kind of tenor cantus firmus amid a vocal tapestry that becomes richer as it unfolds.

Subsequently Swayne's studies of African music and his projects with Hounslow children made him totally dissatisfied with the notion of contemporary composition in the solipsistic sense that might be exemplified by the work of, say, Brian Ferneyhough. To continue writing art music for an elite was not for him, hence his espousal of the synthesizers beloved of pop musicians and his involvement with an improvising group. His most recent works have discarded any kind of cerebral complexity and affect a disarming simplicity and refinement of texture, together with a concentration on limited melodic motifs and, above all, rhythm.

The most explicitly African pieces are Small Song for Miss Brown, for solo clarinet with optional improvised accompaniment of drums, and A Song for Hadi (both 1983). In the latter a 'song' for a group of wind and string soloists is generated from rhythmic ideas repeated, as a sequence of verses and choruses, by a percussionist playing on four conga drums. Swayne has also used an African ploughing- song recorded in Senegal as the basis for a setting of the Magnificat (1982). Modal melody, often a secondary feature of his earlier music (e.g. one movement of Cry is completely pentatonic), becomes a dominant aspect of his thematic invention in Canto for cello (1981) and thereafter. Riff-Raff (1983) for organ and Symphony for small orchestra (1984), the most extended of his recent works, are almost written- down improvisations. The symphony is another instance of Swayne's one-movement structures divided into clearly discernible shorter episodes, but rarely has a work sounded so removed from any standard conception of Western sym- phonic music. Rhythm is again to the fore: its units of varied length are increasingly inclined to destroy the regularity imposed by the bar-line. And when there is also an under- lying quintuple pulse, insisted on by cellos and basses, the slightly deadpan quality of the music becomes quite mesmeric. Another experiment of this kind is to be found in Naaotwa Lala (1984), written as a 'non-bass' piece for the BBC PO, making the violins and violas the centre of attention.

Against all this rhythmically centred, corporeal music can be set Swayne's latest effort, an opera called Le nozze di Cherubino, a follow-up to Le nozze di Figaro with a libretto in the style of Da Ponte by Swayne himself and music in a Mozartian idiom. In two acts and 21 scenes, it requires only a harpsichord and basso continuo and is intended more as an entertainment in intimate surroundings than a grand opera - almost like a revival of the madrigal comedy. Swayne's uninhibited use of a known style is neither eccentric nor perverse but simply a product of his candid response to any and every tradition, whether it be Mozart or pygmy music.

Swayne's present attitudes to music-making will undoubtedly be regarded by some as inane and by others as subversive. It is too early to guess where it will all lead him, let alone whether another work of the scope and quality of Cry might eventually appear. Swayne is certainly skilled enough, musically and intellectually, to make his own creative apologia in the course of time.

Excerpts from Smayne's 'Le nozze di Cherubino' will be performed at the Birmingham School of Music on 11 and 12guly (the first complete performances zoill be in early November); the premiere of 'Naaotzoa Lala' will be given by the BBC PO in Manchester on 4 December.