For String Quartet and Narrator*
Duration: 20 mins approx.
When the Edinburgh Quartet invited me to compose a new work upon the theme of exile I spent a good deal of time considering the subject and arrived - perhaps inevitably - at the idea of home: the tragedy of losing it, and the struggle to find it anew in a different place. As one fortunate enough never to have experienced exile I determined that the departure point for my piece should be this very notion of home, and in seeking to better understand what home meant to me I realised that it was less a place, and more a person - namely, my wife. The musical material is therefore derived from three pitches drawn from the contours of her speaking voice, which is exceptionally song-like and expressive. Also influential was the following passage from Dante’s Divina Commedia: “You shall know... how hard it is to ascend and descend another’s stairs”, as well as the topic of water as a symbol both of journeys and of isolation.
Island Verses opens with an unassuming Boat Song in which folk-like melodies sound above lilting figurations evocative of gently lapping waves. During the course of this movement - which is structured in a simple, song-like form - each instrument takes a turn as the most prominent melodic voice as if it is a character being introduced in a play: an individual who will find a role in the music to come. This Boat Song is followed by a spoken-word interlude before a concise Scherzo juxtaposes blocks of unison writing (symbolising solidarity and community) with episodes that place solo voices (representing individuals) to the fore.
A further spoken-word interlude then precedes a lyrical Lament, the focal point for which is a plaintive melody laid over a weeping accompaniment. This mournful material is revisited throughout the movement, finding a sense of serenity in its final presentation as the first violin surveys the music from above, its high line heading slowly skywards. The elegiac tone of the movement is occasionally relieved by animated passages of more virtuosic writing but ultimately the music is grounded by a sombre tolling of the strummed ‘cello.
We then hear a final spoken-word interlude before a playful Finale ensues. Similar in tone to the quirky Scherzo this movement begins exuberantly, with energetic material moving rapidly around the quartet, only to run out of steam and fall silent. Following this silence the music begins again at a slower tempo before gradually rediscovering its footing and accelerating into the skittish final section which brings the work to a close.
*Island Verses can also be performed without its spoken-word interludes as a four movement piece for string quartet (without narrator).