Night shining is the third work in my cycle of cloud-inspired pieces that all feature the bass flute. The first two works in the cycle, The invention of clouds and The modifications of clouds take as a starting point Luke Howard’s 1804 essay that first defined the cloud types as we know them today: Cirrus, Stratus, Cumulus…This work takes the most recent scientific research into clouds as its inspiration.
Found on the edge of space above polar regions, noctilucent, or ‘night-shining’ clouds are the most mysterious, and least understood clouds in Earth’s atmosphere. Noctilucent clouds are the highest clouds, and are the only clouds to occur in the mesosphere, forming c.80km above Earth’s surface. They are only visible from Earth at night, lit by the Sun after it has set.
Noctilucent clouds were first spotted in the late nineteenth century, around the time of the Second Industrial Revolution. A recent surge in observations of this cloud type has led scientists to suggest links with global warming. In 2006 NASA launched the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere satellite (AIM) to gather more data on the formation of noctilucent clouds (photographic, chemical, dust/meteors, temperature).
The piece draws on photographs of noctilucent clouds and data (in the form of charts and graphs) from NASA’s AIM satellite. These images were used to shape structure, direct timbral change, and to generate pitch material for the piece.
I would like to thank Gavin Osborn for his dedication to this project and for commissioning the first piece in the cycle.
Night Shining was first performed at the Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall, Manchester on 22 April 2010 by Gavin Osborn (bfl.), Stephen Pycroft (perc.), Helen Tonge and Catherine Lander (vns.), Laura Robinson (va.), and Alice Purton (vc.).
Windows on the Neva
St. Petersburg was built in 1703 by Peter the Great as a ‘Window to the West/Window through which the West will come’. Peter’s vision was that the new city would be a trading port and centre of naval power, and it was sited where the river Neva flows into the Gulf of Finland. Transportation by boat was central to Peter’s idea of the way in which St. Petersburg would function and a number of canals were built to create a network of waterways for the city.
Thus the river Neva is an essential part of St. Petersburg: it witnessed the building of the city, and carried disease through it; it freezes every winter, and has engulfed the city in its waters many times. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Neva features prominently in literary works that have emerged from this city built on marshes.
Making a research trip to St. Petersburg was not within the scope of this project, so I have relied upon viewing the city through the experiences, views, and writings of others as well as exploring the physical realm of the city through internet maps. All of these ‘pathways’ into the city informed my approach to writing the music.
Part of my compositional process has been to trace the line of the Neva from a series of maps (dating from 1726 to the present), and to use these lines to create musical material (often correlating the date of the map with historical events/contemporary writers in order to characterise the music). In addition to responding to the physical shape of the river, I have drawn on a number of descriptions found in the enormous wealth of literature created by writers who lived in the city, particularly the poetry of Anna Akhmatova. I was drawn to Akhmatova’s poems because of her concise, poignant, and direct style, as well as her continual reference to her home city and its colours, which provided me with ideas for the timbral palette for the piece. Poems such as White Night, How can you look at the Neva?, Poem without a Hero, and Requiem became constant sources of inspiration whilst composing this piece, and fragments of her poetry appear in the score. Works by other writers such as Bely, Gogol, Brodsky, and Dostoyevsky also informed and shaped the music, providing alternative windows through which I could view St. Petersburg.
Windows on the Neva was written for performance by Manchester Camerata for a project with Sound and Music during the 2010/11 season ‘Urban Symphonies’ for a concert based around the city of St. Petersburg. The first performances of this work were given on 21st and 23rd October 2010 at Ulverston Coronation Hall, and the Royal Northern College of Music respectively by Manchester Camerata conducted by Gábor Takács-Nagy.
The invention of clouds was inspired by a book of the same name by Richard Hamblyn. The book is a biography of meteorologist Luke Howard, who in his 1804 essay On the modifications of clouds was the first to define the cloud types as we know them today: cirrus, stratus, cumulus… Howard’s essay describes the appearance of each of the cloud classifications and how they may modify into another. Some phrases in the essay shaped my early ideas as to the sound world of the piece as well as the contours of gestures, and characteristics of texture and timbre. A few of these are provided in the score.
The invention of clouds was composed for flautist Gavin Osborn, with whom I have collaborated on a number of projects. It was first performed on 5th February 2009 at the Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall, The University of Manchester, by Gavin Osborn (bass flute), Steve Pycroft (crotales), Tom Spencer (violin), Rob Guy (viola), and Alice Purton (‘cello).
This work was selected for the Sound and Music shortlist in 2009.