Notes from Last Night – Prom 53, Thursday 25 August 2016

‘Seeing’ or witnessing music performed live, especially orchestral, always offers a different experience and new dimension for the listener, no more so than when the aural experience is abstract or difficult to grasp.

Last night’s Prom 53 not only offered Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1 in E flat major and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.3 in A minor performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Vasily Petrenko but also featured the World Première of Emily Howard’s ‘Torus’ (Concerto for Orchestra).

Howard is known for her interest in science and mathematics and incorporates ideas of science into her compositions. The ‘Torus’ composition is based around the mathematical torus shape, described as a doughnut or a bagel – that is, a three-dimensional shape with a hole in the middle. Emily describes her experience of writing the music by ‘imagining the torus as a sphere with its heart ripped out’ and the ‘idea of ‘toric’ music, [as] a set of giant rotations – torus-shaped journeys in sound’.

So we already have something quite difficult to grasp – music, or sound, that defines or describes a shape, and a journey through this shape. What is most noticeable about the music is how consonant and dissonant sounds sit in opposition – the consonant sound created by the strings and the angular dissonance created by wind, brass and a wealth of unusual percussion. The sounds stretch in time from the opening clattering alarm and interjected phrases of the wind section sitting over the sustained notes and continuous sound of the string section – a section which in essence, provides a curvaceously cohesive backdrop to the chaotic angularity above.

Given that the music is representative of something normally illustrated in scientific terms,  you might expect to hear sounds that are synthetically made or digitally embellished. However, Howard’s representation of journey through and around the shape of the torus is created by means of a traditional symphonic orchestra. The conductor beats out time following a notated score with its roots very firmly in the traditions of Western Art music. This is the true reward for the viewer of the live spectacle compared to the radio listener – you get to see how Howard’s eerie and other-worldly musical sounds are created; how the percussionists scrape violin bows across the open tubes of metal drainpipes to create a deeply resonant sound, how the violinists maintain the idea of order through complete precision in play, how the conductor vigorously marks out a beat and maintains orchestral cohesion but the heard music has no discernible rhythm or measure. ‘Torus’ may not provide easy or comfortable listening but it’s certainly a fascinating watch.

Debbie, Notes From Last Night

More info at www.emilyhoward.com
Hear the piece on the BBC player: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07pjdg5#play