Another Timbre TimHarrisonbre
at201 Bryn Harrison ‘A Coiled Form’
‘A Coiled Form’ (2020/22) 50:41 Sarah Saviet, violin
An extended solo for violin. Originally composed as a 15 minute piece, this extended version was jointly developed by Bryn Harrison and violinist Sarah Saviet, who gives an extraordinarily virtuosic performance.
Interview with Bryn Harrison
As I understand it, 'A Coiled Form' was initially a 15-minute piece, but has been hugely expanded to over 50 minutes in the version on the CD. Could you explain how this happened?
Actually, the original commission from Sarah on behalf of the Riot ensemble was for a piece of only five minutes duration, but early in the collaborative process Sarah and I discussed ways in which the composition might be variable in length to allow for much longer performances. In the draft of the original score, the number of repetitions was specified, but Sarah and I decided to leave these open and flexible for the first performance, introducing a more organic element to the piece. The premiere, given by Sarah at the Wigmore Hall, London, was about 20 minutes in length and, following that performance, she prepared a version that was nearly 40 minutes for a gig in Berlin. The Berlin version allowed for more scope and flexibility in terms of how events might unfold over time, and we discussed different ways of repeating both the pages of the score and the individual phrases themselves. I found the listening experience in this new, extended version to be complex and multi-faceted; there were moments where a single event felt as if it might expand outwards for an indefinite amount of time, and the material often sounded unfamiliar when appearing in new and emerging contexts. The recorded version for this disc can be seen as a further extension of these ideas. Sarah came up with her own plan for how she wanted the pages and the repetitions to be ordered. I think she has made a beautifully elegant version for the recording that navigates the listener though an unpredictable labyrinth of repeated passages. Some of the repetitions are very brief, providing momentary glimpses into its structure, whilst others extend over much longer periods of time.
In this extended form, it's one of the most relentlessly intense pieces of music I know. Are you increasingly drawn to longer form pieces?
I began to explore extended durations in 2008 with the 43-minute piece, ‘Repetitions in Extended Time’ and have written quite a few pieces of long duration since, including the 2012 Another Timbre release ‘Vessels’ for solo piano, which is 76 minutes long. I completed a ‘Piano Quintet’ in 2017 and, more recently, a string quartet for Quatour Bozzini entitled ‘Three Descriptions of Place and Movement’ in 2021, both of which clock in at around an hour. One of the things I am particularly drawn to is the way in which small amounts of material taken from a sonic stream might be momentarily frozen in time and amplified through high levels of repetition. Working with longer durations has allowed me to explore this idea more fully. In much of my music (such as the pieces listed above) the number of repetitions heighten over time, but at a rate that might go by unnoticed by the listener. ‘A Coiled Form’ works a little differently since the repetitions constantly vary in length. Instead, the piece attempts to navigate the listener through an unpredictable array of very long and very short repeats, with the intention being to heighten the intensity of the listening experience. What I hope to promote is an active kind of listening in which expectation is both affirmed and thwarted; we recognise the material but have no indication as to how long it might be repeated for.
As long as I have the opportunity, I hope to continue to explore works of long duration. Ironically perhaps, the longer the duration, the less material I seem to need. The whole of ‘A Coiled Form’ is constructed from a simple, short pitch series, but our relationship to it constantly changes. Events become recontextualised through amplifying small amounts of material taken from that line. For me, there’s something a little uncanny in the way a small motif that has been extensively repeated appears to pop out of the texture when it is briefly glimpsed again within the quick succession of passing events. Similarly, slight rhythmic inconsistencies get amplified over time, which may raise for the listener questions as to whether events are repeating in exactly the same way or not.
Are many of your pieces written with particular performers in mind? And did knowledge of Sarah’s violin playing affect what you wrote?
Yes, I find it difficult to write if I don’t have a performer in mind and most of the music I’ve composed over the past 25 years has either been commissioned by a group that I already know or written with a particular performer in mind. I’d got to know Sarah and knew her playing prior to writing the piece so I knew that I could write a piece that was challenging and virtuosic. I’ve always been impressed by the level of commitment that Sarah invests in projects and the insight and integrity she brings to learning a new work. If I’m being honest, the piece proved to be even more challenging than I had expected. The bow action has to be light but with energy which is difficult to sustain over a long period of time and certain passages are particularly difficult to execute smoothly with the left hand. As Sarah got to know the material, the piece became more and more collaborative. We discussed the form at length and tried out structuring the material in different ways. We also experimented with the tempo and ended up increasing this so that the piece opens at a speed that is twice as fast as it ends. All of this amounts to a piece that requires an enormous amount of concentration and stamina. I find the performance on the disc wholly impressive; there is an evenness and consistency to the whole of the recording and a focus and energy which never seems to falter. Sarah’s aim is to plan a 50-minute performance of the piece which will, no doubt, bring about its own challenges and reveal new aspects to the work.