The Legacy of Polyhymnia: Towards Understanding the Reception of a New Musical Work

Little, J. D. (2012) The Legacy of Polyhymnia: Towards Understanding the Reception of a New Musical Work. In: Second Annual Research & Scholarship Conference, University of Chichester, 24 Jul 2012, The Dome, Bognor Regis Campus. (Unpublished)

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Starting by examining the initial ideas and other musical and extra-musical inspiration that lay behind the composition of Polyhymnia (a new work for multi-divisi string orchestra), this presentation briefly follows the process of its composition, recording and commercial release. It then focusses on the “life” of a newly-recorded musical work following release: embracing airplay, reviews and interviews – and what worldwide press and other feedback might have to contribute to any statement about its “impact” – and indeed what one might subsequently be able to deduce about a work’s and a composer’s place in the wider context of “serious” contemporary music.

[Early, abridged version published online in the Australian Music Centre's "Resonate" magazine (22 Feb 2012).]

Publication Type: Conference or Workshop Items (Lecture)
Additional Information: “A music heavily redolent of both the past and the future.” In a larger context, my overriding compositional concern is to refine my artistic language such that it becomes truly suited for a new century. While drawing upon past traditions, I aim to innovate, all the while creating music that is atmospheric and capable of generating an emotional response. Polyhymnia forms part of a larger exercise increasingly to realise a striking personal musical language not alienated from past traditions. In some senses, the heights of rich, thick string orchestral writing was reached in works such as Schoenberg’s "Verklarte Nacht" and Richard Strauss’s "Metamorphosen for 23 strings" (1945). But it was Franz Schmidt’s Intermezzo from "Notre Dame" that provided the greatest inspiration for Polyhymnia in terms of its texture – while the aim was to push forward the limits of such writing in a manner more appropriate to composition in the early 21st century, utilising quite a different harmonic basis – one more closely related to the present-day school of “Holy Mystics” of North-Eastern Europe (as heard in the works of Arvo Part and Peteris Vasks, for instance). While orchestration textbooks would not generally encourage string textures as low, close and dense as often heard here (especially as it subdivides into eight individual cello parts), this work was in essence an experiment undertaken to demonstrate that provided sufficient attention was paid to the critical question of balance between instrumental lines, even very dense multi-divisi string writing can be powerfully expressive and atmospheric. There was much creative dialogue with the PARMA’s recording team as to how best to mix and balance all the lines of music. Martin Anderson’s personal interview, coupled with his review of Polyhymnia for the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of American "Fanfare", clearly establish that he sees Polyhymnia as sitting alongside the work of the “Holy Mystics” in its character. Anderson defines the compositional style here as “Ecstatic Minimalism” – so describing both the effect and one of the most prominent techniques within what is said to be powerful, “honest” and emotionally “direct” music. He recognises innovation through synthesis of very old and very new styles – although with a Southern hemisphere “freshness”. Other European critics named the compositional style “Antique Futurism” – since on very old “sonic foundations” (Renaissance and pre-Renaissance modalism, instrumentation, even ancient songs and dances), Italy’s "Kathodik" argued that structures are built that are overlaid with very contemporary – and seemingly pictorial – elements. Indeed, several critics have had trouble placing the style. In the Nov-Dec 2012 issue of American Fanfare, Bayley stressed that Little is “a composer difficult to pigeonhole because his works span a wide and interesting array of styles.” In the previous issue of the same publication, Dr. David DeBoor Canfield (who collected a quarter of a million recordings before selling them on to the Library of Congress) agreed that "no other composer among the thousands whose music I've heard immediately comes to mind". Bob Lord, CEO of PARMA Recordings (US), has further remarked of the music that it is “unusual and finely wrought … inventive and unconventional”. Indeed "Reviews New Age" (Spain) nominated Polyhymnia for “Best Album of the Year 2012” on the basis of its innovative, atmospheric sounds and textures. Polyhymnia represents a new and emerging style merging old traditions with new sound worlds. Of the overall sound of much of the music, Anderson suggested that he “might almost go as far as to say it’s Vaughan Williams-meets-Steve Reich” (elements of “pastoral modalism” merging with newer types of “minimalism”). Perhaps more accurately, it is North-Eastern European mysticism with an eclectic “Oceanic” accent. Through the process of the aural evoking of the muse Polyhymnia, there was also an attempt to convey the concept of “virtual stasis” – or a sense of timelessness – within the music. Worldwide reviews were extremely positive.
Uncontrolled Keywords: Polyhymnia
Subjects: M Music and Books on Music > M Music
M Music and Books on Music > ML Literature of music
M Music and Books on Music > MT Musical instruction and study > MT40-67 Composition. Elements and techniques of music
Divisions: Academic Areas > Conservatoire
Event Title: Second Annual Research & Scholarship Conference, University of Chichester
Event Location: The Dome, Bognor Regis Campus
Event Dates: 24 Jul 2012
Related URLs:
Depositing User: Jonathan Little
Date Deposited: 22 Dec 2016 14:38
Last Modified: 22 Aug 2017 08:20

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