The Waves

for orchestra


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for orchestra

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Year of Composition 2020
Duration ca.10'

Instrumentation 9298
Forces 2fl, 2ob, 2cl.B-flat, 2bsn, 2hn, 2tpt, timp, BD, strings (
Categories (all composers) , ,
Catalogue ID ce-ck1tw1


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Commissioned by Solistes Européens Luxembourg with the support of the Ministry of Culture, Luxembourg. First performance at Philharmonie Luxembourg, 18th September 2020 with Christoph König, conductor.

“The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.”

-Virginia Woolf, The Waves

In an introduction to the millennial edition of Virginia Woolf ’s The Waves, Jeanette Winterson says how its author “wanted to write about the vast unknown uncertain continent that is the world and us in it. This continent is not a landmass. It is not solid, it is not stable. It shifts, it storms, it drowns, it is both the simple surface of things and their depths.” Woolf captures the strange new world of the 30’s, one in constant flux; where voices dissolve into their environments and become transformed – like waves.

I began thinking about the course of events that lead from Woolf ’s time to our own. So much has changed, but many of the structural relations of inequality are identical. In many ways we are still fighting the same battles we were nearly hundred years ago. The book’s unique music – fluid and fractal, the sound of subjective interiority – seemed to offer a method for the music of history, a history seen, not as eschatological, or even cyclical, but like the repetitive yet ever-changing pulse of waves. In writing this story, I wanted to capture not only its structural shapes but peculiar detail: the first three ‘waves’ of feminism tell a rich a tapestry of stories that stretch from tea sets and ephemera of the suffragettes’ women’s groups to the dense theory of Judith Butler, from the classic Chanel suit to the sound of Madonna and Bikini Kill. I tried to immerse myself in the world of each of their times, through artefacts, literature and popular culture. In doing so, I began to see the recurrence of certain themes, ideas, and perhaps something more ineffable – sentiments, atmospheres, auras – that came back again and again in changed, related likenesses. Against the resilience of the global patriarchal system, with every wave the same passions and judgements resurfaced in rejuvenated forms, untired and unwavering against their new contexts. Like the world that Woolf so vividly describes, the world, and us with it, is made and remade.

I thus chose an initial 25 words from a pamphlet found amongst the Suffragette/Suffragist collections at the Bishopsgate Institute, copies of which could originally be obtained through the Central National Society for Women’s Suffrage. Then, from the 20th century’s cornucopia of pop, philosophy, placards, hashtags, fashions, and changing indices and priorities, I traced the evolution of these tropes as they resurfaced in their different forms across the various waves. Pitch material for the piece was then generated from these identified triads of words. In terms of structure, that musical material is distributed amongst the musicians in a way that reflects the historical identity of each wave: from initial struggles for material equality between instrumental sections (symbolising the demands of women’s suffrage movement) to a greater independence of musical lines within each section (inspired by second-wave feminist theory) before finally reaching a reconciliation between inclusiveness and individuality that the third and fourth waves represent, where players become soloists: creating a polyphony of identities and independent lines.

Writing an orchestral piece bears its own particular social responsibility; yet any work wedded to its historical moment becomes, to an extent, stuck in its own time. To overcome this, I wanted to leave the end of the work sounding quite open, like unfinished business, critiquing the present but, like the waves, able to transform and become reimagined within changed future contexts.

This was the rationale behind the work’s finale, which incorporates a critique of orchestral gender parity into its orchestration, and will – eventually – transform with progress. My hope is that, as meaningful change gradually reaches the world of art music, this presently often thin sound will grow, ebb, swell, and be

“made and remade continually.”