Sea-Change

 

Sea-Change was composed in 1989 to a commission from the Music Department of the University of Wales, Bangor (in association with the Arts Council of Wales). It was first performed in November of that year by the Bangor University Symphony Orchestra, conducted by myself.

The title comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but the music has nothing to do with the play. Instead, the words describe what the music is about (rather than the other way round). I have always been fascinated by the sea, especially the way it contains different, and simultaneous, speeds of activity: wave motion on the surface, undertow below and, at an even deeper level, the movement of the tides. This is a very close analogy to the kind of music I try to write and is, I believe, a fundamental aspect of the kind of musical expression I consider “symphonic”.

The piece has quite an important place in my work, for two reasons: first, the fact that it was written for student players meant the music had to be less technically demanding than the other, more complicated, pieces I was writing around that time. With this simplification came a greater directness in musical language, a feature that has tended to remain (even if the technical demands on performers have once again become extravagant!). Second, it proved to be the first of a trilogy of orchestral pieces all connected with the sea: the other two were The Flight of Icarus (1990) and Channel Firing (1992-93)

The structure is fairly easy to follow. It has three sections which are basically slow-fast-slow, but all are connected by a common pulse (the repeated notes heard on the violins at the very start) which never varies. What does change is the speed of the harmony, along with the placing of the downbeat – so the fastest music is “inside” the slowest music and vice versa. All the important musical material is contained in the first few bars: a semitonal clash (Eb in the strings; E-natural in the woodwind – anticipating the overall tonal progression of the entire piece), a melody of minor thirds and fifths (woodwind) and a pair of sustained intervals in the brass (a major second opening out in a wedge shape to a major third). All of these are heard in the first twenty seconds or so.

There is one final layer – the deepest and slowest moving. This is the tonal movement across the whole piece. The music is built on “terraces” of keys, made from progressions of falling fifths and these are most clearly heard in the slower outer sections. They help give a sense of inevitability to the whole structure and, in the final section (over a “ground-bass” and a pounding Bolero-like rhythm), a feeling of deliberate, implacable force. It results in a massive build up of tension that must eventually discharge itself in the coda, like a huge tidal wave.

John Pickard