Broken Consort



Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 11 July, 2004
Venue: NULL

John Casken talks about his new Symphony, a BBC commission, to be premiered at Proms 2004 on 22 July

Given the remarkable examples that we already have of the genre, even the particular resonance of the word itself, I suggest to John Casken that simply writing Symphony at the head of a new score will automatically stiffen the sinews. “It does, and I have delayed writing what is my first symphony. It was originally planned for 2002, but we managed to get it put back until now. But are you aware of the rest of the title, Broken Consort?” Yes, indeed, the symphony’s scoring includes a gypsy band.

Was this always part of the symphony’s design? “No, but I had the very opening along time ahead. The symphony begins with metallic sweeps on the percussion, a very simple idea, and one that I thought would set the tone for the work, both in its sound and its simplicity. It certainly sets the tone for the soundworld because, being metallic and tangy, it links nicely with the sound of the cimbalom and the accordion – but the idea of pursuing it in a very simple way fairly soon got left behind. The way the strings are set out on the cimbalom invites a certain kind of figuration and playing, and suggested to me an intricate and more focussed texture. So the idea of writing a piece with bold, simple blocks developed into a textural tapestry that I suppose could be a feature of my work generally. In the Symphony the very spicy and tangy sonorities of the ensemble actually feed into the orchestra in terms of the timbres I’ve used; the wind and brass behave a bit like an accordion, and the brass sonorities pick up the steeliness of the cimbalom.”

Casken’s Symphony ‘Broken Consort’ is in two movements, roughly 20 and 12 minutes in length, respectively. Casken explains that “it’s not a thematic symphony, it’s not a symphony which sets down a number of themes and develops those. It’s a symphony that takes the contrasting elements of a gypsy band and a symphony orchestra and looks for points of contact between them, and it develops those points of contacts, which is also an idea behind the broader aspect of the work. The first movement is a colouristic movement, one that is volatile, one that explodes with energetic bursts and one that explores nuances of sound. The intention is that one is always aware of the gypsy ensemble and its dance-like music; its sonorities always will be different from what the orchestra is doing – but we have to find a way of hearing them as one.”

The use of the gypsy component became a reality with the composer’s “sudden realisation that the gypsy band existed within the orchestra.” The orchestra is the BBC Philharmonic. Several of its members are expert players of the ‘extra’ instruments that Casken has used to spice-up his orchestration. Although the composer is quick to point out that “this is not a concerto in the sense of one pitted against the other; they are integrated in that the sounds of the gypsy band give into the orchestra and they flow back.”

A contrast comes with the second movement, which “turns its back on the first movement’s soundworld. It begins in a very serious, strong unison way, which slowly ebbs away. The gypsy instruments have been playing in a very reflective way, and there’s alternation between this and string polyphony. We reach a point of absolute stillness where there’s an accordion solo accompanied by tremolandi on the cimbalom. Then the movement begins to find its way back to where we were in the first movement. That is also the main business of the second movement; to find that same dance but to do it through a different perspective, a different mechanism.”

With all talk of gypsy music and instruments, I mention Bartók as perhaps a stylistic precursor to the new work. “I’d be very reluctant to say which particular gypsy style it is; but I think it is probably Rumania and Bulgaria rather than Hungary, but I listen to a lot of gypsy music, so some of the Hungarian will come into it.”

Mention of such countries plus the integration of these instruments into the symphony orchestra seems also a curious parallel regarding the expanding European Union. ““I’ve alluded to that in talking about points of contact – one enriches the other and there’s no looking for a state of opposition where things remain in their enclaves and people turn their backs on them. Maybe that’s the reason why I started the second movement in the way that I did.”

Is John Casken being positive about European expansion? “I think so. British culture has always been cross-fertilised by the arrival of ideas, creativity, philosophy and writings from abroad, particularly from Europe – and we should be open to these new things.” Is the new symphony optimistic? “I ask a question, as I tend to in my music.”

Using the ‘extra’ instruments may preclude future performances – not every orchestra runs to an ‘in-house’ gypsy band, and orchestras’ management may think twice before booking ‘extras’. “Yes, but I very much wanted to do this. So I thought rather than putting practical interests first I ought to put my creative instincts first.”

Symphony ‘Broken Consort’ gets its premiere at Prom No.8, on 22 July, the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic playing music that is written partly as a tribute to its own skills. Its dynamic Principal Conductor Gianandrea Noseda will lead the premiere. The BBC Phil is an orchestra Casken knows well; he is a professor at Manchester University. Also in the concert is Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet. “In terms of the orchestra, Ravel is a magician, and Stravinsky likewise, the fire and colour of those early Russian ballets is just extraordinary. I think my music has learnt an awful lot from French music, and I’m very happy but rather intimidated to be in that company.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content