Going a Journey
“You cannot read the book of Nature without being perpetually put to the trouble of translating it for the benefit of others”. William Hazlitt, ‘On Going a Journey’ (1822)
By invoking in his title Hazlitt’s celebrated essay on the joys of solitude among nature, and the value of the unmediated aesthetic experience, John Woolrich lays down a particular challenge for the writer of programme notes! Indeed, it seems that we are being invited explicitly to engage with this work without any preconceived ideas, without the usual summary of musical events or colourful description which, in any event, would bring one no closer to an understanding of the work’s content.
In recent years, John Woolrich has achieved that rare thing: a musical language that is instantly recognisable, completely distinctive and yet ultimately mysterious and elusive. Many works have alluded to literary or visual stimuli, and hinted at suppressed narratives. Others – such as Going a journey – are entirely abstract, communicating nothing beyond themselves, celebrating nothing but their own construction, and their composer’s obvious delight in the process of making a piece of music.
Yet whichever model Woolrich follows, the material is always fresh, vivid and colourful, bursting with energy, wti and invention. As in the practice of many of the visual artists he admires, we find similar gestures and material types from work to work: hushed chorales, snatches of melody, skittering chromatic descents, machines both implacable and fragile. But the mystery is in the way these ideas – which increasingly take on the appearance of idées fixes within the Woolrich canon – are continuously recycled and refreshed, appearing in new and unfamiliar contexts.
In Going a journey, the distinctive timbres of cor anglais and contrabassoon, and the absence of violins lend a darker hue to a more or less conventional sinfonietta line-up. ‘Trash’ percussion – a dominant sonority in much of Woolrich’s work of the last ten years – is absent here: rather, we find prominent roles for timpani and pitched rototoms. But beyond this (entirely superficial) description of the music’s sound world, I will not go. For, as Hazlitt writes, “No one likes puns, alliterations, antitheses, argument, and analysis better than I do; but I sometimes had rather be without them.”
The quirky, bottom-heavy instrumentation … generates a darkly mysterious atmosphere in which the musical journey itself matters more than the arrival. It’s strangely compelling.
…a substantial 23-minute piece which bravely takes from the essayist William Hazlitt the idea of communicating an experience without interposing any commentary. Our ears provide the images.
The band creates such interesting scenery that it is tempting to visualise yards of grainy footage…It’s a disconcertingly seductive journey when travelled hopefully, revealing a fresh perspective and evocative views on a journey which, conducted by Oliver Knussen, seems to be the end itself
First performed by BCMG conducted by Oliver Knussen on 23 March 2007 at CBSO Centre, Birmingham.