Contemporary Music & The Night

In the build up to our autumnal Nights concerts, we are taking a closer look at the exciting and evocative music created about space and the night. 

We're lucky to have had the opportunity to go to Thinktank Science Museum's amazing planetarium a few weeks ago to experience the stars up close and personal, and it was eye-opening to see what many of our composers are inspired by. It's understandable that the dead of night is when creatives feel their most stimulated, however, sometimes emotions evoked are that of loneliness rather than joy. 

Ripples in Spacetime II by Jia Guoping

For Ripples in Spacetime II, Chinese composer Jia Guoping was inspired by the cosmic sounds of a pulsar discovered in 2017. Pulsars are not living stars, but form when a living star bigger than the sun runs out of fuel in its core and collapses in on itself, creating a supernova. A pulsar is the dense nugget of material left over after this explosive death. 

Whilst there’s nothing to be heard from a Pulsar, its waves and radiation, reach us by means of huge telescopes such as the “Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope”. This drama, death, and collapse makes for music reflecting just that. 

The Perilous Night by John Cage

This is a composition in six untitled movements. It was written during a period in Cage’s life that was tinged with confusion and sadness, resulting, in large part, from his imminent separation from his wife, Xenia. The title, derived from a collection of Irish folktales recounts the dangers of love, the misery of people separating, and the loneliness and terror one may experience when love ends.

This piece in particular shows how night can be one of the loneliest times, the world is silent and everything seems a lot more still. The creative expression of composing gives us the opportunity to share the negatives and the positives of the night, it may be beautiful, but it can be isolating. 

Watermark by John Woolrich 

John Woolrich’s Watermark is a ten-minute duo for the unusual combination of violin and bass clarinet. The two musical voices represent planets revolving around the same sun - and how in turn, they treat the same material in two different ways. For example how the Earth orbits the Sun is very different to how Saturn does. 

Midnight Interludes by Charlotte Bray

Written to sit alongside another of Charlotte Bray's compositions Midnight Closes, a song for soprano and piano, Midnight Interludes is made up of three short pieces. These pieces take inspiration from Thomas Hardy's poems, and with most of his poems they are full of despair and vulnerability. Charlotte Bray took small fragments of the poems and used them as starting points in the composition of each piece.

I    ‘A minute more…’
II   Indecision
III  ‘… do I dare?’

Four Nocturnes / Night Music II  by George Crumb

In 1963 Crumb composed a work for soprano, piano, and percussion called Night Music I. Composed a year later with a similar quietness in mood were Four Nocturnes for violin and piano, called Night Music II (obviously).

Night Music is full of long silences that are suddenly pierced with sounds reminiscent of birdsong, if a little more aggressive. Both pieces are extremely delicate and true to the night, yet Night Music II edges towards a more disturbed dynamic rather than serene.

This music is beautifully quiet but filled with anticipation of what is going to happen next, as contemporary music should be.

Capriccio by Julian Anderson

Capriccio is a short, solo piano piece that in comparison to a lot of the other pieces here, sounds a lot more joyous and bubbly. The piece was written in memory of the American composer Steve Stucky and is filled with exciting bursts of notes that build towards the end.

Julian Anderson writes: “...Steve was totally committed to and in love with music, so his own works are always acutely imagined and a delight to the ear. My Capriccio is not a direct evocation of Steve or his music. It’s simply a piece I hope he would have liked, in which I tried to emulate not his style but his standards.” 

With it being twinkly and light, you can't help but imagine stars shining above you in the darkness. 

Sensation by Julian Anderson

The work Sensation is made up of six parts and can be performed as a complete cycle, in single movements, or in combinations chosen by the player. 

She Hears is a study in listening; Toucher is a celebration in musical texture and colour. Sight Lines is a short, hyperactive study in near chaos. Nuits presents the sounds and perfumes of the night. Alba is a celebration of the sounds and sensations of dawn and the return of sunlight. Finally, Coda is a brief, intimate summary of the harmonic and melodic worlds of the whole cycle.

All of these pieces work beautifully together, and as short musical bursts, and like all compositions mentioned, have been touched by the night time in some way.


Watch Live in Birmingham & Bristol

This November in Bristol and Birmingham, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group will be performing many of these pieces during special evenings in two cosy venues. Join us for an intimate evening of music inspired by stars, darkness and everything else above us. 

Nights with BCMG