Paul Griffiths tells us of the journey, inspiration, and growth that led to creating his text piece for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's upcoming T R E E Project with Christian Mason. 

Anything – a creative relationship, a blog post – has to start somewhere. Then it can grow. Like a tree.

My first contact with Christian Mason was a mundane enquiry about a piece of his being done at a Wigmore Hall concert in April 2013 for which I was writing programme notes. Almost two years then passed – a long germination, perhaps – until, in January 2015, I was asked to write the introduction for a disc of Christian’s music. That led to a first meeting, and to more or less regular correspondence, but again almost two years passed before another phase could begin – a new growth ring. In November 2016 Stephan Meier was kind enough to increase the audience from seven people to eight at a reading I was giving at a bookshop in east London. Three days later I received an email from Christian. Stephan had proposed a commission. Words to be by me.

Flurry of emails. Question from me: “Do you want a myth?” Christian wants multiple voices, Machaut. Polyphonic song, polytextual song. How about transformation within the text, I ask? I give – as an example, to be sure – a chain that starts with a sentence by Donald J. Trump to end with one by Henry D. Thoreau:

At what point do they start laughing at us as a country?

At what pond do they start laughing at us as a country?

At what pond do they start laughing at that as so country?

At what pond do they start laughing at that as so loud?

At what lonely pond do they start laughing at that as so loud?

At no lonely pond do they start laughing at that as so loud.

I at no lonely pond do start at that, laughing so loud.

I am no more lonely in the pond to start laughing so loud.

I am no more lonely than to start in the pond laughing so loud.

I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud.

To a gentle nudge from Stephan, we start to think more seriously. And by now I know much more of Christian’s work, which helps. Another growth ring can begin, and in January 2018 I email Christian with some ideas about…“trees. The trees have voices, but they don’t have personal pronouns…because their experience is so much of connection – to the ground, water, bacteria, fungi, mosses, epiphytes, light, air…. They probably don’t know much about animals, because their timescale is so different. Impulses travel along a chain of plant cells about twenty thousand times more slowly than along a nerve, which means that a bird alighting on a tree for five seconds would be reckoned as having been there for a quarter of a microsecond.” (A lot of this has come out of David George Haskell’s book The Songs of Trees, published nine months before.) Christian responds right away. Yes. We’re moving.

Early the next month there are some sketchy ideas, including a tree of tree names and some outgrowths from the vowel pair found in “as seed” (how trees begin), “Adam/Eve”, and so on. Meanwhile, nutriment is coming not only from Haskell but also from a little book on trees by Béla Hamvas, from noh plays in which trees become speaking divinities, from the story of Apollo and Daphne (transformed into a laurel to avoid his touch), and from just being with the great beeches (albeit for microseconds of their time) above Lydstep Haven, near where I live.

Paul Grffiths Tree Project BCMG

Occasional meetings with Christian in Birmingham and London over the coming months keep the sap flowing, until, in the autumn, the words get themselves written. The text is indeed a tree, but growing differently from how it was earlier in the year. From the single word “tree” there comes a four-word “Tree Sentence” that spells “tree” in its initial letters: “The red elm enduring”. The next stage is a “Tree Statement” in sixteen words – “Trees become gods. A sapling is a sapling, But trees become gods. Divinity hardens into them” (after the noh play Takasago) – and so on up to a “Tree Psalm” in 1024 words.

            But of course this whole verbal tree is only a seed, waiting to grow into music….

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