Richard Causton - Chamber Symphony

Chamber Symphony

This piece is in two movements. The opening slow movement is made up of brass fanfares and woodwind chorales alternating with menacing, mechanistic episodes which gradually gather in weight and gravity, until they threaten to destroy the fabric of the music. From this conflict arises a second, fast movement whose initial exuberance gives way to a further confrontation, this time between the percussion and the rest of the ensemble, which is resolved in a concluding synthesis of ideas from earlier in the piece.

Whilst working on the piece I was struck by reading Michael Tippett’s essay Poets in a Barren Age, in which he characterises the modern age as technologically advanced but imaginatively deprived. At the same time I was also looking at various poems and pictures by William Blake, who saw in the rise of mass production, mechanistic standardisation and conformity the devaluation of the individual work of art. In There is No Natural Religion, Blake wrote “He who sees the infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only”. Besides rationality, the “Ratio” also relates to the factory – or mill – wheels (“those dark Satanic mills” in Blake’s famous lines), whose cogs interact to provide mechanical advantage.

Fast-forwarding to the present day, I re-imagined the endlessly turning mill-wheel as a half-listened-to iPod or personal stereo, mindlessly repeating the same section of music. The contrast between the vitality of live musicmaking and the disembodiment of reproduced sound is explored right at the centre of my piece where, between the two movements, the music becomes stuck in a distracted, repetitive reverie: a total internal reflection in which, paraphrasing Blake, we see “ourselves only”.

Richard Causton, revised in 2010

First performed by BCMG conducted by Diego Masson on 16 October 2009, at CBSO Centre Birmingham.