Richard Causton Composer Page

In a piece I wrote a few years ago, I was preoccupied with trying to make the piano sing. In Transients, I’m instead thinking about how to make the piano speak. Unlike melody instruments (flute, violin and so on), the piano’s notes die away from the moment they are played. So in order to sustain its sound in a singing manner – or to mimic human speech for that matter – the instrument needs somehow to overcome the built-in decay of its notes.

The title is a term borrowed from acoustics. A transient is a fleeting, high amplitude sound at the start of a sonic waveform that occurs in phenomena such as percussive sounds or speech (the percussive ‘b’ in ‘buzz’, for example). But ‘transients’ also sounds like ‘transience’, and the way the piano notes naturally die away from the moment they are heard can bring other associations.

The words that the pianos speak in my piece come from a poem by Emily Dickinson:

I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air -
Between the Heaves of Storm -

The Eyes around - had wrung them dry -
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset - when the King
Be witnessed - in the Room -

I willed my Keepsakes - Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable - and then it was
There interposed a Fly -

With Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz -
Between the light - and me -
And then the Windows failed - and then
I could not see to see –

I began by making a recording of the poem being read and preparing a spectral analysis of the sounds on the computer. I then made piano simulations of each of the words by notating the pitches and rhythms present in the speech. The complexity of human speech made this an incredibly laborious process: each second of speech took several days of work to notate, and this results in the highly intricate music for two pianos heard in movements 2 and 4.

Text fragments

Having transcribed all the words in the poem and isolated each of them, I rearranged them to make other “poems” of my own (thinking more about the resulting sounds than about the sequence or meaning of the words). It is only towards the end that we hear Emily Dickinson’s words in the correct order played by the pianos.

But when we reach ‘and then it was…’, one of the pianos starts to speak other words, in a completely different way - not using the keyboard at all, but instead via a preparation using electromagnets suspended over the strings, which was built especially for this piece. This is how in the end the piano is able to transcend its limitations and speak. Its music becomes airborne, a bit like the fly
in the poem.

Transients has been an exceptionally difficult piece to write and the process has involved creative risks. I am extremely grateful to the University of Cambridge Engineering Department for their help with the electromagnets and in particular to Alistair Ross, David Sayles and Steve Robinson.

Thanks also to the Isaac Newton Trust, Liam Taylor-West, Angus Bryant, Andrew McPherson, Per Bloland, George Szirtes, David Roche, Ben Graves, to BCMG for their patience, and especially to the Sound Investors.

© Richard Causton

BCMG gave the world premiere of Transients on 15 December 2019 at CBSO Centre, conducted by Michael Wendeberg.

Transients is commissioned by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group with financial assistance from Arts Council England and individuals through BCMG’s Sound Investment scheme.

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