BBC Radio 3 commission for Loose Tubes, first performed at Cheltenham Jazz Festival May 3rd 2014
The piece started as a bag of disparate elements and ideas about the kind of thing I wanted it to be – lots of changes of tempo and texture, something in the Mahavishnu Orchestra arpeggiated chord vein, something beguine-ish with rhythmic brass, a swooping tune, a busy, unpredictable tune, a rising sax soli gesture; these jotted down in the summer of 2013 when the idea of a reunion commission first came up. Then I let it go to sleep.
When the project was confirmed I began to work on the piece in earnest. I still had the idea of music which changes abruptly from one area to another and I set to work on fleshing out the different kinds of material. As I went on, it became evident that these different areas were related – they were transformations or translations of each other. I also became fascinated by the idea of how seemingly angular, atonal melodies could become tonal, and vice versa. There is a jagged, abrupt melody in the opening half minute, which comes back a little later in a more harmonically focused context. Motifs from the opening melody are harmonically refocused later on, and extrapolated contrapuntally towards the end.
The harmony is the real foundation of the piece. The sequence of 9 harmonic areas, expressed in chord symbols, goes:
F maj7+5, B11, Bbmaj7#11, Bb11, Emaj7#11, Emin11, Abmaj7+5, C7alt, F#maj7+5
This is quite a rich sequence. Looking at the chord scales, you find that A maj triad belongs to the first two chords, and that the 7th and 11th of the second chord become the maj 7th and # 11th of the third, and so on. In arranging and voicing these chords you can also express them in close form, with the 13th a semitone below the 7th, or in expanded form emphasising min 9th intervals. This is a bit of a technical explanation, but it means that the sound of the harmony can go through different transformations. The music can sound sometimes “jazzy” and sometimes “contemporary”.
After the opening rising sax figure the first version of the harmony, a tribute and reference to John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, is a filtered version of the sequence, with fewer notes to give a more gutsy sound. When it returns at the end in fuller orchestration the bare intervals remain – I didn’t fill the sound out with other extensions etc. I like this “white hot” sound – it expresses the shock of revelation in Mahavishnu’s music, and here something hopefully similar: wake up!
Next comes the keyboard arpeggiated chords – another Mahavishnu trademark – and then the band comes in with parts that trace the keyboard and an angular phrase over the top at odds with the harmony, from which a lot of the later melodic material is derived. A sound that suggests a complex woven thread.
The next version of the harmony is in beguine tempo, with close voicings arranged for the brass. The large – interval melody which appeared earlier is on the guitar, doubled below on bass and bass clarinet. Also in this section is a little melody for alto and trumpet harmonised in fourths. This is lighter in mood, with a dancing rhythm.
Now comes another harmonic sequence, unrelated to the central one and providing a release from it; the time signature settles to a regular 3 in the bar. Now the atonal angular phrase is recontextualised in tonal harmony. There follows a flute solo on the sequence, followed by a recapitulation of the melody with high woodwind trills – suggesting a Debussian delirium. The fourthsy melody has now acquired a little countermelody.
An abrupt change leads to the second half of the piece, a percussion-heavy groove in 6 with accented bass notes. A saxophone solo weaves in between until the horns begin their contrapuntal explorations of the intervallic and melodic material. There is an urgency in this section – the high woodwind trills sound like a phone ringing (must take this call!), the chromatic lines propel the music forward with increasing complexity, like a polemic. The grand brass chords which stand monumentally over the music from time to time are another iteration of the original harmonic sequence, this time arranged in expanded intervals to give a more plangent contemporary sound. In fact the bass notes spell out the roots of the original sequence, and the rhythmic accents have been in the piece from the beginning. So the abrupt change to something seemingly unrelated is in fact a change to the same thing as before!
The contrapuntal section leads headlong into the opening Mahavishnu-style music with cataclysmic force; then comes a final reiteration of the beguine tempo section with yet more dancing counterlines. And finally another abrupt change: the mood becomes more forgiving, more wistful, thinner in texture, and gently waltzes to a close that feels unresolved, a dot-dot-dot ending. The harmony in this section is in fact a re-spelling of the original chord sequence – each chord has the same parent scale as the original, F maj+5 becomes A maj +5, B11 becomes F#min11, and so on. The voicings are similar to things that happen in the late Pete Saberton’s music, and this section is a fond tribute to his memory.
So what, finally, is the meaning of the title “Bright Smoke, Cold Fire”? In the original Shakespeare Romeo uses the phrase to illustrate what it feels like when he doubts Juliet’s love for him – a world turned upside-down. But here I intend other, broader meanings. The world is not as it should be: there is still, even now in the 21st century, war, children starving to death – that’s Bright Smoke, Cold Fire; greed, fear and power are still abroad both in the wider world and in the interactions of daily life – that’s Bright Smoke, Cold Fire; music is still used by many as acoustic wallpaper while doing something else, or as mere entertainment, or as social badge, or as a means of manipulating opinions and buying habits, instead of as the supreme medium of transformation and healing – that’s Bright Smoke, Cold Fire; music history is a list of officially approved figures rather than a universal legacy of generosity, free to all – that’s Bright Smoke, Cold Fire… and more… I think, or I hope, the urgent need for these revelations is there in the sound of this music.