Saturday, 17 March 2012

Some thoughts on the themes, background, questions and ideas that led to 'back there on earth'

I thought I’d write a bit about how our programme, ‘back there on earth’, came about.

It all started with Simon Belshaw’s Between the Moon and the Earth. This piece, composed in 2001, is kind of a meditation on being suspended in space, neither here nor there. Excerpts from the recordings made by the crew of the 1968 Apollo 8 NASA mission that was the first to circumnavigate the moon are interwoven with music for live strings and pre-recorded piano. The astronauts attempt to describe their experiences in real time to a rapt earthbound audience: Earth is ‘a grand oasis in the vastness of space’ and, more prosaically, ‘the land areas are generally brownish’. The amazing technological leap that made it all possible is represented throughout by the impassive ‘beep’ of the Quindar tones that accompanied all radio transmissions between spacecrew and Mission Control .

The Apollo 8 astronauts were the first humans to journey to the Earth's Moon and the first to photograph the Earth from deep space.  The beautiful film that accompanies Simon’s music consists of footage from the mission, including the first human-witnessed ‘Earthrise’.

The next piece we settled on to play was Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988). Also scored for live string quartet, this time together with 2 pre-recorded string quartets, there is another parallel with the Belshaw, in the use of pre-recorded speech. In this case, the speech is recorded reminiscences of people and American and the sounds of European trains of the 30s and 40s. Through the words of his governess, Virginia, and a retired Pullman porter, Lawrence Davis, Reich begins by reflecting on his ‘exciting and romantic’ childhood train trips from New York to Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942. We then move from his personal experience as an American Jew to the parallel lives of Holocaust survivors Rachella, Paul and Rachel who speak of their experiences during the same period and what the German trains meant to them.

In terms of putting together this programme, I noticed that we had pulled focus from the perspective of deep space to a transcontinental scale. What about continuing that line, adjusting our gaze to the earth beneath our feet in this corner of Devon, and to a piece from our own perspective? I was born in the village Lympstone on the river Exe, and my early years were bounded by the estuary, the red cliffs to the north of the village and the sea in the other direction. I remembered that composer Paul Whitty had spent his childhood years just outside Tiverton and he had described to me a powerful personal connection with the red earth of the surrounding fields. This is the starting point for Paul's ...bury your love like treasure.... Paul will write more on this shortly.

There is also a change of focus to what is – for me and many people I know – our contemporary ecological concern. Both the Reich and the Belshaw offer perspectives on historical events – events which dominated the world at the time. What can we say about where we are today? Never mind deep space (what luxury to be able to spend time there!): how do we relate to and connect with our own planet and its sustaining forces? How often do you and I actually touch the earth?

The stunning picture of ‘Earthrise’ has been described by US Nature photographer Galen Rowell as ‘the most influential environmental photograph ever taken’. Maybe, partly, as a result of it we’re in a very different place now, 44 years on.
EW (Exeter Contemporary Sounds)

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