DESIRE LINES for solo alto flute (2013-2014)

The rhythmic grid underlying the whole of my hour-long ‘Traces’ Cycle (1991-2006) for solo flute was suggested by the memory of a Roman road running through the landscape of the Lake District.  In Desire Lines I return to the imagery of tracks and pathways, as is clear from the work’s title (defined as “An informal path that pedestrians prefer to take to get from one location to another rather than using a sidewalk or other official route”).  Furthermore, during the composition process, I also had in mind the stories by Edwardian writer Arthur Machen, which feature sinister byways in the edgelands of suburban London and the streets (replete with rich architectural detail) of my own dreams.

In my piece, four twenty-bar loops are repeated and subjected to between four and seven levels of variative activity.  Three of these loops are interwoven, creating force fields, which nudge the music along parallel but differing routes.  Desire Lines are thus a metaphor for this process, and for the (perhaps) atypical linearity of the instrumental writing, as well as for the atmosphere of dreamy sensuality, so apt for the alto flute, which I hope infuses much of my piece.

The fourth loop fractures this easy-going coexistence.  Its four sections, each marked "quasi cadenza", constitute the most radical music in the piece.  Inserted into the discourse at randomly determined points, they juxtapose music of extreme activity and extreme stasis, which tip the work over from somnolent desire to nightmarish destruction. The inspiration for this music was the extraordinary painting "An Explosion in a Cathedral" by the 17th Century mannerist François Nomé ("Monsù Desiderio"), in which an explosion (on the right hand side of the canvas) is contrasted with the solidity of a group of columns (on the left), which remains untouched by the destruction. 

The painting also contains a human element.  Two groups of people, in the middle and the left of the canvas, are engaged in vandalizing the statues, which ornament the interior of the building (hence, presumably the painting’s alternative title, “King Asa of Judah Destroying the Idols”). After I had finished the piece, it occurred to me that the flautist performing the work is related to this human element, not as an analogy, but as a positive counterbalance to the appalling acts being carried out in the name of humanity.

Desire Lines was composed between December 2013 and March 2014 and was written for Carlton Vickers, who gave the work its first performance on April 24th 2015 at the Slosberg Music Center, Brandeis University, Boston MA as part of the Leonard Bernstein Festival of Music.  It is dedicated to Carlton Vickers and Wendy Lems.



Quite a few of my dreams are “architectural”.  A long terrace of ornately decorated houses (Georgian meets Blade Runner), a 1930’s modernist villa with strange protruding wing-like structures on each side and a large Art Deco garage have all played their part in my sleeping imagination.
(James Erber, 30/10/2011)


François Nomé, An Explosion in a Cathedral (King Asa of Judah Destroying the Idols): asa of judah destroying the idols&oid=542


Desire Lines

"...but Harlesden is a place of no character. It's too new to have any character as yet. There are the rows of red houses and the rows of white houses and the bright green Venetians, and the blistering doorways, and the little backyards they call gardens, and a few feeble shops, and then, just as you think you're going to grasp the physiognomy of the settlement, it all melts away."
  "How the dickens is that? the houses don't tumble down before one's eyes, I suppose!"
  "Well, no, not exactly that. But Harlesden as an entity disappears. Your street turns into a quiet lane, and your staring houses into elm trees, and the back gardens into green meadows. You pass instantly from town to country... I can't conceive a greater loneliness in a desert at midnight than there is there at mid-day. It is like a city of the dead; the streets are glaring and desolate, and as you pass it suddenly strikes you that this too is part of London..."
(Arthur Machen, The Inmost Light)

In a confused vision I stumbled on, through roads half town and half country, grey fields melting into the cloudy world of mist on one side of me, and on the other comfortable villas with a glow of firelight flickering on the walls, but all unreal; red brick walls and lighted windows, vague trees and glimmering country, gas-lamps beginning to star the white shadows, the vanishing perspectives of the railway line beneath high embankments, the red and green signal lamps; - all these were but momentary pictures flashed on my tired brain and senses numbed by hunger.
(Arthur Machen, Novel of the Black Seal)

"I remembered one night I had gone farther. It was somewhere in the far west, where there are orchards and gardens, and great broad lawns that slope down to trees by the river. A great red moon rose that night through mists of sunset, and thin, filmy clouds, and I wandered by a road that passed through the orchards, till I came to a little hill, with the moon showing above it glowing like a great rose. Then I saw figures pass between me and the moon, one by one, in a long line, each bent double, with great packs upon their shoulders. One of them was singing, and then in the middle of the song I heard a horrible shrill laugh, in the thin cracked voice of a very old woman, and they disappeared into the shadow of the trees. I suppose they were people going to work, or coming from work in the gardens; but how like it was to a nightmare!"
(Arthur Machen, A Fragment of Life, ch.11)

The edgelands are a complex landscape, a debatable zone, constantly reinventing themselves as economic and social tides come in and out. Of course, the idea of edgelands does not just refer to parts of the physical environment. It's a rich term for poetry, too, and can maybe help to break down other dualities. If parts of remote rural England feel timeless (though this feeling is, of course, illusory) then the edgelands feel anything but... Such are the constantly shifting sands of edgelands that any writing about these landscapes is a snapshot.
(Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley, Edgelands)