Of Mountains and Metal

In this article, I'll be discussing my piece Cathedrals of Silence, written for The Hermes Experiment via the Royal Academy of Music this year. If you don't know The Hermes Experiment, they're a very unusual quartet - soprano, clarinet, double bass and harp - that have been making some major waves in the contemporary music scene over the past few years.

If this sounds like a strange combination of instruments - it is. In fact, searching the Academy library, there are precisely zero scores for this combination (or even for any combination of three constituent parts). However, writing for an unusual group isn't necessarily any more challenging and it can be really exciting to feel that you're creating something that has never been heard before. I'd seen the group once or twice in concert before beginning my piece, so I had a good idea of some of the material they already have (though their list of commissions is necessarily massive) along with what seemed to work really well, and perhaps also an inkling of what hadn't been tried yet.

The Hermes Experiment - Photo by Thurstan Redding

The other half to this project is the work of Gillian Clarke, National Poet of Wales 2008-2016. Gillian was invited to collaborate with RAM composers and the ensemble. 

Gillian was very keen on the concert existing around the topic of mountains and natural landscapes, with some darker undertones coming from the experiences of Welsh miners that she has written about several times previously. Taking this idea further, I wanted to set a piece of music that had elements of the natural, but also of the mechanical process that hollowed out these mountains in pursuit of their natural resources. The text that we decided upon, "Into the mountain", was perfect.

Diving into the composition, I first settled upon what the piece was to sound like. I wanted it to be hard - not in the sense of technical difficulty, but hard like a rock or a piece of iron. To create this hard, mechanical feel I turned to some extended techniques on the three instruments. Perhaps the most striking of these are the harp "buzz", produced by slotting the pedal between two positions, and the bass' double-stopped overpressured notes. These sounds of groaning, grating and clanging slot into a regular fast-paced groove that satisfied my idea of "The Machine".

However, there is also an intensely human quality about Gillian's work. I am particularly struck by the idea of the miner becoming subsumed by these processes. I therefore wanted there to be delicate moments too, which are led at first by the soprano voice. Here I also used extended techniques, though more ethereal this time, such as clarinet harmonic trills and harp swipes. Although everybody hears music differently, for me the tension in this piece comes from the struggle between the human and the mechanical.

Gillian Clarke

His lungs filled with sediment,  

invisible blues, purples,  

silty darknesses. 


Their branches brimmed  

with a shadow of stone  

till he couldn’t walk, or breathe. 


They offered him  

a settlement of dust. 

                           'Into the mountain' - Part II

Harp Buzz -
00:00 / 00:00

Click to hear a harp buzz

I enjoyed writing this piece very much, and it's a real privilege to work with such a renowned and enthusiastic poet. Writing for these four players is a very interesting and different experience, and my only regret is that I can't write even more for this project. There's a lot of potential within this ensemble, but a piece can't do everything!

If you'd like to see this and other new pieces for the Hermes Experiment, Cathedrals of Silence will be performed in a free concert at the Royal Academy of Music at 19:00 on the 8th of March. Gillian Clarke will also be reciting some of her poetry during the event.

© 2019 Robert Laidlow

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