First published in The Herald on 14 September, 2016
Classical music doesn’t tend to deal in geopolitical statistics, but Robert Irvine found the numbers on the Unicef website pretty hard to ignore. “As an artist you can feel useless when you read those kind of facts,” the Scottish cellist told me, meaning the fact that a child dies as a result of violence every five minutes, or that a child dies as a result of malnutrition every 15 seconds, or that 17,000 children under five die every day because they don’t get the health care they need.
What to do? “Playing the cello will not end child suffering,” Irvine states early and often during our interview, “let’s be absolutely clear about that.” But his reaction to Unicef’s statistics became the impetus behind a new collection of short elegies for solo cello, released next week on Delphian Records. “I hope the theme of this album will at the very least make people pause and think about issues that contribute to children suffering around the world,” he says, handling with due frankness the issue of what it means to make contemporary classical music ‘useful’. All of the money raised from the sale of the CDs will go to Unicef, and all of the composers who have written pieces for the collection have donated their work for free.
Irvine is a musician who knows the classical music industry both from the heart of its establishments and from a more questioning and politically engaged perspective outwith. He was brought up in Glasgow, won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London at 16 and has worked as a soloist, chamber musician and principal cellist with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the Orchestra of Scottish Opera. After quitting the orchestral world he founded Scotland’s leading contemporary music ensemble, Red Note, with “an old-fashioned socialist belief in making high art accessible to the masses” — that colour in the title is no accident.
“When you’re 16 and learning an instrument, you are mainly encouraged to aim for personal glory,” he says. “Now I ask every one of my students why they’re doing what they do, and almost always they reply that their ultimate goal is to play a concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic or a recital at the Wigmore Hall. I was the same at their age. All I wanted was to be brilliant at playing the cello and for people to pay me for it. I got to 30 without really considering whether my music-making might have a wider usefulness.”
Part of Red Note’s mission has been to confront preconceptions that contemporary music is inaccessible or — that favourite new-music dig — ‘squeaky gate’. So, too, with these elegies. There are 19 of them, all written by friends or family members, all of whom were given a brief to produce a piece of 3-5 minutes and to make it as beautiful as possible. The words ‘expressive’ and ‘simple’ were also mentioned.
The results would suggest that whatever ‘usefulness’ does or doesn’t mean, the theme gave the composers permission to use their most tender voices. Eddie McGuire asks the question directly — “how does one cope with the death of a child, or with the death of many children? Perhaps music can console.” His Elegiac Lullaby is a tenor song without words, full of intense and quiet mourning.
A more urgent anger boils to the surface in Elegy for the Children of War by Roland Roberts, while in Jane Stanley’s Winter Song, a high, chilly melody unfurls with intermittent flurries of pizzicato — snow storms moving across a harsh tundra, and the winter invoked by this music is not picturesque or cosy but lonely and ominous. William Sweeney was inspired to write his shimmering Caolas while sitting on a beach at the north end of Tiree: he describes looking out across the sound towards Coll and how “the colours of the sea, sky, sands and landscape that day were like some fantastic invention by a Scottish Colourist — more shades of blues, greens, whites and vivid rock-greys than could ever be counted”.
Some of the pieces start with children’s music — Ride Through by Eleanor Alberga is based on a traditional Jamaican nursery rhyme (“Ride through, ride through the rocky road,” goes the chorus; “Any bwoy me no love me no chat to dem”) and Tili Tili Bom by Jackie Shave is woven around a Russian lullaby, but this dream is sinister because Till Tili Bom is the Russian bogeyman and Shave writes out a few lines of creepy verse in her score: “Close your eyes now, someone is walking outside the house. He knocks on the door, the nightbirds are chirping. He is inside the house to visit those who cannot sleep. He walks… He is coming closer.” Knock Knock by James MacMillan uses slapped-out rhythms and spiky pizzicatos to imitate the a game — it’s fun, but there is trepidation, too, and the piece ends on a quiet and uncertain note.
In 1992, the pianist and composer David Wilde read a news report of a cellist in Sarajevo who, in the midst of a war zone, played daily street recitals to commemorate the victims of a mortar attack. Back then Wilde responded with a passionate solo cello piece called The Cellist of Sarajevo, “but the cello can do much more than sing a melody,” says Wilde, and his new piece, Invocation and Waltz for Children in Need, includes a spry Children’s Dance between pensive outer sections.
John De Simone’s Misremembrance grasps at centuries of solo cello history by nearly-but-not-quite quoting the Prelude of Bach’s First Cello Suite — “trying to remember someone lost to me, I can almost see them, almost hear them, but not quite, not enough,” the composers describes, and the memory of the music warps and twists until it’s hardly recognisable.
There are contributions from Mark Anthony Turnage, a friend of Irvine’s since college days, and by Gabriel Jackson; there’s an arresting Elegy by Brian Irvine and a craggy piece called A Frieze and a Litany by Piers Hellawell whose title comes from Norman MacCaig’s poem A Man in Assynt — a love song to the jagged geology of the north-west, what MacCaig admired as the “bony scalp of Cùl Mòr” and “the armour of Suilven”.
Rory Boyle has offered a yearning, soft-edged lullaby called Baloue; Thomas Butler’s piece, called simply Lament, is an “abstraction” of the beautiful, bitter old Gaelic tune Griogal Crìdhe (also known as the Glenlyon Lament). Duncan Strachan’s Zarabanda invokes the sultry triple-time Sarabande — a baroque form with origins in Central America, and he dedicates his piece “to the millions of children in Central America who are born into one of the most unequal societies on the planet, and to those who are forced to flee their homes in search of a safer life.”
The compassion and solemnity of Safety by Tom Irvine (Robert’s son) is also a response to today’s refugee crisis, and Sally Beamish wrote her searching and agitated cello soliloquy Miranda Dreaming to express the voice of The Tempest’s Miranda, who was just three years old when forced into exile along with her father, Prospero. “Her memories of her former life are ‘rather like a dream’,” Beamish writes. “Half-remembered impressions of grandeur and comfort which starkly contrast with her present situation.”
And Robert Irvine’s own piece? It’s called Imagined Child and is, he says, “a sort of lullaby.” The cello lines roam, sometimes snagging on repeated intervals or melodic fragments, eventually settling on an uneasy acceptance.
Robert Irvine’s Songs and Lullabies is out September 23 on Delphian Records