At the time of writing the world is in turmoil. The COVID-19 pandemic has cut massive swathes through conventional music-making as well as all sorts of hitherto taken-for-granted human activity. It has also forced those of us living lives of relative comfort and material safety into a more direct encounter with our mortality and has revealed more clearly what was always there—the fragility of our existence.
This album was planned to have a different shape, and two larger scale chamber works had to be replaced with two live performances of violin and piano works taken from our archive. But far from being a “make do” situation, this has turned out to create something rather cohesive—a kind of ongoing conversation with our existential doubts, fears, and hopes.
As the whole album took shape it became clear that together this particular grouping of four works can suggest a kind of long stare at the outer reaches of our shared human condition.
Of the four works on this album, three are specifically to do with the world of sleep and dreams. The fourth—what we decided upon as the title track of this grouping—is a kind of bringing together of those aspects of our self-awareness that tilt us toward the very edge of our existence. Listened to without a break, the album can be heard as a journey of several encounters with this region—its demons, its comforters, its guardian angels, as well as its more impish spirits.
We start on the battlefields of World War I in the place known as no-man’s-land, and after its apparently peaceful opening, episodes of fear, deathly anticipation, and “going over the top” into battle, we join those abandoned to die in this place. From here we are beckoned into the world of dreams by Morpheus, god of dreams and sleep, and are allowed several brightly lit visions. We then move into a world of darkness and sexualized horror with Succubus, though just as things seem too much to bear, we are given a glimpse of moonlight and offered a hint of redemption. Finally, The Wild Blue Yonder is a release into a crazy adventure—and into places unknown and beyond.
— Thomas Bowes, November 2020
No-man’s-land Lullaby (1997) for Violin and Piano
Setting about writing a new work for violin and piano in the summer of 1996, I had planned a somewhat lightweight and predominately upbeat piece. However, I was to receive visitations which ensured that the piece which emerged as No-man’s-land Lullaby has neither of these qualities. Indeed, for me the work became a kind of acknowledgement of my European heritage and a realization that two World Wars are part of my history also.
Visiting parts of central Europe over that summer of 1996, I was struck by the almost unreal beauty of the landscapes; yet, I received a heavy sadness in the atmosphere that took me back to the events of half a century ago, some of which had been played out against this very scenery. At the same time I was visited by a melody. It arrived unbidden and would not leave me alone. It seemed, however, to offer comfort.
It was the imagery of the First World War that finally brought these things together, especially the image of men dying slowly and uncomforted in a place called No-man’s-land. I am especially indebted to Paul Fussell’s book The Great War and Modern Memory for laying out so clearly the life of soldiers in the trenches. The piece is cast in three sections and is entirely based on the melody that emerges most identifiably towards the end.
Shining Gate of Morpheus (2012) for Horn and String Quartet
I have always been drawn to Greek mythology and the world of fantasy that it embodies. This work came from the idea of Morpheus, the god best known to govern sleep and dreams. It is said that false dreams enter through gates of ivory and true dreams through gates of shining horn. In Greek, the word for ‘ivory’ is like the word for ‘deceive’ and the word for horn is similar to that for ‘fulfil’; thus, the use of the horn as a musical instrument is significant.
Homer describes this through Penelope’s words in The Odyssey:“Two gates there are for unsubstantiated dreams, one made of horn and one of ivory. The dreams that pass through the carved ivory delude and bring us tales that turn to naught; those that come forth through the polished horn accomplish real things, whenever seen.”
The piece is in one movement. A short introduction to the peaceful world of sleep is followed by a fanfare as we enter dreams which take us through several musical tableaux describing prophetic dreams. Strange things happen in dreams and somehow, along with doors opening into scenes such as “Ancestors speak,” “The Beloved,” and “Three descend,” there is a visit from Puck, an unrelated character who gets into the mix and stirs things up with his antics.
Succubus Moon (2007) for Oboe and String Quartet
The romantic and the demonic lie side by side in this work. Over centuries, man has interpreted his fear of the dark and unknown as caused by beings and superstitions outside himself; one of these interpretations became Incubi and Succubi, evil presences doing harm to humans. The piece juxtaposes the ethereal, tranquil, and reflective moon against the impenetrable darkness of the night where the demonic and seductive Succubus reigns. The oboe is the main protagonist, leading the mood or taking over what the strings have set up. The strings have their own episodes, and sometimes join with the oboe in main material.
The music goes from sparse to more driven rhythmic sections, to dreamy moonstruck moments, and finally drifts away. Towards the end there is, unusually, a C major chord—a ray of hope as the moon shines out amidst the primal terror. Succubus Moon was commissioned by the City of London Festival.
The Wild Blue Yonder (1995) for Violin and Piano
This piece developed from the idea of arriving in a strange, totally alien environment. Several unrelated musical fragments are developed and attempt to become fused, causing the music to climax in a frenzied outburst. The end section could perhaps represent acknowledgement and acceptance of the irreconcilable.
— Eleanor Alberga
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