Programme Notes – Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall (2006-7)

The conflict between imposing limitations upon myself as a composer and the freedom to break those limitations has often showed me the way during the process of writing. In this work for bass-baritone solo, brass quintet, chorus and organ, I have been lucky enough to be guided by a text that explores these limitations, in this case, those of incarceration. The words by Ben Kaye and John McCarthy are based on the experiences endured by John McCarthy as a prisoner in various Lebanese jails between 1986 and 1991. For nearly all of this period, he had virtually no contact with the outside world – indeed until the final year of his imprisonment, nobody had any idea of whether he was alive or not.

I have not attempted to write a musical documentary. Instead I have followed the very clear outline of the text which separates the main thrust of the piece into three parts, those of the Solo, Conscience and the World. The bass singer expresses the bleak and turbulent emotions of the Solo; the prisoner having to endure brutality, solitude, monotony, fear and anxiety; but finally hope in freedom. The voice of Conscience is taken by the off stage choir. Here I have tried to express the poignancy of memory, of loss of intimacy, and also of the proximity of near insanity. There is a notable part here for solo soprano, (also offstage.) The World is encapsulated by four soloists, who should sing in a ‘Broadway’ idiom of the pleasures of freedom in contemporary Western society. Whilst offering light relief, the serious message is that perhaps we are all prisoners in an empty superficial world of our own making.

The brass quintet and organ are used to heighten the conflict. From the militaristic brutality of the opening, through the mocking jazz tuba in the World sections, the desolate horn solo over the chorus’s mantra-like repetitions of the same chord, to the more joyous bell like trumpets celebrating ‘Euphoria and Hope.’ Throughout much of the piece an organ pedal ‘imprisons’ the harmony with a low E flat. At the very end the mood changes from that of joy to sober reflection as the entire ensemble repeats the line: ‘We made us what we are’; an admission of guilt, or at least responsibility for how we have fashioned the world to suit our needs and desires.

Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall was commissioned by the John Armitage Memorial Trust, and lasts a little over twenty minutes.