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Harrison Birtwistle - Silbury Air & Secret Theatre

Birtwistle: Silbury Air & Secret Theatre
The burgeoning lyricism of Birtwistle’s music during the later 1970s and early 1980s was accompanied by an increasingly sophisticated attitude to rhythm and musical time – a marriage of the pastoral with the mechanical which has become a leading feature of many of his pieces, not least the opera Yan Tan Tethera. Perhaps the classic instrumental example of this is Silbury Air (1977), in which a “pulse labyrinth” – a kind of road map of different musical speeds – determines the routes along which the composition is able to travel as it wends its way through one of Birtwistle’s most memorable and dynamic musical landscapes.

The lyrical and the mechanical are again leading themes in Secret Theatre of 1985, a work which magnificently sums up all Birtwistle’s musical achievements up to that date. The work is scored for chamber ensemble divided into two parts: a “Cantus” (of mainly wind instruments), whose stream of endless melody runs virtually unbroken throughout, and a “Continuum”, whose mechanical accompaniments, like a kind of ceaseless musical clockwork, counterpoint and contradict the Cantus’s lyrical effusions.

CD Recommendations

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Secret Theatre; Silbury Air; Carmen arcadiae mechanicae perpetuum: London Sinfonietta; Howarth (Etcetera KTC 1052)

The definitive Birtwistle recording, performed by the excellent London Sinfonietta, who commissioned all three works on the CD – the third is Carmen arcadiae, a brilliant jigsaw puzzle of brightly coloured musical fragments which are dismantled and re-assembled in constantly shifting patterns as the work progresses.

SheetMusic by Birtwistle