Madonna of Winter and Spring (1986)

Programme Note

Commissioned by the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall with assistance for the electronics from Syco and Yamaha-Kemble. Madonna of Winter and Spring, for orchestra, synthesizers and electronics, was composed in honour of Mary, mother of Jesus. The piece portrays the action of her soft, yielding influence on forces which are assertive, brutal or despondent. The last fifteen minutes or so belong to her, but her ‘touch’ is felt from time to time throughout. There are four main sections: Conflict, Descent, Depths, Mary. Conflict opens with seven crashes interspersed with something like monstrous breathing. These seven chords supply the harmony of the work almost exclusively – the material is taken from these pitches in their fixed octave positions. Depths, however, puts them all down a minor ninth, and Mary puts them all up a minor ninth. Conflict introduces the twenty ‘melodies’ which dominate most of the piece. Some are more like gestures or figures for ostinatos than melodies: they form a chain in which each ‘primary’ melody is separated from its neighbour by a more busy one, which is the result of adding the two neighbours together – A, AB, B, BC, C, CD, and so on, the last one leading back to the first. So a circular chain is available for the melodic argument to modulate along, or to jump across. Often the melodies are combined, either in developmental counterpoint (as in Conflict) or in textual polyphony, in which many melodies make a web of weaving colours, played mostly by solo violins. Conflict, then, is mostly concerned with thematic working; that is to say, it uses comparatively memorable figures which are played off against each other to effect argument and the discourse of development. Descent follows a swirling and battering climax at the end of Conflict. It is simply a single element (an augmented triad) from one of the seven harmonies, which slowly descends from high to low. It sinks to ever darker sounds, largely played on the synthesizers, with only minimal orchestral participation. Descent is essentially a transition to the next section, Depths. Nearly all the sounds in Depths are low, and the top notes remain rigidly frozen on pedal Es and Fs above the middle C (the axis around which the entire harmony mirrored itself in Conflict). One might describe this as music in a state of hibernation, remembering past melodies without moving a limb. The final section, Mary, is as high as the previous one was low (mirror formation). A new melody is born, for the first time since the first five minutes of the piece. It is a fluid, gently urging form, which appears in many colours, and it now takes over, though supported by the earlier melodies. The synthesizers which dominate the end have a role throughout. They are the Emulator II (a sampling machine) and the DXI and TX816, made by Yamaha (FM synthesis). These new instruments open up a wealth of possibilities for the composer; indeed, my work would not have been possible without the use of them in my own home, thanks to their generous loan by Syco and Yamaha-Kemble. Thanks also to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, I was able to investigate sophisticated types of reverberation: this is often used in the piece to freeze a fragment of sound and hold it steady in the air while the orchestra carries on. In addition, some instruments are ring-modulated, others are amplified; all are projected around the two quad circuits of speakers, one high and one low, to ‘people’ the space. Those who have seen Tiepolo’s ceiling paintings with their flying cherub-trumpeters, for instance, will be familiar with such an image!

Technical overview

Two keyboards, seven instruments and a mono mix of the entire orchestra is routed to a ring modulator and reverb unit before being amplified via two quad panners to two quad arrays of speakers, lower and upper, that are placed around the audience. Two laptops are required, one for the keyboards and one for the real-time audio processing.

Operators

During the performance signals are routed manually to the fx laptop for processing using channel fader and pan controls on the mixing console (by operators one and two), and are spatialised using quad panner controllers (by operator three).

Versions

Current version uses Max 7 for FX (reverb and quad panners), Ableton Live and FM8 for Synth 1, and Kontakt 5 for Synth 2.

Download current version of electronics here:
2017-03-07 MOWAS Electronics.zip (10.4 MB)

Download documentation here:
2017-03-07 MOWAS Documentation.zip (13.8 MB)

Download older versions of electronics from 2002 until 2013, including original files here:
MOWAS 2002-2013.zip (172.2 MB)

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