ENS.2021.4 | 25′
Solo Baritone & Large Orchestra
Orfordness sets a famous passage from W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn in which the narrator, who both is and is not Sebald, visits the abandoned military testing base on the desolate isle of Orford Ness off the coast of Suffolk, in East Anglia. On a “dull and oppressive day,” a ferryman brings the narrator to this “mysterious isle of the dead,” where he is startled by a hare, the only apparent life to be found. There, amidst “a number of buildings that resembled temples or pagodas,” he reflects on the ruins of this once mighty installation, and imagines himself in “the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe.” The passage ends in epiphany, as time recedes and “through the growing dazzle of light” in his eyes, the narrator sees “the sails of the long-vanished windmills turning heavily in the wind.”
I first composed a version of this piece in 2007 for voice and solo violin. Deliberately stripped to the bone, the original work consisted entirely of simple repeated cells in the violin over which the singer outlined Sebald’s evocative text, each musical idea expanding or contracting to accommodate the rhythm of the words. Eschewing the complex formal structures that previously characterized much of my work, the idea was instead to allow the music to closely follow and interpret the narrative. But I was never satisfied with this piece, and over the years made various, equally unsatisfactory versions before realizing that what I had composed in 2007 was not so much a piece itself as the skeleton of a piece, bare bones requiring a full fleshing out.
In winter 2021-2022 I completely rewrote Orfordness for solo baritone and large orchestra, retaining the vocal part while building an enormous new orchestral edifice over the original material. Those initial ideas are still sometimes visible, more often covered, and for large stretches replaced altogether, creating a palimpsest over the 2007 composition. In this way I was able to produce a variegated orchestral narrative depicting Sebald’s journey into “an undiscovered country,” fully realizing in their final form the ideas first put down almost fifteen years before.