Cottiers Theatre is what I used to know as Dowanhill Parish Church. It’s one of many imposingly large churches in the West End which, when they were still churches used to depress me rather, generally looming darkly and looking very shut. It says a great deal for Glasgow’s musical culture (it is a UNESCO City of Music) that several of them have thrived as homes for the arts. Cottiers is the most impressive. There is a spacious, cosy bar (presumably where the Kirk Session once sat) and the ‘body of the kirk’ has had the pews removed, leaving an impressive round open space with a gallery. All around are the beautifully stencilled walls, ceilings and windows by the eponymous Daniel Cottier, who worked in the late 19th century; equivalent to the Arts and Crafts movement, but somehow more Celtic in character.
Noctunal, the new programme by string duo High Heels and Horse Hair, was a true response to these dramatic surroundings. Performed in complete darkness, with occasional sparing or stark lighting by Kai Fischer, the players courageously surmounted all the usual concert hurdles with ingenious performing solutions. They asked me for instance to supply part of my new piece with the notes printed in white on black paper (a rather counter-intuitive mode of reading music that I think won’t catch on in future.) Afterwards, everyone in the super-attentive audience said the same thing; that it had been gripping to witness a ‘through-composed’ concert of 50 intense minutes, with no intervals, music stand readjustments or applause. The composers amongst us also muttered how fantastic it had been not to have to take the traditional ‘composer’s bow’ which, it turns out, we all thoroughly hate doing.
My new work Night took me a long time to write, much of which was spent purging my brain of the music usually found inside it. I wanted to concentrate totally on the sounds of night ; registering the distant presence of animals, birds and insects; and the human experience of night, including fears and anxieties resonating all the more during dark hours. Dynamic levels in the music are nearly always very low indeed, with only the occasional heavily accented attack. This was challenging for the performers, constantly being asked for less contrast, less resonance. A healthy mezzo-forte (rising to a brash ff or more just before the end) seems to be the default for classical music. If it's significantly less throughout, listeners may think you aren’t trying hard enough. But in fact sustained quiet music is much harder to achieve, for performer and composer.