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Symphonists in Suburbia

David Hackbridge Johnson

Article on Symphony No.9 published in the spring issue, 2003 of the BritishMusic Society newsletter

As a composer of six symphonies myself, I am alwaysinterested in discovering new works in the form - a form that shows no sign ofdying out despite the increasing difficulty in obtaining a performance for newworks on a large scale. There are many fine symphonists currently active inthis country. Paul Conway's articles over recent years have introduced membersto many of them. Among my own favourite currently active British symphonistsare Lloyd, Butterworth and ApIvor. Some of these works can only be studied byscore reading as no recordings are available for many recent symphonies. Morereadily available are recordings of Maxwell Davies' 8 impressive works in thegenre.

Writing a symphony is notsomething to be taken lightly - the example of masters like those mentionedabove is too challenging for that. Neither is it easy to obtain advice orencouragement from fellow composers since many do not attempt the form. Somemonths ago I was about half way through my latest symphony when I met by purechance a fellow composer in a second hand book shop in Colliers Wood. His nameis Michael Garrett. I soon discovered that Michael was about to start his 9thSymphony. I feared that our new friendshipwould be quickly terminated by another post-ninth fatality - luckily thecomposer has survived and is already part way through a 10th Symphony. Michael's music may be unfamiliar to members of theSociety as performances and recordings have been all too rare. In view of thisI feel a short biographical note to be of use before discussing the 9thSymphony.

Michael Garrett was born in1944 and began learning the piano and composing at the age of 12. In 1961 he-was awarded a scholarship to study composition (firstly with Edmund Rubbra,later with Alfred Nieman) and piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.He later continued piano studies privately with Leschitizky pupil FrankMerrick. The late 1960's were busy years. Michael wrote for film andtelevision, most notably in Ken Russell's Woman in Love and Savage Messiah. Hewas also musical director of the Lindsey Kemp Mime Company whose membersincluded David Bowie. Jazz has always been a passion for the composer and in1968 he recorded an album with American jazz stars Bill Coleman and Art Taylor.His interest in jazz has run concurrently with that for neglected pianistcomposers. His studies of Godowsky, Busoni and Medtner among others haveinformed his own writing for piano which, while not sounding like any of theabove, shares a preoccupation with a virtuoso technique set to purely musicalends.

Throughout the 70's and 80'sMichael was busy in the fields of teaching, composing and performing. He livedin Edinburgh for some years and was responsible for staging many concerts ofcontemporary music. In more recent years he has ceased performing in order toconcentrate on composition. His work list is extensive and includes 9Symphonies (the 10th in progress), 5 Piano Concertos, 12 SymphoniesConcertantes, 6 String Quartets, several song cycles and dozens of short pianopieces including the 10 volume Book of Circe. Perhaps the core of his output to date are the 19 Piano Sonatas whichspan his whole compositional career. I have been lucky enough to hear Michaelperform some of these himself and to hear some tapes privately made ofperformances given by Richard Deering in the late 90's. Michael's dedication tocomposition is complete.

Despite Michael's large worklist he is methodical and far from cavalier in his approach. Each score ismeticulously prepared in the composer's broad and clear hand. The manuscriptscore of the 9th Symphony from which I recently prepared a computer setting wasa model of clarity - a copyists dream no less. A strict compositional routine is the key to his creativity.Composing is done in the mornings, followed by long walks or bike rides throughthe greener areas of SW17. I quizzed Michael on this as someone rather moreused to sitting in the gridlock surrounding the Colliers Wood Savacentre - hequickly assured me that green spaces do exist particularly along the hiddenbanks of the River Wandle. Evenings are spent inking in fair copies of recentlyfinished works. Apart from the large cycles of works in abstract forms, Michaelis also drawn to musical responses to works of literature. Authors of the late1800's and early 1900's hold a fascination for him. Flecker, Machen, Yeats andSynge are among his favourites. He is drawn to writers who portray a spiritualworld somewhat askance to those fulfilled by established religions. Hisinterest in the music of Ireland and Bax is also indicative of this tendency.Indeed his richly chromatic harmonic language stabilised by tonal interventionsowes something to the example of the two English masters. Rather like MalcolmArnold he has a fondness for 7th chords and jazz inflected rhythm, Although hehas explored serial techniques they are often used in a quasi tonal contextalbeit one that is constantly shifting. His music is often optimistic in toneyet is far from easy both for performer and listener. Rather Michael createshis own world of sound which draws on an eclectic mix of processes withoutsacrificing a consistent style.

Michael Garrett's Symphony No.9 was written in the summer of 2002. It is scored for 2 Flutes (2nd doublingPiccolo), 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets in Bb, 2 Bassoons (2nd doubling Contra Bassoon),4 Horns, 3 Trumpets in Bb, 2 Tenor Trombones, Bass Trombone, Tuba, Timpani, 3Percussionists (clashed and suspended Cymbals, Triangle, Xylophone, Snare Drum,Conga, Tambourine, Bass Drum, Low Gong and Tubular Bells), Harp, Celeste, Pianoand Strings.

The symphony is in one compactmovement lasting about 12 minutes. There are 6sections subtitled; Evocation,Dance Episode 1, Contemplation, Dance Episode II, Dawn and Finale. The composer has not revealed a specific programme to the work buthas spoken of a general way in which the music reflects the energy of natureand the elements. The dances are ones essentially celebrating nature ratherthan human activity. The Finale which acts as both a coda and as another DanceEpisode takes on an almost brutal character as if untameable forces are beingunleashed. The finale is very heavily scored with a riot of percussion verymuch to the fore. Much of the rest of the work is lighter in texture and showsthe composers skill at marshalling large forces for quite delicate effects.Thematically the work is particularly rich although themes are rarely treatedin a classical manner. Recapitulations are replaced by thematic evolution.Melodies are introduced which share characteristics of previous ones and inturn evolve into something else. This sense of 'becoming' gives the music itsmomentum. It also leads to a feeling of material acting under compression inthe manner of Havergal Brian's symphonies - although the style is far fromBrian's. Garrett manages to achieve a sense of structure that allows the musicto breath despite its diffuse surface.

The Evocation is marked Lento misterioso, and is the longest section of the symphony. Evenwithin this section the composer traverses a number of moods and colours fromthe dark oppressive opening with dissonant bassoons and double basses to themore limpid response of the flute at letter A. At letter C a miniatureprocession seems to suggest a forgotten Baxian landscape before the musicreaches a powerful tutti climax at letter D. In the wake of this, a solo violinrecalls the flute of letter A. The music gathers momentum to the DanceEpisode I, marked Allegroscherzando. Much imaginative use is made of conga drum, xylophoneand tambourine in this section. The percussion instruments act in dialogue withplayful violins and more aggressive brass interjections. A climax is abruptlycut off by heavy percussion, not unlike the way Brian ends some of hisparagraphs. The Contemplation. Here is the core of the symphony with some unique 'glassy'harmonies achieved by woodwinds spaced widely apart. Some complex sounds ensuewith piano and tubularbells. The Dance Episode II is short and gnomic; jagged piano rhythms andsnarling brass. It leads into the slow Dawn section which mirrors some of the textures of the Contemplation. The music gathers itself to a pause before the Finale launches itself. Here Garrett uses a favouritedotted rhythm found also in the finale of his 8th Symphony. It might also betraced to the similar rhythm heard in Borodin's Polotsvian Dances. In the Finale Garrett makes much use of the whole tone scale. Thelast pages are a riot of colour and energy. The above is only the briefest ofOdes to the Symphony which of course would benefit from a committed performanceas such it deserves.

In this compact one movementsymphony, Garrett presents a fertile imaginative world in a language that isboth challenging and accessible. The flexibility of the structure reflects hisinterest in the natural world; its rhythms, colours and shapes.

By asking me to typeset hissymphony Michael gave me an opportunity to gain considerable insight into thework which I hope readers will be able to share by studying his music. Thescore is available together with a synthesiser realisation oncassette - please phone Michael (0131 552 3734) for details. My own work as acomposer has benefited from my friendship with Michael. We regularly meet todiscuss the progress of current works and to play each other completed ones.His passion for nature has influenced me a good deal. I recently dedicated my 3rdViolin Sonata to him and he wrote a recentpiano work called Nexus Enantiadromia as a wedding present for myself and my wife, Carol. When I finished my6th Symphony Michael was soonround to listen to the recording and offer encouragement and advice. Suddenlycomposing doesn't seem such an isolated occupation.

David Hackbridge Johnsonxi.2002