At the beginning of this year, I was approached by a BBC producer, Janet Tuppen, with a very unusual idea for a commission: to write a musical portrait of a significant twenty-first century figure – someone I would choose from among suggestions sent in by listeners.
I immediately liked this idea, for several reasons. As an opera-composer, I am often trying to suggest a character in music, but I haven’t often had the chance to portray a single character in a piece of concert-music. I am always on the lookout for suitable subjects, and I liked the idea of sharing this task with the radio audience. The process was bound to give me ideas that otherwise would not have occurred to me. I also thought it was unusual, and interesting, for the audience to be involved in thinking about a piece of music before it had even been written.
The portrait was to be an orchestral work of about ten minutes. This is a generous canvas (and palette): I would be able to write several short movements, to suggest the different facets of a subject’s character, or write a single sustained span of music. Since I would be able to choose from all the suggestions, I did not need to worry that I might be constrained to celebrate someone I didn’t find congenial.
Radio 3 devoted May 7th to Portraits Day, a celebration of musical portraiture, and invited listeners to suggest a suitable subject for a 21st century musical portrait – someone who had been alive in this century. Hundreds of suggestions came pouring in, by telephone, email, text and Twitter. I made several visits to Broadcasting House during the day to catch up with the nominations. There were figures from right across public life – artists, writers, musicians, politicians, television personalities, sportsmen, scientists. As I looked at each name, I tried to imagine what that person might sound like as a piece of music. Sometimes it was easy to associate the subject with sounds – James Dyson, for instance; but if I were to portray Tim Berners-Lee, what would the Internet sound like? I thought it would be fun to attempt an image of Gilbert and George, and challenging to try to capture Peter Tatchell. Not all the suggestions were admirable figures: Robert Mugabe and the captain of the Costa Concordia were on the list.
Quite early in the day, someone suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. I started to wonder what a musical portrait of this extraordinary woman might sound like. I thought of her powers of endurance, her unique combination of gentleness and strength; her years of house-arrest; her steadfast vision of achieving democracy through non-violent means. It occurred to me that I would need to find a strong, visionary yet peaceful music for her, which could remain constant in the face of violent opposition and pain. Throughout Portraits Day, my mind kept returning to this idea, and gradually a musical shape began to emerge.
Being able to imagine, however vaguely, a piece that I would like to write, along with my admiration for her, confirmed her as my choice.
There was also a personal reason why I was drawn to Aung San Suu Kyi. I had very nearly met her over thirty years ago. Her aunt had come to my rescue in Delhi airport in 1981, and at The End of my trip to India, she gave me some books to take back to Suu Aris (as she then was) in Oxford. However, on the day I visited her, Suu was indisposed, so her husband Michael gave me lunch and I went away without meeting her. This was seven years before Suu flew to her mother’s hospital bedside in Rangoon (her mother had suffered a stroke), and began her active political life. I followed her progress in the news with some amazement, and wished all the more that I had been able to meet her.
By great good fortune, a few weeks after I had chosen her as my portrait subject, Aung San Suu Kyi paid a visit to Broadcasting House, and the BBC made it possible for me to meet her for a few moments. I won’t attempt to describe her extraordinary presence, but I hope that something of that encounter influenced this piece. She told me that, during her years under house arrest, what she most wanted to be was a composer, so that her message could be understood all over the world, whatever the language.
I knew that she played the piano and she told me that her favourite composer was Mozart. For a while I wondered if I should somehow include this in my portrait of her. By contrast, Sean Rafferty had jokingly asked if I was going to use singing bowls, which raised a serious question about how Burmese the piece should sound. In fact, traditional Burmese music did influence my choice of mode, and one or two orchestral colours. But I have not attempted in any way to write Burmese music.
The final shape of the piece is quite close to what I first started to imagine on Portraits Day. A serenely aspiring theme slowly rises upwards, four times in all. The strings play it alone the first time; they play it again, but this time it is challenged by military brass outbursts. It does not waver or change its course. Solo woodwinds take up the theme, with pulsing in the strings and percussion marking the passage of time, of years of solitude. Finally, with the world celebrating her release, the brass instruments play her theme, still calmly and purposefully reaching upwards.
Commissioned by BBC Radio 3 as part of its 'Portraits Day'
First performance: 5th December 2012, BBC Concert Orchestra, Barry Wordsworth (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London.
1.Picc.2.2(B-Cl).2(Cbsn)— 4.2..3.0— Timp— 2Perc— Hp— Str