Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The longest whisper ever

‘My words can give no suggestion of the self-transcendence invoked, and I fear, too, that any music I eventually write can only give the palest hint. One of the most serendipitous moments came when a snow avalanche poured and billowed down the mountain directly to starboard - imagine the mightiest, gentlest, longest whisper ever - we were enveloped for a space in mad, dancing flakes, a white-out - a moment that will last a lifetime.’ This is from the diary of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies - who has just died - on a visit to the Antarctic, some 20 years ago, a journey which provided the inspiration for his Antarctic Symphony (Symphony No. 8).

Peter Maxwell Davies (most commonly known as Max) was born in 1934, in Salford, Lancashire. He had piano lessons and began composing from an early age, submitting a composition called Blue Ice to the BBC when only 14. The BBC producer Trevor Hill nurtured Davies young talent, introducing him to professional musicians. After attending Leigh Boys Grammar School, he studied at the University of Manchester and at the Royal Manchester College of Music. With fellow students, including Harrison Birtwistle, he formed New Music Manchester, a group committed to contemporary music. He studied for a year under Goffredo Petrassi in Rome thanks to an Italian government scholarship, and, in 1959, became director of music at Cirencester Grammar School.

In 1962, Davies won a Harkness Fellowship for Princeton University (with the help of Aaron Copland and Benjamin Britten), after which he was composer-in-residence at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide. In 1966, he returned to the UK and went to live in the Orkney Islands, initially to Hoy and later to Sanday. In 1977, he was part of a group that founded the midsummer St Magnus Festival held on the islands. He was artistic director of the Dartington International Summer School from 1979 to 1984, and from 1992 to 2002 he was associate conductor/composer with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, a position he also held with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. He conducted a number of other prominent orchestras, and was also Composer Laureate of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Davies published over 200 musical works during his lifetime, including 10 symphonies and 17 concertos, operas (such as Taverner, The Martyrdom of St Magnus and The Doctor of Myddfai), and the full-length ballet Salome. One of his most popular shorter works, An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, was written on commission for the Boston Pops Orchestra. He also wrote many works for performance by children, premiering them at the St Magnus Festival. Other notable compositions include Antarctic Symphony (Symphony No. 8), jointly commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra and the British Antarctic Survey, Mr Emmet Takes a Walk, and Sea Orpheus.

Davies was openly homosexual, though had a messy, and all-to-public separation from his long-term partner in 2012. He was often at odds with the establishment, whether politically or musically, though time found him embracing, and being embraced by, this very same establishment. Once considered a kind of enfant terrible, producing overly avant-garde music, he became one of the world’s most respected composers, being knighted in 1987, and, in 2004, being appointed Master of the Queen’s Music. Davies, for his part, abandoned his youthful republicanism, turning latterly to support the idea of monarchy. Davies died on 14 March. Further information can be found online via the official Peter Maxwell Davies (MaxOpus) website, Wikipedia, Boosey & Hawkes, inter.musica, Schott Music or many obituaries (The Guardian, for example, The Telegraph, The New York Times, and The Scotsman).

Before writing the Antarctic Symphony, Davies was invited by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) to join its supply and research vessel RRS James Clark Ross on a visit to the region, and, in particular, BAS Rather station. Davies kept a detailed diary on the journey, which was later published in a limited edition of 1,500 as Notes from a cold climate : Antarctic Symphony (Symphony No. 8). The diary text can be found on the MaxOpus website, which is the source of the following extracts.

21 December 1997
‘A procession of icebergs, mysterious and deeply awe-inspiring. Of course it is we who are moving faster, but in calmer waters one has the illusion of a stately mannequin parade, as the model’s outlines modulate, revealing new and secret shapes and colours. Contours suddenly glow with an irridescent blue of an unimaginable intensity: this is the best exhibition of abstract sculpture I ever saw. All that one has read of fractals and the Mandelbrot set floods the brain, perhaps as some kind of bulwark against the wonder, which I quietly admit is overwhelming, even transcendental. Some icebergs pick up and maintain the upward surge of wave motion: some repeat and develop the forms of clouds: others, seen against a backdrop of snow-covered cliffs and hills, take up the forms and energies characteristic of these, while the best combine all of these features with a capricious dynamism that constantly modifies and transforms as we pass. A whale, travelling at a furious fifteen knots, faster than the ship, briefly surfaces, its back confirming a neighbouring iceberg’s. Another iceberg suddenly appears as a gigantic swan. Another reveals a Norman arch, fifty foot high, with ice packed above this for another hundred feet - a broken-off fragment of a medieval abbey.

Sometimes I find mealtime conversation quite baffling - top scientists talk shop, their jargon bristling with acronyms. They are very patient when I enquire about their particular speciality and any possible future practical application.’

22 December 1997
‘The engines stop, and 33 scientists, Judy and I file down a rope ladder into a launch already bulging with boxes, barrels, crates. We are delivering supplies to the tiny station of Port Lockroy, and dropping off Dave Burkitt and Rod Downie who will man the place, alone for three months. It was established in 1944, and abandoned in 1962. In 1996 it was restored by the U.K. Antarctic Heritage Trust, and now boasts a small museum and post office, to open in summer for visits by cruise ships and private yachts.

The pack ice has broken up enough for us to land without problems - a very small, rocky island, with gentoo penguins nesting everywhere, so that you must take great care not to disturb them, right away upon beaching. The smell of penguin guana crinkles your nose - all pervasive bad fish. Everybody carries the cargo into the store-shed or up to the house: each case is clearly marked, and checked on a tally by Dave, who semaphores the operations. The privilege of raising the British flag to the top of its mast, at the highest point by the house, falls to Linda, on behalf of BAS, and me. Such an unaccustomed honour makes me very nervous, as I fumble with intransigent ropes, tugging ineffectively and desperately. A great relief when the flag ascends and unfurls.

A magical spot, an island surrounded by mainland cliffs, monumental white mountains. The all-pervasive sound is of broken packice lifting on and off the shore rocks - a Gargantuan cocktail shaker. Add to that the gentle buzz of conversation among the ubiquitous penguins, with the occasional raised squawk as a sheathbill - a small grubby white seabird - lunges towards a penguin egg - and that’s the island's sound spectrum.

The mainland is only 100 yards away from one point, but safety regulations determine that the keepers are not allowed to have a boat. Their accommodation is sparse but solid - there is plenty of coal still from the forties - and the museum has relics evocative of that time - ancient cans of food, oatmeal packets, tools in situ, all with excellent explanatory displays.

Once we have determined that the radio link to the main station at Rothera is operative, we pile back into the launch and return to the RRS James Clark Ross. This was the first time I had worn any of the Antarctic gear issued by BAS - it was surrealistic being kitted out at headquarters in Cambridge last July, pulling on the layer after layer of thermals and waterproofs on one of the hottest days ever - but here we would not survive without these. It is a great relief to take them off for lunch - particularly the huge guana-smeared boots. There are strict dress codes for meals on board, to be transgressed at one’s peril.

This afternoon we glide through the Lemaire Strait - a narrow passage between the almost vertical sides of mountains jutting thousands of feet up into cloud. Apart from the gentle hum of the boat’s engines - the JCR is extremely quiet, to facilitate very precise sonar experiments - the silence is profound. There is hardly any talk, either on the bridge or on deck - everyone is so over-awed by the grandeur, the power of the unfolding spectacle. My words can give no suggestion of the self-transendence invoked, and I fear, too, that any music I eventually write can only give the palest hint. One of the most serendipitous moments came when a snow avalanche poured and billowed down the mountain directly to starboard - imagine the mightiest, gentlest, longest whisper ever - we were enveloped for a space in mad, dancing flakes, a white-out - a moment that will last a lifetime.

Shortly after 4 p.m. a small party descended a very long rope ladder into a very small launch, to take Christmas mail to Vernadsky, the Ukranian Antarctic Expedition base. This base was formerly British, named Faraday after Michael Faraday, the Physicist and was handed over to the Ukrainians in 1995. John Harper, the mate of the JCR, was in charge, standing tall at the stem, shouting instructions and semaphoring to the wheel-house, to ensure a safe passage through the ice-flows. Even the unfrozen sea-water was like oil, thickly viscous. A gaggle of long huts on a small rise, where we tie up, welcomed enthusiastically, and are helped through deep snow to the Christmassy domestic warmth of the settlement. Such a joyful, beautiful welcome from the dozen or so men and women - we take off our boots and layers of gear, and troop up to the bar. This is the biggest and most famous bar in the Antarctic - a riot of decorative carving, made by over-enthusiastic British joiners, who, for the waste of time and wood, were promptly sent home.

Delighted hosts and guests, excellent black coffee of the kind that dissolves the spoon and scalds your tonsils, chocolate, generous globes of Ukrainian cognac. A welcoming speech from Vladimir Okrugin, the head of the team, and we are shown round the base by Svetlana, a meteorologist, climbing champion, guitarist and computer expert. Many things - equipment, notices, photographs - have been left as they were when the British ran the station. Up a ladder into a loft office, where we met Daphne, a Dobson spectrophotometer, the piece of scientific equipment, from 1957, which was the means of discovering the hole in the ozone layer. A speech by Julian Paren, generous vodka all round, stirring Ukranian music, and we are bobbing our way through corridors of ice back to the RRS James Clark Ross. A huddle of figures waving on the jetty: one wonders when anyone will visit them next. Pete Bucktrout, our official photographer, asks why all international and diplomatic relations can’t be like this. Why indeed?! I sport the badge of the Ukranian Antarctic Expedition, and clutch a book about their homeland.’

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