Lento is monolithic; major and minor triads generate a sequence of processionals. The tempo is more or less constant. It uses the same orchestral forces as Wagner's prelude to Parsifal, though deployment is radically different. Most of Lento is scored for strings only. A central episode turns the spotlight on the trombones and the bassoons. Otherwise, woodwind, brass and timpani serve primarily to lend weight to restatements of the two principal subjects.
Lento owes much of its character to its original context; to the elevating proximity of Wagners prelude to Parsifal, with which it was preceded at its first performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Barbican Hall in March 1991. Lento is monolithic, major and minor triads generate a sequence of processionals. The tempo is more or less constant. It uses the same orchestral forces as the Wagner, though deployment is radically different. Most of Lento is scored for strings only. A central episode turns the spotlight on the trombones and the bassoons. Otherwise, woodwind, brass and timpani serve primarily to lend weight to restatements of the two principal subjects. The first subject is repeated three times and the second subject once only. There are four episodes or interludes. Respect for the grain is the guiding principle. One of the aims in composing music is to enhance the medium. It is important to achieve a good sound. So ones primary concern is with the medium and the material.
Mention of material raises the spectre of experimental music. Mainstream composers refer to their ideas. These words suggest different degrees of aesthetic distance. Material is external whereas one wrestles ideas come from within. One has a conversation with material whereas one wrestles with ideas. Many experimental composers consort with painters, and maybe the attitude of respectful detachment is common to both groups.
This detachment of experimentalists (nicely ambiguous, like the murmuration of bees!) should not be confused with estrangement. Indeed, familiarisation, or feeling at home, with the material is part of the process of composing. Witness Carl Ruggles, hammering out the same chord over and over again to give it (as he himself put it) the test of time. Few composers go all the way, with John Cage, in their concern to let sounds be themselves. The aims of experimentalists are many and various. The English composer Chris Newman is an interesting case: the problem is not one of detachment, but one of transcendence; he strives to transcend his material.
How do we find our material? Pure inspiration is very rare. Most findings involve a search, using some sort of idiosyncratic technique. No doubt many composers explore at the piano. Stravinsky was one of them. Morton Feldman was another, at least some of the time. Feldman once remarked, If I was going to wait for an idea to write a piece Id go out of my mind, Id commit suicide. The most useful technique is that which best enables you to drop your guard (but just for a moment!); that allows you to be taken by surprise. Pressure of time can work wonders but there is no guarantee of success. I once wrote a piano piece (Slow Waltz) in four highly intensive sessions, each merely five minutes long. This is an extreme case, but external factors frequently play a role. There are times when the only technique available is to do whatever you can, whenever you can, and with whatever means come to hand. It is likely that different forms and different media require different techniques. We are back to the guiding principle of respect for the grain.
© Howard Skempton
Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press
"Lento, a 13-minute orchestral work by English experimental composer Howard Skempton, has been unanimously greeted by the British musical press as a piece headed for cult status...This is a work to savour - gentle, evocative and marvellously sane for a "cult" album".
(Raymond Chapman Smith - Adelaide Advertiser)
"I can't wait to here more of Skempton's music. It's quite refreshing".
(Cook - American record review)
"It won't do the piece justice merely to describe it as an enigmatic orchestral chorale, solemn and melancholy, that makes faltering progress through a sequence of mostly minor chords, going nowhere in particular until it just stops".
(J.M - Gramophone)
"Once heard, its music you've always known. Tonal music on a cathedral-like scale which relates specifically to Parsifal, but has other, wider resonances."
(Calum MacDonald - Hi Fi News)